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Before Sunrise ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ISBN 978-0-615-55647-5 Before Sunrise © Copyright 2011 Sienna Mynx Cover art by Reese Dante Electronic book publication December 2011 With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the publisher, The Diva’s Pen LLC. Please do not redistribute or upload to share sites. Any attempt at pirating this brand or work is in direct of the author’s copyright. Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means electronic or print, without the publisher’s permission. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000. ( Please purchase only authorized electronic or print editions and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted material. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

Chapter One 20 September 2001 “Liam?” Kennedy dropped her purse on the sofa. The place smelled divine, like fried batter and roasting potatoes. It could only mean Liam had come early and was at it again. They’d only been in North Carolina a week and already it felt like home. She grinned in excitement. Had been, all day, because she had big news. First her GED, then her degree from William and Mary, now this, at last—law school. “Hey, sexy.” Liam walked out of the kitchen. She loved it when he wore his fatigues and combat boots. She wasn’t a freak (well, Liam said she was) but a man in fatigues got her panties moist. Liam had a fresh buzz cut that revealed more of his handsome face. Over a square chin and strong jawline, the only facial hair he had was the light mustache over his top lip. But nothing held her focus more than Liam’s eyes. On some days when he kicked back they were blue-green; when his temper got the best of him they were dark as midnight, and when he was horny they were clear as ice. Women constantly commented on Liam’s eyes. Whenever she became predictably insecure, he told her he only had them for her. Even now, seven years in, she never understood why he liked her. Sierra was much prettier, and back then, Sierra had been the sure thing. Kennedy always thought of herself as too hippy. Her shape had always been very black-girl: thick thighs, bubble butt, small waist, and medium-sized breasts with oversized nipples that sometimes protruded through the cups of her bras. She’d been so embarrassed by them she always wore padding. But Liam seemed to love her body. Still did. “Oh goodness, I bet my kitchen is a mess.” Kennedy chuckled at the flour swiped over his chin and the front of his shirt. She marched right around him and stopped at the entranceway. Her breath caught. Every cabinet was open. Dishes were stacked a mile high in the sink. Flour covered the floor and the counter. Even the stove was messy with spills and drying grease. But a plate of Liam’s fried chicken would be the ultimate reward. He could only grill and fry. Her man did have skills. Kennedy waved off the cloud of smoke that clogged her nostrils and stung her eyes. “Liam, did you cook for me?” Liam stepped behind her. He slipped his arms around her waist and drew her up against his hard frame. Kennedy was five foot four. Liam was five-foot eleven. He might not have been a giant of a man, but being held by him always proved to be an adventure. “Damn right, I’m cooking for my pregnant wife.” Kennedy grinned. She’d never known a man so turned on by the idea of being a father. She was only three months along and Liam couldn’t keep his hands off her. Liam

checked her tummy constantly for a sign of his baby. And the sex—Liam could be very demanding in the bedroom and had only become more so after he became a SEAL. “Thank you, Liam.” “Thank me better than that.” He turned her to face him. “Hang on, I have news!” Her hands went to his chest. He picked her up. “It’ll have to wait.” “Liam, I’m serious. It’s important.” She struggled, but he carried her out of the kitchen and down the short hall into the bedroom. He let her slide down the length of his body and was pulling his shirt over the back of his head before she could catch a breath. She wore a baby-doll top that gathered tightly around the bust, then and dropped to mid-thigh. Liam lifted it to her breasts and growled to find she also wore white shorts underneath. He grabbed her left foot and started untying her sneaker. Kennedy could tell him about her acceptance letter, and risk killing the mood. Yes, he’d be happy, but somehow he’d blame Phil Freeman for trying to get next to her when he was called away. His hatred and distrust of Phil had been unreasonable. Phil called her and said he was planning to put in for a transfer to Fort Bragg as well. It’s not like Phil had planned the terrorism that now threatened to upend their lives. He’d been a good friend to them. The few times she’d invited Phil over to a cookout or for dinner, to make peace, the night always ended with disaster. Once, Eric had to pull Liam out of the room. No, she’d wait and tell Liam the news afterward. Liam tugged at her shorts. “Wait, baby. I have to unbutton them.” She giggled. “I’ll help,” he grunted. He dropped his knee on the bed. She pulled her dress up over her head. Liam unclasped her bra and paused. He exhaled visibly and zeroed in on her breasts. They were the only noticeable change on her body and she guarded them constantly from Liam’s calloused, rough hands. She tried to buy better minimizing bras. Men would gawk at them often. She never told Liam this. With his jealousy, it would have sent him over the edge. “Damn, babe, you’re beautiful.” He leaned her back on the bed. “Liam, they’re tender, so not so hard, okay?” Kennedy pleaded, wary of the hungry glint of lust in the misty blue swirl of his irises. Her palms shot up to protect her nipples from an impending attack. He didn’t mean to hurt her. Of course he didn’t. Still, this pregnancy thing made her sensitive in places she hadn’t been before. Liam lifted his left eyebrow as if to say he wouldn’t be denied. He scooted backward and put his head between her thighs, burying his nose in her pussy first and she hissed in a breath, feeling herself get hot and moist there. His powerful, strong hands gripped her thighs gently, pulling her downward, under him. He slid up over her. His dog tags, cool metal, grazed her belly as he inched up toward her breasts.

“I’ll be a good boy. Move your hands, Kay.” He moistened his lips. Kennedy lowered her arms. Liam eyed her dark brown, swollen nipples. He dropped his tongue over one, rolling it sweetly until she started experiencing sharp tingles and spasms down between her thighs. “Mmm, yes Liam. Like that. It feels good.” His mouth closed over her nipple and she winced. He started to suck tighter and she winced once more. But him on her, easing a hand down to her slick center, was enough to relax her. He rubbed his fingers over her slit before inserting two. Kennedy wiggled, and he nipped her breast. “Oww, Liam. You promised,” she groaned. Liam released her nipple with a wet plop and immediately latched on to the other. All the while he screwed her with two fingers, then three. Kennedy rolled her hips and released a strained breath. Liam sucked harder on her right nipple. She shuddered and threw her small hands up to his huge shoulders, trying to push him back. Her lips parted to beg him to go softer, but all that came out were puffs of air and gentle wheezes. Soon, she released, climaxing into the palm of his hand. Liam lifted his head from her breast. Oh, it hurt so painfully sweet. She didn’t know if she wanted to smack him or kiss him. She heard the sound of his zipper. Her eyes opened. “I’ll make it better later, babe. I’ve been needing you all day,” he grunted as he forced the first thick three inches into her swiftly. Kennedy’s inner thighs shook. He lifted one of her legs over his shoulder so she opened to him fully and he sank deeper. “Damn, babe, it’s good. You like it, don’t you, babe? Talk to me.” “Yes, Liam…ye-ye-yes,” she panted. Liam always knew instinctively how to touch her, even when worked up on adrenaline. He’d always been more concerned about her pleasure than his own. He moved inside her, giving her slow, measured thrusts, rocking his hips left and right as he plunged deeper. Liam bent to kiss the curve of her neck, and Kennedy groaned. She rolled her hips in response and her channel stretched sweetly to accept all of him. Firm, pliant lips grazed her collarbone, then slid upward, seeking hers. He whispered words of love before his tongue dipped inside. Feral tension rode through them as he shifted, deepening their connection. With a slow, torturous sweep, he claimed her as his. She lifted her arms and locked them around his neck, running her hands over his neatly shaved buzz cut. She could die a happy woman beneath him, locked in his kiss, and the way he drove himself in and out of her only intensified that emotion. When her body tensed and she clung to him in desperation, he moved his hips side-to-side to slow them down. To her frustration, he withdrew from the kiss but kept moving in and out of her. He applied tender kisses under her chin and then down her neck before trailing them to her collarbone and lower. All the while he managed thrust after thrust that built up and released pleasure through her clenching channel.

“I love you,” he whispered, in a low breath that floated the curls away from her cheek. She opened her eyes. She stared at the ceiling and knew the truth. This wonderful man was all hers, and here was where she belonged. Liam lifted his head from her nipple and she found his face tight with tension as well as pleasure. Their eyes met. The veins in his neck protruded and his lips were pressed into a thin, determined line. He could be gentle, ever so tender. His thrusts increased in frequency and his hands slipped under her to clench her buttocks unmercifully. When he was rough, no matter how good it felt, it meant something was wrong, as if he wanted desperately to disappear in her arms. This would be one of those times. Kennedy knew instinctively what to do. She arched her back and locked her legs around his hips. She kissed and sucked on his shoulder, running her hands down his spine. “Damn, Kay. Fuck,” Liam moaned. “Get it from the back, baby,” she said to him, knowing his true desire. Liam’s eyes flashed open and the raw, primal lust there sent a shiver of excitement through her. Kennedy rolled to her hands and knees. Liam wrapped his fingers into her hair and yanked it back until her scalp stung. He plunged into her with one determined motion. Holding her by the hair and the hip, he gave her quick, jerking thrusts. Kennedy grinned, rolling her ass after each blow and slamming back into his pelvis for more. “Fuck…love this pussy. I love you, Kay. I need this, babe. I’m sorry but I need this.” She pushed back and he cursed. Letting go of her hair, he ran his hands between her thighs to keep them parted. “Love you this way,” he sighed, angling them down into the mattress. Kennedy’s face pressed into the pillow. Liam removed his hands and pushed her thighs shut with his own, then pumped harder and harder, grunting, until Kennedy felt the release of his precious seed all over the womb that securely held their child. Liam moved a little more. He licked the beads of sweat off her shoulders and the center of her back. He muttered a few more curse words, then dropped over to her right. Kennedy lifted on her elbows. She’d walk gap-legged for a few days after this. “What is it, Liam? Talk to me. Dinner and now this? What’s wrong?” He rolled off the bed. He strode into the bathroom and slammed the door. Kennedy sighed. She fell back against the rumpled comforter. She knew what was wrong. Hell, she’d be an idiot not to. Twelve days ago, some nasty, evil bastards decided to run hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center. That act blew apart the safety and security of American life. What the ashen-faced civilians on CNN called terrorism was, to the men and women and families of Fayetteville, an unprovoked act of war. It also loomed over them like a dark storm cloud. In a matter of four days she had to pack and move. Not normal for a military wife, but Liam’s unit was special, and so was the treatment of their families when things changed fast. The world had changed overnight. Now they were barely settled and trying hard to pretend that this new place, new time in their life, would be normal. Angelina told her that Anthony had been acting strange, too. Together, they

theorized their men would be leaving home. Liam belonged to a counter-terrorism force. Like the Delta Force, he’d told her, but they didn’t worry so much about extractions. Or something like that. They went in first and did recon, which meant they weren’t there when the real shit went down. Those were his words; she’d repeated them to herself so often they were imprinted upon her heart. If they weren’t there when the real shit went down, it meant he wouldn’t be in harm’s way and he wouldn’t be gone long. Right? She prayed so. The toilet flushed. She heard the tap running in the sink. Her body hurt. Mainly her coochie, but her nipples ached, too. She could do nothing but lie there as Liam returned. He looked at her with the saddest eyes. It made her scared, more scared than she’d ever been. He opened his mouth to say something. “What is it?” “I-I’ll finish dinner, babe. You stay there,” he said, and was gone. Kennedy sighed. After a quick shower where she could let the cold water run over her tender, flaming flesh, she got dressed. She put on a strapless sundress and didn’t bother with underwear. Liam said he would make it up to her tonight, which meant there would definitely be a round two. Kennedy nearly wept when she walked out into the living room. Liam had cleaned up as best he could. He stacked stuff in corners and on chairs. Somehow, he never knew where to put away any of their few possessions. But he’d turned down the lights and lit candles. The table had been dressed with a nice setting, the cloth napkins, just for them. He brought out a bowl of instant mashed potatoes, and stopped when he saw her. “Come on, beautiful. Dinner is served.” Kennedy’s stomach grumbled. It was strange; so far, she’d never had morning sickness, not even a burp. But she had the appetite. Liam grinned when he said she ate like a horse. She knew he thought it meant she’d have a boy. “Yummy. This is so nice. I love it.” “I want to hear all about your news.” Kennedy stopped at the table. She’d forgotten all of that. Her heart skipped a beat. “Okay.” Liam sat. He poured her juice from the carton then twisted the cap off his Budweiser. She stopped him with her hand when he picked up his fork. “Grace, Liam.” “Oh, yeah. Whatever.” Kennedy closed her eyes. “Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful blessing. We are grateful for your bountiful offering and the loving hands that prepared this. Please bless our country, and our soldiers currently being called to serve as we brace for your current test of perseverance. And those less fortunate than ourselves and fill their bellies with nourishment. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Kennedy looked up and Liam winked. He dug in. When she made dinner, she fixed his plate and practically fed him, like it was a movie or something, but when he cooked, she was on her own. She stared down at her meal and touched her fingers to her temples, wondering where her head went. Liam cooking and trying to set the mood was a show of love. He couldn’t get any softer than he was, right this moment. “Okay, what’s this news?” He spoke with a mouth full of potatoes. “School.” Liam swallowed. “School? More school? We just got here.” “Law school, silly. Phil thinks he can get me into UNC.” Liam’s smile faded. “Don’t be mad at him. This is what I want, Liam. I called him and asked about a recommendation, since we’re here and all…well, I thought it would be great to go to law school. Um, here. See, they have a great civil rights law program. Phil says he knows the dean.” “So you and Phil discussing your future?” Liam asked through clenched teeth. “No. Not like that. I did my own research. It’s hard to get accepted and it’s on me. Still, if I can use a recommendation….” Kennedy’s hand froze, her fork hovering over her plate. Was he angry? She checked his eyes for that switch of color she always noted. They remained clear blue. Then a grin slowly crept over his mouth. “Well, I’ll be damned, babe. I’m proud of you.” Kennedy laughed. “You are?” “Hell, yes! You’re standing on your own.” “And Phil?” “Fuck him. I’m not jealous of him. I know what you’re doing. You’re taking control of your life.” “I did. I wasn’t sure, and with the baby—” “Bullshit. Come here. Of course you will attend. Come here,” he said, extending his hand. She got up and went around the table to him. He put her on his lap. “Do you know how proud your man is right now? Do you?” “Yes.” She grinned. “But slow down. I haven’t gotten accepted yet.” “Gonna need me an attorney, to keep me from killing every young punk who shows up on my doorstep trying to get next to my baby girl.” “You mean like you did when you took me from my daddy?” she kidded. Liam bristled. “So you want to go there?” “I’m just kidding. Besides, we don’t know if it’s a girl yet.” “True, just hoping.” He grinned, chewing down the last of his food. Kennedy laughed. She kissed him. “I was afraid you’d be mad.”

“What?” “Well, the baby and everything. I know you worry. Besides, we just moved here, it means I’ll have to commute to Chapel Hill.” “I’m happy. We can have two places. I’ll get you an apartment up there. Okay?” “Two places? We can’t afford that, Liam.” “Actually, it’s perfect. You can stay on campus maybe? Be a real college student.” Kennedy frowned. She’d suffered greatly when he went off to school to get into the SEAL program. She’d commuted, first to Tidewater Community College and then to Old Dominion. William and Mary was too long a drive. She had no desire to be away from him when he returned home after a deployment. “Now we have a reason to celebrate, some good news to replace the sad.” “What?” Kennedy frowned. “I have to leave, babe. Me and Eric got our orders. Deployment’s in two days.” “Two days? That’s not enough time!” “Shhh.” “No, Liam. Please. I need at least a week to get ready.” “Hey, it’s all right, Kay. You know our rule.” He always liked to hear her say it. She shut her eyes and tried to smile. “When I close my eyes on the day of your return, you will be home…before sunrise,” she repeated. It was from a short poem she’d written him and put in his bag on his first deployment. He told her later that’s what had gotten him through. “That’s my girl. Now let’s eat. Your man is starving.” Kennedy decided to make their own little movie. She picked up his fork and began feeding him. Liam smirked up at her. She couldn’t love him any more than she did. Kennedy woke alone. She kicked back the covers and found her robe. The house had settled into a still quietness, but she felt a draft and looked over to the patio door. It was ajar. Her vision sharpened as she sought Liam through the shadows. He sat out in the yard, his dog tags glistening in the moonlight and on several empty bottles at his feet. He turned up the neck of his beer and took down big gulps, making his Adam’s apple bob in his throat. “Liam?” “Go back to bed, Kay.” “Everything all right?” He just stared at her. She walked out into the night and immediately regretted that

she hadn’t put on her slippers. “Come back inside. Let me hold you until you go to sleep. Don’t drink, Liam.” “I’m cool, Kay. Go back to bed.” “No.” Liam sighed. “Fine, come here.” Kennedy went to him. He set all four legs of the deck chair back on the ground. She dropped into his lap. “What’s wrong?” “Look, I want you to send me e-mails of the sonogram and any news from the doctors, I don’t care what.” His eyes were bloodshot. She rubbed the side of his face. “Okay.” “Also I plan to ask Phil to look in on you.” Kennedy froze. Liam hated Phil. This had to be some kind of mistake. “You what?” “Oh, trust me, that motherfucker knows I’ll bury him if he ever touches you, steps out of line in any way, shape, or form.” Liam’s eyes flashed a deep blue as he ground out each word. “But I need someone who’s on their game. A man. I don’t want you having to go back to your mother. She fucking hates me, will talk shit about me to poison my kid before she ever gets here. And I can’t trust this truce with my mom. We cool now, but yeah, I can’t trust it. So as much as I fucking hate that sneaky dipshit, I know he’ll be on ten when it comes to my girl. And don’t forget, I got eyes behind my back. I just need a reason to throttle his ass.” “Liam, you won’t be gone that long—” “Listen, babe, we don’t know nothing for certain anymore. So let me handle this. Phil will check on you, help you get into law school. Then we work out how to set you up in Chapel Hill. I know he has this crush on you and I’m trying to set that aside. Trying to be secure here, not be the hothead everybody says I am.” “No, he doesn’t.” “Whatever. I also want you to stay with Angelina until we figure out the school stuff.” “No.” Kennedy stood. “I won’t leave our house. No way.” “Not open for debate. She’s going to be alone with those twin babies. My boy Ant is sick about it. Talking crazy shit about getting a psych leave to delay his deployment.” Liam looked her right in the eye. He made his disapproval of Vasquez’s plan perfectly clear. A psych leave meant Ant’s career would be over. And then who will have Liam’s back? she wondered. Kennedy nodded slowly and surely. Liam continued as though there had been no interruption. “So this will set both our minds at ease. You said you liked her. You two can be strong together. Get close. Do some knitting or something, what mothers do.” Kennedy smacked him upside the head. He caught her by the wrist and yanked her

toward him. She straddled his lap in a full pout. “C’mon, Kay, don’t fight me on this. I need you to be okay.” “How long? A few weeks, right?” Liam sighed. “This time it’s different. The world is different, babe. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back.” He took her hand. “But go ahead and start the process for school. Maybe by the time you finish, this mess will be over. I think we can swing this. No, I know we can.” “But how will we do that when you have to be on base? I need to be here when you return. Besides, the baby and everything, maybe school should wait. I’ll have to stop soon after anyway.” “We can wait now or wait later, but you will be a lawyer. I’m going to make sure that you get all your dreams. I know your family thought I’d ruin your life when you left with me. I know you gave up a lot to be with me.” “I’d do it all again, Liam. We’re going to have a baby. Law school can definitely wait.” “If we can’t do them both, then we’ll deal. But right now, let’s try. Okay? You know I don’t give up.” “I love you.” And she did. She cupped his cheek, staring him in the eyes. Their lips, like magnets, were instantly drawn to each other. The spark of Liam’s urgent need, his probing tongue, sent her head to swimming. He ran his calloused fingers down her back and she shivered through her nightgown. The night felt comfortably warm all of a sudden, or was that her blood? Kennedy eased up, reaching between them to release his cock from where it coiled behind his zipper. She was well practiced at this. The kiss became flicks of her tongue against his and nips to his succulent lips as she lowered on his erection. Oh, it felt divine. Thick hardness filled her to the point of a scream. She dropped her head back and he peppered her neck with kisses. She stretched and adjusted to him. He hooked her legs over the bends of his arms so he could open her wider. His strong hands, twice the size of her own, cupped and separated the halves of her ass, lifting and dropping her on his cock. Kennedy held to his shoulders. She worked her body as best she could, feeling him down to her curled toes. Suddenly, his movements grew frenzied. She bounced on his cock and dug her nails into his shoulders, holding on for the explosion. Then she came apart. Liam held her. She went through two deep, climatic spasms with him buried inside of her. She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Kay, I love you so much. I won’t be gone long. Trust me, babe, I’ll be back before you know it. “Before sunrise?” she sighed. “Before sunrise.”

Chapter Two September 2006 Desert sand swirled into a frenzied funnel cloud that made the night air impossible to breathe. During the day this would have been a telltale sign of the squad’s approach. However, in this part of the world, the night proved to be excellent cover. The descent of the stealthy black helicopter, hardly seen, and barely heard, hovered then plunged lower. Two four-man strike teams scaled down cables, swift, silent, and deadly, just as they’d been trained, then double-timed it to their checkpoints outside the compound of the highvalue target. Captain Anthony Vasquez watched the progress over a secure feed in the Forward Ops center. The moonless night blanketed his mission in complete darkness, but through the technological magic of his team’s helmet-mounted night-vision systems, he could see exactly what they saw. So far, they saw nothing. Their orders were to find and eradicate any trace of the enemy off the desert banks of the Pahkthi Peninsula. They’d gotten false intelligence before. Possibly the unit had received more of the same. Vasquez knew there would be only one option: prosecute the information to the fullest. If it panned out, they’d have the wild card in their terrorism deck, none other than Taliban military strategist Amir Sarkhir. If Vasquez’s team brought this prick down, many young lives, both American and Afghan, would be saved. “Captain Vasquez, sir.” Special Operator Jeffries, a man of barely twenty-four, short and stocky with his cover always pulled down over his eyes, appeared with a salute. Vasquez lingered near the satellite monitors, his eyes glued to the screens. He looked up once the display returned to the start of the next cycle, and nodded at Jeffries. Before the interruption, the tent had been filled with tomblike silence. Every man on his squad knew Vasquez preferred no idle chatter. Jeffries’ arrival meant news. “At ease.” Contrary to his order, Jeffries stood upright, ramrod-straight. “Sir. We have word from team two, sir.“ “Go on.” “They have visual on the target. Ready to move on your orders, sir.” Vasquez needed Sarkhir alive. This enemy behaved different. They lived by a code beyond his understanding. It wouldn’t be beneath Sarkhir to use women and children as human shields when they moved in. He’d seen it before. Better yet, intelligence warned Sarkhir would torch the camp and everything in it rather than surrender. He gave a perfunctory nod, knowing that each member of the team, hand-selected by him and Liam years before, understood the goal of this mission. “We need a total sweep.” He turned for his gear. “Once it’s confirmed, I’ll be there with team three.”

“Yes, sir,” came the response. “We have a standing order from the top, Jeffries. Tell McKinley we are go.” “Yes, sir!” The date was September 2nd, 2006, and Vasquez had reached his twenty-two days target for a return stateside to his pregnant wife and twin six-year-old sons. His request to lead the primary team on this mission had been flatly denied; he’d had to call in every favor owed to him just to put in with the follow-on squad and get there thirty minutes after all the action. But it was the best he could negotiate, and his presence the past few days had brought a tense energy to the men. They’d heard the tales of his tours after 9/11, and his unit’s successes, though never publicly acknowledged, had become the stuff of legends. Vasquez knew that some of the stories batted around were exaggerations at this point, but many of them weren’t. Nonetheless, if the primary team succeeded, Vasquez and team three would be inside the compound, in prime position to see the capture of Amir Sarkhir. Over the monitors, Vasquez heard the sharp crackle of the first shots of gunfire. He turned and walked calmly toward the exit with his escort, Major Anders, on his heels. Hell had opened its gates and the strike team would be in full combat within seconds. Sarkhir’s men would presumably fight to the death, which fit Vasquez’s plans perfectly. Less shit for him to secure, after-the-fact. Major Anders raced to keep up. “Sir, we can move in with the all-clear. Permission to speak freely, sir?” “Go ahead,” Vasquez strode to the helicopter, which was spun-up and waited only for him. Anders hurried his steps to match, like some attention-starved child. “Allow the men to confirm capture first before we move in,” he shouted. “I suggest another hour sweeping the outer sectors. Heat signatures indicate there are some underground bunkers and tunnels that head west into the mountains.” Vasquez hopped into the bay door and found the last jump-seat along the wall. The lieutenant had no choice but to wait on the tarmac while the heavy bird lifted and held for an overlong moment, before it rose and rocketed toward the target. For the most part, Vasquez ignored the request. His heart beat madly in his chest. He’d missed the days of shoulder-to-shoulder in combat with men he respected, especially on a bitch of a mission like this. It reminded him of when he’d first joined, when he’d been part of the Wolf, a brotherhood of Marines, SEALs, and Delta Force all baked together as one, with Liam Flanagan guarding his back. Things had been different then. Vasquez had never met a more skilled combatant. Liam’s temper had, at first, made Vasquez doubt him as a soldier, much less a Special Forces operator. But his friend soon proved him wrong. Vasquez knew few men who could take on the rigid CT training with the fearlessness that Liam possessed. He’d been top of his class, until his hair-trigger temper had nearly gotten him kicked out of the covert Wind Scorpion program;. The infraction? He’d choked an instructor who’d made the unfortunate mistake of speaking ill of Liam’s young wife. Her name was Kennedy. The sweetest kid and the only person Vasquez had actually seen Liam soften with. A petite black girl with thick, curly hair she

was always pushing back from her face. She had been quite spunky, too. The appeals board had taken into consideration that despite Liam being an Irish boy from the mean streets of Chicago, he’d never had a single reprimand. His interracial relationship had been the target of mocking by a trainer determined to break him. The board deemed the trainer’s action inappropriate and Liam’s unit learned quickly nothing was off limits, except Kennedy. Vasquez smiled, remembering how the services found the perfect place for a soldier like Liam Flanagan: an off-the-grid counter-terrorism unit they’d named ‘Wolfpack’. Liam’s SEAL unit had met with the elite tactical force Vasquez led within the Marines and he had seen fit to bring Vasquez with him as his third-in-command. Thanks to the successful deployments of the Wolfpack, Vasquez got his bars. He fully believed that if Liam had lived, he’d have become even more of a legend. As the bird traveled low and soundlessly over the flat desert sands, Vasquez itched for the takedown. Secretly he wished Sarkhir were out there in the desert cowering against a sand dune like a little bitch. The bastard had taken so many innocent lives. He wanted to drag him out like the mad dog he was and show these people he was nothing more than a murdering piece of shit, and not some messiah. Now that the area had been secured, the bird set down just outside the compound and Hicks, the ground chief, met the team. Vasquez watched impassively as several of their men dragged terrorists and dropped them face down in the sand. The wounded were airlifted out. “How many of ours, Sergeant?” he called back over his shoulder. “Six, sir.” “Fuck me,” mumbled Vasquez. This had better bear fruit. He got out and marched over to where the captured were held. One by one, Hicks lifted each man by his shoulder and bound wrists so Vasquez could confirm their identities. Vasquez pointed out the three he would want questioned and immediately they were separated from the others. “Sarkhir?” Vasquez asked the approaching Chief Operator. “Sir, we have men being questioned now. They put up one bitch of a fight.” Vasquez nodded to be shown. He promptly followed his men into a two-story building the color of the sand it had been erected upon. The windows were blown out. Vasquez’s lifted his gaze to the roof. Several soldiers paced with their guns pointed downward. He entered a room that reeked of gunpowder and shit. Pressed against the wall were two men in turbans. One on his strike team yelled in Arabic at a mean-looking bastard who shouted the same repeated prayer, over and over. Vasquez scanned the weapons discharged and discarded. This couldn’t be the cell he’d been searching for. These men didn’t look to be held up with the same equipment as the other four. There were no computers here. Hell, the electricity didn’t even work. Still, something stuck in his craw. Why would they fight so hard if Sarkhir, or something of more value, wasn’t nearby? “Sir!”

“What is it?” “This one thinks we’re here for the Americans. He wants to trade for his release, sir.” Vasquez’s throat went dry. “What Americans? Civilians?” “I’m not sure, sir.” The sergeant swallowed. “He keeps saying the words for ‘army man’, sir, over and over, sir.” Vasquez narrowed his eyes. The report made no sense. There were no missing units in this region, Army or Marine, and if there were some other CT force in theater, they’d have told him when he requested authorization for the op. Every man in the room vibrated with tension. The idea that there were fallen comrades in this compound had them itching to rip loose on the few surviving captives. “Where? Where are they?” Vasquez asked in disbelief. He watched as the soldier pressed the deadly end of his assault rifle to the center of the man’s brow. He said a few words in Arabic. Vasquez’s hands clenched. He held his breath and waited. This could be bullshit, a diversion to get him off Sarkhir’s scent. POWs in his region? No fucking way. That lame lie had been the first thing they always threw at him, and Vasquez had learned not to chase those rumors. Not a single one had ever been true. The man nodded and raised his hands, giving the universal sign of compliance. Vasquez ordered Hicks to ensure the place had been rigged with explosives. They walked out of the building with the prisoner leading the way. Several yards to the south of the building he stopped before a patch of sand, thinly covered with straw-like weeds. The man brushed the debris away with his hands to reveal a door. Flinging it open, he stepped back. “It’s gotta be booby-trapped, sir,” shouted Hicks, who stepped bodily between Vasquez and the hole. “Move.” “Sir, let the men go in.” “Move!” Hicks shifted aside, then immediately followed Vasquez down the sand-covered steps into a dank, dark, cramped hole. The stench was so strong Vasquez fought back his gag reflex. Maybe Sarkhir was cowering in the corner with a grenade. He’d promised Angelina that he would return to her. That he would take no risks. But it was Sarkhir who’d sent a hand-launched missile into Liam’s airlift, killing Vasquez’s best friend and several others on their team. At the time, Vasquez had been stateside for the birth of his twins. Payback’s a bitch, and he’d go out firing his last round into the shitface scumbag before he let the bastard commit a suicide drop on him. Hunkering down, he flipped on his night-vision unit, and then, in disbelief, the light attached to the scope of his weapon. Vasquez froze. To his horror, he saw three emaciated men chained to the walls. Two were white-skinned and very pale, the other probably Hispanic, or maybe Filipino, but in any case, these men were not locals. This tomb had been some kind of bunker five feet high and maybe eight feet wide. Piping dropped in to give minimal ventilation. The men appeared dead. But as he drew closer,

one lifted his gaunt face. His hair, long and matted, covered most of it. “It’s gonna be okay, soldier. We’re here.” Vasquez choked back the emotion that made his words come out in a low rumble. He approached the skeletal man, whose blue, unseeing eyes were bright even in the hellish conditions. Those eyes, piercing as they were, weren’t what shocked the captain to his core. The tattoo on the man’s dirty, scarred chest set Vasquez utterly on edge. It was the head of a wolf, a howling wolf, with a turquoise, five-pointed star in the center of one of its eyes. Vasquez reached for the man, holding his face up and into the light. “Sweet Jesus. Liam? Is it you? Sweet Jesus! Holy Fuck! Get him down! Get him down now!”

Chapter Three One Month Later Spring Lake, North Carolina “Mommy.” Kennedy moaned. Fatigue had settled in the pockets under her eyes. She managed to open one lid a fraction. A pair of hazel-browns, bright and wide in her four-year-old daughter’s cherubic face, hovered in close. Even now, Kennedy found her daughter’s irises to be a lovely contrast against her creamy mocha-brown skin. Even more special was the fact that Mackenzie’s intense stare mirrored the look Liam gave when he wanted something. “What is it, baby?” she swept Mackenzie’s long, dark locks back over her head so she could see her daughter’s face clearly. Phil turned to the sound of his stepdaughter’s voice. Mackenzie had crawled over him to get to her mother. Kennedy heard her husband groan, then sigh. Mackenzie did no wrong in his eyes. “I can’t sweep,” Mackenzie pouted. “There’s a monster in my bed waiting for me.” Kennedy sat up. “Come here.” She caught Mac by her arms and pulled her to her lap. Phil eased up on his pillows and switched on the light of the lamp next to the bed. “You got court in the morning, Kennedy. Why don’t I put her back to bed?” He had been sweet to offer, especially since he got in late and had an early morning as well. Mackenzie wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist, forcing her head under Kennedy’s chin. “No, I’ll take her. Go back to sleep. Don’t you have to get up soon and go on base?” she asked, scooting with Mac’s hold growing tighter around her waist. “Yea, but anything for my girls. Damn, what time is it anyway?” Phil reached for his watch. Kennedy shook her head at his language. One thing about having a military man as your husband, the language was something you could never exorcise from his mouth. Kennedy wheezed. As much as she hated to admit it, Mac as they called her, had grown too big to carry. She managed to rise from the bed with her pampered child in her arms and take her from the room. Kennedy and Phil had only been married a year. Still, he’d been just as much a father to Mackenzie as if she were his own. Without his support and friendship she and Mac might not have come to the healthy and secure place they were now. Grief can do many things to a person. For Kennedy, grief had almost cost her the life of her child. She walked down the cold, dark hallway toward her daughter’s room, wishing she’d put on her slippers. Returning her daughter to her yellow-and-black bumblebee-d— decorated bedroom, she carried Mackenzie to her twin-sized canopy. She laid her down

first, then scooped under her legs to draw the covers over her. “Now where’s this monster?” “Over there,” Mackenzie’s tiny voice whispered. She pointed a small finger shakily toward the closet door that had been left ajar. “You told mommy that he hid in your bed?” Mackenzie nodded. “Yes, but he went into the closet when you came.” “Ah. I see.” Kennedy’s turned to look again. She peered at the darkness beyond the door. To her surprise, tiny, beady eyes peered back out at her. She approached and reached for the doorknob. “No, mommy! Don’t.” Mackenzie whined, yanking the covers over her head. “It’s okay. I’m not afraid of no ugly ole monster.” Kennedy winked. She snatched the door open. A four-foot tall black Barbie dropped out. Phil had it especially made for Mackenzie’s third birthday. “Aha!” Kennedy said. “So here’s the monster.” Mackenzie lowered the sheet slowly. She blinked those long dark lashes over round brown eyes. “Its just Lily. See?” Kennedy brought the doll to the bed. Mackenzie’s smile lit her entire face. She put her tiny fingers over her mouth to cover her giggles. “Oh! Sorry, mommy. It’s just Lily,” came more giggles. Kennedy shook her head, and her pink satin headscarf slipped back from her forehead. She reached behind her and tied the knot down securely. “Somebody has a birthday coming up soon,” Kennedy said, accepting the doll from her daughter, then placing it in the rocking chair where Phil usually read to Mackenzie. “Yes, I’m gonna be five.” Mackenzie held up her five tiny fingers. “You sure are. On Christmas Day, no less.” “Do you think daddy knows I will be five, mommy?” Mackenzie yawned and pointed to the picture of Liam on her dresser. He wore khaki camouflage pants and a green T-shirt over a solid, muscled chest. He posed next to a Jeep in the middle of the desert somewhere. Even now, when her gaze fell upon his picture, love surfaced and made Kennedy’s heart turn over. The photo was the last sent by him before he died. Liam’s sly grin and clear blue eyes glistened from under a camouflage cap. If it weren’t for her friends and Phil, she wouldn’t have survived her grief, especially since she’d been just three months pregnant when he’d been called away. “Yes. Daddy knows, silly girl. Now give mommy a kiss goodnight.” “Eskimo kiss, mommy!” “You bet.” Mac giggled when Kennedy rubbed their noses together. She then kissed her brow lovingly. “Love you, baby. Sleep tight.”

“How old is daddy?” Kennedy smiled. “Where are all these questions about daddy coming from?” “I wanna know. He a hero, ain’t he? Heroes have birthdays, too? And Christmas? Heroes have Christmas.” Kennedy stared at her daughter. She looked once more to the picture of Liam. Mac always talked about her father in the present tense. Her little girl even told a few fables over their imaginary relationship. But Kennedy never talked to her about Liam unless Mac asked. She wondered about her daughter’s curiosity. Phil said it was normal. Maybe it was. Still, it pained her to think of Liam. If she reasoned through it, she could guess the true source of Mackenzie’s curiosity. A soldier from Fort Bragg had recently visited Mackenzie’s class and Mackenzie had become a superstar when the soldier told the pre-K students that her dad had been a hero. Mackenzie came home and forced Kennedy to pull out every photo she had of Liam. Even Phil had joined in to tell the few stories he knew of him, which made Kennedy smile, because she knew the two men couldn’t stand each other the several times they’d crossed paths. “Oh, daddy is about 34,” Kennedy said, smiling down at her. “Ooooooo, he old!” her daughter said, her eyes round as saucers. Kennedy laughed. “Yes, he’s pretty old…just like Daddy Phil is pretty old.” Mackenzie grabbed her purple teddy bear and stuffed under the covers with her. She turned over. “Okay, night mommy. I’m okay now.” “Night, baby.” Kennedy smiled. She walked over to Liam’s photo and picked up the silver picture frame. In the photo he had been off on one of those covert missions he could never talk about. He’d emailed her this picture and she had printed and framed it. “You are pretty old, aren’t you sweetie?” Kennedy said. She kissed his image and gave a deep sigh. She set the picture down, then walked out of the room. *** Aircraft Carrier ~ Mediterranean Sea Liam swallowed roughly. His throat burned as if he were choking down shards of glass instead of saliva. It took some effort but he managed to open his eyes. Nothing made sense. He blinked. He blinked again. All he could make out were shadows and shapes, and the constant buzzing noise. So he closed his eyes and lay there perfectly still. He’d wait for darkness. He’d learned to love darkness. There was calm in darkness, peace. Liam used his mind over his body, and regulated his breathing, down to his heartbeat, until he felt it slow within his chest.

Liam became aware. The cushion of the bed told an unexpected story. This wasn’t another hellhole to be tortured in. He had comfort. Liam opened his eyes. Focus returned. He recognized the shadow, as it took form, to be a nurse. Navy. He could tell by her uniform. Her hair was neatly pinned back under her cap. She had kind eyes and a sweet face, and that alone made him think he again had slipped into a dream. He felt her lift his wrist to check his pulse. She glanced up, then away, and then back. The nurse dropped his arm and backed away from his bed in shock. Well, hell. She wasn’t the only one. “Lieutenant! You startled me, sir. Welcome to the land of the living, sir,” she gushed. Liam tried to speak. He couldn’t. The nurse immediately got on an intercom. He heard her give a quick report. During her short bursts of speech, Liam employed every sense he could control, trying to understand his surroundings. The pure, clean air had definitely been filtered, and cold; he didn’t smell the desert dry heat or the stench of his excrement. His vision sharpened on the details of his quarters. He’d been put on a ship. The cold in the room, the painted steel walls, the low ceiling and mounted medical apparatus looked distinctly military. Yes, he was on a ship. If he remained perfectly still he could feel the thrum of the engines, far below. The time spent in captivity, he’d lived almost entirely in his head. He’d imagined himself places far and wide, anywhere but the hell he actually dwelled in. Some days he convinced himself he swam in the cool ocean, or played golf with Eric and Vasquez. Even better, he’d be home on the tan-and-blue sofa, watching the Vikings and knocking back a brew while Kennedy slept underneath his arm. But none of those moments felt as real as this one. It confused him. He owned his fucking dreams. Dreams were the one thing they couldn’t take from him. In his dreams he had Kennedy, her sweet, soft body pressed to his as she made him repeat his promise that on his return date he’d be through the door before sunrise. That promise he kept each and every time. Liam would roll her under him and she’d stare up at him with worship in her eyes. He hated to admit it, especially then, but he liked the undiluted, unwavering love he found there. Not many people gave a shit about him in the world. Kennedy’s faith in him had been complete. She’d run away from her family at seventeen to go with him when he joined the Navy. Her devotion made him feel like a man, her man. Those moments were a constantly visited dream for him. And even though they could get vivid, loving her, kissing her, the moment he tried to hold her always felt hollow and disappointing. The metal door clanged open. Liam’s head felt heavy, but he managed to cast his gaze in the direction of the arriving visitor, a captain. This was no dream. He’d know that scarred face anywhere. Get the fuck out of here! Boy’s a motherfucking Captain? Vasquez, or Ant as Liam called him, was the same height as Liam, with deep olive skin and dark, curled locks, and it spoke to his Chilean descent. They’d sweated and bled under the same sun, kicking ass together in the desert. And look at this motherfucker now. Liam stared at the oak leaf on Vasquez’s lapel. Dressed in full uniform, Vasquez removed his cover and tucked it under his arm. He stared grimly down at the thickly bandaged lump that was

Liam’s leg. Fuck, I need to get out of this bed and kick your ass, Ant! Where the fuck am I? How the hell have you been? What took you so long to find me, motherfucker? Liam shouted in his head. All he could do was manage a weak smile at the sight of his friend. But his surprises didn’t end there. A tall, thin woman stepped into the narrow space alongside Vasquez. She wore a khaki suit jacket, with more bars on the lapel than there should have been, and her red hair was longer than he remembered. Even pulled back off her face, it almost touched her shoulders. Alex. She looked different; powerful in a way he couldn’t put a name to. It made him uneasy. Liam tried to focus on what exactly her collar insignia represented. Definitely wasn’t any Marine classification he knew. Last he saw her, she’d been a helo driver, holding a lower rate than Vasquez. Liam lay there, stunned. Alexa Sinclair appeared beautiful as always; even he had to admit that. Her porcelain-white skin and pouty full lips used to drive the men in her unit nuts. But she’d castrate any man who dared to reduce her to a piece of ass. She had been tough beyond compare. She hadn’t been the first female helicopter pilot in the services, but one of the couple-dozen who’d seen combat. Alexa was part of the elite group who’d survived hostile live-fire. He and Eric used to joke that she probably had teeth in her crotch, ready to shred a man’s cock before the first nut. The truth he’d never shared with Eric burned his gut. Alexa tried to get on him a few times and more than once he’d been tempted. They’d been caught in some wicked shit. And what the hell, he was a man. Long months in the desert away from Kennedy made the beast in him thoughtless. He’d never crossed the line, though Alexa offering to get him off in his sleeping bag one night could be constituted as such. He’d almost gone for it—his utilities had gotten unzipped, something that made him feel like absolute shit right up to the present moment—but Liam could honestly say he turned the sex down. As far as he was concerned, why dine on a hamburger when you’ve grown accustomed to steak? No woman could get him like his Kennedy. Next through the oblong door came Eric. Eric Drake’s presence filled the room. This brother should have been a politician he was so smooth, even under extreme pressure. Nothing dimmed that spark in his eyes and sly smile. Skin a dark Hershey-brown, head shaven, he was a chick magnet with his calm manner and slick tongue. Eric had come up to the unit from SEAL Team Four, same as he had. Liam suspected he’d fucked Alex more than once, but he’d never confess. He, too, wore an oak leaf, which meant this motherfucker outranked him, too. Liam’s gaze cut back to Alex, whose collar insignia his weak mind struggled to explain. Could this be some branch of the Navy he didn’t know, and if so, how the hell was that possible since Alex had been a Marine? Was this why he was he even afloat, aboard ship? None of it made any sense. These were the three people closest to him in his career. They were also the three people closest to him in his personal life. Alex went to his side and took his hand in hers. Her eyes looked wet, which made Liam’s heart start to pound again, and not in a good way. Ant, Eric for sure, but never once had he seen Alexa Sinclair cry. “When they told me they found you I didn’t believe them. I couldn’t let myself

believe.” Eric stood at the foot of the bed with his bald, shiny head gleaming under the fluorescent light. He gave Alex a flippant look and smirked down at Liam. “How are you, bro? You look like shit.” Eric’s eyes misted over with guarded emotion. Liam tried to speak once again but couldn’t. Well fuck yeah, it’s good to see you too, man. The nurse cleared her throat as the doctor entered. The officers saluted each other, unsure of their status in this man’s area of operations. “I will need you all to step back. I know you’ve been waiting for days. But I have to examine him first,” the doctor said in a clearly irritated tone. Vasquez spoke up. “Is he okay?” The doctor turned away from Liam and spoke quietly. “You were briefed on his condition when he arrived. Our efforts over the past month have been touch-and-go. He was severely dehydrated. His liver has been compromised by a parasite native to the area. His relapse into a coma the past few days has been our biggest concern. But he’s alert. So I’m hopeful. Now please, step aside. I will let you know when he can be debriefed.” “Keeennaaadeeee,” Liam croaked out, his gaze bouncing from one friendly face to the other. He caught the surprise in Alex’s eyes. But other than a quick glance at each other, Eric and Vasquez showed no reaction. What the hell? Liam wanted his wife, damn it. She should be there, or he should be in a hospital where she could be with him. Why the fuck was he on a ship? Did the doctor say he’d been in a coma for weeks? No way. No fucking way! Careful of the IV drip, Vasquez put a hand to his arm. “In time, friend. First you get some rest. There’s a lot we need to discuss.” “Baybiiiee?” Liam wheezed, his eyes darting between Alex and Vasquez. How long had he been gone? It felt like an eternity, but of course it would feel like that in hell. He’d only been gone a few weeks, maybe a couple months at most. Maybe he hadn’t missed the birth of the baby at all and Kennedy waited for him to get her through delivery. Maybe all the hell and suffering had been a hallucination. In his dreams, he’d been there to see the birth of his kid. He needed to know about the baby. Eric’s voice calmed him. “You have a little girl, bro. They call her Mac, but her name is Mackenzie.” Liam expelled a deep sigh of relief. Before he deployed, he’d told Kennedy he’d wanted that name. “Not now, Drake!” snapped Alex. Eric exhaled and dipped his head, averting his gaze. Liam frowned. Since when does Eric take orders from her? And what were they not telling him? He saw Vasquez smile and nod encouragement, and that alleviated some

of his fears. Liam wanted to shout it to the world: he had a baby girl with Kennedy’s beauty and his kick-ass personality. It blew his mind. Alex rubbed his hand. She kissed his bruised knuckles then leaned in and kissed his cheek, then lips. “Get some rest, you. We’ll meet with you soon.” Liam nodded, letting a tear roll down his itchy face. He released a tear of joy to be free and able to return to his beloved wife and baby girl. He watched as his three friends, the men, and the woman, he considered brothers, stepped out of the suite and into the narrow passageway beyond. Liam held his neck up with fading strength, keeping them in his line of sight as long as possible. The exertion drained the last of his limited energy. He let his head fall back against the pillow and sleep came almost instantly. *** Once in Vasquez’s assigned quarters, Alexa turned on Eric, her eyes narrowed with fury. “Why did you do that?” Eric chose a mug, wishing he had some Scotch to pour into it. He opted for coffee instead. Vasquez looked on in silence. He sipped, giving himself time, then turned to address her directly. “The man isn’t stupid. It’s not like he didn’t know Kennedy was pregnant.” Vasquez cleared his throat. “The important thing is he’s awake. The doctors were right. He’s on the mend. Later, we can tell him what’s happened to his life in the past five years.” “Exactly. Later. Not now, Eric. Not another word of Kennedy until we get him well.” Alexa spoke as though she expected no argument. Eric looked first to Vasquez for support. “This is nuts. She can’t be serious!” “I’m deadly serious.” Alexa’s tone sharpened. “Do I need to make it an order, Drake?” Eric snorted, but leveled his gaze at her over the top of his mug as he took another sip. Alexa must have heard the jealous desperation in her own voice. She tugged on the bottom edge of her suit jacket and regained her composure. “It’ll kill him to know his wife abandoned him. He’s suffered enough. We’re dealing with PTSD here, gentlemen, at the very minimum. His recovery is now a matter of national security.” “Do you hear her?” Eric said this to Vasquez before stepped closer to tower over Alexa. “She did not abandon him. Why would you choose that word?” Alexa retrieved her cover and situated it on her head. “I have COD flight out. I’ll be back oh-six-thirty the latest.” The men stood silent. Her heels clicked across the linoleum and out into the passageway.

Eric glared after her. “Ball-busting bitch.” “Careful, Eric. It’s your balls she’ll crush for sport.” Vasquez said humorlessly. Eric dropped down into the vinyl chair. He released the button to his suit jacket. “You know how she feels about Liam and Kennedy. Some shit can never be let go, bro. We just got to make sure Liam gets well before we lay the hard truths on him. PTSD is real. Our boy has been down for five years.” “That fucking appointment has gone to her head,” Eric stated, not able to let it go. Vasquez groaned his agreement. “Hell, it’s her orders he remain on this ship, out at sea. She’s purposely keeping Kennedy from knowing the truth. Liam isn’t going to put up with that when his strength returns.” Vasquez spoke up. “She’s right. It’s a matter of national security. We got to handle this delicately. If it gets out, where he was, what he was doing there….” “What we were all doing there.” Commander Jones, the silent observer in the room, turned. “May I make a suggestion?” The men looked up at him. He raised his coffee cup. “This is a celebration, gentlemen. The great Liam Flanagan has risen from the dead.” Eric let go of his attitude. “I hear you. My boy is alive. God damn, miracles do happen.” *** Watching his girls in the dresser mirror behind him, Phil buttoned his starched white dress shirt, then reached for his tie. Kennedy struggled to put Mackenzie’s hair up in a single ponytail. Mackenzie squirmed and groaned between her mother’s legs. Phil never understood the ritual between the two. If Mackenzie had been smart she’d just let her mother groom her spry locks and be free of the ordeal in a matter of minutes. “Mac, keep still baby. Be patient for mama.” “You two look beautiful this morning.” With Mac’s hair bow in her mouth and her hands full of hair, Kennedy lifted her gaze to him, curious. Phil winked at her and Kennedy smiled. Damn, she’s beautiful. He had fought hard and long to get her, and now she was his. The first time he’d been able to coax her into his bed had been on the night they wed, and he fucked her until she begged him to be released. He couldn’t keep his hands off her. Everything about her turned him on. She had eyes a tawny shade of brown under long sweeping lashes, high cheekbones and the sweetest, softest lips he’d ever touched. Not to mention her round ass, slim waist and heavy bosom. He wouldn’t wish death on any man, but secretly, Phil had never minded Liam’s demise. He remembered the first time he’d seen them together, the first time he’d ever seen Kennedy. Liam belonged to a newly formed joint-forces CT team in Virginia. It had

been a ball, the night of the change-of-command ceremony when Baldwin had retired, probably six years ago. Seven, maybe. Liam Flanagan had paraded his arrogant ass through the receiving line, with his hands all over Kennedy. She’d been shy then, completely lost around the other couples. But she was by far the single beauty in the room. Phil had watched her do everything, from chew her food so delicately between those full lips of hers, to sip her punch, or snuggle under Liam’s arm and touch his chest and look up with starry eyes as he told one of his stupid jokes. Phil wasn’t a racist. There were plenty of interracial couples in the military. Mostly black men hooked up with German or Asian women. Still, he’d freely admit that it pissed him off when he saw a white boy with a fine-ass sista. And Liam of all people, who disobeyed every fucking rule put before him yet was steadily promoted for it, had been the worst offender of them all. Phil had asked around, learned how Liam had snatched her from her family at only seventeen. Phil had been so obsessed, he’d looked her family up. Turned out they were quite prominent in Connecticut—dad a top investment banker with Merrill Lynch in Manhattan. Liam married her quick and probably filled her head with loads of his bullshit. That night of the ball, when the opportunity presented itself, he’d followed her to the bathroom. He timed it perfectly to collide with her when she returned to the hall he waited in. Gave himself a chance to touch her. She smiled brightly up at him and he was done. That’s when he knew. She was special. Of course the SEAL team assignment to Fort Bragg after 9/11 presented an opportunity for Phil as well. In a matter of weeks, families were moved and men deployed. Phil seized the opportunity to follow. He hadn’t been aware of it consciously, of course, until later. The nation had been thrown into a state of emergency. The enemy had attacked them, their homeland. But all the same, deep down he believed she would be part of his destiny. He swore he’d have her one day. “You know I like your hair this way.” He turned and smiled. Kennedy glanced up. She had told him that Liam was obsessed with her keeping her hair natural and free of relaxers, which is why she’d worn stylish puffs and curly locks back then. Black women didn’t have to wear afros to be exotic or beautiful. In fact, Phil found it kind of fetish and racist that her white husband wanted her to remain ethnic. He preferred the relaxed, straight look. She was fucking drop-dead gorgeous with it cascading down her back. “Thanks. I did it for you.” She smiled sweetly. Damn right you did, he thought. Phil felt his arousal peak, but Mackenzie’s highpitched voice sang out and threw cold water over the moment. “Daddy, I want to go to the base with you.” Mackenzie smiled with deep longing. He knew she loved the royal treatment she got from being his daughter. He’d graduated West Point and gone on to Baylor, become the best defense attorney in the Navy JAG Corps inside four years and got stationed to Norfolk just three years prior to Kennedy’s arrival with Liam Flanagan. Now as a civilian consultant, he’d developed a reputation for having a swift and sure hand with complicated terrorism cases, which only added to his prestige.

“Not today, sweetheart. I’ll take you Saturday morning. How’s that?” Mackenzie nodded and Kennedy sighed as the hair bow popped. “Oh, sweetheart. This is the second bow to snap this morning.” “Sorry, mommy,” Mackenzie said softly. Phil smiled. He’d have to give it to Liam, he did create one beauty in Mackenzie. Phil loved her like she was his own. Hell, he’d been there during her delivery, and when Kennedy felt too depressed to get out of bed to feed her, he’d come up from sleeping on the sofa to help. She later told him that he’d been the only person that didn’t remind her of Liam. Anytime she saw her mother, Kennedy could only focus on the woman’s longstanding hatred for Liam, and if she were with friends she knew of their grief. She’d once felt community with the wives on the base, but after Liam died, she’d only seen pity in their eyes. Phil had been chosen to be her anchor. Liam’s friends hated his presence. Eric had even taken a swing at him when he started coming around shortly after the news broke. But Phil never gave up. Kennedy had been the hardest to convince that his friendship could turn to love. It took him three years before she even considered the fact that Liam was dead. During the fourth year, she started to talk without injecting his name after every sentence, and it was then he made his move. By then Eric, Vasquez, and that cold bitch Alexa Sinclair were all giving him their blessing, anything to pull Kennedy back from the brink and get her to start living again. Damn, he could still remember the first time she allowed him to kiss her. He rushed to Tiffany and bought a ring the very next day. Kennedy reached behind her for another bow. “We’re going to take you to Auntie Harper to get this hair braided, tomorrow,” she said. “Nooooo! Please mommy. I’ll stand still. Please.” Phil looked at his cell phone and grimaced. “Something must be going down right now. I got a text from Alexa. She needs to meet with me. Looks like I will be late tonight.” Kennedy’s gaze shot up, alarmed. “Is it Eric? Anthony?” “No, sweetheart. It’s just the war, remember?” Kennedy smiled sadly. “How could I ever forget?” Phil hated moments when he inadvertently reminded her of Liam. He’d had her pull away from him on some nights and cry. When would the day come when the bastard was just a memory for her? Maybe she noticed. She flashed him a wry smile. “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about you.” Damn, she could say the sweetest things. If Mackenzie weren’t between her legs, he would be. He checked his watch. Maybe he could get some time in if he they sent her down for cereal. Truth be told, he had already fallen behind schedule. He picked up his keys and sighed. “Bye, Daddy.” “Bye, pumpkin.” Phil leaned in and kissed her tiny lips. “You be good in school,

okay?” “Mmmkay.” Phil kissed Kennedy. She lifted her head and he immediately slipped her some tongue. Her eyes widened but her lashes fluttered and shut once she gave him what he wanted. “Wait up for me tonight,” he whispered. “If I don’t you will just wake me anyway.” She said. “Damn right.” “Oooooo! Daddy, you said a curse word. You owe me a quarter.” Mackenzie stuck out her hand. Phil chuckled. “What’s this? Money for curse words?” Kennedy frowned. “Daddy said he’s going to stop cursing because it makes you sad, Mommy.” “Did he?” Her brow lifted. Phil winked. “So he said if he curse, I get to make him pay me a quarter. Give it up, Daddy. You lose.” Phil reached in his pocket and found a quarter. Mackenzie began to bounce on her feet in anticipation. “Okay, let me get out of here.” “Bye.” “Love you both,” he yelled from the stairs, knowing life couldn’t get any better than this. Able to get a bow on Mackenzie’s head, Kennedy turned her daughter around and looked her over. “Perfect. You’re ready to go.” “I sure is.” “I sure am,” she corrected. “I sure am,” Mackenzie mimicked. “Go get your book bag and make sure your crayon box is inside.” “Yes, Mommy.” Kennedy lifted her weary gaze to the mirror. A woman she barely recognized stared back at her. Life had changed, she had changed, and sometimes it shocked her how much. She rose and stepped to her dresser. Her long bangs fell over her left eye. She did look different. The relaxed hair, the business suit: she had evolved. Kennedy sighed to herself. God had a sense of humor. She looked like her mother now. As much as Kennedy

wanted to be different, a woman with her own identity, she’d become the daughter her mother had always wanted her to be. The comparison made her uneasy so she lowered her gaze. She needed earrings. She picked up her jewelry box and began to sift through the scattered assortment. She found nothing suitable. She went to her other collection, a small jewelry chest with drawers. Liam gave this one to her on their second wedding anniversary. Kennedy pulled out one drawer, then another. She had a million different pairs of earrings. She would need to get them in some kind of order. She found her pearls, but one was missing its security back. She removed the bottom drawer and dumped its contents, then started to sort through the scatter. A ring rolled out and off the dresser onto the floor. Her heart stopped and she bent to retrieve it. A white-gold band with a tiny solitaire half-carat cubic zirconia. She nearly wept at the sight of it. She remembered how Liam had presented it to her like it was the Hope diamond, behind her school gym. He’d told her he was leaving town and he wanted her to come with. He had drifted into her circle through a mutual friend. Liam had been only twentytwo then. And Kennedy’s friendship with Sierra, a girl two years older who had a thing for bad boys, put her in his path. Kennedy knew of his reputation for fights and brooding, but she didn’t care. One look at him and she had fallen in love. She did everything she could to get him to notice her. One day he finally did. Months later, under the duress of a separation forced on them by her parents, Liam proposed they run off and start a life together. She said yes without a second’s hesitation, and even when he tried to upgrade the stone, she refused. This ring became the most precious item she had ever possessed. She felt a stab of guilt to have it tucked away, discarded. Get a grip, Kennedy. Liam is gone. Don’t even go there again. Kennedy rose, swiping at loose tears. Funny thing, she always thought she would feel his death. They were so connected; she loved him so much that she would know in her heart when he was dead. He’d never felt gone to her. “Mommy, I ready! Why you looking funny?” Mackenzie asked, staring up at her mother. Kennedy was still holding Liam’s ring, the words of their vows now surfacing. Would the day ever come where she didn’t hurt or miss him terribly? She didn’t know how to make a life without him any more now than she did then. *** Liam lay there, deep in his thoughts. The room remained absent of light except for the fluorescent tube above and behind his bed. If there was a way to turn it off, Liam couldn’t figure out how. It annoyed him that after so long being chained to a packed dirt

wall in utter darkness, he craved that same absence of light now. Vasquez and Eric had both come back, stopped by for a few awkward minutes. They offered a few noncommittal words and told him that they’d ship out tomorrow, but would return as soon as their orders allowed. He tried to ask them questions but he could barely get his voice to work. All he wanted to know was when he’d hold his wife and meet his child. Why the fuck wouldn’t anyone tell him that much? So he closed his eyes and conjured Kennedy’s face. It soothed him. Soon he was able to create an image of little Mackenzie. He saw her clearly. He opened his mouth and pushed on his vocal chords. After a few tries, two words formed. He was able to exhale and rush them out in a hoarse whisper: before sunrise.

Chapter Four Kennedy would be late. Well, not entirely, but if she was to make it back to court in time for the partners she had to march to a tight schedule. She stepped through the French café in search of her best friend, her purse swinging at her side. Angelina was posted in their usual spot. It was a small table for two in the back corner of the restaurant, nearest the picturesque window. Her auburn-brown hair cascaded down her shoulders. Of Chilean descent, Angelina had the roundest, most beautiful brown eyes under long, upward-swept lashes. Even now, Kennedy marveled that she didn’t use a mascara brush. In many ways, Angelina reminded Kennedy of her girlhood friend Sierra, though Sierra wasn’t Hispanic. Angelina possessed the kind of beauty most people noticed. Petite, with a model-like figure even after carrying twins to full-term, she had the symmetrical mouth and nose that sweetened her features, and deep olive-tan skin. Angelina’s gaze drifted in Kennedy’s direction and she waved. Kennedy noticed she spoke into her cell phone. That phone was always connected to Angelina’s face, in one form or another. Kennedy checked the time. She had forty-five minutes, already counting down. As a legal assistant for Brahman and Goldberg, they needed her at their disposal. She remembered when she once had dreams of being an attorney. Those dreams changed when Liam’s death blew her world apart. It took all her strength not to lose the baby; the doctors had put her on bed rest almost immediately. After their daughter was born, it took more strength to hold her and not be reminded of all she and Liam would never share. After Liam died, school had never been an option. She’d devoted herself full-time to grief. “Okay…so be safe, honey, and call me when you know something definite. I love you!” Angelina grinned. She winked at Kennedy who sat down, and habitually checked the time once again. “Would you stop looking at your watch? You said I had an hour, so I get an hour.” “I know, girl, but Steven is a bastard when he’s in middle of a tough case.” “Quit. Phil wants you to.” Kennedy frowned. “I don’t care what Phil wants. I’m not quitting my job.” “Hey, it’s a joke. Don’t be so sensitive.” Kennedy shrugged. “Sorry.” She looked for the waiter. He arrived pronto and she proceeded to order the Cobb Salad and a lemon tea. Angelina ordered the pasta dish minus the Andouille sausage. “How you feeling?” Kennedy peeked over the floral centerpiece at her friend’s belly. “Fat.” They both laughed. “So where’s Anthony?” Kennedy asked.

“He was in some desert somewhere last week, girl. But I got a surprise call from him just now, from a stateside number. So he’s safe, I suppose. I know he better have his ass back here full-time before I deliver this baby.” “So Anthony and Eric are fine? Phil mentioned this morning that something was up.” Angelina nodded, sipping her water. “Yeah, he’s fine. I’m pretty sure I heard Madame Sinclair in the background, running her mouth. Ugh.” Angelina grimaced. Kennedy cut her eyes away. The passage of time hadn’t helped her appreciate Alexa. Actually, that was too polite. She couldn’t stand her. She knew that woman still had a thing for Liam. At the memorial, Alexa had been the one crying the loudest, hollering, practically, until Phil had glared at Eric, and Eric led her outside and away. He’d kept her far to the back at the graveside part of the service. Angelina hated her even more than Kennedy did. “Alexa’s still the head bitch in charge?” Kennedy asked. “Or until we get another president. Got me wanting to register to vote.” Angelina rolled her eyes. Kennedy laughed. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Your husband is a captain serving his nation and you don’t vote?” “Please, they keep my man 300 days out of the year; I only get 60. Screw them. They got all the civic duty they gone get out of me.” “Touché.” The waiter delivered her tea. Kennedy’s throat felt raw. The cold drink soothed her, inside and out. She looked up and noticed the way Angelina stared. “What?” “Something wrong?” “Why does something have to be wrong?” “Hell, you look like you just had an orgasm from a glass of sweet tea. Phil not taking care of business at home?” Kennedy almost choked. She shook her head laughing, dabbing at the spill on her chin with a napkin. “No honey, he’s all over me. Sex almost every night. I swear.” “Lucky girl.” “Hardly, it’s…well, it’s not like Liam,” Kennedy confessed. Angelina was the only person she could talk about Liam with, the only one who understood why she still needed to talk about him. “Hell, that’s because fucking Liam was like fucking Tarzan. I’m married to a wild one too, so you know I know.” Kennedy laughed. “No, silly. It’s the connection I’m talking about. I care for Phil. And I know he loves me, it’s just…I—” “Kennedy, come on. It’s been five years, you’ve remarried. You have to let Liam

go.” “I have, Angelina. I’m just talking about him. I swear, you all act like I’m going to break into a million pieces if someone mentions his name,” she huffed. “We were there. We saw what his death did to you. We were all scared, terrified. That’s all.” “I know. I know.” Kennedy sighed. “Anyways, that’s not what’s bothering me.” “Okay, spill.” “Phil wants a baby,” she blurted out, though she felt a sense of relief to have said the words aloud. She’d been wound up tight since he’d asked her to go off the Pill. He told her he wanted a baby, their own child. She’d promised to think about it. In fact, it was all she’d been able to think about. “You knew this was coming, Kennedy.” “I guess,” she sighed. Angelina looked up when their glasses were refilled. “You know sometimes, sweetie, I think you married Phil for show.” “Why?” “Mac and Phil are so close, and he was always around to play the papa role. It’s like you decided to prove you were ready to move on to all of us, but more importantly to yourself.” “I care for Phil.” “Love, Kennedy. The word is love.” “Yeah, I know. I love him.” “So this baby?” Kennedy stared out the windows at the gardens. Her stomach soured at the thought of it, even if it meant a sibling for Mac. But he’s my husband. It was her mother who pushed for them to marry. Her mother never liked Liam, but she drooled all over Phil. The only people who had any objection to their marriage was her kid sister Harper, and Eric Drake, who’d been the brother Liam needed but never had. Harper and Eric were the founding members of Liam’s fan club. Even today, Harper could rarely be civil to Phil. She called him ‘the pretender.’ “Kennedy?” “I’m thinking! I mean, Mac came early. We almost lost her.” “There were circumstances around Mac coming early. You know that. Go see your doctor, see if it’s okay.” “Wow, you’ve already decided for me, huh?” Kennedy sat back. “Hell, I got the twins and one on the way. Damn right I want you to be miserable too. We got to stick together!”

Kennedy laughed. She covered her mouth to keep the sound under control. When she managed to reduce it to giggles she nodded her head. “I know it’s just a baby Angie, but I can’t get my head around it. I’ll decide soon.” “Well, has Phil let up on adopting Mac?” Kennedy rolled her eyes. “He had better, or my mother-in-law will get a shotgun after him.” “Liam’s mom that pissed, huh?” “Yes, Liam was all she had. He had a rough childhood and she wasn’t able to protect him much. But they were closer before he died. Now she feels like she has to be the reminder to Mac of who Liam was and who she came from.” The sadness returned. Sometimes it was hard for Kennedy to breathe when she thought of her dead husband, and Sally felt the same. When Kennedy married Phil, he asked to adopt her daughter. His reasoning? He wanted both his girls to take on his last name. Kennedy said no of course, but Phil thought it was because of Liam’s mother. The fool had the nerve to call her in Chicago and ask for permission. Sally went nuts. Somehow, she scraped together enough money to fly into town and had her own confrontation with Kennedy, who’d never seen Sally more passionate about anything. Kennedy wondered if Liam were smiling down from heaven to see his mother stand up for him. Not going to happen. Mackenzie is a Flanagan and it will remain that way. Hell, my baby keeps Liam’s picture next to her bed. “Yeah, the twins told me. Last time they were at your house Mac and the boys got into a debate over whose dad is the biggest hero. The twins said they won the argument because their father was alive. The boys said heroes can’t be killed. I meant to tell you this, girl. I felt awful. Did she mention it?” Kennedy frowned. Their lunches were placed before them. Mackenzie hadn’t mentioned it, but she remembered finding her crying and fighting with the boys. She didn’t know the cause. That must have really hurt her little girl. A ball of pain lodged in Kennedy’s throat. “I read them the riot act good, don’t you worry.” Kennedy smirked. “Gee, thanks, Angie.” They ate in silence for a few minutes. Kennedy bit down on her lip, swallowing. “I guess Phil deserves a wife and a life free of my pain. So does my baby. Mackenzie would love a little brother or sister.” “You deserve some happiness too, Kennedy. Having a child will move your family forward.” Kennedy smiled as she picked up her fork. She felt somewhat better, and warmed up to the prospect of a new future. She decided to take a leap of faith. She would tell Phil that she would be going off the Pill and moving ahead with their plans to expand their family. It was time to let go of the ghost that haunted her, let go of her husband, and accept the choice she made. Liam would have wanted that for them both.

*** Two Weeks Later Liam tugged at the drawstring of the thin pants he wore. A wave of dizziness went through him. He walked stiffly to the bathroom and snapped on the light. The cramped grey space was equipped with a toilet, sink, and a showerhead that pointed directly down to the drain in the middle of the floor. It was heaven compared to what he’d been forced to endure. Someone from the supply corps had brought several brand-new sets of utilities and left them folded on the desk. The nurse had given him a razor, scissors, and some shaving cream. The items waited for him on the shelf over the sink. He didn’t recognize the bearded man who stared back at him from the mirror. He used the scissors first, wishing for a pair of clippers. He cut the scruff from his jaw; his hair looked way longer than regulation in some spots, barely a quarter-inch off his scalp in others. He wondered if it had fallen out, or if some doctor had shaved it off. He just kept cutting, dropping clumps of dingy, tangled hair into the toilet. He did the best to shave and groom himself. The final result proved to be a huge improvement over what he’d seen in the mirror half an hour before. He literally shuddered to think of the way he’d looked when he’d first been brought aboard. Staring at his reflection, he felt such anger and disappointment. He didn’t want her to see him this way. He still had dark circles under his eyes, and his face had that sunken, hollow look, like the bums that slept in the doorways on Madison back home. He’d been holding down solid foods, but it would take a while for him to get his body mass back. What would Kennedy think of her broken husband now? Liam craved his lady. He fought against unspeakable odds and cruelties to get back to her. He was done waiting, done debriefing officials from every branch of the service, and a couple of the covert ones too. He understood who Alexa and Eric were now. From what he’d been told, a new counterterrorism unit had been created shortly after the success of his mission five years ago. Vasquez now led the team, completely black ops, with members taken from all branches of the service. Plans for such a crossservice venture had been proposed years before, but the politics of command had always gotten in the way. Those politics vaporized in the hours after 9/11, and changes had been implemented in record time. Liam’s unit had been redeployed to Fort Bragg, where they’d been mixed and merged with the Deltas based there and a few volunteers from the Marine Special Purpose Force. As usual, the Marines had wanted to go their own way about things. The unit had a focused, singular goal: eradicate the threat of terror wherever it could be found on foreign soil. Oversight was provided by a joint-services task force, with representatives from the CIA, the NSA, and the DoD, each sharing their own flavor of op intel. That wasn’t the biggest change. This new organizational structure completely

bypassed the Joint Special Operations Command, somehow, and Alexa Sinclair had not only been promoted to full colonel, but appointed their tactical liaison to the White House as well. After hearing the word ‘colonel’, Liam had gone a little fuzzy on the rest of the details. It wasn’t funny, but he had no choice except to chuckle. Life had a fucked-up sense of humor. He got tortured for five years and they got medals and promotions for bravery. Yep, that’s a fair trade. Liam sulked on that for a few days. Soon afterward, he decided he didn’t give a shit anymore. All he wanted was his family. He’d get his life back, and when he did, he’d never let go of his Kennedy again. But they were getting in his way there, too. They’d impressed upon him the need for secrecy. The night they’d found Liam, they’d removed the bodies of the two soldiers and authorized an airstrike right over the spot where he’d been held. First, they’d tossed a few of the dead combatants, naked, into the hole. The strategists wanted everyone to assume any bone fragments left behind had been the captive Americans, ironically killed by one of their own bombs. The CT strategists hoped it would buy them enough extra time to track Sarkhir and get one more shot at him. They wanted Liam to stay aboard ship for several more weeks. Well, fuck that. His friends owed him their lives and their successes. He would find a way to make them use their power and cut his chains. He pulled the belt of his pants tight, tighter than he ever had before in his life, and took a last look in the mirror. He was fully dressed and standing on his own power for the first time in months. He wanted to appreciate every step back to normal, but he still felt naked without his wedding ring. He limped out of the bathroom just as a sharp knock came and the latch to the outer door released. A very young, red-faced lieutenant looked in and saluted him. Liam stood there for a moment, clenching his teeth. Though Liam was much older, the two men were of the same rank. A salute wasn’t required, and the kid knew that. Liam gave him a half-handed salute back and glared silently at the gold metal emblem pinned to his collar. Naval Intelligence Service. Kid’s probably not even warfare-qualified. Rides a fucking desk. “Your attendance is requested in the satellite room, Lieutenant.” Finally. He’d been demanding this meeting for more than a week. He tried not to be too bitter over the repeated delays. He was more than happy to get it over with. He grabbed a pair of crutches to aid him. “Lead the way.” “Yes, sir!” The officer held open the metal door for Liam to step through. He wondered if Alexa would be there. Her availability had been one of the crappy excuses they’d given him, the demands on her time, how hard it was for her to come out this far. From Washington, he assumed. He still didn’t fully understand her role in all of this. Since his capture, there had been flashes of people and conversations that led to little clues. For instance, he felt almost certain Alexa had been at his side the first days after his rescue, and she’d pulled major rank on more than one official to get there and stay there. He was

so heavily medicated at the time he couldn’t be sure. Now he intended to confront them all and get the answers he needed. Somehow it made him feel alive again. He managed most of the way with the crutches until he had to climb to an upper deck. He passed off his crutches to the lieutenant and grunted as he forced himself to do most of it on his own. At one time he could have kicked all their asses for sport. Now he’d become some weakling. Fuck that. When he emerged at the top of the ladder, he found several officers who saluted him as he limped by. A few had obviously heard of his rescue and nodded appreciatively toward him. So much for keeping it a secret. Liam glanced back over his shoulder. “Where are the men who were found with me?” he asked. The officials who flowed in and out of his room would never disclose what had happened to them. At some point, Liam had stopped asking, but the kid looked like the type who needed approval. Maybe he’d want to score a few points. “They didn’t make it, sir.” The officer cleared his throat. Liam shook his head and sighed. Privates Jacob Pettyman and Daniel Acevedo had been kids, too. Neither had even been twenty when they were thrown into confinement with him. He’d manipulated the situation as best he could, taking most of the abuse in order to spare them. How could God be so cruel? His escort delivered him to a large wardroom somewhere in the heart of flag country. Everyone stood passively around a black lacquer table, waiting. The center of the table was aglow with an interactive color large-screen display that pinpointed the location of all ships and military installments in the area of operations, as well as all listening posts, both active and passive. They were in the middle of the ocean, Liam figured, studying the chart. He knew they were far from land, but hadn’t known how far. Way too far for a COD flight, goddamnit. They had him. Alexa noticed him first, then Ant, who nudged Eric. He had to smirk. At one time, they’d looked to him for leadership, and now he had to salute each one of them. The others watched him hobble in. The rest of the men in the room he didn’t know, and didn’t want to know. It pissed him off not to recognize even one of them. How long had he been gone again? “Welcome.” Alexa smiled brightly at him and he smirked back. She pointed him to a chair in the center of the long side of the table. Eric leaned over. He touched his arm as he sat down. “Liam, are you up for this?” “Fuckin’ A. I want this over with so I can get home.” Eric nodded, and everyone quietly found their seats. Liam leaned back in his chair. The exertion to get to the room had him tired, and even though he supposed the chair would be considered comfortable, sitting up still hurt. Alexa introduced the others present, as well as the men on the secure link who were conferenced in for the meeting. They gave the usual your country thanks you bullshit

he had heard sixty-plus times from every man or woman who’d visited him since he awoke. Liam sat there, wondering when the hell it would be his turn. The moment the man in the corner seat paused between sentences, Liam broke protocol and spoke. “What do you want to know?” He looked directly at the only man in the room not in uniform, the only one who had not been introduced. The guy had that CIA-spook look about him. From directly across the table, Alexa cleared her throat as a warning to him. Liam ignored her. “We have your…report,” said the man, calmly raising his thick eyebrows in challenge. “What else can you tell us?” Liam felt Alexa’s glare burning into him. “With all due respect, sir, I wasn’t about to give up anything about Operation Scorpion to some snot-nosed kid fresh out of Annapolis. To hell with that.” The man looked pointedly over Liam’s left shoulder and his escort, the red-faced kid, left the wardroom without a sound. “I had a feeling you were holding out on us.” “Goes both ways, Mr.—” “Green. Paul Green.” He doubted it was the man’s real name. Liam had been given a Paul Green identity once on assignment, and he assumed this man’s name was no coincidence. No one else in the room seemed to get it. Looking more closely, Liam could see the man was ex-military, still fit and steely-looking, watchful and ready. He was old enough to have been in one of the early CT units, long before Liam was even born, and if the brass had him here, out of retirement, consulting most likely, then there was probably a very good reason. “So it was Amir Sarkhir. Wasn’t it?” “Yes,” Liam said bitterly. “I was his personal trophy whipping-boy. Kind of got used to it, actually.” The man chuckled, but no one else did. Liam reclined, reflecting on his ability to withstand physical pain. Fuck them all: they never broke him, no fucking way. He exhaled once, and in a low, calm voice, recounted his capture. It was then he learned they thought he had been on the airlift out of the Afghan mountains. But like the captain of a ship, Liam wasn’t moving off that rock until every last one of his men was. Liam shared how the discovery of a hidden IED had him putting a wounded kid in his place on the transport. He was going to hike out on his own after he held Amir’s men back so the rescue could get off the ground. He took a hit, fleeing into the mountains with a busted kneecap. He spent weeks recovering in an Iraqi hospital until Amir’s men showed up one night and discovered him. They killed all the kind people who’d prayed over him and nursed his wounds. Liam told this part of the tale through gritted teeth. The rest of his recovery was just mind over body. He knew his leg was shot to shit for the rest of his life. He was lucky it hadn’t needed to

be amputated. Over the following months he remained confined for days, completely alone. Several times, he thought he’d starve to death. Then they’d take him to a cell, feed him, and clean him up. Once done, they’d dress him in a military uniform that was not his own —to Liam, it looked to be Pakistani but he was never sure—and march him around the camp. Then Sarkhir would offer him sweets and try, with his limited English, to charm him. When that didn’t work, the beatings would resume. Early on, Liam suspected that two things saved his life: he was their highest-ranking capture, and even when tortured, he never showed them weakness. Liam suspected Sarkhir liked the game, enjoyed trying to break him. Several other captured soldiers had been tortured and killed for sport, most of it done right before Liam’s eyes. He felt his chest tighten with rage as he recalled the horrors. It was the loneliness that was the worst part of it. There were days he’d have cut off his dick to hear Kennedy’s voice, feel her gentle touch to remind him that she’d be there for him. To hear her softly whisper in his ear that eventually he’d return home and she’d be waiting. Over the secure line, the Secretary of Defense started in with his questions. Liam managed to offer some useful information. His memory did have gaps. There were blackout moments where his mind had just shut down. But what he did remember, he shared, right down to Sarkhir’s quirky habits. He liked Nintendo; there was a console somewhere in the compound. Liam could occasionally hear Sarkhir’s distinctive laughter through the walls as Sarkhir’s men walked him, blindfolded, to a cell. He recalled Sarkhir got frequent headaches, ones that probably could have been handled easily with a couple of Tylenol, but he refused to take them. And until they discovered Liam understood Arabic, Sarkhir and his men would converse freely in front of him. Sarkhir spoke of two wives and children, and a younger brother who lived in America. At this, Mr. Green looked over at the man next to him, then back to Liam. “Did you ever see this man? The wives?” Liam shook his head. Liam couldn’t give them times or dates, either, because after the first time they’d put him into the hole, he never had a sense of time. He was still having trouble understanding he’d been gone five years. One moment it felt like days, then the next, infinity. His head was that fucked up. The debriefing lasted two hours and Liam constantly wanted a fresh glass of water, no ice. He needed something to quench his eternal thirst. Once the meeting ended, they told him again he was a hero. “When do I get to see my family?” he interrupted. “Your rescue story is being arranged to best protect you, and those still serving,” replied Alexa. “You’ll learn more about it soon.” “Does the media know?” Liam asked, a little hopeful. Maybe Kennedy did know and fought like hell to get to him. “No,” Alexa replied flatly. She shifted forward in her seat and made a cutting motion across her throat. Liam

glared while she offered a well-rehearsed closing to the gentlemen on the secure line. Then she smiled across the table at Liam. “We have intelligence that Sarkhir has several cells in the States—run by his brother. That’s why it’s imperative we keep your rescue contained. He thinks you died. We want it to remain that way for now.” “No!” Liam barked. “It’s been decided,” Alexa said dryly. “By who? You? Why hasn’t my family been told? I want to speak to my wife!” He slammed his fist on the table. No one spoke. This troubled Liam. Why did men he called brothers refuse to look him in the eye? “What is it? I know there’s something. You can’t even fucking look at me.” “Gentlemen.” Alexa wasn’t the ranking officer in the room this time, but men from both sides of the table began to rise and walk, single-file, to the door. Liam stared hard at Ant and Eric. Both turned their faces slightly to Alexa, who nodded that they could stay. Liam felt himself coiled, tight, ready to unload on someone. The lady colonel looked like a better and better candidate. Alexa reached for a small finger-control and turned on the video feed. Liam’s gaze switched to an image of Kennedy. She held a small girl. His breath caught. The girl looked to be no more than three. She was more hair than anything, just like his sweet Kennedy. They grinned at the camera, for him. Liam let go the first genuine smile he’d given in five long years. He’d just met his baby girl, and her name was Mackenzie. He wiped his hand down his face and blinked to be sure the vision was real. It had to be. No dream ever felt so vivid. He shook his head and laughed. Still, Anthony and Eric cast their heads down. “Why the fuck are you all so grim? Look at her. Look at my girl. Ain’t she beautiful? And look at…Kay. Damn. Damn. Kay is still gorgeous, ain’t she? Damn. Look at my girls.” He gasped. No one rejoiced with him. “Brother,” Eric cleared his throat. “Kennedy took it hard when you went down. She was about six months pregnant then. She never made it into the seventh month and—” “What?” He looked at Mackenzie. She looked perfect. No little girl on the planet could look any sweeter. What could be wrong? “Tell me.” “She went into labor early,” Alexa blurted out. “Preeclampsia is what the doctors called it. Almost hemorrhaged to death. Both of them barely made it out alive.” Liam’s eyes went to the image of his girls again. He felt the walls close in on him as a dark wave of dread settled in his gut. “She needed me,” he said hollowly. Vasquez sat forward. “Liam, it was hard on all of us but it was never your fault.” Liam never cried in the five years they beat him until his body gave out. He never

dropped one fucking tear. But this, to know that Kennedy nearly bled to death trying to bring their daughter into the world, was too much to bear. He blinked away tears that fell despite his efforts. “Is Mackenzie all right?” “Look at her,” Eric said and all eyes went to the screen. Alexa switched slides to Mackenzie’s pre-school picture. He hadn’t noticed it in the other picture, but in this one he saw it. She had Kennedy’s smile. “She’s your daughter; she’s a fighter.” Alexa smiled. Liam gazed upon the miracle before him. He couldn’t wait to hold her. “Give me their file. I know there is one.” Eric and Vasquez exchanged looks. “Give me the damn file. What the fuck is going on?” He tried to accept the fact that his disappearance had almost cost them their child. Now he wanted to read every single detail of her little life. And how his sweetheart recovered without him. Eric grabbed Alexa’s remote and Vasquez handed over the file. Liam wasted no time. His eyes were glued to the documents. Kay remained in Fayetteville. His sweetheart had never left. He feared she’d gone back to her mother, who would undoubtedly erase every trace of him from Mackenzie’s life. On the screen, slides flipped past, then stopped. He felt the display of light rather than saw it. But the silence enveloping the room forced him to lift his gaze. In that moment, he wished he hadn’t. He wished he’d delayed the reality just a little bit longer. Whoever said ‘ignorance is bliss’ spoke the truth. What he saw on the screen cut him to the core. Kennedy’s wedding picture. A dress she never wore with him. When he married her they stood before the justice of the peace with her in a blue sundress and flip-flops and him in a Green Day T-shirt and sneakers. On her wedding day, she wore a slender, fitted flowing white gown with a beaded corset top that tastefully lifted her cleavage. The kind of dress in those magazines she used to collect around their place. He promised one day to buy her a fancy dress, a big diamond, invite her mother and father and all those snooty relatives of hers that hated him, then do it big. He made a lot of promises he didn’t keep. Now he had to face the image of the man who stepped in and did just that. Gave his wife what he never could. Holding his daughter, who wore a ring of flowers around her head, was Phil Freeman. “What the fuck is this?” Liam whispered. His heart wouldn’t be convinced. Maybe it was a joke. Maybe it had been some secret mission to keep her safe, fool his enemies that she wasn’t connected to him. Yes! The government had staged some fake wedding. Vasquez was the only one brave enough to clear his throat and speak. “Freeman was a friend to her…after. He was there with her mother, helping when little Mac was in the neonatal unit. It was touch-and-go for a minute. The doctors were shocked at Mac’s recovery. Her lungs weren’t quite developed, and she got an infection.” Vasquez took a breath. He spoke so fast.

His accent, usually barely detectable, now ran his words together. Liam didn’t mind. He wanted to hear the part about the marriage being staged. Get to that fucking part! “Phil…well, Mackenzie needed special attention and he was um, he was there to help when she came home. She only weighed four and a half pounds, brother. She was so fragile. So was Kennedy. Fragile, I mean. Her depression had her barely functioning. We all had to do what we could. She wouldn’t let her mother stay, her mother only made things worse. Kay barely let Angelina help. And Eric and I were deployed, so Phil, he um, he was there to help.” “What the fuck are you saying?” Liam’s voice hardened and his hands curled into fists. Where was the part of this being for Kennedy’s protection? The part where they disclosed another operation, one that kept his woman out of harm’s way, not in the arms of this motherfucker. Alexa sat forward. “She fell in love with him, Liam. That’s what this is.” “With all due respect, Colonel, shut the fuck up!” Eric shouted at her. Alexa blinked. Her face registered shock, then outrage at Eric’s outburst. Liam took the blow straight to his heart and it shattered. He’d known unspeakable pain, but nothing compared. This was his girl, the only woman he’d ever loved, not just with another man but married to him. Maybe it was possible. Maybe Kennedy could forget him and move on. Maybe. She had been young when he met her, and they’d been separated when he had to go to school, enlist, and then ship off to training and missions that stole years from them. Born into that snooty family who thought he was some cradle-robbing dirt, maybe distance could tear them apart. Liam first saw her at a house party and thought she was just another snot-nosed bitch. Until she smiled at him. Her smile forced him to cross the room despite himself. Back then he had little respect for anything, least of all women, something he’d learned at his stepfather’s knee. He’d watched years of abuse heaped on his mother. But Kennedy had been different. Her love and trust for him made him different. She looked at him like no other girl ever did, like he was some kind of hero. Silly as it sounded, he needed someone to believe in him. One night at a party in the Hamptons, she got close to him. Real close to him. And he forgot this girl wasn’t an option. He looked down into those big brown eyes of hers and lost himself. She gave herself to him. Told him she loved him no matter what anybody thought about their differences in race or class. Said she would be his girl. And it didn’t take him long to believe. Maybe she could fall for another man, maybe. With any other man he’d try to understand—maybe. But not this man, God help him, any man but this man. “She fell in love with Phil Freeman?” He repeated the words as if pronouncing a foreign language. “Brother, listen to me.” Eric shot Alexa a withering glare. “They just got married

last year. She didn’t believe us when we said you were dead. She almost lost her mind. She started saying she talked to you in her dreams. She even turned away from her faith. She met with psychics to find proof you were alive. She didn’t give up until we intervened and convinced her to. We practically forced her to. She only recently moved on. Do you understand? Kennedy loves you.” “She married that fuck!” Liam spat. Eric shook his head “Only a year ago, man. He was just…there. Fuck. Fuck.” “I never stopped believing you were alive,” Alexa said softly. Eric shot her a look and put his huge hand down on the table, like he’d use it for leverage if he needed to. Alexa glared. “Liam, man, you have to understand what happened when you died.” “Oh, I fucking get it,” he said through clenched teeth. “You got your bars and that motherfucker got Kennedy. This is what I gave my life for? THIS SHIT? You swore to me you would protect Kennedy. All of you. And what you do? Sit back and hand her off to that…creeping bastard. To that—” Liam began to wheeze. The overexertion left his head swimming. He wanted to turn the table over. Punch and gut every motherfucker in sight, starting with the three friends who sat back and watched his life go up in flames. But he couldn’t even stand without help. He couldn’t even speak. There was no air. “I told you both we shouldn’t have told him. I told you,” Alexa said. “Shut up,” Liam snarled. “You never gave a shit about Kay. This is exactly what you wanted.” “That’s not true—” “SHUT UP!” he shouted. He could give a pointed shit about their rank. All of their staring faces made him dream of murder. He wanted to snap something, namely Alex’s slender neck. Liam closed his eyes. In his head he heard the screams and whimpers of the other POWs. He remembered telling them it would pass, that one day they’d be free again. Their suffering would only be temporary. He could smell the blood, his own blood as it ran down his back and chest, and mixed with the piss and the shit caked to the dirt floor of their prison. He wanted to scream. “Liam? Are you okay?” Alexa asked with a shaky voice. He forced the door shut in his mind. The madness couldn’t overtake him. Not now. He couldn’t give in just yet. He leveled his hooded gaze on her. “The fucking marriage ain’t legal. She’s my fucking wife. Hell, I was MIA, it’s just been five years, she can’t remarry—” “You were KIA, Liam,” Alexa reminded him. “AM I FUCKING DEAD?” Alexa withdrew. Liam couldn’t take another minute. If there were a weapon near him he couldn’t be sure what he’d do: take one of their lives, or even his own. He grabbed

for his crutches with shaky hands. The idea of Phil Freeman touching Kennedy, holding her, laughing at him and mocking everything he shared with her… it became too much to bear. “Wait, Liam, wait.” Alexa rose. “Stay the fuck away from me,” he wheezed. Liam managed to summon enough strength to stand. To be a man. Everyone stood, tense, hands up and out, but no one dared move. Liam braved one last look at Kennedy in Phil’s arms. Before sunrise my ass. You gave up on me. They should have left him in that fucking hole and let him die with his memory of their love. It was all he had. As he limped out to the passageway, he glared at the linoleum floor. He let go a bitter laugh. In his darkest moments over the years he thought there would be hope outside of his hell. Now he knew the only hope he had was buried with him in that fucking desert. *** “Mommy? I don’t want to take a bath.” Mackenzie stood in the doorway of the hall bathroom wearing nothing but her flowery underpants. Kennedy walked up the hall. Since when had this become a democracy? “Why, Mac? Why don’t you want to take a bath?” “Because Auntie Harper lets me take showers.” She pointed behind Kennedy to the shower enclosure. Mac’s crinkly, bushy hair almost reached the middle of her back. Kennedy grabbed a banana clip from the sink and pinned the wildness to her daughter’s head. Mackenzie swatted at her mother’s hands. “We agreed no more showers at Harper’s, missy.” Mackenzie pouted. Kennedy walked her over to the tub and rolled her undies down. She set her in the tub. The phone rang and Kennedy’s head shot up. Phil would be telling her he expected to work all night again, all the more reason not to bother answering. Besides, she couldn’t leave Mac. Even if nothing dangerous happened, by the time Kennedy got back, there would be more water on the outside of the tub than the inside. She decided to let it go to voicemail. “Okay…stand up,” Kennedy said. She rolled up her sleeves and got down to the business of scrubbing and rinsing Mac’s little body. Mackenzie talked a mile a minute. Kennedy’s mind drifted to unpaid bills and work obligations. Before she knew it, her daughter began to stomp in the tub, sending water everywhere. “Mac! Enough, baby!” she cried, shaking her head and laughing with her. *** Liam handed the satellite phone back to Eric. “She didn’t answer.”

“Well, it’s best you see her in person anyway.” “Right,” Liam mumbled. “Hey, bro, I know what you’re going through.” Liam cut his friend a look. He saw Eric drop his shaved head in shame. “What I mean is, I know how you and Kennedy felt about each other. Fuck, I might lose a bar my outburst in there. Alexa is full of shit. Kennedy never gave up on you. She didn’t, brother. Go home and get your family. You didn’t survive hell to give up now.” “How could she marry him? Were they fucking around behind my back?” “You know Kennedy better than that.” “Correction, I knew her. The woman I loved wouldn’t do this. If I’d lost her or believed she was dead, I’d never fucking replace her.” Eric pressed his lips together, unable to counter his argument. Liam might be a dick on many counts, but when it came to his woman he was one hundred percent. No man or woman who knew him questioned his love and devotion for Kennedy. Eric’s silence spurred Liam on. “Four years or four minutes, it doesn’t matter. She spread her legs for him. When I think of Phil touching her, I want to kill them both. Fuck it. Fuck it.” “Word of advice,” Eric said. “I sincerely hope you are not going home to her with that attitude. Trust me, the lady needs you to return solid in your love for her, and Mac. I’ve seen her and Phil and he won’t give up without a fight.” Liam laughed. It came out dry and angry. “Oh, he wants to fight me for my wife, for my kid. Yeah, I want to see this.” Eric shook his head “None of this is anyone’s fault, least of all yours. Stop punishing yourself and don’t punish her. It’s Kennedy, man. You know she loved you more than life.” Liam rose up on his elbows. “Loved. She loved me. Looks like she got over it.” Eric squared his shoulders. “I’ll let you get some rest.” Silently, Liam watched him go. He dropped back on his pillow and let go of the tears he wouldn’t shed in front of them. “Kennedy, why?” he moaned, gripping the sheets. “Before sunrise…. It was our bargain. How could you forget me?” *** Kennedy walked into her bedroom, drying herself. She was soaked. Phil said she should wear a swimsuit to bathe Mac. She had to agree. Mackenzie followed behind with her towel around her shoulders like a cape, making a case for another after-dinner snack. Kennedy half-listened. She remembered the missed call and picked up the phone. US DOD 1 888 334 2045

Kennedy frowned down at the number. Had Eric called, or God forbid, Alexa? Well, they weren’t calling her: they were calling Phil, she supposed. Still, she stared down at the number and felt her pulse race. It felt strange. “Who is it, Mommy?” “No one, baby. Let’s get you dressed and yes, you can have a cup of applesauce. Then it’s lights out. Deal?” “Deal!” Mackenzie grinned.

Chapter Five Liam absorbed every detail of the city during their approach. So far, his return had been both surreal and a disappointment. Matchbox-shaped houses with racecar-track roads wound between them. After years of darkness, he found himself marveling over the simplest things. The Army-issued transport bounced lower and lower through the clouds, doing absolutely nothing to dispel his unease. He didn’t so much mind the takeoffs, but he’d always preferred parachuting back to earth. It kept him in complete control of his landing. Liam had worked hard to prepare. His nights were spent on the floor doing pushups and sit-ups until his limbs shook hard enough to force him to stop. Most days he roamed the ship, re-learning the rhythm of walking. He’d gotten to the point where he could stand and cross the room without seeking support. He’d put on a couple of pounds, too. He felt stronger physically, though maybe not so much mentally. He’d gotten a clean shave and though she liked his hair longer, an even, short haircut. He wanted her to see him at his very best. He planned to walk back into her life, not hobble. Liam had been forced to rely on a black, silver-tipped cane that Vasquez purchased for him after they arrived. Walter Reed Army Medical Center was the last stop. Another change in plans; he should have gone to the Navy hospital in Portsmouth, but at the last minute, they’d told him it would be a specialist in DC. Every ridiculous change seemed to bring him further away from home, and Kennedy. The psych doctors said the usual crap around PTSD and anxiety, but he called bullshit. One doctor said his rage issues would prove to be a problem if he wasn’t put on some intense medications. This caught him by surprise, considering he barely said two words to the jackass during the entire consultation. At Liam’s vehement insistence, phone calls were made. Alexa stepped in and to his surprise, they cut him loose. He’d been cleared to return to Fort Bragg. The plane jerked through landing and taxied far off from the usual hangar. The door slid open, allowing Liam to step cautiously out with the aid of his cane. He walked upright, forcing his leg to behave, and keeping his shoulders back and chest forward. A black Ford Expedition waited. The sergeant behind the wheel had been given orders to take them to group HQ first. Another goddamn delay. Liam swallowed down his resentment and got himself under control. *** “So why haven’t you returned my calls? First you send word that we must meet, and then you make me wait and never call.” “It was a matter of national security.” Alexa crossed her shapely legs. Phil glared at her. “Since when am I a security risk?”

“Since you were emotionally compromised,” she answered in a dry tone. He hated this bitch. Most people did within five minutes of meeting her. For her to be seated before him, all smug and coy, meant something big was about to come down. “What are we talking about?” “Ghost.” She shrugged. “Come again?” “Ghost of love past,” Alexa said, a dark, seductive smile playing over rose-colored lips. Phil had no idea what her riddles meant. Despite their long-established practice of working together in support of their mutual interests, he was two seconds from forgetting her rank. “Liam’s alive.” Phil stepped back. “Alive?” “Found him three months ago in an Afghan desert. He should be returning to Fayetteville sometime tomorrow.” “That’s—that’s a lie,” Phil stammered. “No, it’s the cold, hard truth. Remember the intelligence we received on Amir Sarkhir? We sent Vasquez and the team into the region. Turns out our little strike mission became a rescue and recovery. The infamous Liam Flanagan has been Amir’s POW for five years. He’s alive, Phil, and he knows you married his precious little Kennedy.” Phil blanched. “This makes no sense. His transport was shot down. You saw it yourself. Confirmed that he was blown out of the sky. You were so sure, all of you.” Alexa nodded. “And then he just up and walks out of the desert. Hey, we can’t explain how he survived. Every man around him died, but he survived. And he’s the same old Liam. With just her on his mind.” “She’s my wife.” Alexa let go a sharp peal of laughter that felt like ice cubes poured down his back. “You’re kidding, right? The moment he walks through the front door you’re divorced. Wait. Isn’t it annulled? I mean it’s not really a marriage. Oops, come to think of it, she can just cancel you without so much as a Dear John note.” “This is funny?” “Humor…irony…I can’t decide.” She shrugged. “Five years is a long time. Things have changed.” Alexa stared across at him. “Really? You sure? She was so obsessed with him, we thought we might have to commit her after he died. It took you four long years to get her down the aisle. My guess is she didn’t let you touch her until the wedding night. Probably still calls Liam’s name when you—” “You can be a nasty bitch.”

Alexa shrugged. “I’m a realist. He wants her and she wants him. Trust me, it’s like nothing’s changed. Never could figure what he sees in her. Can’t stand the spoiled brat.” “Don’t call her that!” Phil snapped. Alexa shot him a smirk. “Or what?” He turned away, fuming. “Thank you for the warning, but I’ll protect my family.” Alexa rose behind him with a snort. “And who’s going to protect you? Liam’s not too happy and his psych exams are borderline. All that pent-up anger and resentment. Liam needs someone to direct it to.” “Oh please, are you actually standing here telling me that the government is about to turn some shell-shocked POW loose on the streets? With the secrets in Liam’s head, just from Scorpion alone, he should be contained somewhere for years.” “Senator Clayton agrees, but we have to tread carefully.” Alexa sighed and for a minute he thought he saw sadness in her eyes. “He’s been through a lot, Phil. I can’t stand to see him suffer. He won’t give up, won’t let her go. He needs to see her. My only hope is that one look at your happy family, and the magic is gone. He’ll think of her as spoiled goods, so to speak. Then he’ll accept the situation, and be back on board with us.” “Wow, you do have a heart in the cold chest of yours.” Alexa situated her cover on her head. “Good luck, Phil. You’re going to need it.” Phil waited until she was well down the hall before he pounded his fist down on his desk in anger. He grabbed his keys and bolted for the door. *** Kennedy stole another glance at her husband’s profile. She smiled. Phil Freeman was amazing at times. He called her at work and told her that he’d been neglecting them both. He wanted her to pick up Mackenzie from school and meet him at home right away. He put up such a fuss she made up some lame excuse to her bosses and did as he asked. At eleven in the morning he whisked them off to the State Fair. It turned out that during the work day, most of the rides along the midway were empty. They had the run of the grounds. Mackenzie nearly burst with excitement. She laughed, skipping and giggling her way from attraction to attraction. Kennedy was always thrilled to see her daughter happy. She lived for one person now. Her daughter. That’s how Phil had won her over. She could have gone her entire life and not taken another man into her bed, much less her heart. But his connection with Mackenzie sealed the deal. She and Mackenzie rode every age-appropriate ride . The Ferris wheel, they rode twice. Gorging on junk food came next. Phil took his turn, helping Mac win as many stuffed animals she could carry. “Mommy, I want ice cream,” Mackenzie said from her booster seat, swinging her

Dora-the-Explorer-clad feet. Kennedy shot Phil a pleading look not to give in. He smirked, and steered the car out of the fairgrounds. They began the half-hour drive back home. “Mac you’ve had popcorn, cotton candy, and french fries. Don’t you think that’s enough?” “No.” Phil’s smile broadened. “Hey, she gave you an honest answer.” “Well, here’s another honest answer. No, there will be no ice cream.” “Aww!” Phil reached for Kennedy’s knee. His hand eased smoothly up her thigh, then went higher, between, to cup her intimately. Kennedy, caught off guard, scooted back in her seat. Phil then rubbed her there. She blinked at him for the message behind his touch. He gave her one of his famous looks that clued her in to what the night would bring. She reached between her legs and removed his hand from her crotch. “Have you been to the doctor?” Phil asked. Kennedy nodded. “I’m not pregnant yet, Phil. It’ll happen.” When he didn’t speak, Kennedy noticed the worry lines wrinkling his brow. She felt bad for rejecting his touch. He was such a good husband, and to be honest, other than sex he didn’t ask for much. “I’m fine. The doctor says it takes a while sometimes for your body to adjust after the Pill.” “Why did you stay on them so long?” “Cramps. I told you.” “I just think that if you had agreed to starting a family sooner, we’d have a baby by now.” “Where’s this coming from?” Kennedy asked. “Me wanting to start a family with you, and you doing everything to prevent it.” “Are you serious?” Phil switched lanes, taking the far left so he could accelerate past several slowmoving cars. He knew how she hated when he drove past the speed limit, especially when Mackenzie traveled with them. He did it to piss her off. He was actually angry at her. “You can’t seriously think I’m not pregnant on purpose? I wouldn’t lie to you or manipulate you. I’m in this with you, and I want this baby. Hey, look at me.” He did, and then returned his eyes to the road. “I love you, Phil. We’re a family. It’ll happen, okay?” “Tonight. Let’s make it happen tonight,” he said. Kennedy laughed lightly. “Well, okay, we can try.” He smirked. “All night?” She rolled her eyes. “Yes, all night.”

Mackenzie, all ears, couldn’t contain her giggles. “We’re going to have a baby!” “We’re going to try,” Kennedy corrected. *** Liam climbed back into the Expedition, disappointed. It took a lot of courage— and restraint—to walk up to the door and knock, not kick it in. Vasquez made some calls to locate Kennedy. He learned that Phil had taken his family out for a mid-afternoon adventure and shared that information with Liam, who didn’t speak. He just sat there in silence. His eyes never left the Freeman home. Their two-story English-style house with the black and white shutters and emerald green, perfectly mowed grass was a big improvement from the rundown two-bedroom shack he’d bought her. He remembered how excited she’d been when he got the loan for their house. Let Kennedy tell it, it had been a castle. “Fuck. Let’s just go.” “Wait a second bro, check it out.” A platinum Mercedes sedan pulled into the driveway. Liam sat up and held his breath. The passenger door opened and his lady stepped out. She wore dark designer sunglasses over her eyes and a white tennis shirt under a leather jacket. The thick hair he loved to bury his face in was straight and long. She wore it back in a ponytail. He put his hand on the door, flexing to open it when Phil emerged. The bastard hurried around the car and reached into the back seat for someone. For his daughter. Liam let go of the handle. Mackenzie was lifted up in Phil’s arms. Her locks blew in the wind. She wore bright yellow all over, except for black Converse sneakers. So his little girl liked yellow, huh? Kennedy walked off toward the front door. She was still beautiful to Liam. His eyes went over her shapely figure, the soft sway of her hips. When she opened the door and Phil appeared behind her, he popped her fanny and went inside. “That motherfucker is dead!” Liam threw his door open. “Liam wait. Wait!” Vasquez grabbed his arm and managed to prevent his exit from the vehicle. “Do you want to go to the door now? Do you want to get into it like this?” The door to the Freeman home closed. Liam sat back in his seat. He closed his door in defeat. “You saw her, man. She’s happy. Hell, even I can see it.” “She doesn’t know yet, Liam. Judge her after she knows, okay?” “Let’s go,” he said under his breath. “You sure?” “Fuck, just drive away, okay? I need a minute. I can’t do this now,” he snapped. Liam’s heart didn’t just race; it beat madly in his chest, threatening to break through. He

closed his eyes and sucked down the strong urge to charge in and wring the neck of the man who had stolen his life. The enemy wasn’t Amir Sarkhir. The enemy had become Phil Freeman. “We’ll head to my house.” Liam opened his eyes. “Did you tell Angelina about me?” “No. Angelina couldn’t sit on something like this. You know her, man. So just know you got a day tops and your secret is out whether you come back here or not. You understand?” Vasquez asked. “Yeah, okay. I will, but Eric was right. I got to do this right. I can’t go running in there like some madman. Scare my kid. Scare Kennedy. No, I have to…I have to do this right.” *** Kennedy walked to her bedroom, blowing out a long breath. Phil stepped inside Mackenzie’s room and put her down. She heard Phil approaching from the other end of the hall soon after. Kennedy was tired. The day had been an exhausting one. She wanted a shower first. Yes, that’s what she needed: a long, hot shower. Removing her sunglasses, she pulled her shirt over her head. She began to unbuckle her pants as Phil hurried to close the door. She looked up. He stood there, staring at her. “Why are you looking at me like that?” “Do you know how much I love you?” She went to her closet to get her robe but he stopped her. He took her hands in his and stared down at her breasts as he spoke. “Do you?” “Yes, Phil. You tell me every day.” “Sometimes I feel guilty.” Kennedy frowned. “Why?” “Because of how…how we came together. I mean, I could have never predicted this future.” Kennedy had to look away. She immediately grew uncomfortable. She didn’t want to be, but any mention of Liam always cooled any desire she had for Phil. “It’s okay, babe. Life takes people down strange paths. But, um, let’s not go there.” “Exactly. I want to make love to you.” He changed gears in a flash. He captured her face between his palms. “Then I want to fuck you, and make love you to all over again.” Before she could respond, his mouth covered hers. He turned her to the bed. He was on her in a hurry. Making love with Phil always seemed rushed, as if he felt he had to touch and get inside of every part of her, as if he’d never get enough. She lifted her arms to his neck and let him walk her back to the bed while sharing his kiss. He was her husband, after all.

*** Angelina called her sons inside from their jungle gym in the backyard. Her boys wore distinctive colors to tell them apart. Joey wore red. Joshua, blue. “Upstairs, now,” she said, exhausted to the point of tears. She wasn’t this big when she carried the twins. Anthony joked that this time it must be a girl. Angelina didn’t care. Three was her limit. She wouldn’t ever consider going through this again. “Why we got to go upstairs, mama?” “Daddy called. He’s on his way. Get cleaned up.” “Yay!” the boys sang, racing for the stairs. Closing the sliding door, she smiled at the thunderous sound of their little feet thumping up and over her head. Her hubby hadn’t been home in four months. Four long, torturous months of nights without her man. She needed him now. Humming to herself, she picked up two handfuls of Legos and a Tonka truck on the way to the kitchen to check on the roast. She thought of maybe calling Kennedy to finalize the plans for Mackenzie’s Christmas-birthday party. She’d found a great company that would actually send a clown out on Christmas Day. But it could wait a day. She decided to get ready for her man’s arrival instead. *** Liam was the first out of the truck. The sight of Kennedy and her new family haunted him. His anger and disappointment weighed heavily in his gut. He had half a mind to turn on his cane and put an end to his misery right then and there. But he didn’t trust himself anymore. The darkness in his head kept fanning the flames of his anger. Vasquez skirted around Liam and got to the door first. He unlocked it and stepped through, with Liam following. The warm smell of a home-cooked meal filled the air. Liam inhaled deeply. He came all the way in, dragging his leg behind him. His coordination always grew worse when he exhausted himself. “Baby!” Angelina shouted from the kitchen. “Daddy!” Vasquez’s sons bolted down the stairs. Liam observed it all from the door. It felt good to watch his best friend reunite with his family. The boys were tall for their age and identical. Liam had to smile to himself at what little men they’d turned out to be. Vasquez lifted his sons in his arms as they pelted him with questions. “All right, all right, boys,” Angelina said, coming out of the kitchen. She wiped her hands against her apron. “Give Daddy a—” She stopped, froze, and screamed.

Liam met Angelina’s stare. She hadn’t changed much. She was as radiant and spicy as he remembered, except for her huge middle section. Vasquez hadn’t told him he would be a father again. Or had he? His head was such a fog lately, he barely held onto facts. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” Angelina gasped. Putting a hand to her belly, she stumbled back and knocked a fern from the hall table with a loud crash. Vasquez quickly lowered his sons to the slate floor and went for his wife. He steadied her on her feet, and then helped her into the nearest chair. “Hi, Angelina,” Liam said softly. “Good to see you again.” Liam stepped forward on his cane. The twins stared up at him, confused. “No. You can’t be…oh, sweet merciful God. Tony? What…who?” she cried. “Calm down, sweetheart.” Angelina shot her husband an incredulous look. “Is he real? Is this real?” “Afraid so.” Liam said. Angelina’s sobs broke from her in a strange rush of tears and of laughter. Borderline hysterical, she grabbed her husband for strength and rose from the chair. Her sons were overwhelmed by their mother’s response. Each went to her, trying to touch and comfort her. “This can’t be happening. Thank you, God. Thank you,” she moaned. She rose despite her family’s attempt to hold her back, and stepped straight into Liam’s arms. “Liam…oh my God…Liam, it is you. It’s you!” Liam held her. He dropped his cane to hold her tight. She buried her face into his chest and laughed and laughed. She couldn’t stop laughing. “Angelina, you have to calm down,” Vasquez said. She released Liam and hugged her husband. “You found him. I can’t believe it, but you found him.” She lifted her head from Vasquez’s shoulder. “We thought you were dead…we all thought we lost you, Liam…oh my God…oh thank you, God!” She began to weep in earnest. Vasquez knelt down to his boys. He ran his hands back through their curly ’fros. “I need to talk to Mommy for a minute. Will you go upstairs and play for ten minutes, and then I’ll come get you for your turn?” They stared doubtfully at Liam for a long moment, then nodded solemnly to their father. “Okay,” they said in unison. The usually boisterous twins were quiet as they walked off for the stairs. Angelina looked from Liam to her husband, her hand to her chest. She was still panting with excitement. “How long have you known, Tony?” “Let me explain,” Vasquez began. Angelina’s eyes went wide. “Oh no…Kennedy.” Her hand went up and covered

her mouth. She turned her gaze back to Liam. “Have you seen her?” “From a distance…I didn’t approach her yet.” Liam didn’t hide the bitterness in his voice. “This can’t be happening. This will kill her.” “I guess my return home isn’t something Kennedy will be too excited over.” “What? No. I didn’t mean it that way. Liam! Are you kidding? You have to see her, right now.” “She’s with her husband. I bet she’s fine.” With difficulty, he knelt to pick up his cane. He shuffled around them to the sofa. Angelina began to talk fast in Spanish, her voice elevated. She marched over in a huff. Then she wheeled on Liam again. “Kennedy is still in mourning.” Liam scoffed. “It’s true. Some wounds don’t heal.” “She has another man in her bed, so I’m sure she’s found a way to cope.” “Sweet merciful God, this is a mess. And you, why didn’t you at least tell me?” she demanded of her husband. Vasquez removed his dress jacket and hung it over the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. He stared straight ahead at the wall. “You know I couldn’t.” “Huh? This is Liam and Kennedy! Our closest friends. What do you mean you couldn’t? You think I would put it on the six o’clock news?” “Calm down, Angelina. In your condition—” “How long have you known?” Vasquez looked over at Liam. “Almost three months.” “Three months?” Angelina shouted. “In my condition, you’re lucky I don’t kick both your asses!” “Angelina…I was sick when they found me. It took some time for me to get well.” Liam tried to give his friend some bargaining room. This homecoming and his presence would cause his boy nothing but aggravation. He should have gotten a hotel room. Angelina stepped before Liam and glared at him sideways. He found himself relieved that her big belly kept her from getting right in his face. She crossed her arms and tried to speak calmly. “Every minute of every day that my best friend believed you to be dead, a piece her has died. I’ve watched her mourn you over and over again, to the brink of insanity. I’ve tried to help her be strong. But nothing did. The only reason she is able to move on is because of Mackenzie. I don’t give a damn what you think you saw or what you were told, I know her. I know how much she loves you. You should have called. Someone should have called!”

“I lost her, Angie. She married Phil, of all people.” Angelina frowned. “She loves you…trust me on this.” “Then how could she marry him?” he snapped. “Are you kidding me?” Vasquez stepped over to his wife, taking her arm gently. “Angie, please…this is tough on everyone.” “Kennedy needs to be told now! Right now, damn it. You two were wrong to keep this from her.” “NO,” Liam commanded in a calm tone. “I’ll tell her in my way. Make no mistake, she’s my wife. I haven’t forgotten that fact, even if she has. I will get my family back. But I need to do this the right way. You won’t call her in the middle of the night to tell her that her dead husband is in your living room. Do you understand me?” Before Angelina could speak, the doorbell rang. All three heads jerked up at once. Liam struggled but managed to scuttle out of view of the sidelight windows. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m here. Not yet.” “I won’t keep this from her. Not after shouldering the guilt of making her give up on you. I won’t do it, Liam.” He started up the stairs. Vasquez quietly told him there was a spare guest room next to the one the twins occupied. As he turned the corner into the upstairs hallway, he heard the door open below. “What the hell are you doing here?” Angelina demanded. “Hello, Angelina. Good to see you again,” came the voice of Alexa Sinclair. *** Kennedy lay on Phil’s sweaty chest, listening to his beating heart. Naked, tired, she had done her very best to make her husband feel secure. Because deep down inside, she knew the real reason for the unexplained trip to the fair and the bedroom workout. He only let her escape to feed and bathe Mackenzie. As soon as her little girl was asleep, he had her cornered in the shower, feasting on her breasts, and making love to her up against the shower wall. “I think tonight is a fresh start for us,” Phil whispered, running his lips feather-light over her forehead. He squeezed her and she resisted the urge to cry. She smiled and lay wrapped in his arms. After several long minutes, his hold on her went soft and a light snore escaped from his mouth. Kennedy lifted gently from him. She moved over and rolled onto her side. Alone with her thoughts and his seed sticky between her thighs, she stared at the drapes and the soft moonglow beyond. In that moment she had to admit to herself the truth. Liam would always be the love of her life, and no matter what time did to her heart, that feeling

would never change. Kennedy drifted to sleep on the memory of their first meeting. July 24th 2004 “Sierra, who is he?” Kennedy whispered. Both girls leaned back on the railing of the fire escape. The honking sounds of car horns and screeching tires of the traffic drifted up. “Who’s who?” “Him.” Kennedy nodded over in the direction of the three guys lingering. One was Chauncey White. He was about nineteen, a tall, thin black guy with lips Sierra loved to suck on. He’d been recruited to start for the University of Miami; the party had been thrown in his honor. The other guy next to him was Heath McBride. Heath was older. Kennedy thought him to be somewhere in his mid-twenties, a white guy she knew little about, with freckles that covered his face and a never-ending supply of marijuana. Kennedy avoided him, mostly. Heath always arrived at the gatherings she went to, delivering party favors. “Oh, you’re talking about Liam. He’s Heath’s cousin from Chicago. Heard he’s staying with him now.” “He’s a drug dealer,” Kennedy said, disappointed. Sierra laughed. “I don’t think so. Maybe. He is kind of hot.” Liam cut his eyes their way. Kennedy immediately dropped her stare. “He’s looking over here, isn’t he?” she whispered. “Aww. Kennedy, you got a crush already? Girl, you a mess.” “Stop teasing me. Is he looking over here?” Sierra sucked her tongue. It was pierced with a small, shiny silver ball that usually made all the boys stop in their tracks. “No, he isn’t looking over here, silly.” Kennedy sighed. “Good.” “He’s walking over here.” “Huh? What?” “W’sup, ladies?” Liam stepped between them. Kennedy wanted to die. She looked up into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. She never approached boys, and despite Sierra’s worldly influence, remained so inexperienced she didn’t even know what her type was, if she had one. But one look into Liam’s sparkling eyes and she knew he could definitely be the one for her. “Hey,” said Sierra. Kennedy watched as she gave Liam a warm smile along with her patented back-

arching, rack-lifting move. “You girls from around here?” “Nah. Connecticut.” Liam frowned. “Really. Rich kids.” “Not everyone in Connecticut is rich.” Sierra rolled her eyes. “True, but I can tell by the diamonds in your ears and the way you’re dressed, you from that scene.” Kennedy wanted to join the conversation. She opened her mouth but no words came out. Then, to her horror, Sierra made her move, the one where she heaved her C cups right up in a guy’s face and talked with her tongue, exaggeratedly slow, so she could show off her piercing. Sierra Schoenstein was Jewish with olive skin, flowing dark brown hair and the body of a runway model. Both their dads were investment bankers at the same firm. They’d grown up together. Even though Sierra was two years her senior, she was by far Kennedy’s best friend. “So what you drinking?” Sierra eased up against Liam so the side of her breasts rubbed against his bicep. Liam sipped from his red plastic cup, his eyes trained on the silver ball in Sierra’s mouth. Kennedy couldn’t be more crushed. It had been rare to find a guy she liked, and even more rare she’d given thought to how to make him hers. Now she stood in her friend’s shadow once again. Besides, he’s probably not even into black girls. She’d met a few boys who weren’t and it didn’t bother her. She didn’t like ignorance or tolerate prejudice in her life. Her father taught her to see people for who they were, and weren’t. Not able to stomach the show, she tried to step around. Liam’s hand shot out and drew her back. Kennedy blinked up at him, surprised. Later, she’d remember the heat in his touch. “You still haven’t told me your name.” “Um, Kennedy.” “Cool, but you’re too pretty to be a Kennedy. I think I’m going to call you Kay.” If she were fair-skinned, she’d have turned scarlet red. Instead, she grinned stupidly up at him, unable to look away. He sipped from his cup and then winked at her. “You girls have fun,” he said, then sauntered off. “Oh my GOD!” Kennedy exhaled. She’d been reduced to a fit of giggles. Sierra chuckled and shook her head. “I think he liked you, Kay,” she teased. “He is so cute. Look at his butt.” They both tried to, but he disappeared into the pack of gyrating bodies dancing to the house music. “He’s going to be my boyfriend.” Kennedy grinned.

“Huh? He isn’t in high school. He’s probably twenty-two or three, and I hear he’s got a temper. Remember that kid Bryan? The one that goes to Gaylor?” “Yeah.” “Heard he beat him up pretty bad over something trifling. I can’t remember, but I think it was over a pack of cigarettes.” “Really?” “Yeah, remember our rule? We sneak out to have fun, but we just look, never touch. Besides, you can do better than that loser,” Sierra huffed. Kennedy ignored her. The just-looking rule seemed only to apply to Kennedy. Sierra touched anyone she wanted, as many times as she wanted in a night. She was overly protective, as most everyone in Kennedy’s life was. Besides, in Liam’s case, Kennedy suspected Sierra had grown salty because he’d turned down her flirt, especially since it was the first time anyone in this crew did. Kennedy lifted on her toes to look for him. But he was gone. Kennedy smiled to herself. She’d see him again soon. She’d find a way. *** Angelina blocked Alexa’s entrance. “I asked you a question.” “Right. I see.” Alexa stepped back from the door and cleared her throat dramatically. “Good evening Mrs. Vasquez. I’m-so-sorry-to-bother-you-at-this-late-hourI’m-here-on-official-business-with-the-major-is-he-available?” Vasquez hustled to the door and rested his hands on his wife’s shoulders. “Hi, Alex. What are you doing here?” Angelina, obviously annoyed with her husband, shook off his touch. “Let me guess. You’re here to see Liam,” Angelina snipped. “Sweetheart, please.” Vasquez pulled her back inside. Angelina whirled on her husband. “I want her out of here. And unless you want the fight of your life tonight, you’ll make it happen quick.” She stormed aside, hand to her belly. Alexa sneered. “I see your wife is as charming as ever.” “It’s not a good time, Alex. Liam already went upstairs.” “This isn’t a social call. Can I please come in?” Vasquez sighed, weighing his options. Angelina paced the floor behind him. He stepped aside. She shot her husband a withering glare when he allowed Alexa to walk inside, then turned and marched off to the kitchen. Alexa looked up to the stairs. “Can you get him to come down?”

“No. He’s wiped.” “So I take it the reunion didn’t go well.” Vasquez shook his head. “He hasn’t seen her yet. Tomorrow, maybe.” “Well he needs to see her soon. Senator Clayton is making a big stink over his release. You know his concerns. Liam could be a security risk.” “Not possible. You and I both know this, Alexa.” She shrugged. “Maybe not. But there’s more. Sarkhir knows he’s alive.” “How?” Vasquez said. “We’ve gotten intelligence. So far it points to an active a cell in West Virginia. It may not mean anything. It may mean everything. Clayton thinks we needs to contain Liam, and I think the vice president agrees.” “Fuck. My boy has been through enough.” Vasquez rubbed the back of his head. “Exactly. We have to think of the men and women out there now with their lives on the line. Liam is too important. They want me to bring him back in. Weeks. A few months, tops, and then he can go public.” Vasquez stepped to Alexa and lowered his voice. “Delay it.” “Huh? I can’t.” “You and I both know you can. Use someone else. The man has lost five years of his life. He hasn’t even met his daughter. You get the administration off his back. I’ll keep him here. Trust me, between us, we can contain this together.” “That’s not a good idea.” “You owe him your life. We both do. He’s in a lot of pain, Alex, and you can do something about it. Delay it. Give him a chance to heal his family, for fuck’s sake.” She looked up at the stairs. Alexa sighed. Vasquez hoped she would turn and walk out. Do something selfless, act the way she had when they’d all first met. “He has two weeks. I can give him until Christmas. Then he’s coming in. Sorry, Ant, but I love him too, and I won’t let the senator or any desert rat-bastard terrorist get a second chance at him.” She spun on her heel and left. Vasquez closed and locked the door. He could feel his wife’s heated glare warm his back. He turned and found her closer than he’d expected. “First thing tomorrow you take him to see Kennedy. First thing, Anthony, or I will tell her myself, so help me God.” “Okay.” “Okay what?” “You’re right. They need to see each other. Tomorrow, first thing. Now damn, Angelina, I’ve missed you, missed our kids. Can I get a little peace? It’s been hell these past months keeping this to myself.“

She nodded, tears welling in her eyes. She went to his arms and hugged him. At the top of the stairs, Liam listened to the entire exchange. And even though Alexa and his boy had spoken in heated whispers, he heard enough to know that Sarkhir would use his family against him if he had to. Liam would have to get to Kennedy and protect them. So tomorrow was the day. After years of dreaming the moment, it would be reality. He’d see her again. Turning on his cane, he limped as quietly as he could to the guest room.

Chapter Six Liam lay flat on his back. His left arm was pinned behind his head; the sheets were a tangled twist around his waist. He still found it strange to sleep in a bed. So he didn’t sleep at all. The room they offered him was next door to the twins’. Liam had a chance to talk to the boys before they turned in. They questioned him about who he was and why he’d made their mommy cry. Before he knew it, Ant appeared beside him. He nodded for Liam to tell. He confessed and told them that he was Mackenzie’s father. He smirked to think that Sarkhir and his men could learn a thing or two about interrogation from these tykes. The Vasquez boys’ response to his resurrection was immediate. Mackenzie had always called him a hero but they’d never believed it. They did now. This revelation shocked and calmed his fears in a way he couldn’t put into words. So his little girl had mentioned him? Kennedy hadn’t erased him from their child’s life. He should have known better than to think she would. But the relief he carried was shortlived. It only pained him more to know he’d missed so much of his little girl’s growth. How would he ever make up for his absence? Liam adjusted to the quiet of the Vasquez house. He heard Angelina and his friend arguing. Vasquez’s voice rose above hers and then there was quiet. Damn, he missed the days when he and Kennedy would spar and then she’d let him think he won. He’d give anything to fight with her now. Then again, maybe not. Their reunion would certainly be painful. Far too painful to look forward to. Liam focused on the splotchy patterns in the speckled ceiling until his vision blurred. The meal Angelina had brought to his room—pot roast, potatoes, and creamed corn with fresh rolls—remained on the dinner tray untouched, though he knew she’d give him hell for it in the morning. He’d spent the remainder of the night thinking, and the more thinking he did, the more desperate and alone he felt. Desperation always dredged up memories he hated. Every one of them got compared with the day he’d felt the most desperate, the day his little sister had died. He’d fled the hospital when the machines were turned off. He had to escape the wails of agony from his mother and the flat stare of his disinterested stepfather. He’d driven aimlessly around the streets of Chicago in a daze. He’d gone home, stumbled to her room, and spent the remainder of the day lying in his kid sister’s bed, thinking of the hopelessness in a world where a five-year-old girl could suffer the way she had. He thought of all the things his baby sister would never do, see, be. He thought of time, and how it seemed more a punishment than a gift. Everything born would die. Why love or put your faith in another, when fate was so random? It was his earliest, most closely-held truth, and it had become true again with his love for Kennedy. He should have known that even their love could be fleeting. He should have known that every mission was a chance he’d never see her again. But he’d been too arrogant and pumped up on his cause to treasure time.

Liam had made mistakes with Kennedy. From the start, he’d fucked up. She had been a kid when she’d trailed him around party to party in her silly attempts to get his attention, constantly finding reasons to be in his space. Kennedy’s mother was right when she said he wasn’t worthy, that he’d only break her heart. But Kay was so certain they were destiny, and he was so desperate for the kind of love she offered. Pure, as unconditional as you could get. And even as he told himself they were not going to happen, he’d become desperate to be worthy of Kennedy’s love, just as he had been desperate to hold on to the little sister he couldn’t keep from slipping away. On the day of his sister’s death, before his mother returned from the hospital with the abusive bastard she’d married, Liam packed his meager belongings and took the keys to their spare Toyota Corolla. He drove out of Chicago with two hundred eleven dollars in his pocket, headed for New Jersey and his cousin Heath. Running had been good, and his parents gave more of a shit about the missing car than they had about him. Now, who’d care if he walked away? Would Kennedy? He wasn’t her hero anymore. He’d returned broken, crippled, angry, desperate, and confused. Half a man at best. His little girl would be disappointed to know that heroes didn’t exist. Fuck running. He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a fucking coward. Kennedy had been his anchor. She kept him from drowning, gave him a purpose. He’d been a better man for loving her. She’d given up, but that didn’t mean he should. How could he, when she truly was his one and only love? *** Kennedy awoke with a gasp. She’d been dreaming of Liam again. More specifically, she’d been dreaming of sex with Liam, which filled her with a sense of safety, of warmth, as well as unyielding guilt. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to think of him; she just didn’t want to do it while lying next to Phil, and definitely not after they’d made love. Screwed. Whatever. She peeled back the comforter and slipped stealthily from the bed. Phil groaned but didn’t wake, which was just as well. She didn’t feel like talking. Turning for the bathroom, she caught a glimpse of Phil as he rolled to his back, asleep with both his legs and his mouth wide open. Kennedy bit her lip, then grabbed her robe and slippers and tiptoed out into the hallway and down the stairs to the den. There, she curled into her favorite chair. It was a plush recliner, the first item of real furniture she and Liam had. They’d bought it together at Montgomery Ward. She’d never loved the color, but it had been on sale, and they’d spent many a night squeezed together in its depths while they watched a late-night movie until they fell asleep. Kennedy had sense enough not to tell Phil the chair’s origins, only that it would always be her favorite piece of furniture. For that reason alone, he tolerated it. Kennedy tucked her feet underneath her and pulled the lavender chenille throw up over her breasts. She leaned back and let out a slow breath, remembering a stolen summer night on the beach in Montauk, at the very eastern end of Long Island, and closed her

eyes. *** August 9th, 1994 “So what do you plan to do? Sit here and stare at him, or say something?” “Quiet. He might hear you.” Kennedy elbowed her friend. “Ouch!” Sierra squealed. The flashing flames from a beach bonfire separated her and Sierra from the others, particularly Liam. The scene had been mostly kids too old for high school but too young and rich to care about their futures. Notorious Big’s hit song Big Poppa blasted from the sound system of a guy named Jeff’s supped up Nissan 300 and several girls were dry humping their guys. Kennedy had convinced her parents to allow her to take the last days of summer break with the Schoensteins in the Hamptons. She neglected to mention Mrs. Schoenstein had been so busy with the affairs of the season, she barely noticed the girls. And that meant freedom Kennedy was never afforded at home. The week had been fabulous. They’d frequented nightly beach parties in search of Liam. Last night, Kennedy actually got close enough to get Liam to talk. He called her a spoiled little rich girl and teased her mercilessly. Sierra later pointed out to her his words might have been blowing her off, but he glared down any guy that glanced her way when she stood next to him. Kennedy believed her. Everybody stepped aside when Liam walked through. He was big, but he wasn’t a bully. In fact, he didn’t talk or mingle much. People sort of drifted to him. Liam possessed this quiet presence about him. It commanded respect from others. Kennedy thought he couldn’t be more awesome. Beyond perfection. She had to have him, whatever that meant. In two more days she’d be headed back home. It was now or never, so she and Sierra devised a bulletproof plan. It started with Heath. Sierra flirted with Heath and dropped hints that Kennedy was nineteen and interested. Liam seemed to notice her a little more after that. He’d even spoken to her tonight when they first showed up. He’d also watched her, too, from across the fire. “Go on over there. Ask him if he wants to go for a walk,” Sierra urged. “Don’t rush me,” Kennedy said between clenched teeth. “Here, drink this.” Sierra thrust a red plastic cup at her. Without thinking, Kennedy accepted the drink. She gulped down the punch too fast and the bitter alcohol seared her throat. She began to gag and cough. Sierra laughed, and patted her shoulder blades. When she looked up past the flames of the fire she saw Liam watching her. He wore a sly smile, too. She was mortified. So she tried to be cool and drink the rest without incident. Wow, she hated

alcohol. Thankfully, the buzz she got had been instant. Her head swam a little and she giggled. Her mother would kill her if she knew. “He’s looking,” Sierra whispered, giving her another nudge. “I know,” Kennedy glanced up at him and when he didn’t look away, she smiled. “The time is now. Take the blanket and go ask him to go for a walk. Do it,” Sierra urged. Kennedy had confided in her friend that she wanted Liam to be the one. Sierra had chosen Chauncey to be her ‘one’ last spring break, so she definitely understood. From the moment Kennedy saw Liam, he had been all she could think about, talk about, dream about. So Sierra did some checking around. He didn’t sell drugs like Heath. He worked the shipping docks in Newark and just hung out with his cousin and the uptown crowd, since Heath was every preppy’s downtown drug connection. Sierra thought Heath used Liam as muscle to scare the other guys from trying to jack him or something. But the rumors of Liam fighting or punching out guys over cigarettes proved to be lies. None of it mattered much to Kennedy. She only had one question about Liam Flanagan she needed answered. And she soon learned the truth. Liam didn’t have a girlfriend. Kennedy picked up the rolled blanket and got to her feet. She’d chosen a yellow sweater over a white sundress for her first time. She liked the way it tightly fit her waist and draped off her hips. Sierra said from behind it swayed a little and flattered her bubblebutt booty. She added large silver hoop earrings and they swayed a bit when she walked. She’d washed her hair and let it air dry, then curled and teased it into a puff. Her mom hated when she wore her hair this way, calling it messy, but Sierra said it showed more of her face and looked hip. She hoped it made her look older. The truth was, she had only turned seventeen two weeks ago. Kennedy circled the fire. With each step, her feet sank into the sand, it slowed her approach. Only a few faces looked up. Liam’s didn’t. Swallowing her nervousness, she stepped behind him and glanced across at Sierra through the flames. Sierra nodded encouragingly. Kennedy did as they’d practiced. She dropped her voice to a low, seductive whisper in his ear. “Liam. Wanna go for a walk with me?” Kennedy held her breath and clutched the blanket. Liam stood. He took her hand and pulled her away. Kennedy looked back once to see Sierra’s wide grin. She wanted to wave, but played it cool. They walked down the beach, away from the others. The wind blew under the hem of her dress. Forceful gusts pushed the fabric up high on her thighs. There were too many clouds to see the stars or the moon. But Kennedy’s eyes adjusted quickly to the night. Liam didn’t speak at first and she was too nervous to think of a witty comment. When they were far enough away they couldn’t hear the music, Liam stopped. He looked to his left. A beach pavilion under a malfunctioning street lamp could be seen. Dark and vacant, it was adjacent to an empty parking lot. Liam then swung his gaze behind him, and

Kennedy’s eyes followed his. The distance proved far enough to reduce the bonfire to a speck of orange. “We can chill here, or up there. Your choice,” he said. “Here is fine,” she said softly. “Anywhere is fine with you.” She thought he frowned at her. But she couldn’t see much of his face in the shadows under his cap. He shook his head and took the blanket from her. He tried to spread it out over the sand but the wind kept lifting the tail end. So Kennedy dropped down to her knees to help. “Fuck it. Let’s go up there. This is too windy,” said Liam. “Okay.” Kennedy agreed readily. In the movies it would be different. In the movies, the moon would be full in the sky and the stars twinkling. The sexy hero would lay out the blanket as waves broke over the sand in a white, sudsy foam. In the movies, the guy would pull you down on the blanket and then shower you with kisses and profess his unending devotion before he made love to you under the stars. It would all be so serene and romantic. But it wasn’t quite so for her tonight. The wind blew cold, tiny grains of sand that stung her eyes and the salty aroma of the ocean burned her nostrils and throat. She sneezed. Liam grunted, and marched off. He walked ahead of her. He wasn’t holding her hand. Kennedy hurried to catch up to him. She kept looking up at him, wanting to say something, but everything she thought to say sounded dumb. They climbed the wooden steps and walked over the small bridge to the picnic pavilion. “So what’s up with you, rich girl? Why are you out here?” “Partying like you.” Liam chuckled. “You’re not partying. I’ve seen you. You don’t drink, you don’t smoke buddah, hell, you don’t even dance. Heath said you just recently started hitting the spots with Sierra. He said you were probably out here vacationing—” “You asked him about me?” Kennedy’s heart skipped a beat. “What is it? You hate your parents or something? Trying to piss them off?” “Huh?” Kennedy asked, confused. He stopped under the pavilion. The picnic table was clear of debris. He spread the beach blanket over it. She watched. Did she hate her parents? She loved her daddy. He was the best father and he treated her like gold. And her little sister Harper was a pain, but she loved her too. It was her mother she could never please. But she didn’t hate her. “No, I don’t hate my family.” Liam grabbed her by the waist and lifted her to the table. Kennedy couldn’t help but smile. He had such strong hands. He was so cute, too. She wished he didn’t have his blue baseball hat with the red C in the middle pulled down so far on his brow. She wished she could see his eyes. She scooted over and he sat on the table with her. They stared out

at the ocean. It was dark, and a little spooky, but Kennedy wasn’t afraid. “What are you thinking?” she asked. “About leaving,” he said, his voice somber and remote. Kennedy’s heart began to race. Was he serious? He’d just got there. Hell, it was only eight-thirty. “Why?” Liam just stared ahead. Kennedy had to think of something to say. Her plan wouldn’t work if she came off naive or inexperienced, which she was. “Where do you want to go tonight?” “Not talking about tonight. Just leaving period. And I don’t know yet. Just somewhere. Ever get the feeling that there’s something out there for you? Somewhere you belong?” “Yes,” she lied. She didn’t usually worry about any world other than the familiar, the world of her parents. But with Liam she could imagine anything. He cast her a look that said he didn’t believe her. “How old are you, rich girl? Heath says you’re nineteen, but you….” Liam looked her over. “You look younger.” “I am nineteen.” She lied again. “Are you in college?” Kennedy bit her bottom lip. She hadn’t thought the story through. What was she to say? She decided to go with the truth. “No.” “So what’s up, then? Why you keep sweating me?” Kennedy flinched. She frowned at him. He continued with that sly smirk on his face. She didn’t like the arrogant way he sounded. “You the one sweating me. I see you staring at me when I come around. Don’t front.” Liam laughed at her. She’d put a little sass in her urban speak but even to her own ears, it sounded as strange from her lips as Celine Dion trying to rap like Notorious B.I.G. “True,” he chuckled. “I think you’re hot. Not stuck up and slutty like most of these spoiled Hampton witches.” Kennedy smiled. So it wasn’t her imagination. He was checking her out, too. Sierra said she wasn’t sure, but Kennedy got this tingly feeling in her stomach whenever he was close. There was something in the way he stared. “I should have brought us some beer.” He returned his gaze to the ocean. “Wait, I forget you don’t drink.” “And you drink too much,” she blurted out. He laughed again. “True.” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” she asked. His face didn’t change but she felt him stiffen, pull away, even though he hadn’t

been touching her. He sat there for a beat, unmoving. Then he nodded. “I got a kid sister. Name is Mackenzie. We call her Mac. She’s…she’s gone.” “Gone?” “Dead.” “Oh.” “Right. Oh.” Kennedy kicked her feet out, back and forth. “Mackenzie. Aww, that’s pretty. I like that name. I’m sorry she’s gone.” “Mac was cool. Thought I was her hero. But I…she was wrong, there are no heroes. Just a lot of pretenders.” “Hero, hunh?” Kennedy found that sweet. Little sisters loved big brothers, she supposed. She wanted to ask more questions about this Mackenzie, but it changed him when he spoke of her. The tone of his voice sounded tight and bitter. “So you miss Chicago?” “Nah, wait. How do you know where I’m from?” he asked. He stared at her now. She liked that. She liked when his attention focused on her and not the sea. When he looked out to the sea he seemed sad. “I know all about you.” Again he laughed. Kennedy did too. She found the ease between them a bit surprising. All the rehearsed words of seduction that Sierra had pumped into her head slipped away. She figured she’d just do it her way. Still, Liam hadn’t touched her. To be truthful, she had envisioned their encounter all week. She’d practiced everything down to the details, how she would talk, how she would respond. Sierra had given her a condom, which she’d tucked away in her sweater pocket. Sierra had also told her it would hurt a little, but if she relaxed it would pass, and then she’d asked if Kennedy were sure she wanted Liam to be the guy. Kennedy squared her shoulders. A girl got to choose who was her first, and she chose him. He was cute, smart, tough, and he didn’t grope on her or say nasty things to her the few times she’d been close enough to strike up conversation. Now he just sat at her side, as if all he wanted to do was talk. “I like you,” she said. To this, he turned his head and fixed her with a hooded gaze. “Why? You barely know me.” “I told you I did. I know you’re from Chicago, and you stay with your cousin for now. I know you like beer and not that nasty punch everybody drinks and I know you don’t have a girlfriend.” “Right, princess, and those are qualities you like?” He was teasing her. She bit down on her bottom lip. She wasn’t sure of the comeback. She looked up and saw he waited for her to respond. “Yes. Those are qualities I like in a boy.”

Liam stood up. He stepped in between her legs and leaned into her, with his hands flat on the wooden table on either side of her hips. The brim of his cap bumped her forehead, but not in a hard way. “First, Kay, I’m not a boy. I’m a man. A twenty-two year old man.” “Okay.” “Second,” he paused. “I like you too.” “Really? I mean, um, cool. Why? Why do you like me?” “Because every time I look at you it makes me wonder.” “Wonder what?” She gulped. “If you’ve ever been kissed.” Kennedy’s eyes went wide. It was true. She’d never gotten to first base. The only freedom she ever had came when she hung out with Sierra, and it had usually been weekend trips. Besides, she hadn’t necessarily warmed up to the idea of kissing a guy until she’d seen Liam. The swapping of spit seemed a little overrated to her. “Can I kiss you, Kay?” His eyes could barely be seen under the shadow of his cap. Kennedy got that tingly feeling over her skin, but this time it was accompanied by a butterfly that seemed to be trapped within her chest. She felt wild flutters in her heart. “Yes, if you take off your hat,” she said, wanting to see his face. “Take it off for me,” he whispered. Kennedy removed his cap. She set it behind her. His hair was pressed down on his head. She touched the damp strands. Liam just stared into her eyes. She wasn’t afraid. Maybe she should be. She had built him up in her head to mythical proportions. Her first real crush, this was a guy she could see herself with. Her mom would flip out. Not only was he white, but he wasn’t country-club material, either. Maybe that’s what she liked about him. Her daddy had grown up in Brooklyn. He told her that he had been arrested as a kid, and that’s when he turned his life around. Though her mother had been born into privilege, her daddy had not. He’d become the handsome, rich and successful banker through hard work. Kennedy thought she saw some of her daddy in Liam. Her mind rambled over these things and more, as if to prepare herself mentally for what was to come next. After all, she had set this up. She was going to see it through. His face drew closer. Kennedy lowered her gaze. All she could see were his full lips and the thin mustache that reached the corners of his mouth. He had the mouth of a man, firm lips that seem to lift at the corners with a sly smile. That excited her. She remained perfectly still. Her eyes crossed when his lips softly brushed hers. That tender press became sweeter than anything Sierra’d ever described. Liam eased his tongue in and she parted her lips. The taste of his barley-laced breath and a hint of tobacco hit her first. His tongue moved around hers and she did the same to him. It was easy. Better than easy, it felt nice. She lifted her arms to his neck and tilted her head to an angle, which allowed her

to perfectly control the rhythm of their kiss. Other than that, Liam didn’t touch her. He kept his hands flat to the table. But the kiss went on and on. He flicked his tongue at the roof of her mouth. He swept it deep, then he drew it out to run over her lips. There were so many different ways to enjoy his kiss. She panted, struggling to breathe. Then he stopped. He licked his lips, and his gaze dropped to the front of her sundress. Her breasts weren’t uncovered but her nipples tightened from the way he stared. “I think I better take you back, Kay,” he said, but made no move to step away. “No. I don’t want to go back. I-I want to stay with you.” Liam glanced up at her, then looked out behind her. She almost turned to follow his stare when he glanced back over his shoulder. What was he searching for? He seemed relaxed when his eyes returned to hers. He wanted the same thing she did. Kennedy scooted back on the blanket that covered the wooden planks of the picnic table. She removed her sweater. She set it aside. Her sundress had spaghetti straps, and stopped barely mid-thigh, but she reclined. Liam came forward. His hand eased up the skirt of her dress, and Kennedy closed her eyes. Liam bent to kiss her exposed skin. She tried not to giggle. Lying down made the alcohol swirl in her veins, bubbling a flurry of thoughts to her head. She felt him tug at her panties and tensed. But she didn’t remove his hands. Opening her eyes, she saw him ease the yellow satin off her legs. Sierra had pounded into her head not to forget the condom. That no matter what happened, to make sure he used it. Kennedy sat up and reached for her sweater but it fell off the picnic table to the bench below. “I, um, we need protection,” she said, embarrassed. Liam paused, looking from her to her sweater. He sighed. “Relax. I’ll take care of it.” “No. I want you to use a condom. I mean, we have to.” “We will,” Liam assured her. He kissed her again and she did relax. Liam reached in his pocket and removed his wallet. She saw he, too, came prepared. Kennedy closed her eyes, kind of disappointed. If he carried condoms in his wallet, then that meant he did this with a lot of girls. The idea of him and another girl made her chest tight with anger. Her raw emotions were soon soothed when he kissed her, below. Kennedy’s eyes flashed open. She closed her thighs but he pushed them apart and licked her there. When he reached her clitoris, she shivered. Then he swirled his tongue in ways she never imagined, never could have imagined, until she felt the prickle, tingle, all of it build, and pull and stir pleasure that enveloped her. She squeezed her eyes shut, embarrassed, but the feeling grew intense, more persistent. She tried to push his head away. He grabbed her thighs. His hands were so strong. There would be no release from his hold. Kennedy thought to warn him, but she only grunted as her body went rigid and to her horror, she released. The starburst of sensation and warmth flooded her core and left her gasping in shock. She scrambled back, trying to recover. An orgasm! He’d actually

made her come…with his tongue. Sierra had neglected to mention this part. Kennedy’s thighs shook. She wanted to curl up and carry that feeling between her legs with her forever. But she heard him ripping the condom packet and imagined he already had his penis out. Before she could catch her breath, he was on her. He was so heavy that she pushed on his shoulders. Then his hips shifted and the thickness of his penis bumped at her, seeking depth. She stared at the roof of the pavilion with her eyes so wide they felt cold. This was it. They were going to make love. Liam licked her neck, then sucked the tiny diamond in her earlobe and she grabbed his shoulders. He thrust into her. “Wait!” she cried. “It—” It hurts, she screamed inside her head, unable to form the words. Liam lifted his head and looked at her, confused, more than a bit dazed. He pushed in a little more and she dug her long fingernails into his arm. “Kay, what is it?” She blinked away her tears. “Are you—are you a virgin?” Kennedy shook her head no. “Damn it, don’t lie. Are you?” She nodded yes, completely embarrassed. “Do you want to stop? Because I swear, Kay, I don’t think I can.” “No, Liam, I want you to do it. I want it.” He stared at her for a moment, as if in disbelief. He’d barely pushed in at all—even she knew that—and it burned something awful. But she rose up and kissed him to convince him to continue. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he groaned, coming down on her so their torsos were perfectly aligned. He thrust into her twice and she swore she felt like she was being ripped apart. But then his hard length breached her hymen and he was all the way in. “So good, Kay. Mmm, you feel so good. You’re so tight…fuck.” Kennedy laid there, waiting, listening to him take tense, shallow breaths. He started to move. It didn’t feel good at all. In fact, she was seconds from saying she’d changed her mind when he lifted his face and the shadows cleared. She could see his eyes. They were such a clear blue, like the sea under moonlight. He grabbed her arms in one hand and pinned them above her head. With the other hand, he reached up to caress her cheek. He began pumping in and out of her with swift, sure strokes. “Put your legs up around my waist, Kay.” She did as she was told and it helped, but not much. It hurts so bad. Kennedy stared into his eyes, focused on the way he looked at her. It couldn’t go on forever. And he really seemed to be enjoying it. “Damn, Kay. You’re good, so beautiful. Amazing,” he said between kisses.

Her hands were clutched into fists, her arms still tightly pinned down at the wrists. Her knuckles rubbed against the wood planks with each thrust. She stretched her fingers long, wondering if he planned to free her arms. He pumped harder and faster and she heard the table creak. He started talking so dirty in her ear, about her pussy being the best, the hottest, that she almost giggled. She would have if spasms of pleasure hadn’t begun to ripple through her, stealing her breath. Suddenly, he went stiff. He grunted hard and nipped her earlobe. Kennedy gasped beneath him, finding her own rhythm. Liam groaned and then shuddered. He started to beat his cock in and out of her with such fury tears clouded her vision and then it ended. He lay on her, breathing hard against her temple. Her arms were still stretched above her head. She waited and waited, until he pulled away. His withdrawal burned as much as his entry. Kennedy hoped the pain would subside quickly. She sat up and touched herself. When she brought her fingers up to the minimal light, she saw blood. “It’s normal, Kay. It um, gets better. I…um, you okay?” Liam panted. He tossed his rubber over to the trash, and then looked at her. His face crumpled in concern for her. Kennedy wondered what her face must look like. “Kay? Talk to me. Are you all right?” “Yes. It just…it burns.” “Why didn’t you tell me? Damn, I’m so stupid. How old are you for real? Jesus, please tell me you’re at least eighteen.” “I told you—” “Don’t lie to me!” His shouting scared her. Her eyes watered. She wanted to run back to Sierra and get the hell away from him. He’d fucked her and now he was hollering at her? Screw him. Asshole. She crossed her arms and glared. “Okay, I didn’t mean to yell. But be honest with me. Please. How old are you?” “I’m seventeen.” “Holy fuck!” he cursed. “I’m so fucking stupid.” “Liam, wait.” He turned from her with his hands to his head. Was he angry? She prayed he wasn’t. She was too scared and confused for him to be angry with her now. He walked over to her and touched her face, repeating his intimate gesture of just moments before. The raw beauty of his eyes took her breath away. “You shouldn’t have done this. We shouldn’t have. You understand? I could go to fucking jail.” “No you can’t. And I won’t tell anyone.” “What is wrong with you? You don’t know me. I could have been some psycho, you could have gotten in over your head. Do you understand how stupid this was?” She nodded. Then it happened. She burst into tears. He hugged her to his chest, held her tight to him. She cried for reasons she didn’t understand. When her tears stopped,

he lifted her chin and kissed her. Suddenly, she felt better. He kissed away her tears and stroked her face. “You are one brave, crazy girl. You know that?” She smiled, sniffled, and wiped her cheeks. “You don’t hate me?” “Nah, I think I love you.” He laughed. Kennedy grinned. “I’m kidding, Kay,” he said, his eyes widening. She shook her head. “No, you’re not! You like me, and now you won’t be able to leave me alone. Will you?” Liam picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. She squealed as he turned her around. Kennedy laughed. She hurt between her legs, but not as bad as before. Things felt normal again, right. He lowered her to her feet, and then stooped to pick up her panties. When she went to get her sweater he spoke behind her. “You got, um…there’s…on the back of your dress.” “What?” Kennedy looked over her shoulder, extending her skirt to reveal spots of blood. “Oh, no.” “Come on.” He took her hand and led her into the public restroom. The light buzzed on when they walked inside. “Take it off.” “Huh?” “Take off the dress, let me scrub it out. You can wrap the sweater around your waist when we walk back.” Kennedy’s gaze swept the room. It looked kind of grimy. He stood there in the light, with a smirk. They’d had sex, but he hadn’t seen her body. Seeing her body was different. And he was holding her panties. “Well?” Kennedy nibbled her bottom lip, considering her next move. “Look, I’ll turn around….” “It’s okay.” She zipped the dress down and stepped out of it, then held it out to him. Liam didn’t speak. He just stared at her body. Did he think she was fat? Her hips and breasts were overly developed but her waist was tiny and her stomach flat. Her thighs were shapely but slender. “Something wrong?” she asked. “Wow, you’re sex—um, beautiful. I knew it, but damn.” He pulled his Green Day T-shirt off and handed it to her. Kennedy took her time pulling it down over the front of her breasts, realizing it barely slipped to the curve of her thighs. She smiled when she saw him trying not to stare at the vee of her sex. “Thank you, Liam.” “I must be out of my goddamn mind,” he took the dress to the sink. She watched him scrub the stain under cool water. It just turned into a wider pink stain on the white

linen fabric. There wasn’t much more he could do. “Here, put it on. Looks like you sat in punch now.” “Thanks.” She reached for the dress. He stopped her. He pulled her toward him. She went up against his chest. He ran his hand down her spine and cupped her bottom. “I don’t want another man to ever touch you. You’re mine now. Do you understand?” Kennedy smiled. “Yes. I understand, Liam.” “Cool, now get dressed. Let’s take you back.” “Okay.” He watched her as she quickly put on her dress and helped by zipping it up. When done, she tied her sweater around her waist. It covered the spot nicely. She asked for her panties but he shook his head no. Kennedy laughed and said he should hold on to them for her. “What’s your last name, Kay?” “Washington. My name is Kennedy Washington.” “My last name is Flanagan.” “Kennedy Flanagan.” She smiled. He rolled his eyes. “You are one strange girl.” She bounced over to him and hugged his waist. “Can we stay out by the beach a little longer? Just you and me.” Liam seemed a bit uncomfortable but he returned her hug. “Yeah, it’s cool, we can hang out.” “Good.”

Chapter Seven Liam shook his head, smiling at the memories that had filled his dreams, gotten him through till morning, just as they had every night for the past five years. Kennedy had set her eyes on him and he’d been hooked. He was sprung. He remembered how he’d watched her under the moonlight. She looked so delicate, feminine, and the affection she showered on him felt genuinely pure. In the beginning, that could just have been her age, her innocence, but the purity never changed over the years. Amazing to believe, but from that day forth he was convinced that Kennedy Michelle Washington was his soul mate. By the time they parted for the night, he had already contemplated how to see her again. She met him by the beach and let him take her for a ride in his parents’ stolen car. They ate at some swank bistro that cost him damn near a week’s salary. He had to get a loan from Heath to take her there. Both young and smart, Kennedy had chosen him, and it made him feel like Captain America. She kept going on and on about how awesome he was, and asked him to explain all kinds of shit he didn’t know. There time together had been intense. Kennedy hung on his every word. He knew her crush was wrong. Didn’t dare make a move on her for more sex. Not that weekend. But he’d never had anybody outside of his baby sister shower him with such affection. He’d been starved for it, for something he had no idea he needed. However, the fantasy ended before it started. Kennedy showed up at the beach in tears on the third day and told him she would have to leave. Liam began to panic. He gave her his number. Hell, Connecticut was just a two-hour drive from Newark. Kennedy said over and over that her parents were strict. That they’d have to be careful. Sierra had been a good cover for them. He still felt like shit for what happened the months that followed. He seduced Kennedy away from her family, and not just physically. All this heartache he suffered now must be karma. Within six months, he had her running away from her home, school, and friends to marry him. Then he enlisted because they promised him a way to make a good income without breaking the law, and even finished college to get into OCS. He’d taken her away from her family, not giving a fuck how her parents must have suffered, how her cute kid sister must have suffered. He had been selfish. But he’d made her his. Now she belonged to another man. Fucking karma. There came a knock at the door. “Come in.” Vasquez pushed the door open, sticking his head in cautiously. “Hey, you okay in here? Angelina is driving me nuts with checking on you. She keeps threatening to call Kennedy, bro.” Liam smiled. Nodded. Looking away to the window, he saw the sun beaming through the blinds. “What school does Mackenzie attend?” Vasquez stepped in to the room, curious. “She goes to Harriet Tubman Elementary with the twins. She’s in Pre-K.”

Liam frowned. He had told the twins that Mackenzie’s father was indeed alive. He didn’t need the boys telling her first. “Are they going to school today?” “Well, they were.” “Can they hang back?” “Why?” “I need you to take me there.” Vasquez frowned. “Wait, bro. You have to see Kennedy first.” Liam turned away from the window, his face tight with anxiety. “Oh I plan to. It’s Tuesday, so she has to be at work. But I want to see my baby girl now. I’ll wait until Kennedy comes home to pay her a visit.” Liam watched, tight, as Vasquez contemplated options, then scuttled whatever argument he’d been planning to make. “Cool. You can catch her at recess or something. You can’t just walk in to her school and surprise her.” “Right,” nodded Liam. “We have to do this carefully.” *** The class lined up for playtime. The kids, alike but each so different in their uniforms, held hands and waited for Ms. Christopher to tell them to move. Mackenzie wore a dark blue plaid pleated skirt with a white button-down shirt. Her white socks were pulled up to her knees, and her patent leather shoes were scuffed over the toes. Her hair, sandy brown with crinkly spiral curls, had been styled into a ponytail that cascaded down to her shoulders. Ms. Christopher pushed open the side door and the little kids dropped each other’s hands screaming, “Yay!” All sprinted to the playground at the back corner of the school grounds, rushing to choose the monkey bars, the slide, or the swings. Liam sat in the passenger seat of Vasquez’s Ford Taurus, tense, as though he were on a mission, waiting for the order. “There she is, man.” Vasquez pointed out his daughter. Mackenzie pushed the boy next to her to climb up the slide. Liam smiled at her aggressiveness. He watched as the wind blew her curls from her ponytail into her face as she reached the top. Sitting down, Mackenzie gave an enormous grin. She slid down the shiny metal, squealing. That was it for him. He grabbed at the door and stepped out. “Hey! Liam, don’t!” Vasquez shouted, trying to stop him. Liam ignored him. With the aid of his cane, he walked hurriedly across the street. Angelina had left him some of Vasquez’s clothes,

jeans and a perfectly decent polo, but instead, he’d chosen his uniform. In his peripheral vision, he noticed Vasquez get out of the car and sprint across the street. Liam approached the fence. His actions immediately drew the attention of the teacher. She walked over. “Can I help you?” “I need to see Mackenzie Flanagan,” Liam said, watching his daughter as she ran over to the swings. She got behind her friend and gave her a push, then belly-laughed once her friend soared through the air. The teacher looked him up and down. “I’m sorry, but—” Vasquez came up behind him on the sidewalk. “Hi, Margaret.” “Captain Vasquez! I didn’t know you were back.” Ms. Christopher smiled politely. “Yeah, home for a few days now. How have you been?” “Fine, and you?” she asked. Liam glared incredulously at both of them. “Can you bring her to the gate? Please.” Ms. Christopher flinched at his abrupt manner. Somewhere underneath, Liam knew it would be a bad idea to do it this way, but he just couldn’t help himself. No one was going to keep him from his kid. No one. “It’s okay, Margaret. He’s a friend, “ said Vasquez. Ms. Christopher nodded. She stepped away from the chain-link fence and approached the swings. Reaching down, she took hold of little Mackenzie’s hand. Liam watched as his daughter fixed her eyes on him. He smiled at her. He clenched his teeth against the pain and leaned down as Mackenzie approached the fence. “Hello, Mac.” Mackenzie frowned at first. Then her beautiful eyes stretched wide with surprise. “Daddy?” she gushed. “You came!” Liam stunned into silence, froze. All of them were. He swallowed the ball of emotion lodged in his throat. When he spoke, his voice came shaky and hoarse. “What did you call me?” “Daddy. Santa Claus bring you?” She stuck her fingers through the holes in the fence. Liam, overcome with emotion, stared in disbelief at his own hand, reaching for her little one. The surge of happiness that moved through him proved to be a foreign feeling. My baby girl knows me. How was that even possible? Tears welled in his eyes. He knelt the best he could, having to extend his bum leg. He balanced his weight with the cane, and squeezed Mackenzie’s fingers. “Yes, baby girl, I came from heaven just to meet you.” “I knew it! Mommy said if you pray, Jesus hears you. And I prayed to him, too. I knew you would come. I knew it!” She giggled. “I want you to come for Christmas. It’s

my birthday, too. That’s why you here, huh Daddy? To go to my party?” “Is that what your mommy told you? That I’d come for Christmas?” “She said you knew it was going to be my birthday.” Liam found himself unable to speak. Mackenzie fixed her eyes on him conspiratorially. “Don’t tell nobody but we gonna have a Christmas clown at my party!” “That’s wonderful,” Liam said. She nodded, making her curls bounce. “You can come see him. Mommy don’t know, it’s a secret.” Mackenzie looked over at Vasquez. “Can the twins come, Uncle Tony?” Vasquez winked at her. “They wouldn’t miss it, Mac.” Liam ran his finger across her tiny knuckles gripping the gate. “Mac…can you do something for me, sweetie?” “Yes, daddy.” “For now, can this just be our secret?” Mackenzie frowned. “What’s a secret?” “Something we keep to ourselves. Just until I can come to your house and tell mommy. Okay?” Mackenzie nodded. “ Okay…we can keep it secret.” Liam studied her face up close. The wind blew her ponytail forward and some of the soft curls came through the links of the gate. He had to touch them, rub them between his fingers. She was shockingly beautiful. Vasquez winked at Ms. Christopher. “Margaret, as you can see this is complicated. I’m taking him to see Kennedy and Phil shortly, so if you don’t mind keeping this between us, just for the day?” Margaret nodded. “Okay, um, sure. Come on, Mac.” Mackenzie then stuck her entire arm through the opening in the gate to touch Liam’s face. “I can’t wait to show you my fishie. Be good, Daddy.” Liam kissed the palm of her little hand. “I can’t wait to meet your fishie.” Reluctantly, he let her go. He stood with the help of his cane and watched her run off to the other kids. She obviously forgot the meaning of the word ‘secret’ and immediately pointed out her hero father. A few kids stared and waved their hands. Liam had to turn away. It was too much. He and Vasquez walked back to the car in silence. Before he crossed the front of the vehicle for the passenger door he looked back at Mackenzie and waved goodbye. She waved, grinning, and then dismissed him for the slide once again. Once inside the car he felt the air return to his lungs. He dropped his head back and sat there, utterly depleted.

Vasquez shook his head in disapproval. “Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.” “She’s my kid. I can see her anytime I want,” Liam snapped. “Of course you can—” “She knew me…can you fucking believe that?” he asked. Tears pricked his eyes even as a slow-moving smile spread across his face. “Kennedy and Sally kept you very much alive for Mac. She brags about her hero daddy, according to Angelina.” Liam frowned. “Why hero?” “I had one of the sergeants go to the school for the preschoolers. I told him to mention you being a hero…it’s the way Mac sees you.” “I’m nobody’s hero,” he mumbled. “To that little girl you are.” Vasquez started the car. “She’s the best thing me and Kennedy ever did. The only thing of Kennedy that I have all to myself,” he said under his breath. The car pulled away from the curb. Vasquez made a series of right turns and took them onto the expressway. Liam wedged himself against the door to glare at his friend. “Where you going?” “You don’t want to do this wrong, Liam,” Vasquez began. “Seeing Mac first was not a good idea. She’s only four, bro.” Liam frowned. “She’s five.” Vasquez shook his head. “Nope. Her birthday is next week.” He remembered her talking about a party. A Christmas baby. A sense of relief washed over him at the thought that he would never miss another birthday. He took extreme comfort in that. “I know it was a foolish move, Ant. I just had to introduce myself to her without… well, I just don’t know what Kennedy and her family have done or said to my kid.” “Do you really think Kennedy would turn her against you?” “I don’t know what to think. Can’t you see how fucked up this whole thing is? Try going off for five years and your family belonging to another man. Tell me how you’d deal with that shit?” “I understand. I get it, I really do. But I think once you see Kennedy, you will see not much has changed. You just got to see her for yourself. She loves you, man…you have to believe that.” “We’ll see,” he said bitterly. Liam again noticed they traveled south. He frowned. “Where are we going?” “To her office.”

“What?” Liam snapped. “Kay? No.” “You just saw Mac. Do you think Ms. Christopher will keep that a secret? Do you want to take the chance of having anyone tell her? Plans change. We need to get you to her now.” “I said no, bro. I won’t go to her office, man. That’s not how we do this. If I screwed up, okay, call her. Let’s just arrange for her to meet us now.” Vasquez nodded. He dialed and Liam listened to him ask for her directly. He saw his friend’s brow furrow with concern as he asked a few more questions, then end the call. “Well?” “Court. The assistant said she won’t be expected back to the office.” Liam sighed. “Well, there you have it. We just need to ride it out.” Vasquez gave a worried look but nodded in agreement. Liam returned his gaze to the window and his thoughts immediately focused again on the small beauty that had his kid sister’s smile. Her name was Mac, and he was in love. *** Kennedy walked to the car, holding the hand of Mackenzie, who tried hard not to step on a crack. Nothing today had gone as planned. It started with an early call from Phil that he wouldn’t be able to pick up his stepdaughter, and ended with her rushing out in the middle of a deposition that had gone over the scheduled time, in order to get to her daughter’s school on time. She hoped Mac couldn’t hear the shouting coming through her Bluetooth wireless earpiece. Milton, her boss, was livid. Admittedly, she had been distracted lately with thoughts of Liam, which the approaching holiday always provoked. She needed to get her head together. “Mommy?” Mackenzie whined. “What do you mean Judge Thomas has denied the motion? I don’t understand what I missed. I’m sorry I left, Milton, but everything was in order.” “Mommy?” Kennedy looked down at Mackenzie. “In a minute, baby.” Mackenzie pouted as Kennedy opened the back door, tossed her book bag inside and helped her daughter into her booster seat. Kennedy did see Ms. Christopher waving at her. For a minute she thought the teacher had done so to stop her. But another parent approached Ms. Christopher and the teacher turned away. Milton’s shrieking in her ear nearly pierced her eardrum. “I can get on it as soon as I get home. Just e-mail what precedents you need. I’ll work through the night. I apologize, Milton. This won’t happen again.” She slammed the car door, then hurried to her side and slipped in behind the wheel.

The engine turned over and she shriveled a bit with humiliation over the demands of her boss echoing in her ear. She tried to contain her anger. After all, the client’s future was in jeopardy because of her mistake. Maybe she’d talk to Phil and get his help. “Mommy!” Mackenzie shouted from the back seat. Kennedy looked at her daughter in the rearview mirror. Mackenzie had tears in her eyes. “I have it, sir. Can I call you tonight, once I’m home? Okay, thank you.” She ended the call with a heavy sigh of guilt. “Mommy is so sorry, Mac. What is it, baby?” Mackenzie blinked away her tears. She smiled brightly to have her mother’s undivided attention. “I got a secret!” Kennedy smiled. She knew this game. “A secret?” “Yep, Daddy told me a secret.” “Well when we get home I will tell daddy not to tell you secrets that momma can’t know,” she said. “Not that daddy. Daddy from heaven told me a secret today at school.” Kennedy turned the corner. Her gaze went up to the rearview mirror. “What?” “Daddy. He come to school and said don’t tell nobody.” “Your daddy from heaven came to your school today?” “Yes!” Kennedy struggled to separate reality from fantasy. She shook her head. Apparently her daughter was confused. “When was this, Mac?” Mackenzie kicked her feet out and reached for her book bag. “At playtime, him and Uncle Tony came to give me a secret.” “Uncle Anthony was at your school?” Kennedy foot eased on the brake. A car honked its horn. She accelerated again. “Yes,” her daughter answered. She pulled out her drawing. “Look what I drew, Mommy. It’s my fishie.” “Wait a minute, darling, momma’s driving,” Kennedy swallowed the lump in her throat and her chest tightened. Mackenzie wasn’t making any sense but her baby never lied to her. Reaching for her wireless phone, she pressed the number three button to call Angelina. *** Liam rose from the sofa. He listened quietly. He’d been killing time since they’d left Mackenzie’s school, and it drove him crazy. He’d already lost enough of his life. He’d been looking for a target to go off on when the phone had rung, just seconds ago. Both Liam and Vasquez fixed intense gazes on Angelina as she answered and

instantly went pale. “Hey, girl. Wh-where are you? Been calling you all day.” Vasquez crossed the den to stand next to his wife. She turned her back to him and clutched the phone tight. “They—um—he came in last night.” “Yeah, he’s right here.” Angelina looked at Liam and his heart dropped to the deck. She handed the phone to Anthony. “Kennedy?” Vasquez stepped away from Angelina, seemingly worried she’d grab the phone back from him. “Yeah, it’s good to be back. Everything okay?” Then he laughed, but a wave of sadness washed over his face. “Yeah, yeah it is. Can you hang on a sec?” Vasquez covered the mouthpiece and held the phone out to Liam. He held his hands up and shook his head. No way. When he and Kay had it out, it would be in person. Liam needed to see her eyes. Vasquez pressed his lips together and returned the phone to his ear. “I’m back.” Vasquez laughed nervously at something Kennedy said. “Umm…Mac thinks any blue-eyed soldier is her daddy.” He swung an accusatory glance over Liam’s way. “I’ll be ashore for awhile. How about you come over? I, um, there’s something I need to, so we can, um, catch up.” Vasquez nodded repeatedly. “Sure, I understand. Are you headed home? Will you be alone?” Vasquez asked. “Maybe I can bring the boys over now to play with Mac. Is that okay?” Liam held his breath until his chest burned. “They’re dying to see her, too. See you soon.” Listening to Vasquez end the call, Liam felt sick to his stomach. He forced a brave smile. “Guess my little one forgot what the definition of a secret was.” Vasquez shook his head. “Your wife is pretty sharp, man.” Liam nodded. “Yeah, but she’s not my wife anymore.” “Look, she’s saying she can’t come over now—something about work. But she said Phil has to work late, so we can just go over there. He won’t be home.” “I think Kennedy should come here.” Angelina spoke up. “Let me call her back.” “No. I can handle it. Seeing her, I mean. I don’t want to wait any longer.” “No.” Angelina shook her head. “Do it here. We’ll give you privacy. Trust me, you will want it. Anthony and I can take the kids for burgers or something.” “Thanks, but I’d rather see her there.” Angelina frowned. “You want to ambush her?” Liam couldn’t disguise his anger over her remarrying. No one made this easy for him. Why should he make it easy for her? “You heard Ant. Phil’s not there. And let’s face it, seeing me again is an ambush no matter where it goes down. I want to see her, now.”

They both looked at him doubtfully. “Let’s go. I’m ready.” Liam said. Angelina grabbed his wrist, stopping him. “Listen to me. She will be shocked and confused, but I promise you she is in love with you. Please believe me when I say that. She loves you, Liam. Keep a cool head, okay?” Liam kissed her cheek. “I’ll be cool.” *** Phil walked in and stepped up behind Kennedy, who washed dishes at the sink. He planted a kiss on her cheek. She turned on him, startled. “You’re home early,” she gasped. “You said you couldn’t pick up Mac? That you had to work late.” “I missed you,” he murmured, nuzzling her neck. Slowly, he brought the bouquet of flowers he’d shielded behind his back. “They’re beautiful, Phil. But you should have called me if you were going to be home early.” She said, her voice tight with frustration. She’d been running around the house like crazy since she’d walked through the door. The only reason she started the breakfast dishes was because she needed to get dinner done early. She’d be up all night working. “What’s wrong?” She set the flowers on the counter. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s been a day.” “Well, I did call but you didn’t answer your phone. Did you get my message?” Kennedy shook her head. “Been in court all day. Haven’t checked my messages. I just…sometimes I feel so overwhelmed.” He lifted her chin and forced her to look in his eyes. “Work?” “Yeah, I screwed up. I’ll need your legal brain. Milton’s deposition went south and I think it’s my fault.” “Babe, you know I’ll help. Okay? Now smile for me. Been missing you, honey.” Kennedy forced the tightness around her mouth to relax and gave him a smile. Phil moved in on her, crowding her against the sink. His lips met hers in a soft, sweet kiss that relaxed her immediately. She pushed back on his chest when she felt their embrace growing too passionate. “Thanks. I feel better.” He slipped his other arm around her waist and pressed into her. Phil gave her another quick kiss, then released her. He left the kitchen, headed for the stairs to change. Kennedy touched her mouth. She sighed. When she turned she noticed the flowers again. Phil had been extra romantic lately. Did he pick up on the strain she felt between them

since this baby thing had become an issue? They were technically newlyweds and her anxiety hadn’t lessened. If anything, it seemed to increase with the passing months. She closed her eyes and tried to calm herself. She wouldn’t go back on anti-depressants. She had moved on to a better place. Phil was a good husband. Wasn’t he? Mackenzie couldn’t be happier. She had a job she loved on most days. She just needed to be grateful for that much. Last night she’d dreamed of Liam. The dream swept her sweetly through memories of their first meeting, her first time making love with him, and the many times after where passion ruled her life. She’d never known love like she had with Liam. Maybe the cliché was true. That type of love happened only once in a lifetime. “I finished, Mommy!” Kennedy turned and Mackenzie bounced in front of her, having changed from her school clothes to a pair of green shorts and a top. “Are the twins coming?” “Yes, sweetie.” She’d forgotten she told Vasquez to bring the boys over. She really wasn’t in the mood for a visit but she hadn’t seen him in months. Maybe Phil could entertain Vasquez while she excused herself. Kennedy went to the refrigerator and retrieved a package of frozen steaks. Suddenly, Mackenzie who’d taken up coloring in her book of bears in the living room, straightened up. She got to her feet and went to the picture window at the front of the house. Kennedy registered Mac’s odd expression as she headed for the pantry to find some pasta. Standing there, staring at boxes of cereal and canned goods, a shiver went through her. “Mommy! Daddy’s here! Daddy’s here!” Mackenzie screamed, her voice almost buoyant with the sounds of her jumping up and down. Kennedy’s heart raced. Her head turned. She looked back into the kitchen, confused by the excitement. Phil’s hurried steps could be heard as he came down from their room. Kennedy was sure he had already greeted Mackenzie when he arrived, as he did every day he came home from work. “Mac, wait!” She heard Phil yell. “What’s going on?” *** Mackenzie gave her stepfather a wide grin. She disobeyed him for the first time in her young life, turning the lock she could now reach and with both of her tiny hands she pulled the door open. It was then Phil’s world shattered. Alexa had told him he had a few more days. He wasn’t ready. He knew time was running out, but he wasn’t ready. Liam Flanagan hobbled up the flagstone steps and came through the open doorway. Mac jumped at him and he caught her awkwardly, pulling her up. Phil stepped

back. The desire for murder on Liam’s face stilled his breathing. He could see it clearly in his eyes. “Phil, what is it?” Kennedy marched out of the kitchen. Initially, Phil blocked her view of the door. But she stepped to the side and locked eyes with her long-dead husband. Liam stared at his wife, and what Phil thought to be a forced smile crossed his lips. Kennedy sucked in a deep, pained breath, then exhaled, gasping loudly. She clutched her chest and stumbled back against the dining room chair. She couldn’t speak. Her mouth gaped open. Kennedy shook her head no over and over. Liam lowered his daughter to the carpet. When he moved toward Kennedy, she gasped again. It appeared she was having one of her attacks. Phil remembered those panic attacks, when she couldn’t breathe or speak. It used to scare the shit out of him and her family the first year after Liam’s death. The doctors had insisted on anti-anxiety drugs, which only made her depression deepen. It took him another year to bring her back. Now his wife looked as if she were on the verge of another mental collapse and he was powerless to do anything. “Surprised to see me, babe?” Kennedy looked over to Vasquez, who’d stepped into the foyer just behind Liam. She blinked twice at him, as though Liam and Phil were not even in the room with them. Then her eyes rolled into her head and she fainted. She dropped away so suddenly, every man made a move to catch her. Phil rushed to reach his wife. Before he could bring her into his arms, he felt strong hands yank him away. It turned out to be Vasquez, of all people. Liam got to Kennedy first. To his horror, Phil found himself forced back from his wife, in his own home. Her lapse of consciousness was brief, no more than a blink. She gazed up at Liam in dazed wonder. Tears erupted from her in gut-wrenching spasms. Phil couldn’t gauge whether she was happy or suffering acute trauma. “Let me go,” he demanded of Vasquez. “I suggest you chill. I’m only going to say it once.” “Li-Liam?” she choked out between her sobs. “Yes, Kay. It’s me.” Kennedy threw her arms around his neck. She held on to him for dear life. Liam, on his knees, held her to him, and the wave of relief they shared consumed them both physically. Phil could swear they both shook through it. She cried, rejoicing so loudly that Phil felt the sounds shred his heart. Frightened and confused by the drama, Mackenzie began to cry. Phil couldn’t get to his wife, but he went for his daughter. He lifted her up into his arms and turned her away from the scene. However, he could see them clearly. Liam and Kennedy kissed. Their exchange was deeper and more intense than any kiss he’d ever shared with Kennedy. She held on to both sides of his face to prolong their union. “Kennedy,” said Phil. “Kennedy!”

She stopped kissing Flanagan. Phil doubted it was because he’d called her name. “I can’t believe it. They told me you were dead.” Kennedy said this to Liam, looking deeply into his eyes. “I’m not, Kay. I would never leave you.” She ran her hand up and down the side of his face. “KENNEDY,” Phil shouted. Suddenly, Kennedy came to. For a long moment, it seemed she couldn’t focus. In utter shock, Kennedy looked at Phil, whose face had twisted into a mask of hurt and anger, and then at her frightened child, held in his arms. The pain in her heart became pure torment, pure horror. “Nooo. Oh God, what have I done? Oh no.” Kennedy got to her feet. Liam struggled with his bad leg, trying to pull her down so he could hold her. She stepped away from him. From both men. She shook her head. “Sweet Jesus, what have I done?” she moaned. “I want you to explain it to me,” Liam said, able to stand. “You married him?” He jabbed his cane toward Phil. “Why? How? After everything you promised me, what we meant to each other, you married him?” Kennedy bit her bottom lip. She put her hands to both temples, and pressed there. She tried to stop the noise, stop the hurt. Just make it stop. She felt the room spinning around her. “Liam, I’m so sorry.” “Sorry? Help me understand, Kay. Was I that easy to replace?” The words broke Kennedy. She did the only thing she could. She backed away. “I think you should go,” Phil said to him, reaching out for Kennedy as she hurried up the stairs. Liam flipped his cane so he held it overhand and jabbed it between him and Phil. “You make one fucking move toward my wife and I will put you down.”

Chapter Eight Phil’s eyes remained trained on the end of Liam’s cane. Does he think it shoots bullets? Liam didn’t mind the nervousness he saw on Phil’s face. That was to be expected. What Liam found confusing had been the vibe of guilt in his eyes. Phil didn’t look too surprised to see him. He looked like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Or had Liam projected his suspicions again, seeing what he wanted to see? Mackenzie stared at him from her perch in the crook of Phil’s arm. Almost all the color had drained from her face. Not a sound escaped her lips, but Liam could see the way her white-knuckled fist dug into Phil’s shoulder. He saw his own hand trembling as it gripped the cane, and realized he was threatening a man with his child between them. Immediately, he drew the weapon back. The action changed nothing. He still wanted to swing it like a bat and crush Phil’s skull. Liam felt that desire specific and certain, travel up his arm, moving ever closer to his heart. He clenched his teeth. He had to get those urges under control. “Mac, why don’t you show me this fish I keep hearing about? Is it upstairs?” Vasquez approached Mackenzie, who’d begun to shiver. As though outside his body, above the action, Liam’s tactical brain registered the movements. He’d seen Vasquez do this hundreds of times, extract a civilian while he or Eric or Alebretti or Gomez trained a SIG Sauer straight at the combatant’s chest. This time, unlike all the other times, the notion made his heart pound in his chest. A few whispered words and Vasquez eventually coaxed Mackenzie to lift her head from her stepfather’s shoulder. He smiled. She smiled back, at him only. She then reached for her Uncle Tony. Phil released his daughter into Vasquez’s arms. Liam nodded, his face twitching. Phil had chosen wisely. Vasquez stepped over to Liam. “Look at her, man. Look at her.” Liam tore his gaze from Phil to stare again at a daughter who had her mother’s nose and dimples. Mackenzie locked eyes with him, but had started to suck her thumb. “She’s yours, man. That’s undisputed.” Liam nodded. “This is your homecoming, man. Remember.” He nodded again, this time with understanding. Vasquez was telling him not to fuck it up. Liam touched Mackenzie’s face and tried to apologize with his smile. Vasquez shot Phil a warning look. “I’ll take her to her room while you three work this out.” He turned for the stairs to which Kennedy had fled. Phil had enough backbone to wink at Mackenzie. The little girl blinked and sucked harder on her thumb. Her visible fear shook Liam to his core. Christ, I lost my cool. Shouldn’t have. Liam decided in that moment to follow his friend’s advice. He would find his lady and talk to her rationally.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Phil stammered, side-stepping to block Liam’s approach. Liam, disbelieving, lifted his gaze to meet that of his challenger. Phil swallowed. “She’s upset, Flanagan. I think we should both give her a minute.” “Fuck you,” Liam snapped. “Seriously? You come in here and yell at her and make your daughter cry?” Phil glared at him as much as he dared. “Kennedy deserves much more respect than that. Like I said, let her catch her breath. The reunion can wait until my wife is prepared to deal with it.” “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? For me to back off, so you can slip in? And she’s not your fucking wife.” “I only meant—” “Got to give it to you. Don’t know how you pulled her in, but you did. You’ve been sniffing at her heels from the moment you laid eyes on her.” Liam’s jaw tensed, though he wasn’t going to lose it again in front of this man. Wavering on the edge of control, he let his chest rise and fall. The idea that Phil Freeman had not only seduced his wife, but played the role of husband, father, and lover while he’d only dreamed of those things for the past five years incensed him. Worse still was the unrepentant smugness in Phil’s eyes. No matter how bad it would be between him and Kennedy, he’d see Freeman dead before he let this slug of a man have her. Dead. “She and I fell in love.” Phil crossed his arms and tossed his chin upward in triumph. “So they tell me.” Liam gave a soft snort. His fingers curled around the handle of his cane and tightened until every joint began to burn with tension. He wondered how far the stick would reach if he shoved it up Phil’s ass. “Don’t bullshit me. You preyed on her vulnerabilities and moved into my life to replace me.” “Actually, I was here when you weren’t. Look, I’m sorry man. Not sure where you been for the past five years and I’m sure it’s been hard on you. But our love has nothing to do with me stealing your life. And if you were to take a long look, a hard look at the home we’ve built, you’d find that this is my life you walked in on, not yours.” Liam smirked. He made a show of taking that look around. He felt Kennedy everywhere. He could see how she tried to begin again. He knew Phil the rat bastard had made it all so convenient and easy. Most of all, he understood how he’d failed her, failed them both. “Not for long.” Liam returned his gaze to Phil. “You saw her.” Liam arched his brow and smirked. “You saw the look on her face when I walked in. You don’t fool me. You’ve had a good ol’ time at let’s pretend. I’m the reality. You hear that? You think I’ll just step? You know me better than that. If my daughter wasn’t upstairs this would be a non-issue.” “I won’t discuss this with you. I want you out of my house. I—” Liam aimed the point of his cane dead center at Phil’s chest. He poked him once and Phil stumbled a step back. When he got no more reaction than that, he poked again

and Phil fell back further. “Step the fuck aside before I break your fucking neck.” “No!” “Then you are a stupid motherfucker, you—” “Liam!” Vasquez reappeared. Liam kept his eyes trained on Freeman’s smug face. Without moving his feet, he leaned forward, closing the distance between them to less than an inch. “Your little girl wants to see you,” Vasquez said quietly. “Go talk to her.” Liam didn’t move. Not a muscle. “Bro, go talk to your little girl. First room on the left.” “Yeah, I’ll do that,” said Liam, and thrust himself away. Phil released a tightly held breath. With clenched fists, he turned and watched Liam go. When Liam passed his best friend, he saw Vasquez’s true intent. “Kennedy’s room is at the end of the hall, brother.” Liam swallowed and nodded. He felt his anger drain away as he took each stair toward his daughter’s room. Facing Kennedy he could handle. He knew it would be hard to work through the disappointment and feelings of rejection he carried over her remarrying. But facing his child, whom he’d just scared to the point of tears, was something no training camp could have prepared him for. What if he said the wrong thing? What if he’d caused her trauma, and she wanted nothing to do with him? He stood in the hallway, his heart filled with what-if’s. The door opened suddenly. Mackenzie looked up at him. She seemed smaller, more fragile than he’d expected. How had she known he stood outside her door? “Hi.” Liam heard his own voice as though it were far off, elsewhere. “Hi.” She extended her hand. Liam took her hand and allowed her to lead him into a little girl’s paradise. Mackenzie let go of his hand walked over to the fish bowl. “This is my fish. I named him Fishie.” Liam followed her to the nightstand. A spotted white goldfish circled the gentle waves of a small fishbowl with a bed of blue crystals at the bottom. “You named him Fishie?” “Yes,” Mackenzie said proudly. “Well, I think that’s a good name, Mac. Really good.” “Are you mad at me?” Liam frowned. “No.” “Mommy. You’re mad at my mommy. You made her cry.”

Liam swallowed his guilt. He used the cane to balance as he knelt to her level, with his bad leg extended out. “I am so very sorry for that. I didn’t want to make her cry, but you’re right. I did. I will apologize to her, but first I want to apologize to you.” “I thought she’d be happy, that we’d be happy if you came. But she isn’t.” “Hey…that’s my fault. I want to know if you can give me a second chance. Do you know what that means?” “Start over?” “Yes. Let’s start over. I really want to be here. To see you.” He touched her face. “To meet Fishie.” Mackenzie smiled. She surprised him by coming into his arms and locking hers around his neck. He could feel her little heartbeat racing against his chest. It cleared his mind of thoughts of blame, and made his eyes tear. When he searched her room, trying to drink in more knowledge of her life, his gaze landed on the picture next to Fishie’s bowl. It was the picture he’d e-mailed Kennedy while Mackenzie was still a little ball of baby in her belly. Liam held his daughter tight to him, staring at the man in that picture. He’d been miserable that day, hot and hungry, tired of every grain of sand that swirled itself into every human crevice it could find. Above all he’d been lonely. Would he ever again be as happy as he was in the life he had before that photo? “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” Mackenzie kissed his cheek. Liam dropped his head to her small shoulder and cried. He didn’t mean to, but she freed him of so much pain in that moment, it was the only response his body knew. “Thank you, Mac. Thank you.” For fully a minute, Liam held her, not knowing how to let go. Then, swallowing his tears, he sniffled and wiped his eyes against her shoulder. He released her and smiled. “I think I should go and apologize to Mommy now.” “Okay. Then we can color?” She turned and went to her bookshelf, pulling out a few books. “See? Hello Kitty coloring book.” Liam nodded. He had no idea who Kitty was but he wanted to spend the rest of the night on the floor with her, coloring. He forced himself to rise and sidle through the door. “Can you stay in here until I come back?” he asked. “Okay, daddy-from-heaven.” She sat on the floor and reached for her box of crayons. Liam stared at her a moment longer, then shut the door. Kennedy paced. She hugged herself, shaking her head furiously. “What am I going to do? What have I done? Oh God, what have I done? He hates me, I hate myself. But… but…but he’s alive, it’s a miracle he’s alive!” She laughed through her tears. Madness or not, her Liam was back. How many times had she’d been told it wouldn’t happen. That it couldn’t happen. And now her dreams had come true. Kennedy looked down to her hands. The tremors were back. She’d experienced them the first year after Liam died—didn’t die!

—whenever anxiety, grief, and emotion overwhelmed her. She clenched her fist and felt her entire body shudder. “Calm down, calm down,” she repeated, like a mantra. Where had he been? For five long years she fought against believing this truth, and now he was here? What could have happened to him? Kennedy recalled the way he favored his left leg, leaning more than walking with his cane. She felt her head swim and her stomach churn. Her hands went to her mouth. A violent wave of nausea wound through her like a ribbon. She held her breath, staring at the door. Flashes of Liam’s torture, torment, and lonely days with no hope washed over her as her mind connected the dots of what his life must have been. She inhaled then exhaled tentatively; Kennedy put her hand to her brow. The nausea passed. She tried to make her head clear. She had to think this through. First thing she’d to do would be to make sure Liam was okay. That he was healthy. He would need somewhere to stay; he probably needed her to care for him. She ached to do so. But how could she? Then there was Phil. Oh Lord. Phil. What am I to say to Phil? The truth? Tell the man she’d vowed to love, honor, and obey that he’d been nothing but a stand-in. How could she explain to Phil that her dreams had been answered? She wanted to shout her happiness to the world. What would he think of her if she told him the truth? Liam was what she wanted now, today, tomorrow, forever. In her peripheral vision, she saw the rumpled sheets covering her bed. Flashes of the night before, of making love with Phil, returned. Phil didn’t know Liam was alive. How could he know? But he worked with them, had special access to information. To the chain of command. She stepped back, feeling faint again. Did Phil know? “No. He wouldn’t keep something like this from me. No.” Was it possible to feel your blood pressure rise? Kennedy wondered as she grew weak and disillusioned. To think that they all kept Liam’s rescue from her and the truth cut her deep. So she settled on the facts, tried her best to think of it like one of her cases, take the emotion out of it. Liam had returned and he knew she’d remarried. He would never be able to forgive that, forgive her. There was nothing she could do to make him understand. The door opened behind her. Kennedy didn’t have to turn to know who stepped in. Closing her eyes, she sucked down a deep breath and slowly faced him. Once again she resisted the urge to explode into a fit of hysterical laughter and sobs. Liam walked inside. It’s him. It’s really him. The look he gave her broke her heart. He closed the door and fumbled to lock it. He stared at her without a word. Kennedy broke the standoff. She rushed back into his arms. And thankfully, he accepted her return to him willingly. He smelled like her Liam. Clean male skin, spice, a mix of soap and aftershave. He felt like Liam, too. He had a way of lifting her into his embrace that left her standing on her toes. God help her, but to be in his arms was all she’d wanted, night and day. She would need to hold him for some time to believe he was real. She pressed her face to his to feel the warmth of his jaw. He’d returned to her alive. Miracles did happen. “What did they do to you? Liam, how did this happen?”

“We can talk about that later,” he whispered. His voice sounded dry. “I need you to pack some things for you and Mac. We’re leaving.” Kennedy slowly let him go. Face to face, she saw his resolve. The old Liam, once his mind was made up, couldn’t be swayed. This man before her looked even more resolute. “Now,” he said. “We have to talk.” “Talk?” “Liam, stop. Don’t yell at me.” “Fuck it.” He let her go, his lips curled in anger. “I’ll pack for you.” To Kennedy’s stunned silence, he limped over to the closet and ripped it open. She saw how he paled at the sight of her clothes lined up next to Phil’s. “Liam, let me explain.” He grabbed her suitcase and dragged it out and brought it to the bed. One look at the rumpled sheets, the nightgown balled on the floor, and he froze. He just stood there, staring at the evidence of her marriage. She felt sick. Ashamed. And angry, but she wasn’t quite sure at whom. Maybe she was angry at him for taking five years to come for them. Maybe she mourned the time wasted, all the tears, and now he wouldn’t even talk to her. He just barked at her and accused her with eyes that used to look at her with love. “You have to let me explain—” Without warning, he turned and flung the suitcase at the bed. It hit the headboard with a muffled thud and dropped to the mattress. Kennedy stepped back until she bumped the dresser. “How long before you replaced me, Kay? That’s what I want to know.” “I thought you were dead.” “Answer me, dammit.” “It wasn’t like that. You know I could never replace you.” Liam turned on her. She’d never seen him actually cry. In all the years she knew him, she never saw tears. She had broken his heart, and for Liam this betrayal would be unforgivable. She swore on their wedding night that she would be his forever. She’d meant it. God help her, she’d meant it and she still did. Nothing she did with Phil could replace the bond she had with Liam. But how could she explain that to a man like him, whose faith, once shaken, was impossible to restore? How would she feel if she were in his shoes? What if he’d found some other woman to be a mother to Mackenzie and warm his bed? Her legs turned to jelly; her stomach churned. It became a physical pain. She felt her neck and face grow hot with shame. If she unraveled now, how would she ever get past the wall erected between them? How would she ever reach him? “Forgive me,” she mouthed to him. “Please, Liam. Just stop for a minute and listen to me.”

“Forgive you? For what? Huh? For fucking a man that I warned you was not to be trusted? For marrying him, giving away everything that was special between you and me? Forgive you for not believing in me when I said that even the war couldn’t keep me from you? Is that it? Or should I forgive you for having my daughter call him father. Forgive you for breaking every fucking vow we ever made?” “No. Forgive me f-for not being perfect.” She wept. She shook her head. “Forgive me for wanting anyone, anything to stop it from hurting so bad. For wanting someone to keep me from wishing to be dead. She needed me, Liam. Your daughter. I held on to my sanity the only way I could.” Through her tears, she sputtered out her pain. “God knows I love you, Liam, but you can’t do this to me. It’s not fair. You can’t possibly think I would choose any of this over what we shared. You’re my first love, my only love. You have no idea what I’ve been through, how much I wanted to die to just be with you.” “Then pack your things and come with me. Now. Prove it.” “And go where?” She tried to get her bearings, to gather her thoughts and do what was best for all of them. But her crime went far beyond what he knew. She’d been trying to get pregnant. They’d tried last night. For all she knew, she was already pregnant. What would he say then? He could barely even look at her now. His silence sucked all the air from the room. She felt as if the walls were caving in all around her. She forced strength to her heart and swallowed the ball of pain lodged in her throat. She lifted her gaze to find Liam impossibly close. He touched her, her hip, her waist. He placed his hand to the side of her face and kept it there. He looked into her eyes. In that moment, she saw so much suffering that her hands went to his waist to hold on to him. He began to speak slowly. “I survived because I always knew you would be waiting for me.” His voice trembled with the effort to remain calm. “I don’t want to hurt you, Kay, but this is killing me. I want you to choose me now. I need it, Kay. I’ve gone through too much shit. I need this. Do you understand?” “Yes. I understand.” “I need you, Kay.” He kissed her tears, her closed eyelids, then her lips. “Before sunrise, remember? Tell me you remember. You and Mackenzie are all I have. All I want.” “Yes. I remember, and I love you so much. I’ve missed you so much. It’s a miracle, Liam, this is a dream come true for Mackenzie and me. Welcome home, baby.” Kennedy kissed him. With the swirl of their tongues she felt them begin to heal. It was a start. Liam dropped his cane and grabbed her by both sides of her face and kissed her with such urgency she couldn’t breathe. Finally, it ended. If it hadn’t, the kiss would have consumed them both. He ran his hands down her face, neck, arms. “I want my family back. Now let’s go.” “Time, Liam. I just need a few days to…to correct so many mistakes. I can’t go with you right now. I can’t take Mac and just walk out in the middle of the night. To where? Think of what you’re asking. Phil’s a victim, too.”

“What did you just say to me?” Liam stepped back. “I have to fix it. He deserves answers, some respect. Look at what I’ve done. I married him. I’ve got to fix that first. I think. Yes. Just…please. Please trust me and let me fix this. I love you.” “This is bullshit!” He stooped and picked up his cane and hopped furiously to the door, and through it. “Liam, please!” The reality of him walking out hit Kennedy full force. She raced down the hall, down the stairs, all in an effort to catch him. He had already reached the door. “Liam! Liam, I need a little time. This isn’t about me not choosing you. You have to trust me.” Liam stopped. She saw Phil looking at her with concern, but she couldn’t process Phil yet. She had to focus on Liam. Liam was her priority. Why couldn’t he believe her? His head slowly turned. He glared at her from over his shoulder, a look that chilled her to the bone then turned the knife in her heart. “You would consider staying with that man over our love? Seems to me, Kay, you’ve made your choice. You aren’t the woman I knew.” “Liam! Don’t say that to me!” she rushed to the door and stopped when Liam stepped through it. Vasquez put his arms around her. Kennedy closed her eyes and willed Liam to return and take those words back. He might as well have struck her, it hurt so badly. Of course he didn’t. How could she be happy and destroyed all in the same moment? How could two opposite emotions exist in one heart? She felt like she was dying. Vasquez hugged her tighter. “Listen to me. He’s hurt and confused. But you know he loves you.” “He won’t forgive me, I know him.” “Hey?” Vasquez took her shoulders and made her look him in the eye. “He loves you. And you love him. He’ll stay with me and Angie, and you work this out with Phil. Okay?” Kennedy nodded. But the urge to run upstairs, grab her child, and flee with Liam burned in her gut. Without even a look back to Phil, she climbed the stairs in a daze and returned to her room. As though on autopilot, she went to the window, wanting to see him. She pulled back the drapes. Liam waited near the passenger side of the SUV. Vasquez arrived and released the security system. When Liam opened the door, his eyes went up to lock with hers. Kennedy stared down at him with regret. He gave her a weak smile and her heart skipped a beat. Kennedy put two fingers to her lips and then pressed her kiss for him to the glass. Liam stared at her for a moment, and at first she believed he saw and felt nothing. Then he winked and got in the car. Kennedy watched until they drove off. “Kennedy?” Phil said. “Not now. Can you just go check on Mackenzie? Give me a moment.” “We’ll figure this out, sweetheart.”

Kennedy closed her eyes and didn’t turn to acknowledge him. She didn’t know much, but if she and Liam could get past all this hurt, she’d return to him in a heartbeat and never let him slip from her again. *** Liam fit his back against the curved seat. “I fucked up, didn’t I, man?” “I told you to play it cool.” Liam gave a bitter chuckle. “I swear, man, I wanted to grab her and throw her over my shoulder. I should have dragged her out of there.” “And played into his hands. Yeah, that would have been smart,” Vasquez mumbled. Liam pinched the bridge of his nose. “You can’t begin to understand how much restraint I used.” “I’m about to tell you something you don’t want to hear, bro, but I got to say it.” Liam remembered Alexa’s warning in that instant. He was so caught up in his own emotions he didn’t even consider the safety of his family. “Fuck. I forgot! Turn around.” “Huh?” “Take me back. I heard you and Alexa last night. I need to make sure they’re okay.” “We’re protecting them, Liam.” “You have no idea what Sarkhir is capable of.” “We got it under control. The house is under protective order. Trust me.” Liam sucked in a tight breath. “Besides, that’s not what I was going to say,” sighed Vasquez. “Okay.” “What I wanted to say is that…well, I think you need to see someone.” “I don’t need a fucking shrink. I need my wife.” “You’ll have her. Did you see the way she responded to you? She’s just confused. She thinks she betrayed you. The thing is, you went for her jugular first. You wasted your reunion on screaming accusations. Hurting her. Now I know we can be jackasses, it’s part of our training, but the Liam I knew would have never done to Kennedy what I saw you do in there. You used her guilt against her, and I gotta say it, man, it looks like you did it on purpose. Like you planned it that way.” Liam cut his eyes to the window. What could he say? That he resented Kennedy, blamed her in some way? The trust they shared had gone. Once, she’d made him believe in them. Now he believed in nothing. He shook his head. He was right back to where he

started, before she ever bounced up to him on a beach and gave him her heart. “I don’t get it. How she could possibly be with another man, and if it is possible, why that man? Maybe I wanted to hurt her, but I swear, if she had corrected that shit and just come with me, I’d forgive anything. I swear it. For me, there is no confusion. Either she loves me or she doesn’t. How could she stay under the same roof with him knowing I’m alive? How?” “It’s not him, Liam. She has Mac to think about. You gave her no warning. She needs a minute for it to sink in. If we had done it the way I suggested and had her come to you instead of this, it might have worked out differently.” “I need you to take me to the Marriott. I’ll get the clothes we brought for me and then I want to check in.” Vasquez looked over at him, confused. “What? Why? You can stay with us.” “I need to have a place for me. I want to get to know my kid. That’s what I’ll focus on. I need a place to bring her until I get my life back on track. Does that make sense?” “Yeah, bro, it makes sense. Perfect sense, but I have a better idea. I’ll get a house issued to you. We have a couple on base that are empty.” “That’ll take time. I need a place now. Drop me off at the Marriott.” *** Phil returned. Kennedy could sense his approach. In the dark, silent room she sat on the bed with her face in her hands. She couldn’t even bring herself to check on her daughter. The moment Tony had pulled out of the driveway, she’d longed to see Liam’s face, to hear his voice again, even if it was only anger between them. For five years, she’d dreamed of their reunion, thought it would only happen in Heaven, and now, she’d sent him away? “Here, sweetheart. Drink this.” Kennedy accepted the wine gratefully. Her throat was soothed by the cool liquid. She looked up at Phil, who stared at her expectantly. “Thank you.” She passed him the glass. He nodded. “Are you okay?” “I have a question.” She rose awkwardly. “Anything, love.” “Did you know?” Kennedy turned and faced him. “Did you know he was alive?” “Of course not.” “Don’t lie to me on this, Phil. Don’t.” “I swear it on our baby’s life I didn’t know.”

Kennedy cut her eyes away. The mention of a baby rendered her speechless. She didn’t know if he meant Mackenzie, or…it wasn’t possible. “I don’t know where he’s been, but it wasn’t reported to any of us. I was just as surprised as you. I know this must be confusing.” “He’s my husband.” “Not legally. According to the law, he’s dead.” Kennedy gave a bitter laugh. “Well, he can easily disprove that.” “What I’m saying is that we can contest this. That we have options.” “I don’t want to contest it.” She walked away, keeping distance between them. “Kennedy, hear me out. I know you loved him and it’s not a love you can easily forget.” Kennedy hugged herself, keeping her gaze trained on her bare feet. “Do you think he’s okay?” “I know you are confused—” “Maybe I should call him to make sure?” “You did the right thing in sending him away.” “I’ll call him and talk it over. Maybe he can listen to me now—” “Kennedy?” She lifted her head and when she looked at the man she’d called husband for almost a year, she felt nothing. It was horrible, but Angelina had been right. Her sister Harper had been right. Phil was no more than a placeholder in her heart. She had used him. What kind of terrible person did that make her? “I still love him,” she confessed. “Of course you do. That doesn’t mean that our love is a lie. That what we built is a lie.” “Yes it does,” she said sadly. “No. It does not. You and I fell in love. This thing between us didn’t come from nowhere. It came from friendship, from respect. We fell in love.” “You were there for me,” she admitted. “I was. For it all. From the first day until today. I was. I was here through your depression and I held Mackenzie while you cried yourself to sleep for the first year of her life. Remember? I listened when you mourned him the second year. I helped you fight against your anger over your loss the third year and then you healed. Remember honey? Remember the night you told me that you loved me too?” he asked, walking to her. Kennedy began to cry again. “Don’t push me. Don’t do this.” “I’m not pushing. I’m pleading my case. You have to work out what’s best for you and Mac. He’s been gone and tortured for years, and of course you feel guilty. I

understand that. But you saw his reaction. You saw him. The man has anger issues, Kay. Do you trust him with Mac?” “What? He would never hurt her. Don’t go there.” She went around him, again to put distance between them. She felt such guilt when he stood near her. But Phil would not be denied. He grabbed her arm. “Promise me this. Promise me you will give our marriage and commitment serious consideration before you make any decisions.” “I love him. Phil, you know me, look at us. It’s Liam. Let’s not pretend that he hasn’t been between us from the beginning. I’m in love with him. I have been since I was barely seventeen. I should have never brought you into this. You were a kind, generous man, and I took advantage of your feelings for me.” “That’s bullshit. This wasn’t some pity arrangement. This was a marriage in every way. I don’t feel slighted. The problem is you feel guilt and you’re confusing it with some puppy love. People change. They outgrow each other—” “No.” “Yes! You can’t see past what he’s been through. I’m sorry for what happened to him. I’m sorry that things worked out this way. But that doesn’t invalidate our feelings. What we share.” “I think it does.” “And if you’re carrying my baby? Then I guess my kid is a mistake, too?” His words were sharp slap across her face. God couldn’t be this cruel. She and Liam didn’t deserve this kind of cruelty. If she were carrying Phil’s child she would lose Liam all over again. He’d never take her back. Silently, she prayed for one more miracle. Phil read meaning into her silence. The look of pain on his face cut her to her core. “I’m not pregnant.” “You don’t know that. How will Liam react?” “This is a mess. I’ve made such a mess of things.” “No you didn’t. You loved him, and now you love me,” Phil said with forced confidence. Kennedy lifted her eyes to his. Aside from her father, she’d only ever loved one man: the man she’d let walk out of the door. *** Despite the curtains in the front room, both Vasquez and Liam could see Angelina’s shadow pace back and forth in the front window to the Vasquez home. When Liam stepped through the door, she stopped, eyes wide and expectant. “How is she?”

“She’s with him, that’s how she is,” Liam said bitterly. He headed for the stairs. He had one goal. Solitude, to round out the night. Angelina looked after him and then to her husband. “What are you saying? She chose Phil?” Vasquez shook his head. “No, it just got ugly and Liam pushed too hard, too fast. When it settles and the tears dry, she will come to him.” “I’m going to call her.” Angelina turned in search for her phone. “Angie, don’t. Kennedy’s in shock. She’s punishing herself. Don’t call over there now. Give her some room.” “Nonsense. I’m her best friend. If I was dumb enough to not be with you after you returned as a POW for five years I would expect her to call me and talk some sense into my head. I can reach her. Hell, I know her. She doesn’t love Phil, she barely wants to—” Angelina froze. Her husband narrowed his eyes on her and she tried to cover the slip. It hit her hard. The past two months, Kennedy had been trying to get pregnant. What if she had succeeded? “She barely wants to what?” Vasquez asked. “I don’t know. Um, the baby kicked.” He walked over and put his hand on her belly. Angelina pressed on her left side to make the baby kick. The action distracted her husband while she processed everything. Vasquez leaned over and began to whisper to her belly in Spanish. She stroked his head and stared up at the ceiling, as though she could see Liam through the floorboards. “What is Phil doing? Is he there with her?” she asked her husband. Vasquez pulled her into his arms and kissed her long and passionately. Angelina was swept away. She blinked up at him, dazed. “What was that for?” “I’m a lucky man. If I ever lost you, I….” “Hey,” she smiled sweetly. “Everything is going to be okay. And honey, you will never lose me. Don’t you dare even think it.” *** “Phil, I need to ask you something. I need for you to do something for me.” Phil looked up at her with relief. He’d started to think Alexa was right, that there would be no saving his marriage, that he’d lost her to Liam. “Anything, sweetheart.” “I want you to move out for awhile. Maybe you can find a place on base? Just until I can get my head together. Until I can answer your questions.” Phil’s smile faded. “You want me to leave our home?”

“It’s a lot to ask, I know. I just—I need to get my head together. I can’t do that with you here pressuring me, needing my reassurance. I’m not certain of anything at this point. Including us.” “I can’t be away from you, Kennedy. I know it’s selfish, but I’m really worried here, babe.” He reached for her. She moved out of range of his hands. “I have a lot to think about.” Phil felt as though the air had been sucked out of the room. His mind scrambled for a response, for leverage. “What about Mackenzie? She’s only four. She’ll be looking for me.” “You can come in the evenings after work to see her so she won’t be too confused, but Mac will need to spend time with Liam. That has to start immediately. In fact, I’m going to arrange for him to see her tomorrow.” “What? That’s not wise. You have to do this gradually. You can’t throw Mac at him.” “I’m not doing that. She’s his daughter. She knows that.” “It will be really confusing to her. We need to supervise this together, explain it to her together.” “She knows him, Phil. She recognized him, ran right outside. And you know Liam. We can’t deny him this. I’m being honest with you here, the thought of him having a relationship with Mac gives me hope. I want that to begin immediately, for both of them.” “For you.” “What?” “Admit it. You want to use your daughter to soften him toward you. So that maybe he’d forgive you for being human. For growing and becoming your own woman. I remember how he treated you. How you wanted to go to school, to do more, but you always wondered what would Liam think. You’ve changed, Kennedy, for the better. You are your own person, not some naïve girl who could feed his hero complex.” “Wow.” Kennedy frowned. “I never knew you felt that way about him.” “Huh? No, I only meant—” “Oh, I got your meaning. Is that how you saw us? How you saw me? That my love for my husband made me weak?” “No. Sweetheart, I’m talking out of my head. Damn it, I’m desperate. I’d say anything to keep you from pushing me away. I’m sorry.” Kennedy glared at him. Phil moved in, tentatively at first, then closer. “You did nothing wrong. How long since he was found? Think about it. How long before Liam told you the truth?” She rubbed her eyes. Phil watched as she began to absorb it all. She’d never known the details, but she knew Liam went on special missions. If the military rescued him, he wouldn’t be coming through the door the next day. He watched her calculating…how

much time had passed before Liam was returned to her? “He walked in here and no one prepared you, Kennedy. Why is it wrong for you to take your time and figure this out? You were young when you got with him, practically a child, but you’re wiser now.” “Just stop insulting him, okay? You made your point. I’m sick of hearing it! You know who you sound like, Phil?” “Who?” “My mother. Boy, you can sing her song really good. Poor dumb Kennedy, and mean ole chauvinist Liam. No wonder you two get along so well.” “No more Liam remarks. I get it. Just don’t send me away. Mackenzie thinks of me as her father. I’ve been the only father she’s ever known.” Kennedy threw her hands up, then dropped them on her hips. “For the last time, she’s his daughter. I won’t keep her from him for one moment. I know you love her. I’ll make sure you have access to her. But I need space. I’m asking if you would leave…for me? For us.” Phil rubbed his jaw. “Only if I can come every day to see Mac and you. I need to be in contact with you two. You’re my family,” he said, and his voice cracked with emotion. She nodded. “Yes. Of course you can come back to see Mac, in a day or two. “ He stepped to her. “What about you, Kennedy? Tell me you haven’t given up already without giving me a chance to fight for us.” She shook her head sadly. “I just need space.” Phil grabbed her hand and kissed it. “I’ll do anything for you. Even this. But I won’t give up on us, or the family we’re supposed to have. I love you.” Kennedy nodded slowly. *** Liam felt a bit stronger when the hotel receptionist handed him his card key. A little independence went a long way. Vasquez handed over his duffel. “I’ll call tomorrow to make sure we have a place for you. Not sure how big of a house it will be, but….” “Whatever you can get for us is fine. I just want Mackenzie to have her own room. A place she can come stay and feel comfortable.” “Got it, brother.” “Ant, I also need a car. You know anyone, or—” “Done.” Liam gave him a brotherly hug. He shrugged the duffel over his shoulder and

managed to carry it while balancing his weight with his cane. “Liam! Wait!” came another voice. He looked back to see Alexa Sinclair marching toward him. Vasquez stopped as well, confused. Had she followed them? She kept her eyes trained on Liam. “What are you doing here, Alex?” “I called your house.” She gave Vasquez a sideways look. “The press is on it. The news has broken. Tomorrow is going to be a shitstorm and we need to talk. Follow me. We can go on base and—” “Not tonight.” Liam turned for the elevator. “Liam! This can’t wait. Do you know what—” “I said not tonight.” He stalked off stiffly. What the fuck did he care about government PR, when his life was falling apart?

Chapter Nine October 1994 Kennedy decorated all day. Fake cobwebs and creepy insects tangled within; plastic Jack-o’-lantern, cardboard black cats, and ghostly white ghouls were posted on the front of the house. She’d erected a scarecrow in the yard. Earlier, her mother had forced her to endure store-to-store shopping for Harper’s Halloween party, and somehow it had also become her duty to see to the outside decorations. Her sister was in third grade, spoiled, and demanding, but also really appreciative, helping wherever she could. Kennedy wanted everything to be picture-perfect for Harper’s special event. The whole family did. Their dad had agreed to wire the outside of the house with spooky dance music like Thriller and Monster Mash. Their mother baked all kinds of wicked treats, including goblin-decorated cupcakes and freshly roasted pumpkin seeds and rice crispy eyes. The party was scheduled for tomorrow, and she planned to dress up as a witch to greet the guests as they arrived. But the work didn’t keep her mind off of him. She’d suffered through most of the day with Liam in her every thought. Each minute ticked by painfully slow. She suffered for her secret love . Her mom had been the first to notice. Gail commented on how she shouldn’t be such a sourpuss in preparing for Harper’s party. She played along, and kept her secret close to her chest. Then good news came. Her mother caved. Her father convinced her to attend one of his business dinners. So Kennedy called Liam and told him the coast would be clear. Normally, when he drove to Connecticut, Sierra could help arrange their meeting by extracting her from the house. But Sierra’s grandma had fallen ill and the family had gone to Miami Beach, which meant any subterfuge had been put on hold. “Kennedy?” She lifted her head from the windowsill. Harper stood there with her white-andblack speckled cat Max in her arms. “Mama said you would make me some macaroni when I wanted it.” Kennedy pondered the request. Liam would be there any minute. She would have to find a way to keep Harper distracted while she entertained him. But her pesky sister had pretty much become her shadow when their parents weren’t home. “Hey, do you want to hang out in the basement? Watch TV there?” “By myself?” Harper frowned. “With Max…and maybe one of my girls.” Kennedy’s gaze swept over to her bookshelf. She reached for her prized American Girl dolls, collectibles and treasures no one was allowed to touch, least of all Harper. They’d been gifts from her daddy when she was Harper’s age. He had such a great tale for each doll he presented to her. He gave Harper her own collectible dolls now, but she remained fascinated with Kennedy’s untouched ones. The truth was Kennedy preserved them because it made her feel more

like his little girl, even though, since Liam, she was a woman. “Are you for real? You’re going to let me play with them?” “One. You can play with this one.” Kennedy smiled. Harper reached her hand out. Kennedy put the doll behind her back. “But you have to stay in the basement. Do not come up, and don’t bother me the rest of the night. I’ll make you some mac and cheese, too.” Harper readily agreed. Kennedy handed the doll over. “Cool. Let’s go.” They went downstairs. She fixed instant macaroni in the microwave, then popped a bag of popcorn, and poured Harper’s favorite, orange pop, over ice in a large cup. Her sister looked upon the feast with wide, appreciative eyes. She was a cute kid and mostly not a pain, but the manipulations were necessary. Harper would tell her mother if she saw Liam and Kennedy together. Kennedy wouldn’t risk that. Just as Kennedy left Harper in the basement, comfortably wrapped in a blanket with the Cartoon Network blaring, she heard the doorbell ring. Kennedy nearly jumped out of her skin. She hustled to the mirror in the vestibule and checked her makeup: lipgloss and a little eye shadow only. She also fixed the front her salmon-pink sundress so it pushed up her breasts. Liam told her he liked her hair curly and picked out. Incurring her mother’s wrath, she’d let it air-dry all morning. She was ready. Kennedy smoothed down the front of her dress and approached the door like the lady of the manor. She opened it and smiled. Liam looked yummy. He stood there in his leather three-quarter-length jacket and a baseball cap. “You alone?” “You said you were going to call,” she grinned. She pulled his hand. “Babe, I don’t think I should come in. Can you leave?” “No. I told you, I got my kid sister.” “Cool, let’s take her to get something to eat.” Kennedy’s eyes went wide. “Are you crazy? She’ll tell on me.” Liam sighed. He looked around at the decorations and smirked. “Festive.” “Don’t ask. We do this every year. Kids come to our house for a party instead of trick-or-treating.” “It’s cool.” He nodded. “Come on in.” He didn’t move. “What’s wrong?” “Feels weird sneaking in your house and all. Your age and shit. This is wrong. Let’s go for a ride. Bring the kid.”

“Oh, Liam, we talked about this. Now come in, we don’t have all night.” When he still wouldn’t move, she wanted to scream at him. There would never be a perfect opportunity like tonight. And truthfully, his standing there in his leather jacket and Chicago Cubs baseball cap made her horny as hell. They’d had sex, lots of sex, every time they saw each other. She craved him. Liam was all over her and kind of rough with it but she liked his aggression. She felt him and wanted him in ways she never imagined she could. “Tell you what. How about the boathouse?” She ventured outside despite the chill. Liam stepped back. He looked at her three-story house and then at her. “It’s around back. It’s heated and private. Where did you park?” “Two houses down on the street.” “Perfect. We can see anyone coming. I can sneak back in the house if my folks come and you can get away with no one ever noticing. It’s perfect.” “You’re shivering.” Liam rolled off his leather jacket and threw it around her shoulders. Kennedy felt nothing but the heat in his gaze. She rose to her tiptoes and offered him glossed-up lips. To her delight, he accepted the kiss and returned it, seeking what they’d both missed all week. “Hello, beautiful.” He touched the side of her face. “I have missed you.” “Hello, handsome. I have missed you, too.” “Show me this boathouse.” Kennedy made sure the door was locked and secure. She took his hand and walked him around the colonial-style house with its low-trimmed hedges. The drive from the street to the front door of her parents’ home was a quarter-mile stretch. Most of the view was blocked by tall elm trees, but Mrs. Rogers next door had all-seeing eyes, so she needed to get him away from the door, quick. Around the back of the four-car garage was a laid brick sidewalk. It led off between the trees. She noticed the way Liam eyed her dad’s classic convertible Jaguar, the one he’d restored himself. “Wanna check it out?” “No,” Liam said softly. “You like cars?” “I can fix a few. When I get settled, I’m gonna get me a 1967 Pontiac GTO and hook it up.” “That’s cool.” She wondered what a GTO looked like. Together, they circled the garage and headed toward the man-made lake. Seven other homes shared the same tranquil waters. It felt cooler to the back of the property as wind blew in and shook the branches heavy with autumn leaves. “This is pretty nice, rich girl,” said Liam. “It’s okay, I guess.” She went to the door of the boathouse and sighed with relief to find it open. They went inside. Kennedy sneezed at the dusty, stale air. It wasn’t the season for boating. Her father’s speedboat was half-covered by a blue-green tarp. Liam lifted the

edge a bit to peek in at the sleek machine. Kennedy, however, went toward a door to the back, a small room with more windows than walls. Inside, there was a really comfortable dark blue futon, a portable TV, and a mini-fridge. Her dad would sometimes come out here and watch the game and drink his beers so her mother wouldn’t bother him. She stooped before the fridge and got Liam two Heinekens. As he walked around, she turned to him and smiled. “Alone at last,” Liam said. “Here.” She handed off the beer and kept one for herself. Liam had to laugh to himself. She was his girl all right; at times, she knew his needs before he did. The beer would hit the spot, knock out his bad case of nerves. Even now he wondered how random his luck was to let a treasure such as her blow into his path. Young, beautiful, rich, the kind of girl back home that not only ignored a guy like him but he avoided like the plague. He took both beers out of her hands and she pouted. He sat down and set the cool bottles to the floor. “Come here, Kay.” Kennedy stood there with his jacket on and her arms crossed. “Why can’t I have a beer with you?” “You know why. Fuck, Kay, I’ve already corrupted you. Think I’m gonna make it worse by giving you something to drink so your folks can come back and smell it on you? Nope, we need to be careful, babe.” She rolled her eyes. “You said you didn’t care about my age, but you keep bringing it up.” “It’s too late to care, is what I said. I want to protect you. Promise me you won’t drink anything unless you are with me. In fact, promise me that you won’t hit any of those parties with Sierra if I’m not there.” Kennedy’s eyes sparkled with love. “You are so jealous.” “Come here, girl.” She removed his jacket and turned, leaning over provocatively to toss it behind her. He stared at her legs, letting his eyes climb to the hem of her skirt. His focus became singular. He wished he could see her round ass under that skirt. Her body alone had ruined him for all other women. Even so, maybe he wouldn’t feel like such a cradle-robber if she were closer to turning eighteen. He wished he’d known that before she cast her spell on him, which had him driving 100 miles an hour each weekend to creep around Connecticut just to be with her. When she turned around, he let his gaze linger on the heart-shaped bodice that cupped her breasts sweetly. She was so feminine. That was another thing about Kennedy he loved. Most girls wore tight jeans and cut-off shirts showing their navels to the front and the crack of their asses to the back. Not Kay. Her dresses were like something out of the fifties, with those flared skirts that dropped from her curvy hips. He loved how fresh

and ladylike she always appeared. He’d seen her every weekend since they’d met. One of those weekend visits consisted of only two hours at the mall before Sierra had to take her back home. Still, nothing prevented him from making the drive or spending most nights talking to her on the phone until they fell asleep. So yes, he sexed her each chance he got. How the fuck else was he going to make it through the week? “Come here.” Kennedy sashayed over, exaggerating the swing of her hips to tease him. He held his hand out to her and she was a good girl, taking it, then straddling his lap. He loved it when she did that, her sweet breath in his face and the heat of her sex over his subdued cock. He cupped her neck, lifting her chin with his thumb to study her. “You didn’t wear any panties, did you?” “No, Liam, you don’t like me to,” she teased. “Besides, you keep stealing them.” He sighed. He dropped his head back on the soft futon cushion as he rubbed her slender neck. “Kay, I think I….” He started to say the words, but again they lodged in his throat. Did she know how crazy he was for her? She’d confessed her love for him two days after they’d hooked up. He didn’t believe her at first. But it was hard to keep from not believing in anything Kennedy said. She had become the only light of love in his life. Liam wasn’t usually one to admit his fears, but he did fear what it would do to him if he told her and she didn’t truly feel the same. Kennedy batted long, dark lashes over hazel-brown eyes and he lost his nerve. He reminded himself that she was young and he was her first. It was possible he was no more than a crush. She probably loved him the same way she loved roller coasters, her designer Gucci purse, and her Usher poster. First love would make a girl like Kennedy see stars and butterflies around a guy one minute, then sober her up to recognize he’s just another loser the next. There loomed an even bigger concern for Liam. What kind of future could they really have? She belonged to a world where you had four-car garages and a boathouse. The pad he had back in Chicago with his mother was a two-bedroom apartment. Mackenzie, his little sister, had the smallest room and he had the sofa bed in the living room. He’d traded it for Heath’s sofa in Newark. His life was shit. “What is it, Liam?” “Just sitting here thinking how special you are.” “But you were going to say something.” He pulled her neck forward. He licked her bottom lip. “I want to fuck you,” he said. She giggled and threw her arms around him. Her eager tongue darted into his mouth with swift, quick strokes that made his groin tight. She rolled her sweet hips on top, something she knew he liked. Liam sucked in a deep breath, running his hands up her

thighs, then under her dress. Her skin felt so soft. He found himself constantly squeezing and licking, sometimes biting parts of her. He had to touch her, see her tits bounce and ass jiggle, get buried deep. He eased his hand over her silky pubes to the plump lips of her sex. He rubbed her clit until he felt it swell against the pad of his finger and she moaned against his lips. Kennedy lifted on her knees to grant him better access. Liam took the liberty to slip two fingers into her cunt. Damn. Damn. Damn. Each time he went there he found her tight and ready with wet heat. “In my shirt pocket, beautiful,” he said between kisses. Kennedy reached inside and removed the condom, but it dropped from her small hand when he quickened his finger action, thrusting both in and out until her ass shook and her thighs quivered through her impending release. She bit down on her bottom lip and her response drove him crazy. Face to face, he saw her eyes roll and re-focus as he pumped her channel with his finger. She then dropped her head to his shoulder and bounced in the palm of his hand. Her whole body was racked with deep shudders. “That’s right babe, come for me. I got you. Come for me.” “Li-iam it-it-it feeels sooo good.” She gasped and wheezed as she let go. Liam relaxed his hand. He picked up the condom as Kennedy eased down to his knees and fumbled with his belt and zipper. Her nails scraped his cock when she drew it out and he hissed in a breath at the sting. But Liam liked her urgency. She was insatiable. The more he explored sex with her the more ravenous her appetite became. There’d always been a little adventure to it. Because sex had to be done in some clandestine spot not their own, neither of them wasted a moment. “I’ll do it.” She took the condom. She covered the round head of his cock with the rubber cap then rolled it down his ramrod-straight shaft. “I’m good at this now, huh?” she grinned. Liam smiled. He didn’t speak. Kennedy lifted to her knees, hiking her skirt so high he got a glimpse of her tender pussy, before she let the fabric fall and cover them both. She rubbed her slit over his dick, then parted the lips to receive him. Bracing her free hand against his shoulder, she got higher on her knees. She hovered a bit, angling her hips, then pressed down. Slowly, Kennedy began her descent. Tight heat gripped him. “Yes!” Liam shot his hips up for more. “So good, Kay. You’re right, babe, it’s so fucking good.” Liam observed the look on her face as she began to move. The whites of her eyes disappeared behind her fluttering lashes. Her soft, full lips parted. She had no idea how beautiful she was. She clenched her buttocks and pumped her hips and her channel squeezed his cock. He sat up and she pushed him down. Both her hands were pressed flat to his chest and she continued to move. She let her head fall back to reveal the slender perfection of her neck. Draped around it was a floating heart on a thin gold chain. It rested at the crease between her pert breasts. She said her father gave it to her and told him the meaning. He vowed to give her things, beautiful things one day, and cherish her. Liam gripped her ass, squeezed both halves, forcing her to go faster. He sat up to lick the tender skin of her throat, suck on her pulse without leaving a mark. Kennedy was

his. He’d be damned if any other man on this planet ever sampled the sweet, pure love he found in her arms. Liam lost all sense of control. He could barely take it, thrusting hard enough to send pleasure all the way to his knees. She killed him with her lap dance, never breaking rhythm. She just kept giving him more, over and over until his head swam and the room became hazy. “Slow down, Kay. Mmm, babe, gimme a minute.” She eased up for a second, long enough to give him a wicked grin, and then she started loving him again. Liam groaned. He wanted to punish her ass, but first, he planned to enjoy their union just a little more. He flicked his tongue at her golden floating heart, tipped his head down to suck the tops of her breasts. Her nails dug into his shoulders. She was open for him. Liam took hold of her hips and directed her so she could take all of him in deep thrusts. Her head dropped forward, her forehead touching his as she did so. The need to bust a nut wound so tight in his groin he could feel himself begin to shudder. “Get up babe. Turn around,” he stammered. She lifted from his cock and he nearly wept over the separation. She gathered her skirt around her hips and turned to reveal her round ass. She backed toward him and he aided her in straddling his lap from the opposite direction. He was in her again with a single thrust and this time it was her turn to cry out. Liam sat up. He pushed down on her back and Kennedy pitched forward. He held her skirt so he could watch her nicely shaped ass moving on his lap. Liam reclined again, lifting his hips as she fell on his shaft. He watched himself slip in and out and was turned on even more by the contrast of their skin. It made him wild as a mad dog. He nearly started to howl, it felt and looked so good. She didn’t miss a beat. “Kay, girl. You kill me, babe.” Gloriously tight, wet, he found her both soft and accommodating, Liam struggled to make it last. Kennedy gripped his knees; she fell forward between his parted legs to give him full access. Holding on to her side, he pressed his other hand to the small of her back to keep her in place. It would now be Liam’s turn to shudder and grunt, pumping his release into the reservoir of the condom. Dazed, he thought about how much he wanted to rip it off and come all over her ass, then inside her again. Fuck, he needed more. “Ah, Liam, can you help me up?” “Shit. Sorry, babe.” He pulled her back and held her, cupping both her breasts through the thin fabric of her dress. Kay remained with him semi-erect, still buried inside her. She rested against his chest, panting. He waited until he could feel her heartbeat stabilize under his hands. “Babe, let me get out the bed.” “Okay,” she said, slowly coming off him. He held to the rim of the condom, keeping her safe. Kennedy found tissues to clean herself, then gave him some to deposit the condom in before she buried it and the wrapper at the bottom of the trash. He rose, pulling up his pants. He fumbled at the bottom of the futon and unlatched it. “Don’t you think you should go and check on your kid sister?”

He looked up and saw she too glanced back, toward the door. “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll be right back.” He smiled as she slipped out. Liam fell on the futon and closed his eyes. He felt exhausted, not just from the way she’d done him, but also from the drive in. Soon he drifted to sleep. Then she returned; he felt her slender, naked body ease over his, and she placed small, sweet kisses to his jaw and neck. He rolled her to her back and she blinked up at him. He discovered it wasn’t one of his many dreams of her. She was pinned beneath him. Her dress had been left on the floor. “We got another hour and you have to go, Liam. To be safe.” “Yeah, kind of figured.” “Are you really tired? I don’t want to waste our time. I wanted to…I miss you so much when I don’t see you.” “I miss you too, Kay.” She seemed satisfied with his response. She closed her eyes and kissed him, locking her arms around his neck so she could hold him to her. He pushed his jeans off all the way. Kay gave him more and more tongue, hooking her legs around his waist. Liam lifted up and stared down at her with wonder. He knew his next move would be a selfish one, but he would have to make it to say what he wanted to say. To her surprise, he slipped into her unsheathed. She looked a little scared at first. But when he got buried deep and started to thrust, the worry left her face. “Kay. Look at me, babe.” Liam clenched his buttocks and pumped harder and faster. She managed to open her eyes. Good, he loved to look into her eyes when he was inside her. He pushed one of her legs back and she whimpered. He kept going with his thrusts, fast and furious. She never complained. He hit her core from every angle, rocking and swinging her hips before he could stand it no more and exploded inside of her. Kay probably hadn’t come. Liam dropped on her. He panted, unable to apologize. “Kay. Kay….” “Yes, Liam?” “I love you. I want you always.” She shoved at his chest and looked up at him, shocked. “What did you say?” He smiled. “I love you, Kay. I love you.” Kennedy squealed and kissed his face. He let go of her legs and lay on her, kissing and suckling her lips. He couldn’t lie. Kennedy Washington would his, forever and always.

Chapter Ten Kennedy sat on her bed in the dark. Phil had left an hour ago and she hadn’t stopped crying. The only thing she seemed capable of was more tears. She remembered when he’d first said he loved her. How excited she’d been. From that day forward, a day never went by when the words didn’t pass between them. Kennedy released a sad sigh. Being separated from him would be torture. She would have to find out if she was pregnant. Soon. The door to her room pushed open. Her little girl walked in, rubbing sleep from her eye with her fist. She noticed Mackenzie had returned to her thumb-sucking habit in full force. Given the circumstances, Kennedy thought she’d allow it for a few days. She’d grant her baby girl anything to give her comfort. Her poor, sweet Mac must be so confused. “Come here, baby.” She extended her arms. Mackenzie wandered over with her wild curls in her face. She climbed atop the bed and went directly into her mother’s embrace. “You hungry?” Kennedy asked, smoothing out her daughter’s hair. Mackenzie shrugged sleepily and Kennedy smiled. Mothering her was what they both needed. Before she could get out of bed, the phone rang. Reaching for it, she saw on the caller ID it was the Marriott Suites. Phil, she thought. She worried over answering in front of Mackenzie, who had no idea he’d left. Why is he calling so soon? “Hello?” “Kay…um, it’s me.” “Liam? Uh, hi.” “I didn’t call to upset you…I just wanted to say, well I wanted to know if Mackenzie was okay. I scared her this evening.” “She’s okay, Liam. She’s right here with me. She’s fine.” “Oh. Good. Um, good, okay. I just wanted to tell her goodnight.” “Hold on.” Kennedy put the phone to Mackenzie’s ear. She could hear Liam say good night to her daughter. But Mackenzie said nothing. He said he loved her and couldn’t wait to see her again. Mackenzie didn’t respond. “She’s sleepy, Liam.” Kennedy said. She cuddled Mackenzie to her breast and tucked the covers around her. “I’m sorry I called so late.” “No, I’m glad you called…I mean, I wanted to say goodnight to you, too.” “There’s something you should know,” he said. Immediately her chest tightened

with dread. She held her breath and braced for the news. “Okay?” “The media has learned about my rescue. Tomorrow might be crazy. I don’t want you blindsided.” “Thanks for the warning. How do you feel…I mean you’re on a cane. Did you get hurt? That’s silly, I’m sure you got hurt…but do you need anything? Anything I can do?” “My leg feels fine compared to my heart. You want to fix that?” he asked in that husky voice that always made her weak. Kennedy closed her eyes. Oh my, how she enjoyed the sound of him. She’d missed it, she missed all of him. Suddenly she felt giddy as her mind absorbed the reality that her man had returned. “Liam….” “It’s okay, I get it. I was wrong to lash out at you like this. I know you’ve been through hell, too. I don’t know, Kay. Things just aren’t how I thought they would be. Does that make sense?” “Me either. Liam, I prayed so hard. I prayed so hard and so long until I just couldn’t function. In my heart, deep in my heart I knew you were out there. I’m so happy you’re back.” “Right,” he snapped and the bitterness in his tone stung. She needed to find her backbone. Stop groveling with him. She was mad at him, too. She’d had time to think. He’d gone over to Mackenzie’s school. Phil was right, he’d been out of that hellish desert for some time and she didn’t know. No one had breathed a word of it. How was that fair? Had Liam watched her from afar, not trusting her enough to tell him the truth? If two months ago she’d known he’d returned to her, he would have come home to a different welcoming. Hell, twenty-four hours would have made a huge difference. He’d robbed her of so much. “How long have you been back, Liam? How long?” He didn’t say a word. “Did you show up at Mackenzie’s school?” “Yes.” “How could you do that? How could you go there and see her without coming to see me? Do you know how much that hurts?” “Actually, I tried to decide if you would give a shit.” “Oh, stop it. You should have had them call me the moment they rescued you. Tell me that you were alive so that I could prepare for you to meet your daughter, so I could….” “Leave Phil? Is that what you were going to say?” “So I could prepare. The second they found you I deserved to know.” Kennedy

sniffled. “They had an obligation to me. They owed me that, even if you forgot.” “Why? You’re married to another man.” “Liam, you have to let me explain this.” “I know, but I’m angry with you, Kay. I don’t know where to put that anger. See it from my point of view.” “I do.” “No. You don’t. No one does. Five years of my life is gone. Mac was born and I wasted away in my own shit. She took her first steps and they were torturing—” “Oh, Liam….” Kennedy felt the tears well and threaten to pour again. “I said I wasn’t going to do this,” he mumbled. She believed him. But if he needed to get it out, she would take it. As long as he gave her a little forgiveness, too. “You need to talk to someone. I want to be that person. I want to know everything, be part of your healing process.” “No you don’t.” “I miss you even now, Liam.” He said something but it came out as a grumble. She smiled. She could see the dark fury in his eyes and the stubborn set to his jaw. He was the same Liam. Then he spoke. “I can’t get my emotions under control, Kay, but I’ll try. I swear it.” They remained in silence for several minutes, just listening to each other breathe. “I want you to know I didn’t forget, sweetheart.” “Forget what?” he asked. “Before sunrise. I just didn’t know it would take five years for dawn to break.” Liam chuckled. He actually laughed. Kennedy smiled, too. “Yeah, I guess we’ve both been living in darkness waiting for dawn to break. I’m sorry for that, Kay.” “Don’t apologize. Not anymore.” “I need you, Kennedy. Not just because you are my wife, which you are, no matter what that man lying next to you says.” The bitterness in Liam’s voice pricked at her heart. “I need you because you’re a part of me. Your love helped me survive. If I lose it now, I have nothing to live for.” Kennedy nodded. “You don’t understand. You haven’t lost me. You never lost me. I’ll be yours again soon.” “Not if you’re with him!” “Liam—” “We won’t go through it tonight on the phone. But I have a request.”

“Okay.” “I want to see Mac again. As soon as possible.” “Okay.” “Can she miss school?” “I guess a day won’t hurt.” “Good. I will come and get her tomorrow. What time do you go to the office?” “I’m not going.” More silence. “Good night, Kay.” “Liam?” “Yes.” “Sally, does she know?” “No one but you until those media assholes got wind of it. You and Mac were all I could think of when I came back.” Kennedy nodded not wanting to the end their conversation. “Call her. Call her next, Liam. She’s been through a lot.” “Hmpf.” Smiling, she held the phone and listened to the soft sound of his breathing. “I love you, Liam. You may not believe this, but I’m so happy you are home.” He hung up. “Good night,” she said softly to an empty receiver. She laid Mackenzie next to her and pulled the covers up over them both. “Daddy’s home, baby, and mommy’s going to make sure we’re a family again.” She settled into the idea of getting a pregnancy test, one of the ones that told you early. As soon as she proved she wasn’t pregnant she’d tell Phil the truth. She wanted her Liam back. She just had to stay cool, calm about it, to make sure Liam didn’t cue in to her concerns. That news would kill him. She felt less desperate after forming a plan, after their talk on the phone. Though Liam remained impatient with her, he was hers. She was his. That could never change. Kennedy yawned as sleep came. “I love you, too,” she mumbled, drifting off.

Chapter Eleven Nightmares. Kennedy drowned in the worst of them. Lost in a desert of blistering heat and scorching red sands, she chased the fading sounds of a crying infant. Could it be Mackenzie? She wasn’t sure. A mother knows her child’s cry and this baby’s pain pierced her heart with regret. Kennedy ran with rubbery legs up and down dunes of sinking sand, panting against the humid, hot air that filled her lungs. Sweat pooled and ran in rivers down her face and neck. The hot grains quickly dissolved into sinkholes under her feet. Pockets of loose sand closed around her submerged feet and slowed her down. Soon, exhaustion got the best of her. She dropped to her knees, reduced to crawling as the sun seared her with boiling rays that punished her skin. It melted from her bones. Kennedy continued, because the infant’s cries demanded so. And finally she found herself at the opening of an army tent. She imagined rescue, hope, help would be found behind the camouflage flap. The loud wails of her child drummed a beat of panic through her skull. Summoning strength she didn’t know she could harness, she rose to her feet and stumbled inside. Phil was dressed in fatigues, with his shirt open and his dog tags gleaming off his well-defined upper chest. He paced with the baby and tried to calm him or her, then turned fully to face Kennedy. It was then she saw the infant wrapped in a blanket like the one Mackenzie had when she had been born. The sweet child squealed and Kennedy felt her breasts ache, her nipples leak. To her horror the front of her dress had stains forming while the urge to nurse left her trembling. “Whose baby?” she asked with a shaky voice. Phil turned the child to face her. One look at the baby with its smooth, caramel skin and fat cheeks, Kennedy knew exactly who. “Is that our baby?” Kennedy wept. She took a step toward them and Phil stepped back. The earth split with a loud cackle of thunder. Under their feet, sand poured into a sinking hole from which the wails of tortured souls drifted upward and out. Kennedy stumbled to avoid slipping in. The sandy ground continued to cave inward and a hole the size of a car spread between them. Kennedy cried out when flames shot up from its depths. The acrid smell of sulfur and burning flesh singed her nostrils. “There she is, the woman who abandoned us both,” Phil said, his voice cracking with emotion. He narrowed angry, unforgiving eyes on her. “You don’t want our child, then neither do I.” To her horror, Phil Freeman threw the infant into the flames.

Kennedy woke upright in the bed, a strangled scream in her throat. Gagging, she grabbed her chest in fright. She sucked down deep breaths and tried to shake off the nightmare. The fear, the terror, the guilt had her heart pounding furiously. She squeezed her eyes to shut out the screams in her head. “It’s only a dream, a dream, a dream, a dream,” she whispered. The chant began to ease her into reality. Her heart stabilized. Kennedy reopened her eyes and searched her room. She remembered: Liam, Phil, Mackenzie, sleep—where had Mackenzie gone? Her side of the bed was empty. It may have been irrational, but after what she’d seen in her dream, Kennedy needed Mackenzie in her arms immediately. She snatched back the comforter and hurried to her daughter’s room. She wasn’t there. Chilled to the bone, Kennedy rushed on shaky legs to the stairs. The death of an innocent dream-baby remained front and center in her mind. On the brink of tears, she started down the stairs, hand to the wall. “Mac? Mac where are you?” “In here with daddy!” she heard Mackenzie call out. Daddy? Liam? Kennedy’s heart began to pound. She arrived at the bottom step to find Phil at the breakfast table, pouring flakes into Mackenzie’s bowl. “Hi, mommy.” he glanced up. Kennedy stopped cold. Phil winked at her. “What are you doing here?” “He come home to fix me breakfast before he go to work, right, daddy?” Mackenzie said. “I never miss breakfast, cupcake.” He kissed the top of Mackenzie’s head. Kennedy approached them both. She gripped the top of the dinette chair and glared at her husband. Phil sipped his orange juice, holding her stare over the top of his glass. The accusation in his eyes remained the same as the dream and her anxiety pitched another degree. Kennedy tried to act as if things were normal, but Phil’s return left her incensed, and for the first time a little fearful. “I asked you a question.” “How did you sleep, beautiful?” “M’kay, I guess.” Mackenzie answered, as if he was speaking to her. “You going into work today?” he asked pointedly of Kennedy. “No. What are you doing here?” “I came to warn you.” Kennedy saw Mackenzie scoop hefty spoonfuls of cereal into her mouth. Milk dripped down her chin. She looked so happy, basking in the affection Phil showered upon her. All of it knifed at her heart. She gave Phil a nod to meet her in the living room. She went to the sofa and sat on it, and waited. She had no idea when Liam would show up, but she felt too drained for another incident between these men. Besides, the nightmare still had her reeling. Phil sauntered across the carpet and settled onto the ottoman with a very serious

look on his face. “What is it?” she asked. “When I got to the base last night, things were crazy. Eric is back, and Alexa showed up with a team from the Pentagon. Looks like the media knows about Liam. They’ll swarm this house today, Mac’s school, the firm. You’ll need me here to—” “No.” “Kennedy, I—” “No. Phil, we talked about this. I asked for space.” “Yes, but this is different. Those people are vultures. And there’s something else.” “What?” “I was debriefed. The terrorists that had Liam may be targeting you and Mac. Now do you understand why I came back? I have to protect you, sweetheart.” “Stop.” She put up her hand. “Fine. I get it. But, is there a way we can just get a man posted here, to watch over the family or something?” Phil heaved a defeated sigh. He shifted against the ottoman, not answering. “Phil, you said you understood.” “I lied.” “I need this.” “There are men posted outside. Alexa and Vasquez have already arranged it. Still, I think if there is danger I need to be here.” “I know you do. I know. But we will be fine at least for the next couple of days. Besides, you said the media will be swarming. I won’t be leaving the house.” Phil rose and came over to the sofa. Kennedy cut her eyes away but didn’t object when he sat next to her. He put an arm around her and his hand to her tummy. She ignored the implication. Phil wouldn’t leave it alone. “How are you feeling?” “I’ve had nightmares,” confessed Kennedy. “Want to talk about it?” “No,” she said sadly. “And the baby?” “We don’t know if I’m pregnant.” “Miracles happen, Kennedy. Liam’s proof of that. I think another one has happened, too. I think all of it is destiny.” “I would never have an abortion, Phil, if that’s what you’re thinking. Never.” Kennedy’s eyes welled with tears. “I know you wouldn’t, sweetheart. You’re a good mother and we will be good

parents.” Though she knew he was right, she closed her mind to the prospect. They’d been actively trying for weeks. There was a strong chance she was pregnant. What then? “Don’t cry, sweetheart.” He tried to turn her face to kiss her, but she turned away. She rose, crossing her arms under her breasts. “I think you should go. Now.” From the corner of her eye, she registered Phil’s anger, which he controlled with a thin smile. “Okay. I’ll come back tomorrow evening.” He rose and stepped in close. “Call first.” Phil stood there as if he wanted to say more. She prayed he wouldn’t. One more word and she was liable to scream at him. He remained mercifully silent. He kissed her brow, then her cheek, and he was gone. Kennedy stood perfectly still, staring at nothing. She didn’t move until the phone rang. She didn’t even hear it ring until Mackenzie called her name. Forcing her mind and body to work together, she answered on the final ring before the voicemail claimed the caller. “Hello?” “Hi. I-I-I’m looking at the news, sis. Is this for real? Is Liam alive?” Harper stammered. “Yes.” Kennedy smiled slowly. “He’s alive.” “But how? How is that possible?” “It’s a miracle.” “A Christmas miracle,” said Harper. With all the disruption, Kennedy had forgotten about the holiday. This would be Liam’s first Christmas home since the nightmare began. She could see him standing before a tree, with Mackenzie. Oh, she longed for that moment. “Yes, it’s a Christmas miracle.” “I’m on my way over there right now. As soon as I get dressed. Girl, can you believe it? Liam is alive. I want to cry and laugh at the same time. I can’t wait to see him!” “He’s not here, Harper.” Kennedy picked up the empty cereal bowl. She carried it to the sink as Mac raced for the TV room. “Oh, crap. What am I thinking? What does ‘the pretender’ say about all this?” Kennedy rolled her eyes. “I told you not to call Phil that.” “Whatever. I guess I was right, huh? He can’t pretend to be Liam with my boy alive, now can he? Too bad for him Liam ain’t gonna stand for that crap.” To this, Kennedy couldn’t respond. Her sister was eighteen now, and of her own mind. Harper had told Kennedy on more than one occasion that Phil’s devotion appeared

to be more that of a stalker than a suitor. Harper found everything genuine about Phil creepy. But Phil never deviated from his affection or support, and had tried to change her sister’s mind about him many times. Of course, Harper remained biased. She and Liam shared a special bond. After Harper caught Kennedy and Liam sneaking out of her parents’ boathouse years ago, he’d done everything in his power to win her over to their team. And it didn’t take long. Soon Harper had considered Liam her boyfriend, too, and as a result, their sexytimes were cut short. Most stolen moments at her parents’ place were spent with Harper right between them with her head resting on Liam’s arm and Kennedy off to the other end of the sofa, fuming. Liam, on the other hand, seemed to love it. Bought her sister presents and talked about her favorite, silly Disney Channel shows. But all of it had been pre-discovery. When her mother found out who ‘Liam’ was, everything changed. “I’m sorry, sis. You must be so…this has to be hard for you, and my God, Liam too. Have you two talked about this?” “Not really. More like screaming, crying, and slamming doors,” Kennedy said. Harper laughed. “Like old times!” Kennedy drew down the door to the dishwasher, she noisily stacked the breakfast bowls and milk-stained glasses. “Not quite. But yes, it’s not a good time for either of us. There’s a lot to work out.” “Damn, Liam is alive. Has he seen Mac? Oh man, he’s going to flip to know you named her after his kid sister. Especially when he sees how much she looks like him, got that cute smile of his. Liam will get such a kick out of that.” “And his stubborn temper, she has that, too. Yes, they met. Apparently he saw her first. It’s all screwed up.” “I don’t understand. How could he see her first?” “I don’t want to talk about it.” Kennedy turned on the dishwasher. The cranky machine purred into action, then sputtered to a stop. “Shit,” Kennedy said, surprised to hear the word slip from her lips with Mackenzie in earshot. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing. Nothing.” She leaned back against the counter, chewing on her nail. Not only did she have to deal with her pregnancy scare, but she had terrorists out there looking for Liam, and her. She was too stressed out for a busted dishwasher on top of that. Everything was happening so fast. When would she be able to catch her breath? The phone beeped. “Harper, hold on,” Kennedy said. She pressed the button to switch lines. “Hello?” “Kennedy?” “Mom?” Kennedy’s eyes stretched wide in surprise. She hadn’t heard from her mother since earlier that month, when they discussed plans for Mackenzie’s birthday.

“Sweetheart, the news says….” Gail’s voice became tight with emotion. She heard her father asking for the phone. “Babygirl?” “Hi, daddy.” “Is it true? Is Liam alive?” Kennedy burst into tears. If ever she wanted her father, it was right now. He was the only man other than Liam who could ease her fears. “Kennedy, sweetheart, we’re getting on the next flight out. We’ll be there tonight.” “No. No. I’m okay.” “Are you sure? So it is true? It’s really true!” “Yes. He’s alive. It’s a miracle. He’s back.” “Sweet, merciful God. Gail, it’s true. It’s Liam. He’s alive!” Kennedy heard her mother speaking fast, her voice raised and animated. With her mother, there was never a good thing she could find to say about Liam and he felt the same about her. But Kennedy hoped that this would be a healing for all of them. She heard her mother take the phone. “This is great, um, really great, sweetheart.” Gail said. “I’m so happy for Mac. She needs her father.” “I need him too, mama,” said Kennedy. Gail grew quiet. Then she spoke. “Where’s Phil? How is he dealing with this?” “It’s complicated,” Kennedy mumbled. “I can imagine. We’re coming, there, to help you both…sort this out.” “No. Not yet, everything is crazy right now. Give it a few days, please. I just got so much on my plate.” “I understand, sweetheart. Tell Phil to call me. He must need someone to talk to as well. Can you imagine waking up to find out that your marriage in jeopardy?” “Are you kidding? Liam was tortured in a desert for five years. How could anyone have suffered more than him?” “Of course sweetheart, I only meant—” “Mmhmm.” Kennedy rolled her eyes. “Can I speak to daddy?” “Hi, honey.” Her father’s deep baritone came through the phone, flooding her with strength, energy she could take to go on. “Daddy, I’ll call you tonight okay?” “I’m so happy Liam’s alive. I can’t wait to see him. This is wonderful news, for us all.” “Thanks, daddy. I’m sure he wants to see you, too. I love you both. Bye.”

The moment the call ended, the phone rang loudly in her hand. Suddenly, Kennedy remembered she’d put Harper on hold. “Hey? Sorry, sis.” “Damn. You forgot about me!” “It was mom and daddy. They want to come down here.” “Oh, brother. You better block that. Mama is the president of the Phil Freeman fan club. She will just stir stuff up. She’ll pour gasoline on Liam’s temper.” “I know. I told them to give me a few days. I can’t take on any more pressure right now.” The line beeped again. “Harper, it’s the phone. I will see you when you get here.” “Okay.” “Hello?” she said again, clicking over. “Kennedy, its Eric.” “Eric. Oh wow, hey. Thanks for calling me.” “Hey love, how are you?” “Pissed at you.” She walked out of the kitchen. “I can explain.” “I know I’m not a special agent or some military commando trained on treacherous behavior, but I have a funny feeling you’ve been holding out on me. A month ago I get this call, from some random Department of Defense number. My guess is that Alexa wouldn’t call here to share the news, so that leaves you. You had him, all this time you had my Liam and you didn’t say a word. You of all people, Eric, know how badly I begged that you continue to search for him. Why didn’t you tell me?” “I’m sorry, I really am. I had no choice. He wasn’t well when we found him. Hell, at first we didn’t know if he’d even wake up.” Kennedy stopped at the door to the family room. Mackenzie lay in front of the TV with her chin in her hands. Eric had all the details, and she had to decide quickly how much of Liam’s suffering she really wanted to know. “How bad was he?” “Bad.” Kennedy felt light-headed. She pulled out a chair and sat down. “How is he now?” “Better.” “The truth, Eric.” “He’ll recover. Just got a lot on him, lot of shit in his mind he won’t let anyone reach. The world has changed some, things have changed on him.” “You mean me. Me and Phil.” Eric didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. What was there to say? “You were protecting

him, is that it? From me?” “No. Kennedy. When he came out from hell, he spoke your name first. I know he’s bitter and I heard from Ant how he lost it with you. I’m calling to tell you to keep the faith. Liam loves you. For him, time hasn’t moved on, even if you have.” “I haven’t. Not really. You know that, Eric.” “Of course. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m trying to say that he loves only you. He needs your patience. He needs to talk to someone about his time in Afghanistan. He rejected it at first, but….” “But what, Eric?” The nervousness in his voice alarmed her. Eric Drake was never nervous. “Look. I know a guy…Liam would kill me if he knew I suggested this. But I read his psych eval before I landed. You need to convince him to get into therapy. I don’t want him to have a break. Do you understand?” “You’re scaring me.” “I’m probably making it sound worse than it is. He’s tough. He’s always been a tough guy. But he’s human. He has to release his anger, deal with his pain. Your love is a good start.” “I’ve hurt him so badly.” “Not intentionally, and deep down he knows that.” Kennedy nodded. She tried to accept Eric’s words as their truth. But hidden in her heart, she feared there were a lot of truths she wasn’t ready to accept. “What should I do, Eric? If you spoke to Anthony, then you know what Liam wants.” “Is it what you want?” “Yes,” she said. “I do. It’s just—well it’s not as easy as Liam thinks it is. Phil, he, he’s been a friend, a father to Mac and I owe him…I guess I owe him closure.” “Yeah, well you know how I feel about that brother.” “He has a stake in this too, Eric.” “You know I love you like a sister, but Phil has hated on my boy from day one. C’mon, Kennedy.” “That feud between them, it makes no sense. It was Liam who asked him to watch out for me when he was in the field.” “Ever heard of keeping your enemies close?” “It’s such a horrible mess,” she sighed. Mackenzie looked back at her. She blew a kiss and her daughter smiled. She went back to watching her Dora program. “There’s more.” “How could there be more?” Kennedy groaned. “I wanted to let you know that Alexa is here and she’s doing everything in her

power to pull him back into her nasty web. She has some strong supporters on the Senate Intelligence Committee.” “She’s pathetic. She’ll never change.” “I can’t get into matters of national security, but I suggest you settle the matter of your position as Liam’s wife. Things move fast when under the umbrella of Homeland Security.” “Are you saying they want to take Liam away?” How the hell can they make him go when they just brought him back? screamed the voice inside her head. “I’m saying you and Liam need to decide on the future now, before it’s decided for you.” “They can’t do that.” “Kennedy, you’re his wife. You know the organizations he’s tied into. You know how this goes. They can and they will.” “Jeez, Eric. How much time do we have?” Kennedy asked. “I’d say Christmas at best.” “Okay, okay, I get it.” “I love you both. I got my boy’s back. But that tarantula Sinclair? Just be on your guard.” “I will. Thank you for the warning.” “Where is that gorgeous sister of yours?” “Oh, she’s on her way. But don’t let Liam hear you talk about her like that.” “Girl is eighteen, last I checked,” Eric joked. “Going on forty, yes, and you think her crush is cute, but I’m telling you, keep your distance. You know Liam probably thinks she’s still eight. Before he left, she hadn’t even started dating, but he had a contract out on every thirteen-year-old boy who looked her way that summer she stayed with us.” Eric gave a deep, throaty chuckle. “Yeah, I was kidding.” Kennedy laughed. She saw the stars in her sister’s eyes whenever Eric entered a room. She remembered the potency of that kind of attraction. Eric might see it as harmless flirting, but she was sure Harper didn’t. “Will you come by later?” “I’ll try. Got a lot of meetings and other stuff. Call me if you need me.” “I will.” Kennedy set the phone down. She thought of calling Liam and inviting him to breakfast, but if she did that, it might send the wrong message. She had to be sure of everything, make sure she wasn’t pregnant, before she made any moves. She wouldn’t lie or deny her feelings, but she knew the drill. She would need to wait at least a week to get a good test result. How was she ever going to manage a week of this?

Someone knocked at her door. Kennedy wondered if Liam would return this early. She rose and checked herself in the hall mirror. Her face was flushed, her hair limp and listless. She didn’t look her best. The knock came again. “Mommy, who is it?” Mackenzie emerged; she stood behind her mother with fear in her eyes. Kennedy remembered how disastrous it had been for her daughter the last time someone had come to the door. “Go watch TV, okay?” “Who is it, mommy?” “Go watch TV, baby, please.” Kennedy went to the window first. She carefully parted the curtains. At least three news vans were parked at the curb, one almost-but-not-quite blocking her driveway. Several reporters with cameras milled about under the watchful eyes of military personnel, men Kennedy didn’t know. A young lieutenant stood erect, attentive, and alert on the other side of her door, just like the one who’d visited her to deliver the news that Liam had been killed in action. He’d been confronted by a hysterical, screaming Kennedy who’d flung herself at him, scratching and kicking, screaming at the top of her lungs that they were all liars. Back then, she’d been so confident Liam was alive. She’d shouted it at anyone who said differently. She’d felt it in her bones. He was out there, in need of them. And somehow, she’d let all those non-believers convince her otherwise. “Morning, ma’am.” “I see the reporters have arrived,” Kennedy said, standing to the side of the doorway, out of view, just in case the cameras were already running. Even the idea of a reporter sticking a camera in her face gave her the shakes. Just knowing they were out there, waiting, made her want to throw up. “Yes, ma’am. We’ll be here all day and evening to assist you. My name is Lieutenant Bryant. If you need anything, receive any strange calls, anything, ma’am, please don’t hesitate to let me know. We’ll be posted in two vehicles on the street, and another at the entrance of your subdivision.” She nodded, accepting his card. He was in the JAG Corps. She wondered if this man’s presence was Phil’s doing, or Alexa Sinclair’s. Or Liam’s. “Your husband is an American hero, ma’am. We are all so proud to have him back. Congratulations to you and your family on his safe return.” Kennedy nodded. She loved the fact that the lieutenant afforded Liam respect by referring to him as her husband. “Thank you. I’m proud of him, too. If my sister comes, please let her through. Her name is Harper Washington.” “Yes, ma’am. Absolutely.” Before she thanked him again, her phone began to ring. “Mommy! Phone!”

“I hear it, Mac.” With a nod to the lieutenant, Kennedy shut the door. Suddenly she felt like an over-wound yo-yo, careening from situation to situation. She grabbed up the phone and nearly yelped into the receiver. “Hello?” “How are you, girl?” Angelina asked softly. “Trapped,” Kennedy admitted. She dropped into the chair at the kitchen table. “Trapped?” “The media. Phil. My folks, Mac, and Liam. All of them want something I can’t give them right now.” “What’s that?” “Answers.” “Oh, Kennedy.” “Angie, what am I going to do? How did this happen? How did I give up on him like this? He should have walked through that door into my arms.” “Hey! You didn’t give up on him, you didn’t. You never did, Kennedy.” “But—” “I know. I know.” Kennedy dropped her forehead into her hand and stared at her reflection in the polished finish of the dining table. A tear dropped onto the surface, leaving a small, round bead. “He came back to me. If I had just believed a little longer, this would have never happened. He’s been through hell, my poor baby.” “So have you, Kennedy.” “Not even close. You should have seen the pain in his face. As if he felt he had to compete for my love. I just feel so lost. And Phil. God, I can’t stomach the idea of him and me together now. I feel so guilty over that. Angie, I feel like I used him. I did use him, and all he’s ever been was good to me and Mac. What the hell am I going to do?” “Well, there may be a little more guilt to spread around. Phil knew of your love for Liam. He signed on for this.” “But marrying Phil was a mistake. I just wanted the pain of losing Liam to go away. I let my mother and Phil convince me that starting over was the best for Mackenzie. I lost faith.” “Stop it, Kennedy.” “It hurts so bad. And God, Angie, I think I might be pregnant. I’m so scared I can’t even bring myself to take a test. If I am, I’ll lose him. I know Liam. This would be the final straw.” “I will get a test. You can take it with me.” “No. Not yet. Too soon. I have to wait until the weekend at least. I told Phil to give

me a few days. I need a few days, okay?” “Hey, all right, I understand. We won’t take the test yet. But Kennedy, regardless, Liam is your destiny. He’s back because of his love for you. You need to celebrate that. Stop beating yourself up and get out there and fight for your guy. How many times have you told me how much you love him, what he means to you? How you wanted this chance? I know you aren’t going to waste it on second-guessing yourself.” “He looked so good.” Kennedy laughed through fresh tears. “Even when Liam’s angry he’s…he’s just my guy. He called me last night and his voice…Angie, I’m telling you I got my head in the clouds half the time.” “I know. I got word Tony was back and the two of them showed up, I was just blown away. I mean, he looked like the same old Liam—” “Wait. Exactly when did you see him? After he left here?” Kennedy asked. “I-I—” “Angelina, you knew?” “I can explain.” “How long? You let me plan to have a kid with Phil and you knew he was alive for the past three months?” “No. No, Kennedy. I just found out the night Tony came home. He walked through my door like it was the most natural thing. He and Tony damn near threatened me not to call you. I told him he had to see you within 24 hours. I wouldn’t keep this from you.” Kennedy sighed. “I need to go.” “Kennedy. Listen to me. I would never—” “I’ll call you back.” She hung up the phone, and it rang again. “Hello!” “Mrs. Flanagan-Freeman this is WSSV News Channel 3. We’re wondering if you would like to give a statement on the miraculous return of your hus—” She hung up. “Mommy? Why are you sad again?” Mackenzie watched her curiously. Kennedy forced a smile. “Oh, sweetheart, I’m not. No baby, I’m not.” The phone rang again. Kennedy groaned. She picked up the handset to turn it off and saw the number was the Marriott Suites. Her stomach cramped. She answered quickly. “Hello?” His deep smoky voice was what she needed to hear. “Liam? Is that you?” “Morning, Kay. Did I wake you?” he asked, but she could tell by his tone he really didn’t care if he had. “No, I’m awake.”

“Okay. Um, are you alone? I mean is Phil there?” “No, Liam, he’s not.” She couldn’t help it. She smiled. “Is Mac up?” “She’s right here. She and I were hoping that maybe you would join us for breakfast.” When he didn’t respond she quickly added, “Just us.” “I’d like that.” “We would, too. It’s been a long time since I cooked for you. I can make you anything you want.” He didn’t answer. “Liam, come over, okay? Let me cook for you. Please.” “I’m on my way.” He hung up. Kennedy grinned at her daughter. “Mackenzie, come here.” Mac skipped over. “You remember your daddy, from heaven?” “Yes, mommy.” “He’s coming over. He wants to have breakfast with us. Is that okay?” “I guess.” “What is it, baby?” “He’s mad at you. He said he isn’t, but he is.” “No, no sweetheart, it was all a big mistake. He isn’t angry with me, and you know what?” “What?” “He’s so excited to have seen you. That was him. He can’t wait to come over. He really wants to get to know you most of all.” “Think he’ll want to come in my room and play with Fishie?” “Definitely.” “And color with me, too?” “I’m willing to guess he will color all day with you.” “Really?” Her eyes went wide. “Let’s get dressed. Okay?” “Okay.” ***

Kennedy turned front to back, and then back to front. She’d spent so much time in the mirror, she’d forgotten her main goal should be to get breakfast prepared. One final check of her makeup. She found it almost perfect. She wished she could find her rose lipgloss. She settled for the clear. Her green tea dress hugged her waist nicely and complemented her legs. She put on a new pair of three-inch sandals to give her calves an extra lift. Though it was a summer dress, she figured it would work since they’d be stuck inside. When they’d first started dating, her summer dresses were his favorite. She had a closet full, from remembering how she felt in them, thanks to Liam’s desires. Scanning every detail of her attire, she frowned at the one imperfection. The only thing she couldn’t change was her hair. She had no time to blow it out the way he preferred. Instead, she ran a bevel iron through it until it hung in loose layers past her shoulders. “How do I look, mommy?” Mackenzie appeared. She turned in a full circle, causing the hem of her yellow dress to swirl. Kennedy smiled. She was a perfect vision of their love. “Can mommy put your hair up in a bow?” “Yes.” She nodded. “Come here.” Before she could gather Mac’s locks in her hands she heard the doorbell. “Uh oh. It’s daddy-from-heaven,” Mackenzie said. “Yes it is. Let’s go greet him.” “But my hair?” “I think he’ll like it like this.” “Okay.” Mackenzie took her mother’s hand and pulled her out of the room. Kennedy tried not to be nervous. But her legs felt stiff and her stomach heavy as granite. She descended the stairs with Mackenzie leading the way. “Coming!” Mackenzie called out. Kennedy took in a deep breath and prepared herself again for a proper greeting. She opened the door to a roar of shouting from the press. Liam lifted his gaze to meet hers and all others but three of them ceased to exist in her world. She held her breath as his eyes gave a long perusal of her attire. She waited. Waited. Waited. He just stared at her. “Hi, daddy-from-heaven,” Mackenzie said. His gaze shifted to their child and Kennedy could breathe again. Liam leaned down to Mackenzie and cupped her chin. “Hello, beautiful.” “You like my dress?” “I love it.” “Come in, Liam.” Kennedy noticed how the press had worked up to a mob-like

frenzy with his appearance. They were shouting and hollering from the street. There were now six uniformed men standing at attention, with legs spread and hands behind their backs. Kennedy hoped their formation blocked at least some of the view from the front door. Mackenzie pushed out past her mother. She frowned, and then blinked in curiosity at the flashing bulbs and shouting reporters. Liam quickly ushered his daughter back into the house. Kennedy waited for him to glance her way, but he didn’t. She tried not to take it personally, but it hurt. She closed the door and locked it. Liam walked the best he could. He followed Mackenzie, who pulled him to the living room. She talked to him a mile a minute. Liam seemed totally engrossed in his daughter’s tale, oblivious to Kennedy hovering behind them. Disappointed, Kennedy stepped down into the living room. “So I’m going to start breakfast. Any special requests?” she asked, letting hope color her voice. “Whatever you make is fine,” he said dryly, barely looking up. “Pancakes!” Mackenzie said. “I’m not hungry though, had cereal,” she told her father. She clutched two of her favorite books. She handed them to Liam. Kennedy pressed her lips together. She wanted to say more. At the very least, to be included. But she couldn’t mistake the coldness she felt from him. Giving up for the moment, she retreated to the kitchen. Liam looked up in time to see her turn on her heel. He cut his eyes away and released the tightness in his chest. Even now, he couldn’t look at her without feeling twenty-two again and hopelessly in love. Kennedy was more beautiful than he remembered. How could that be possible? Nothing in his memory could replace the real thing. Her perfume, a powdery freshness, lingered in the room and he kept inhaling, wanting to catch another deep whiff of the scent. When she’d opened the door earlier, he’d been stunned by the sight of his girls. They were breathtaking. “Will you read to me?” “Sure. What’s this?” Liam asked, setting his cane down. “The Girl with the Blue Ribbon.” Mackenzie grinned. “It’s my favorite. My other daddy reads it all the time. Mommy too.” Liam bit his tongue. He looked up into Mackenzie’s wide, expectant eyes and the ball of anger forming seemed to dissolve. “Well, let’s see what I can do. Come here.” He lifted her to his good knee. She smelled so sweet, like baby lotion. He leaned in and kissed her cheek. She giggled, and dimples appeared. Just like her mother. Mackenzie reminded him of his little sister as well. Her voice, mannerisms, all of it came back to the point of overwhelming him. He opened the book and tried to read through the pages. As she pointed out her favorite parts and helped him read parts she’d obviously memorized, he settled into his first real meeting with his little girl. It gave him hope.

Kennedy spent the next thirty-five minutes meticulously preparing everything to Liam’s liking. She even made his favorite biscuits from scratch. Perspiring with nervous energy, she set the table. On her second trip to the kitchen to retrieve the breakfast meat, she turned to find Liam standing there. “You didn’t have to cook all this food, Kay.” He stared directly into her eyes. And this time it was a look she knew. God, she wished he didn’t stare at her that way. Her cheeks flamed, her nipples tingled, and she felt her skin warm all over. She tried to pretend she was unaffected. But she kept staring at his lips and licking her own. She wondered if the passion would be the same with him. Kennedy remembered how intense and demanding he’d been as a lover. Their marital bed had been a safe haven for them both. A place where they connected, body and soul. The things she shared with Liam, she never gave to another man. Would that matter to him now? To know that there still remained parts of her that only he touched. If only she could be with him physically. What she would give to have him pull her hair and take her forcefully until all the doubt and insecurities were burned away. “It smells good.” He’d mistaken her silence for something else. She smiled up at him. “I told you. I wanted to feed you, the way I know you like.” A small, sly smile lifted the corner of his mouth. He would cook for them the night before he’d been called away. But before sunrise she’d cook his breakfast and wait for his return. He’d wolf down his food as she gave him a rundown on her week while he was gone. Then he’d lift her from the table, throw her over his shoulder sometimes, and the things they did…well he wouldn’t let her out of bed until sunset. He walked toward her. He took the dish from her hands and placed it on the counter. “I thought of you all night. Of us.” Kennedy couldn’t speak. Her throat went dry and her tongue thick in her mouth. Liam’s irises seemed to dissolve into the calmest shade of blue. “Where is he?” he asked, his voice tight and firm. “Who?” she gulped. Her brain went to mush with him so close. “Phil,” he spat, as if the name tasted sour on his tongue. “I asked him to leave.” “Why?” “Because.” “Because what, Kay?” “Because I didn’t want him here.” “Was he in your bed last night?”

She shook her head no. Liam frowned. “So he’s gone for the day?” “No. He moved back on base. He’s gone.” To her relief, she saw the hard, angry lines around his eyes and mouth soften. He looked down at her the way he had so many times before and she thought her restraint would snap like a rubber band and she’d gush out all her fears and needs in one breath. But she needed to remain calm. Strong. “I’m so happy you came this morning. I thought about you all night, too, Liam.” Liam touched the side of her face, a brush of his fingers over her cheek so light it tickled her down to her toes. He leaned in and kissed her. Kennedy lifted her chin to bring her lips fully to his and she floated on their very first kiss in five long, painful years. “Eww! What you doing? Stop!” Mackenzie screeched behind them. Liam’s head shot around. Mackenzie glared at her father first, then her mother. “Why are you doing that to my mommy? Why did you kiss her? Mommy? You kiss daddy! Not this daddy.” “Mac….” Mackenzie turned and ran from the kitchen. Kennedy’s heart dropped. This was one of her many fears, hurting Mac. How could she tell Liam she wanted space and time to adjust for her and Mackenzie, and then hope for more every time he entered the room? “Shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset her.” Liam’s voice was choked with emotion. “It’s okay, she’s confused. She saw us kiss last night, and argue. We need to explain to her what’s going on.” “Explain what, Kay? That we were married first? That Phil is not related to her? That you’re my wife? How do you explain that to a four-year-old?” “I don’t know.” Kennedy put her hands to the sides of her head. “But I will talk to her.” “No. Let me be a father. At least let me try. I’m the one confusing her. So I should try.” Kennedy grabbed Liam’s hand. “I…we can do it together, okay? I’m her mother and she needs me. She needs us both. Right?” He hesitated. His gaze lowered to her touch. She needed him to agree to be a team. The moment passed, but she noticed his guard lowered a bit. Liam would have to learn that she might be weak for him, for their love, but Mackenzie would always be her baby and she’d protect her from all of them if she had to. Liam gave her a single nod. Together they walked out into the living room. Mackenzie sat on the sofa with her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs to keep them in place. Her face was pressed into her knees. Liam went to her left and Kennedy to her right. They sat on either side of her. Slowly, Mackenzie lifted her head and looked at Liam. She reached for her mother

instead. This, Kennedy knew, must pain him. But he sat there with patience and understanding in his eyes. “Mackenzie. Can you look at me?” She did. “I want to apologize to you.” “Pologize?” she repeated. “Yes.” He smiled. “I kissed mommy without your permission. I’m sorry for that.” “Only my daddy kisses her,” Mackenzie said with a forced warning in her voice. Kennedy bristled and braced for Liam’s reaction. But he only smiled softly. He extended his hand to Mackenzie to ask her to come to him. She looked up at her mother. Kennedy nodded that it was okay. Mackenzie crawled across the separating sofa cushion and Liam placed her on his lap, wincing as if pain shot from his knee to his hip. “I’m your daddy too.” “Daddy-from-heaven, not my real daddy.” “No. I’m your real daddy. I was never in heaven, sweetie. I was just waiting for my chance to meet you.” “’Cause you a hero, and heroes can’t be killed. That’s what the twins say.” “Not sure if I’m a hero. But I am your daddy, the daddy who helped mommy create you.” Mackenzie’s eyes were round as saucers. She looked back at her mother. “He made me?” “He had some help.” Kennedy laughed softly. “We made you together.” “How?” “Ah, well…that’s a long story.” Liam stumbled. “Then who is my other daddy? He made me, too?” “He’s the daddy that came when I had to go away. He wanted to be there to take care of you, too.” “I don’t get it.” Mackenzie frowned. “I’m not sure I do, either.” Liam smiled. “I’m just daddy, okay. I’m your real daddy and I love you. I also love your mommy. I know that’s confusing. Having two daddies all to yourself. But sometimes the things adults do don’t make sense.” Mackenzie nodded as if she were wise enough to get his meaning. “Good, because I have no plans to go away again. I’m here to stay.” “I want you to stay. I’m glad you came.” Liam snorted against Mackenzie’s neck and she squealed. Kennedy stifled a smile. She thought about Eric’s warning that Liam needed professional help to deal with his

anger, that they only had weeks before the military would want to put him in some think tank to help catch the people who had stolen him. Did Liam even know of these plans? Kennedy had hoped all he truly needed was their love. She listened as Liam charmed their daughter, watched him as he fell head-over-heels in love with her. Within five minutes he had her hugging his neck and agreeing with every word he said. She even said he could kiss mommy if he wanted to. “Do it now, daddy from heaven. Give her a kiss.” Liam locked eyes with Kennedy. Kennedy felt her throat grow dry. She looked at him, then her daughter, not sure how to respond. For a brief, uncomfortable moment she considered making the first move. After all, their kiss had been so fleeting, and it had been five long years. Nervous energy spread a tingling sensation through her palms and her breath came out in uneven puffs. Liam smirked. Could he tell what she wanted? Of course he could. He always could. “I’ll kiss mommy, don’t you worry about that.”. Crisis averted, they decided to have breakfast. And Liam’s face, the way he grabbed at the biscuits over and over again, made Kennedy so happy. They both talked to Mackenzie, not to each other, but she caught Liam staring after her. If she rose to go to the kitchen to get jelly or butter, his gaze followed her every step. If she helped Mackenzie by cutting her breakfast meat, he watched her. All of this she pretended to ignore. Mackenzie grew tired of the visit first. Having eaten two breakfasts and talked herself out, she began to yawn and complain of being sleepy. Kennedy excused herself and took Mackenzie upstairs. She convinced her daughter to take a nap. She promised they’d make lunch together when she got up. Mackenzie protested, but the night had truly exhausted her. Once Kennedy got her on the bed, she was yawning, willing to watch a little TV while her lids sagged with fatigue. “Will he be my daddy even after Christmas, mommy?” “Yes, he will.” “Will he come here and stay with us and my other daddy too?” Even in her exhaustion, Mac’s mind grappled with how the two daddies she loved could exist in the same place in her tiny heart. Maybe they did need a family counselor to help them all through this. “Don’t worry about that. Just know that both daddies love you and I do too.” Mackenzie seemed satisfied with that answer, for now. Kennedy was not. She returned downstairs. Liam wasn’t in the living room or dining room. She continued through her house until she found him in the family room. He stood before the bookshelf. Family pictures were everywhere. She walked in and saw him linger over the ones of her and Phil, as if studying every detail. Kennedy didn’t know if she should speak or just let him take it all in. Eventually his eyes moved on. He picked up a glamour shot of Harper.

“She’s not your little squirrel anymore, huh?” Kennedy asked. “I can’t believe how quickly she grew up. She’s beautiful. Is she back in Connecticut with your folks?” “No, after you went missing she moved in with me, finished school early, then um, she moved out.” Kennedy mumbled the last. Liam set the picture down. He looked at her for the rest of the story. “Why?” “Well, I’m sure Harper will tell you when she gets here. She, um, she doesn’t like Phil. Never did. So when we started—” “I get it.” He walked away from the bookshelf with his cane. Kennedy stood there, not sure what to do with her hands. He eased down into the sofa. She watched how he’d have to extend his left leg out and balance on his cane as he took a seat. “How did it happen? Your knee?” “Shrapnel blew off part of the bone. Took some tendon with it, too.” Kennedy felt her heartbeat quicken. Her throat went dry again and her palms got sweaty. “Is it going to be okay, I mean will it—” “Get better? No. This is it. But I’m used to it now.” “Oh. Well. Well, I guess I should clean up the kitchen.” “Are you going to leave Phil?” Kennedy sighed. She walked over to the sofa and sat on the other end. “Yes, I am, Liam.” Liam didn’t look at her. “When?” “Soon.” “Why not now?” “Because…because I want to make sure we’re all ready. I think we should go into counseling.” He did look over at her. His brow was creased deeply, his eyes dark and angry. “I don’t need a psychiatrist. I’m not crazy.” “You saw your daughter. She and I need it. And we need you to be part of our healing process. I want us just as much as you do, but we keep hurting each other. Just being together hurts now. It was never like that before. We have to—” “I want to take her to get a Christmas tree. I noticed you don’t have one. We can put it up together in my place.” “Your place? The Marriott?” Liam didn’t answer. Kennedy decided to steer the conversation back to her concerns. She could pace it based on his willingness to cooperate. But she had Mackenzie to think of. She had to do what was best for her little girl. “I’m serious about counseling.

After the media circus dies down, we need to transition our lives and I think that will best be done with the help of a counselor.” She purposely didn’t use the word ‘psychiatrist.’ “If you don’t agree to it, then I have to believe you don’t want us to heal together.” He sat perfectly still. She waited for him to react. He wouldn’t even look at her. “When did you start sleeping with him?” he asked. “Liam, don’t ask me questions like that.” His jaw clenched. “Was it a day, a week, a month after I was gone?” “You know me better than that. We were making progress. Don’t reduce it to your ego.” “My what?” He shot her a glare. “You heard me. I waited four-and-a-half damn years for you to walk through that door. I would have waited four more if it weren’t for Mackenzie. She needed me whole. I had to find a way to become a mother and— I had to become another person. I had to grow up.” “Because with me you couldn’t grow?” “You’re twisting my words.” She sighed, exasperated. He switched his gaze away, the anger settling into the dark scowl on his face. Kennedy rubbed the tension from her temples. “I can’t change what happened, Liam. Neither can you. Do you think I’m going to throw away this chance for a life with you? That I’m going to give up on the life I’ve dreamt of since I was seventeen? If you think that, then you never knew me.” He turned and she couldn’t help but read the anger in his penetrating stare. “That’s right, look at me. Am I lying? I love you. Only you. No one, not even Phil, has ever touched my heart.” “Really?” She ignored his sarcasm and steadfastly met his eyes. “Really.” “I’m pissed. And jealous. Shit, I want to break his fucking jaw. I still might,” he confessed. She relaxed. “No, Liam, you won’t. I understand your anger. We need to talk through it. But let’s go at a pace we both can handle. First, help me get our lives on track. A day at a time.” Liam wiped his hand down his face. He groaned and dropped back against the cushion. “Damn, I’ve waited so long for this. To just be in the same room with you.” “Me, too,” she said softly. He dropped his gaze over her way. “You know you look beautiful, Kay, in that dress. You wore it to torture me.”

Kennedy smirked. He shook his head. “It worked.” She extended her hand to him. He was slow to respond, but he reached for her. They held hands from the opposite sides of the sofa. Together they sat there, lost in their own thoughts. When the doorbell rang, she was both relieved and disappointed. “I’ll get it. If they reached the door, its either Harper or Angelina.” She relaxed her hand but for a long moment, he didn’t let go. Eventually he did. As she crossed the room she felt his gaze on her, so she put a little more of a sway to her hips, a bit more torture for him being such a bullheaded jerk. She glanced over her shoulder and saw it had worked. He would be hers soon. She didn’t care what the world threw at them. She wasn’t about to give up. Harper drove down her sister’s street, immediately noting the phalanx of reporters who held the neighborhood hostage. Forced to park several houses up, she gawked from her window. Reporters were at the neighbors’ houses, knocking on their doors. “Wow. This is crazy.” She pulled her keys out of the ignition and grabbed her purse. Getting out of the car, she headed straight for Kennedy’s door. A guy in uniform, actually two of them, cut her off before her foot hit the sidewalk. “Ma’am, I have ask that you step back.” “Huh? That’s my sister’s place. I’m Harper Washington.” The taller one, a redheaded cutie, looked back at the light brown-skinned brother behind him. Harper had a thing for a man in uniform. Moving to Spring Lake had put them in her path constantly. And then there was Eric, who would make any girl within ten feet faint. He’d been the standard all other men had to beat. Muscular, black, sexy, she had masturbated many a night to the thought of Eric touching her. “Go ahead, ma’am,” the sergeant said, bringing her out of her fantasies. A reporter touched her arm, and she snatched away. The petite brunette with firered lipstick and too much mascara shoved a microphone in her face. “Did you say you were Kennedy Flanagan Freeman’s sister? Do you want to give a statement? We have reports that Lieutenant Flanagan is inside.” Harper shot her a fuck-off look, then marched up the flagstone path. She had dressed in a hurry, driven like a madwoman, and wasn’t about to waste any more time getting inside. She had a key, but the double-bolt lock was engaged. So she knocked and rang the bell. Kennedy opened the door and Harper immediately threw her arms around her sister’s neck. “Ugh! You’re cold, you’re bringing the chill in.” Kennedy shivered. Harper laughed. She came inside. Kennedy closed and re-locked the door. Harper

shed her coat. She hadn’t got the first question out before she saw Liam step toward her. She froze with coat in hand. Hearing he was alive was one thing. Seeing him was something else. “What’s up, squirrel?” he asked, leaning in on his cane. She squealed. Tossing her coat at her sister, she rushed Liam and jumped into his arms like a crazy, star-struck teen. She almost took him over backward, but he was still as strong as she remembered. Despite his obvious leg injury, he held her to him. She kissed his jaw and hugged his neck tightly. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it! Hot damn, my boy is back!” “Me either,” he said. “Does Sally know? Have you seen her yet?” Liam let Harper go. “Not yet.” “What?” Harper turned on Kennedy. “Have you called Sally?” “I-I didn’t. Liam, you have to call her. She can’t hear this on the news.” Harper nodded in agreement. “But she’d have to be on the moon to not know he’s alive. It’s on every station. It’s on the radio, hell, it’s practically written in the sky. You’re being called a hero. The president is supposed to address the nation tonight.” Liam sighed. “I don’t want to deal with any of it now.” He turned back to the family room. “Not even Sally?” Harper yelled after him. “Harper, stop.” Kennedy took her arm and pulled her away. “He’s been through a lot. He and Sally only made peace just before he left on deployment. He’ll call her when he’s ready.” “Shit, I’m sorry. You’re right. I just want to celebrate. Shout it from the roof. Don’t you?” She threw her arms around Kennedy’s neck. “It’s a miracle! He’s back!” “I know. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and it’s all a dream.” “A dream come true, girl.” Harper rolled her neck. “What does that mean?” “You have got to kick that loser ‘Phil the Drip’ to the curb, and soon. Right now, Kennedy. I’m going to be all over you until you do.” Kennedy walked off to put Harper’s coat in the closet. Harper narrowed her eyes on her sweet but naïve sister. It was time to put Operation: Fix This Shit into effect.

Chapter Twelve “What do you want?” Phil barely lifted his head, he sat slumped over paperwork before him in his small office, on an uncomfortable swivel chair, buried in file folders of unopened cases next to a bottle of Advil. This visit was the last thing his migraine needed. Usually, when Colonel Sinclair entered the room, every man and woman in stood at attention. Well, fuck her. Phil grimaced. She sauntered over to the sofa and made herself comfortable. “I don’t have time for this.” “How are things?” came her whispering, sultry voice. Of course she’d ask the one question she knew would cut to the marrow. Things, such as, his life, his marriage, his sense of belonging, were unraveling. Alexa crossed her legs. A small smile tugged the corners of her rose-colored lips. Phil clenched his pen. That smile of hers was mockingly sweet. It said it all: told you she would kick you to curb for her GI-Joe hero. “I have work to do.” “I hear he’s over there now.” Phil bristled. He dropped back in his chair. The bitch wasn’t leaving. It was best to get the visit done and over with, so he could make it through the rest of the day. He tossed his pen over the blotter. His anger and hurt had been on simmer all day. He’d gotten updates of the day’s activities, and they left him incensed. That was his house, his woman. “They have some things to discuss.” Alexa nodded. “Of course they do. Poor Kennedy. What’s a girl to do? Dead husband shows up and standby husband doesn’t want to step aside. I’m curious as to how this will play out. Will your missus shove her new hubby aside? Will she sacrifice herself for the good of both men and work out a deal between you? How will this all end?” “How will it?” Phil asked, giving Alexa the floor. “Well, I have it on good authority that several cells have been activated since the news broke. The SecDef is concerned. Vice President is breathing fire down his neck. And Senator Clayton wants to contain Operation Scorpion. Fucking liberals would have a field day if they knew why Liam and his team were on that mountain. Remember, we have an election year approaching. The administration wants to go out without the stain of another attack. My feelings are we all need to consider where Liam truly belongs. The president has already mentioned an honorable discharge. He wants to get all ceremonious. I can’t let that happen and I’m sure Clayton won’t.” “What are you saying, Alexa?” She cut him down with her cobra-like eyes. Her smile, once playful, had a sinister twist to it that made his stomach sour. “I’m asking you Phil. How badly do you want Kennedy? How far will you go to keep her? Because if I can prove that Liam is a violent time bomb, well, then I can get him the help he needs. And he can help us while he

recovers.” “And?” “And I think you’re the spark that can set off a nuclear explosion.” *** “I’ll get it,” Kennedy offered. Liam looked up from the game board. He was playing Chutes and Ladders against Mackenzie and Harper. Her daughter’s nap had lasted all of twenty minutes and she was back downstairs. Liam seemed to tense each time the phone rang or her attention was called away. Almost as if she herself would slip away. She hoped this disturbance would be one of the sergeants coming to inform her of a schedule change, not a rogue reporter slipping past them to pound on her door again. The day had progressed nicely, the less drama the better for her and Liam. Most of the morning was spent joking over old times. They effectively avoided the awkward topic of his captivity. When Kennedy fell out of the conversation, Liam would say something to her to bring her back in. She felt closer to him. Though they hadn’t touched physically, besides a little hand holding, it reminded her of the old days when he used to charm Harper into going to sleep. Then he’d sit with her and just watch TV, understanding the interruption of a pesky kid sister. Like then, she wished now for privacy. Part of her remained grateful she didn’t have it. Who knew what privacy between them would lead to. Kennedy opened the door. To her delight, Angelina stood on her front step. Her best friend’s round belly protruded under a purple and white maternity shirt. In her hands she held a covered dish. Before Kennedy could utter a word the twins nearly bowled her over. The boys rushed in, shouting for Mackenzie. She noticed Vasquez on the lawn, speaking with one of the soldiers. The press had thinned. Just a van remained camped out. Immediately its doors opened and a crew jumped out to film the latest activity. “Hi, you.” Angelina leaned in to give her air kisses. She then presented her warm casserole dish of her famous baked macaroni and cheese. “Hi, Angie. Come in.” Kennedy waited while Vasquez hurried up the walk. He winked at her as he passed over the threshold. Having them there felt like old times. Angelina had been pregnant before Liam’s final deployment. When the twins were born, Liam had whined over wanting a baby of his own. Little did they know Kennedy was already a few weeks pregnant herself. Kennedy carried the dish into the kitchen. The sounds of children’s laughter and Liam with friends warmed her heart. This was what home should have been. She never had such a feeling with Phil’s friends and their respective families over the holidays, though she hadn’t noticed the difference until now. “You okay?” Angelina asked behind her.

“Yeah, I am. I guess I was getting all sentimental.” Kennedy sniffled, wiping invisible tears. She smiled out at everyone gathered around the game board. Her daughter’s excited voice was the loudest. Angelina stepped into her line of vision, with her hand to her swollen belly. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” “Yes.” “So are we okay? You hung up on a girl, had me chewing Anthony’s ass out, until he agreed to bring us.” “Yes, Angie. I can’t stay mad at you.” “Whew, thank God. I’m preggo. I don’t need the stress.” Kennedy touched Angelina’s belly. It felt hard and firm with no movement. But she remembered the days of lugging a visitor in her middle. She and Liam were robbed of so much joy with Mackenzie. It had been a miracle she had her daughter at all. Kennedy realized in that moment she would love to be a mother again, just not the way she feared she already was. “I know what you’re thinking, Kennedy. You aren’t pregnant.” “Shhh!” Kennedy grabbed Angelina’s wrist and dragged her farther into the kitchen. “Don’t even say the word today. Okay?” “Ow! Okay, okay.” “Sorry, girl, but jeez, those men have supersonic hearing, you know that.” Angelina smiled. “So what has it been like? You two have a moment alone yet?” “A few. Not much. I would like more, but this is a good pace for Liam, I think.” “Yeah, well, get your time in too. It’s important.” Kennedy nodded. “I agree.” Harper decided to go upstairs with the twins and Mackenzie to see the famous goldfish her niece raved over. That left Liam and Vasquez alone at the dining room table with a direct view of their ladies in the kitchen, whispering and giggling. They sat in silence for a few while Liam put up the game board. He knew it wouldn’t be long before Vasquez delivered the news that Alexa had been trying to share in the hotel last night. “So you know we have orders.” “What orders?” Liam asked in a dry, disinterested tone. “They want you to come in. More questions.” “They?” “Pentagon. Clayton. They.”

“You mean Alex.” Vasquez sighed. He dropped back in his chair. Liam avoided his eyes. They both knew that if Uncle Sam wanted it, he’d have to bend over and take it up the ass. But he’d be damned if he’d walk away from his family again, no matter for how long. He just couldn’t do it. “What’s Alex saying?” “That she will give you until Christmas. That after that, your country needs you. Truth is, Clayton has concerns over the failed mission. Your resurrection has many looking into why you were on the mountain in the first place. No one wants the press to get hold of Scorpion.” “I see.” Liam swallowed. Scorpion was the one thing he hadn’t been directly questioned about. Central Intelligence knew more about Scorpion than he did. Fuck. He’d had his orders and he carried them out. Period. He knew Clayton’s fears were only elevated because of Alex. Liam suspected she’d traded on secrets to get her appointment. That wasn’t the only thing bothering him. He’d allowed her crush. Thought it harmless. And part of him had always remained uneasy about serving in combat with a woman. He couldn’t help but want to protect her on those missions she flew him and his team in and out of. It was in his nature to play the hero. Where Alex bristled over the attention of others, she welcomed Liam’s. Soon enough, respect turned into unwavering devotion. Eric warned him against it, said Alex had become fixated on him. And of course, Alex always went too far. He ignored it, to the point she became a distraction from his depressive need to be home with Kay. A mental substitute. That was on him. Things had changed since he’d been gone. Unlike before, her obsession would be a bitch of an inconvenience, and now, with her power, it could be used for destruction. Who knew her true motivations? Her inappropriate feelings in the past would be his undoing if he didn’t think smart. Liam laughed. “What’s funny?” “Fucking irony. All these years I gave Kay shit over Phil’s feelings for her. She said they were just friends. I said bullshit.” “Yeah, well….” “And she gave me shit over Alex. Said she didn’t trust her, was jealous when Alex would call or show up at functions and want to talk about something Kennedy couldn’t be privy to. I told Kay it was in her head. You believe that shit? The mistakes I made man, that we both made—” “Marriage. Fuck, it’s like that, I suppose.” “Not mine, bro. Kay is the real thing. Pure. I fucked this is up with my girl every way conceivable. Leaving her pregnant and young to go off to a war. Bringing her into a world where she only had me, isolating her because I—Ineeded her so badly and I just never believed she could need me as much. Don’t think my head isn’t too screwed up to know it,” he sighed. “I’ll meet with Alex and see if I can get in front of the senator and convince him I’m no use to them. Get her to back off.” “You need to do that soon, brother. There is another thing to consider.”

“Like?” “Your wife. Making that official. I got wind of Phil’s temperament. You don’t want him delaying this further.” Vasquez looked over at the women in the kitchen. Liam followed his friend’s gaze. Kennedy laughed, and touched Angelina’s stomach several times. Liam studied her closely. He wondered how her body had changed when she carried their daughter. He only saw glimpses of her tummy forming before he left. He imagined she’d been even more beautiful. She glanced up and saw him watching. She dropped her eyes away first, shyly. He needed to get her alone. “Can you do me a favor?” “Anything.” “Separate the dynamic duo. Get your wife out the door. I want to be alone with Kay,” he said, his gaze never leaving Kennedy. Vasquez looked between his friend and the object of his desire. “Yeah, I can understand that. Now how am I supposed to extract Harper?” “True. I’ll set Kennedy loose on her.” Vasquez nodded. He rose and called Angelina over. He made a big show of looking at his watch. Angelina caught on quick. She went upstairs for the twins. Liam found his cane from the side of the table and used it to balance to his feet. He walked into the kitchen to corner his wife before everyone returned downstairs. Kennedy’s smile was infectious. He hated smiling, but with her he couldn’t help himself. “Are you hungry? I can warm up some meatloaf to go with this macaroni.” “No. Tell Harper you need her to leave.” Kennedy blinked, looked behind him, then back into his eyes. He stared at her. “Um, okay. I’ll talk to her,” she said about to step around him but he delayed her again. “How do you feel about coming back to the Marriott with me?” “What?” Kennedy gave a nervous smile. “To be alone. To talk.” “Liam.” “We can bring Mackenzie. I got a suite. She can take the bedroom, you can take the sofa bed and I can take the floor. Or not.” “No, we can stay here and talk,” Kennedy said softly, averting her eyes. “No we can’t, Kay. This is his house. He’s right about that. I want you to come to the Marriott with me.” Why did she keep lowering her gaze? He hated that. She normally met his stare dead-on. She was keeping something from him, stalling him out. She said she had made her choice. She said that she would be his again. What the fuck could be her issue? Liam

felt anger swell up in him. The kind that made him want to shout and shout until his chest was less tight and he could breathe again. But he didn’t want to scare her. Fuck, he was already scaring himself. “If I go with you in front of the media and everyone it will send the wrong message.” “Wrong message? To who?” She lifted her gaze. “To Phil. I owe him an explanation, don’t you think?” “No. Fuck him.” “Liam. Stop it. You know me. I would never purposely hurt anyone.” “Kennedy, the man isn’t stupid. He knows I’m here.” “I can’t. I’m sorry,” she said, then walked out. Liam clenched his fist. He hit the wall with it so hard, the plaster chipped. Drawing away bruised knuckles he looked down at the scrapes, confused. He didn’t feel anything. No pain. It had happened several times in the desert. When torture was part of breakfast and definitely on the menu for dinner. At times he felt nothing. As if he wasn’t in the room. He walked over to the sink, a little shaken. He ran cold water over his hand and counted down his anger. He was fine. He hadn’t hit the wall that hard. Of course it didn’t hurt, he reasoned. Sucking in a deep breath, he calmed himself. He had everything under control. Though in the past, his word was law, it was obvious now he couldn’t push her. She was different. He’d have to go at her pace. No matter how infuriatingly slow it was for him. *** January 1995 “I want to understand how far this—this—how far this thing between you and Kennedy has gone?” Andrew Washington asked. Liam looked up into the angry eyes of Kay’s mother. She paced back and forth behind her husband’s chair. She reminded Liam of a caged lioness, one you knew not to get to close to, or risk a torn throat and disembowelment. He’d never had anyone look at him with so much hate. Not since his stepfather. He guessed he deserved it after what Gail Washington had caught him and Kennedy in the act of doing. Thank God it hadn’t gotten too far out of hand before she walked in on them in the boathouse. But her mother’s scream and Kay’s tears had him wrecked. He would never forget seeing Kennedy struck in front of him. He almost rushed Gail when she knocked her daughter to the floor. Thankfully, Andrew Washington walked in on the scene. He found his daughter topless and him with his pants undone. There was little Liam could have done to repair the situation. “I, um, I have a lot of respect for Kay-Kennedy, sir.”

“Respect!” Kennedy’s mother shouted, her lips curled in anger. “Is that why you two have been carrying on in our boathouse behind our backs? That’s respect?” “Gail, we don’t know how far this has gone. I agree it looks bad but…Kennedy is a good girl, she would never—” “Andrew, are you insane? We caught them with your daughter’s top off!” Liam tuned them both out. His gaze drifted to the door. He’d never really ventured into the Washington house, only to help carry Harper in and put her to bed. Kennedy was upstairs somewhere alone. He wished he could talk to her, comfort her. She was so shaken when her mother dragged her out of the boathouse, while her father marched Liam into his study. Since their discovery she’d been locked away from him. He had to face the inquisition alone. He’d take all the heat if it meant she wouldn’t incur her mother’s wrath again. Silently he fumed over it. If Mrs. Washington raised her hand to Kennedy once more in front of him, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Things were out of control and it was his fault. Their hookups were a bad idea the moment they removed Sierra from of the equation and he started meeting at her parents’ house. Harper had played the little lookout for them when they’d sneak off to the boathouse during one of Kennedy’s baby-sitting assignments. Problem was that Harper would show up at the most inconvenient of times to sit up with Liam. Her crush was cute. It really pissed Kennedy off, until he pointed out how blessed she was to have her little sister. Kennedy actually said that was why she loved him, because he was such a softy. Earlier, he’d bribed Harper with McDonald’s, a forbidden treat in the Washington household. Kennedy’s parents were gone to one of their social events at their private club. It was supposed to go on until well after midnight. Harper had made two trips out to the boathouse to check on them. They just cuddled and watched the TV and waited until they thought Harper would fall asleep. Nothing heavy. But as usual, their hormones, or Kay’s, for that moment, got the most of them. Harper had been caught in the backyard when her mother arrived home early. It didn’t take Gail Washington long to extract where her oldest daughter was. And the rest was history. “How old are you?” Gail asked, narrowing her eyes on him. The question he dreaded. “Son, I think you better answer her.” “Let me see some ID. Now!” Gail demanded. Liam sighed. He fished out his wallet. When he handed the card over, Kay’s mother snatched it from him. She paled. She looked stricken. “Andrew, we might need to call the police.” “Nothing happened,” he lied. The understanding he saw in Kay’s father’s face drained when his wife handed him back the ID and he was able to check Liam’s birthdate. He looked up with anger and disgust. “Call the police, Gail. Now! You better start telling me the truth, son. How far has this thing with you and my daughter gone?”

Liam and Kennedy were lucky. The age of consent in Connecticut was sixteen; at seventeen, the courts said she would be old enough to marry with parental permission. But they were unlucky in the fact that she was forbidden to see him again. He had never been so desperate and lost as he was the day the police led him off the Washington property in handcuffs. Kennedy’s father showed up at the station and disputed his wife’s claim that Kennedy had been raped. Kennedy had been insistent, both to him and to the detectives, that she was a willing participant. He also dropped the trespassing charges. His kindness was conditioned on the promise that Liam never see Kennedy again. Liam agreed. He lied. He could never erase the image of a crying Kay, upstairs, sitting on her window sill, as she watched him being taken away. Even Heath and Sierra warned him against trying to see her again. He couldn’t stop. Neither could Kay, though according to Sierra, her attempts to call him were blocked. He went weeks without seeing her. Then things got worse. His cousin’s Heath’s pad got raided by the police and he and the drugs were carted off. Everything fell apart. He missed the arrest warrants because of his job, but the close call spooked Liam enough to think his association with Heath might do him in. He had to make a change. A drastic, serious change and he had to do it quick. He took the two thousand dollars he’d saved and set out on a plan that would change his and Kennedy’s lives forever. *** It all seemed like a lifetime ago. Kennedy wasn’t the young, impressionable girl he once loved. She was a woman. Her own woman. He wanted to know her now, fall in love with her all over again. He looked forward to it. But this time it couldn’t be done all his way. This time he’d have to follow her lead, trust her as she did him when she dropped out of school and ran away from her family. He said his goodbyes to the Vasquezes. Harper had been another story. She wanted assurances that Liam wouldn’t leave or be asked to leave by ‘he-who-would-remainnameless.’ Liam had to laugh at her protectiveness. And eventually, she too left. “Do you want some beer?” Kennedy asked, after locking the door. Liam decided to try another approach. “Yeah, a beer would be nice.” Kennedy seemed relieved that he accepted. As he sat in the living room and waited for her, suddenly the pain returned to his hand. He winced, having forgotten how he hurt it in the first place. He tried to concentrate on the when and where but nothing came. The fugue state was acceptable before, but blackouts now scared the shit out of him. “What happened to your hand, Liam?” Kennedy stopped, shocked. Liam, caught, looked up at her.

“When did that happen?” “Ah, I hit it in the kitchen. It’s cool.” “On what? It looks like, let me see….” “Hey, calm down, mama bear. Give me that beer.” He took the bottle from her and put it on his swollen red and purple knuckles. “I slammed it against the counter. I’m a little clumsy with my cane.” She stared at him, trying to gauge the truth in his words. He smirked. “But it hurts like hell. Will you make it feel better?” “Let me get some ice.” “No, just come here. Hold it. That will help.” Kennedy sat next to him. She set her beer down and took his hand into hers. Her delicate fingers over the roughened skin was all the balm he needed. “So tell me about yourself now, Kay. You didn’t finish law school?” Kennedy smiled fondly. “No, I didn’t. But I didn’t give up on law. I’m a legal assistant now for some very prominent attorneys. They work me harder than any lawyer at the firm,” she said, inspecting the bruises. “Liam, this looks bad. Maybe we should get you to the doctor. How did you do this again?” “Legal assistant? Do you like it?” Liam pressed. “Huh?” Kennedy looked up. “Do you like it? Work?” She relaxed just a little. She tilted her head and looked to the ceiling as if thinking on it. “On most days, yes. Pay is bleh, but I learn a lot. They’re defense attorneys. I used to think all clients were wrongfully accused. Remember I wanted to study civil rights law at UNC? My eyes have been opened to the nasty business of defending the ones that are guilty as sin. I think of going back to law school at times though, but Phil doesn’t want…” she bit down on her bottom lip. Liam chuckled. “It’s okay. I’m sitting on the man’s sofa, drinking his beer. I think I can handle his name.” She gave him a half smile but the tension between them returned. He pulled his hand from hers so she could stop being fixated on it. He’d rather she be fixated on him. “I wish you could have gotten your law degree. I know how much you wanted it.” “Liam?” “Yes.” “The reason why I didn’t agree to go to the Marriott with you—” “Is because you’re still not sure.” He tossed back another swig of beer. “No. It’s because I am. If I leave here with you, I’ll want it all with you.” When Liam looked over, he knew she meant physically. He wanted the same thing.

Oh, how he wanted it. But she held back from him and he had to know why. “What’s wrong with wanting it all?” “Are you sure you’re ready to accept the changes in my life? Sometimes you seem so angry, so hurt. And you saw Mackenzie, she isn’t ready. I know time has slipped from us, but that doesn’t mean it will again. I don’t want to make any mistakes. None. I owe Phil closure, and an answer. I owe Mackenzie security. And I owe you a lifetime of making up to you all those moments we’ve missed.” “You don’t owe me anything, Kay.” Liam cut his eyes away. He didn’t want her pity. He wouldn’t put up with it. “Liam, look at me. Mackenzie is really my number one concern here. She’s had a lot happen in the past day or so. It’s exciting for her now. Soon she will want her routine. Kids do. It’s their security. We have to be conscious of that. And I know this hurts but Phil has a strong bond with her. I’m not going to end that. We have to do this right.” “You mean counseling?” “Can you consider it? For us to go through this together.” “You’re right.” “Come again?” She laughed. Liam smiled and downed the rest of his beer. “You’re different, Kay.” “Am I?” “I like it,” he confessed. “You’re more confident, wise, and you’re a mother. That’s really sexy.” Kennedy shook her head. “Thanks, but the confidence is just a show. I’m winging it here.” “No. It’s you. I caught you off guard; I used all my old tricks on you to get you into my arms. But look at you, you’re protecting our daughter. I even think you’re protecting me from me. Making sure we can do this right. I respect that. Especially since when I’m near you I can’t concentrate.” Her silence caused him to glance over. She looked as if she wanted to say something. “What is it?” “I just missed you so much.” “Come here. Closer. I won’t bite, unless you want me to.” Kennedy moved in and he dropped his arm around her shoulder. He inhaled her scent and it soothed him. “Do you know what I was thinking of earlier?” “What?” she asked softly. “I was thinking about the time when we were caught by your folks. How your dad called the police on me. The feeling I had when I thought I might lose you. It was a different feeling than the one in that desert. In the desert I hadn’t lost you, I was just fighting to survive to get back to you. Back then, with your folks I mean, when they took

you from me, I couldn’t breathe. Kind of how it is now between me you and Phil. As if I’m really not entitled or deserving of you. I hurt your parents and Harper by convincing you to run away with me. I was selfish then. I hate Phil, but I know he protected and cared for you when I couldn’t. I can’t be selfish now. But don’t get me wrong. I want to be selfish, I want to tear this fucking place apart and burn it to the ground. I want to take you and Mackenzie away from here, from the fucking Navy, from your job and new friends, from our old friends. I want to go somewhere no one can touch us. I’m sorry Kennedy, I know it sounds crazy, but—” “It sounds romantic,” she said. “It’s okay to want a fresh start. You’ve earned it. I want the fresh start, too.” He looked over at her, hoping he didn’t see pity in her eyes. He felt such relief when he didn’t. She was still his Kay. “You remember when I snuck to your school and grabbed you after your volleyball practice? How I told you that I was living out of my car and I had to make a move?” “You were leaving.” “I wanted you to run away with me. You remember what you said to me?” “I’ll go anywhere with you, Liam. I have no choice. I love you,” she repeated, and smiled fondly. He hoped that decision hadn’t caused her a lot of pain. He had to wonder. “You have a choice now, Kay. I don’t want you out of guilt or obligation. If you did find something with Phil that I couldn’t give….” She put a finger to her lips. “I won’t compare you. There’s no need. He’s not even close, Liam. You’ve always been the man for me.” “Then show me.” Kennedy had little chance to respond. He drew her in by the neck and pulled her legs up over his lap. His lips brushed hers as his hand crept under the hem of her skirt. Her skin was so damn soft. Always so soft. She exhaled, parting lips plump and full. Immediately he was reminded of how she’d used her mouth on him. From her sweet kisses to the way she swallowed his cock. Liam groaned and kissed her deeply, forcing her back on the sofa. His hand touched between her tightly pressed together thighs. She soon parted them and he discovered how moist she was there. He shivered, feeling the thin lace covering the swollen lips of her sex. There came a knock at the door and the phone began to ring. “Liam, we have to stop.” “They’ll go away,” he groaned, sliding the seat of her panty aside to touch her. Kennedy pushed at his shoulders when he eased a finger inside of her. Tight, wet heat. He nearly lost his mind. “Liam, let me up, please.” She panted and he gave her another finger, licking the side of her neck, nipping at her racing pulse. The phone stopped ringing but the person at the door kept knocking.

Liam wanted to rip the dress from her and fuck her into the sofa. He felt her moving under him as he pumped his two middle fingers in and out of her tight hole, slick with her juices. She gripped his shoulder. “Don’t do this, not like this. Stop,” she pleaded. And he heard her. He withdrew his hand. Kennedy quickly pulled down her skirt, blushing with him. Did she not want him? Fuck, I am so stupid. The phone started ringing again. And then the knocking resumed. Kennedy couldn’t look at him when she rose and fixed her dress. He’d blown it. He knew he’d fuck up and he did. “Can you get the door? I need to get the phone,” she mumbled at him. She hurried away, avoiding looking at him. Liam groaned. He grabbed his cane and limped to the front of the house. Steeling himself, he opened the door with a tight, grim fix to his jaw. “Mom?” Sally glared up at him and marched in. “I knew you would be here. The problem is, nobody bothered to tell me.” “Hello?” Kennedy panted, going to the fridge to get a bottle of water to cool down. Another moment and she’d have been screwing him on the couch. That would have been a disaster. She couldn’t dare approach sex with him until she knew for certain about her pregnancy. She felt such shame and disappointment for letting things advance as far as they had. “So he’s been there all day?” “Phil?” “You remember my name?” Kennedy winced under the piercing stab of guilt. “I-I was going to call you.” “Don’t lie to me, Kennedy. And please don’t play me stupid. You think those men posted at my house didn’t tell me he’s been there all day? Hell, all I had to do was turn on the TV and watch the people coming and going from my damn house.” “He came to see Mackenzie.” “Right.” “Phil, we-we need to talk.” “So I take it tomorrow is my day. All day? With you and Mac? So we can talk, the same way you have been with Liam?” “Well…I think—” “I won’t be an afterthought for you, Kennedy. You owe me more respect than this.

Damn it, you are my wife!” Kennedy sighed. She heard elevated voices from the living room. It sounded like…Sally? “I have to go.” “I will be there in the morning. Do you hear me? I don’t want him there when I arrive.” He hung up on her. Kennedy guessed she deserved that. Still, she felt her anger swelling in her chest. She’d get a test and take it tomorrow, seven days be damned. No. She’d go to the doctor and get a blood test. A blood test would answer the question once and for all. Then they’d have the talk. It was time to move her family forward and free Phil as well. She cared deeply for him, loved him in her own way. But they never shared the kind of love Phil deserved. She felt sick about the liberties she’d taken with his heart. When she walked into the living room she saw Sally, eyes red and weepy, her nose running. Kennedy could see pain etched all over her face. “Kennedy, you of all people. How could you not call me? Why? I had to hear it from a stranger while on my retreat. I drove straight here. Am I not even worth a phone call from either of you?” “Sally, I’m sorry. I was blindsided by it all, I really was. I’m sorry.” She went to her mother-in-law and hugged her. To this, Liam frowned. Sally never liked Kennedy when Liam was alive. But she tried to get Liam to let her back into his life. What Liam didn’t know is that they’d bonded over his supposed death. How could they not? They were the two who mourned him the most. She thought Liam had let his bitterness toward his mother go. From over Sally’s shoulder, Kennedy saw that wasn’t the case. “I’m sorry.” “It’s okay.” Sally managed a smile. She glanced over to her son. “Can you give us a minute alone, Kennedy?” Liam walked away from his mother in disgust. “Sure. I’ll go upstairs and check on Mackenzie. Take all the time you need. “Well? Aren’t you going to say anything?” Liam returned to his seat on the sofa. He was so close. Kennedy had softened to him. She would have been his. Then of course Sally had to show up. Her timing had always been the worst. He’d pretended at forgiveness the year before he left for the war, mostly because Kennedy was so adamant about healing with their families before they started their own. She mended her relationship with her parents and wanted him to do the same. He blamed Sally for choosing his stepfather. For being so absent as a mother, up until his sister’s death. He blamed her for many things. “Liam? Do you know how I’ve prayed? How hard I’ve prayed.” “Look mom, it’s only been a few days. I wanted to see Kay, and then I found her

married. Things have been difficult. I don’t need you here making it worse.” “Oh, sweetheart, I know it has. You must have been in shock to find her remarried.” She hurried over to the sofa and sat next to him. She put her hand on his knee, and he cut his eyes at her. She moved away. “Liam, first tell me how are you? Please.” “I’m fine.” “Are you…because you have that thing.” Her eyes went to the cane. “You’re a cripple.” “What did you call me?” “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, it’s just that thing….” Liam lifted it with a bitter chuckle. “What this? It’s called a cane. And I’m still a man with it,” he snapped. “Of course you only think a man’s a real man when he’s pounding his fist into your skull.” Sally paled. Her eyes widened with hurt, and she withdrew. “I’m sorry, Liam. Don’t be cross with me. I just, I’m sorry.” “It’s not a good time, mom. Can we do this some other time? I can’t deal with you right now.” He hurt her. When he looked over he saw her bottom lip quivering and her face flushed with ageless hurt. He didn’t know if he meant to or not, but if Kennedy saw her this way she’d read too much into it. He was losing it. All he wanted was Kennedy and Mackenzie. Not this shit. Why wouldn’t everyone leave him the hell alone? Liam tried to rein in his emotions. He felt like the walls of that desert hole were pouring in sand on him again, threatening to bury him alive. He couldn’t breathe with Sally so close. Fuck! Why won’t she just go away. “Liam?” Liam counted down his anxiety and willed his mind to control it. He forced a patient smile to his face and calm to his voice. “I’m sorry, mom. I’ve missed my life, I’ve missed everything. Most of all I missed my baby-girl. She’s so big now. I’m trying to know her. It’s been hard.” “I understand. I love you, Liam. When they told me you were dead, that was it for me. After losing little Mackenzie, then you, I had nothing. Your sweet baby girl is all I had. When Kennedy wanted Phil to adopt her, take his last name, I was right here to stop her—” “Wait? What did you say?” “Phil Freeman wanted to adopt her as a gift for Kennedy. She was going to let him. I had to protect you even if you were dead. I flew down here and told her there would be no way in hell she would make that little girl a Freeman instead of a Flanagan. She is so in love with that jerk she was willing to do it.” Liam felt his restraint crumble. His gaze flashed to the stairs. Kennedy couldn’t possibly want to rob him of fatherhood even if she thought he was dead. Sally had to be

lying. It had to be a lie. And Sally was good at twisting things to fit her needs. Sally touched his face. “Your return is a miracle. I love you. So much. You can come home with me. I can take care of you.” She moved in and hugged him. He hugged her back. But he continued to glare at the staircase. “Mom, do you have some place to stay?” “I’ll find a hotel in town.” He let her go. “Stay here,” he said, his mind calculating. “What? But—” “You want to do something for me? Help me get my family back. Kay needs someone here when I can’t be. Stay here with her until I can convince her to leave. Do you understand?” Sally read into what he wasn’t saying and quickly nodded to be his spy, his coconspirator. Liam felt a little more at ease. His meddlesome mother was just like Kennedy’s, except she’d work on his team. If he had to tolerate her, it was best he find a use for her. What was he thinking? He didn’t know what he was doing anymore. He’d never been so desperate. Had Kennedy really wanted to give Mackenzie Phil’s name? He wouldn’t allow himself to believe it. “Don’t you worry, son. I will make sure your girls are okay. They have a guestroom I stay in when I visit. I will keep my eyes on Phil, too.” “Good. I’m going to see Kay.” He reached for his cane and tried to rise. But Sally grabbed his arm. “Liam?” “What is it?” “Harvey is dead. He had a stroke three years ago. You can always leave here and come home with me. I’m so alone. You can barely walk. I can take care of you.” He snatched his arm away and glared at her. The only condition he’d laid out for her was that Harvey never be part of his life. Their reconciliation had been contingent on the fact she never mentioned his name. Even in her attempts to mother him and get to know Kennedy, she refused to leave the abusive bastard. Now she needed a replacement. “I changed my mind. You don’t need to stay here. Go back home.” “Liam?” “Go!” She shot to her feet and cut him off. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry for what I said. Don’t be angry. Please. I missed you so much. I’ve changed. Kennedy will tell you. I’ve stayed here many times with her. I can help you. Trust me. Who do you have, Liam, that will fight for you? Who? This is his house. He’s been a father to your little girl. Who will help you get them back but me?” “Excuse me.” He stepped around her and limped over to the stairs. Liam looked back to see Sally staring off deep in thought. The part of him that

needed her love, her comfort, died the day his kid sister did. Still, he had to agree. If Kennedy decided to stay with Phil, then she would be all the family he had left in the world. He’d be a visiting dad to his little girl. He’d have nothing. Liam climbed the stairs steadily. He first walked into Mackenzie’s room. He saw her curled up in her yellow comforter with a purple bear. She was so much hair. He smiled. He walked over to her and resisted the urge to kiss her soft cheek. How he loved her. No one in the world made him feel as much love as she did by just existing. When he drew up her blanket his gaze swept her dresser and stopped on her fish bowl. The goldfish floated at the top. “Damn. It’s dead,” he said. Liam shook his head. He would need to do something before his baby girl discovered her pet. He limped over to the bowl and picked it up. The water lapped inside and the fish began to sink down to the blue crystals at the bottom. He carried it carefully out of the room. He’d take it to Kay’s bedroom and ask her what they should do. Maybe Mackenzie has lost a fish before and they could have a ceremony. Or maybe he could go to the pet store and get one before she woke and discovered it was gone. Kennedy’s door was half closed. He hated that room. Knew that bastard had his woman in that bed, doing whatever he pleased to her. The thought of it made him physically ill. He pushed open the door with the end of his cane and limped inside. That’s when he heard the shower. Liam set the fishbowl on the dresser. He stared at the partially closed bathroom door. Swirls of misty steam blew behind it. He could hear her humming as she normally did when she showered. His groin grew tight. He’d had several erections since he first laid eyes on her again. But mind over dick usually meant he could ease out of it within seconds. This one couldn’t be rubbed out or dismissed with a thought. The shower had once been one of his favorite places with Kennedy. Liam limped over to the door. He shouldn’t invade her privacy. He should wait for an invitation. But when would that be? She kept talking therapy, and he could barely get to first base without some interruption. Besides, she belonged to him. She could debate it. Phil could debate it, hell the government could as well, but Liam knew better. Every inch of her belonged to him. He eased the door open, just enough to see her. Not enough for her to suspect him. The sweaty steamed-over shower glass just gave him her brown silhouette. But Liam had a good imagination. He should. He survived off of it for years. Kennedy turned off the water. Liam wanted to pull back, but something in him couldn’t. The door to the glass shower opened and her delicate foot stepped out on the white bathroom rug. His gaze slowly climbed her slick, slender leg to her curvy thighs and hips. She reached for a towel. Before she did so, he got a full look at her. From the trimmed hairs over her pussy, to the full, pert roundness of her breasts. She had additional weight in some areas but it was measured perfectly. She dried herself, then wrapped the towel around her. Liam quietly stepped back. He went to the chair in the room and sat to wait. He rehearsed what he would say to her. He had to get the lustful thoughts out of his head. All he needed was for her to come out and find him with an erection in her bedroom. Damn, this would be impossible. The door opened and she walked out. She jumped, startled to find him there.

Sitting down made it easier to cover his erection. He leaned forward with his cane between his legs. “Hi.” Kennedy smiled. She put a hand to her forehead. “Liam. Gracious, you scared me.” “I didn’t mean to,” he said, noticing the split in the towel reached to her pelvis when she raised her arm. She quickly adjusted it. He smirked. So she wanted to play shy. He remembered her shy days as well. He couldn’t wait to get her in his bed and claim her again. “Is Sally gone?” She hurried to get a robe to cover herself. She turned around, confused not to see it. Liam suspected it was in the bathroom. When she looked at him again, he realized he was sitting on it. He eased up and brought it from under him. He didn’t bother to hand it to her. He just studied her. “She needs somewhere to stay. I can’t take her to the Marriott. I’d feel better if all my girls were together.” He smirked. Kennedy fixed her towel for the fourth time and nodded, barely getting the meaning of having Sally stay with her. “That’s fine. We have a guest room. She’s stayed with us before.” “Good.” “Um, can you pass me my robe?” she asked softly. The towel did little to cover her. He admired the tops of her breasts slicked with moisture. In fact her neck, shoulders, arms, and curvy thighs had that damp sheen to them. No. He wanted her to remain this way. “Kay, you are so beautiful.” “Liam. The robe, please.” “We got a problem,” he said, dismissing her request. Hoping he would force her to approach him. “Look behind you.” Kennedy turned to look. Liam got an unintentional view of what the towel barely covered. He admired the backs of her thighs and the full, curvy preview of her ass. There was a heaven and it was between Kay’s thighs. She stared at the fishbowl with sadness he could see reflected in the dresser mirror. “She will be so upset. You found him like this?” He rose on his cane. He tossed her robe back to the chair and walked over to her. Stepping right behind her. He pressed his groin into her backside. Her eyes lifted to his in the mirror, a spark of interest there she couldn’t hide. “I found him like that. What should we do?” “I guess we have to talk to her. But it’s just the timing. Damn. I really wanted to keep things less stressed for her.” “Yeah, me too.” He eased his hand to her uncovered left buttock and felt the soft, round perfection in his palm. She didn’t move.

“I, um, we can talk to her in the morning or…maybe we can get another fish?” She breathed slowly, in and out, no longer meeting his eyes in the mirror. “Yeah, another fishie.” He eased his hand around her hip to her sex. He was only an inch away before she covered his hand with hers, stopping him. “No, Liam. Don’t.” He grimaced. He walked off. She quickly made her way over to the chair and snatched up her robe. He watched her cover up and grew even angrier. It’s as if she were hiding from him. It pissed him off. “I have a question for you.” “Okay.” “Did you agree to let Phil adopt Mackenzie?” “Huh?” “Did you?” he seethed. “Who told you that? Sally? No.” “Then how the hell did she come up with it? Are you saying it’s a lie?” “Liam, calm down. It’s not what you think.” Calm down. There were those words again. As if he wasn’t capable of a single thought that didn’t need to be managed by everyone but him. That condescension was like nails going over a chalkboard. He spoke again through clenched teeth. “Even if you thought I was fucking dead, why would you consider having my child take another man’s name? Did you want to erase all of me from her life? What kind of cold, heartless bitch are you?” Kennedy froze, those brown doe eyes looking at him innocently. It wasn’t enough. None of it was. He was a fucking visitor in his own life now. Nothing belonged to him, not even his wife. He couldn’t touch her without making her skin crawl. “Don’t speak to me that way, Liam. I won’t put up with it. Do you understand?” “Why? It’s what you are. Only a cold, heartless bitch would do what you’ve done!” “I think you should leave now.” “So he can come back. So you can wait on your real man to return. Someone less of a burden, less of a cripple?” “Get out, Liam. I don’t want you scaring Mackenzie.” “Cut the fucking act. I think you like it this way. Teasing me with the promise that we could be a family, then pushing me off when I get close. I think you’re doing the same to him. Want to keep us both chasing our tails for you.” “Take that back!” she shouted at him. “Take it back before you cross a line you don’t want to.”

“Hell, no. It’s the truth. A fucking tease! You let me in then push me off. You get off on it! You haven’t taken off his fucking wedding ring!” Kennedy looked down at her hand as if she hadn’t known. But when she looked up at him again, it wasn’t with an apology, it was with rage. “I’m teasing you? Is that what you think this is? Really? Because I won’t screw you on the same bed where I fucked him? Is that what this is for you? Just me fucking you to prove you’re still a whole man. Fine.” She disrobed in front of him. He looked her over with anger. “Should we change the sheets first, or do you want to get it on the same bedspread he does? Mark your territory, beat your chest, like some Neanderthal? Because I can tell you that those sheets, well Phil and I…” He heard nothing. Everything went black. Liam swung his cane like a sword and smashed it against the dresser mirror. He beat at everything wildly, sending sharp shards of glass everywhere. Then he began smashing everything on her dresser, including the fishbowl, sending water and the goldfish to the floor. “You said you would wait for me forever. You lied! You got over your guilt and then handed that motherfucker my kid!” The cane broke in half. He stumbled back, heaving deep breaths in front of a tornado-like swath of destruction. He blinked at the glass and broken pieces, not sure who had done it. He looked down at the mangled cane in his hand and realized that he had. “Kay, I—” He turned to see her covering herself with her robe. She shivered, still wouldn’t look at him. The door flew open and his mother came in, with horror on her face. No one spoke. “Mommy!” Mackenzie cried from her room. “I want you out of here! NOW! And don’t come back!” Kennedy shouted at him through her tears. “Kay, wait, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.” She escaped the room, and him, before he could reach her. “Liam, what happened?” “I have to get out of here.” He stumbled without the aid of a cane and nearly dropped to the floor. His leg dragged behind him. It felt like lead. He panted for air, wheezing, his chest constricting. He blinked through sweat and tears, seeing colors brighter than he’d ever seen them before. He closed his eyes and opened them. It helped. Some. He couldn’t walk like a man. He sure as hell didn’t act like one, losing his cool this way. He’d scared her. He never cursed at her or yelled at her. Now he had done both. Why? Because she wouldn’t give him sex? How could he explain this? When he reached Mackenzie’s door, he tried the knob and found it locked. Liam broke. The tears came from nowhere. He could hear his daughter’s sobs and wished he was dead. He should have died in that hole. This wasn’t home. He didn’t belong here and the truth was he didn’t belong anywhere. “Liam, let me help you,” Sally tried to offer. He shoved her off, and nearly tumbled down the stairs. Thankfully he made it

without incident. Then he was out the door. “It’s okay. It was just a nightmare,” Kennedy said, kissing Mackenzie’s tears. Her daughter still sleepy didn’t fully grasp what had transpired. Kennedy was thankful for that. When Liam tried to turn the doorknob, she held her breath and waited. She heard him and Sally in the hall, then heard the front door close. Only then did Kennedy let go and cry. She lay in the small twin-size bed with her daughter and cried into the back of her head until she exhausted herself and fell asleep.

Chapter Thirteen “Sugar, do you need anything?” Liam wiped his brow. He slumped forward, staring at the fizz and bubbles that rose from the bottom of his frosted mug of beer. The waitress leaned in, purposely or not, putting her oversized tits at eye level. She smelled of menthol, lemon dish soap, and one of those feminine lotions that reminded him of cherries—the mix was nauseatingly strong for his already sour stomach. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Her tits weren’t bad, though they were larger than Kennedy’s, a little saggy. He preferred Kennedy’s tits always, mostly because of her suckable, large nipples. He’d seen them when she stepped out of the shower. Her breasts were a bit rounder, but the nipples remained lickable. The last time he made love to her, she’d complained of sensitivity. His baby girl had been growing inside Kay after all. But he reined in his inner beast. It was hard. Kennedy was always so warm between her thighs and so soft during her first trimester. He remembered vividly how soft her skin was. He closed his eyes. “Hey, you in there?” the waitress asked. He lifted his gaze to her face. He saw nothing but blond teased hair and a relatively attractive face became clear. She wore too much eye makeup; a dusty bluish grey covered her eyelids. And the popping of her gum was irksome. Christ, she chewed that pink wad like Mabel the cow. “You okay, sweetheart? I can bring you another.” “Yes, another,” he rasped. Her listless hazel eyes softened with pity. Liam felt his pride tense on reflex. She licked her pink-stained lips. “Name is Sandy. This one on me.” “No thanks. I’ll pay for it,” he barked in too loud of a voice. Sandy gave a snort and an upward toss of her chin. “Suit yourself, sweetie. Misery loves misery I see.” She sashayed off in a mini-skirt that hugged her wide hips and flat ass. Liam rolled the tension from his neck and scanned the bar. A pair of young brunettes lifted their mugs to him. He grimaced. He didn’t know if they recognized him from the television sets over the bar that flashed his face between commercials, or just surmised by his blockhead and stature he was military. Either way, he didn’t want the company. Instead, he dropped back in the booth and let fatigue draw down his eyelids. The sounds of Roadhouse Grill lulled him into a comfortable numbness. Travis Tritt’s The Whiskey Ain’t Workin played on the dollar jukebox. No shit. The beer ain’t working, either. Liam chuckled under his breath. Without moving, he let his ears scan his surroundings. From every corner of the bar, the laughter of the young servicemen mingled with that of the townies. Liam could recognize the rambunctious roar of enlisted men over locals anywhere.

The break of balls over a pool table and soft thud of darts hitting the dartboard sounded not far from his booth. An occasional fight would occur over a spilled drink or a young lady who belonged to another. The two burly fuckers at the door would move and bust it up, dragging some inebriated fool out as he cussed and threatened everyone around him. This was the place for him. He’d ditched the news van tailing him and checked in with the owner when he arrived, to keep the press or anyone else off him. Liam knew Nick pretty well and was granted anonymity. He’d also found a booth far enough in the shadows to become one. There he’d sat for two hours, but remained on edge every time a double glance from across the room told him one of the servicemen recognized him. “How many so far?” Liam reached for his mug and tossed back another big swallow. He opened his eyelids to see the rangy, tense frame of Eric standing across from him. He wasn’t surprised to see him. The bar had been one of their spots years ago. It’s the brotherhood that calls to him. He missed that part of his identity. But damn, he thought he had another hour or two before they came looking. “Why’re you here?” “Kennedy called. Ant and I split up. I figured Nick would give you a pass here, enough to drink yourself under the table.” Eric undid the button to his suit and squeezed his big form into the booth seat. Liam sighed. “So you blew it?” Eric asked. “Fuck off,” Liam slurred. He dropped his empty mug on the table and looked up for saggy tits to bring him another. She was at another booth, laughing with patrons. Liam groaned. “Watch your mouth, bro. I’m pissed at you. Trying to contain myself here.” “Yeah, well fuck you.” Eric slammed his fist down on the table and pointed a finger in Liam’s face. “Cool it. Not gone ask you twice.” Liam sulked. He was in no mood to push those limits with his friend. Eric leaned in. “I know you’re hurting. I get that. But you scared the shit out of her and your kid. If you weren’t drunk I’d take your ass out back and slam you on the concrete.” Liam lowered his gaze. He felt his face and throat grow hot with the inner burn of shame. “She pushed me away. I couldn’t handle it.” “No shit.” “You don’t understand. It’s all wrong. Me, her, all of it is just wrong. I don’t belong with her anymore, and I can’t pretend I do. Who the hell am I? I’m not a husband, I’m no use as a soldier, and my daughter thinks I’m some cartoon hero she wished upon a star for.” “Yeah, I get it, you’re a loser. Fuck life, right? Just give up. Kennedy and Mackenzie sure as shit aren’t worth you trying.” “Try what? I can’t fight what Freeman can give her. What he has given her. And

after I showed her my anger she’ll never look at me the same.” “Not if you can’t look her in the eye and apologize, brother. Hey, I got to say it. You need some professional help.” “Fuck that.” “Then fuck you.” Eric snapped. “Fuck you and this pity party. I don’t deal in selfhate. Hell, the man I knew didn’t make excuses for life. He played the hand he was dealt. Fuck the fact that neither of us have known our fathers, don’t like our mothers, and have killed on command. To hell with all of that. You got a kid, your kid, damn it, and even if you can’t get over your fucking pride to forgive Kennedy you damn well owe Mackenzie more than this shit.” Liam dropped his face in his hands and sobered on Eric’s words. His baby girl’s questioning eyes loomed in his mind. There wasn’t enough booze in him to make him forget the look Kennedy gave him before she demanded he leave. He just wanted to go back to that dark place in his mind where he didn’t feel anything. He couldn’t take this pain. “I need another drink.” “Liam. Look at me brother. Look at me!” Eric snapped. Liam lowered his hands. “You need help. You want your life back, then you need to accept the fact that it’s different. We’re all different. I know it sucks monkey balls, but it is what it is.” Eric reached into his pocket and threw keys on the table. “What are those?” “Your pad. Got you a house in Spring Lake. It’s got two bedrooms. The grass needs cut and the plumbing is shot to shit. But it’ll do for you.” “Don’t want anything from the government, man. Alex will just use it to drag me in.” “You ain’t fuckin’ listnin’.” Eric snapped. “That there is property I own. You can lease it. I’ll spot you this month, but your ass better get my rent on time every month after. Rent is $850, motherfucker, and I want you to get the utilities in your name too. Don’t need you running up no fucking bills on me.” Liam stared at the offering. A place of his own. He could set up his little girl’s room, and have her stay with him. The possibilities had his mind swimming. “Thanks, brother. I….” He reached for the keys but Eric put his hands over them. Liam looked up into Eric’s hard stare. “You need to correct that shit you pulled tonight with Kennedy. You hurt her bad and I’m not going to let you go unchecked about that. She doesn’t deserve anything but respect, Liam. She held it down for you for a long time, brother. Longer than I seen any woman do for a dead soldier. Now if you can’t give her respect then you stay the fuck away from her until you can. Feel me?” “I get it, man. Good looking out.” Eric lifted his hand and Liam pocketed the keys. Just having his own place and not

that cramped hotel room gave him space to breathe. “Seems to me you got some back pay owed to you.” Eric reached into his pocket and tossed a checkbook on the table for him. “I had some things done. It’s not much but it’s enough for you to stand on your feet.” Liam opened the checkbook and saw the account in his name. “I can do it. Just need to get on my feet and clear my head. You know?” “After,” Eric said. “After?” “Clear your head after you meet with a head shrink. Your future hangs on that, brother. Not for Kennedy; it’s not for Mac. That deal is for you. I don’t know what you seen, what they put you through, but I know they didn’t break you. That means all of that pain is in that head of yours. Do you want it to come out in front of your woman and your kid?” “Right. I get it.” “Cool, got an appointment for you in two days. Made some calls. VA Hospital has a doctor named Abrams. He’s a good brother, a lifer, been to Vietnam and back. He’s your guy.” “Kennedy wanted us to do it together.” Eric shrugged his big shoulders. “Your call. I suggest you take the first wave alone, get those waters a little calm before you throw her in the mix. Again, it’s your wife, your call.” “She is my wife. Isn’t she? Damn beautiful, too.” “After that shit you pulled tonight?” Eric’s brows lowered. Liam nodded. “How is she? How bad are things with me and her now?” “You did a number on her, man. She blames herself for confusing you. Sending you mixed signals. Got her thinking that she’s your problem, not your solution. Good job.” “That’s not what she is. She’s my life. Damn it, I blew it.” “Damn right you blew it,” Eric said. “From what I hear you been singing the song of blame since you showed up on her door. Why don’t you just hand her over to Phil?” “Did she say that? That I keep blaming her?” “Didn’t have to. I know the deal. If had a wife like Kennedy and a cute kid like Mac with another man, I’d be raising all kinds of hell. No one is blaming you for having problems with dealing with life. Shit, you got a raw deal. If you hadn’t gone all commando on that rock we’d all be dead. But thing is, that’s over. You’re home now. Got to let go of the past. If you don’t fix it then it is all on you.” Liam scratched his forehead. “His name is Abrams, huh?” “Give the doctor a call. But later on that. Let’s get you to your new place. Not going to let you add drinking and driving to your list.”

*** Kennedy sat up. She reached over and turned on the lamp near the bed, then picked up her ringing cell phone. “Hello? Hello?” “I found him,” “Oh, thank God, Eric. Is he okay?” “He’s cool. You getting some sleep?” “No.” Kennedy sighed. “Can I talk to him? To be sure he’s okay.” “Not a good idea, sweetheart. Don’t you think you two should cool off?” Kennedy closed her eyes. The last thing she wanted was separation or distance. But she didn’t recognize Liam. He scared her. “Yeah, yes. I think you’re right.” “He wants to know if he can come tomorrow to get Mackenzie.” “No. I don’t think he can handle it now. He’s too angry.” “Kennedy, he’s not going to hurt her. You know that. Ant will be with him. So he won’t have her alone. He just wants to spend some time with her. I think it’s a good idea.” “Oh, um, sure.” Kennedy wiped her tears. “Where is he? Is he in his hotel room? Is he okay? Wait. I already asked you that.” Eric laughed. “He’s a grown man. He’s okay. He survived the war, he can survive a night drying out.” “Drying out? He was drinking? Alone?” “Shit. I said too much. You two work it out. I’ll see you soon okay?” “Thank you, Eric, and thank Anthony, too.” “Love you.” “Love you too.” Kennedy hung up. She slipped back down under her covers. The light from the lamp spilled out over the room. She’d cleaned up the glass and broken pieces from her vanity. But the frame with the missing mirror had been a clear indication that something was missing. It matched the hole in her heart. *** Morning Phil coasted up his driveway and shifted the sedan into park. The men posted at his

house remained in their military-issued vehicles, on guard. Other than them, it looked like any other day in his neighborhood. The dewy atmosphere and cloudy sky left the morning air frigid and the roads were beginning to get slick, covered with black ice. He didn’t see reporters, though one news van remained parked down the street. It was the same station that kept giving minute-to-minute reports on the activities in his home. It was how he’d discovered that Kennedy played house with her resurrected husband all day while he was miserable. Phil thought of Alexa’s bargain. If he did what she suggested, Liam would no longer be his problem. He would have Kennedy to himself. But even he couldn’t imagine betraying Kennedy to that degree. She had been honest with him from the start. He knew she hadn’t recovered from her grief. He just wanted a fair shot at some of the happiness she bought into his life. Was that wrong? Was it wrong to wish for a way to force Liam Flanagan back down the desert hole he’d crawled out of? Phil turned down the key in the ignition and shut off the car engine. He got out and shook off the cold blast of air whipping through the neighborhood. Tied to the roof was the Christmas tree he’d bought on his way over. He lucked out that the place opened at six in the morning. The soldiers came to the vehicle, offering to untie it and bring it in. Mackenzie would get a kick out of it. He’d go up in the attic and get all the ornaments and lights and make a day out of it. Quickly he headed up the walk to his front door and then unlocked it. The warm smell of breakfast meat and biscuits enveloped him. Closing the door, Phil let a smile ease slowly across his face. Had Kennedy gotten up and started breakfast, knowing he was coming over? “Kennedy? Babe?” Phil dropped his key in the ceramic dish near the door and shook off his coat. He was hanging it on the rack as Sally stepped out the kitchen, wearing his wife’s apron. She looked him up and down, then smiled. “Hi, Phil.” “Sally? What are you doing here?” “Haven’t you heard? My son’s alive.” Sally smirked. Kennedy tossed and turned under the blankets. She groaned in her sleep, begging Phil not to throw away their child, begging Liam to forgive her, begging all through the night and her heart was pummeled and ripped to shreds. She woke again with a silent scream strangled in her throat, and pillows soaked with sweat. Confused and mentally exhausted, she waited for her mind to differentiate between reality and her nightmares. She couldn’t go on much longer like this. She just couldn’t. The nightmares only went away after she’d been heavily medicated when Liam died. This time she would have to beat them back herself. Mackenzie screamed.

Kennedy shot up from the bed, grabbed her robe, and raced to the door. Before she made it to the hall, Mackenzie rushed in, hysterical, her little body racked with sobs. “Sweetheart, what is it? Calm down and tell mama what it is!” “He gone!” “Who? Who’s gone?” “My fishie!” Mackenzie wailed. “Somebody took my fishie!” Kennedy drew her into her arms. She rolled her eyes to the ceiling as she vividly recalled Liam’s destruction of the fishbowl and her subsequent flushing of Fishie down the toilet. To add to her torment, Phil walked in briskly, alarmed. Now Kennedy would be forced to address the other man in her life, and her daughter’s. She had to get off this rollercoaster. “What is it, Mac?” “Daddy! He gone! Somebody stole my fishie!” Mackenzie wept. She rushed from her mother’s arms to her stepfather’s. Kennedy rose from her knees, adjusted her robe, and looked on as Phil comforted her daughter. Mackenzie cried against his neck, mumbling unintelligibly. He rubbed her back; his caress reduced her daughter’s wails to hiccupping sobs. “What happened to the damn fish?” he asked over Mackenzie’s shoulder. “Dead.” Kennedy mouthed. Phil sighed. He nodded that he understood and turned, but froze at the sight of a gutted dresser mirror. He glanced back at Kennedy. What could she say? There was no explaining the obvious, so she said nothing. He shook his head and walked out whispering of a new fish to Mackenzie. Kennedy quickly went to her closet and found a pair of jeans. She pulled them up and sucked in her diaphragm to button and zip them. Grabbing one of Phil’s Army sweatshirts, she put it on, then hurried to the bathroom. She splashed water on her face, brushed her teeth. The doctor’s office opened early. She could go as a walk-in for this. She was sure of it. She had a good relationship with her OB. And besides, it was an emergency. “Kennedy?” She turned in the mirror with her toothbrush in her mouth. “Where are you going?” Kennedy spat sudsy toothpaste in the sink and turned on the tap to wash it down. “Need to go to the doctor. I want to get a blood test.” Phil stared at her. Kennedy ignored the look in his eyes as she washed her face and hands, then ran a comb through her tangles. Giving up on the frizzies that reached all the way to her roots, she grabbed a headband and put it on. She decided to let her locks remain wild and untamed. “Delay it.” She looked up in the mirror confused. “Huh?”

“We need to talk. There’s lots to talk about. I want to spend the day working through our feelings. Besides, we haven’t even planned Christmas, the party yet. I got a surprise for you downstairs.” “I can’t think of Christmas or her party. Phil, I can’t think about anything but the fact that I might be pregnant. I need a test. I want to know.” “Why? Why the hurry? You made a decision without me?” Phil asked. Kennedy sucked down a deep breath. “This is hard.” “No shit.” “I don’t want to hurt you.” “Then don’t.” “You know this isn’t the way I planned things. If I had known he was alive I wouldn’t have married you.” “But you did. You did marry me. You made vows to me.” He stepped inside the bathroom. Kennedy bit down on her bottom lip. She nodded that she did. She wanted out, tried to slide by him, but he blocked her passage. She shook her head, not wanting to tell him that their marriage had ended while standing next to the toilet and bathroom sink. “I made vows to Liam. Vows that I never intended to break. Vows I am very much committed to. I’m his wife, Phil, that’s a fact. You and I, we aren’t really married. And here’s another fact. I want to remain his wife. I choose him.” “Forget Liam for a moment.” “Did you hear what I just said—” “Look at us. The home we built. Our life. It’s not a substitute for what you lost with Liam Flanagan. It’s what you found with me. I won’t let you run to him like this.” “You won’t let me?” “I want a fair chance to hold on to my family. Besides, there are things you don’t know about Liam. Or wait, maybe you do. What happened to the mirror, Kennedy?” “I really need to get the test.” She tried again to go around him. “So it comes down to the baby? If you’re pregnant are you going to stay married to me?” “I didn’t say that.” “Say something, damn it. Give me an answer!” “Fine. I want Liam. There, I said it. Baby or no baby, I want my husband back. I want the life I had with him. I want to forget five years has been robbed of us and start right where we left off. That’s my heart’s wish. It’s the only thing I’ve wanted since the day they told me he was dead.” “And will he want you with my kid? You think of that? The man isn’t right in the

head. Who goes through what he did and not come out with screws loose? What happened here last night? You saw it, didn’t you? You saw how screwed up he is.” “I saw how this situation is killing him. I have to put an end to it.” “He’s dangerous, Kennedy. You have no idea what will set him off. My money is our child is what will do it. Then what? You going to put Mackenzie in harm’s way because of some puppy love from years ago?” “Spare me,” Kennedy snapped. “You have no idea who Liam is. Who we were to each other. Don’t let my mother fool you, she didn’t know either. Liam is my heart. The other half of my heart. We fought like hell to be together before you ever knew me. I gave up my family and my future to be his wife at seventeen and he gave his life to his country to provide for us both. I have never stopped loving him since the first day I laid eyes on him. That’s not puppy love, it’s not even close to any love between you and me, it’s the real thing. Now I’m sorry. I’m so very, very sorry, Phil. I warned you. I shared all of this with you when he died. When you came to me time and time again, saying my love for him didn’t matter. Telling me to get over it. I told you this and more. So don’t stand there like he is wrong for being alive. That I’m wrong for wanting my husband back!” Her words forced Phil to look away. She had delivered the final blow to his heart and he actually looked like he expected it. He stared off at nothing. He had to force it, had to make her say it. Now she had. And part of her felt better because of it. “And if you’re wrong? If he’s dangerous? Unstable? What then? Are your feelings for Liam more important than Mackenzie?” “All I know is that I need that damn test. Excuse me.” She pushed past him and hurried to the closet for her shoes. She felt such a heated shame burning her cheeks for it all. No one was to blame, but there sure was a lot of blame being thrown around between them. How could he ask her to forget Liam? Pretend their love had been just some distant fairytale of her girlhood. Would that suddenly make her the wife and mother Phil wanted her to be? No. The truth was she’d used Phil’s love just as much as he’d used her grief. Phil remained in the bathroom where she left him. Part of her wanted to comfort him. Make him hurt less. The problem was she didn’t know how anymore. Any show of affection she gave felt like a direct betrayal, and she was tired of feeling like shit for being human. Liam was right. She had to stop this back-and-forth and take a stand. When the phone rang she ignored it. But it did remind her that Liam would be coming for Mackenzie. She slipped on her shoes and turned to face Phil, who had now entered the room, and watched her silently. “Liam’s coming for Mackenzie.” “I want my talk. I want you to take the time to sit down and hear me out.” Kennedy dropped her hands to her hips. She chewed on her bottom lip. “I’m all over the place, Phil. If you want to talk, talk until we’re talked out, then let’s do that. I owe you that much. Okay?” He wiped his hand down his face. “Is there a chance I will change your heart?”

“No,” she said softly. “Just like there is no chance I will change yours.” Phil nodded. “Well, I plan to try. I can’t give up on us Kennedy. I don’t know how to give up. Not after the year I’ve shared with you. It’s hell, you know? Loving a woman who doesn’t love you back.” “I love you, Phil. I do. I’m just not…not in love with you. And you deserve more than anything I’ve ever given you.” He approached her. “What I deserve is a chance to be heard, to be really seen in your eyes. Baby or no baby, I deserve a fair shot. I’ve earned it.” Kennedy dropped her head, shaking it. This would be harder than she thought. And the fear of a baby in the midst of all this confusion had her weak and indecisive. Phil embraced her. She didn’t really feel him. Her heart had gone numb. She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. Slowly her arms lifted and she returned his embrace. *** Liam hung up the phone. Eric had left his services on at the house. He needed to get them switched over as soon as possible. Problem was, Kennedy wasn’t answering. He pushed his hands down in his front pockets, eyes fixed on the phone. Everyone seemed to have cell phones, now. If he had his mother’s cellular number, he’d try it next. Kennedy freezing him out would make his Christmas plans all the more difficult to pull off. It was rare that Kennedy gave him the silent treatment. She knew how much he hated it, so it was always that final secret weapon to bend him to her way of thinking. Liam ran his hand back through his hair and gripped the hairs at his nape tight. “Come on Kennedy, talk to me, babe.” He picked up the phone and dialed again. This time his mother answered. “Mom?” “Liam? Morning! You coming for breakfast?” “Where’s Kay?” “Upstairs with her other husband.” Sally snorted. Liam closed his eyes. “Oh, um, can you do me a favor?” “You really need to come for breakfast. She was up cleaning away that glass and crying all last night, blaming you, as if you could help it. After everything you been through, she blames you. Always knew she was a little too pampered to deal with life. Never wanted to tell you that, but she could barely stand on her own when you died, and then married that man ’cause she is one of those women that need a man. I heard her, upstairs crying and sniveling. She wouldn’t let me help either. She’s going to blame you, you know. She’s the type of wife that will blame you for being human. She can’t put up with stuff like that. Now if you want Mackenzie, I can help you. She’s your kid, Liam. They have good schools in Chicago, and I got an extra bedroom. Kennedy never let her come visit. She was selfish. I can help you, though. That black man wants to raise your

kid, Liam, make her forget she’s a Flanagan. Come over for breakfast, I’ll let you in. They can’t keep you out, they—” “Ma! Shut the hell up!” he shouted. Sally did as she was told. “Just tell Kay I will be coming to pick up Mac in an hour. Can you do that?” “Ah, sure. I’m sorry Liam, don’t be mad at me.” He ended the call. He really did screw everything up. On top of acting like a madman, he left his mother there with Kennedy? Part of him wondered if he’d done so on purpose. He would need to get Sally to go back to Chicago. Liam walked out of the kitchen, through the empty rooms of his new home. The heater worked, so it was nice and warm. Maybe he’d light a fire tonight in the fireplace. Liam eased open the back patio door. He stepped out on the small terrace and searched the side of the house for wood and found it. He limped out on his cane to check the bin to see how usable the supply was. Most planks were dry. When Liam turned, his gaze naturally went to his feet, watching his steps. Immediately he noticed a thatch of thinned grass, moist with soil. There were fresh tracks, none of which were made by him. Liam lowered the wood. He knelt and touched the soil and considered the pattern. A man’s sneaker print size eleven. Liam straightened. He searched for the direction the person had traveled. From the pattern of flattened grass, he assessed the person had come in from the side gate. And it hadn’t been too long ago. Liam’s ears pricked. Suddenly he became aware of everything. From the soft rays of the winter sun on his face to the distinct odors of morning dew and chirps from birds on power lines, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. The mystery of the tracks, however, tightened his chest and made his breathing labored. He’d only been there since last night. Who was on him? He stepped back and decided to resist the urge to track. His head was fucked up and everything read conspiracy. He scanned the perimeter of the small lawn and remained alert as he headed back into the house. Liam ran down the possibilities. Place had been empty. Could have been kids or something looking for their favorite place to squat. He’d done it as a kid. It was possible with the weather the tracks were from Eric opening up the place for him last night when he dropped him off drunk. Yes. All of it was plausible. Once inside, he decided to set aside that caged fear that made him want to react. Last night, he’d given into his emotions and scared the hell out of his family. A few tracks in the grass shouldn’t send him over the edge. It was nothing. Nothing. The new place was cool upstairs despite the warmth on the lower level. There would be much work to be done. The upstairs plumbing was busted. Faucets didn’t run hot water but the toilets did flush. A trip to the hardware store would top the list of things he needed to accomplish. Liam had always been handy enough for this kind of work. He definitely needed a distraction. The fix-and-repair projects would give him something positive to focus on. Maybe therapeutic home repair had been Eric’s intent?. His friend was wiser than he ever gave him credit for. Liam surveyed the place he’d turn into a home for his sweet Kay and little girl.

The small living room space with chipping eggshell-white walls and hardwood floors faced the door. There was only one new addition to his home: a nine foot tall Fraser-fir Christmas tree he’d bought at first sunlight. He called a cab to take him to where he left the rental car at the bar, and then set out on a mission. The Christmas tree filled the corner, with branches that extended at least four feet. It had been a bitch to drag inside with his bum leg. The cold weather made the pain stretch like a heated rod from his knee to his hipbone. Still, he filled with pride when he looked at it. Kennedy loved Christmas. They had a Christmas baby. This plan would work. Halfway through the nursery in search of the perfect tree, he spotted Phil Freeman, without the aid of a cane, making a similar purchase. Liam stepped behind a cluster of Douglas firs and watched men tie down an average size tree to the roof Phil’s car. He could hear Phil’s voice carry through the lot as he joked about his little girl loving to decorate. Liam kept his cool. It wouldn’t be a bad thing for Mackenzie to have two Christmases, he reasoned. He’d just make sure that the one with him was the most memorable. So he bought the fattest, tallest tree the man had. In the past, Kennedy had always done the tree trimming and decorating while he complained over putting up the outside lights. He missed that. He missed a lot of things. Liam smiled. This Christmas would be different for them all. *** Kennedy didn’t really know what to say. Her daughter danced around the Christmas tree. She clapped and sang happy birthday to me. It was a big shift in her behavior after the tears and hollering over her kidnapped goldfish. With all the drama, Kennedy not only forgot the traditions with Mackenzie since she’d been a baby, but she forgot how much Mac loved the holiday. “See mommy! See my birthday tree?” Phil came off the last step. She could sense him drawing close behind her. “Surprise. I thought we could do some tree-trimming today. I know how much you love the holiday. It’s just around the corner.” “Look at it, Grandma. It’s my birthday tree!” Mackenzie grabbed Sally’s hand and pulled her over to the tree. “We will decorate it, and you can put all the presents you buy me under it. See?” Kennedy wondered how Liam spent the past five years on Christmas morning, while she and Mac celebrated without him. “Mac, come darling. You need to get dressed.” Kennedy wanted to escape the damn tree. “Mama? I wanna decorate it.” “Let her stay,” Phil said. “He can see her tomorrow. We should decorate and make things a little normal for her today.”

“She’s going with Liam. You wanted to talk to me so we’ll talk.” Kennedy took her daughter by the hand and dragged a complaining Mackenzie back up the stairs. She ignored the stares of Sally and Phil. “Mama?” “What, Mac?” she answered in a brisk tone. “Did you ever have Christmas with daddy from heaven? Have your own tree?” Kennedy stopped in the hall. She looked down at her daughter. She saw Liam’s smile beaming up at her and couldn’t speak. There, shining deep in her daughter’s eyes, was a flash of a memory of her very first Christmas with Liam. The very first, before her mother and father caught them in the boathouse and their world fell apart. Before he enlisted in the military and they had to celebrate Christmas over the phone. Before a war came between them. “Huh, mommy? Did you?” She saw that special time again when they stole away for two days and talked about their future, where she wished for a little girl she would name Mackenzie and a life as a wife in the ’burbs, driving a mini-van. “Yes, baby, we had a Christmas tree, and we both couldn’t wait until we got to decorate one with you.” “Really?” “Maybe this Christmas we’ll get another chance.” “I can’t wait!” Mackenzie announced. Kennedy softened. “Me either,” she said.

Chapter Fourteen December 1994 “Liam? What’s taking so long?” Kennedy shivered under the pale blue light of a full moon. The night had a creepy feel to it. She glanced to the left at the whispered rustle of tree branches. She let her gaze sweep their isolation, while hearing the hollow sound of the nearby ocean waves break over the shore. Normally she’d wait inside, but curiosity got the best of her. So she hugged herself tight to trap the sheepskin warmth of her brown suede Christmas coat around her shivering body and braved the night winds for him. Sure, they were in Montauk, where it all began, alone and completely isolated. Most of the vacation homes were locked tight during the winter months. Isolation had been the beauty of her plan—hers and Sierra’s. The Schoenstein place was exclusively located in the bottom cove in a secluded community at the west end of the beach. You had to travel a mile through dense foliage on a single-lane road to drive in. They made it just at sunset. Kennedy stood at the door. She stared down the long wooden steps that led out to the cobblestone driveway. Liam shared the light of the same moon but from the back of his car. She caught glimpses of his baseball cap as he struggled to lift something from the trunk. Liam slammed the gate down and stepped away. The driveway security light blinked on. Kennedy strained to make out the purpose of the four foot long rectangular box. “What’s that?” She pointed. “Go back inside, Kay. It’s cold out.” Ugh! She hated when he ordered her around. Kennedy crossed her arms in a huff, holding the door open with her backside. Liam carried the box in one hand and two large Target shopping bags in the other. Now she was tickled with curiosity. She loved surprises. Earlier, when he picked her up from Sierra’s parents’ Manhattan penthouse, he had her gift in his hand. He had been so cute, too, nervously peeking in as if her parents were going to jump out and grab him. The present was wrapped in white satin gift paper with the sweetest blue bow. Department store wrapping, probably. Liam wasn’t that kind of creative. This would be their first Christmas. December 25th had come and gone with her stealing away to call him every chance she got. She hated that he spent the holiday alone with his dweeb cousin. Kennedy had a great time with her family. She and her mama baked pies, dressed and cooked Gail’s famous pomegranate-glazed turkey, while singing Kennedy’s favorite Christmas songs. Andrew Washington had gotten out his video camera and filmed several of Harper’s tantrums through the day. Her sister was so impatient over the holiday she’d taken to stomping through the house. Kennedy turned the camera on her parents kissing in the kitchen by the stove when they didn’t know she was there. Her parents’ love always made her want a soulmate of her own. Later, after dinner, they all piled on the sofa and watched A Christmas Carol while her dad snored through the ending. She loved her family. And she loved the holiday. The only person missing was Liam.

That’s why this had to happen. Using Sierra’s place was easy. The Schoensteins rarely visited it. Convincing her parents to let her spend the rest of holiday break before the New Year with Sierra had been much harder. But Kennedy could always get her daddy to make her mama come around. He trusted her. “What’s this?” She held the door open for him. “Christmas.” “Christmas in a box?” “Christmas in a box.” He gave her a pop kiss, then went through the house. Kennedy closed and locked the doors, then hurried after him. To the back was an enclosed terrace, the best room in the house, in her opinion. The windows wrapped around the terrace, so when you entered you faced the sea at every turn. To the center was a chocolate leather sectional sofa in the shape of an L. It let out to a bed—it would be their bed. A stone gray fireplace had been stuffed with logs and lit by Liam when they arrived; already warmth enveloped the back of the beach house. It slowly spread through the lower level. She loved this room, the ambiance, the cozy view of the sea and mostly because it was adjacent to the kitchen and the bathroom. She had already decided that their two days would be spent in bed, naked, and cuddling. Even better, her period had come early so she didn’t have to worry about it making an appearance and ruining everything. Turning on the lamps in every corner, she watched with keen interest as he pulled out the three sections of bound artificial tree. “You got us a tree? Liam! That’s so sweet.” “I told you, Kay, we’d have our own Christmas. It’s what you wanted. Come here. You’re my girl. Doesn’t your man make all your dreams come true?” She wrapped herself around him, swaying before an open cardboard box, bubble wrap, and artificial branches. “I like it when you call me your girl, ’cause it’s true. I’m your girl, and you’re my guy. When I’m eighteen we won’t have to sneak around. My parents will love you. My mom will come around. She can be a trip, but my daddy is so cool. Oh Liam, you will like him. I promise you. I can’t wait for you two to meet. And we’ll have Christmas at my house next year—” Liam kissed her. Tongue, lips, his warm, sweet breath was such a head rush, her lashes fluttered and her eyes closed. Heat slid through her body as his tongue slowly rolled over hers and she savored the spearmint taste of him. She clung to the collar of his leather jacket once the kiss demanded more of her. The familiar desire she had for him became a flash-fire through her veins, tightening the muscles in her belly. Sex with Liam was so different now. It hurt at first, when she lost her virginity, but not now. He taught her things and showed her pleasure that had her tossing many nights in her sleep. The kiss ended naturally but she felt as if her heart spun in circles in her chest, it beat so rapidly. The room had become a furnace and they were both still wearing their coats. “Mmm, you tempt me Kay. I should start dinner here.”

He palmed her between her legs at the front of her jeans. Kennedy shivered. Their eyes locked and his lips curled into a smile. Liam was better at this than her, seduction, and controlling passion, but Kennedy had been a fast learner. She knew what buttons of his to push as well. “Let me fix dinner…then I’ll start desert here.” Her lids drifted closed at the promise in his husky voice. Still it wasn’t nearly enough to hold her. She hadn’t seen him in eight long days. And she had that warm wet heat in her core now. It made her ache for him. She tried once more to reach his lips for another kiss. Liam effectively dodged her lips to sink his teeth into her cheek. Kennedy cried out. She hit his arm playfully. He spoke against her ear. His breath was warm and his voice a low whisper. “Be a good girlfriend, and I won’t be a bad boyfriend and rip those jeans off you and fuck you on the floor before we have our Christmas dinner. Now, I’m going to fix you some spaghetti. Do you think you can manage setting up our Christmas tree without tempting me?” Dazed, and a little giddy from the way he spoke his demands, she eased her hands inside his jacket, over his sides to his back. “Aww, Liam, a little kissing never hurt anyone —” “Kissing you is how I lost control in the first place. You know it’ll make me want more.” He let his hold loosen on her so she could steal another kiss, a quick lick and suck of his lips. “Mmm, you’re right, I guess.” “Good girl.” Liam let her go. He unwrapped his scarf from his neck and shed his leather jacket. Kennedy shook off her coat, watching him. He was so damn sexy in his gray jersey and faded blue Levi’s pulled down over his Timberland boots. He cast her one look back over his shoulder. It clearly said: keep teasing me and I’ll blow your back out. Kennedy blew him a kiss and he smiled before slipping into the kitchen. She turned and surveyed all he’d bought. This would be the best two days of her life. “I can’t believe we pulled this off.” She called out to him as she started to slot the triangular green plastic pieces for the base of the tree. “I wanted you for Christmas, and I got my wish.” “You wanted me?” he asked from the kitchen. Kennedy turned around in search of the perfect corner. She decided on the one to the left, near the bookshelf and the wall of windows. “I sure did, and in case you haven’t noticed I always get what I set my mind to. I got you, didn’t I?” “You have a point. Oh, Kay, I think you should check in with your folks. Just to be on the safe side.”

“Are you kidding, Liam? I spoke to mama this morning. She thinks Mrs. Schoenstein is taking Sierra and me into the city for dinner tonight. I’ll call her in the morning. You just worry about dinner. And don’t come out until I say. I should have the tree up soon.” Liam wasn’t a sentimental guy. In fact he and Sally only celebrated Christmas so Mackenzie would have something like a childhood in that hellish house they grew up in. The season always gave his stepfather a reason to drink, as if he needed any, which would eventually lead to violence and disappointment. This year would be different. As he sat on his cousin’s lumpy sofa kicking his ass in a game of Madden, he kept glancing at the clock, counting down the days for when Kennedy and the holiday would be his. She mailed him a Christmas card with a five-page letter. Written with pink ink, each page was filled with sweet kisses and I love yous. He could see her with her family in front of a tree, opening gifts. He longed to be part of her world then. He vowed to make their stolen days together just as special. It was the best promise he kept. Liam turned off the garlic toast in the oven. He then poured the pasta into the pot of sauce and gave it a final stir. “Okay! Ready!” He looked up. It had been a half hour at best. She worked fast. He turned off the gas flame under the pot and ventured back into their love nest. He found her next to a semi-decorated tree that sparkled with blinking colored lights and glittery ornaments. Liam turned off the lamps. With the fireplace and Christmas lights there wasn’t much of a need. “What do you think?” she asked. Kennedy stood next to the tree in tight blue jeans, brown suede knee boots, and an oversized pink cashmere sweater. She had her hair styled different this time. She wore it braided in corn rows with beads on the ends. He thought she’d never looked sexier. Everything from the soft shadow over her eyelids to the silver hoops in her ears enhanced her beauty. “The tree, Liam. What do you think?” “I, um, I like it.” He gave her a sly smile. “Is that all you can say?” she rushed over and slipped her arms around his waist. At his side, she stared at the tree, grinning. “You like it? You love it would be better.” “I love it,” he said, running his hand down her back. “Like I love you.” “Do you know what we need? Christmas music!” She let go of him before her body heat could warm him and crossed to the other side of the room on a mad search for entertainment. Didn’t she know the only entertainment he wanted was her in his arms, with his body wrapped around her tighter than a python? Kennedy bent over in front of the bookshelf. It took everything in Liam not to

launch himself at her. Her sweater had risen to offer him the tempting view of her round, heart-shaped ass in her jeans. She didn’t wear jeans often. Now he understood why. Those curves were best kept under a skirt. Men only had so much self-control. He touched his head and noticed she had him sweating. “The Schoensteins have a great record collection. Sierra turned me on to some of it when we come here. It’s mostly seventies and sixties music. I wish I grew up during the times of 12-inch vinyl, you know?” “Ah, yeah,” he managed. “We never had a record player. Did you? I guess they’re antiques now. I know my dad said he once had a good collection of albums when he was a kid. I asked him once. He told me all about eight-track players too. Looked them up on the Internet. Really goofylooking things.” Liam relaxed to the soothing sound of her voice. His woman sure could go. She’d ramble on and on over any subject. He soon looked over to the tree. Best damn tree he’d ever seen, though skimpy on the trimmings, but her arrangement of the bulbs and tinsel was enough. Somehow, Kennedy had forgotten the star. He picked up the package and began to rip into the box. “Oh, yeah, that star is for you to put on the top of the tree. When we have kids that will be your daddy duty. You put on the star.” Liam smiled. “You got it all figured out?” “That’s right, your life and mine. All figured out. The kids will have a turtle, no dog, until they turn eight. Oh, and we need a minivan, too. I always think it’s so cute to see families piled in a minivan. My dad wanted one but mama said she’s not giving up her beemer.” Liam tuned the rest out. Kennedy sat with her legs folded in front of her, shuffling through albums. He rose with the star and placed the cone end on the top branch. Mackenzie’s last Christmas had been spent in the hospital. He couldn’t bring a tree into her room so he brought the star instead. She got a real kick out of that. He remembered the nurses dressed as elves when they passed out eggnog. He sat next to her bed watching Beauty and the Beast on the VHS player in her room. Every so often he’d check his watch and tell her where Santa Claus was at the moment. She fell asleep. When she woke, he’d surrounded her bed with the few gifts he could afford. Her favorite was a Rudolph with a blinking red nose. It was his fondest memory of Christmas Eve. “Should we open the presents, too?” Kennedy asked. Liam sighed. “Sure, babe, whatever you want.” “Aha, I found it!” She rose with a purple album cover that had a wreath to the center. “Motown Christmas. Even got the Jackson Five. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. This is perfect! Oh, our babies—” “Babies?” Liam brow’s shot up. “Of course, a boy and a girl. Anyways, when we get married, I want you to dress

up as Santa Claus every year. My dad used to dress up when I was a kid. He had to stop it when Harper was three, though. She would scream and cry then pee on herself until he took off his beard. She can be such a little spoiled brat. Anyways, Daddy would dress up in the costume but leave off the beard. Man, I love it. I want our babies to believe in Santa Claus, and I want Santa Claus to be daddy. You know Santa Claus is a black man.” “Santa Claus is not a black man,” laughed Liam. “Yes, he is.” Kennedy smirked. She began to sing and his curiosity was piqued. Apparently there was a song about Santa being black that he’d never heard before. He couldn’t stop laughing. “Now that’s settled,” she said, then went on to tell him about the gift exchange at the Washington house. Liam dropped back against the sofa and listened to her talk. She put the record on spin and looked to the kitchen. “Where’s dinner?” “Shit, I forgot. Came out here and saw you, then Santa was black and the talk of kids….” “Very funny. Stay there. I’ll fix it.” Diana Ross and her Supremes crooned Joy to the World, and Kennedy sang in harmony. Liam felt nervous energy, warm tingles, building in the palms of his hands. He rubbed them over his thighs and blew out a breath. He tried to relax, focus on the sweet sound of her voice and the record playing, but his chest grew tight with anxiety and a new feeling he hadn’t felt before: dread. Was a future with Kennedy really possible? She was so young and optimistic, especially about his ability to adapt to her life. Kennedy’s family loved her and she loved them. She had no major drama with them, unless you considered the fact she kept secret a twenty-two-year-old boyfriend. What happens when she graduates high school? What happens when she goes off to some Ivy League college and starts dating men who can give her more than he would ever be able to? “Baby, do you want a beer?” she called out. “Yeah, um, I put them in the fridge.” Liam closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. What happened when there was no reason to sneak around anymore? How would he explain himself to the Washingtons? “Voilà!” She emerged with the big bowl of spaghetti noodles mixed with his spicy ragu and overcooked ground beef—his specialty. Kennedy had even cut the garlic bread into thick, buttery slices. “Now we eat.” Liam rose, taking the tray from her hands. She ran into the kitchen and returned with two beers. He didn’t say anything when she kept one for herself. What the fuck difference did it make now? “Why are you so quiet?” She plopped down next to him and passed over a fork. “Pasta is best eaten together, same bowl.” Before he could answer, she forked some noodles into his mouth. Liam decided not to ruin their time together with his bullshit insecurities. Kennedy leaned over and licked the sauce from his chin.

“Are you happy?”‘ “Yes.” He chewed. “But you know what would make me even happier?” “What?” “You. Eating spaghetti with all these clothes off.” Kennedy slowly stopped eating. Her large brown eyes ringed with dark lashes latched to his. A slow-moving sexy smile spread over her lips. The light of agreement in her eyes made his blood pressure rise. He actually felt feverish with anticipation. Her energy matched his in every conceivable way. “How about in my underwear? Black lace with pink bows.” Liam pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it to the side, leaving just his T-shirt and jeans. “You’re on.” Kennedy leapt to her feet. She changed the record while he reclined and got ready for his Christmas gift, the only one he needed this year. Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby, that sultry and sexy voice, poured into the room. Liam had to admit this was perfect. Her sweater went up and over her head, dropped to the floor. The lacy black bra cups only covered half of her tits, her dark large nipples swelling and pushing against the restraining fabric. There was a tiny pink bow to the center and delicate, thin, pink satin ribbons woven through the straps. Her skin was evenly brushed a flawless brown. He couldn’t find an imperfection on her as his eyes slowly went down the flat curves of her tummy. Kennedy undid the top button, lowered the zipper, then hooked her thumbs in the sides of the jeans and pushed them down her hips. The fabric eased down her shapely thighs as Kay sang with Eartha. She turned and he was rewarded with the back view. The lacy confection of her panties rested on the firm mounds of her ass and slipped into the cheeks. Tiny pink bows adorned the thin trim at her hips. Kennedy sang of her desire for a mink, convertible, and a trip to Tiffany’s because she’d been a good girl all year. The long ends of her braids with the pink and black beads swayed past her shoulders. She moved her ass in a slow grind that had him tugging his Johnson. Giving him a sexy wink over her shoulder, she shook it for him once more. That’s it! Liam rose. He crossed the short distance to stand behind her. His control hung by a thread. He took a steadying breath when the soft cushion of her buttocks brushed his groin. Dinner plans forgotten, he closed his eyes and placed his palms to her hips. He dropped his face to the back of her head. She might have been teasing about their future, she might have been a little loopy from her first beer. Still, in that moment, he began to believe. Together they moved, the music having long ago stopped. He slipped his hands around her stomach and ran them up and down soft, taut skin until one hand dipped to the front of her panty and the other went up to cup her breast. Her head dropped back on his shoulder and he saw her take a swallow, felt the acceleration of her heart as he held her left breast in his hand. But that wasn’t where she felt the softest. His hand slipped lower, under the lace, to caress the lips that were easily coaxed to part. Kennedy gasped softly. She wiggled her ass a bit more. The tease had his inner beast clawing to get out. He could feel his cock drop down the length of his thigh. It pulsed with such a need to get in her, he bit down on her shoulder to maintain.

“Ow, Liam! Too rough!” She elbowed him. He grunted and she spun on him, eyes flaming with anger. “Sorry, babe.” “Don’t bite me, not yet,” she smiled, softening. She eased up against him once more. Every sweet curve of her body was pressed up against his chest and pelvis. “You’ve been a bad boy and I’m hungry,” she whispered against his lips. She pushed him off then walked back over to the dinner on the coffee table. Liam groaned, his erection a throbbing muscle of iron in his pants. He wiped his hand down his face and cursed. He could hear her laughing and chewing behind him. He could feel the red heat to his cheeks and decided to play it off by turning off the record player in favor of the radio. He found a blues station with B.B. King howling with his guitar Merry Christmas Baby. It was a worthy distraction. He willed his dick to ease into a manageable state. He had to rub the fucker to get it to behave. “Liam, come on. Stop stalling. I know you’re hungry,” she teased. “You are going to pay for that, Kay.” He grabbed the back of his head and twisted his torso until the cramp in his lower back and dick melted. Finally in control, he sauntered over and reclaimed his cool. Kennedy guzzled down her beer. She wiped her soft, kissable lips with the back of her hand. When he sat, she immediately began to feed him. He tried not to look at her breasts that kept rising and falling with each excited breath. He struggled and eventually caved, staring at them for long pauses. Through the rest of their dinner, he peeked at every inch of her he could. The beer gave her the giggles and she started talking about every and anything that popped in her head. He nodded and answered a couple of times as if he were listening. When she was satisfied that he had suffered enough punishment over the bite to her shoulder, she eased up against him. At first he played her off. That never worked long with Kennedy. She pushed him back on the sofa and straddled him. “Do you want your Christmas gift now?” Her face was so close their noses touched. He inhaled the sweet and spicy on her breath. His eyes dropped to her lovely breasts, hovering in their lace cups. His cock twitched. She wanted to play. Games with Kennedy could leave him with blue balls. Any other girl he’d get frustrated, and push on. Somehow her teasing was the balance to his roughness. They each gave and took what they needed. “Nah, I don’t want a Christmas present unless….” He licked his lips. “Unless it’s the dessert we talked about.” “You will want this gift.” “Kay, fuck, stop with the games. I want you….” She eased her hand down his chest to the buckle of his belt. Liam eyes went down the line of his chest. He watched her slender fingers unbuckle, unzip, and release his cock. She eased back down his thighs until she sat just below his knees. The rounded head of his

cock stood erect, angry over its neglect. Her mouth descended, covered the tip, and wet heat slowly sheathed him as she swallowed three inches. “Fuck!” Liam groaned. She had never sucked him off. He had never wanted to push her. And though her teeth scraped his shaft and her descent would abruptly end when she tried to swallow, she was much better than he imagined. Liam gripped the top of her head and shot his hips up slowly. She found her groove and so did he. Liam’s eyes rolled into his skull, his pelvis shuddered, and he began to pump the top three inches of his cock in and out of the sweetest suction he’d ever known. “Stop, Kay, stop…stop….” he warned. She lifted her face in time and his need to explode rolled into a tight knot that sent painful spasms down his shaft into his boys. She covered his mouth with her own and eased his suffering. His hands roamed her curves. He grabbed both halves of her ass and pressed her down on his groin while he ground his hips up into her honeyed slit. “Condom?” she asked through the kiss. “Jacket,” he stammered. Kennedy withdrew and he yanked her back down hard. She shrieked then giggled as he flipped her on the sofa. “You make me crazy, Kay.” “So…what are you going to do about it?” Liam smirked at her. “I’m better at this game than you.” His gaze lowered as he did, his tongue tracing the centerline of her tummy, dipping into her navel, and she moaned. He pressed a kiss there. Smiling, he untied the pink strings to the left and right sides of her hips, releasing her thin panty. When his face lowered to her mound she parted her thighs for him. Liam smiled at the slick, plump dark brown lips and the pink tender center of her sex. “So beautiful….” Liam whispered. The first touch of his tongue on her pussy sent a deep quiver through her. Her thighs vibrated in his hands. Kennedy’s heady, tangy scent edged with spice left him intoxicated. “Liam, kiss me there, please,” she whimpered. “You wanted to tease me. Now you want to make demands?” “Not anymore.” She thrust her pussy up into his face. “Please…” He punished her by tracing her slick entrance with the tip of his tongue before taking a quick plunge, then withdrawing. She groaned and he grinned, blowing over the feverish heat of her desire, causing her to move her ass in slow circles. He decided it might be best to slip on the condom now before things got so far out of hand he didn’t want to. He tried to pull away, but she countered by grabbing the back of his head and smashing her sex against his lips. His sweetie would not be denied. Still, she made him sit next to her and eat without touching. She deserved her punishment. He gave her slit a long lick, then drew away. “Ugh! Damn it, Liam!”

He chuckled and rose to remove his T-shirt. He found his jacket and dug out the box of condoms he had shoved down deep in the pocket. When he looked back, she was doing away with her bra. The sight of her full breasts, with the colored blinking lights playing shadows and designs over her skin, was so damn sexy. She got up and did away with the cushions to let out the bed. Liam took the time to strip down his pants and boxers. Standing there in his socks he watched her move around, putting on the sheets and blanket that she’d gotten at some point. He almost launched himself at her again when she turned her back to him. Instead, he sheathed his cock then tossed three more packs to the bed to be sure they were still in reach. “You know you could help me, Liam,” she said, seeing the packs land on the sheet. “On the bed, Kay. Now,” he rasped. Kennedy crawled over the freshly laid sheets and sprawled out for him. He was on her again, kissing her, soft pliant lips until they swelled and grew even softer. He pulled her under him. He would make love to her next, nice and slow, but first he had to get in her. Connect with her, possess her. She clawed at his back and he groaned as her nails nearly broke skin. He looked down at her and he knew she wanted to go there. She should know better than tease the beast. She does know better. Without warning, he pushed forward, sinking his cock into her tight heat. Her channel contracted all around him, causing him to grunt loudly as pleasure split his spine. He pulled out and thrust again, rocking against her body as he tried desperately to hold back the tightening in his balls. He was on overload, the pressure spiking in him with each push of his hips as she thrust back. Liam forced her legs up, back and straight. Rising on his knees, he pumped his cock in and out of her, fast and furious. She gripped the sheets, thrashing, as he beat harder and stronger. Liam dropped forward, pinning her legs to her chest as he got in deep, long strokes. She scratched and clawed at his arms and he slowed a bit. But his mind and body were one organ now, throttling her sex for dear life. “Oh God, Liam, puhlease,” she panted. He let one leg down, then the other, but kept moving in and out of her. She clung to him and moved beneath him with so much rhythm, the urgent need to dominate her was calmed. He could relax enough to love her with his kisses and pamper her pussy with soft strokes. Kennedy shook and shouted out her cries of pleasure as she climaxed. It would be a long time before he joined her. He withdrew, flipped her, and grabbed her by the back of her neck. Her braids fell over both sides of her shoulders to the front of her chest and he helped her to her hands and knees. “Do me Liam. Do me harder.” “Say it. Say the words,” he grunted. She resisted. He knew she didn’t like to curse, but damn it he loved it when she did. “Fuck, I love this pussy. Say it. Say it for me, Kay.” “Fuck me. Fuck me hard,” she groaned. He covered her body with his own. He got in deep and found himself barely able to balance them both. He put more of his weight on her as he squeezed her clit and slammed

his cock into her again. He rode her until her pussy fluttered and clenched again. “Harder. Harder, fuck me harder.” She rolled her ass as he thrust his cock in and out. The rush of pleasure was so extreme it was almost pain. He lifted off her, grabbing both sides of her hips. He slammed in and out of her repeatedly until she bucked and lost it. Collapsing on the bed, her moans muffled by the pillow, Liam rode the wave until his dick pulsed and jerked its first release of the night. Wiped out, with the sounds of Ray Charles’ smoky voice in the background, Liam rested on her. At length, he summoned enough strength to rise from her and roll away. He reached for her and she came to him. Her face, neck, shoulders were all covered in a slick sheen of sweat, but her eyes were bright and alert. “We’ll take a little break and do it again.” She grinned. Liam laughed. She rolled onto his chest. “I love you. Merry Christmas.”

Chapter Fifteen “W’sup. brother?” Liam opened the door. Eric walked inside, bringing in the cold. “Just checking in on you. Thought you’d have a bitch of headache this morning.” Liam slammed the door, shutting out the hard breeze. He followed Eric into the living room. His friend looked at the bare tree, then back at him. “You decorating already?” Liam smiled. “Me and Mac. Gonna pick her up, decorate the tree and pick out some things for her room. What you think?” “Cool. I think that’s cool. And Kennedy?” “She’s not speaking to me, but I got a plan.” “Not sure I like the sound of that,” Eric said. “No, it’s going to be okay. Christmas is our holiday. It’s why Mac was born early, I think. It’s going to bring me and my family closer. That and a little therapy.” Liam was only half joking. Eric stared at him for a moment, then glanced back at the tree. Liam crossed his arms, determined. He loved his friend, but fuck him if he was going to come with that ‘go slow’ shit. He didn’t believe in waiting on his life. He sure as hell had let too much time pass him by. He didn’t get the woman of his dreams by doing what was expected of him. He wouldn’t do it now. Eric dropped his shaven head, then cut Liam a look. Slowly, both men smiled. “Sounds like a good fucking plan, bro.” Liam nodded. “Might need your help.” “Cool. Count me in.” “Got a question for you.” “Shoot?” “You take a stroll around the perimeter last night?” “Come again?” “When you dropped me off drunk. Did you go out back?” Eric looked to the back of the house. “Nah, just dropped you off and left. Why?” “Tracks, men’s shoes size eleven or ten. I found some leading from the door to the gate.” “Fresh?”

“Yeah.” Liam nodded. “Interesting. House been empty for awhile and we got plenty of kids around here. Could be some. Caught a crew hanging out here like my fucking place was their clubhouse.” “Yeah, I kind of figured it was like that.” “Want me to check it out?” Liam felt the doubt creep in. He wasn’t crazy. And he didn’t want to come off as paranoid either. “Nope. It’s cool. Now let me tell you what you can do for me. Will need you to get Harper to help, too.” “Lay it on me, man. I got your back.” Liam slapped hands with him. “Like always, brother.” *** “You have a good time with daddy. Be a good girl for him, okay?” Kennedy said. Mackenzie blinked in silent response. The wide-eyed look on her face pulled at Kennedy’s heartstrings. She kissed the dimple to her left cheek, checked her car seat fasteners once more, then closed the door. Admittedly, she was nervous. She had thought Anthony would show up with Liam. Now she had to hand Mackenzie over and put all her faith in him. After his violent explosion it was hard to trust him and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Thankfully, the media vans had left so the exchange wouldn’t be on the five o’clock news. A recent celebrity death had now taken the limelight and heat off of them. She feared that would be temporary. “Maybe you should come with us, Kay. I was thinking of Fun World after a trip to the pet store.” “No.” Kennedy’s tone went flat and firm. She walked around the front of the car and stopped a reasonable distance before him. Liam leaned on the top of the car door in his brown leather jacket and dark sunglasses. It hurt to look at him, so she’d avoided his face and smile since he’d rung the doorbell. Thankfully, he’d worn his shades the entire time, though she suspected that was due to his night of drinking. Liam wasn’t a man to give into vanity. Everything he bought or wore was for practical purposes. “Where’s my mom?” Liam asked. His car was parked behind Phil’s. Sally’s was gone. “She went to visit Harper. You can reach her over there. I put Harper’s number and my cell number in Mac’s bag for emergencies. Not sure if you had both.” Kennedy said. She kept her defensive stance with her arms crossed under her breasts. Her eyes fixed on her daughter, who waited patiently in the back seat. “You’re angry, Kay. You should be. I was out of line yesterday. I want to apologize but it feels like I owe you more. I know I owe you more. You can come with us and we can talk.”

“I packed Mac a bag with an extra change of clothes. Pay attention to her bathroom habits. If she’s too excited she’ll forget to go and have an accident. So make sure you ask her if you see her hopping from foot to foot. And don’t give her any peaches. She’s allergic.” “She is?” he frowned. “Yes. Try not to load her with sugar, please. She gets really wound up and hard to put to bed. A candy or sweet treat is fine, but don’t overdo it at Fun World. Oh, Phil and I didn’t have the fish talk. I thought you should have it with her. Help her understand.” “Kay, please let me apologize. I want to talk to you, babe.” “This isn’t about us. Not now. It’s about you bonding with your daughter. Take advantage of it. I’m trusting you, Liam.” She met his gaze dead on. She wanted him to be clear at that point. He could mess up with her, that was fine, but with Mac it would be a totally different story. Liam hung his head, then nodded slowly. “Right. I get it. I just, well okay. I don’t have a cell phone but I’m on my way to Ant’s house. I might pick up a disposable today and leave you a number. Don’t worry, Kay. You know I’ll take care of her.” “I know. Enjoy your day.” Kennedy stepped away. He said something else but the wind carried and muffled his words beyond comprehension. She thought she heard him say he loved her. She continued toward the front door, resisting the urge to turn and confront him. Tell him how he hurt her feelings. How it still hurt that he’d call her nasty names. He had once been her world. Building one without him, then deconstructing that life because of his return wasn’t as easy as he thought. She wanted to run after the car and hop in with him. Run away like they did when they were younger and braver. When they could afford to ignore the consequences. She needed him so badly it was a physical pain and it was the pain that kept her sobered. So she did none of that. Instead, she gave one final glance back and watched him drive off. She waved. They were gone. Kennedy went inside. Phil sat on the sofa staring at his feet. He looked so lost. So hurt. He hadn’t said much as she dressed Mackenzie and made plans to send Sally out of the house. He just went about his routine as if there was nothing wrong. But that nauseating feeling of dread lingered between them. She closed the door. “Phil?” “Yeah?” He glanced over at the Christmas tree instead of her. As if it had spoken his name. Just as she couldn’t look at Liam, he couldn’t look at her. Both of them were the same, oddly. Longing for someone. Helpless to have things the way they wanted. Suddenly she didn’t feel anger or frustration for his persistence, just pity and love. It was true. She loved him as her husband and it had been different from Liam. They shared something special and she would respect that. She owed that to him as well as to herself. She needed to be whole. As she approached him, he turned his gaze her way. She extended her hand to him. He took it, kissed her palm and pressed it to his cheek. She rubbed the side of his face with a sad sigh.

“Phil. Let’s talk.” *** That Afternoon “A goldfish? She looks okay to me.” Vasquez sipped on the long straw to his purple Slurpee. “Shit, man, it took me an hour to get her to understand the concept of death. I think I got it all wrong. I tried buying the damn fish, but she kept talking about the dead one. We settled on the concept of a puppy. For Christmas.” Vasquez laughed. “Yep, welcome to fatherhood.” Liam’s mouth curled into a smile. His daughter made him earn his stripes. He liked that. She was a tough kid, too. Smart for a four year old. He sat next to Vasquez on the bench outside of the twelve foot tall red, yellow, and blue castle bounce house. Liam watched as his daughter leapt in the air, her ponytails flapping. She giggled with the twins who did flips and somersaults. Fun World was an indoor child’s amusement park, a place where screaming and laughing children raced from a foam factory, where they could blast each other with large floor mounted swivel guns, to the arcade. The kids were in heaven. Liam watched his daughter do an obstacle course he couldn’t get through with his bum leg. She climbed intricate five foot tall mazes with ladders and colored winding tubes. There was pizza station with benches and tables, accompanied by popcorn machines, cotton candy, and ice cream all served up by clowns. “Thanks for coming, bro. I know you don’t have much more time left, before you’re called away.” “Yeah, got my orders. Leave in a few days. No problem, though. I wanted to hang out with the boys. This is perfect. I think they serve beer here, too.” “Beer and a purple Slurpee, good mix.” Liam laughed. “Daddy! Daddy from heaven! Look at me!” Liam looked up in time to see Mackenzie slide down a yellow foam tube. She giggled and ran to do it again. “Daddy from heaven?” Vasquez asked. “Yeah, can’t get her to drop it. She says she understands but she doesn’t. She thinks I’m some kind of Christmas gift. You know, she caught me and Kay kissing and started crying.” “Damn.” “This is hard. Especially after last night. Kay isn’t speaking to me, man.”

“Eric told me you were down at the Roadhouse, wasted. I know she was at home calling everyone in tears. Guess things reached a boiling point, huh?” Liam leaned back on the picnic table and extended both his legs. “Yep. Drinking didn’t help. Still feel like shit inside.” “So you will do this therapy thing?” Vasquez gave a long slurp on his blue straw. Liam had told Eric he would do therapy. He wanted to apologize to Kennedy and tell her as well. But deep down inside he really didn’t want a stranger digging around in his head. He didn’t need to relive that shit again. He just wanted to forget and move on. Maybe he could get a pill or something. Didn’t they make meds for anxiety? He slipped his friend a look and gauged whether he could be honest. He decided to lie. “Yep, gonna do therapy.” “Patience. It’ll take patience then.” “Right. The one thing I know nothing about.” “True.” Vasquez snorted. Mackenzie ran for the bounce house again. Liam checked his watch. Kennedy would have been with Phil for over four hours now. She was with him, he was sure of it. He saw the bastard’s car parked there. Noticed how she couldn’t look him in the face. And if she sent Sally away that meant they were alone. He tried to not make much of it. But damn it, she was his heart. He should be with her. Making up with her right now was what he needed. When would it be about just them? “What’s up? Why do you keep checking the time?” “She’s with him, man. Closure and shit, I suppose. She keeps saying that and I just don’t get it. “ “You don’t want to get it,” Vasquez mumbled. Liam shrugged. Vasquez laughed. “You know I think he’s a dick. But he was the only person that brought her back, Liam. You were the one that asked him to look after her. Remember?” “I never….” Liam sat up. He had forgotten. He did ask Phil to be on point for his young, pregnant wife. He paid him a visit the day he got his orders. The dumb idea was put in his head by Alex of all people. It was a way to prove to Kennedy he wasn’t such a caveman about the prick, after he took a swing at Phil at a barbecue for taking her hand and stepping in too close. Kennedy rarely got mad at him but after the incident she gave him the silent treatment. That shit always fucked with his head, made him crazy, just like it did now. Apparently Phil was just updating her on the contacts he was using to get her into law school. This, Liam learned from his C.O. after the fact. He wanted his girl to achieve every last one of her dreams. He’d practically handed his Kay over to the spineless bastard. “I guess I did forget.” “Come daddy! Come on!” Mackenzie ran over, grabbing his hand. Liam was forced to stand. He left the new cane behind and dragged his leg with him as he lifted her up into his arms. Mackenzie knew all the spots. So she told him. But she settled on the

arcade. There she tried to shoot a basketball on the kid-size hoop game. Winning tickets, she moved on to play skee ball, and some child video games. He listened to her laughter and it soothed him. He began to understand Kennedy better. Why she resisted forcing their union on their daughter until she was ready. He would have to earn his daughter’s trust and love. For her, he had been some mythical creature, a hero, a Christmas wish. But Phil had been the one to catch her when she fell and hold her after a nightmare. He wanted those memories, those bonds. He would focus on forging those memories going forward. Eventually, Mac tired of her old man and ran for the foam factory again. When he returned, Vasquez had ordered two large cups of beer and three pizzas: one for him, one for Liam, and one for the kids to share. Liam sat down, smiling. “You know I never knew I could love someone as much or more than I love Kay.” He waved back at his daughter. Vasquez took a big bite of pizza. He nodded, wiping with a napkin at the string of cheese hanging from his bottom lip. “Why you think I keep trying to knock Angelina up? Something about having them in your own image. You know?” “Got me to thinking that I want Kay to have a baby. Another baby. I love Mac, but I missed it all. The pregnancy, the birth, her first steps. As soon as the shit clears, we’re going to start working on a baby.” “Whoa, there! Don’t you think you ought to ask the lady if she wants another kid first?” Liam smirked. “She’ll want one. We always talked about kids. Having them together. So yes, I can’t wait.” “How are things with you two other than the incident last night? Were you on track to getting back together?” “Man, I wish I knew. She’s hot and cold. One minute she’s my Kay and its like there’s nothing in the world but us and the next she’s running from me. It’s driving me nuts. I feel like she’s keeping something from me.” Vasquez shot up to his feet and cupped his mouth with both hands. “Joey! You do that again and you’re getting out! You hear me!” he shouted in that authoritative voice that certainly rang of his military status. Joey had jumped in the air and karate kicked his brother before flipping in the bounce house. Vasquez shook his head at his son and sat back down. “I need to spend more time with the boys. Angelina lets them get away with too much.” “It has to be hard to be away from them now when they need you,” Liam agreed, noticing Mackenzie trying to get out of the bounce house and Joshua helping her. She slid out in her socks and ran to the large yellow slide. “I’m thinking about retiring. I’ve done my time and I’ve been given the option.” Liam shrugged “Doesn’t look like I got much of a choice,” Liam said bitterly, hitting his bum leg. Vasquez looked at his friend. “Oh, you got a choice. The war isn’t on the front

lines anymore Liam. It’s behind a desk. That’s why Alexa and Eric got the appointments, and me mine. They want strategic minds constantly on the hunt for the next homeland threat, and right now they are all abuzz about Sarkhir and your time with him. Heard Senator Clayton is nervous they’ll dig into Operation Scorpion.” “He sent us on a suicide run. Would serve his ass right if it all came out. Fuck it all. I don’t care. I gave that desert and Sarkhir my life. I want it back. No fucking way, bro. Even behind a desk. The thought of it makes me want to….” Liam swallowed. He beat back the tightness in his chest, mentally concealing his discomfort. Over the dinging bells of the arcade and the children’s laughter he could hear the tortured moans of the men trapped who were away in hell with him. He could hear the laughter of Sarkhir when he was kicked out in the street as a dog and forced to walk a mile on his leg until it gave out under him. “Liam?” “I don’t want to do it anymore,” he sighed. “Even if they offered you the financial security for your family.” “Honestly, I wouldn’t do special ops if they offered me my leg back. Fuck it. You don’t know the shit I’ve seen. But I need a career, I want to provide for my family, make Kay believe in me again. I’ll find a way. My family needs me and I…well I need them. So I’m done.” “Someone better send Alexa the memo.” Vasquez said. Liam scowled. “I’ll handle Alex.” Mac rushed him. She could barely talk from panting so hard. Liam lifted her to his knee and gave her some of his bottled water. She gulped and looked up at him with wild excitement in her brown eyes. “Daddy I need more money for the machines. I want to play the game with Josh and Joey.” “How about you play with me?” He smiled and rose. “Yes, I want to play with you,” she said, slipping her small hand in his. Liam pointed to the Speed Racer driving game and Mac ran straight for it. Liam moved her over, sliding inside. Mac sat between his legs. She grabbed the steering wheel while he dropped in tokens. The game lit up, telling the racers to start their engines. The sound of his baby girl’s giggles forced a permanent smile to his face just as the checkered flag dropped. Mac, excited, turned the wheel to a hard right, then the left. Liam tried to correct her steering and she shook her little head fiercely. The video car crashed into the wall. “I can do it, daddy! I can do it myself!” she said, pushing his hands away. Liam smiled at her independence and let her drive them off the road in the opposite direction of the racecars. He leaned over and noticed the determined look on her face as she put the little video racecar into a spin. He couldn’t help but laugh. The game reminded him of his love for fixing and restoring classic cars. He’d had a Pontiac GTO before he left on assignment, but he hadn’t thought about that car since his return. He’d spent over a

year rebuilding that engine. What happened to his things? Swallowing, he realized he’d been declared dead, so his things surely had been sold. “See, daddy, I’m doing it.” Mackenzie squealed. Mac crashed the car into another and it burst into flames. “This thing is broken!” She hit the steering wheel with her tiny hand. Liam sat up and kissed her cheek. “Can daddy show you how to drive it now?” “No. It’s broken,” she pouted, squirming to get off his lap. “Let’s try again.” He stopped her and put in more coins. Mac. no longer interested, sighed and let him choose the racecar for them. When the flag dropped, he put his hands over hers and drove up the racetrack. She smiled at the way they passed the other racecars. “We gonna win!” she said, grinning. “Looks like it.” He knew how he would get his family back. He would show Kay he could take care of them. He didn’t need therapy. He needed them. It would be the first step to rebuilding his life. The trumpet roared and confetti sprayed. They placed first in the race. Mackenzie screamed with delight. Liam dropped his head back with a wide grin of satisfaction. It was fleeting. A cool foreboding gnawed at his insides and made the hairs at the nape of his neck rise. The anxious, instinctive sense of danger he’d carried since he found the footprints in the yard followed him the rest of the day. Not even his daughter’s excitement could compete. “Daddy? Daddy? I want to play again. Do it again, daddy.” He blinked out of the malady of his mind and focused on her. “Sure, sweetheart.” Liam shifted her weight and tried to dig in his pocket. Mackenzie began to wiggle out of his lap. “Nevermind, daddy. I want to play with another one.” “Mac, sweetheart, wait a sec.” He struggled to get hold of her and work his bum leg. Cramped down in the driver’s seat, he caught her by the hand. He looked up at the crowds of kids and parents who strolled through the arcade as he rose out of the cramped space. Liam froze. A man with deep olive skin and thick jet-black hair met his gaze. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, with an army green jacket over a green sweatshirt, and jeans. He was definitely Middle Eastern. “Daddy?” The man smirked and turned toward the skee ball games. “Daddy, c’mon, I want to play some more!” Liam’s mind blinked to consciousness, to action. He snatched Mackenzie close to him. Not hard, but purposefully. “Daddy what’s wrong? You sweating. What’s the matter?” He couldn’t catch his breath, but he managed to speak calmly. “Go…go get Uncle

Tony.” He turned her to face the area they’d left. Liam’s mind went singular. He grabbed his cane and scanned the arcade for the man. “Go now, Mac!” he yelled at her. She turned and ran toward Vasquez and Liam charged in the direction he knew the enemy had to have fled. From his viewpoint, there was no escape. The bastard would definitely be trapped and he’d have his hands on him soon enough. Liam shoved others who got in his way and limped hard and fast in pursuit. Unfortunately, his breathing worked against him. He couldn’t pull enough air into his lungs. He staggered and half-ran wildly, scanning face after face. The room spun with confused, frowning faces but none of the enemy. He wheezed, gripping his cane tighter, and knocked a mother in pursuit of her kids aside when she stepped unknowingly in his path. The enemy is here. Civilians, close quarters. Possible collateral damage. Mission must not be compromised. Eradicate the threat. Stop by any means necessary. Make it quick. Daughter. Daughter? My daughter is here? Change of plans. Kill. Swift. Save. Save Daughter. The back of the arcade turned into a dead end. Kids were lined against the skee ball game in rows, each waiting for their turn. But the enemy had slipped past. Where? How the fuck could he have gotten past me? Children’s heads turned. Small, frightened faces looked up at him. Liam heard himself yell. He yelled for everyone to run…. “Liam! Liam!” The voice pounded at his skull until he blinked and his vision cleared. Vasquez had him pinned to the wall. “You with me, brother? Look at me.” “What?” Confused, he shook his head, trying to make it clear. “Do you hear me?” “Yeah, I hear you. Let me go.” He shoved back. Vasquez looked around at someone, then to him. He released him. “He’s okay. Can you give us a minute?” Who is he speaking to? He watched as the other man behind Vasquez, wearing a purple and green Fun World shirt, nodded and backed out of a small office. That’s when he took in his surroundings. The office had signs of a struggle, a turned-over chair and knocked-over desk. “What the hell is going on?” Vasquez panted. He looked flushed. His hands clenched into fists and his nostrils flared. “Drink this.” He turned to a water tank and filled a paper cone, then forced it on him. Liam accepted the cup. His kept his eyes trained on Vasquez as he paced. “Talk to me.” “You lost it, man. Scared the shit out of these people.”

“No. I didn’t.” “You fucking did!” Vasquez shouted at him. “Fuck! Maybe they were right. Maybe we should get you back in.” “No. Ant, wait. Wait. I’m cool. I saw someone. He looked familiar. He watched me, um, I followed, and dammit, I saw someone…” “There was no one. Just you yelling at the top of your lungs and swinging that damn cane!” Vasquez shouted back. “Mac? Where’s Mac. Shit!” “She’s fine. She and the twins are out front playing. I got it under control. Luckily she came and got me when she did.” “Jesus.” Liam righted the chair. He couldn’t remember much of anything. “Liam, I have to say it.” “Don’t. I’m good. I swear. I just. It’s been weird, and I’ve been weird.” “Well, I’m taking Mac back to Kennedy. You need—” “Bro, wait! Please!” He grabbed his arm. “Hear me out. I’m cool. My trigger, it was just the noise and the place. Okay? I am good now. I swear it. You tell Kennedy, or take Mac from me, and I’ll lose them. Please, brother. Trust me. Please.” Vasquez looked at him doubtfully. “You’ve been through a lot, Liam. You need help.” “I’ll get it. Listen, I got Eric on it. He found a doctor. And this evening he’s hooking me and Kay up to work our stuff out. We’ll spend time together. I just got to get this right, before I lose my chance. I’m okay. Fuck, man, one more chance. I swear. I won’t lose it again. You know me. You know I can do this.” He saw Vasquez waver for a moment. He exhaled. “I can fix this. Please.” “Let’s get out of here.” Liam nodded. He and Vasquez fixed the desk and he was handed his cane. He saw the tremors in his hand and tried to cover them. First the explosion in front of Kennedy and now this. He had to get himself under control. Fast. *** Phil ran the zipper along the seam of his bag. “So that’s it. The rest of my things I can send for.” Kennedy rose from the bed with a push of her hands. She walked over to him. He’d avoided looking her in the eye since they agreed to part as friends. Four long hours of tears and honesty between them led them both to the same conclusion. They’d only hurt each other if they didn’t face the reality of their marriage and let go.

“Phil.” She touched the side of his face. “Look at me, please.” “I can’t Kennedy. I—” “Look at me,” she said, taking both sides of his face into her hands. “You are a wonderful man. My hero. Your friendship and love saved my life. You made my daughter whole. I will forever love you because of it. Please tell me that you understand?” “What can I say? It hurts so fucking much. I can’t give up any more of my pride.” He tried to break away. “Then just say goodbye to me. To us. This is where we say goodbye.” He drew her into his arms and kissed her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and returned the kiss, a final parting between them. It felt different than all other kisses she shared with him in their marriage. There was so much sadness and regret in their exchange. The kiss grew deeper, lasting, then ended. Kennedy dropped her face to his shirt and hugged him. She inhaled his rich cologne, felt the hard strength of his chest and his strong arms closing around her. She never thought she could care for a man other than Liam. She did care for Phil. She would miss their friendship, their talks, and even some parts of their life together. But mostly, she was relieved she had found the strength to be honest with him. Baby or no baby, their journey ended here. “Can I take you to the doctor?” he asked, still holding her. “No. I’ll go alone.” She released him. “I’ll call you and let you know, okay?” He grabbed the suitcase and another bag. Kennedy led him out of the bedroom, down the stairs to the front door. She did a peek first to make sure the news vans weren’t back. “Looks like the coast is clear.” She opened the door. When she turned, she saw Phil staring at the Christmas tree. “We talked about this. Come back tomorrow. You and Mac can decorate it. She looks forward to it.” “And Liam? Will he now move in?” “This is your house. I’ll start looking for a place.” “No. This is Mackenzie’s house. We’ll work it out.” Phil smiled. He looked past her to the open door. She knew this was hard for him. She couldn’t know how hard. If Liam had chosen another over her, Kennedy wouldn’t want to live. She couldn’t compare Phil’s feelings for her to the ones she had for Liam, of course. In her mind they didn’t have that kind of history. But Kennedy had always been a strong believer in the heart, and she could attest to the fact that it wants what it wants. “I don’t want the news over the phone about the baby. After you know, let’s have dinner. We can work out some of the financial things, house, car, bank accounts. All of it. I mean it, Kennedy. I want us to remain friends.” “I’m sorry Phil. I can’t. I have to focus on Mackenzie and Liam. I can’t…if I meet with you…. I want him to know that I’m serious about my commitment to him. I explained this. We’ll work out the visits with Mac. As far as the baby, I’ll call you and, well, I just don’t think we should see each other…outside of—”

“Lunch, Kennedy. If I’m a father or not let me hear the news face to face. Please.” “Okay, Phil. Of course.” He walked out. Kennedy closed the door softly behind him. She let go a deep breath. She looked around her and relaxed. Now all that was left was to talk to Liam. “Today is the first day of the rest of my life.” *** “Hello?” Eric passed off his keys to the valet. “Hey, it’s me.” Harper’s voice sang in his ear. He had to smile. He had left her a message that morning and patiently waited for her return call. Eric strolled through the restaurant doors eyeing the patrons. Harper’s beauty pushed up to the front of his mind. Her flawless brown skin, almond-shaped eyes and heart-shaped lips. Add to the mix her fresh mouth and flirty ways and Eric was a goner. “Hi, you. So you got my message?” “I sure did. You know I’m all down for operation get-those-fools-back-together.” She giggled. “Okay, well I will be at Kennedy’s in about two hours. A plan?” “Eric, um, maybe we can have dinner tonight.” “That might not be wise, Harper.” “Oh c’mon. I’m eighteen. Totally legal. Besides I haven’t seen you since my birthday.” Eric wiped his hand down his face. He spotted his lunch date seated to the back of the restaurant. Harper’s crush was cute at sixteen, and dangerously tempting when she came on to him at her eighteenth birthday party that Kennedy insisted he fly back into town for. But even he knew better than to go there. “Can’t make it, Harper. I’ll see you this evening, beautiful.” “Eric wait—” “Bye.” He hung up before she could tempt him further with her sweet voice. He made his way over to the table. Alexa lifted her glass of water to her lips and gave him a hard glance when he approached. Eric sighed, drawing out the chair and taking a seat. “Why couldn’t we meet on base?” “I was hungry.” She held her palms up on either side of the entrée she’d already been served, and smiled. The waiter immediately darted over to their table, proffering a menu. Eric waved him off. He had no intentions of sitting through lunch with her. He wasn’t in the mood. “Okay. So what is this about?”

“You’ve been a busy bee, haven’t you? I heard about the issuance of hazard pay to Liam. Now that wasn’t exactly protocol.” “He had it coming. The man needed to be on his feet,” replied Eric. “And we plan to take care of him. I can’t have you going around my office to disrupt those plans. You of all people know I won’t put up with it.” “What is it exactly you expect me to do? The media is circling, the president has already proclaimed him a hero, but he’s holed up in one shitty room at the Marriott.” “That’s enough, Eric.” Alexa hissed. “Don’t play me dumb. You’re trying to get him to set down roots.” “I’m his friend. And he already has roots.” “And I’m your superior. I told you. Step aside, and stay out of my way. That’s your final warning.” Eric rose. “Sit down,” Alexa stated dryly. His jaw clenched. Her smile was a borderline sneer. “Do you need me to make it an order?” She took a sip of ice water. “Sit down.” Eric did as he was told. Alexa picked up her fork and knife. She took her time slicing into her halibut and lifting a bite to her mouth. He watched her chew it down to an appropriate swallow. “Now. I’m moving you.” “You’re what?” “We need you in Jakarta. There’s a situation there. I would say the assignment will be for a year. You ship out in two days. Safe travels.” Alexa flipped her eyes up with a smirk. “I got leave. I was taking a month to handle personal affairs.” “Sucks to be you.” Alexa continued to slice and nibble on her fish. Eric let go a deep sigh. She did outrank him, but he had a few friends of his own. She hadn’t gotten those promotions by accident; she must be conspiring with Capitol Hill to keep the failures of the war concealed from the public. He also knew Senator Clayton wanted Liam contained, something Alexa was only too happy to support. He would need to work fast to stop the wheels of injustice from grinding his boy to dust. So he tried another tactic. “He’s in a lot of pain, Alex.” Alexa kept eating as if she didn’t hear him. “He’s suffering from PTSD.” “I know that. Why do you think I want him brought in?” “You know him. Us. We don’t respond to force. He’s been held hostage for five years. He needs to be his own man. If you care about him, cut him some slack. Don’t back

him into a corner and—” The light dawned for Eric. “That’s it, isn’t it? You want to strip him of everything so he breaks. Then what?” Alexa glared. Eric lowered his voice. “You don’t know his limits. I’m telling you, if you push him too far we could all lose him. The man doesn’t know why Operation Scorpion cost him his life. None of us knew what was on that rock when we dropped in. There is nothing in his head but a lot of bullshit pain. He’s a brother to us all. We owe him his life and our own.” “I’m the only person that understands Liam. I know what I’m doing. Besides, his marriage is over.” She sighed as if bored with the topic. “You wish.” Her eyes flashed cold rage and narrowed on him. “It’s over when he learns the truth.” “What truth?” Alexa relaxed. She had that fat-cat look on her face. That smugness he’d seen over the years as she steadily climbed ahead of him in the ranks. “His precious Kennedy is pregnant. What do you think that news will do to him?” Eric frowned. “That’s bullshit. How the hell would you know?” Alexa smiled. “There’s nothing I don’t know. But apparently there are some things you don’t. Now, don’t you have some packing to do?” Eric bit hard on his lip. He wondered if he’d be court-martialed and shot for grabbing her by the throat. The temptation eased. He gave her a mocking salute then rose and walked briskly to the front of the restaurant. “Two days my ass, you sick bitch. I won’t let you get away with this,” he mumbled, stalking toward the valet. *** “Kennedy?” Her gaze swung upward. The doctor walked in with her file folder. His name was Clark Kent. An ongoing joke for most when they met him, considering he looked nothing like the superhero. He was short with a protruding belly and receding hairline. He wore his glasses on his nose, which added more of drawl to his nasal speech. He was the doctor who’d saved Kennedy’s life. The one she went to about fertility and getting off the Pill. The one man she really wanted to be Superman in disguise. She needed a miracle. “How are we feeling today?” “Okay. I um, I’m sorry for being so insistent. I had to see you.” He waved it off. “I completely understand. I’ve seen the news.” Kennedy blushed. “Yes, so you know my life is in an upheaval now.”

“I had them rush on the exam. We have the results.” “It’s been seven days. Is that too soon?” The doctor chuckled. “I’d prefer twelve. It can take that long to detect HCG in your blood. However, if you are looking for an answer today, I have one.” “Okay?” “It’s negative.” “It is.” Kennedy sighed. “I still think you should see me next week. One more test to be sure. But at this time, the test shows no qualitative traces of HCG hormone in your system.” Kennedy leapt from the exam bed and threw her arms around the doctor. “Thank you. Thank you so much!” “Ah, well, again, let’s do this in five days. To make sure you have the all-clear.” “Yes! Yes. Thank you. Thank you!” she grabbed her purse. He said something else but she was out the door. She dialed Angelina first. She had to share the news.

Chapter Sixteen “How am I doing, daddy?” Liam had gotten down on all fours, sandwiched between the tree and the wall. The final strand of lights barely reached the plug. He would need to turn the stand, which proved difficult, considering the tree’s height and weight. “Daddy? Where you at? Look at what I done.”‘ “Give me a minute, princess.” Liam pressed a hand to the wall for support, and pushed himself up with his good leg. Vasquez had cut him a break. A small one. He’d kept his eyes on him throughout the day. Even came over for a few, until he’d been convinced that he and Mac would be okay. Still, he called and checked in with him twice to ensure he remained cool. Liam refused to think on the incident in the arcade. What he thought he saw. He was better now. He’d just had a moment. Mackenzie danced around the tree and giggled with excitement. She started leapfrogging over to him. “See! See what I did!” Her hair had come undone from her bows after the excitement of the day. One ponytail was free and crinkly. Liam tried to clamp it back on but failed and gave up. When the trip to Fun World ended, so had Mackenzie’s enthusiasm for a day with daddy from heaven. He was then introduced to whiny, cranky Mackenzie. Liam had been hit with a barrage of questions. Where’s mama? Are you taking me to mama? Does mama know where I am? Will mama come to get me soon? Liam tried to play up the adventure. A day belonging just to them. His four-year-old’s round eyes pooled with tears. He hated to see her cry. He almost broke and called Kennedy, but he gave it one more try. The mention of a surprise party for mommy and the decoration of a Christmas tree did the trick. That and a bag of gummy bears at a gas station stop. Liam made it around the tree to see his daughter’s handiwork. How did it look indeed! At three feet tall, his baby-girl was a master decorator. Liam stepped back to survey her work. The colored bulbs were lined from the bottom of tree to as far as she could reach, in a well-placed order. Blue and silver bulbs were all in one area. The reds were grouped together, greens as well. He crossed his arms and studied the tree as if giving her work serious thought. “You know, I think quite possibly this is the best tree daddy has ever seen.” Mackenzie nodded. She crossed her arms and tried to mimic his stance. “It looks pretty. That’s what I think.” Liam looked down at his little imitator and couldn’t control his laughter. He swept her up in his arms and she grinned in his face. “This is fun. It’s my favorite thing to do in the whole world, daddy.” “I like decorating with you, too. But it’s not my favorite thing to do in the world. Do you want to know what is?”

Mackenzie blinked at him. He could see Kay in her so much. That wide, expectant look always so full of love. He marveled at who they’d made together. The special little girl they created. “What’s your favorite thing?” she asked. “This!” He squeezed her and started to blow tickle bubbles under her neck. She squealed, kicking her feet and laughing. Her little hands flailed wildly. He eventually let up but Mackenzie kept grinning. She tried to do him next and he had to laugh. All she managed was a few spit bubbles against his jaw. When the laughter subsided she pointed over at the tree once more. “It’s so biiiiig. The biggest tree ever.” Liam couldn’t take his eyes off her. Fatherhood felt strange. After all those years imagining a baby, he’d come home to a little person, with her own thoughts and personality. His imagination had never carried him this far. She grabbed his face with her little hands and forced him to turn it to look at the tree. “It’s the biggest tree I ever had.” This made Liam swell with pride. It was indeed the biggest tree Liam had ever purchased. He figured he’d overdone it. He still didn’t know if the tree could take a star at the top, it was so tall. “Yeah, I guess I did overdo it. Think we can move a few bulbs up to the top half? Together?” “Together?” She cocked her head to the side, not understanding. Liam limped to the tree, holding Mackenzie up with one arm. He passed off bulbs from the lower half for her to place near the top. Together they circled the tree and made sure they spaced them out. After they were done they moved on to Mackenzie’s favorite part, candy canes. She sang Rudolph, with him chiming in. Liam could see the sun setting beyond the window. If everything went according to plan, Kennedy would arrive soon. He set Mackenzie down on her feet. There was more work to be done. “Now that looks great.” He moved the tree a few inches and plugged in the lights. Mackenzie laughed, clapping her hands. “We have some more decorating to do before mommy gets here. Can you help daddy?”‘ “Okay, daddy! I’ll help you.” *** Kennedy frowned. A tension headache was now throbbing in her skull. The excitement, tears, fears, and adrenaline rush of relief had brought it on. She sat in her car, confused. The media had returned in full force. Why? They hadn’t been at her house in the last day or so. Their presence was irksome. But the gathering at her house was even more puzzling. Phil’s car was gone. In its place were Sally’s car, Harper’s, Angelina’s, and a white sedan with an Alamo rental tag. “What the hell is going on?”

Kennedy removed her keys from the ignition. The military guard patrolled, maintaining the crowd, keeping them at a reasonable distance from her property. Still, she could see the reporters were worked up into a frenzy. Mrs. Freeman! Mrs. Freeman! Is it true you have no intention of honoring your marriage to Liam Flanagan? That you will abandon him now after all he’s been through? Were you and Phil Freeman having an affair when your husband was deployed overseas? Did you know that the president is going to award your first husband with a medal of valor? Will you be at his side to show any support or have you two parted ways? What of your little girl? What…. Where the hell were they getting their information from? She shot the more determined screamer a fuck-off look and marched to her front door. The inquisition outside, though strange, she could handle. It was far less intimidating than the gathering inside her house. When she walked in, every head turned. Her sister, her best friend, Liam’s mother, and her own parents were seated, waiting in a tense silence that made Kennedy’s heart drop. “What happened? Is it Liam?” she asked. “Why are the reporters back here?” Gail rose. Her mother’s attire appeared polished as always. She had toffee-brown skin, and sharp assessing eyes. Her hair was thick and full as it probably was in her youth. The only distinction of age was the few streaks of silver in the long curls that swooped over the right side of her face. Kennedy’s mother always believed in her appearance. She had dressed her little girls immaculately from their first steps. When Kennedy turned twelve, she got her first introduction to skin care, hair care, manicures, and pedicures. Makeup came at fifteen. Gail’s was flawless as usual. She wore a cream pantsuit, and matching heels from some designer Kennedy was sure her mother would name. Her fragrance overshadowed all other natural house smells. It was a mixture of elation and disappointment for Kennedy to have her there. Gail smiled sweetly, tears glistening in her eyes. “Hi, baby.” “Mama? What are you doing here? What are all of you doing here?” Kennedy demanded. She tossed her purse to the sofa and walked into the dining room to face her company. She knew that her mother had a key. Phil had insisted on it. In fact, everyone gathered except for Sally had a key to her home. Still, to find them waiting and knowing that Liam and Mackenzie were out together made her heart do flips at the prospect of danger. There was a terrorist threat, after all. “What’s going on? Is it Mac? What?” Her father came out of the kitchen. Andrew Washington was a tall, dark-skinned man. Kennedy knew her love might have made her biased, but he was powerfully handsome as well. With his chiseled features, his black-and-grey-peppered hair, he carried the authority and calm that made strangers ask for his advice. When their eyes met, Kennedy felt a flood of relief to see the smile on his face. Though her mother was dressed for a day at a country club, her father wore khaki pants and a cream and green palm tree shirt. “Sweetheart.” Andrew placed his glass of water on the table. Kennedy knew things were okay when he spoke those words. He could never disguise his feelings to her. Happy, upset, pensive, angry, she knew her daddy best of all. Kennedy walked straight to him and

threw her arms around him. He hugged her to his chest and he smelled like daddy: clean spice of aftershave, and a hint of smoky tobacco. “I didn’t know you were coming.” “Of course we were coming. Where is my grandbaby? Is she still with Liam?” “Where’s Phil?” Gail asked, now standing at Kennedy’s side. Her mother stroked her back, too. She needed her family. “We tried calling Phil and didn’t get an answer when we landed. Where is he?” Gail pressed. Sally gave a snort, and then crossed her arms in a huff. Kennedy didn’t like the accusation in her mother’s voice but wasn’t alarmed by it. She knew where her mother would land in her marriage drama. But when Kennedy let go of her father she couldn’t help but notice the shift in mood around her. The tension when she came through the door. The long-lasting truce struck between Sally and Gail after Mackenzie was born had been set aside. Sally looked like she would explode any minute. “Yes, Mackenzie’s with Liam, daddy,” Kennedy said to her father. She ignored her mother’s question. “Where she should be,” Sally snapped. Gail took Kennedy’s arm. “I saw the reporters. They tried questioning me.” “Mama gave an interview,” Harper blurted out. “You did what?” Kennedy wrenched her arm free. Now she understood the circus out front. Her mother had spoken to the press and somehow just added fuel to the fire. Especially since she knew nothing about Kennedy’s decisions regarding her family or her life, it was typical of her mother to assume that she could decide on what was best. “Tell me you didn’t do that!” “I just told them the truth. That we’re happy that Liam is alive but you and Phil are a family, and your bond is solid. That everything you three do going forward will be for what’s best for Mackenzie.” “You said what?” “Oh, that’s not all.” Sally rose, glaring at Gail. “She said that it’s unfortunate that so many lives have been disrupted. As if my son’s survival is a mistake!” “Ladies, that’s enough.” Andrew spoke up. Kennedy, however, continued to glare at her mother. She wanted so desperately to scream at her for her interference. To shake her until all her bitterness toward Liam dropped out of her mean heart. It wasn’t Liam who’d made her run from them years ago. It had been her choice. But Gail would never forgive Liam. Hell, it took her years to let go her anger toward Andrew for his role in it. “I said no such thing. I just wanted the press to know that this is a family matter and that they should let everyone work through it.” “That was not your place!” “I don’t think she meant any harm,” Angelina added. “Kennedy, we should all just

calm down. Sit down and discuss this rationally.” “Oh mama knew exactly what she did,” Harper chimed in. “I’m on Team Liam all the way, Kennedy. Mama did that on purpose. When I saw her little press conference from the airport, Sally and I drove right over here. How did the media know your plane was landing, mama? To interview you?” Gail rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “I called Angelina to meet us here. I knew mama and daddy would come here first. I tried to reach you, but your cell phone kept going to voicemail. We stayed here to make sure she doesn’t do any more harm. “Watch your mouth, Harper Marie,” Gail snapped at her. “I am your mother.” She turned on Kennedy. “And yours, too. I’m here because I’m worried about you. Now where is Phil?” “I told you. Phil is gone. That marriage was a sham and Kennedy chose my son,” Sally answered. “Mama, you should be ashamed of yourself, holding a grudge after everything Liam has been through,” said Harper. “Everybody shut up!” Kennedy shouted. The room fell silent. She felt like someone had smacked the front of her head with a wooden mallet. She narrowed her eyes in anger on her mother. “I want to talk to you. Alone.” There was a knock on the door. Harper jumped up as if a spring was attached to her bottom. She grinned. “I’ll get it.” “Mama, come with me.” Kennedy walked off. Gail followed her into the TV room. It offered enough privacy for her to give her mother a piece of her mind. “Why would you insert yourself in this situation? Why? You called the press? How could you do that?” “Don’t raise your voice to me,” Gail said. She paced away from Kennedy, avoiding her eyes. On top of everything she’s put up with the past few days her mother’s interference became the final straw. She couldn’t take much more. Kennedy put her fingertips to her temples and tried to calm herself. She spoke in an even, controlled manner. “I want to know what’s going on with you, mama. You of all people know what Liam’s death did to me. What were you trying to accomplish?” “I was only doing what you should have,” Gail snapped. “The media has painted you as some love-torn, pathetic woman. You haven’t said one word to them since this thing started. You just let them speculate on you and Phil. They have been interviewing neighbors, strangers! I have friends calling me, questioning me. Your father was questioned at his job. This has affected all our lives.” “It’s not your business. None of it is your business. I don’t care what the world wants to know about my marriage, about Liam or Phil. I would never go on television and air my laundry! All I care about is putting my life together the way it should be.” Gail slowly smiled. She softened. She approached Kennedy and cupped her face

into her hands. “Fine, baby. That’s what I want for you. Phil has been so good for—” “With Liam.” Kennedy turned from her mother’s touch. It felt cold and controlling, not loving and understanding like her father’s. “Liam is my husband. He was the day he left. He was my husband the five years they tortured and kept him from me. And he was again the moment he walked back through my door. We’re a family again, mama. The way we should be.” “What about Phil?” Gail stepped back. “Phil moved out. it’s over. Liam and I will be starting our life together. So we don’t need you addressing the press or updating strangers on us. In fact, you stay away from them. If you make one statement, if you say anything to the press or Liam that is out of line you have to go.” “I can’t believe you are still this foolish! I’m sorry that he was hurt. Thank God he’s alive Kennedy, the man had to have been through hell. But you have a daughter to consider. Are you saying you would put Liam over Mackenzie? You can get angry, but I have to say it. That man ruined your life. He ruined your future. He destroyed our family. He’s back to do it again! And finally you got a chance at happiness—” “GAIL! That’s enough!” Andrew’s stern voice boomed behind his wife. Gail whirled on her husband, shocked. She shook with anger and tears. She looked from Kennedy to Andrew with her mouth curled in anger. “This is your fault, Andrew. All of it is your fault. Do you see! Do you see what you’ve done to her, by enabling her?” “I told you in the car that we’ll leave if you do any more damage here.” “Damage? She’s our daughter. You have never stood up for her. You handed her over to that…that man, and you’re still doing it!” Gail stormed out of the room. Andrew watched her go as if he wanted to follow her. He looked stricken. One thing Kennedy knew for sure was that her father adored her mother. Why and how, she never understood, but if Gail was upset so was he. She loved her dad and how complete and giving his heart was. She also felt a lot of guilt over the pain she inflicted on her parents. Kennedy put her hands to her face and sucked in a deep breath. “I’m sorry, honey.” Andrew comforted her, rubbing her shoulders. “It’s not your fault, daddy. Mama can’t forgive any of us for hurting her. I get that. And I love her, daddy, I love her so much but I won’t let her take me back there. I made my choice at seventeen. There’s no undoing it. All these years she’s helped me start again with Phil as if that could be what I wanted. What I want, daddy, is Liam. It’s all I ever wanted. Why can’t she see him the way I do?” Andrew turned Kennedy and lifted her chin with his finger. “Hey, look at me. You and your mother are so much alike. You love hard. This is just her way of protecting you. Remember, I told you she took the same chances on love with marrying me that you did with Liam. I worked hard to give her the life she deserves, and in the process she has forgotten what we sacrificed to gain our family. In her own way, she thinks she’s protecting you. She thinks she’s responsible for your choosing Liam. That we didn’t protect you.”

“I caused you two problems, didn’t I? When I ran away and you helped us. She hasn’t forgiven you completely, either, has she?” “Daddy’s a big boy. And I never regretted one day of helping you find happiness. I in believe in you, Kennedy. I always have. I always will.” “Thank you, daddy. I love you too.”

Chapter Seventeen April 1995 Each time Liam heard the chimes ring above the glass door of the Denny’s, his heart dropped. He stared down into his coffee, waiting. A cup of coffee was all he could afford. He hadn’t eaten last night. He bought Kennedy a burger and fries. He said he wasn’t hungry, and to be honest he wasn’t. His nerves were shot. The waiting was the worst. He had no idea what to expect or if his plan would work. He just knew that he had to try. “Liam?” Liam’s eyes lifted to a tall black man with powerfully set shoulders and a deep scowl. He felt ten years old under Andrew Washington’s hard gaze. Liam eased out of the booth seat and extended his hand. “Hi Mr. Washington, sir. How was your flight?” Andrew looked down at Liam’s hand, then up into his eyes again. Liam lowered his hand. He understood why his handshake was refused. He and Kennedy had been gone for three months without a word to her family. Sierra updated them on whatever she could find out. The police were looking for them at first, but now they’d classified Kennedy as a runaway. Andrew Washington had hired a big detective agency to hunt for them. They almost caught them in DC. That’s when he had to sell his car and get the bus ticket that led them to Texas. But the money was out and so were their options. He only had one option, and it would require help. “Please, sir, sit down.” Andrew sat stiffly in the booth. His gaze never left Liam’s. Liam nervously checked his watch. He had left Kennedy in the dirtbag motel, asleep. He didn’t like the people hanging about and wanted to get back to her as soon as he could. He’d walked the three miles to the Denny’s to wait for her father. “Where’s my daughter?” Andrew asked, his lips barely moving. “She’s safe.” “Where is she?” “Close. Um, sir, look. First, I want to apologize to you. I never properly introduced myself to you and your wife. My name is Liam Flanagan—” “I know all about you,” Andrew said. He had that darkness in his eyes that Liam knew well. The same look his stepfather wore before he’d beat and kick the shit out of him. Liam never feared violence. He had endured his fair share, and a little more to keep the evil bastard off his mother and his sick sister. However, Andrew Washington’s glare reduced him to feelings of unworthiness. As if he were some cradle-robbing pervert. It cut him deep. Inside, he wanted this man’s respect.

“I’m sure you’ve heard about my troubles in the past. But that’s changed. I mean it’s all in the past. I’ve changed. To be honest, sir, I changed because of Kay.” “Kay?” Andrew frowned. Liam managed a weak smile. “I call her Kay. She’s so special. I mean, special in the way she’s showed me I can be different. We um, we want to get married.” “That’s not going to happen.” Andrew sat back coolly. Liam leaned forward. “It will happen, sir. You can’t stop it. I didn’t make her run away. She chose to. She wanted to be with me. She loves me.” “She’s a kid. But you know that, don’t you? A kid that has no idea what gutter you came out of, you punk.” Andrew slammed his fist on the table. The cutlery and his cup clanked on his saucer. Two diners looked over. “She’s not a baby anymore and in three months she’s eighteen. Sir, in three months she will be my wife and you can’t stop it. I don’t want to do it that way. I want your permission—” Andrew scoffed. “You must be insane. No. I must be insane. To come here and not tell my wife. To think I could convince you to give me my child back. I’ll just go to the police,” Andrew said, flinging himself out of the booth. “And we’ll run. You’ll never see her again.” Andrew’s large hands clenched into fists. The veins in his neck bulged. Liam feared he’d pushed the man past his limits. “Hear me out, sir. Please hear me out. It’s important.” Andrew remained tense, on the edge, but he eased back into the vinyl seat. Liam swallowed down his fear and summoned his fearlessness. “She and I love each other. I didn’t plan it. And I don’t want her to suffer because of it. I want to join the military. Naval Air Station is here, so I went there and I met with a recruiter. Thing is, I have to be married to take care of Kay. We can wait. We can bum around for three months and do it then. But I don’t want her to suffer. I don’t want her to have to go without anything because of me. I can’t let that happen. She loves you and her family. She needs you, sir. If you can support us, give us your consent, you will have her and so will I. The way I see it, a compromise means we both win and I get to keep her, I mean, love her. I thought about this long and hard before I called your office to set up this meeting. I thought about what I would say to you. How I would convince you that this here is real. That I’m for real. All I can do is tell you the truth. She’s my entire world. She’s everything to me. Please. Give us your blessing. Please.” Andrew closed his eyes. “She’s my baby girl. She has a bright future. Since she’s been gone her mother cries herself to sleep. I can barely get her out of bed. And her sister…” Andrew’s voice choked with emotion. “Her sister cries herself to sleep too. Do you understand what you have done to my family?” “Yes, sir. I am so sorry. I am so sorry for all of it. I handled it wrong. We both did. But when you forbid us from seeing each other—”

“She’s seventeen!” Andrew yelled. The entire diner went silent. Every eye in the place turned to them. Liam couldn’t back down from the accusation in that statement. He’d taken her virginity on a picnic table at a beach, stolen her away on weekends to drink and have sex. Snuck into the Washington’s house and laid with her and filled her head with fantasies. He was no hero. Hell, he was a selfish bastard just like his stepfather, only seeing what his needs were. But the truth was if he let her go he wouldn’t want to live. He was sick of his shitty life, of his existence. She was the only person keeping him alive. “I love her,” Liam said. “I love her, and I can’t change that.” “I want to see her. I want to hear from her that this is what she wants.” Liam frowned. “If you bring the police, if you take her from me she won’t forgive you. You can lock her up, you can force us apart, and she will blame you. And unless they put a bullet in me, I won’t stay away. I won’t stop trying to be with her. Then she will be eighteen, and she will come back to me. It’s only three months away, sir. You can talk to her and she will tell you. I’m asking you to please help us.” “Take me to my daughter. Now!” “Yes, sir. Yes, okay.” Liam dug in his pocket and pulled out the last three dollar bills he had left. He put them on the table. This had better work. If it didn’t, he didn’t know what they’d do next. Kennedy gurgled then spit sudsy paste into the sink. She let the tap rinse it down the drain. Turning it off she heard the door open. She had good news. She’d woken to find Liam gone. Possibly to get them breakfast. She’d wanted to shower and clean up their room. The motel was $139 a week, and the service was pretty lacking. She’d dressed and gone to the front desk to ask for clean towels, which is where she saw the help wanted sign for a maid. She asked if they were hiring and they were. Now she could work, and that would help. Liam was so upset about money. This would surely turn things around. “Liam!” She grinned, hurrying out of the bathroom in panties and his T-shirt. Kennedy froze. Standing in the motel room was her father. He looked her over and then, over their meager surroundings. She could see his eyes well with tears. “Daddy? How did you find us?” Andrew walked over and lifted Kennedy into an embrace. Her dad’s hug was so tight she burst into tears from both relief and sadness. She held on to him. She tried not to think of her family. Tried not to miss them. She lied to Liam and said it didn’t hurt and didn’t matter. But from one roach motel to the next, it did, because she loved them so much and she knew what she’d done had hurt them deeply. “I’m so sorry, daddy. I’m so sorry.” “Shhh sweetheart, it’s okay. Thank God you’re okay.” He stroked the back of her head. “I got you now.”

Kennedy let go of him but Andrew held her a little longer before releasing her. He touched her face, wiped off her tears with his thumb. “Are you okay, sweetheart?” “I’m fine, daddy. How’s mama, and Harper?” “They miss you, Kennedy. You scared your mother to death. You scared me to death. Three months and no word from you. How could you do that? Do you know what you put us all through?” “I’m sorry,” Kennedy said softly. Liam opened the door to leave. Kennedy pushed away her father’s hands. “Liam, don’t go. Did you do this? You called my dad? Why? Why would you do that?” Liam closed the door. “I had to, Kay. I want him to give us his blessing. I did it for you.” Kennedy’s heart leapt. She turned and smiled at her father. “Is it true? Will you help us?” “Leave us alone, son.” “No, daddy. Liam stays. Answer me. Will you…will you help us?” “Leave!” he yelled at Liam. Kennedy stepped back at the sound of her father’s angry voice. Her father rarely raised his voice. He was a gentle man. He looked at Liam as if he wanted to murder him. “It wasn’t Liam, daddy. Look at me. I went after him. I did. He thought I was nineteen when I met him. I lied to him, to you, to everybody. I wanted to run away with him. He didn’t force me.” “Why? Kennedy, why would you throw away your life, our family, for this!” Andrew asked, with repulsion in his eyes over the crumpled bed sheets, stained walls and carpeting, and the roaches scurrying across the nightstand. “I don’t know why. I didn’t think….” “That’s right, you didn’t. You’re a child and you act like one. Now you want to do the grown up thing and marry him? You think I would stand by and let that happen? Do you!” “Daddy, I’m sorry. I love him. That’s why I did it. I don’t have any reason other than that. I love him so much. Please, try to understand. He’s what I want. Liam is smart. He’s a good man, he’s like you daddy. He can fix cars and stuff—” “I can’t let you throw away your future. I can’t do that to you, Kennedy. Get your things. We’re leaving.” “It’s not your choice, daddy. I’ll be eighteen in three months. We’ll get married and I’ll leave with Liam. I don’t want to, but I will. I won’t let Liam go.” Andrew sat on the bed. He dropped his huge shoulders and hung his head. Kennedy had never seen her father so lost, so upset. This was all her fault. She was killing him and she couldn’t stop it. She couldn’t make him understand. She walked over and sat

next to him. Her hand went to his back. “Daddy, I need you to help us. Help mama understand. Please.” Andrew began to cry. He pulled her under his arm and cried. Kennedy nearly lost it at the sight of her father’s tears. It was the first time she’d ever hesitated, ever thought that maybe she should return home. Why did it all have to be so hard? After her father let go his frustration, he let go of her. “Okay. I’ll help you. Get dressed, pack your things…the both of you.” “Sir, I can’t return to Connecticut. I—” “I don’t want my daughter staying in some flea-infested motel. I’ll get you separate rooms at my hotel and get you fed. We’ll talk about this marriage thing a little more. I have questions. And conditions.” “Daddy….” Kennedy stopped him from rising. “Don’t tell mama. She won’t understand, you know she won’t. Please. I’ll talk to her after we figure it all out.” The pain etched on Andrew’s face aged him another ten years. He kissed her brow and rose. “Get dressed. Let me worry about your mother.” *** “Do you, Kennedy Michelle Washington, take Liam Edward Flanagan to be your lawfully wedded husband?” “I do.” Kennedy grinned. “Then by the power vested in me by the state of Texas, I pronounce you husband and wife.” Kennedy, shrieking, leaped on Liam’s chest and covered his face with kisses. He laughed and spun her around in front of the judge. He tried to move them aside for the next couple to stand before the justice of the peace, but she had to have her kiss, their first kiss as husband and wife. “I love you, Mr. Flanagan.” “I love you, Mrs. Flanagan.” Liam smiled. “Where’s daddy?” She turned to see her father walking out of the courtroom. “Liam, I’ll be back.” She hurried for the doors. “Daddy!” Andrew stopped, but didn’t turn. Kennedy ran over to him. “Daddy, are you leaving?” “I called your mother this morning and told her what we’d done. I need to get home. You call her tonight to talk her,” he said softly. “Thank you, daddy. For everything. Thank you. I’m sorry for hurting you and mama. But I’m so happy with Liam. You’ll see, he’s going to do great things and so am I. We both will make you so proud of us.” Andrew smiled. “I want you to be happy. Liam seems, well I think he’s a good

man. You just know that if you want to come home, anytime, no questions asked baby girl. You call daddy, okay?” “Okay,” she said, swallowing her tears. “I was going to leave this at the hotel for you. Here.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out an envelope. “What’s this?” “Your wedding gift. Remember my conditions. You and he have both given me your word that you will honor my wishes.” “Yes, daddy, we will.” “I want you to call me and let me know where you will be. This should hold you over.” Andrew looked up at Liam approaching. This time, he extended his hand. Liam eagerly shook it. “Thank you, sir. For everything.” Andrew tightened his grip on Liam’s hand. Kennedy could see her husband flush. “You take care of her. You keep your promise to me.” “Yes, sir. Yes.” Andrew smiled. “My baby girl is a married woman.” He gave a sad sigh. “I love you, sweetness.” “I love you too, daddy.” She embraced him. Andrew nodded and then walked off. Liam dropped his arm around Kennedy. She watched her father until he disappeared through the crowd. Liam asked for what was in her hand. She passed it over, not bothering to look. “Holy shit,” Liam gasped. Wiping tears, she looked up at him curiously. “What is it?” “Ten thousand dollars. He gave us a cashier’s check for ten thousand dollars. Why would he do that?” “He’s my daddy. He did it because he loves me.”

Chapter Eighteen Kennedy wiped her tears. She went to her jewelry box. The wedding ring didn’t come until three months after Liam enlisted and enrolled in school. In order for him to get accepted into the SEAL program he had to finish college. She feared the separation, but her father’s wishes were that she go to school as well. So reluctantly, she agreed. Liam received a forty thousand dollar bonus when he finished school and training and they paid her father back every dime. Kennedy smiled. She slipped the ring back on her finger. She’d told Angelina to go home to her husband and sons. That she didn’t want to talk. She asked everyone to leave her alone. She just wanted space. There was so much pain between all of them. How was she ever going to heal her family? There were several knocks to her door, and then it opened. “Hey there, beautiful.” Kennedy looked up to see Eric smiling. He wore dark slacks and a thick black leather jacket. He had on his gloves so that meant he was on his motorcycle today. She went to him and gave him a hug. From the first day Liam brought Eric home with him, they’d connected. She always believed he would protect her husband in the field. She wasn’t surprised to see Harper staring up at him with that look in her eyes. She knew that look. It was the same dreamy look she gave Liam the day she gave him her heart. “Liam and Mackenzie should be on their way back. I planned to cook something. You gonna stay?” Kennedy sniffled. “No. Can’t. Hey, are you okay?” Eric touched her cheek. “Mama’s gone, Kennedy. Daddy took her and left. Just me and Sally downstairs now,” Harper said. “I’m okay.” Kennedy walked away. She tried to dry her eyes with the backs of her hands. Eric wouldn’t let her escape that easy. He took her hand and turned her around. She smiled up at him. “I’m okay. I am.” “Good. I have to leave. Something came up. I need you to do me a favor. I got all Mackenzie’s gifts at one of my places in Spring Lake. You know I got some rental homes out there.” “Yeah, I remember. Phil wanted to buy one.” “Here’s the address.” He put a small paper in her hand and a silver key. “Can you go over and get them?” Kennedy smiled. “Sure, I’ll go tomorrow.” “NO!” Harper yelped. Kennedy frowned. “No?” Eric flashed his handsome smile. “I got some exterminators coming to tent the place. You should go tonight if you can. I hate to ask….”

“Kennedy, go now. Get out of the house. Cool off. Let everybody cool off before Liam and Mackenzie get here. I’ll wait with Sally for them.” Kennedy did need a chance to escape. She felt like she was suffocating. “Um, okay, yeah. I think I will go.” “I’ll call to check on you and my boy,” Eric said. Kennedy lifted on her toes and kissed his cheek. She smiled at him. “Make sure you do.” *** “Eric, wait!” Harper was out of breath. She made it in time to catch him, closing the door gently behind her. He was headed for his motorcycle, about to put his helmet on. She loved that bike. It was a sleek, black BMW. He’d taken her for a ride once, two years ago. The way the leather seat felt between her legs, and his hard body in her arms, gave her so many wet dreams. She couldn’t concentrate for a week straight. Everything about him made her flush with excitement and want to touch herself. Freaky, yes, but damn, there was no way a woman could turn down such a nice drink of chocolate. She had it bad. And he had the nerve to roll up on this bike on a night like tonight, smelling like the wind and spicy aftershave. Umph! “What’s up?” he asked. He was headed her way with a predator’s walk, the kind that a male lion gave when he stalked his lioness. Cut it out, Harper. You’re losing it, girl. His deep voice wrapped around her warmly. Harper re-focused and put on a cute smile. “I um, hey…you just ran out of here without saying bye to me. Are you leaving um, tonight? Secret mission or something?” She shivered under the porch light. “No. But it’s cool to let Kennedy believe I am. I think we did good tonight.” “Yeah right, me too. Gotta get those crazy kids back together, right?” She punched his arm playfully. Eric frowned. “Aren’t you cold?” Yes! Warm a sister up! Start with your tongue! Harper waved his question off “Nah, not really. So what you getting into tonight?” Eric chuckled. Was her cover blown? Damn. Of course it was. He could read through her. Kennedy always said she walked around like a neon sign broadcasting her feelings. Nothing worked with him. That was until her eighteenth birthday. She’d caught him looking at her ass. He became so uncomfortable when she winked at him that he left the room. That’s when she knew. He wanted her too. He could fake it all he wanted, but she knew. “Come inside, let me get you a beer. We can catch up.” “Got some stuff to take care of on base.”

“This time of night?” “Have a good evening, sweetie.” He winked, but turned away. Harper grabbed his arm. Her touch revealed pure steel under his jacket. Was the rest of him that way? Her ex-boyfriend David had been sort of a beefcake jock. He had muscles in his toes. But his dick was so small she never knew if he was pushing it in or taking it out. Eric didn’t have that problem, she just knew it. Harper bit down on the inside of her jaw not to reveal how excited he made her. “Wait a second, will you? I’m not done talking to you. Maybe we can do dinner. My treat?” “Your treat?” Eric asked, and the corner of his mouth curled as if he found her amusing. “Or I could, um, cook for you at your place. I can make some gumbo. You liked it at the cookout last year. Remember?” she stood closer. His tall frame blocked the chill, and his warm gaze made her forget the plummeting temperature. She noticed his eyes were on her lips when she spoke. They’d drop past her face a few times, landing on her cleavage. The miracle of a good Wonderbra really can make a guy yours. She sucked in her diaphragm and made sure to lift her chest as best as she could without being obvious. “Harper, we talked about this. We’re family, okay?” “No. We’re not family, Eric. You’re best friends with my brother in-law. That doesn’t make us family. Why do you keep saying that? It’s so damn aggravating. I thought we were friends. Do I make you that uncomfortable?” Eric heaved a deep sigh. Maybe she had pushed too hard. She was pushy like her mama, and Kennedy was easygoing like their dad. She just didn’t know when to shut up some times. “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound bratty. It’s just, I like you okay? There’s nothing wrong with that, right?” Harper smiled, and wondered what the hard stare he gave her meant. Then his face softened. He had to be softening to her the idea of them. Or so she thought. Then he did the worst thing ever. He kissed her brow and patted her arm. “Have a good night, kid,” he said. Kid! He called her a kid. He turned and walked off without another glance. Harper fumed. She watched him put on his helmet and fire up his bike. It crushed her deeply. “Kid, huh? I’ll show you how much a woman I am, Eric Drake.” *** Kennedy found it strange. A house that hasn’t been rented or lived in at the edge of a cul-de-sac was decorated with Christmas lights? There was no car in the drive. The garage door was down. But the place looked lived-in, cozy. A plastic Santa and his reindeer welcomed her from the lawn. Beyond the picture window she could see the lights of what looked to be a Christmas tree. Why would Eric decorate this way? It wasn’t like him. Why leave all these lights on if he’d been deployed to God knows where? Maybe he had intended to stay here for the holidays. Maybe the lights were on an automatic timer

and she had to shut them off for him. Eric was a practical man, so these answers seemed plausible. Still Kennedy double-checked her GPS one more time. It would be embarrassing to walk into someone else’s house. The address checked out. Strange. Kennedy opened her car door against the push of the night wind. She stepped out in her suede jacket and knee boots, shivering a bit. The declining temperature made it thirty degrees out. A quick glance around and she noticed how quiet and serene the neighborhood was. Harper didn’t stay far from here, and the first house she and Liam had owned was a couple of neighborhoods away. She always liked Spring Lake. It reminded her of him. The day had come and gone with so much drama she hadn’t had time to think of Liam and her baby. Liam should have called her by now to update her on Mackenzie. It was almost eight. Kennedy hurried up the walk thinking she would call home and make sure they had made it in. Mackenzie never spent this much time away from her. She fumbled the key. Her hands and fingers were ice cold. Her gloves were stuffed in the dash of the car. Winter had come early and seemed much harsher this season. A smile played over her lips. This holiday would be spent with lots of snuggling. She couldn’t wait to wake up next to Liam on Christmas morning. Turning the lock, she pushed the door open, but her head was down and she tried to remove the key. “Surprise!” Kennedy gasped, startled. Her eyes stretched wide. Mackenzie stood next to her daddy in a Santa hat. Liam wore the same. For a minute she couldn’t process the whys, the hows. “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise, mommy!” Mackenzie bounced like a jumping bean, clapping and laughing. “We surprised you, didn’t we!” Kennedy came through the door smiling; her heart was pounding in her chest. The place seemed so festive. They even had a tree. “What’s this?” “Close the door Kay, it’s cold.” Liam sighed. Kennedy hadn’t realized she stood with the door flung open. She closed the door and Mackenzie rushed her legs, hugging them and grinning. She had missed her baby all day. She picked her up and kissed her. “Hey, sweetie. How was your day?” “Good. Look at it, mommy. Daddy and I did it. Look.” Mackenzie squirmed to be put down on her feet. She was so hyper in her excitement, Kennedy knew that sugar had to be the fuel her daughter was running on. But she didn’t ask. If she were honest, Liam had gone way above the call of duty. The place looked as if Wal-Mart’s Christmas department had exploded inside the house. Ceiling fan blades hung green, red, and silver garland with shiny silver tinsel. Frosty, Santa, and Rudolph cutouts were taped to the wall. A very obvious mistletoe dropped from a tiny ceiling hook a few feet from the front door. Lights were strung up along the tops of doors and around the room. The tree was huge. It reached the ceiling, and spread out at least three feet on ever side. It was the most wonderfully tacky decorating she’d ever seen. “Do you like it, mommy? We did it for you.”

“I…um, yes, baby, it’s beautiful. Mommy loves it.” She looked at Liam, confused. “What’s going on, Liam? You set this up?” Liam just stared at her. She saw a lot of reasons behind the ‘why.’ This was done for her benefit. Enough to make her want to rush him and shower him with kisses. “Mommy. You’re standing under the mistletoe. Daddy said every time you stand under it you have to give us a kiss. Me first.” Mackenzie pulled her hand. Kennedy laughed and kissed her daughter’s tiny lips. “Okay now daddy. Come on, daddy. Give mommy a kiss. She under the mistletoe. Remember, we said she would.” Liam walked over to Kennedy. She suddenly felt nervous energy tingling over her at his approach. His eyes never left hers. “Hi,” he said. “Hello.” “Mac’s right. You are under the mistletoe. I know you’re angry with me because of the fight, and all, but we don’t want to disappoint her.” He looked down at Mackenzie and winked. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to disappoint Mac,” Kennedy said, taking a step toward him. “Do it! Give her a kiss,” Mackenzie said, pushing at her father’s legs. Kennedy stifled another laugh. “I think you better hurry up and kiss me.” She smiled. “My pleasure.” Liam cupped the left side of her face and drew her under his lips, covering her mouth with his. She melted on the spot. Her hands traced up and down his chest the way they used to when he kissed her in greeting. His tongue gently eased inside her mouth and once more, she was swept up in the passion between them. Time, distance, heartbreak…nothing could separate them when they connected like this. Liam’s tongue moved over hers, slow and apologetic and gentle. He was forgiven, though she couldn’t recall his offense. Both of his hands went to her face, his thumbs caressed her cheekbones, and the kiss deepened. She lifted her hands shakily at first, then gripped his hips. She could kiss him forever. “Ew, stop…stop.” Mackenzie pushed between them until they separated. “C’mon, mommy, I cooked dinner. Time to eat.” Kennedy, half-dazed half-awake, nearly groaned over their parting. Mackenzie pulled her with one hand. Liam caught the other, wanting her to stay, needing more. She had to let his hand go, leaving him with a hungry look in his eyes. Oh how she desperately wanted to satisfy that burn he had, because she carried it too. “C’mon, mommy, come now.” Mackenzie pulled her out of the living room area. They walked past the stairwell then turned left to the small kitchen and dining room. More surprises awaited her. A large black and white checkered picnic blanket was spread on the hardwood floor. There were three plates set with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a side dish of Chee-tos and

gummy bears. For the drink, each plate had a CapriSun. “See, mommy. I fixed dinner.” Kennedy’s eyes welled with tears. “Did you do this for mommy, baby?” “Yes, me and daddy. But I did it the most. Daddy just helped me with the knife. See. All your favorites.” Kennedy laughed. “Actually, sweetie, these are your favorites.” “Same thing.” Mackenzie shrugged. She went and plopped down in front of her plate. Liam came behind Kennedy. His arm circled her waist, his mouth hovering close to her ear. “I’m sorry for yesterday. Stay and have dinner with us. Let’s make up.” Kennedy nodded. Liam wanted to make up. He had no idea how exciting and tempting the mere thought was. She couldn’t speak with his arm around her waist and the hard frame of him pressed into her backside. Her heart had lodged in her throat. He kissed her cheek and then released her. Kennedy sat on the blanket. She watched Liam make his way to his area and how he lowered to the blanket with his leg extended. She felt a sharp pang of sympathy but tried to discard it. “Oh no, daddy! We forgot the music,” Mackenzie whined. Liam nodded. He reached behind him and pulled over a portable CD player. He turned on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Mackenzie began to sway, singing along. Her red Santa hat flopped from one side of her head to the other. Kennedy reached over and adjusted it, to keep it from dropping too low on her brow. “So Eric let you borrow this place for the party? Helped you set me up?” she asked Liam. Liam bit off half his sandwich and spoke while he chewed. “It’s our place.” Kennedy choked on her small bite. She hit her chest to swallow. Mackenzie got up and started hitting her on the back. “I’m okay sweetheart, go ahead and sit down. Mama’s okay.” She looked to Liam and he was grinning so wide, she had to smile too. Eric had been his co-conspirator, but a house? That was fast, and the most unexpected thing Liam could have done. Especially since she struggled to figure out how to put them all under the same roof again. “Are you serious? What exactly do you mean when you say our place?” “I got it for us. I haven’t decorated yet. Not good at that stuff, will let you do it. But yeah, it’s where um, I’m going to stay, then I’m hoping we can stay. If you want to.” “I got my own room, mommy. It’s big.” Mackenzie nodded. “Daddy said we gone paint, after I get my dog.” “Dog?” Kennedy frowned. “Long story.” Liam gave a wink. Kennedy didn’t know what to say. The house took on new meaning. She looked around her and envisioned her life under this roof. She feared starting over, or starting from scratch. She and Liam had so little when they married. She could remember a place

smaller than this one with a busted heater. She had so much love for it that she cried when he found a bigger place and they had to move. This was to be their do-over and she needed to be ready. The house had two levels so she imagined the bedrooms were upstairs. “I will get us a bigger place when I get on my feet,.” Liam added, as if he thought she might resist the modest arrangement. “I have some ideas of what I want to do. To make money and take care of us. I’m getting out of the service.” “You are?” “Yep. Got a meeting with Alexa tomorrow.” He paused, gave her a serious look. “Be honest. What do you think, Kay?” “It’s perfect,” she said over her child singing Jingle Bells the best way she could. “I love it the way it is. I can’t wait to move in.” “Really?” Liam asked. Kennedy nodded. “Really.” Frosty the Snowman began to play out of the tiny speakers. Kennedy stretched out on the blanket and tickled her daughter. Mackenzie, her mouth ringed with orange Cheetos powder, laughed. Together they sang along with the radio. She saw Liam watching her, smiling at her, and felt an even greater sense of relief. *** Eric relaxed back in his leather recliner, his beer in one hand and his phone in the other. Every light except the lamp next to him left was off. He liked the dark, felt safe in it. Maybe because most of his escapes out of some really shitty situations in combat required he blend with the shadows. “Yes, sir, Mr. Vice President, I’m here. I certainly understand. I thank you, sir. If you can do anything, anything to assist I would appreciate it. Certainly, these are serious times. Yes, sir. I will await your decision.” He hung up. Eric groaned deep in his throat. Alexa had covered all her bases. Her tentacles reached all the way to the White House. Everywhere he turned was another brick wall. The vice president had been his last option. And he held out little hope there. His reassignment would have him living in Jakarta for a year at least. “Fuck!” he shouted to the empty house. He downed the last of his beer and let his lids drift shut. It was his fifth. He needed one more to completely waste out. He wouldn’t be drunk. Just numb. Numb was good. Tomorrow, if the call didn’t come, he would have to have pack for a very fucking long journey. Just as he settled into numbness a flash of light swept over him. He blinked awake. He knew he hadn’t imagined it. A quick look to the window he saw he headlights of a car in his drive just before they switched off. “Who in the hell?” Eric set the bottle down. He reached into the side cushion of his recliner and removed his Smith and Wesson. Rising, he steered clear of the windows. He had

intelligence that the threat from Amir Sarkhir extended to several brother operators. Though they were keeping Liam and his family under watches both seen and unseen, Eric usually flew solo. He could take care of his own fucking self, and if he didn’t, well he had no real family who would care. He shook off the fog in his head and tried to focus. Who the fuck would arrive at his house this hour? He listened. A car door closed. The soft sound of clicking heels on the sidewalk approached. A woman. Probably Alexa. The bitch wasn’t beyond a night call. He’d fucked her a few times back in the day. You couldn’t hate someone as much as he hated her without being a little turned on. She was just as controlling under the sheets as she was on her feet. Thankfully, their messing around never led anywhere. She had one love jones and it definitely wasn’t for his cock. Eric stepped closer to the blinds. He didn’t disturb them. Instead, he focused his line of vision through the horizontal blades and released the safety on his gun. He got a look at his visitor when she knocked on the door. His brows rose in surprise. Resetting the safety he slipped the gun to the back of his pants and walked to the door and opened it. “What are you doing here sweetheart?” Harper grinned. “Dinner,” she said, holding up a bag of takeout from a rib spot up the street. She wore a gray trench that stopped at her ankles and sexy pink pumps. He could smell her floral beauty in the wind that blew a bone-freezing chill through his door. Was she on her way out and just passing through? “Are you going to let me in?” She shivered. “Yeah, sorry. Come in.” He held the door. Harper strutted inside. She was bold. He and Liam used to joke about how defiant she could be. Once Liam and Kennedy married, she wanted to live with them immediately, and visited often. Eric had always thought she was cute. A cute, sweet kid with a crush. Just a crush. He needed to send her on her way. Tonight he’d been in an unsettling mood, and could use little restraint with this princess. She disappeared through his house to the kitchen. Eric followed. He found her at the dining room table, placing the bag on top. “Harper, it’s late, love. You shouldn’t have come here.” “I brought you dinner.” She looked over to him and smiled. “And dessert.” She undid the tie to her trench coat. It opened, revealing the sexiest lingerie he’d ever seen. Damn. Pink was definitely her color. One look at the lacy undergarment against her chocolate skin and his dick stretched between his legs. “Fuck,” mumbled Eric. He was in trouble. *** “How long can she keep this up?” Kennedy snuggled closer. Their backs were pressed against the wall. Her right

thigh was against his left. Other than that, he didn’t touch her and that in itself was torture. They were sharing a plastic cup of wine, watching their daughter, who sang in front of them. When she got excited she would bounce and grin, then run around the living room jumping over nothing. It started with The Wheels on the Bus, and moved to her ABCs. Now she was on Rudolph again. “How much candy did you give her?” Kennedy whispered. Liam frowned. “Not a lot.” “Mmmhmm, look and learn. I told you no sweets.” Liam put his hand on her leg, slipping his fingers between her thighs. “Couldn’t help myself. I’m a sucker for my girls.” He kissed her shoulder. At last! Contact. Kennedy released a deep sigh. She had half a mind to get on his lap and take another kiss. One like the sweet kiss he gave her when she walked through the door. She glanced at him. His eyes slid back over to her. “I’ve missed this. Us. You know that, don’t you?” she asked. “Yes. I’m sorry, Kay. For everything. I could have handled things better. Give me another chance. We can go slow, at your pace.” “Of course we can, Liam. I ended things with Phil. It’s over. I’m yours. I was going to tell you tonight and then you surprised me.” Liam stared at her in stunned silence. Maybe he hadn’t thought she’d choose him. Maybe he just didn’t have as much faith in them as he used to. She didn’t blame him. Life had dealt him a bad hand since he was a kid. Nothing ever came easy to him. She planned to make up for so much. She would love him so hard and so strong that he’d never have to worry or suffer a minute of loneliness. She couldn’t wait. “I love you,” she said softly. He gently put his hand to her face and dropped his forehead to hers. “Kay, I love you too, always. I never want to make you cry again, hurt you. I feel like shit for what I said to you. You’re the only person on this planet who understands me. I missed you so much when I was gone.” He kissed her once, twice, three times, then slipped his tongue in and claimed hers. “Mommy! You not listening to me! Stop that!” Mackenzie began to whine, she rubbed her eyes as if she were on the verge of tears. Kennedy sighed. She broke the kiss first. She wasn’t even sure Liam heard his daughter. “She’s sleepy. I need to take her home and put her to bed.” “No,” Liam said, a little too abruptly. “I have a room. What I mean is, I put an air mattress in her room and one in, um, our room, or what I want to be our room. You can stay here tonight.” “Really?” “Yeah, c’mon. Let me show you.” “Come here, baby,” Kennedy said. She picked up Mackenzie. She noticed Liam

limp over to a new cane he must have purchased and followed him up the stairs. The place was small. There were only two bedrooms that faced each other, and a bathroom to the back center. Liam walked into the room on the left. Kennedy was surprised that he had thought of everything. The air mattress had a blanket and cover, even pillows. He had been one busy boy. “No!” Mackenzie cried in horror. “I want to go home.” She looked up, pulling on Kennedy’s pants leg. “I don’t want to stay here. I don’t like it here.” She smiled at Liam. “I’ll have to lie down with her. Turn off the light and close the door and I’ll put her to sleep.” Liam looked a little disappointed. “Welcome to being a daddy. You have to share mommy.” Kennedy put down a now crying Mackenzie, who struggled to get back up once laid out on the mattress. “Close the door, Liam. I’ll come find you when she’s sleep.” “Okay,” he said, and the door shut. “Mac, lie down. Come here to mommy. It’s okay baby, you’re tired. Mommy isn’t going anywhere.” She sighed. *** “What are you doing?” Eric demanded. Harper walked over to him. He couldn’t take his eyes off her young, ripe body. Her skin was flawless. Her pink bra with the lace half-cups pushed her breasts up nicely but he could see her erect dark nipples straining against the thin lacy fabric. Her flat tummy had a piercing in her navel and a strawberry tattoo had been stamped on the right side of her hip bone. The thong panty barely covered her pussy, but thankfully it did enough. Eric closed his eyes and reopened them, trying to get his cool in check. He was in it deep now. She stood close, put her hands on his chest, and lifted in her heels but remained a inch or two shorter than him. She kissed him on the chin. “Look at me, Eric.” He grabbed the collar of her coat and forced it closed. “Harper, I want you to go home. Do you understand? This won’t happen.” “Why? Give me one good reason? Why it won’t.” “Liam’s my best friend. Kennedy is too. They trust me with you. I’m just not that big of an asshole, okay?” Her thick lashes lowered and her lip poked out in a pout. She was so beautiful. Why would she play these games? He didn’t like attachments, told himself he didn’t need them. But Harper made him laugh, made him feel young. She challenged him on his politics and lone wolf lifestyle. Some of the conversations he’d had with her made him forget her age.

“Hey.” He cupped her face. “I’m flattered. But you can do a helluva lot better than me.” He nearly choked on the words. The idea of another man touching her hit him in the gut. Still, any man was a far better choice than he was. “Can I at least sit down and eat with you? Please?” Eric looked over at the table of food. He hadn’t eaten anything all day. “Yeah, sure, let’s eat. But keep that damn coat closed.” He saw the light of excitement spark in her almond-shaped eyes. “Then we call it a night. Okay? Agreed?” Harper gave him a sly smirk. “Sure, Eric. Whatever you say.” *** It wasn’t exactly as he had envisioned. He had worked out every detail but this one. Of course his daughter wouldn’t want to sleep in a strange room on an air mattress while he seduced her mother. Liam wiped his hand down his face. What had he been thinking? He headed down the stairs. His mind did a playback of the evening. The episode at Fun World gnawed at his confidence. Paranoia wasn’t something his conditioning as a SEAL allowed, not even in the most dire of circumstances. Trained against secondguessing himself, Liam always dealt with the facts, even while in captivity. It was how he’d remained focused, hadn’t broken, stayed the course, and survived the bullshit. He considered the facts now. Between a Zombie Destroyer arcade game and a wall unit to toss hoops, he’d seen someone, the person saw him, then fled. He engaged, and—nothing? Had someone really been there and he was too juiced up to see him through the maze of kids? If the person was there, he wanted to be seen, followed. But why? Could it be a setup? One question led to another and soon he had nothing but questions. There was another fact. Vasquez had seen nothing. The only proven fact was that Liam had slipped into one of his blackout states where he’d lost time. Therefore, only one conclusion remained. It had to be all in his head. Eventually the tightness Liam felt in his face dissolved and he managed a smile. The day wasn’t a total bust. While they ate, he listened to Mackenzie’s tales. Mackenzie was where he found his healing. She reminded him of the time he’d cared for his little sister, how needy and trusting kids were. Liam felt pangs of anger. It wrapped around his lungs at the thought of anyone hurting his child. There were different forms of abuse, some of them not physical. The harsh words and neglect of a parent could do far greater damage. No matter how hard he tried to protect his little sister, she’d suffered as he did. He would be a far better parent to Mackenzie. Liam walked through his empty living room. He tried to set aside his disappointment. Why would he be angry now? Kennedy had chosen him. She was his. Tonight he’d love her long and strong and remind her of how she belonged to him. Phil’s face emerged in his mind and he saw him kissing Kennedy, touching her, fucking his woman whenever he pleased.

Liam closed his eyes. Stop it man, just let the shit go. It’s done. Let it go. Sure he could try to forget Phil Freeman’s creepy moves, but could he really forgive? Kennedy had betrayed him. She said she would never stop believing in him and she had. Ego or not, the fact she’d moved on without him hurt bad. She was his and that bastard had no right to ever touch her. He would give anything to wrap his hands around Phil Freeman’s throat and squeeze until the pain his chest went away. Liam stopped near the wall. He put a hand to it and sucked down deep breaths. He didn’t understand what went wrong with him. Why his mind kept going there. Why it was harder now to keep things in perspective, harder than it had been in captivity. He sniffed and blinked away the tears building behind his eyelids. He needed to be stronger than this. Much stronger. He didn’t break in that desert hell, and he sure as fuck wasn’t going to go to pieces in heaven. Tonight had been perfect. Kennedy smiled so much it actually felt like old times. He loved making her happy. She and Mackenzie had the same smile with dimples that sank in round cheeks and eyes that danced with radiance. Something in him stabilized. The angry beast he kept caged stalked away. Liam went toward the kitchen and got a garbage bag. He managed to gather all the trash and empty cups and the wine bottle. He did a little more straightening in the kitchen. His time spent only rounded out to ten minutes. He sighed, thinking it would take an hour or more for her to come back to him. He considered going back upstairs to help. He wouldn’t touch her; he just wanted to be close. Maybe lay behind her and let her warm body comfort him to sleep. He didn’t sleep much. The nightmares made it hard. How he craved putting his head in her bosom and just getting one solid night’s sleep. “I’m losing it.” He blew out a deep breath. He wasn’t that needy. He survived for five years on nothing. Less than nothing. Now he had the shakes because he wanted to be babied by his woman? It was nuts. So he shut off the lights and decided to sit by the Christmas tree and wait. They needed furniture, a place to sleep and sit. His daughter’s room should be first priority. He would make it just like the one she had at home. That might work. He sat back and nervously waited. He wiped his hand down his face and tried to relax. “Cool it man, just keep it cool.” A familiar wave of nausea began to build in his gut. He closed his eyes and fell into complete darkness. The darkness had become quite close to his bleak existence in his desert hole. Therein the putrid stench of death waited for him and his fallen brothers. Death had always been the fourth man in the hole. Crouched down in a corner it snickered, hissed, and taunted them. It would even whisper to him. Tell him to give up, to let go. Tell him there was no escape. He could never beat fate. You were born to die this way, it would tell him. Liam sucked down several deep breaths as time and space imploded and he once again sank into an oily, black abyss. It filled his ears and clogged his nostrils, forcing his mouth to open and for him to swallow the putrid taste of evil. He strangled on it. Trapped in such hopeless despair, he wished secretly for death to win. When would it stop? If it was never to stop, then let it end him. Then he’d hear her voice, asking if he was okay, if

he needed her, and his wish changed. He wanted a second chance at life. Hadn’t he earned it damn it. What would he need to do to have it again? Where is Kay? “Liam?” Liam grabbed the wrist of the hand on his shoulder and flipped the bastard hard to the ground. He panted deeply, felt the sweat drip from his face. He blinked and tried to focus. Kennedy looked up at him shocked, terror in her eyes. But she didn’t move. She lay perfectly still. He held her wrist down painfully tight. He knew it. He was hurting her, but why? How? “Babe, oh shit. I’m sorry. Did I hurt you? Are you okay?” He gathered her into his arms. Tears sprung to his eyes. “What did I do? God, what did I do?” “I’m fine, Liam. I’m okay. Hey, I just slipped when you grabbed my wrist. I’m okay. You didn’t hurt me.” She broke free of his arms and straddled his lap, taking his face in her hands. “Sweetheart, calm down. I’m okay. Christ, you’re burning up with fever. Liam, look at me. We’re okay.” She put his face to her breasts and held him as best she could on the floor. Liam groaned and then wept hard against her breast. Did I hurt her? It happened so fast. It scared the shit out of him. Were they right about him? Was he so fucked up he’d hurt them? He had to get help. He didn’t want to lose his mind. He didn’t want to lose her again. “I’m so sorry. I can’t….” His voice broke. “I don’t know what I’m doing, Kay.” “Shh.” She stroked the top of his head. “You’ve been through a lot, Liam. But you’re home, with me and I’m going to take care of you. I don’t care what it takes, Liam, I’m going to take care of you. It’s okay. You’re with me and I’m never going to let you go. Here and now is what matters. Feel that? Do you feel my heartbeat? Focus on it baby, it’s okay. I got you. I’m here. Right here.” Liam stopped crying. He listened to her heartbeat, inhaled her fragrance. She was real, solid, warm and comforting in his arms. He pushed back against her chest until she lay against the floor with her legs wrapped around his waist. He covered her with his body, and kissed her face and neck, hoping against hope he hadn’t scared her too badly. Again he realized his cheeks were wet with tears. Had he been crying? He didn’t remember it. Kennedy caught his face and stopped his hurried, frantic kisses; she directed his lips to hers and helped him ease into a controlled, loving kiss. Have I forgotten how? His emotions kept spiking. What is wrong with me? Her tongue, sweet from the wine, swept over his and soon his head cleared. He wanted to get inside of her. He wanted her so bad he shook with need. His hand eased over the soft cashmere of her sweater and slowly drew it up to her breasts. Liam lifted his head and looked at them. He remembered her stepping out of the shower. How beautiful her body was. How badly he wanted to touch her. He sat back. She lay there smiling at him, her tummy rising and falling. He ran his finger over the traces of

a bulge, the last traces of what carrying her daughter did to her body. He had missed so much. His daughter almost died. She almost died. And they needed him so much. Phil had been there instead of him. No wonder she clung to that man. It wasn’t her fault, it was his. He had failed her. Her hand moved and the Christmas lights made it sparkle. He narrowed his eyes on her finger. Snatching her hand in his, he wanted to snatch Phil’s ring off. He frowned and studied it closely. “I kept it, Liam. I could never part with it.” Liam looked up at her. “You kept it?” “There is no competition between you and Phil. He never had me, Liam.” She lifted to her right elbow. “We never shared or came close to the levels of intimacy you and I have. Do you understand? I’m still your Kay. That hasn’t changed. But Liam, you have to let the jealousy go. We have so much more to fight to overcome. Phil is not a threat to you, to us. You did what you had to in that desert to survive, and I did what I had to, to be sane for us both. We did it and we’re together. Okay?” Liam kissed her hand. He realized in that moment it didn’t matter. To hell with what happened in the five years he was gone. She was his Kay always. No man, no war, no one could come between them. With his kiss he forced her back down. He fumbled to undo the top button to her jeans and lower the zipper. He sat back to pull off her boots, then tugged on her jeans, bringing them off her shapely legs. Her black thong had disappeared between the folds of her pussy, making him groan with need. She rolled the panty down her hips and Liam brought it down the rest of the way. Lifting her leg and parting her wider, he kissed her sweet skin, upward, until his face was between her thighs. Kennedy shivered as he used his tongue to lick her slit from her opening to her clit. He enticed her bud into his mouth and sucked until she creamed his chin. Liam’s eyes crossed beneath closed lids as he feasted on her pussy, loving her with his tongue, deepkissing her until she was coming. The heady scent of her arousal had his dick punching through the front of his pants. He wanted to lay her on a bed of roses and make love to her slow and easy. That would be perfect. But his hunger for her had him lowering his zipper and removing his cock in order to ravage her on the cool hardwood floor before the Christmas tree. Liam dropped on her, forcing his tongue into her mouth, giving her a taste of herself as the head of his cock pushed into her. Liam shuddered. He bit her bottom lip prepared to make love to her the way he had in his dreams. “Mommy!” Liam thrust in another inch and nearly shot his load. Her pussy clenched and his shaft was sheathed in such sweet tightness. He needed more. He was going to have her, all of her, every inch of her. She was so soft and her body yielded to him in all the right ways. He thrust again, sinking almost all the way in. “MOMMY!” “Liam, stop. Get up.”

Kennedy shoved hard and forced him to withdraw. He fell over on his back, still shuddering, his hand on his cock. He watched in pain as she yanked her jeans on and ran for the stairs. Liam dropped his head back. He blew out a deep breath and willed his body to get under control. Forcing his cock into his pants, he struggled to rise. His legs were shaky. His fucking bum leg was completely useless, as though now completely disconnected from his brain. His dick throbbed, and the scent of sex was still up his nose. This was a far worse torture than any he knew. Gaining strength with each staggering step, he made it up the stairs to the room. He could hear Mackenzie crying. Kennedy looked back at him and smiled. “Come in. Lay with us, okay?” “She’s not asleep?” Mackenzie appeared from around her mother’s shoulder. “No, daddy, I not ’sleep.” Liam smiled. “I see that, beautiful.” He walked in and dropped next to Kennedy on the mattress. He spooned her from behind as Mackenzie lay pressed to her breast. He laid there with her perfectly still, his erection pressing into her butt. Maybe Mackenzie would go to sleep. He lifted his head to look at his daughter. She hugged her mommy, but she remained wide awake. She glanced up and saw him peeking and grinned. “Hi, daddy.” Liam dropped back on the pillow. It was going to be a long night. *** “Are you serious? Did Liam really eat a scorpion?” Harper giggled. “I ate the scorpion, he ate the spider.” Eric smirked. Harper laughed. “You made that up.” She licked her fingers, licked her lips, and it was making him nuts. He checked his watch. It read almost midnight. It proved to be too late and the roads too icy for her to brave them alone. What the fuck was he going to do? “Why do you keep checking your watch?” Harper asked, biting into another rib. The sauce dripped on her chin. She blinked those round eyes at him and he wanted to hit something, anything, to force his cock to stop twitching in his pants. “What is it with you, sweetheart? Why are you teasing me?” Harper lowered the rib. “I’m in love with you.” Eric’s brows shot up. “What?” “You heard me. I love you.” “No. No you don’t.” “Yes I do. Why are you so surprised? Kennedy fell in love with Liam when she was seventeen. When she was my age she was already married and living with him. What’s the big deal?”

“You aren’t Kennedy and I’m not Liam, for starters. You don’t even know me, Harper. Not really.” “I know that I love you. I’ve loved you since I was thirteen. You never treated me like a kid. You never talked down to me. And we have fun together. We connect. You know we do. I love you.” “Fuck, this is crazy. I should drive you home. You can get your car in the morning.” “Eric, wait.” She put her hand over his. “I’m sorry. I don’t have a filter like most girls. I just say what I mean. Like you do. I know it’s weird for you. That you see me as some kid. But I’m a woman.” “I don’t want to hear this.” He grunted, pushing up from the table. “You don’t have a choice. Soon you will be gone. And I won’t get my chance to tell you how I feel. I love you,” she said with bass in her voice. Eric looked back at her. Had she completely lost her mind? She grinned at him. “No one knows I’m here.” “I know. Dammit! Would you cut this shit out!” he yelled at her. Harper looked stricken by his words. He didn’t mean to hurt her, but she was freaking him out. He walked over and brought her into his arms. She hugged his waist. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell, but this can’t happen. I know you’ve seen your sister and Liam and you think that’s true love. Maybe it is. And you’ll have it, Harper. You’re young, beautiful.” He lifted her chin. “You are so special I know you’ll have it. But you won’t have it with me.” “Kiss me.” “Harper, are you listening to me?” “Kiss me. One kiss and I’ll leave you alone. I’ll stop. I swear.” He stared at her lips for a second. His heart was pounding in his chest. No woman had that effect on him. She was so determined, and he cared for her. He really did. But he lived a dangerous life. He had little time or use for love. Hell, he didn’t even know what the hell it felt like to be in love. Harper closed her eyes and lifted her lips to him. He held her. He shouldn’t be doing that, but he didn’t make his arms drop away. Her soft curves were pressed into him. His hand itched to ease down her back and cup that round ass of hers. He tried not to stare at. She swayed a bit, waiting on her kiss. Maybe if he kissed her he could get it out of his system. He’d repent after he took her home and then just get his ass to Jakarta. In a year she would have forgotten all about him. She’d be in love with some young man who wouldn’t know how to worship her body. Wouldn’t know how to show her passion. The lucky bastard wouldn’t know what a treasure she was. “Kiss me, Eric.” Eric’s hand went around her neck. His thumb forced her head to tilt back. Fuck it. What harm could one kiss do?

Her kiss poured through him like warm honey. All of his reasoning and sensibility melted away. He lifted her up into his arms so he could gain greater access to her darting tongue and those soft, pliant thick lips of hers. Young or not, she was masterful in the art of kissing. He liked that. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her body into his. Eric groaned in the back of his throat. Their tongues clashed like swords. His chest was tight, and his heart pounding like a hammer. Then she broke away. Eric stepped back, sucking down hard breaths and licking his lips to taste the rib sauce he’d swept off of hers. Harper gave him a very calculating smirk as she undid the sash to her trench and let it fall open. Eric shook his head no. But his dick pained him so bad he had to readjust it. Harper noticed. If a black man could blush he would have now. Damn, she wasn’t a kid. She knew exactly what she was doing to him. How the hell had he let it get to the point where he wanted to fuck her to oblivion? Harper let the coat drift from her shoulders. His gaze fell with the wool trench and stopped at her pink pumps and he let his eyes slowly climb her dark legs to her round hips. The lacy pink thong sweetly concealed her pussy from view. He focused on her tattoo and wondered why a strawberry, then let his gaze travel up to her breasts. Harper put her hands to her hips, letting Eric take her all in before she spoke. “I’m not a virgin, you know? I lost my virginity at sixteen. I can satisfy you, Eric. This will happen. Either you come in the room and make love to me now, or I’ll lie on your bed and touch myself like I do most nights when I’m dreaming about you. Your choice.” She walked past him, running her hand over his chest and touching his arm. As though on autopilot, Eric’s head slowly turned to watch the rounded perfection of her ass as she slipped away. He dropped his head back and laced his fingers at the back of his neck. “Fuck. Fuck!” *** Liam awoke. At some point Kennedy had drawn the cover over the three of them. She was turned toward him, her mouth slightly parted in a light snore. He had fallen asleep and hadn’t dreamed. Sleep never came so easily, but somehow, with her, it had. He looked up and saw it was still dark outside. Lifting from his pillow, he could see Mackenzie remained sleep. Her arms were flung wide and her legs spread under the sheet. She had forced her mother to move closer to him, claiming the entire right side of the mattress. Liam smiled. He had his girls. They had him. Things were as they should be. His hand moved under the sheet. Slowly and gently he undid the button to Kennedy’s jeans and eased down her zipper. He saw her eyes move under her closed lids but she didn’t wake. Not until he eased his hand inside, over the trimmed hairs of her mound. She hadn’t had time to put her panties back on. They were still down by the Christmas tree. Kennedy’s eyes slowly opened. She blinked, a little confused. He rubbed her clit

with his finger and then awareness flashed in her eyes. Her hand went to his. “Stop…Mac is right there, Liam—” “Shh,” he said, kissing her nose. I have to touch you Kay, please. We won’t wake her if you’re quiet for me.” She looked a bit uncomfortable but she removed her hand. Liam put his head to her forehead as he stroked her slit. He liked the way her small nostrils puffed and flared and her sweet breath came out over his lips and mouth. And she was moist already. He forced her jeans open, pushed them down her hips. She opened her legs a bit and his hand moved in between. She grabbed his shoulder when his middle finger thrust into her pussy. Liam smiled, liking the way her lip quivered, her eyes fluttered. He remembered how tight and wet she was when he got in. He gave her another finger and she gasped softly. Her pussy was in the cradle of his hand as he thrust two fingers in and out of her slick tightness. “I want you so bad, Kay, you know I do. I want to fuck you babe, and then make love to you. Do you remember?” She nodded, moving lightly, gripping his shoulder so tight her nails cut into his arm. “When will it be my time?” he asked, teasing her. She opened her mouth to answer and he just kept fingering her pussy until she could only grunt a half reply. “This is my pussy, isn’t it?” Kennedy nodded. She kissed him, her body responding to him. He remembered waking up most mornings with her on his dick, forcing him to rise to the occasion. He could feel the tension coiling tighter in her. He teased her with quick kisses, delaying a full onslaught. He had so little restraint. If she didn’t come for him soon he’d get on top of her and fuck her right there. “Come for me, Kay. Come on, babe. At least give me this.” She groaned, holding tighter to his arm and then creamed herself. With deep, hard shudders, her pussy unleashed. Liam withdrew her hand and brought her to him. He held her until she shook through the last of her climax. Now he could sleep.

Chapter Nineteen Kennedy rolled under the blanket and sheet. She smiled in her sleep. The awakening for her this morning was pleasantly slow. He’s home. He’s here. She walked her hand over the mattress to him and found empty space. It was only after his missed presence brought a wave of disappointment that she peeked out from her lashes to find him gone. She was alone. It was cold. Kennedy was freezing. She rolled to her back and drew the sheet and blanket up over her shoulders. Where had Mackenzie gone? She, too, was missing. Normally when Mackenzie rose, so did the entire house. Kennedy smiled. How did Liam manage to get her daughter out of the room without her waking her? That took skill. Liam is going to be such a good father. Kennedy snuggled back under the warm heat of the covers and the inflated mattress squeaked. She conjured images of her future family. Liam would put Mackenzie to bed. She’d be waiting for him in their room just across the hall. He’d join her, covering her body with his, making love to her tender and slow at first. Then passion would overtake them and she’d get him every which way they could achieve. Yes. And together they would build a life for themselves and their daughter. Raise a family with love and patience. She’d have Halloween parties, and soccer games, and PTA meetings. He’d put bikes together and build a tree house in the backyard. They’d have family dinners and holiday celebrations where everyone would come. Instead of a new house, they’d build on this one, as their family grew. She’d get him to attend church. Kennedy smiled to herself. Maybe the church is pushing it. How did she get so lucky? So blessed? Kennedy hugged herself. She wasn’t smiling, she was grinning. He had been such a temptation. Last night they’d come close. In fact, she felt sticky between her thighs, thanks to his touch. She wanted him so bad. He drifted to sleep soon after but she couldn’t. She was left to toss and turn between him and their daughter. It was torture. Eventually, she settled on spooning him from behind, her hand easing over his chest as she pressed all over him, against his broad back, inhaled his hair, his neck, his skin. He felt so warm, strong, good. If Mackenzie hadn’t been there, she would have woken her man. Loved him like she did in her dreams. “Ugh!” she moaned. Where was he? “Wake up, mommy.” Mackenzie bounced in through the door. Kennedy sat up on her elbows. Her daughter was bundled up in her coat, her elf hat pulled down on her head. Liam entered behind her with bags of McDonald’s. “We got you breakfast, mommy.” “Oh, this is a treat.” Kennedy laughed. She and Liam lived off McDonald’s the first year of their marriage. She lost her taste for it shortly thereafter. Liam never seemed

to do so. Kennedy sat up and accepted the cup of coffee he handed her. She took a sip and inhaled. It was strong. The caffeine knocked away all the cobwebs of sleep from her head. She watched as Liam got to the floor with their daughter and began to fix her hotcakes. She was about to object and remind him that the cakes had to be cut in small squares, but he had it under control. She was proud of him. “I got you an egg muffin in the bag. You still like them, right?” Liam asked. “Love ’em,” she said. It wasn’t necessarily a lie. It was the only sandwich she could tolerate from McDonald’s. She dug out the wrapped, greasy sandwich and hash browns. Her mouth watered at the smell. “Mommy, in three more days it’s my birthday and Christmas. Daddy say we gonna have my party here.” Kennedy frowned. “Well, we’ll see.” Liam’s head lifted and their eyes met. Kennedy looked away. We need to talk. The house was nice and yes, she wanted to move in. But they would need to furnish it and everything. She had already planned the party for Mackenzie at her house. “Daddy said Santa will bring me a dog.” “We’ll see,” Kennedy said. Liam cut her another look. What did he expect? He made decisions without discussing them with her. A dog was work. They needed to get on their feet before they bought in another mouth to feed. She didn’t know about his military salary. And her salary as a legal assistant was just barely bringing in 40K a year. Hell, she didn’t even know what rent was on this place. “Mommy?” “Yes.” “Daddy said you getting married.” Kennedy stopped mid-chew. She swallowed, her eyes wide. To this, Liam didn’t look up. He just fixed the straw in the small bottle of milk for Mackenzie and passed it to her. “You told her that?” she asked. “I think I want a recommitment ceremony,” he mumbled. “Gee. That sounds nice. Couldn’t you at least tell me? Ask me?” “Ask you?” Liam frowned. “You said you were mine. Why do I have to ask?” Kennedy sucked in her bottom lip and narrowed her eyes. “Why? Did you say why?” “Kay, I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just an idea.” “Ask me. Propose. Make it romantic, Liam. I’d like to hear you want to re-commit to me from your mouth, not our daughter’s.” Mackenzie stared at her. Kennedy adjusted her tone, pouring a little sugar on it. “Until you ask properly, there’s no need. It can be just

one of your ideas.” Liam rolled his eyes. “Mommy has an idea, Mac.” Kennedy smiled at her daughter. “Let’s eat and then take you home to get bathed and dressed.” “Why?” Mackenzie replied, chewing with her mouth open. “Granddaddy’s here. He will want to see you.” “Oooo! Granddaddy’s here!” “He is?” Liam asked. “He and grandmama came yesterday. I think I should take her to spend some time with them. Then you and I need to sit down and have a long talk.” Liam smirked. “That’s not all we need to do.” He tore a large bite out of his sausage biscuit. Kennedy threw the crumpled-up hash brown wrapper at him. She had five days for a positive test result. She would feel a whole lot better if the pregnancy issue was addressed before they made love. But she knew he couldn’t be denied much longer, and neither could she. Mackenzie began drilling her father for information on his superpowers and Kennedy listened for Liam’s creative answers. Soon her thoughts drifted to the upcoming challenges they faced. Liam had a way of controlling their lives. It was totally different from Phil. With Liam, he had to be the man in her life and though he supported her, all decisions ran through him first. His method had been okay when she was eighteen and scared of her own shadow. But she was different now. She’d become more independent than he knew. He’d have to learn not to hold on too tight. She was certain they’d get past it. Setting her sandwich down, she crawled over to him. When he looked over, she kissed him. “What’s that for? You’ve been given me the stink eye all morning,” he half-joked. “For making me so happy. I love you,” she said. Liam, blushed. “Sorry. I should have done it right. Proposed, I—” She kissed him again. He smiled and kissed her back. She pressed her forehead to his and released her lips to rub her nose with his. Liam looked her in the eye when he spoke. “Will you marry me?” “I want to marry you too, daddy!” Mackenzie said. Kennedy laughed. “I guess that’s a yes from both your girls. Get ready, mister. We got you now.” Liam grabbed her and brought her over to his lap, tickling her side. Kennedy laughed. He bit her cheek, and then kissed it. “I was born ready.”

*** “Gail? What are you doing here?” Phil accepted a hug from his mother-in-law. He’d found her in his office, pacing before his desk. A large Visitor badge with a big, red V was clipped to her lapel. As much as he cared for her, he was in no mood for this visit. “Hi, sweetheart. How are you?” Gail gave him a tight hug. “I’m okay. When did you get in town?” “Yesterday. You didn’t see the news?” “News?” Phil frowned and set his briefcase on his desk. He couldn’t stomach the news about Liam Flanagan The Great Hero. He avoided the television at all costs. “Why the news?” Gail tugged on her suit jacket. She wore a lavender designer dress suit and it hugged her curves. Phil couldn’t recall if he’d ever seen her with her hair out of place, or without make-up. “I gave an interview.” She smiled sweetly. Halfway around his desk, Phil froze. He looked at her. “You did what?” “Kennedy’s angry. Andrew isn’t speaking to me, and Harper has her head in the clouds as usual. But I did what I had to do.” Phil closed his eyes and released a deep breath. He knew Kennedy would be livid. He dropped in his chair. His headache was back, in force. “What did you say?” “That you and my daughter are married. A family. That your priority is to Mackenzie and each other, first and foremost.” Phil shook his head. “I wish you wouldn’t have done that.” “Why? Because it makes everyone uncomfortable? It’s the truth. I know it has to be, from your standpoint at least. Kennedy, well she’s not listening to me. She never listens to me.” “No, Gail. You’re wrong. Kennedy left me.” “She has not.” “She has. I have to accept it and so do you. We’re done,” Phil said. When he said the words he could look nowhere but down. He began to fiddle with things on his desk. Opening his briefcase he removed his laptop. He’d stayed up all night in bed thinking, dreaming, and wishing for it to be different. He didn’t want to give up. Hell, Alexa’s plan would have been an option. But what then? Having Kennedy by default would be worse than not having her at all. He realized what he wanted most was what Liam had. Unconditional love. The truth had been painful to accept. The first time he made love to Kennedy, he felt it. Her holding back, pretending, giving him her body but not much more. He loved

her, but he couldn’t live with having half of her, not anymore. “My daughter is so naïve.” Gail lowered to the chair. “She’s not. She loves him. You and I both know it.” “I know my child. She’s romanticized Liam in her head. He hasn’t given her half of what you gave her. She was her own person because of you. What will she be now?” Phil sat forward. “Not really, Gail. See, we talked about that, too. We sat down for four long hours and talked about everything. She started living again because of Mackenzie. She was honest with me, and you, from the beginning. We loved her so much we wanted to help her, but we knew the source of her pain. We knew the source of her strength. Her only focus was her daughter.” “But?” “I can’t discuss this any longer. To be honest, I’m not even sure if I can accept it yet. I’m sorry, Gail, but I have a meeting.” He grabbed a folder. “It was nice seeing you again.” “Wait. What about Christmas? Are you coming over to the house? Is she moving Liam into your house? How does this work?” “She and I are going to figure it out. Excuse me. I have to go.” “Phil?” Phil kissed her cheek, and then walked out. He hurried his steps down the hall, his chest tight and his eyes tearing. Gritting his teeth, he dialed the phone to call his own mother, to break the news. He’d tried to hold on, but the best he could do now was pretend. He loved her. He’d lost her. It was over. *** “Girl, stop. Are you serious?” Angelina laughed. “Yes,” Kennedy said into her earpiece. She kept both hands on the steering wheel, easing toward the exit lane approaching. “Mackenzie woke up. I wanted to die.” Kennedy smiled. She checked the rearview mirror and saw Mac playing with the bell on her elf hat. “Well, honey, when the twins were toddlers I could tell you some stories that could compete. I felt like I was split in half. Anthony could be such a big baby about it. I walked around with no panties on, so I could sneak a little in between feedings and diaper changes.” “Oh no. I can’t do that. Especially with her in the room.” “You’re going to be surprised what you will do.” Angelina laughed. Kennedy rolled her eyes, but didn’t deny it. Maybe if they had separate beds she would have been even more tempted.

“So what’s the plan? You got your man back. I know you have to work things out with Phil, but how will you do both?” “Not sure. Daddy and mama are going to stay at the house with Mackenzie today. I just got off the phone with him. Sally had to go back to Chicago. She’s going to try to be here for Christmas, though. I plan to call Phil and have him come over this evening to help Mac decorate the Christmas tree, the way they usually do. That means Mackenzie’s day will be filled.” “And? You and Liam? What will you be doing?” “Furniture shopping.” “You kidding, right?” “No. He’s already making plans and demands and he doesn’t even have a chair. So I have to make some things happen pretty quickly.” “True. That is really sweet of Eric. Anthony told me about it last night.” Kennedy smiled “I love Eric. So does Liam. He’s the best friend to us, next to you guys, of course.” “You know Harper has a crush on him.” “Yeah, Eric has had to deal with that crazy girl’s crush for a while. She hasn’t been really good at hiding it. She nearly drools when he walks through a door. He can handle her, I’m sure.” “I don’t know, she was talking kind of crazy at the house yesterday. Said he was going to be hers. She said she had a plan.” Kennedy frowned. “I’ll talk to her. Liam would flip out. No more drama, please.” “Why? Seriously, if anybody should understand it’s you two.” “Eric’s a brother to him. For Liam, it would be incestuous. Plus, Liam will never admit it, but he still carries guilt over how young I was when we started out. I can’t explain it. I just kind of know it. He would never accept a Harper and Eric hook-up. Harper needs to fixate on getting through the first year of college, not Eric. I’ll talk to her.” “So you and Liam will buy furniture. Then what?” “First he has to go on base to meet with that witch. And I have to get to the office so I don’t lose my job. Make sure everything is okay. We’ll meet this afternoon. Do some furniture shopping and…well, I’ll probably stay the night with him. I’m thinking that I should go and get something. I don’t know. Sexy.” “Definitely. You got time to get your hair done, toes done, coochie shaved.” Kennedy laughed. “I think I can manage.” “I’m just glad the pregnancy scare is over. I never thought your uterus would agree with you carrying any man’s child but Liam’s.” Kennedy laughed. “Funny, but you were the one telling me to get pregnant. Now

you knew I couldn’t? Right.” Angelina spoke through her laughter. “Whatever. You better be prepared, girl. Five years is a long time. The man probably will have you sitting in a tub of ice after he’s done. You know I know.” Kennedy smiled, wheeling her Camry into her driveway. “I sure do hope so.” *** “Mrs. Washington? Is that you?” Gail heard her name. Halfway to the door, she stopped. She turned in time to see a distinguished woman in a dark suit walking toward her. She was quite beautiful, with shoulder length reddish-brown hair pulled back under a service cap and clear blue eyes. Gail recognized her. But from where, she wasn’t certain. “Hi. It’s me, Alexa. Alexa Sinclair.” “Oh! Of course, forgive me.” Gail smiled and returned Alexa’s embrace. She remembered her during the time of Liam’s supposed death. Alexa hadn’t said much then, just sat through the service and at the house, pale and weepy. She was a very pretty woman, who seemed to grieve as much as Kennedy. Gail found that odd. Gail thought at first she was a family member, the way she carried on, but Kennedy said Liam and this woman were nothing more than friends. “How are you?” “I’m well, thank you. What are you doing here?” Alexa asked. Before Gail knew it, Alexa led her back through an office door. She didn’t mind small talk but she found the gentle persistence uncomfortable. She really didn’t know Alexa personally to have a visit. When Gail thought to stop and excuse herself, she didn’t. Alexa had the presence that kind of directed things, Gail supposed. “I came to see Phil.” “Ah, yes, it’s so upsetting, all of this. Isn’t it?” Alexa smiled. “I mean we’re all happy Liam’s back. But it’s been hell on everyone, including him.” “Yes, it’s upsetting to us all.” “I saw your television interview.” Alexa added. “You were very eloquent. The media can be vicious.” “Thank you.” “Very touching, how you protect your daughter, her family. A mother’s heart can help the healing process. That’s what I think.” “Do you have kids?” Alexa chuckled. “No. Not the mothering type. Though I have so much respect for women who can toe that line. I remember how nurturing you were to Kennedy after the tragedy. I always admired you, Mrs. Washington.” “Oh. Why, thank you.”

“No problem. How is Mackenzie by the way?” Gail beamed. She reached in her Chanel bag and removed her matching wallet. She handed it over. “She’s my angel. Look at her.” Alexa studied the photograph. “She is precious. She has her mother’s eyes. A very unique beauty.” “Yes, she’s an angel.” Gail accepted the wallet back. She stared down at her grandbaby. She might not care for Liam, but she couldn’t deny he’d left them with a special gift. Mackenzie was her heart. “She’s the one bright spot in all of this. She’s growing like a weed.” “I’m sure she is, making room for the next grandchild.” “Well, who knows what the future holds.” Gail sighed sadly. “Certainly this future is promising. A new baby is always exciting.” Gail frowned. “I don’t follow?” “Kennedy’s pregnancy. Does she even know her delivery date?” “What?” “Your daughter didn’t tell you?” Alexa put her hand to her chest. “I am so sorry. Please, Mrs. Washington, please don’t mention this. I just assumed you knew. Phil was so excited.” “Kennedy’s pregnant? With Phil’s child?” Gail couldn’t believe it. “Are you sure?” “Yes, I am. But I think Phil and Kennedy are trying to work this out. To keep it quiet for now. Mrs. Washington, I have to share with you, Liam may not know this. I fear that…well, he has stressors, so maybe it’s best no one knows until they can get him the help he needs.” “What kind of help?” Alexa sighed. “Men who have gone through what Liam has often suffer from PTSD.” “Post-traumatic stress disorder?” Gail asked. “Yes. Our doctors think he might need some professional help dealing with his trauma. We’re trying to assist. But things are being handled delicately since the world is watching. Privately, I can share with you that until he gets the help he needs he really isn’t fit to deal with a wife, child, anything.” “I had no idea,” Gail said. Alexa pressed her lips together. “I honestly thought you would have known. But II’m glad you know now.” ***

Liam knocked again. It was cold outside. Where the hell had Eric gone? Liam would have to get used to the weather. At the moment he felt as if his balls were frozen and his dick reduced to ice. He glanced back over his shoulder. Cloudy puffs of air escaped his nostrils. There was a car he didn’t recognize in the drive. Eric had to be home. Then he heard the engine of a car parked in front of a house across the street turn over. His gaze swung toward the source in time to see a black Chrysler with tinted windows drive away. It was parked there when I arrived, wasn’t it? He’d thought he saw a car similar to it when he changed lanes on the expressway. No, Liam. You didn’t. And if you did, it’s a coincidence. Liam frowned. He kept his gaze trained on the vehicle until it disappeared. He wasn’t a believer in coincidence. An icy-cold dread covered him and he felt his anger surface. If he had a tail, then that was to be expected. He just wanted it confirmed. The door slowly opened. Liam turned and his mind cleared. Eric wore nothing but his pajama pants, his Wolfpack tattoo on his chest, and the meat-tags on his left side. Liam frowned at the look of confusion on his friends face. “You going to let me in or what?” Liam pushed past Eric and stepped through the door. It felt much warmer inside. He had been grateful for the escape from the chill. Liam walked into his friend’s living room on his cane. He turned when he heard Eric approach. “It’s eight. You forget we have to meet with Alex?” “Um, no. I…the meeting isn’t for another two hours. Just trying to get some sleep.” Eric looked to the hall. Liam’s gaze followed. It dawned on him the source of his boy’s discomfort. “Oh shit, brother. I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had company. I’ll head out and see you there. I just wanted to tell you about Kay.” Liam started for the door. “Things are good, man. Real good. She loved the party, even wearing my ring again. We back together. It feels right this time.” Liam smiled. “That’s great. You did it, bro. You look good, too. I’ll meet you on base—” “Eric, where are you?” Stopping his approach to the door, Liam turned his attention to the sound. Harper emerged in a gray T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. Liam stared at her, confused at first. Her presence made no sense. Why would she be in Eric’s house at this time of morning? He looked back at Eric. Undressed. His friend sighed and threw up his hands. He was banging her? “You fucking Harper?” Liam asked. “I can explain—” “Explain? Are you fucking Harper?” Liam spat the words at Eric. The pressure in his brain made his ears pop. His vision became darkly focused on Eric, only Eric. Eric wouldn’t do this. Not Harper. She is a kid. He wouldn’t touch her. What is she…seventeen? Just like Kay. Dammit. He wouldn’t dare do this. Fuck. No. No. No. This is not happening.

“Answer me!” Liam seethed. “Liam, it’s my fault,” Harper said weakly. “Don’t be angry at him, okay?” Eric said nothing. He just held Liam’s glare. “Motherfucking asshole!” Liam swung, with either his fist or his cane, he didn’t know. He didn’t care. His actions were instinctive. It was all a flash, one strike, then another, like a strobe light kept going off in his head. He hit Eric. Punched him. Then his balance slipped and he nearly went down. He swung the cane wildly, shouting at the top of his lungs. Flashes. Hit. Uppercut. Hit. Punch. “I’ll kill you! You bastard!” The pressure in his head spread to his chest and his breathing became staggered. He saw her screaming, but couldn’t hear anything besides his own heart beating. But she threw herself on Eric and Liam stopped mid-swing. Seeing her crying and screaming for him to stop, he was able to. It’s Kay. My Kay. She was protecting Phil, and he…no, it was Harper…and Eric…but what happened? Liam stepped back, confused. He blinked at them, unsure of what was going on. “Stop it! Liam, stop! You’re hurting him!” All of it happened so fast he wasn’t sure if anything had happened at all. Maybe it was another one of his spells. But the dark fog in his head lifted and he could see their faces clearly. This was a nightmare. This time it was one he caused. “Are you insane?” Harper yelled at him through her tears. She tried to help Eric but he gently shoved her aside, spitting out blood. He swayed a bit as he tried to rise. “It’s cool, Liam. I’m okay. Just calm down.” Liam shook his head. There was blood on the handle of his cane. He dropped it and staggered back. He stared at his hands. When he looked up, Eric’s shocked expression added a new level to his turmoil. He’d violated a cardinal rule of their unit: never lay hands on a brother operator in anger. Before today, Liam wouldn’t have imagined it was even possible. “It’s okay, brother. Things got out of hand.” Eric held his palms out, kept his voice low and calm. “Eric, stay away from him, he’s crazy!” Harper cried. “Shut up.” Eric grabbed her by the shoulders. “Go in the room. Now!” She shook her head. Liam saw the fear in her eyes when she looked at him. He felt sick. He wanted to throw up. He had to get out of there. So he dragged his leg and headed for the door. He couldn’t breathe. If he got out the door, maybe he could. Maybe it would all make sense again. “Liam!” Eric yelled after him. He would have made it to his car if his fucking leg would cooperate. Eric cut him off before he reached the car door. There was bruising darkening his face and cuts to the side of his head. His lip was split and bleeding. But his friend stood there in the cold, with no shirt, as if he was unaffected.

“It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have touched her. I was wrong. Man, please, let me try to explain.” “Why her? You could fuck anybody. Why do this to her? She’s family, yours and mine. Fuck it, maybe not. Nothing is like it was,” Liam said in a shaky voice. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them, trying to breathe. “Get out of my way.” “I’m an asshole, man. I have no excuse. I messed up, okay? I did. I’ll fix this shit. I don’t want her family to know, Kennedy to know. Shit. Are you okay?” Liam shook his head. “I ruined Kay’s life. Couldn’t control myself, put her through hell. Now I’m cra-zy,” he said in a harsh breath. “No, I’m not okay, you bastard. She’s a fucking kid.” “What do you want me to say?” “Shut up. Shut the fuck up! You knew how badly I want to protect Kay, to protect Harper. I told you this. How many nights did we sit in shit, with our lives on the line, and talk about it? Huh? How many! We even talked about Harper and protecting her from fuckers like us. And you do this? How long have you been fucking her! Since she was what? Sixteen? How long!” Eric spat blood. He shook his head. “It happened once. Last night. I was drinking and hell, it’s on me. I should have sent her home. I didn’t. I’m sorry. I won’t lie to you, I never have. I knew she had a crush on me. I never discouraged it, not the right way. Before I knew it, she wasn’t little Harper anymore. It was wrong but I couldn’t…I didn’t want to…fuck, brother, I’m sorry.” “Fuck you. You aren’t my brother. Get the fuck out of my way.” “Liam?” Eric stepped in front of him. “Look man, I deserve what went down in there. I want to kick my own ass. I do. But don’t let this come between us. I fucked up, okay? It won’t happen again. Please. I lost you to that fucking war. I don’t want to lose our friendship. Don’t think I can take that again.” Liam looked back over his shoulder to the house. Harper stood in the window, crying. He remembered Kay, the way she watched from her window in tears as he was led away in handcuffs. Liam closed his eyes. He wasn’t even sure who or what he was angry at anymore. “Nothing is the same,” he stammered. He shoved Eric aside and got behind the wheel. He sped out of the driveway before anyone could stop him. “No one’s the same, not even me.” *** Kennedy couldn’t decide what to wear. Mackenzie remained downstairs with her dad. The laughter rising up from the entertainment room was evidence of the joy in her house. Her mother, she supposed, was out doing last-minute Christmas shopping. The phone rang. She walked out of the closet and checked the ID before

answering. “Hello?” “Hi, it’s me.” “Hi, Phil. Thanks for calling me back.” “I was surprised when I got your message.” Kennedy sat on the bed. “You okay?” “No.” She scratched her brow. “I called because I thought you’d like to come over and help Mackenzie decorate the Christmas tree. She’s all excited about it. And you know it’s your job to untangle the Christmas lights.” “Really? Are you sure?” The ring of hope in his voice made her sad. Her baby girl had asked for him the moment they stepped through the door. Christmas wouldn’t be the same if he weren’t there for Mackenzie. “Yes, really. Dad’s here and mom will be too.” “Will you be there?” “No. You know that. We discussed—” “I know. I understand. Yeah, I got some work to do here today, then I’ll be on my way. I want to bring her some presents to put under the tree. Can I put them in your room and have you wrap them? Not really good at that.” “Sure. Go ahead. And Phil, I went to the doctor.” “We said we wouldn’t do this over the phone, Kennedy.” “I’m not pregnant. We don’t have to have lunch to discuss it. We’ve talked everything through. I’m not pregnant.” He didn’t speak. She wished he would at least pretend to understand. Make an effort to let go. Anything. She cleared her throat. “I know you’re disappointed.” “I know you’re not,” he said bitterly. “Come over and see Mackenzie. I want you of course to come for the Christmas party. Okay?” “Kennedy?” “Yes?” “Never mind. I’ll talk to you soon.” He hung up. So did she. ***

Liam drove to the VA Hospital. He sat outside of it, staring at the doors. The doctor’s name was Eli Abrams. He treated men with PTSD. He was a veteran, too, one who’d actually seen combat. Not just some headshrinker to tell him he had mommy issues. Maybe the man could help. Maybe it was too late. Liam wiped his hand down his face. He felt like he was treading water. How long before he drowned in this shit? And what if he hadn’t been able to stop? What if he had hurt Harper? What if he hurt Kay? He dropped his head back. Death had showed him the way out, and he refused. The life he knew was gone. He was different. They were all different. No matter how much he wanted to go back to the way they were, it might not be possible. Liam started the car. He drove out and straight to Fort Bragg. He cleared his mind of everything, something he’d mastered over the years. The mind was funny that way. People could convince themselves of anything. He convinced himself he was ready to start again. Truth was, he’d been scared shitless, afraid of everything: rejection, acceptance, sadness, even happiness. Mostly afraid that Kay would finally wake up and see him for who he really was. Nothing. After 9/11, Fort Bragg had become the Joint Services Special Ops training camp. And in five years, what had started as a call to action to protect the homeland had apparently become a sort of shadow government, where the power and influence of a woman like Alexa Sinclair could only be stopped by the Commander in Chief. Liam knew where Alex’s office would be located on base. He’d been debriefed there, early on. He had to go through six checkpoints before he could reach it. Dragging his leg with him, Liam felt more and more like an outcast. He both loved and loathed his time in the service. He wasn’t sure how to rationalize the two. Liam showed his credentials and was granted access. After a walk down two long halls he found the office designated for Colonel Sinclair. He saw her the moment he entered the room. She turned and flashed him a lovely smile. “You’re early.” She walked over to him. Liam just stared at her. She threw her arms around his neck and held him, pressing her cheek to his. “How have you been, Liam?” “Tired. Can we get this over with?” He hugged her back with one arm, weakly. She touched his face. “You look tired. Homecoming wasn’t what you thought it would be, was it?” Liam walked away from her, from her touch. He went to the chair and lowered to it. If he had his cane, he wouldn’t have to move like such a fucking cripple. Alex stopped behind him and placed her hands to his shoulders. “You know you can talk to me.” “I know what you’re trying to do, Alex. It’s not going to work.” “What is it that I’m trying to do?” Her hand lovingly stroked the back of his head and then side of his face. Liam turned his away from her caressing fingers. He was in no mood for her antics. She walked over to her desk and leaned back, crossing her long legs at the ankles.

“Things are different now. You’re a Colonel.” Alexa smiled. “That’s my official title, but I’m much more than that.” “Yeah, well good for you, Alex. You deserve it.” “Thank you, Liam. You were the only man that got me, understood me.” Liam sighed. “I know Wolfpack is much more than SEALs, Delta Force, Rangers. I know you and Eric are in deep. It’s because of Scorpion. Isn’t it? The op fails, and somehow you get promoted?” “Maybe.” She smiled. “You have Sarkhir on the run. It’s just a matter of time before you catch him, then hook the big fish.” “That’s the plan,” Alex said. “You don’t need me, Alex. The Pentagon, all of them, are acting on your orders. Help me get out, for good. I need to get control on my life. Do this for me.” “Now you know this is about more than me trying to control you. You of all people know what Amir Sarkhir is capable of. The administration is about to transition out of office, and still no sign of bin Laden. Your resurrection has shaken the hornet’s nest. Senator Clayton is particularly concerned.” “Why?” Liam frowned. “Classified. But he thinks you might know more about Scorpion than the orders you were given.” “Like what?” “Why did Sarkhir let you live, Liam. Five years and he never put a bullet in you. What did you give him?” Liam felt the stirrings of white-hot anger, and wondered if she was trying to provoke him into acting out. The Alex he knew would never have verbalized that question. “Are you accusing me of something?” “Absolutely not. But I’m asking you. Is there anything you haven’t told us?” Liam shook his head. “I dropped in on that rock with the pack and we made our strike. The villagers weren’t hiding our target. You know all of this. Whatever we were supposed to find, we didn’t. They were waiting for us. You lifted the first wave out. Eric was with that first group. The rest of us held them back. They swarmed us. What the fuck was on that rock that was worth risking all of our lives? What is it you think I know?” Alex sighed. “There are pressures from every nation in the world put an end to the terror and bring our troops home. The information you gave us so far has saved servicemen’s lives. If you dig deeper, work with me, we can get to the answers we need. Do you really think we can part ways when our nation is at war?“ “I don’t give a shit!” Liam shouted. Alex left brow rose. “Careful how you speak to me. I won’t tolerate it,

Lieutenant.”‘ Liam narrowed his eyes on her. “I don’t give a shit. Do you hear me? I’m done. I’ve given you everything I know, I gave it all up. My life is a train wreck. I’m trying to get it together, but I can’t go back in. My family needs me.” Alex sighed. “Are you sure of that, Liam?” “What does that mean?” “Seems to me Kennedy and your daughter have a life. It’s you who doesn’t. I’m talking about your identity. Giving it back to you. I know what kind of man you are. You were made for this. So was I. That’s why we were…a good team.” She smiled, and for the first time, Liam felt out of his depth. “You don’t get it.” “I do. You think your leg has changed you, handicapped you. It was never your physical strength that made you a great leader. It was your mind, Liam. It’s—” “Full of holes! I can’t get through the fucking day without—” Liam stopped himself. Alex stared at him. “I have my wife back. Kay has come back to me. My little girl sees me as her father. They’re all I need right now. I want out and that’s it. Discharge me.” “You heard the man,” came Eric’s voice from the doorway. Alex frowned. “What the hell happened to your face?” Liam didn’t have to look back. The expression on Alex’s face said that Eric’s was worse than he remembered. His friend had been hit harder, he was sure. Hell, they both had taken worse beatings. It came with the job. “I’m fine. Fell in the shower.” Alex scoffed. “Bullshit.” She looked from Eric to Liam, then to Eric again. She smirked. “Lieutenant Flanagan? Do you know anything about Commander Drake’s little bathroom accident?” Eric stopped next to Liam’s chair. “Discharge him, Alexa.” “No,” Alex said flatly. “I’m sorry, Liam. But I have my orders. Day after Christmas you’re to report here. You will be traveling with me to the Pentagon.” “The vice president will be making a call to you this afternoon. I’ve gotten a new appointment,” Eric said. “Discharge him now, or I’ll release him in two days when the appointment’s official. Giving you a chance to look like a hero, Alexa. For your ego’s sake, I would take it.” “You’re bluffing.” Alex put her hands to her hips. “What appointment?” Liam looked up to Eric. He stood there in jeans and his motorcycle jacket. His left eye was swollen where Liam had hit him with the cane. Liam dropped his eyes. He was still angry, but more importantly he felt ashamed. “You’ll know soon enough. I heard your little speech. Things are changing. The

elections have shown that. The vice president wants to shift things before he leaves office. And what do they say, Alexa, shit rolls down hill. Liam is out. My call.” “It’s not your call.” She laughed. “We’re done here,” Eric said. Liam rose. Alex cut him off. “I can help you. You need to trust me.” “I want you to stop,” Liam said. “Stop interfering, stop caring. I have a wife and a life and there isn’t room in it for the way you and I were over there. You understand me?” Hurt and humiliation flashed in Alex’s eyes. She stepped back. “Fine. But let me warn you, without my protection you are responsible for your actions and the safety of your family. You have no idea what has happened in the world the five years you’ve been gone.” “Yeah, well I’m learning.” Liam walked out. He heard Eric following. He wished he wouldn’t. “Got a second?” “No.” “Well, you need to make one.” Liam sighed. Eric pointed to an office. He used his badge to open the door. Liam had no choice but to follow him inside. “What is it?” “I was bluffing. I haven’t heard back from the VP. If my proposal to him goes through, then I can neutralize her, but Liam, if I can’t…” Eric blew out a breath. He put his hands behind his head. “You can’t lose your cool again. Do you hear me? What happened between you and me at the house stays with us, but I’m telling you, you can’t lose your cool.” “I get it.” “I spoke to Ant. I know about what happened at Fun World.” Liam averted his gaze. “Do you think you saw someone?” Liam shrugged. “You both think I’m crazy.” “Hell no, brother. You got the strongest instincts of any of us.” Liam’s gaze slowly returned to Eric. “You believe me?” “If you say you saw someone, then you did. Something triggered you to go off, and it damn sure as hell wasn’t an arcade clown.” “There’s more. I’ve seen a car, too. Twice.” “What kind of car?” “Black, Chrysler, looks like a…um, not sure. Not up on models now. I don’t know.”

“Here’s the thing. Alexa has marked you as a security risk.” “A what?” Liam frowned. “She says you’re a loose cannon. Certain senators are nervous. The casualties lost in that mission were never fully reported. That’s why they want you at the Pentagon. It’s not for debriefing. It’s containment.” Eric paced before him. “Alexa will force therapy on you, isolate you from your family, and in her warped little mind, convince you that working with her is what’s best for you.” “Is she fucking crazy?” Eric stopped. “You surprised? How many times did I warn you about that bitch? Her obsession with you?” Liam sucked down a breath. “She knows I won’t go.” “If you lose your cool, like you did with me today, like you did at Fun World, you won’t have a choice. Feel me? Go see the fucking doctor, Liam. Today.” “I already did,” Liam mumbled. “You did?” “I didn’t go inside, but yeah. I went to the VA hospital. I’ll go back.” “I’ll check out this tail you say you saw. Black sedan? I’m sure it’s one of ours. You stay sharp. See anybody, you hit me up immediately.” “What if it’s in my head?” “What if it’s not? I’ve trusted you through some of the toughest shit I’ve ever been in. I believe in you, brother. Whatever it is, we’re brothers, right?” He extended his hand. Liam grasped his wrist and pulled Eric into a hug. Eric hit him on the back twice and let him go. “About Harper.” “Do you love her?” Liam asked. The frown lines around Eric’s mouth deepened and his jaw clenched. Liam’s brow arched as he waited for the truth. They dealt in truth, so he knew Eric wouldn’t bullshit him. Not on this. “Yeah, man you know I do,” Eric said through clenched teeth. “Are you in love with her?” “Hell, man, I don’t know what that means. She acts like I’m some kind of trophy. I can’t be anything to her. It’s not who I am.” “Then stay the fuck away from her. Do you hear me?” Liam seethed, not because he wanted to strike. But Eric’s actions would do nothing but hurt Harper. “I told her it couldn’t happen again. I’ll keep my distance. Trust me.” “I shouldn’t have hit you. I lost it, and I…I was wrong.” Liam touched his arm and squeezed it to emphasize his point.

Eric grinned. “A good ass kicking always helps a brother clear his head.” Liam chuckled forlornly. “Thanks for not fighting back. You could have wasted me with this leg.” “I want you to get back on solid ground.” “Me, too.” *** Maybe things were changing for the better. Maybe not. The day had been a good one. She got to the office and everyone was so supportive. The partners told her to take the rest of the year off, with pay. She could return to work after the new year. Kennedy left for the mall. Amidst the shopping mania, she found a parking space right at the door. Luck continued to be on her side, when her first pick of a lingerie choice, a really cute black sexy number, was on sale for half off. Then Harper called. “What happened next?” Kennedy asked. The sad tale had her panting through Harper’s account of the events. She turned down the street that led to their new home, bracing for the rest. Harper sniffled. At times, her words became garbled with deep, wrenching sobs. “He left. But Eric was pretty bad. His face…his back…he beat him until he was bleeding.” “Are you okay? Did Liam…attack you too?” “No. He stopped when he saw me trying to protect Eric. It was horrible. What’s wrong with him? Why would he do that? You had to see him, Kennedy. He looked like he wanted to kill Eric, that he could kill him.” “Harper, it’s complicated. Liam. He’s different. He’s been through a lot and it…it changed him.” “This is my fault,” Harper wailed. “Eric asked me to go. He nearly begged me to leave. But I wouldn’t. I’m in love with him. And last night, after we made love, I could tell that I had pushed things too far between us. Now he says he doesn’t want to see me again. That we we’re a mistake.” Kennedy released the breath she carried tight in her lungs. She drove up the paved, icy driveway. Liam’s car was parked outside of the garage. “Sweetheart, Eric is too old for you, he—” “You’re a hypocrite! Don’t you sit on the phone and lecture me about age. Look at you and Liam.”‘ “Look at us, Harper. Look at what we went through, what we’re going through now. Look at mama and daddy, what strain I put on their marriage. I was selfish. I left you

when you were just eight. I paid a price for it. I’m still paying.” “But you two love each other.” “Yes, we do.” “And I love Eric. I do. Help me.” “Harper….” “Fine. Whatever. I shouldn’t have called you.” “Harper? Harper?” The line clicked off. Kennedy bit down on the inside of her jaw. It took her several minutes to digest all she was told. Liam attacked Eric? Hit him with his cane? The violence could be dismissed as an exaggeration but she’d seen different. She’d seen his black rage. How it came over him, took him over. She remembered how scared she was. She needed to get him some help. Now. Kennedy eased open the car door. She grabbed the overnight bag she’d packed and the shopping bag she bought. Quickly she hurried up to the front door and found it unlocked. When she walked in, she saw him immediately. He sat over in the corner of the living room. The Christmas tree was on, but no other lights. Natural light spilled into the room from the windows. He sat with his back to the wall and his wounded leg out straight while his elbow rested on the bend of his other knee. Kennedy closed the door. He didn’t even bother to look over. She dropped her things at her feet and approached, shedding her coat. With nowhere to hang it, she tossed it back to her bags. Her eyes however, never left him. The only sound between them was the hollow clicks of her heeled boots over the hardwood. Liam moved, more like shifted a bit. He lifted a beer and took a sip from it. But he remained locked in his thoughts, apparently focused on the twinkling red, yellow, blue, and white lights of the tree. “Hi.” Did he know she was in the room? He didn’t act as if he did. Kennedy rubbed her hands at her sides. She went closer, stopping to stoop then sit next to him on the floor. She ached to touch him. Instead, she reached for his beer and took a sip from it. Finally, his heavy-lidded gaze slipped over to her. “I hear it’s been a day,” Kennedy said. “Harper okay?” he rasped in a strained, hoarse voice. “She will be. How’s Eric?” “He and I worked it out. I…I was wrong to attack him,” Liam said softly. “I lost it, I guess.” Kennedy lifted her arm and brought it up to his head, drawing it down to her lap. Liam stretched out and hugged her waist, pushing his face in the crease of her thighs. Kennedy stroked his hair. “Can you tell me what happened?” “I’m sure she gave you the playback.”

“What happened to you, I mean? What came over you?” “I…I…I don’t know. I saw her with him and I knew. I knew what they’d done. What we’d done. How there’s no going back. There was just…anger.” “At who, Liam?” He didn’t answer her. “Liam? Who were you angry with?” “Myself. I was angry at myself. I can’t change anything, yet everything has changed. All of this is because of me, because of what I’ve done to you.” Kennedy stroked his head. The last place she wanted to return to was the one of his guilt. How he regretted coming between her and her mother. How he hated leaving her, sometimes for six months at a time. How he pushed for her to have Mackenzie when she graduated, even after she told him over and over that she wanted a baby, too. His guilt went deeper than hers. She always knew it. It started with a five-year-old girl who died of leukemia and left him behind. “We need counseling. I’ll go with you.” “I went.” Kennedy’s caressing hand stopped. “You went?” “To the VA Hospital. I signed up for a meeting with Dr. Abrams. He deals with PTSD with soldiers. He’ll meet with me starting tomorrow. And I’ll go, Kay. I’ll go every day to get better. I swear it.” Kennedy sighed in relief. Liam lifted his head and looked at her. “I let you down. Didn’t I?” She stroked the stubble that covered his jaw. “No, sweetheart. Never. I’m so proud of you. I know how hard going was. I know you’re doing this for you, too. I just want you to stop suffering.” How does a woman stop missing her man, even after he’s returned to her? Kennedy wished she knew. She missed her Liam so desperately. Would she ever have him back? Truly? Liam braced his hand on the other side of her thigh. Desire burned in his eyes. She saw kindness behind their sad veneer. He wasn’t the monster that lived inside of him, that tortured him. He wasn’t. Liam’s lips drew closer. They stopped just a centimeter from hers. Could he feel it too? Feel the air suck out of the room, that electrical current that made every hair on her body stand on end. God help her, but if he didn’t kiss her soon, something would combust between them. He did. All regret and worry melted when his lips touched hers. It was Kennedy who opened her mouth to draw him inside. She possessed his tongue, savoring the strength and love that only a man claiming his true love could give. Tears rose under Kennedy’s closed lids, then burned away when she opened her eyes and tried to focus on his face. She wanted to be close to him, to have him inside of

her. She wanted his forgiveness and to give hers. She needed him to believe in them again, completely. Her hand went down his face to rub his chest. Their tongues chased each other as she moved her hand down to his groin. His cock was hard as a boulder. He moaned in his throat when she rubbed it through his zipper. “I have a surprise for you,” he panted in short gasps into her mouth. “You do?” she asked, dragging her lips from his to his chin, then under his neck. She tried to kiss him again, now working his belt buckle loose, but he drew away. “I know you wanted to go furniture shopping but this, I um, I’d already done something yesterday. “Come on.” He rose awkwardly, then pulled her to her feet. Kennedy liked surprises. She had one of her own. As he led her toward the staircase, she stopped to grab her shopping bag, then followed him up. There was an unexpected gift in their bedroom. A bed. She shook her head smiling. A mahogany wood sleigh bed fit for a king and his queen. It filled more than half the room. “They delivered it this morning right after you and Mac left.” Liam was behind her now. She loved it when he was behind her, covering her. He eased both strong arms around her waist and her lids fluttered. “I know you wanted to go shopping today, but I hoped we could delay shopping for a while.” His hands slid over her flat tummy to the bottom of her sweater. He drew it up over her head and she lifted her arms without objection. Kennedy pushed her ass back into his groin and he immediately touched and rubbed her nipples. She stifled a smile at his attempt to spread a sheet and blanket over the mattress. It was so ill-fitted it couldn’t be tucked down at the corners. His effort meant so much. “It looks like our first bed. In our other house,” she said as he started to unbutton her dress slacks. He kissed her shoulder. He ran down her zipper and cupped her left breast with his free hand. “I got it from the same furniture store. I couldn’t believe they had our bed waiting for me to come and reclaim it. Remember how you would give it to me on this bed? Do you?” She turned in his arms to face him before he could work his hand down into her panty. “Let me get ready for you, Liam. I got a surprise, too.” He walked her back to the bed, kissing her neck. “Why? I don’t need any surprise, I just want you.” “I know, but I want it to be special,” she said and forced her hands in between them. “Model it for me later. I saw that pink shopping bag. I know what it is. Don’t want it. Don’t need it. No more waiting, no more, Kay, please, I’m fucking dying here sweetheart.” He kissed her. He dipped his hands into the back of her pants to grab both halves of her buttocks and squeezed. Kennedy laughed. She shoved at his chest. “Wait. I’m not going anywhere. Calm down. We got all night. Let me get dressed for you.”

Liam groaned. He threw his hands up in defeat. Kennedy bubbled with excitement. She hurried around him and found her bag. Kennedy quickened her steps into the bathroom. She shed her bra, pants, undies, and ankle boots. The only mirror in the bathroom was above the sink. Kennedy turned around and rose on her toes to look at her skin, back, ass, to make sure she wasn’t in need of lotion or anything. She freshened up the best she could. Then she pulled the black negligee from the bag. Sadly, Liam had never cared for lingerie. She would find cute pieces and surprise him when he returned from the field. He’d grunt and rip and tug at it, just wanting to get between her thighs or at her breasts. She’d ask him later if he liked it and he’d barely recall her wearing anything at all. He had a blind spot when it came to sex sometimes. He was always so hungry, he never stopped to appreciate the appetizer. Well, she wanted to be pretty for him, like a dream. Make his fantasies come true. So damn it, he would have to be patient and allow her this. Kennedy slipped on the camisole. It stopped at her curvy hips with a sexy split at the sides. It was black and so was the lace trim over the bodice that dipped low and cupped her breasts. The delicate fabric was snug to her curves. A perfect fit. Kennedy used her fingers to comb her hair away from her face. She would give anything for a brush, but her purse was downstairs. It was the best she could do. “Kay! What’s taking so long?” Liam called for her. Kennedy laughed. She chewed on her bottom lip and said a silent prayer. She hadn’t been with him in a long time. She wanted it to be perfect, for nothing to come between them, namely the sex she’d had with another man. Would he notice? It was stupid, but she was so nervous her heart beat wildly. “Kay! What are you doing?” Kennedy steadied her nerves and stepped out of the bathroom. She tiptoed into the room. She paused and posed for him. He smiled. She didn’t. One look at his bare chest and her heart dropped. The scars. What have they done to him? “Liam?” Liam blinked at her, confused at first, then his gaze lowered to his torso. He stepped back and sat on the bed. “Wait, sweetheart. Don’t get upset.” Kennedy went straight to him. He couldn’t misread her reaction. She wouldn’t let him think it for a moment. Her hands gently went to the sides of his face and she lifted his head so she could stare down into his eyes. “You know me. I’m not disgusted or turned off. I’m just so very sorry that you were hurt. Oh baby, I’m sorry.” She ran her hands lower to graze his wounds with her palms. The hard definition of toned fitness was there, though his body was smaller than she remembered. He was still all man, every square inch of him. She let her fingers examine the detail of his suffering. The slashes cut across the center appeared like three sharp claw marks from his left breast down to his navel. The split skin had healed crudely. Kennedy swallowed. She feared the rest of the story, was afraid to look at his back. The healing must have come painfully slowly. Without salve, the skin had raised and covered his torn flesh the best it could. “I wish I could have spared you this.” “Kay. It’s all right.” He took her hand in his and kissed her knuckles. “It’s over. None of it hurts.”

Kennedy read false bravado in his eyes. She forced a smile, though she could feel the corners of her mouth twitch at the strain. Even her hands trembled. She reached for the top button of his jeans and pushed it through the fabric slit. He kept his eyes trained on her so she had to be strong. He was looking for her to show pity. She knew it. She didn’t pity him. She was terrified for him. If he had suffered such physical brutality, what had it done to him mentally? Sweet merciful God, it killed her to imagine the darkness he’d crawled out of. Kennedy pulled his jeans down. Her eyes dropped to his knees. The operation performed to remove the bullet in some barbaric hospital was brutal. It left his knee mangled, half of it sunken where bone and cartilage once lay. She found it inspiring that he could stand and walk with just a cane. He was so strong. “My brave soldier boy.” Kennedy laughed softly. She lowered to her knees. Closing her eyes, she leaned forward and brushed her lips over his scar. He ran his hand back over the top of her head so she knew he liked it. Kennedy pressed her cheek against his battle scar. “For the rest of my life, I’ll never stop aching for what you’ve been through,” she whispered. “I don’t want pity, Kay.” She rose. She put a hand to his cheek then the other to the crudest scar over his chest. “You are the strongest man I’ve ever known. Mac is a smart little girl. The first time I showed her your picture and she could say your name she said you were a hero. You are our hero. What you did, how you overcame, makes me believe in us even more, Liam. I knew it when I first saw you at that house party long ago. I was standing next to Sierra and I saw you walk into the room and other boys step aside. I wasn’t intimidated. I was in love. I believed in us being together in that instant. You were the man for me. I’ve never doubted or regretted my choice, Liam. Everything we’ve shared makes me whole. Do you understand what your survival means to us?” she asked. “These are my scars too. We earned our happiness, baby.” “Can we have sex now?” he gave her a lopsided smile. Kennedy laughed outright. She pushed his shoulders and he slowly went back against the mattress. Liam moved up the sheets and she crawled over him. She let her tongue run over the scar that came dangerously close to his heart. He responded with a deep groan. His head tilted back, and his Adam’s apple made a single bob as he swallowed. Kennedy’s heart raced. She would love every inch of him until the pain was gone. Hands so graceful, so soft, removed so much hurt as she ran them over his body. Those wonderful lips of hers layered his wounds with gentle kisses. This woman had saved him. Once when he was twenty-two and didn’t give a shit about anything, and again now. The words of remorse choked in his throat as her tender mouth went down his shaft. The pleasure of her sucking and swallowing every inch of him exploded in his pelvis and brain. Liam gasped hard. Her head bobbed up and down on his cock and he glided over

her tongue. Honest, raw passion slammed against his chest, making him struggle for breath. His entire body became slicked with heat. She jerked on the bottom half of his shaft with her fist, taking the rest as deep as her slender throat would allow. “Yes, Kay, mmm, don’t slow down….” he groaned, grabbing a fistful of her thick hair. She obliged by sucking harder, stronger, making his balls draw tight. Her mouth drove all pleasure to his cockhead and bands of color played behind his closed eyes. “Ugh!” Kennedy licked the sensitive line of his dick to ease his suffering and kept going and going. The storm of emotions in his heart and pleasure in his cock raged, leaving him breathless. He was so close and she knew. And just as he readied to explode, she let his cock go with a wet plop. Liam paused to catch his breath and not shoot off all over her chin and chest. At length, he opened his eyes. A gentle smile eased out of hiding on her face. “You’re so wicked, babe.” His Kay had grown into the most desirable woman. She possessed more than beauty. There was something so genuine and pure about her that he’d willingly go to hell and back for her, even after everything he’d been through. He rose to take control and she pushed him back down. His cock stood erect and at attention. It bobbed between them. Kennedy eyed it as if she wanted to suck it dry. God, as much as he enjoyed that, he wanted pussy. Not her mouth. She must have read his mind. She lifted and positioned herself over him. Her eyes latched on to his with fierce determination. Liam stilled his breathing again. Kennedy eased down on his erection. Tight, wet heat sheathed his dick as her silken walls slowly constricted, squeezing every inch of him. A deep, guttural groan rumbled in his chest as her slick channel tightened around him. She rolled her ass and thrust her hips and it was too much. Liam’s eyes slipped up into his skull. When his body stabilized enough to understand and register the pleasure rocketing through his shaft to his fast-beating heart, he opened his eyes. He watched as she slowly raised her black camisole over her head. Her beautiful tits bounced free. Liam’s mouth watered to see full, firm breasts tipped with nipples the color of chocolate. He found them rounded and perfect at every angle. She licked her lips. Her lids lowered so low he barely saw her soulful brown eyes beyond her lashes. She pinched her nipples for him and his torture was complete. Liam grabbed the tops of thighs as smooth as buttercream. When he failed to gain control, he grabbed her hips to help ratchet his own upward with deep thrusts, reaching as far as he could. He had imagined loving her, remembered it, but admittedly he’d forgotten the sweet rhythm to it. She was a good teacher. Liam nearly laughed out loud. His lady was schooling him! Teach me, babe! Teach! “Let me have you, and then you can have me,” she moaned, knocking his hands away. Liam obeyed. He placed both hands behind his head and sucked in a deep breath for restraint. Her dark lashes fluttered shut and she rode his cock steadily, fondling one nipple and using the other hand to pluck and fondle her clit. It was making him crazy so he closed his eyes and stopped watching her. It was his only defense. But in darkness it

wasn’t much better. Her cunt grew tighter and tighter with each rise and fall. His cock was tugged and stroked in ways no man could withstand. How long was he supposed to last this way and not come? Kennedy fell forward. Her nipples brushed his chest and he stiffened. She ran her tongue up over the lines of his scars with her back dipped and her pussy dropping and lifting off his cock. “Fuck this!” he groaned, grabbing her and flipping her to her back. She gasped, shocked. She giggled as he grabbed her hands and pinned them above her head. “I can’t take it, babe.” “I’m yours, Liam,” she flicked her tongue at his lip. “Fuck me. Please, fuck me,” she said and he was undone. He slammed into her and an awesome wave of lust washed over them. He was all male. Nothing had changed on that front. His cock was meaty and mean, wielded with a forceful intent for domination. It was as she remembered, as she loved. Kennedy shuddered once he began to move in and out of her, pressing her arms down and biting and sucking at her nipples. “Yes, Liam! Do me harder!” she shouted. Oh how lovely the pain was. She writhed beneath him, her arms burning all the way to the tips of her fingers from being pinned down. She called out his name at the feel of his organ slamming into her over and over again. She cried out her love for him once he began to rock his hips to hit the most sensitive spots. Over and over and over he thrust his dick in, and out even slower. She wept when he hit so deep she creamed and shook through the second or third climax. But he had been far from done. When he released her wrists, she raked her nails down his back to unleash some of her pent-up frustration. She needed more, but feared her body would implode if he didn’t unleash the full force of his passion soon. The buildup of pleasure spread from her head to the tops of her toes. Then he stopped. Why? He slid down her body and his face dove into her wet pussy. Kennedy eyes popped so wide, they nearly snapped from their sockets. Her body convulsed uncontrollably as he feasted on her. He sucked her clit until she bucked on the sheets. “Liam! Stop, wait!” He fucked her with his tongue, and then licked her pussy from top to bottom. She slammed her thighs shut as she came again. Liam rolled her to her belly. He was behind her, his hand in her hair pulling so tight her scalp burned. He thrust into her pussy repeatedly until she flattened to the bed with his hard thighs forcing hers apart. Using his other hand, he squirmed it underneath to lift her. He tugged her hair again and she winced, rolling her ass how he liked. “I am going to fuck and love you all night,” he sighed, licking the beads of sweat from her spine while rocking in and out of her quaking channel. “Yessss…” was all she could stammer.

Liam let go of her hair. Both hands went to her hips and held her in the right angle so he could fuck her pussy long and strong. One hard thrust forward and it felt as if a bolt of lightning filled her body. “Yes!” she cried out. Liam fell on her and his entire body went rigid. He loved her. She knew it. He went on and on until every inch of him went rigid and stiff and quick jerky thrusts of his cock broke his control. She couldn’t touch him to ease him through it. He had her pinned face-down to the mattress. He groaned deep and she felt his hot seed jet out of him as his cock pulsed and spasmed through the best orgasm she’d had in five years. Liam moaned, withdrawing out of her with a wet slick suctioning sound. Kennedy was too weak to move at first, but he pulled on her. She managed the strength to crawl over and drop on his chest. His heart beat so fast she thought it would burst out of his chest when she pressed her ear there. She couldn’t speak. Her lower half was on fire with a riot of sensations. He rubbed her sweaty back, then her ass. “I want more,” he said in a deep voice. “Okay,” she panted, smiling. “I love you so much, Kay.” “I know, baby. I know.” When the strength returned to her limbs she found he’d fallen asleep. He had exhausted himself. That was fine. Their reunion was a long time coming. She left the room and found a rag to soak with sudsy water. She cleansed the tender folds of her sex and wiped away all excess. She came back to the bed and began to clean him. His cock grew hard in her hand while he slept. She smiled and kissed the tip, promising to pleasure it when she returned. She decided to let him rest. When she drew back she could look at his body. His story was all over him. She hadn’t noticed the burn marks to his side and his left arm. Kennedy covered her mouth as fresh tears began to pool. She told herself that it was over. His suffering was over. But she knew better. The road to full recovery would be a long, hard one. Kennedy dug out her robe and covered herself, then crept from the room. She returned the washcloth to the towel rack. She went downstairs and got her phone, dialing the number to a Thai restaurant she knew was close. She ordered a good meal of his favorites to be delivered. Once done, she called home. “Kennedy, where are you?” her mother asked as soon she answered. “Hi mom, how is Mac?”‘ “Where are you?” “You know where,” Kennedy sighed. “We’re decorating the tree. Phil’s here. We’re all here. You should be here.” “Let me speak to Mac.” Kennedy paced. “Please mama, not now, we’ll talk later. Just let me talk to my baby.”

“Hi, mommy.”‘ Kennedy smiled. “What you doing, monkey?” “My birthday tree with daddy. The other daddy, not my heaven daddy…” “I get it, Mac.” Kennedy chuckled. “He’s so funny. He don’t know nothing, mommy. I have to remind him of everything.” Kennedy smiled. “Sounds like you’re having fun.” “Yes. You coming home soon?” “No baby. But daddy is there and so is grandma and granddaddy. So you will have so much fun.” “Okay, bye.” Mackenzie hung up on her. Kennedy shook her head. She set her phone down and took a long look around her at her empty house. Soon she’d fill it with love and their new life. She realized she liked new beginnings. Especially ones with him. Slowly she climbed the stairs to return to her man. To love him once more.

Chapter Twenty “Mmmm, it’s good babe. So good.” Kennedy twisted a bit more of chicken pad thai around her chopsticks and eased another tasty bite into Liam’s gaping mouth. Liam lay on his side, facing her, propped up by his elbow. He licked lips and chewed slowly. “It is good, isn’t it?” She wiped a drop of sauce from his chin with a napkin. He looked so cute with his disheveled hair and flushed skin. Kennedy enjoyed feeding him. She’d had to fight him off of her to get to the door when the food was delivered. Kennedy leaned in and kissed his brow. She knew it had been a very long time since someone just cared for him. Not that he would stomach much of it. But she had softened him up enough. He tolerated her smothering. “You need your strength, so eat hearty.” Liam smiled. “I’ve got my second wind, babe, don’t you worry.” Kennedy shrugged. “Oh, trust, me I’m not. I know my soldier boy’s appetite. I’m ready for it.” She stabbed a cube of chicken out of the carton. When she slipped him a look, she noticed how intense his focus was to her uncovered breasts. She giggled and shook them at him. “What’s funny?” he asked. “The way you keep staring at my tits. I see you.” She set the half-eaten carton of noodles in her lap and repositioned to give him a better view. “Especially when I do this.” She worked her shoulders and made them bounce. “I love your tits.” Liam groaned. He moved quick. He grabbed her arm and pulled her down so he could nip at her breast. Kennedy crossed her arms to escape another attack. “I told you to stop biting them. No more for you.” Kennedy pushed him off. She stirred what was left of dinner, deciding to finish it off herself as his punishment. Liam fell back on his pillow. “Sorry. Those sexy beauties of yours make me do it.” “Yeah right,” she mumbled, her mouth full. “They could be flat as a pancake but you’d still suck them raw.” “True.” Liam’s hand crept over. It felt hard and strong like the rest of him. Kennedy had to admit he gave her fever the way he caressed up and down her thigh. They were on the bedcovers. A sheet was thrown over his lap and hers. Problem was it didn’t conceal the imprint of his erection, so she knew dinner would have to be finished soon. Kennedy felt herself tingling between her thighs from the mere thought. “I got a question for you, babe.” “Okay.” She tried to feed him. He shook his head no. She slurped three strands of noodles dangling from her chopsticks. His gaze grew a bit more intense. She frowned, unable to read the look in his eyes. “What? What’s the question?”

“You and Phil. You two ever…um, did you do…you know, um…” he pointed at his dick, “with him?” “Are you serious?” Kennedy flinched. “Nah, never mind it. Forget I asked.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Why would you ask me that? Do you know how, how that makes me feel? Were you thinking about that while we were….” “No. Kay. Fuck no, I just. Damn, I’m an idiot. I’m sorry, okay?” “No, it’s not okay.” Kennedy swallowed back her hurt. She wanted to take the chopstick and stab him in the chest with it. He could be such an ass at times. She just wanted them to start again. Why must every road lead them here? She closed the carton and sighed. “Kay, wait. I’m sorry.” Kennedy snatched her arm from his pleading hand and escaped the bed. He sat up to reach for her but she shot him a withering glare that made him withdraw. “Liam, this will be the one and only time I discuss this with you. After this, don’t you dare ask me about Phil and our sex life again, because it will definitely put a damper on yours. Do you understand me?” Liam slowly reclined back on the pillow. His jaw twitched, as it did every time he was angry. But he kept his mouth shut. He had better. She was growing really tired of the Phil comparisons. If she could suck his dick enough to get him past it, she’d do that. So fine, he wanted the truth. Here it was. “Phil performed oral sex on me. Often. And I liked it. But, I didn’t do him, and he didn’t mind.” “I don’t want to talk about this.” “Oh, no. You bought it up, so here’s the truth.” She moved around the bed naked, her hair in tangles, but she didn’t care. She wanted it all out. She had nothing to be ashamed of. Phil wasn’t some rapist. He wasn’t her ideal lover, but she agreed to every single moment of sex with him, each and every time. Often, she found it enjoyable, though she thought it better to keep that part out. “He and I waited until we got married, which was just over a year ago. Our anniversary was October. He never forced sex with me; he was too busy trying to be my friend, Liam. And he was. I’m sorry it hurts you to think that I shared my body with another man, but I can’t change that. And what I do with you in our bed has nothing to do with Phil or any feelings for Phil. It’s us, and only us.” She wiped away loose tears. “I won’t let you make me feel dirty or ashamed….” “Kay, stop.” Liam kicked off his covers. He was out of the bed and to the other side of it before she could blink. He sure could move fast when he put his mind to it. When he wanted to hold her, there wasn’t much she could do to resist. Though she was hurt, she allowed his arms to close around her and pushed up against his warm, hard frame. “I don’t want this to come between us,” she said. “It hasn’t. I’m sorry I asked.”

“Then why did you?” she shoved him off. “I don’t think of Phil when I’m with you. Do you think of him when we’re together?” “No. Yes.” Liam put his hands behind his head. “I’m jealous. I love you so much Kay, my heart and pride keep fucking with me. I’m an asshole, because I should know better. I just can’t think of any man knowing how special you are.” He lowered a hand to rub his knuckles down her cheek. “I see now, that it doesn’t matter. It’s me and you still, and Mac. Kay…it’s hard to explain what I’m doing lately. I’ll fuck up from time to time, but it’s not because I mean to. The things in my head, my issues, they….” he moved in closer. “Forgive me, okay?” “Okay.” She smiled. “I want to have a baby.” “What?” Kennedy stepped back. “A baby, try again for a little brother or sister for Mac instead of a puppy. That’s what will make me happy.” “How do you jump to a baby? Now?” She tried to turn from him but he spun her back around. “Wait, wait, hear me out. We could make a little boy this time. He’ll be tough and cute. Do you think he’ll have your eyes too, or maybe mine next time?” Kennedy didn’t smile. “I know we got a lot of shit to work out, but I want another kid, Kay. Don’t you see? This is our new beginning. And this time I want to go through the pregnancy with you. I know what you and Mac went through. It kills me that you suffered. It’ll be different this time. Like it was supposed to be. We can just start over, from where we left off.” “I can’t think of a baby right now.” She shrugged off his hold, backing away from him. Suddenly she felt overwhelmed. The baby question hit her in the gut. She didn’t want to consider baby talk for months. Until all the drama was a distant memory. “Don’t leave. I’m sorry. I’m pushing you and I really don’t mean to. Just say that it’s possible. That you want another baby with me.” “Liam…what I want is for you to slow down, okay? We don’t have to cram everything into one single moment. Of course I want a baby, maybe two, but it doesn’t have to start now. Let’s get on our feet. Let’s talk more, get to know each other more, enjoy each other more. Relax, soldier boy, okay?” “No, Kay. We don’t need to wait on life. Damn it, babe, if I haven’t learned anything I learned that. Nothing is promised to us. Let’s make a baby, right now,” he said, lifting her and placing her on the bed. Kennedy wrapped her arms around his neck. He should just shut up and make love to her. No more questions or doubts. Besides, she enjoyed kissing Liam; it was almost as good as sex. In truth, she enjoyed anything with him, because each and every touch or stroke of his hand pulled on her heartstrings. Kennedy deepened the kiss, fueled with wild ministrations of her tongue that made

him laugh deep in his throat. Just as she tried to bring him back on the bed with her, the kiss slowed to a teasing stop. Liam licked his lips, and his eyes dropped to her breasts once more. He stood at the edge of the mattress, deciding on something. Kennedy smirked. She rubbed her breasts for him and tried to entice him to act. He did. Liam drew her down, pulling her by the ankles to the edge of the bed. He grabbed a pillow and dropped it before him. Why, she wasn’t sure. Liam then parted her legs and placed one on each shoulder. Now she knew why. He lowered so that she was spread in front of his face. “Oral sex, huh? You let him eat what’s mine?” Kennedy dismissed the comment with an eye roll. He licked her center with the broad side of his tongue and she felt such eroticism from his lips that her toes curled. Then he pressed a kiss there. His nose brushed against her damp slit and he gave her another slow lick that ended with the tip of his tongue circling and drawing her bud forward. Kennedy dug her fingers into his hair. She loved the feel of his scalp beneath her nails, just like she loved to have his mouth between her legs. He buried his face and slurped at her clit until she bucked her ass off the mattress, trying to withstand the sexy rush of pleasure his mouth brought. It dipped between, licked and swiped the inner folds of her labial walls. He eased a finger inside her wet channel as his mouth continued to drive pleasure through to her core. The man made her insane. She needed his cock not his finger. “Liam, do me, please…” she begged as he continued to lick, suck and kiss her below while working his finger in and out with back and forth thrusts. He remained determined to prolong her torture. Kennedy reached between her thighs with both hands and gripped the back of his head, smashing it against her achy core as she cycled down to another climatic explosion. Her eyes rolled under her fluttering lids and she cried out in a hoarse, strained voice. He used his free hand to lift her hips higher to give him greater access. Her back bowed from the bed and all of her shook through her spasms of pleasure pulsing through her pelvis. Liam withdrew his sopping wet fingers from her clenched channel and rubbed his thumb over her the ring of her anus. She was crashing with pleasure but he was far from done. Why didn’t he release her and just give her what she needed? The desire to have his cock between her legs drove away all patience. Although his fingers felt heavenly, they weren’t enough. “Liam, Liam, c’mon. I want you,” she panted weakly. She changed her mind. She wanted him to bury his cock deeply in her rear, wanted it so badly she ached all over. No one had breeched her forbidden hole but him. Maybe she should tell him? He swirled his tongue around her pussy and rubbed her anus a moment longer before slipping his thumb inside. His tongue eased lazily down to her tight opening and then pierced her cunt as his thumb thrust in and out of her. Kennedy’s eyes flipped open and the bottoms of her feet curled. She tried to withstand but the next climax reached far into her soul. She stiffened all over and exploded. Floating on what felt like a heat wave, she enjoyed the raw burning sensation of pleasure rippling up from her uterus and spreading through her belly. The only thing better would be him drilling her the way he used to, while he pulled her hair. “Liam, give me more…yes want more….” Liam withdrew his thumb. Licked her juices, then rose from the floor and stood

before her with his cock in hand. At last. he will give it to me. I should roll over to show him where I want him first. She smiled, her gaze going down her body slick with sweat to eye his thick erection jutting out before her, as he lowered her legs from his shoulder. Liam licked his lips. Kennedy put her hand over her pussy to stop the quivering, and rub out the stress to her clit. “Now Liam, come here…you can get it how you like. Come on.” “I’m going to get us something to drink. You want something?” he walked away. Kennedy shot upright. “What?” Liam tossed her a coy smile over his shoulder and left the room. “You jerk!” she yelled after him. She could hear him laughing, and his footsteps going down the stairs. She rolled out of the wet spot and curled up, grinning. When the feeling returned to her legs, she would punish him. Until then she could do nothing but lie there and smile. *** Gail caught Phil as he walked out of Mackenzie’s room. His face was calm with contentment. He and Kennedy really had made a nice home for her granddaughter. Today while she watched Mac follow him around and need his reassurance, she knew. She had to do something to keep this family from falling apart. With Andrew downstairs in the TV room, eyes glued to Sports Center, now would be the best time to talk. “She asleep?” Phil nodded. He closed the door gently. “She’s in heaven. Yes, she’s asleep, but not after she gave me another rundown on what she wanted for her birthday and what she wants for Christmas, because she had to remind me that they are two different things. She is so smart. The things that come out of her mouth shock me and Kennedy every day.” Gail sighed. “You are so good with her, Phil. She thinks of you as her father, you know?” “I love her. Nothing will ever change that.” “Not even having your own?” Gail asked. Phil paused. His brows lowered in confusion. “I know,” Gail announced. She crossed her arms to the front of her chest. “What do you know?” “Let’s talk.” Gail walked past him to her daughter’s bedroom. When she entered, she looked back to see Phil in the hall, staring. He hadn’t followed. He dropped his head and came inside. She’d been careful to close the door. What she wanted to say, she couldn’t with Andrew around. He wouldn’t stand for it. He’d just defend Kennedy and Liam as always. He was so blinded by his daughter’s wants that he never did what was right for her. In Gail’s heart she blamed Andrew as much as she blamed Liam for taking her child’s innocence and making her grow up too soon. She wasn’t able to protect Kennedy then, but she’d be damned if she repeat the same mistakes now.

“What do you know?” Phil asked. “That she’s pregnant.” Phil sighed. “Who told you that? Kennedy?” “Does it matter? What are you going to do about it?” “This is between me and Kennedy.” “Yes, and right now, she’s with him. Are you seriously going to give up on her now?” “Give up? Give up? Gail, there is no baby. Kennedy called me today and told me she went to the doctor.” “She did what?” Gail frowned. “It’s done. I’ve accepted it and I suggest you do too. I want to be a part of Mac’s life. I’m barely hanging on here.” “And you believe her?” Gail stepped forward. “What do you mean?” “Believe that there is no baby? Where’s the proof?” “She had the test,” Phil said, feeling his chest tighten. He wanted to go. Hell, this was his house and he already felt strange visiting it. Just two weeks ago, he was in the bed behind him, loving his woman. She was in his arms, all his, their bond solid. He believed in love. Now it had all evaporated into thin air. No one knew how desperate the loss of Kennedy made him feel. His heart had been crushed to dust. Whether it was his fault or Kennedy’s, it was his reality. “She’s lying.” Gail said. “She’ll have an abortion, if she hasn’t already.” “What? No, Kennedy wouldn’t do that.” “Oh no? Kennedy ran away from home when she was barely seventeen, because I told her she couldn’t see Liam. She let me suffer for three months without a single phone call. She never apologized to me for that, or acknowledged it. It’s always been about her and Liam in Kennedy’s world. And everything she does, she does to protect him. You don’t think she would abort your child to keep him?” “That’s enough—” “Phil, this isn’t the time for you to bury your head in the sand. You have to do something. Before it’s too late. She’s my child. I know her better than anyone. Liam is all she can think about, not her future, not the safety of that sweet little girl.” “You and I aren’t having this conversation.” Phil started to the door, but Gail plucked at his sleeve. “Listen to me. I’m telling you the facts. I saw Alexa, that woman that is close to

Liam. She said Liam’s sick in the head or something. That he has PTSD. She…” Gail turned and saw the dresser. “Oh my God. Did he do this?” Phil’s eyes cut over to the destroyed mirror. Kennedy had downplayed Liam’s rage, but he knew that he was responsible. “She wouldn’t abort my baby,” he said to himself more than anything. “You’re willing to risk the life of your child, the safety of Mackenzie, on your faith in her now? Look at this. He’s unstable.” Gail walked over and ran her hands over the grooves gouged in the dresser surface where something had beat against it violently. “I trust her. She has never lied to me.” “Well, she does lie,” Gail snipped. “She lied to me, over and over. And I don’t know what lies she filled Andrew’s head with to convince him that Liam is some misunderstood man. She’s emotional, and she’s in trouble and so will be the life of your unborn child if you don’t do something about it. Quick.” *** Kennedy found him downstairs. She handed him his boxers. She wasn’t going to have him walking around with his cock swinging in front of her after his upstairs performance. Liam pulled up his boxers, still wearing that sly half-smile on his face. “So what was that upstairs?” she asked. “Me getting re-acquainted with you.” He winked. “You are something else.” Liam handed her a bottle of water. He’d gotten a beer for himself. The place remained too empty. She itched to decorate and fill it with all the necessities to make it home. Kennedy exhaled a long, deep sigh. She could tell him of the pregnancy scare. Just get it out there in the open and put it behind them. But if the confession of oral sex sparked that machismo a few minutes ago, she feared what more truth would do. Baby steps, she told herself. She sipped her water, staring at him. “Do you remember our first Christmas as man and wife?” Liam smiled. “Yes,” she said sadly. “I was so fucking miserable,” Liam said. He leaned back on the sink, staring into space. “Me too. I cried all day that Christmas,” she said, having shared that with him over and over. She resented the Navy for taking him away from her on the holiday. When he broke the news and told her that he would not be able to return to her and she would have to leave school and go home to her parents, they had their first fight. She’d agreed to school, said she understood when he had to leave for his last semester. Suffered many nights waiting for his call while doing her studies. All of this she did to please her father and Liam. And the military got between them for the first of many times to come. She

thought he didn’t understand, but that was the young, selfish Kennedy, as spoiled and selfcentered as ever. Liam was doing what he could to make a life for them, the best way he knew how. Liam looked over at her. “If I could’ve been there with you, I would’ve been. I hate to feel like I let you down. I swore that Christmas, come hell or high water I would be a good husband for you.” “You were. I should have understood.” She walked over to him. He opened his arm to her. “I think that’s when I realized what it meant to have a serviceman for husband. Every military wife goes through the transition, then acceptance. “Of what?” Kennedy smiled. “The acceptance of the third person in her marriage, the Navy.” “Yeah, well It feels like I spent more time away from you than with you since we said I do. So much time has been lost between us, Kay. I wish I could get it back. Take a nine-to-five job and just be a husband to you, a father to Mac.” “Why? We were strong, we survived it, and I’m more in love with you than I ever was.” “How was it that year? Going to your parents for the first Christmas? You said it things were fine, on the phone. I could remember hearing differently in your voice.” Kennedy sighed. “Mama was pretty cold. She didn’t speak to me the entire visit. No matter what I did. I tried to apologize, but I swear it was as if my voice caused her pain. So I gave her space. I guess I deserved her distance with me. I hurt her really bad, Liam. Even now I think she resents me for it. I don’t know what to do to make her understand how much I love her. I think…” “What? What do you think?” “I think sometimes she doesn’t believe that I love her. I think she sees my love for you as competition. It’s weird. When we thought you died, it was like I had my mother back. She was there for me like when I was a little girl. She was there for Mac. I hated it and loved it. So I told her to stay away. To accept her mothering would mean that I would have to reject my grieving for you. Does that make sense?” “I came between you two,” he said sadly. “No Liam. I did that. My relationship with my mother is strained because of my choices, and her inability to forgive me. It’s not your fault. Please don’t add this to your list.” “My list?” “Then one you carry around that makes you think you deserve to suffer. You had your sister’s name on it before me, and now no matter what I do, you won’t take my name off the list. I hate you think that you aren’t deserving of happiness. Of us.” “Kay.” “I do. I want you to stop it. I need you, Liam. I need you to believe in us.”

“I believe.” They stood in the kitchen, leaned against the sink together in silence. She dropped her head over on his shoulder and exhaled. “I want to talk to her.” Liam sipped his beer. “You tried that, remember? Didn’t go too well.” “We found a way to get along. I think Gail was warming up to me before I left.” Kennedy smiled. “Yeah, I think she was too. Our last Christmas we had together she didn’t try to poison your food.” Liam laughed. Oh, how she loved his laugh. It was deep, such a sexy baritone. She missed those little things. Now she could have as many little things as she could handle. She stepped around him to stand in front of him. “I would love it for you two to get along. For us to be a real family. If you try I think she’ll try.” “Me, too. I want to give you that. Give Mac her family healed, whole. And hey, I can even put up with Sally.” “You did good with your mom. Slick move having her stay with me and Phil.” Liam nodded. “Want to hear something else shocking?” “What?” “I think I can stomach Phil, for Mac’s sake. After I start therapy, of course.” Kennedy laughed. She came in between his legs. She reached around him to put the bottle of water in the sink. “My soldier boy is really trying to impress me.” “So?” Kennedy rubbed her hands over his chest, smoothing her palms against his scars. “So…what?” “So what’s my answer about the baby?” Her eyes lifted to his. “What about income? I got a good job, but it’s not much as far as salary. How much do we owe to Eric to rent this place? You’ll be discharged, then what?” “I got a little money. They gave me twenty thousand. And they owe me back salary, but who knows how long that’ll take.” “They?” “The shadow people.” Liam smirked. Kennedy remembered when things changed for Liam, after he became a SEAL. When he wasn’t just a soldier but something more. And ‘they’ would call on him for missions he couldn’t explain. These missions would make him silent for an entire day when he returned to her. They were the kind of missions that brought Alexa Sinclair into their life. She never knew who ‘they’ were. So she called them the ‘shadow people.’ And he remembered. “When I was at the furniture store I saw that Phillips 76 that’s closed down over off Daniel Street. I’m thinking of buying it and turning it into a auto body repair shop.”

“Really?” Kennedy said. She wrapped her arms around his neck. Her finger played with the silky hairs at his nape. He heaved her up into him, and turned her to sit her on the sink. “You want to be a mechanic? Will you wear a tool belt and your pants down to the crack of your ass?” Liam laughed. “That’s a plumber, silly.” “Oh. Well I think it’s perfect. So let’s make a deal.” “Deal huh?” “Yep. Let’s get on our feet first, okay? A year. Then we try for a baby. How’s that?” “Six months?” Liam asked, nuzzling the space between her chin and collarbone. Kennedy sighed. She let her head fall back and arched her neck to the lips brushing over her pulse. His mouth was granted free rein. “If in six months we think we are solid, then yes.” “Damn, I love you, girl,” he said. He untied the front of her robe. “Can we at least practice? Starting now.” Liam nodded as if answering his own question. “Yes, let’s practice.” Kennedy ran one hand through his hair and the other down his nape and back. He brought his mouth to hers. The exquisite sensation of his lips brushing hers unchained the raw lust she had for him. She moaned into his mouth when his tongue stabbed forward and claimed hers. She felt so damn hot for him she could barely stand it. His hand was smooth as it rode up her thighs, her waistline, to cup her breasts. He stopped kissing her to rub its peak between his finger and thumb. His eyes lowered to them; he didn’t bother to disguise the naked desire in his beautiful blues. His breathing became shallow, and his rubbing became soft pinches. “Not so hard, Liam,” she moaned. He punished her nipples unintentionally. He was always so fascinated by them she had to remind him they were attached to her body and sensitive. “Sorry,” he said, lowering his face to run his tongue over one then draw it into his mouth for a gentle suckling. “Better,” she sighed, stroking the back of his head. She shivered uncontrollably. One of hand went to the small of her back, forcing her to arch her breast into his greedy mouth while his free hand began to stroke the burning ache of her pussy. Liam’s fingers grazed her clit and she cried out. Her suffering was continual. When would he release her from her torment? Liam lifted his mouth from her nipple and his eyes met hers, as he thrust two fingers into her channel. “You are so wet and tight for me, like always, babe.”‘ Waves of fire licked through her and each sensitive nerve below tingled as he finger-fucked her again. She gripped his shoulders, her backside slipping on the metal sink. Liam fingers thrust in and out of her in a slow, steady motion. “Do you like this?” he asked, that coy smile again tugging his lips. She quivered and gasped as a third finger went inside to stretch her unmercifully.

“Yes, Liam, yes.” Writhing and twisting on the sink, she heard her pathetic voice and wanted to smack herself. How could she be reduced to this, and he was still teasing her? Her brain was mush. She couldn’t think of single reasoned thought when he fucked her with his fingers this way. His finger play caused her to slip off the counter. He withdrew his hand so he wouldn’t hurt her. Kennedy couldn’t catch her breath. She grabbed his cock and he grunted. She gripped it hard and he smiled. “Now. Stop playing with me and do me.” Liam turned her to the sink and bent her over it. She put her hand to the tile wall above the hot and cold knobs, below the window sill. She felt her robe lift to her back as cool air wafted over her feverish pussy. He began to rub her ass as if admiring it. Her eyes filled with tears she was glad he couldn’t see. They were tears of relief and happiness. She loved him so much. The reality of having her husband back this way hit her with waves of déjà-vu. This was how it had been with them long ago. His erection pressed against the juncture of her ass cheeks, hard and strong. She didn’t need lubricant; she was wet and ready all over for him. Kennedy moved back against him wanting him to go there. But he let it slip down to her opening. He nudged the head against her tightness, demanding entrance. She heard him groan and sigh in pleasure as he thrust forward. Her body began to respond as he sank deeper and rising on her toes, she lifted her ass to take him even deeper. Liam’s thrusts were long and slow, taking his time, the rhythm he preferred. She dropped her head to the faucet. The cool steel against her feverish brow made it all the more erotic. Kennedy licked her dry lips and rolled her ass. She received a stinging swat as punishment. Her clit tingled and she almost came. “You feel so damn good, Kay. I could stay in you forever,” he grunted, and thrust harder and faster. Kennedy bit down on her bottom lip and began to roll her ass again. She couldn’t help it. She wanted much more. Either Liam had forgotten the rules of their game or didn’t care. He branded her with each stroke and their loving consumed them both. He rocked in and out of her until she and he became one. Exhausted, she nearly fell into the sink when he withdrew. But Liam caught her and turned her to face him. The old Liam would throw her over his shoulder and carry her to the bedroom as she feigned fright. He wasn’t able to do so with his leg. So they made a new ritual. As she shook and quivered against him they walked out of the kitchen, hand in hand. *** Eric dropped the kickstand on his motorcycle. He sat back and stared at the apartment doors. After an eternity, he removed his helmet. What would he say to her? What could he say? Thanks for the good time but it’s over. By the way, I prefer you not see another man for the next five years, then come holler at me? She’d been on his mind all damn day. He thought he had it all figured out: women, his cock, all of it. But this had nothing to do with what he knew. All of this shit came from a place he’d never visited

before. He had really screwed up. She opened the door after two circumspect knocks. He felt like shit when she looked up at him with those brown eyes of hers. She wore long blue-and-white cloud pajama pants that covered her feet and hung low on her waist, low enough to show a hint of her hip and the sweet angle of her pelvis. What the hell was she thinking answering a door dressed like that? And she wore a cut-off tank and no bra. Her nipples bloomed under the thin fabric as the cold wind pushed in on her. He was going to have to make this quick and then bounce. “Why are you here? When I called you said for me to leave you alone. So why are you here?” “I didn’t say that. I said I couldn’t talk to you.” “Same thing,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. Tears began to well in her eyes. Eric sighed. “Harper, let me in. We have to talk.” She nodded, the stepped aside. Something was wrong. His fucking legs didn’t move. He wasn’t sure why, but he couldn’t move a muscle. She affected him more than he realized. And even more after the night they shared. Flashes of her body under his, over his, the feel of her, inside and out. All of it hit him all at once. After he had dick-numbing sex, he lay there next to her stunned. She curled up against him and slept peacefully and he wanted to get all Samurai and fall on his sword. Then she rolled over in the moonlight that spilled over the bed from the window. He got a good long look at her. Damn, if she wasn’t the most beautiful creature. He lay next to her afterward, just staring down at her, thinking that if he was just five years younger and she was five years older, he’d consider wifeing her. Putting her up in a place where he could come home to her in nothing but an apron. Craziest shit to ever cross his mind. “Are you going to come in or what?” Harper frowned. “Yeah, sorry,” Eric said softly. He stepped inside. He held his helmet in his hand and looked around. Her place was all Harper. Colorful, feminine, it even smelled pretty. “Want something to drink?” “I won’t be staying long.” He walked over to the sofa and sat down. Harper came and sat next to him. He was going to try hard to find the right thing to say. But he wasn’t a man of words. So the best he could hope for was getting the point across. “What happened last night shouldn’t have, sweetheart.” “Why? Was it that bad for you?” “What?” Harper rubbed her arm. She cast her eyes down and away. “Was it that bad between us? Is that why you can’t even look at me?” “No. Harper, it had nothing to do with sex. I mean yes, the sex was good. Really good, but that’s not it.”

“So you hate me? For Liam finding out? For the way he hit you?” “No, I love you. I do, but not the way you should be loved. I love you like a brother.” The moment he said it he knew it was a lie. An awareness switched on in him, like cold water to his face. But he set it aside. Whatever made him even consider falling in love had to be some residual effect over Liam’s resurrection. Fucking universe was off kilter. Everything normal was all fucked up. Harper shook her head. “I’m sorry for what I did. How I did it, I mean. I don’t normally throw myself at boy—um, men. I just didn’t know what else to do to make you see me. Now…now you can barely look at me, and Liam probably can’t either. Even Kennedy doesn’t believe me when I say I love you. I guess no one does.” “It’s me, Harper. I’m too old for you. We don’t work, sweetheart. We’re family.” Harper sat forward. She put her face in her hands and began to cry. Eric could feel the air drain from the room. He wanted to run for the door. Tears? He had no idea what to do with a crying woman. A woman he cared for, crying over him, was as strange as bin Laden walking into his office and surrendering. He never stayed with a woman long enough to let it get that far. That’s why he liked to fuck his enemy; he’d have less stress right now if he’d fucked Alexa to get a nut and possibly throw her off Liam’s cock. Harper continued to cry. Eric wanted to touch her and comfort her but he feared that, too. He didn’t know where the lines were. Boundaries, man. “Fine, fine. I get it.” She sniffled, sat back wiping at her eyes. “I’m too young to be in love. You don’t want to be with someone my age. Whatever. You said what you had to say.Just go.” She stood. Before he could rethink it he grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. He brought her to his lap. “I’m a coward. I can’t think of any way to make this work with you without hurting you and other people in the process.” “Liam?” “Yes. He loves you and he wants to protect you.”‘ “I don’t need his protection. He’s been gone for five years. He can’t show up and try to control me. I have a father.” “You have a father who lost another daughter at your age. Do you want to put your dad through that again? Everybody is excited about you going to college. You got the world in front of you. Trust me, sweetheart, this isn’t love. Next year you won’t glance my way, and it’ll be my heart that’s breaking.” Harper looked away. “I don’t want to hurt my dad. But I’m not a kid. I’m eighteen. Sixty-three days from being nineteen, and I know what I feel. I love you Eric. I always have. You don’t have to believe me. I’m sure I’ll get over it. Just don’t tell me I don’t know what I feel.” “I would never tell you that.” Eric said. He felt a surge of belonging when she said she loved him. In his life, only two women had ever said those words to him and meant it: his grandmother, and a drunken whore in Korea.

Harper stared into his face. She touched his jaw, then his bottom lip and he winced. Even now his busted lip stung. “Does it hurt?” she asked. “No.” “Liam went crazy. I told Kennedy but she acted like she didn’t believe me. What’s wrong with him?” “He’ll be fine. We’ll get him some help.” Harper kept stroking his jaw. He wished she would stop, but he made no move to stop her. She sat on his lap and stroked his jaw and the beast inside him clawed to stroke her back. She had him on edge again. “We cool?” he asked, trying to will his cock not to rise. She leaned in and kissed him. It was so natural he didn’t object at first. He just drew her tongue in and savored the taste of her. But his cock did rise and so did his sensibility. He pushed her back gently. “That’s it. it has to stop. Okay?” “Last night, when you made love to me, it was more than sex. I felt it, Eric. You can tell Liam and Kennedy whatever you want to deny what we shared. You can sit here and say you don’t feel anything but brotherly love for me. But I felt it. If you want to give up on this because it makes you uncomfortable or you’re ashamed, then fine. I understand. It’s not my loss. It’s yours.” She rose from his lap and wiped her tears from her cheeks. “There are plenty of men who find me beautiful, that want to be with me. Men that don’t know Liam and don’t care that I’m eighteen.” “Harper, chill out okay.” “I’ll give one of them a call tonight. Get dressed real pretty for him and—” “Stop it, damn it!” he snapped. “Get out. And don’t come around here anymore.” She walked away. Eric groaned deep in his throat. He reached for his helmet and started to rise. He told himself she deserved better, that it was wrong, and he knew it was true. But the idea of her being with someone else made him hot with anger. “Fuck!” Harper sat on her bed and the tears came. She wanted to hate him, but she decided not to. He never asked for her to come on to him. She felt like a fool. Throwing her self at him was so pathetically low. And he’d been right. What would her father think? She knew her mother would probably drop in a faint, or worse blame Liam and Kennedy. But her dad’s feelings meant the most to her. He was so depressed and upset after Kennedy ran away. And then the fights between her parents when Kennedy married Liam forever changed them. No matter what her father did to get her mother’s forgiveness, she punished him. Mama became mean, distrustful and withdrawn from her and daddy both. Harper wondered if Mama loved Kennedy more than she loved them. She certainly acted like it. They pretended when Kennedy and Liam did visit that they were okay, but they weren’t.

Things were different. Still, she saw how Liam loved Kennedy. And how happy she was. There was nothing wrong with them in Harper’s eyes. And before them she had her parents’ love. Her father was ten years older than her mother. Her mother married young. Why would it be different for her? Because it just is. She couldn’t do that to her daddy again. Her bedroom door opened. Surprised, she lifted her head. Eric came inside the room. She rose from the mattress, annoyed. “I told you to leave. I won’t bother you anymore. So don’t give me any more lectures.” Eric marched over to her and took her face into his hands. To Harper’s surprise, he kissed her. She shivered as his tongue explored the deep recesses of her mouth. And as sweetly as the kiss began it ended, filling her with a sigh of contentment. “Let me work through this. I….” Eric shook his head. He held her face and she saw the battle raging in his dark brown eyes. “I don’t know what to do with the feelings I have for you.” Harper nodded. “Me, either.” *** Liam turned over. After their shower they changed the sheets and made another comfortable spot to sleep. Soon he’d have to let her go back to her life and find a way to belong there as well. He was determined to try. No more jealousy, no more doubts. Even the nightmares when he closed his eyes had eased. But like an approaching storm cloud, he feared their return. He was going to get into therapy and figure his shit out. Including his guilt over what happened to his baby sister. With Kennedy anything was possible. She turned over, smiling. “Go to sleep,” she said without opening her eyes. Somehow, she knew he was lying there awake. He drew the covers over her and kissed her nose. She snuggled up against his chest, and he threw his leg over her thigh so his cock could rest at the apex of her sex. Closing his eyes, he didn’t fear sleep. For the first time in five years, he didn’t fear anything.

Chapter Twenty-one Pulling down her wool sweater, Kennedy turned toward the bed and ran the zipper up to the front of her jeans. Liam sat there, barely covered by the sheet. His arm rested on his raised knee and his forehead rested in his palm. He didn’t look happy. In fact, she knew that look. He was pouting. Again. “Why are you so quiet, Liam?” she asked. “I don’t understand why you can’t just pick up Mac and bring her back. We can have Christmas here. I can get more furniture, if that’s what—” “No you don’t, mister.” Kennedy pointed a finger at him. “I’m decorating our house. The bed is perfect, but leave the rest to me, okay? We’ll furnish this place after Christmas like we discussed. I’ve got two days to get Mac’s party ready and all the gifts wrapped. Besides, I told you mama and daddy are over there. This is a celebration. Our first Christmas with my soldier boy home.” “Yeah, whatever.” “Liam. We talked about this. We agreed.” “You talked and I agreed.” “Fine, get dressed. Come with me. Mama and daddy haven’t seen you. Mac is definitely missing you. Come on. I don’t want to leave you either.” “Phil’s there.” He frowned. “I think I better hang back.” Kennedy sighed. She looked around for her boots. “Well, I expect to see you tonight. I’ll come back if you want me to, but it might be late. I have so much to do.” “I’m sorry, Kay. Not trying to be a pain in your ass.” Kennedy laughed, pulling up one boot, then the other. “Sure you’re not.” “I’m not comfortable over there at his house. But I know it’s what we agreed is best for Mac. I’ll be there tomorrow. Christmas Eve. And I’ll be there Christmas. Then… well, I expect you and Mac to spend more time here with me, in our house.” “Of course.” She walked around the bed and leaned in to give him a kiss. She miscalculated his reach. He grabbed her and flipped her to her back. Pinning her down with her hands above her head, Liam gave her that hungry, lustful, look that meant her jeans and panties would be at her ankles soon. He lowered his face to run his lips along her neck. His hands went under her sweater. “Stop it! Liam! I’m serious. Stop.” “Let me get a little more,” he groaned. “Just a little more and I’ll let you go.” “No!” She bucked beneath him. “Your daughter needs me. I have to leave.” Liam sighed and let her rise. He was such a baby. What was he afraid of? They were back, and stronger than ever. She didn’t say it, but she felt it. He should, too. “You need a phone Liam. Take mine.” She turned in search of her purse.

“I don’t want your phone. We got one here.” “Take it. I’m serious, I want to be able to reach you. I still don’t have the number to the phone here. I’ll have the line switched over to our own number.” “No. I’ll get a mobile today,” Liam said, ignoring the phone. “I’ll call you later with the number. I promise.” Kennedy stared at him for another moment. Did he think everything she had belonged to Phil? She wanted to smack him for being so bullheaded. Instead, she decided to ignore his pouting. “I want you to take my phone. This way you can call me if you need to. Here.” He accepted the phone. “What are you going to do today?” “I want to see Ant and Eric. Anthony’s leaving soon. I think Eric is too. I just want to talk to them both. Then I’m going to meet that doctor.” “Really?” Kennedy smiled. Liam avoided her eyes when he nodded. She wanted to hug him and baby him but she thought better of it. The fact he was going was enough. “Call me as soon as you get back home. Promise me.” “I will, Kay. Go ahead. Leave now or I might not let you.” She blew two, three, four kisses at him and hurried out with her purse and her coat in her hand. Kennedy knew what it was to be happy. She’d forgotten how much she truly enjoyed this feeling. Liam dressed. The place felt empty and cold without Kennedy. He tried not to focus on the separation anxiety twisting in his gut. He’d be fine. They were fine. I’m fine. The feeling of doom was just his head once again fucking with him. So he grabbed his cane and keys and left. He needed to buy Mac her puppy for Christmas. Kennedy had vetoed the idea but it was the first promise he made to his little girl. He wouldn’t go back on it. Besides, it was a hell of a lot better than some damn goldfish. Liam got in his car and drove to Eric’s place, which wasn’t far. He was relieved to see Eric’s motorcycle parked out front—and no other vehicles. The car door creaked open, as rusty as his limbs felt that frigid morning. Liam crossed the icy lawn carefully. Eric, on the phone, answered his knock and signaled for him to come inside. Liam did so, closing the door. He walked into the kitchen, avoiding the living room where he and Eric had fought just a day earlier. “I called you, brother, but you didn’t answer at the house,” Eric said. “I left. I got Kay’s cell phone. She insisted. What’s going on?” “Fuck, nothing.” Eric sighed. “That’s the problem. Had hoped to hear from the vice president’s office by now. Good news is that my orders have been pulled. Alexa can’t get rid of me just yet.” Eric winked. That was good news. Liam smiled. He decided to sit. Well, his body decided for

him. He felt like shit. As much as he loved his sweet Kay, a night of making love to her had put strain on muscles he hadn’t used in quite some time. He was exhausted, and his body didn’t recover like it used to. Maybe he’d see if the VA hospital could sign him up for physical therapy. Of course, he’d been given the option when he was released, but he’d been too anxious to find his family to focus on therapy then. “What’s up with you, brother?” Eric asked. Liam’s eyes lifted to his friend. Back in the day Eric and Liam had worked off instinct. Most missions required silence, control, discipline; of the men in their company, he and Eric in particular had formed the ability to read each other, even in the dark. It was a weird brotherhood shared by many soldiers. Liam thought it would have diminished during the years apart. But looking into Eric’s eyes, he had to smile. Whatever magic it was, the chemistry between them remained. “Just working up the nerve to go see that doctor. Need you to remind me it’s the best thing. I mean the right thing.” “I get what you mean. I don’t have to tell you how bad PTSD is. We’ve seen it firsthand.” He cleared his throat. “You having night terrors?” “Every night she isn’t with me.” Liam heaved a sigh. “When I got her with me, man, in my arms, right there next to me, I’m fine. She’s what I need. Just her. Not no fucking head doctor.” “You can’t use Kennedy that way, Liam. You know that.” “Loving her isn’t using her,” he mumbled. “It is if you don’t get better and have a psychotic break on her. Want me to say what could happen to Kennedy and Mac—” “No. No. I get it. Fuck, I almost hurt her once already.” “What happened?” “I was having another black moment.” Liam sighed. “Explain.” “Sometimes, things get to be too much. Go dark. Not like I pass out or anything, just dark like it was in that shithole. Back in the desert, I had no sense of time and space, just darkness mostly. I was always thinking they were coming for me, to torture me so I was always….” He heaved a deep breath. “I was always trying to fight. Even tied up I fought, and it did no good. It’s like I was already dead and didn’t know it. I can’t explain it. So I had another one of those moments, when I’m not asleep but I’m fucked up, caught up in some darkness. Kay was in the room with me. She touched me and I grabbed her. Scared the shit out of me, Eric. I saw the way she looked at me. How terrified she was in that instant. I know I have to go. I just…I hate that she knows I need a head doctor. That I’m not whole man, not her husband.” “Is that how it went down at Fun World?” “Yes and no. I saw someone, I thought I did, but things got tough and I kind of lost it. Slipped into that state of mind. I came out of it and I’m not in the arcade anymore. I’m

in some office, where I’ve wrecked the place. How Vasquez was able to contain me and keep the incident on the low, I’ll never know.” “You know how he did. We all know how to control a brother when he’s out of his head.” “This was different.” “You went through some major shit. You have to get some help.” There was more to his hesitation. Admitting weakness was one thing. But turning over his future, his sanity, to another could be risky. What if the doctor uncovered the truth? It wasn’t just night terrors. There was rage. Cold and dark and it lived in him. He liked the anger, because it was the only way he held on to his sanity. If he was angry, he was fighting. He could have hurt Kennedy. He attacked Eric with his cane and he still didn’t remember how it began or how he’d stopped. What if the doctor wanted to put him away? He couldn’t take that again. He’d die first before he allowed anyone to lock him up. “Talk to me, man.” Liam shrugged. “Guess I have no choice. How’s your face? You look like shit.” Eric sighed. “I’ll live. Let me call Ant. See if he can swing by. We can share a beer and toast to the new year coming. Sure as hell has to be better than this. You cool?” “Yeah, I—” Liam felt Kennedy’s phone vibrate in his pocket. He had forgotten he carried it. Strange, because she’d called him twice already just to make sure he was still out there. He tugged it out of his pocket. Eric winked and walked out of the kitchen to give him privacy. The caller ID number wasn’t familiar. He answered anyway. “Hello?” “Um, where is Kennedy? I need to talk to her.” “Who is this?” Liam growled, as if he had to ask. “It’s Phil. I want to speak to Kennedy.” Liam smirked. “No.” “Damn it, I’m in no mood for this shit—” Liam ended the call and dropped the phone on the table. Eric returned with two beers, handing him one and popping the cap off the one in his hand. “Who was that?” “Wrong number.” Liam shrugged. *** “Hi, daddy. Hear from mama yet?” Kennedy asked. She dumped the laundry into the bin. There were a few shirts that belonged to Phil. She decided to wash the entire load; she’d fold Phil’s clothes and give them to him when she saw him on Christmas day.

Maybe she should call and make sure he was coming for Christmas Eve. She felt bad about him spending the holiday alone. When her father didn’t answer she, looked up. Andrew just stood there with a wide grin. Kennedy shook her head. Her father was such a softy. She knew he was happy for her. She could see it all over his face. “Your mom’s still out spending my money,” said Andrew. Kennedy flashed a smile. When she’d arrived, Phil and Gail were both gone. She had a ton of clean up to do. First she called Liam to make sure he was okay. Then she called Liam to make sure he had the house number memorized. After feeling less guilt over leaving him, she focused on cleaning. Despite all the takeout she saw stuffed into the fridge, every dish in the house was in the sink. And Mac was whiny and complaining from the moment she walked through the door. She bartered peace with a new coloring book she’d intended to give her for Christmas. “I wish mom would have waited. We could have done our shopping together,” she said as she measured the detergent. “How’s Liam? Why isn’t he with you?” “Liam’s doing great. But he’s, well, he had some things to do today.” Kennedy shrugged. “How’s he dealing with you and Phil?” Kennedy closed the washer and cranked the dial for a medium cycle. “What do you mean?”‘ “Kennedy. How are you and Liam dealing with Phil? With all of this?” Andrew came closer. She turned, and smiling at the hug he offered, squeezed her daddy tightly. “He’s trying to adjust. We’re working it out. I’m just so glad he’s alive.” Andrew released her. He touched her face gently. “I spoke with Phil. Sounds like he’s going to do the right thing and step aside. Is that what you want?”‘ “Do you even have to ask, daddy? This is Liam. He’s home, and all mine.” Kennedy grinned. She broke from him. “I still feel like this is a dream.” “It is a bit surreal. We should never have doubted you. You said he wasn’t dead.” “It was hard to believe he’s been out there all this time and unable to come back to me. We all dealt with it the best we could. So you spoke to Phil? What did he say?” “He loves you, he loves Mac, and he’ll be there for you.” “And mama? God, I can just imagine what she must have said to Phil.” Kennedy began to separate the colors out for the next load. It would be a Christmas miracle if her mom and Liam could become friendly. “I’ve spoken to your mother. She knows we’re here to support you and Liam. She plans to do just that. She wanted to get him something for Christmas, too.” Andrew smiled. A cool wave of relief went through Kennedy. “Thank God! This is going to be a great Christmas, isn’t it daddy?” “Absolutely it is, sweetheart.”

*** The veteran’s hospital wasn’t as scary as he’d thought. Liam wasn’t sure what to expect. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the clean lobby he waited in. No men in white suits carrying away GI’s in straitjackets. No nurses with long needles for sedation. When his name was called, he was led away by a young woman in service dress. She deposited him in an office, asked if he wanted coffee, and told him the doctor would be in soon. Liam scanned the degrees and awards bestowed on Dr. Abrams. The man had indeed seen combat. Looked like he went into psychiatry after his tour of duty. “Mr. Flanagan?” Liam tried to rise. However, his awkward stance put pressure on the wrong leg and he dropped back down in the chair. “Please don’t get up,” the doctor said. He extended his hand. “I’m Dr. Abrams.” The doctor stood a foot shorter than him, and at least thirty years his senior. He had silver-white hair, glasses, and an almost scholarly face. He didn’t look threatening, but Liam knew well how appearances could be deceiving. “Hi,” Liam said, a bit embarrassed at his failure to rise until the doctor walked around to his desk with a similar limp. One Liam couldn’t help but notice. “So I’ve heard great things about you, Lieutenant. War hero, huh? President pin a medal on you yet?” “I’m no hero, sir. Though I’m told he wants to meet with me soon.” Liam could deal with his baby girl thinking of him as a hero. But the idea of wearing the hero label amongst men who survived just as much horror as he did didn’t sit well. “How long has it been?” Liam sighed. “Three months, six days, forty-eight hours.” The doctor smiled. “You do know there will never be a day that you don’t know the minute and hour it all ended?” Liam nodded. “I just want a day to come when I don’t have to feel like I’m still… still there.” “Well, those days come after some hard work. I don’t have to tell you that we will need to start out aggressively. The moment they pulled you out, you should have been in treatment.” “I know, sir.” Dr. Abrams managed a smile. Liam imagined he wasn’t a man who smiled often. “Let’s begin with a physical. Then we can get acquainted.” ***

“Grandma!” Mackenzie squealed. The door to the front of the house closed. Kennedy turned to see her daughter run from the kitchen. But her father was quick. He caught her and raised a giggling Mackenzie over his head and carried her off. Kennedy winked her thanks and went to meet her mother, certain she would have a load of Christmas gifts. She was right. Gail struggled with three large shopping bags, and Kennedy could see the doll toys at the top. “Need some help, mama?” “Hi, sweetie. Where is Mac? I need to get these up to the room.” “Daddy has her.” Kennedy accepted the bags from her mother. Together they quickly darted up the stairs. Behind a closed door she dropped the load of toys on the bed. “This is a lot, ma. She has so much stuff from me and Phil already.” “Nonsense. It’s her birthday and Christmas so she gets double gifts.” Kennedy clapped her hands together. “Well, we need to start wrapping. Maybe tonight we can get everything under the tree.” “And the party? Is everything ready?” “Yep, still trying to work the clown entertainment out. A Christmas clown is a tall order. The company Angelina gave me may be able to deliver. We’ll see.” In the mix of toys was a board game that looked vaguely familiar. Kennedy picked up the Strawberry Shortcake box. “Mama, Mac already has this one. And this one too. I hope you kept the receipt.” “Oh, darn. I was afraid of that. I shouldn’t buy board games. It’s hard for the baby to play them without any siblings. Bet she asks you for a little brother or sister all the time.” Gail smiled. Kennedy smiled. “Not really. Mac loves being the center of attention. Don’t worry about the game, mom; I donate gifts to First Baptist every year. I think a couple of these should go. If that’s okay with you?” When Gail didn’t speak Kennedy looked over her shoulder. Her mom was just staring at her. “You okay?” “How are you, sweetheart? Are you really okay?” Kennedy stepped away from the bed. She wanted to hug her mother. Her heart overflowed with happiness. But somehow it felt awkward between them. So she put her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. “I have to be honest, mom. I’m happier than I have been in five years. I don’t know how to explain it, but Liam’s back and it’s so good between us. I’m just happy.” “That’s wonderful. It’s just that…oh, never mind.” “What is it? Say it.” Gail looked up and Kennedy was surprised to see tears there. Her mother blinked them away and smiled. “I love you so much, Kennedy. I just don’t know how to protect

you.” “Protect me? Mama, why would you—” “This has to be hard, right? I mean Liam walked into this life you built with Phil. That had to be shocking for all three of you. Maybe even confusing. And I think of Mac and how confused she is. She’s just a baby. She needs stability.” Gail approached and touched Kennedy’s hand. “You are always so strong-willed and determined. Sweetheart, you charge right ahead without thinking things through. Things are different now. You’ve changed, Kennedy. I was there, remember? I saw when you tried to pick up your life after you thought he died. I saw how badly scarred you were. And eventually you moved on and became so independent. I’m your mother, honey; you can talk to me about anything. Even the doubts you must have concerning all of this.” She squeezed her mother’s hand, trying to be tolerant of her concern. Kennedy knew it wouldn’t be easy for her mother to accept the new reality. But she didn’t think Gail would miss it entirely. How could her father be so in touch with who she was and how she felt, and her mother remain oblivious? “I didn’t want to hurt Phil, mama. That was never my intention. But this isn’t as hard as you might think. Liam is my life, and I don’t doubt or regret anything except the five years it took for us to find each other.” Kennedy pulled her mother into a hug. Gail stiffened at first but Kennedy felt her loosen up once she was securely in her embrace. She kissed her mother’s cheek. “Liam will be here tomorrow for Christmas Eve. I want us to celebrate. This is our time and it would mean so much to him if you could be a part of our happiness. Let’s get over the past. Okay?” When she released Gail, she noticed a weak smile form across her mother’s blushpink lips. It hurt she couldn’t even pretend to be happy for their reunion. Her mother was a kind woman underneath all that bitter stubbornness. Kennedy had learned a lot about being a good wife and mom from her. So she chose to take the high road and ignore it. “Now, let’s wrap some presents before that little four-year-old charges in here.” “Where’s Harper? Have you spoken to her today?” Gail wiped at loose tears. “No, call her. Tell her to get her butt over here. We got some cooking to do as well.” *** “While we wait on your test results, I have some questions for you, Lieutenant.” He and Dr. Abrams were now in another room, different than the office, and a lot less clinical than the exam rooms. Liam felt at ease in an open atrium. He sat on a spacious Lshaped sectional sofa. By the bulletin boards, tables, and chairs, and the ceiling-mounted TVs, he imagined group meetings or events took place in this area. Many windows faced the street so natural light flowed in. “Go ahead,” Liam said, anxious to get through the session and back to Kennedy.

“Since your return, have you been alienating yourself from others to avoid stressful situations?” The question was direct and to the point, but Liam couldn’t think of a direct answer. He wasn’t exactly the one alienating himself. The situation alienated him. How could he continue to walk into the house of the man who’d stolen his wife and his kid? How could he be around the family and see Harper after what he’d done to Eric? How could he watch his baby girl run between two daddies and pretend it didn’t piss him off? “A yes or no will suffice,” The doctor said, with a steady gaze just over the rim of his glasses. “Yes,” Liam admitted. “And the panic attacks? In social situations that are extremely stressful and you can’t escape, how often do you find yourself confrontational and/or violent?” “Two, maybe three times I’ve lost it.” Liam shifted in his seat knowing, it had been considerably more. The doctor didn’t react, which only made the tension churn in his gut, then rise to a twisting ball of regret in Liam’s throat. This is where it all goes to hell, and the doctor sends in the men with white coats. “Do you find yourself hiding your feelings of anxiety and fear by smiling and laughing to make others think you’re okay?” Liam nodded his answer. “Do you struggle to fall asleep, and stay asleep?” Liam sighed. “Yes.” “Are you reliving the trauma in dreams and flashbacks…as vividly as you did when you were being held captive?” “Fuck this!” Liam snapped. “I know what PTSD is. Yes, I have it. I’m not going to waste my time with multiple-choice questions just to say I’m fucking crazy. I’ve let you poke and prod me. I’ve told you about what they did—every fucking thing they did. I went through this shit for a month with the army, navy, whoever the fuck is in charge now. I know you have all of this in my file. Give me a fucking pill or something and send me on my way!” The doctor just stared at him. Liam hadn’t realized he was shouting until he felt the burn in his throat. The look the doctor gave him wasn’t of pity or shock. He thought he saw a glimmer of understanding behind the man’s clinical mask. “Is that what you want, Liam? Drugs?” “I want to get on with my fucking life. If a pill will do it, then fine, I’ll take it. I just want the dreams to stop.” “Because they’re not really dreams, are they? You can’t tell the difference anymore.” “I’ve thought at times I’ve seen someone, felt like I’m being watched.”

“Are you?” Liam didn’t know how to answer. He was certain that Alex had teams on him, and whoever she truly served was probably tailing him as well. But the scene in the arcade haunted him. It still felt so real. “Are you afraid you might hurt your wife and your daughter?” “Of course I’m afraid. They’re all I have. If I lose either one of them I won’t make it. I won’t even try to make it.” The doctor closed his leather binder and Liam felt the muscles in his chest relax. He realized it was the scrutiny that had pushed his buttons. He wasn’t a man who talked about his feelings. He told Kennedy what he thought she could handle, but even she didn’t know all of it. “You’re right. Enough of the twenty questions. You want to get down to it, let’s. Here’s the deal between you and me. You want to reach a whole place, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I can help you express what you’re really feeling and not what you think people want to hear from you. Together we’ll confront those nightmares that happen when you’re awake, and maybe uncover the reason behind the ones that started long before you enlisted.” Liam’s gaze flipped up. Liam hadn’t mentioned his mother or sister and the doctor hadn’t asked. “It’s my job to help you start planning for a future with your wife that isn’t led by fear and anxiety. Do you know why I can help?”‘ “Because they pay you well?” Liam said dryly. Dr. Abrams chuckled. He sat back. “No. Because after Hanoi I was you, man.” Abrams reached down and tugged at his left pant leg, then knocked his knuckles on what was now, obviously, a prosthetic. It sounded hollow. I carry the same load, Lieutenant. That makes us brothers. A brother never leaves another down.” Liam nodded. He felt a deeper connection with the doctor. Not just from their shared experiences, but from his fatherly nature. There were times in his life Liam had wanted a father figure. Remembered men he’d known as a kid in that role. He got that feeling from his father in-law and now from Dr. Abrams. “Okay, I’m ready.” The doctor nodded. “Now, I’ll prescribe something mild to address the panic attacks. It’ll make you sleepy and it’ll affect your libido.” “Affect it how?” The doctor’s bushy brow lifted. “It can cause temporary impotence. But only if you—” “No thanks. I’ll do the therapy, but I don’t want any drugs like that. What kind of therapy will it be?” “Well, I’ve already enrolled you into a physical therapy program to work on strengthening the muscles around your knee. I suggest you stay on the cane, don’t go often without it.”

“Don’t have much of a choice.” “Then we’ll begin with cognitive therapy.” “What’s that?” “It’s a better way for you to understand and change how you think about your past trauma. The goal is for you to recognize certain thoughts that trigger stress for you. It’ll be simple, soldier. You’ll identify each stressor based on several exercises I put you through. Then you’ll take what we work on into your day-to-day life and ultimately teach yourself again how to cope. That’s the disconnect you, know? Back in that prison they put you in, you had to learn to cope to survive. Consider it the most important training you’ve undergone in your military life. That’s what’s going to get you through the next part.” Liam had to admit the doctor was right. And he was ready. He gave a simple nod to acknowledge his compliance. “Good. Now you’re in a different world. Five years have gone by without you, friends have moved on, your wife has changed, and you’re a father. Here, in the world you live in today, you’ll have to learn how to cope again. Sometimes those lines get blurred and people we love get the worst of it. But we can define new boundaries for you and regain control.” The whole thing sounded like a genie in a bottle. He wasn’t sure if learning to cope would be enough to make the dreams go away. But if Kennedy’s love had already helped him find peace, he guessed it was possible. “Okay. I’m ready.” The doctor hesitated as if he wanted to say more. Then the moment passed. He gave a curt nod. “Fine, I need to see you the day after Christmas. Can you make it through the next two days?” Liam chewed on his bottom lip. He laughed. “Don’t have much of a choice.” *** The knife sliced cleanly through the third of six yellow onions she would have to dice. Her had eyes started tearing after the second. Now her nose was running. Kennedy kept dicing, mincing, letting her gaze drift to her sister, then back to the cutting board. The kitchen buzzed as it always did on the eve of a holiday. Her mother prepped the glaze for the ham, and seasoning for the turkey. Kennedy’s job was the mixture of onions, celery, and cranberries for the stuffing. And Harper was working on sweet potato and apple pies. “You’re mighty quiet,” Kennedy said to Harper. Her sister forced a smile, but kept shaving the lumpy sweet potato in her hand. Since she’d arrived, she said barely six words total. At first Kennedy was too caught up in her own budding excitement and mothering of Mackenzie to notice. Now the silence was almost deafening. “What’s going on with you?” Gail asked, coming between the girls to the sink. She stared at Harper as well.

“Nothing. Gosh, why the third degree?” Harper moaned. Gail looked to Kennedy, who shrugged. The phone rang. She reached for it before her mother could. Gail smirked and walked off. “Hello?” “Hi, you,” Liam said. “Hi, you.” Kennedy grinned. She felt her mother’s eyes on her. She walked out of the kitchen. She could hear Mackenzie singing for her grandfather as they watched one of her DVDs. “How was it?” “It was good. I want to talk to you about it. What time you coming back over to our place?” “Can’t you come here, Liam? Mac was asking about you and—” “No. I’ll be there tomorrow first thing. I just…I don’t know. I can do it tomorrow but not today. Is that okay?” Kennedy tried to mask her disappointment. “Well, I have to cook, and I don’t want to leave here until Mac is in bed. I won’t get to you until after nine, probably.” “I’m a patent man. Just come when you can.” “You will come here tomorrow, you promise? It’s Christmas Eve.” “I promise.” She thought she heard more than a smile in his voice. The first day of therapy was a success. That was a good sign if he’d ended therapy on a good note. She felt a surge of hope. “Love you.” “Love you too, babe. I’ll cook us dinner, so don’t eat,” he warned. “You bet.” Kennedy returned to the kitchen. She found her mother fussing with her sister about how much vanilla she used in the pie mix. She smiled, remembering the days when they were little girls and her mother made them helpers in the kitchen. “You two need to get along.” The phone rang in her hand. Kennedy answered again. “Hello?” “Hi, Kennedy, it’s Sally.” “Oh, hi! How are you?” “Great! How’s my grandbaby?” “She’s anxious about her party. You said you would be here for Christmas.” “I plan to be.” “Good.” “I got a surprise for Liam. Is he there?” “No. Well, he has a house for us now. So he’s there or on his way there. But I don’t know the number there. Wait, he has my phone and you can call—”

“No. Can I have the address instead?” “What are you up to, Sally?” Kennedy listened to her mother in-law’s surprise. She had totally forgotten what Sally had for Liam. She knew he would be overjoyed. “That’s so perfect. Why don’t you wait until Christmas morning to give it to him?” “I want to apologize to him. When we saw each other last I said some things I shouldn’t have.” Kennedy slipped back out of the kitchen. “You telling him about the adoption.” “I’m sorry, Kennedy. I wanted to apologize to you about that. I just—I don’t know —I wanted him with me. I felt like he wasn’t and I hurt you both and I’m sorry. It’s why I left. I figured this would be the perfect peace offering.” “He’s going to love it. Let me tell you the address.” *** He’d managed to accomplish a lot in a single day. More importantly, he settled on the perfect Christmas gift for Kennedy. Content, he drove with it securely tucked in his pocket. His mind was filled with the possibilities of a life as just a husband and father. From the moment he’d joined up, those things had, of necessity, become secondary. Though Kennedy was always front and center in his heart, his call of duty had changed perspective on life and death. Then, despite his wandering thoughts, he felt the prickle at the back of his neck. A car shot through the red light behind him, keeping pace with him. He hadn’t noticed it before. It wasn’t a Chrysler. A black car, possibly a Taurus, definitely shadowed him. When he eased up on the accelerator. it fell two cars back. Liam turned off on the next road and waited for the car to follow. It did. He wasn’t imagining this, dammit, and he wasn’t paranoid. He had a shadow. Alex’s reach, possibly. He knew that they kept a car on Kennedy and Mac wherever they went. But his instincts said that someone on Alex’s team would never be so clumsy. He’d done hundreds of missions where he was never seen. These were amateurs. “It’s time to end this shit.” He smacked his hand over the steering wheel. He considered calling Eric, then decided against it. Doubt seeped in as he made the next turn and so did the Taurus. The doctor said his perception of everything would be skewed. He’d see danger and threats behind every unknown face or circumstance. Was this what PTSD meant? Did it blend your nightmare into your reality? He wasn’t sure of himself anymore. Fuck this. Liam slammed on the brake and the sedan barely missed a collision, swerving into the left lane. Liam immediately sped after the car and gave chase, dodging one car and then the next, in and out of lanes. He blinked sweat from his eyes, ignoring the pressure pounding at the back of his skull. His hands felt clammy and slippery on the wheel. The car became a blur, then his only focus, as everything around him began to fade out. He

passed on the right, but was unable to see the driver. The vehicle sped by too fast. But he sensed there was more than one person in the Taurus. He’d have to engage them both. Everything in his core said these people weren’t military. These men were on him for other reasons. The light ahead turned yellow as the Taurus shot through it. Liam floored it, weaving between cars on the two-lane local street. In his haste, he crossed the intersection too late and had to the cut the wheel hard left to avoid a T-bone collision with a minivan. The car was gone. He blinked through his awareness and saw the terrified mother and cargo of kids she was carrying. Shit I could have killed them all. He sucked down deep breaths and calmed himself. The van went through the light and he steered the rental back onto the road. Drivers passed him, gawking with curiosity at the idiot who’d barreled into an intersection against the light. Liam tried to remember why he’d been speeding. Everything around him started to flash as if the sun had become a strobe light. He put his hands to his eyes and grunted, trying to rein in control. “No! No! NO!” Dropping his head back with his eyes squeezed shut, tightly, he wheezed. His lungs felt weighted, empty, as if his rebreathing unit had malfunctioned underwater. “Nooo,” he moaned. He glanced to the rearview mirror and realized he was now the only one on the side street. “What happened? What did I do?” After several minutes of talking himself down, he felt control slowly slip back into his weary limbs. However, the drive home barely stabilized his madly beating heart. PTSD my ass! He was the best in his unit, and not from training alone. It was instinct. They were toying with him and he was playing right into their hands. The enemy wanted him to lose control. Until he knew who they were, he’d be careful. “Damn it. I’m not crazy. I’m not fucking crazy!” Liam said. There could be no denying the fact he was confused. That was the only hard truth he was able to accept. From birth, he’d been a survivor. But he didn’t know how to live in a world where he had to question his sanity. As Liam coasted closer to his new neighborhood he detected nothing out of the ordinary except the dangerous glide of black ice coating the streets. The weather was wreaking havoc on the roads. Even though the idea of her not being in his arms made his chest tight, he would call Kennedy and tell her not to travel back to their place. Until he knew what who the hell he was dealing with, he wouldn’t risk her on the roads without him. But what if you’re wrong? What if the danger is only in your head? Liam grimaced. A night without her would be a sleepless one. He needed her. Liam decided on a warm shower once he reached the house. He’d clear his head and think it all through. It would rejuvenate him enough to prepare dinner for Kennedy. When he turned down his street, his heart nearly went into arrest. He saw his mom in the

drive, grinning. She was in a heavy coat, standing next to his pride and joy, a Fathom Blue 1967 Pontiac GTO with a white racing stripe. It was fully restored by his hands; he and Vasquez did the paint job themselves. He’d just assumed it had been sold. Never imagined he’d see it again. Liam parked, grabbed his cane, threw open the door and was out of the car in a flash. “Mom?” “I kept it. After they said you were dead, Kennedy could barely get out of bed, and that Phil man was always around. I took it back to Chicago and I kept it. Your stepfather wasn’t ever allowed near it. I kept it for you, Liam. Even now I don’t know why. I think I did it because it made me feel close to you.” Liam had never felt Sally cared enough to protect him, his sister, or anything he cared about. To see his car, the first one he’d bought and fixed with his own hands, preserved this way rocked him to the core. Sally walked over to him. She hooked her arm through his and pulled him forward. “Go on, get inside. It’s real.” It was real. But Liam couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. For the first time since his little girl touched his face and called him daddy and Kennedy slept in his arms, he really felt alive again. Maybe the doctor was right about being whole again. Maybe it truly started and ended with him. *** Kennedy entered a still house. She had called Liam and told him she wouldn’t be able to have dinner with him. She actually heard him and Sally joking with each other in the background. He said he understood, and she hoped he did. More importantly, she hoped he and Sally were connecting. The more their family healed, the stronger she knew Liam would be. Then Liam shocked her and said she didn’t need to come. When she pressed him for reasons why, he said it was late and he didn’t want her on the roads. Well, to hell with that. Now that she had her guy she refused to spend a night without him right by her side. It was close to midnight when the Freeman house went down and she was able to slip away. Preparing for Christmas Eve dinner was a tradition. Dealing with her mother and sister filled up most of the night. Now she was tired, and smelled of onions and thyme. She desperately needed a shower and some snuggling. Kennedy found her new home unnaturally dark and the downstairs was downright chilly. She turned off the Christmas tree and turned up the heat a notch to make it cozy once more. When she climbed the stairs, she looked to Mac’s room first. Sally lay on the air mattress under a blanket, snoring with her mouth open. Kennedy closed the door. She crept into her room. Liam was awake. He sat up against the headboard drinking a beer and reading a pamphlet. She opened her mouth to speak and then saw movement. Kennedy looked down at a cage with a cute brown puppy inside. “Liam?” “Kay? I told you not to drive here tonight. Hell, if anything you could have called

and I would have come and got you. Why didn’t you call—” “You bought a puppy?” Liam blinked out of his rant and just looked at her. She shook her head. “I’m going to take a shower. We can talk about it later. Right now I’m sleepy.” “How’s the family?” “Asking to see you. That’s how,” she snipped. She grabbed her bag and walked out. How could he defy her wishes and buy a puppy after she’d asked him not too? Liam continued to overrule her without thought. She wasn’t going to put up with that. He would have to stop. She turned and cried out in shock. He’d sneaked up behind her, silent as the night, and stood there in the doorway staring at her. “You’re mad at me.” “I asked you not to buy a dog. Mackenzie is four.” “She’ll be five in another day.” “She’s too young to take care of a dog. I don’t have the energy to train a puppy.” “Who says you have to?” he asked. Kennedy sighed. “Damn, Kay, what was I supposed to do? I already told her I would and I wanted to give her something special. Make up for all the birthdays I missed. Cut me some slack.” The request was the final straw. She’d been cutting him slack since he’d stomped back into her life and demanded everything return to the exact way it was. But she couldn’t put up with his controlling ways, not like before. They were different now, she was different now, and his dismissive ways hurt. Kennedy turned and put her hands to her hips. “I want you to show me some respect, Liam. From now on we’re a team, and if I object to something, then so do you.” “That’s not how a team works?” He frowned. Kennedy thought on it for a moment. She smiled. “Well then, just do as I say. It’s my turn to be in charge.” Liam came inside the bathroom, closing the door. “Or what?” She crossed her arms. “Or no touchie-kissy for you.” “I can’t live without my touchie-kissy. Choose another punishment.” The smoldering look in his eyes made her weak. She wished he didn’t look at her that way when she was trying, however jokingly, to get a point across. He was so cute, though, and if he wanted to get a dog it was no big deal. “I been waiting to touch you all day,” he said, taking a step forward. She laughed, shrugged her shoulders and stared at him. She was going to tell him to back off so she could shower. She felt icky, and she desperately needed breathing room. Besides, she wanted to insert her diaphragm.

Liam stepped in closer. They were face to face. “I’m really tired, Liam. Let me shower and join you in bed, okay?” He covered her mouth with a slow-moving kiss while he cupped her left breast through her shirt. His thumb rolled over her nipple, drawing tightness through the cup of her bra. The sensation sent hot moisture between her thighs. Kennedy turned her face. She shoved him back. “Liam.” Liam reached over and snatched back the lemon yellow and blue butterfly shower curtain. He turned on the water and it sprayed the bottom of the tub. When he cast his eyes over to her, she knew there was no way to convince him that a shower alone was what she needed. Kennedy smiled and drew up her sweater, unhooked her bra, and started on the button to her jeans. All the while Liam’s gaze went from her nipples to her tummy, then to the removal of her thong panty. Kennedy felt her heart skip a beat when he released the drawstring ties to his pajama pants and his erection sprang free. He held back the shower curtain and she kicked her jeans and thong away from her ankles. As she stepped past him into the warming water, his hand cupped her left buttock. She had worries about a shower interlude with him. The bath wasn’t fit for sexual adventures of the kind she knew her solider boy would desire. This shower fit one person uncomfortably. The tub didn’t have a suction mat to keep him from slipping and his knee was in such bad shape, he couldn’t handle her like before. But she didn’t verbalize her concern and emasculate him. The water did soothe her. Its mild temperature cooled her feverish skin. She stood there exhaling for a minute. This was the first moment of relaxation she’d had all day. She was mommy, daughter, sister, and now wife again, but the latter came with some tender love and care. Kennedy cherished marital bliss, loved the shared feeling of belonging. And when his hands went over her backside she knew that every day would be filled with more passion than she could handle. She turned toward him, allowing the water to coast down her spine and run rivulets over the crease of her ass. “I’m going to take care of you, Kay,” he said in a husky yet gentle voice. He ran a bar of soap over her slick skin, circling one breast, then the other, before going down her tummy. Kennedy exhaled, causing her breasts to heave. The action nearly made Liam drop the bar of soap. He pulled her into him and kissed her again. She wrapped her arms around his neck, enjoying the flash and fury of his darting tongue. Liam rubbed the bar of soap over her backside and she bit his bottom lip as a warning. If he was going to go there then they would go all the way. The soap dropped. He turned her toward the shower wall, putting the rushing spray to his back. She placed her palms against the damp tiles. The steam of the shower engulfed them. When Liam stepped behind her she shuddered with anticipation. He moved in closer, slid one of his muscular thighs between hers and spread her legs. He was caressing her all over, and Kennedy loved the feel of his calloused strong hands on her body. One hand went to her breast and held it firmly while the other traveled down her mound. His finger rubbed gentle circles over her clit then went over her slit and dipped inside of her.

Moaning, she arched her back and thrust her backside against him. His cock pushed against her and he groaned deep in his throat. He grasped her hips and she dipped her back, knowing his intent. She felt herself stretch as he inched the rounded head of his dick inside of her. Liam plunged deep. He paused as if to catch his breath and she was grateful. She sucked in a breath of her own and moved back against him. “Kay, you feel so good,” he groaned. He withdrew then delivered another thrust that caused his balls to smack her clitoris and send a lovely spasm through her channel. She heard him grunt in pleasure. Kennedy licked her lips and moved the way he’d taught long ago to maximize his pleasure and make her body adjust for what was to follow. It worked. He began to pump his cock with one hand to her hip and the other squeezing her clit. Kennedy’s head fell forward to rest against the tiles. She felt her vagina contract and a warming sensation spread through her clenching butt cheeks, all the way to her distressed clit. He rolled his hips and she cried out, hoping Sally didn’t hear her. “Damn, Kay. I can’t hold it.” She couldn’t either. Her arms shook, her knees trembled; she feared they would both collapse under the powerful current of pleasure ripping through them. He leaned over her now, holding her by the waist. He ran his tongue over her back and shoulder blade. She felt the length of his shaft pulsing with his jerky thrusts, ready to explode. Kennedy summoned more strength and rocked back into him, driving him to the orgasm, and delaying hers to keep from going weak in his arms. It worked, thankfully. He bit hard into her shoulder and she whimpered then moaned as he filled her with his hot seed. Liam withdrew immediately. But Kennedy couldn’t move. He took the lead once more. He washed her, turning down the temperature to let the cool spray soothe the ache in her pussy. She lathered her hands and cleaned his shaft, making him erect again. She was pleased with his reaction. She wanted another round. However when they left the shower, barely dry, they were too exhausted to make it a reality. Together they collapsed on the bed, arms locked around each other. He held her closely to him, kissing her lips and forehead. She drifted to sleep. Soon Christmas would come and go and so would the rest of the world. Soon it would it be just her and Liam and Mackenzie. As it should be.

Chapter Twenty-two “Daddy? Daddy’s here! Daddy’s here, grandpa!” Mackenzie’s usually small voice boomed through the house. She put an iron grip on Liam’s hand. He kept a tight hold to his cane as she pulled him through the door. He could barely manage the first few steps, she was so insistent. It was early. He and Kennedy thought they’d have another hour or so before she woke. Liam liked the idea of waking her himself, just as he did the night the three of them stayed together. But it was not to be this Christmas Eve. She grinned up at him in her red Rudolph footie pajamas. When he smiled it ignited such joy in her that she began bouncing as if springs were attached to the soles of her feet. Unconditional love was the best medicine. He wanted to carry that happiness Mackenzie exuded with him always. Liam glanced back over his shoulder for help. Sally and Kennedy followed. They both wore the same smile, seeing what he saw. “Daddy’s here!” Mackenzie yelled until her voice went hoarse. “We hear you, sweetheart.” Gail rounded the corner. She dried her hands with a checkered dishtowel. Their eyes met. Liam was surprised at how little she’d changed. Even her hair was styled as he remembered. Harper, who was placing plates on the table, looked up, then away. Liam made a mental note to pull her aside sometime that morning and apologize. Profusely. Eric walked out of the den. He’d gotten there fast. Early that morning, Kennedy called Eric and staring directly into Liam’s eyes, had made it clear he would join them for Christmas Eve, both breakfast and dinner. It reminded him of the early time in his marriage. So many of his brothers were without families or wives during the holidays. Kennedy was the best hostess, cooking for and feeding every stray he brought through the door. Not that she belonged in the kitchen, but he took a lot of pride in the fact his young bride knew how to care for her man. He missed those times. Now the house was filled with smiling faces and decorated to match the Christmas spirit, and it didn’t quite feel the same. “Merry Christmas.” Liam greeted the family. “Merry Christmas, Liam.” Gail gave him a quick hug. It was over before Liam could return her affection. “Hi Liam,” Harper said softly. “Merry Christmas, brother.” Eric nodded. “What’s all the ruckus about? Well, well, look who’s risen from the dead.” Andrew gave a burly laugh as he emerged from the back of the house. He didn’t seem as tall as Liam remembered, but not much else had changed, except for a bit of graying at the temples. He pushed past the others and pulled Liam into a tight hug. Liam felt his eyes go wide under the pressure of the linebacker squeeze. Mackenzie squealed with excitement. She hugged both her father’s and grandfather’s legs, considering herself part of the reunion. His baby girl howled when Kennedy pulled her off by the shoulders.

Liam gave a nervous laugh. He’d received a warm welcome from everyone, yet he felt the urge to break free of the cheer. He didn’t want special treatment. He would have enjoyed just walking in and no one taking notice at all. Kennedy, Sally, Andrew, Eric, and reluctantly, Harper circled him, a tight round of questioning, staring, almost gawking faces. He focused on Andrew only. He had missed the old man. A lot. Andrew had the kind of temperament that calmed anyone he was around. “I couldn’t wait to see for myself. Look at you. Got my baby girl grinning from ear to ear,” he said. “It’s good to see you too, Andrew.” Liam said. He hid the stab of guilt that pierced his chest for delaying this reunion. Kennedy was right. He should have come sooner. “All right, everyone, it’s time for breakfast,” Gail announced. Mackenzie was now in Sally’s arms. There was so much commotion and activity around Liam at first he thought everyone spoke at once. The raised voices echoed in his skull. He tried to focus. Mackenzie giggled, Andrew hit him with question after question, and Harper pouted, waiting for him to acknowledge her. His eyes moved from face to face. Everyone then joined the conversation at once after someone told a joke. Kennedy’s laughter rang out, almost as if she were pointing and laughing at him. Liam swallowed stiffly and double blinked. Air didn’t fill his lungs, as it should have. Was Kennedy laughing at him? Then he saw Andrew laughing, Eric laughing. Harper kept glaring. And they all stood very close to him. So close he felt the itch to push and shove at them and break free. “Yeah, um, excuse me,” he said turning away. There was a bathroom on the lower level. Hearing Mackenzie calling his name but unable to respond, he hurried on his cane for the door. Once behind it he inhaled deeply. He looked at himself in the mirror and noticed perspiration covered his face. He looked red, nervous. He closed his eyes and counted down his anxiety until felt numb all over. “Is he okay?” Andrew asked. Kennedy frowned. “Looks like he’s going to have another flip-out moment,” Harper snipped. Kennedy shot her sister a warning look. Harper lowered her eyes. She then noticed her mother frowning toward the door that Liam had slipped behind. She forced a smile to her face and voice. “Everybody go to the table. He’s fine. I’ll check on him.” “He doesn’t look fine to me,” Gail said. “My son is fine,” Sally snapped. “Please don’t start. It’s Christmas Eve,” Kennedy reminded them both. “Tell daddy to come and eat mommy, “ said Mackenzie.

“I will, sweetie. Now everyone go to the table. We’ll be there in a moment.” Her sister turned and walked off. Eric touched Kennedy’s shoulder. “Are you sure he’s okay? Maybe this is too fast, too soon.” “No. No. He was excited this morning. He just, well he’s okay. I’ll get him. Go sit down and have some breakfast.” Kennedy hurried after Liam. She tried the doorknob. He hadn’t locked it. When she stepped inside his head lifted and their eyes met in the bathroom mirror. “You feeling all right, baby?” “Ah yeah. Got a little dizzy. Must be the morning…not used to—never mind. I’m fine.” Liam turned and she knew differently. It hurt to see him pretend. Didn’t he know by now that with her he didn’t have to? She battled over whether she should call him on it. When he stepped to her she threw her arms around his neck and gave him a lasting kiss. It was all she knew to do. He bumped her forehead with his and patted her rump. “Let’s go eat. I miss your mother’s cooking.” “Liam.” “C’mon,” he said. Liam reached around her and opened the bathroom door, then walked her backward out of it. They returned to the dining room. Immediately Mackenzie complained she wanted to sit next to him. Liam gestured for her, who hurried around the table and climbed onto his lap. Kennedy sat close, choosing the chair to his left. She tried not to notice how her mother stared at Liam. She silently prayed that he didn’t notice. Maybe she was wrong to throw him into the family so fast. She should have called off Christmas and let it be just the three of them. That was what he needed, what he’d actually asked for. Damn it, why hadn’t she even considered his wishes? “So, how are you?” her mother asked. “I’m taking it a day at a time,” Liam said. “We were all shocked when it was on the news. But all of us were happy to hear about you coming home. All of us,” Andrew emphasized. Kennedy sighed. There was evident tension at the table. So she focused on the friendly face across from her. “Eric, did you hear what Sally gave Liam for Christmas?” Eric stopped mid-chew. He looked up from his plate. “No, what?” “Maxine.” Liam laughed. “No shit…um, sorry, ladies. No way. You still got her?” he swallowed. Sally nodded. “Kept her for him. You should have seen his face when he saw her. He drove us over today. It’s outside.” “Who’s Maxine, daddy?” Mackenzie asked, and everyone laughed. Kennedy relaxed. Liam began to tell their daughter about his favorite car and

others shared memories of Liam and Maxine. Even Harper joined in the conversation. Maybe Kennedy was worrying for nothing. She would have thought so until she caught the look on her mother’s face. It broke her heart. In that moment everything became clear. Nothing for Gail had changed. For Gail, there was no blessed event. Liam’s resurrection was still a curse in her mother’s eyes. Liam’s attention switched once again from the television screen to the photographic evidence of Kennedy’s life for the past five years. Pictures of the Freeman family crowded the bookshelves and were arranged carefully on the walls of the den. Phil’s snarky smile and mocking eyes watched over him as he sat in the one chair he recognized, the one he and Kennedy had bought together for their first real apartment. Even so, he was watching Phil’s blaring widescreen TV. Probably drinking from Phil’s favorite mug. “Touchdown!” Andrew yelled. Eric began to groan. Both men started arguing again over the quarterback: one man believed him the gift to college football, while the other felt he lacked a good throwing arm. Liam tried to settle into the game, to follow the players or even join in the ribbing. But he was lost. He didn’t know shit about the teams now. He felt uncomfortable pretending he did. The truth was, he didn’t need to. There was something else gnawing at him. The phantom car chase he’d been in last night. Had he really seen the car? Did he chase something in his head? He itched to unload with his boy. But a sour dread stifled his courage. He still remembered the questioning look Vasquez gave him after the incident at Fun World. Eric had believed him, or said he did. But what if he’d been wrong? He shifted down in the chair and settled into his misery. The ladies were in the kitchen, preparing the rest of Christmas Eve dinner. He could hear laughter, then Mackenzie crying over something she was denied. Every now and then, his mother would peek in at him. He hated the way she kept her eyes trained on him, as if he needed to be watched, or worse, protected. But he didn’t say so. He just clenched his fist and gave her what he hoped were reassuring smiles. From out of nowhere Mackenzie ran into the den. Her mother had changed her into a jean skirt with a red and green long-sleeved shirt. She stopped between his legs, hopping up and down with her hands to his knees. “Daddy, wanna come play with me?” “Play, huh?” “Sure, I got lots of stuff we can do. Mama said to come ask you. She won’t let me cook.” Mackenzie poked out her bottom lip. Kennedy had managed to know his needs before he did. Playing with Mackenzie

was exactly what the doctor ordered. “Can you help daddy up?” he asked. “Un huh.” She took his hand and pulled with all her might. Liam managed to rise. Eric and Andrew kept arguing over the game, barely noticing him as he left. He let his daughter guide him back through the house. He glanced over to the kitchen. He could see Kennedy arguing with her mother as Sally looked on. The women spoke in hushed tones, but Kennedy seemed the most agitated. Gail stood solid, with her arms crossed. When he passed, Kennedy looked over and so did Gail and Sally. She tried to smile away the meaning of the scene, but he just turned away. It was evident things between him and Gail hadn’t changed. “I got a new puzzle. See?” Mackenzie said. Liam was led to Phil’s Christmas tree. He stared at it for a moment. Again despite logic and reason, his chest tightened with envy. Even the damn tree looked better than the oversized one he and his had daughter decorated. “Hi, Mac. Can I help too?” Harper asked. Liam met Harper’s eyes as he lowered to the floor. She asked the question of Mackenzie but stared directly at him, as if she wanted his permission. “Sure, you can help.” Mackenzie shrugged. “I want daddy to fix the puzzle. You can hold the box. Here.” Mackenzie shoved the box at Harper. Harper smiled. Liam did so as well. She dropped down next to Mackenzie, placing the box of puzzle pieces in her lap. His daughter was quite the drill sergeant. She barked off orders to him about the Barbie puzzle and how best to find the right pieces. Then passed him two that obviously didn’t match. When his kid sister was alive, he couldn’t afford the toys he thought she deserved. The best he could get for her, after stealing a few dollars from his mother’s purse, were puzzles and coloring books. He watched his daughter’s mannerisms, and saw the spark of excitement light her face when he put a few of the pieces together. He could see his sister’s spirit in Mackenzie. He marveled at this little girl made from love. “So um, how you doing, Liam?” Harper asked. “My daddy is fine.” Mackenzie answered for him. “Here daddy, try this one.” Liam winked at Harper. “Be right back, daddy, I think I got a extra piece in my room.” Mackenzie shot up and bolted for the stairs. Harper nervously cleared her throat. She lifted her gaze to him and he met her stare dead on. “I guess, well maybe we should talk, about things,” Harper offered. “I am sorry, for everything. I never meant to hurt you, Eric…I was wrong to do what I did,” Liam said. Mackenzie came running back over waving a puzzle piece. He helped her set down a pink square and avoided his sister in-law’s piercing stare when he spoke. He’d been a jackass for not calling her and apologizing sooner. Liam cleared his throat after discovering Harper continued to focus solely on him. “Am I forgiven?” He peeked

up at her, and caught the slight twitch at the corner of her mouth as she suppressed a smile. “You know I’ve missed you too, squirrel.” Harper laughed softly at the mention of her pet name. Mackenzie laughed, too. “That’s funny, daddy. Auntie ain’t a squirrel.” Liam reached over and tickled his daughter’s side. “When she was your age, she was a squirrel. She could climb trees, move so fast, and, oh, she loved nuts.” “Really?” Harper nodded. “Yep, I sure did. And trees, I could climb the tallest. Your daddy could never catch me.” “Oh, that’s so funny.” Mackenzie grinned. There were several scattered pieces before his little girl. Liam helped arrange them, trying to help her make the right choices, and he smiled when Mackenzie forced the wrong ones to fit. “Liam?” Harper said. “Hmm?” “Of course I forgive you. I um, understand. I missed you so much over the years. So very much. I love you.” He glanced up. His heart swelled and he couldn’t help but grin at Harper. She leaned in and kissed his jaw and he felt his face flame with a blush. “Give me a kiss too, daddy.” Mackenzie puckered up. He leaned over and kissed her. Mackenzie shot Harper a triumphant smirk. Liam and Harper laughed to themselves and focused on the puzzle with Mackenzie. After a few seconds, Harper spoke up again. “Thing is, um, about Eric…” “What about him?” Liam passed another rectangular piece to Mackenzie and pointed to where she should place it. “Eric thinks he’s too old for me.” “I agree.” “I don’t,” Harper said firmly. Liam met Harper’s stare, her face so much like Kennedy’s. She lowered them shyly when he narrowed his eyes on her. “What I mean is, um, when you love someone, age shouldn’t matter. You should know that more than anyone, Liam. He’s struggling with his feelings for me and I think that’s because of your friendship. It’s not fair. I accepted you and Kennedy from day one. How can you not accept us?” “Daddy! That doesn’t fit!” Mackenzie groaned. She dug into the box on Harper’s lap and forced more pieces on him. Liam tried to summon the correct words and failed. The idea of Eric and Harper

made him sick. He was beginning to understand why. In some perverse way, the whole thing would be his fault. He’d worked hard to win over Harper’s love and affection. She had been just a kid, and impressionable. He’d done his level best to convince her that his desires for her sister were normal, maybe even chivalrous. She probably spent years imagining a relationship with an older man. How could he not feel guilt over that? He had to protect her, even from herself. “Liam, I love him.” “Let’s not talk about it,” he rasped. “I want you to be okay with us, because—” “Us?” he snapped. “There’s no ‘us’! It’s over!” Mackenzie gasped. Harper glared at him for a moment with such disappointment and hurt it burned. Liam tried to smile at the girls. But the mere act made his face feel tight and his jaw twitch. “What’s wrong, daddy?” Mackenzie asked, her eyes pooling with tears. “Nothing. I’m sorry, kiddo.” He looked to Harper. “Let’s not talk about it now. Okay?” “Right, because everything has to be done your way.” Harper dropped the box and rose from the floor. She hovered over them as if she would say something else but possibly thought better of it because of Mackenzie. She stomped off. Kennedy appeared. She looked after her sister, then to Liam for an explanation. Mackenzie rose and rushed her mother’s legs, whining that her father was mad—again. Liam couldn’t win. “I think I’m going to go for a drive,” he said, struggling to rise from the floor. “No, don’t go. I’ll join you with daddy and Eric in the den. Don’t you want to watch the game?” Liam ignored her. If he didn’t get out of Phil’s house he was sure to fuck up. “I won’t be long.” “Don’t go,” Kennedy said. She blocked him in. “I have to. I need a minute. I’ll come back. I swear.” “Don’t go, daddy.” Mackenzie said softly. “I’ll be good. You can do the puzzle yourself. I don’t mind.” “No, no, no, squirt, don’t be upset. You didn’t do anything wrong. I love the puzzle, just like I love you.” He smiled and kissed her cheek. “You girls enjoy the family time. Give me a chance to clear my head. I’m fine.” “Wait. Please.” Kennedy pressed her hand to his chest. “Can you take Eric with you? I don’t want you driving around alone on Christmas Eve. The roads are bad. Do it for me? Please.”

He was hurting her, he was hurting his kid, and he wished he wasn’t. Kennedy put her hand around his neck and drew his face to hers. She kissed him. “I understand, I do, but we need you. So take Eric and come back. Okay? Just a quick drive before dinner, then I’ll go home with you. I’ll stay with you all night, wake up Christmas morning with you. Deal?” He didn’t want to agree, but he had little choice. He looked into Mackenzie’s eyes and knew it. “I love you both. I’m sorry I’m so raggedy with this. I’m trying, Kay.” “Don’t explain. I understand.” “Eric!” Liam called, walking to the door. “Let’s go, brother.” He made it to the door without Kennedy stopping him. And though he knew she would have to answer questions about his leaving to their parents, he didn’t care. Space was the only defense he had now. The only way he was sure he could protect her and Mackenzie—from him. “I want to talk to you.” Kennedy slammed the door. Harper turned the page of her magazine. She was propped against the pillows on Kennedy’s bed with her shoes off and ankles crossed. “Now, Harper.” “What is it?” Kennedy marched over and snatched the magazine from her sister’s hand. She tossed it to the other side of the room. “Explain that scene you caused with Liam downstairs?” “Me? He was the one yelling.” “He left. What did you say to him?” Harper turned toward the window. “Did Eric leave too?” “What did you say, damn it?” “Nothing!” Her sister shouted back. “I just tried to talk to him. Explain things. I didn’t mean to make him leave. Geesh, I came upstairs so I wouldn’t make him upset.” “What things?” “Stop yelling at me.” “You answer me now,” Kennedy said. “I wanted to talk to him about Eric. I asked him to give us a chance. “ “Damn it.” Kennedy walked away from the bed. She crossed her arms in front of her. Harper wasn’t the real issue. She felt it the moment they entered the door. Liam was miserable. “I’m sorry. I only wanted to smooth things over with him. Eric said he would fix

things, but since he’s been here he hasn’t spoken more than two words to me. He avoids me around the family. Then touches me when we’re alone. I don’t want it to be that way. Why can’t you and Liam understand?” “No one cares!” Kennedy yelled. “This isn’t about you. I swear I wish you and mama would just stop thinking about yourselves for one second and see what he’s been through. This is his first Christmas home. He’s trying to adjust and you two keep acting like he owes you something.” Kennedy closed her eyes. “I should have called the whole thing off, took my baby and spent Christmas with him alone. I just, I thought we could heal together as a family. Stupid me. Nothing I do or say can make him whole again.” “Kennedy, it’s not your job to fix him. We fight, that’s what a family does. I’m sorry for the drama. I love Liam. You know I do. I just want his approval. Look, I apologize.” Harper crossed the room, she threw her arms around Kennedy and tried to hug her, but she shrugged her off. “When he comes back you keep your mouth shut.” She walked out. She decided to call Phil and tell him to not come for dinner. It was best he wait to join them Christmas day. She was doing her very best to manage the drama, and so far she was failing. *** “Where we going, man?” Eric dropped the seat back further and pulled his cap down over his brow. Liam eased his foot off the gas. The roads were slick with black ice. He could feel Maxine’s wheels lock and the car glide every few miles. They passed empty parking lots of grocery stores and mini-marts. “Nowhere. This was a bad idea. Everything’s closed. You could’ve hung back. I just needed air.” He cut his eyes over. Was Eric lying to him about ending things with Harper? He and his friend didn’t deal in lies, but he couldn’t help but wonder. He told many lies in order to have Kennedy. “Roadhouse is open. We can grab a beer there.” Eric shrugged. “You cool with that?” “I don’t care. I’m just glad my ass isn’t stuck somewhere with a hotel menu.” “Yeah, I can understand that.” Liam made the next turn. The Roadhouse wasn’t far. A few lights ahead. He knew servicemen without families to go home to would pile inside and commiserate through the holidays. It was almost blasphemous for him to do the same. Leaving Kay and his little girl patiently waiting for him to step up and be the father and husband they deserved. He wasn’t ungrateful, or unappreciative. He really did love the idea of spending Christmas with Mackenzie. But he hated hurting her, losing his cool. He couldn’t trust himself. The thought occurred once again that he should man up and turn the car around. Liam blew out a deep breath. “I’m driving her crazy, Eric. She pretends it’s okay, but I keep letting her down.”

“You aren’t letting her down, bro. You’re adjusting.” “Yeah well, so is she. I came back and turned her life inside out. I need to do something for her, something to let her know I appreciate her. She deserves a break from all my bullshit.” “It’s Christmas. You buy her something?” “Yeah, I did.” Liam smiled. He parked next to a line of motorcycles. “Wait, who is this? The Devil’s Angels? The Bobcats?” Eric scoffed. “Nah, probably the Dark Riders. They’ve moved in from Virginia. Been stirring up trouble since they arrived. Fuck it. When was the last time we mixed it up?” Liam shook his head. “I can’t get into a bar fight, man. I’m not a hundred percent, remember? Besides, you’re up for an appointment.” Eric shrugged. “Won’t be any trouble. We can just get some beers, shoot some pool, then leave. You game?” Liam thought of Kennedy at home, waiting for him. The right thing to do would be to turn around and go back to Phil’s damned house and suffer through it. If he had any balls, he would. He stared at the front of the bar. A biker came crashing through the door, laughing, talking on his cell phone. Why was it Roadhouse felt more welcoming than his wife’s home? “You in?” Eric asked. “Yeah. Let’s do it.” *** “So where is he?” Gail asked. “Not now, mama.” Kennedy spread the thick cream cheese frosting over the top layer of the cake. She’d stashed the carved candy Disney princess in the fridge, ready to go on the top. Angie called and said she’d found the perfect candles to put around it. “Where’s Mackenzie?” “Sally has her, but who knows for how long.” “I’m almost done,” Kennedy muttered. “It’s Christmas Eve. Where is he?” Her mother pressed on. She sighed. “Will you ever cut him some slack?” “I beg your pardon?” “You heard me, mama. You barely said two words to him during breakfast. You keep needling me every chance you get about Phil being excluded, and now Liam’s gone and you want to complain about that, too?”

“I just, I only meant—” “Stop it, okay. Stop it now or pack up and just go.” Kennedy tossed the knife in the sink. Her mother blinked away her hurt. She opened her mouth to say something else and Kennedy was ready for it. Gail removed her apron, dropped it on the countertop and promptly walked out. Alone, Kennedy exhaled a sad sigh. Dinner would be ready in an hour. Where could Liam and Eric have gone? When the phone rang, her head was so clouded with her own fears and doubts she didn’t think she had the strength to answer. Eventually she reached for it. “Hello?” “I got your message,” Phil said dryly. “Oh, hi. Thanks for calling me back.” “Why didn’t you return my call?” Phil snapped. “What?” “Don’t tell me, your precious Liam didn’t bother to tell you I’ve been trying to reach you? Why am I not surprised?” “Phil—” “We need to talk, Kennedy. I’ve had it. I swear I was going to try it your way. Not because I agreed with you, but because I love you. I’d do anything for you. But you don’t care, you never cared, and now my kid is at risk. No more games.” “Where is this coming from? Kid? What games am I playing?” Kennedy walked away from the front of the kitchen, closer to the fridge. She lowered her voice. “Today isn’t the day for this, damn it. I think you should come tomorrow afternoon for Christmas dinner, to wish Mac a happy birthday. I won’t have you over here acting like this.” “You won’t have me? It’s my fucking house!” “Fine! Would you like us out of it?” The phone went silent. Kennedy shook her head. “Can we put all of our problems aside for Christmas? Whatever it is that has you this angry, can it wait another day? If not for me, for your daughter?” “So she’s mine now?” “You know what I mean. She’s your step-daughter, and she loves you. Mac needs us to be grown-ups and work this out.” “I’m bringing a date to Christmas dinner.” “A date?” Kennedy frowned. “You have a problem with that?” She closed her eyes. “Maybe you shouldn’t come. I don’t want any drama.” “There won’t be. I figure if you can move on so quickly, so should I.” He hung up on her.

Kennedy rolled her eyes. When did things between her and Phil take a turn for the worse? There was no baby, they’d talked, they’d agreed to be civil. She thought at the very least they understood each other. Now he was angry because Liam didn’t tell her about a phone call. And he was dating? It made no sense. “Everything okay, sweetheart?” Andrew asked. Kennedy turned and looked to her father. “I think I’m losing my mind, daddy.” Andrew chuckled. “Nonsense.” “I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. She turned and looked at her daughter’s cake. One minute I’m so happy I can’t take it and the next minute I’m so damn angry I want to scream. And Liam? I want to tell him to snap out of it. That it’s time to get over his insecurities and be my husband again. Not doubt me or run away when things get uncomfortable. But that’s wrong and selfish, right? So I try to make it better by being nice, sweet, loving, and holding my tongue. When it’s not fair to either of us. I lost him, daddy. I was in hell, too. Not like what he went through, of course, but still. I couldn’t get out of bed without medicating myself. I couldn’t hold my baby for a year without crying. I need him here, dammit, because I’m so scared…I can’t lose him again. I won’t survive it.” Kennedy choked down her tears. “But if I say that then I’m putting too much pressure on him. I can’t keep this up.” Andrew touched his daughter’s back. She hung her head and shook it sadly. “He should be here. I don’t care if it makes him uncomfortable. It’s our Christmas Eve and he walked out. I’m mad at him.” “Tell him. Be honest with him.” “I can’t.” “Kennedy, look at me.” She turned and looked at her father. She always loved his eyes. They were so kind and understanding. Even when she hurt him, she could see forgiveness, not judgment in their depths. There was no one as loving as her daddy. “You can’t fix Liam. You can’t erase what he’s been through, but you can’t treat him any different than you did before he left. You have to be honest with him. Okay?” “I don’t want to fight with him. I just want to love him.” Andrew nodded. “Liam’s a tough guy. I think he can handle some honesty. Especially from you.” “Maybe he could, but my need to protect him, even from my feelings, is so strong. It’s instinctive, daddy.” “Honesty is the only way, kiddo. Try it.” She smiled. “Thanks for listening.” “No problem. Now what about this cake? What can I do?” Kennedy laughed, remembering how much of a disaster her father was in the kitchen. He and Liam were the same on that score. “Nothing. Go keep mama busy. I’ll

finish in here.” Andrew kissed her forehead and left. Kennedy stared at the cake. She lifted her eyes to the kitchen clock. Liam should be back soon. After dinner they would talk. She would try. *** “Scratch!” Eric called. “To hell with that. I made that shot.” Eric shook his head. Liam smirked. He pulled out his wallet and tossed another twenty on the table. “At this rate I’ll have to take out a second mortgage on your place to break even.” “Just pay up.” Liam was on his fourth beer. He had that numb, careless feeling all through his bones. The game of pool had begun less than an hour ago. They’d spent most of their time at the bar drinking and laughing with enlisted men from the base. Time just crept away from them. He knew they should end things and head back. Dinner would be served soon. “Need to ask you a question,” Liam said. “Go ’head.” “Harper.” Eric stood erect. He met Liam’s gaze dead on. “What about her?” “You still seeing her, aren’t you?” “I’m working it out. Trying not to hurt her. We’re close man, really good friends.” Liam gave a bitter smile. He threw his pool stick on the felt. “Bullshit. Who do you think you’re dealing with? Trust me, I know what it is between you two, why you can’t back off. I just thought you’d have a little more self-control.” Eric leaned in on his pool stick. He cast his gaze to the balls instead of Liam when he spoke. “I’m a prick. But I got to be honest, man. It’s not sex. I really do…care for her.” He returned to his gaze to Liam. “You of all people should feel what I’m saying.” “This will kill her folks. They can barely get over Kay and me. You’re my friend, hell, my only friend besides Vasquez. Do you know what they will think? Kay and I got enough to deal with. Just leave her alone. Let her grow up and find her own way. Trust me, you’ll end up hurting her.” “We talking about me or you?” “Tell me the difference,” Liam shot back. Eric nodded. “I’ll end it. I swear. I’ll do it. But you got to hear me on this, man. I care for her, a lot. Fucked up or not, my feelings are in it. I never meant for it to go down

like this. Aww hell, I’ll just screw it up. You’re right.” Liam tried to gauge if Eric was being truthful. He knew his friend would never use Harper or hurt her intentionally. But he also knew his friend lacked the desire to make something meaningful last with a woman, any woman. It was how he was wired, and during their roughneck days in the field it was okay. The lack of attachment to another person had made him fearless. Now they were men in a different time and Eric very well may want to have what he has with Kay. Liam could respect that, welcomed it for his buddy. But why did it have to be Harper? Liam held out little hope that Harper would make it easy for him. Not if she was anything like Kay. That meant eventually Andrew would see another one of his daughters corrupted too soon. “Thanks, man,” Liam extended his hand. Eric smirked. He slapped it away and gave him a brotherly hug. “How long you two fags gonna’ fucking stand there and hold each other’s dicks?” A roar of laughter escaped a rambunctious crowd of inebriated bikers. Liam zeroed in on the men. One in particular sneered back. His face was covered in reddish-brown hair from his bushy eyebrows to his matted beard. “I said it, motherfucker,” the biker snarled. Eric stepped forward. He stood between Liam and a table of six. “Since you asked so nicely, friend, you can sit through another one. Rack ’em, Liam.” The bearded biker stood. So did his crew. Liam groaned. “Let it go, Eric.” He pulled on Eric’s sleeve. “I’m done. Need to get back to Kay and Mac. Screw this.” He turned to put his pool stick back in the rack as another biker appeared in Eric’s blind spot. Liam eyes narrowed in on the man’s stealthy approach. So there won’t be any walking away from this? Shit, just what I need on Christmas Eve. He quickly did a scan of the corners to see yet more bikers with clenched fists, glaring as they came out of the darkness. Eric, of course, remained un-fazed, but the hairs on the back of Liam’s neck were on end. He felt adrenaline rushing through his veins, pumping fierce determination into the chambers of his heart. The darker part of him craved the violence and mayhem a bar fight would bring, not to mention the release. He fought against that urge frequently, but the truth was, if he didn’t accept and thrive off of violence, he wouldn’t have stayed alive in that desert hole. From his peripheral vision, he saw the brothers from Fort Bragg rise from their bar stools. Testosterone permeated in the air. “Fuck them hillbilly motherfuckers,” Eric said, turning away. He reached for his beer. He downed the last of his Heineken and the entire bar fell silent. Eric grinned at Liam with devilment sparkling in his eyes. “You ready?” No sooner than Eric spoke the words did a biker charge him from the left. “Three o’clock, E!” Eric ducked and avoided a beer bottle aimed at his head. He slammed his fist into the guy’s face and blood sprayed from the man’s nostrils. Liam stepped forward instead of back and took a direct hit in his nose and mouth. He felt nothing. Smiling at the taste of blood rising from his gums, he swung his pool stick. The wood broke over the head of his

attacker. Liam was quick to duck low but his turn was awkward thanks to his leg. He compensated by using his upper body strength and shoving the guy into the next immediate threat charging toward him. Two bikers grabbed him from behind and his leg went out from under him. “Shit!” He suffered a couple of gut punches that should have had him vomiting. Thing was, the pain felt normal. He kicked the guy in the nuts, letting the other hold him up, then threw off the other jerk by falling toward the pool table. There he grabbed a pool stick, now his weapon of choice, and proceeded to beat the next attacker back with thick end, and the next. He was caught off guard by another biker who threw him on the pool table. The backward slam scattered the billiards. Eric hooked his arm around the snarling bastard and dragged him off while Liam caught his next wind. His back and head were tight with welcome pain. Beer bottles flew along with chairs. Eric grabbed him from the pool table and helped him stand. “You cool?” “Yeah, I’m cool.” Liam grinned. He wanted more. “Let’s go.” “No! Let’s not!” Liam grabbed a chair and broke it over another guy’s back, then threw himself into the fray. Eric had to carry him out. *** Kennedy sat next to the empty chair her husband should have occupied and stared at the bowl of mashed potatoes. Everyone at the table shared a tense silence. She’d worked hard on preparing the perfect dinner. She delayed dinner for as long as she could. Liam wasn’t answering his calls. Neither was Eric. His absence cut her deep. “Sweetheart, maybe we should say grace.” Gail spoke in a gentle voice. Kennedy pressed her lips together to stop them from quivering. Her eyes welled with tears. She couldn’t hide her hurt and disappointment, which slowly shifted between fear that he was out there hurt or in an accident, to anger at the idea Liam would choose today, this reunion, to disappoint her this way. “Mama, I’m hungry.” Kennedy glanced up. Mackenzie poked out her bottom lip. “Okay, baby.” She sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Her father winked at her. “Daddy, will you say blessing?” Andrew extended his hand. Everyone grabbed hands and bowed their heads. Her father’s strong voice filled the room. Kennedy added another line to prayer. One of thanks and hope that Liam and she would find a way to be the family her heart desired. The door to the house opened, then slammed. Kennedy’s head shot up. So did the

eyes of everyone seated. Her father’s prayer of thanks quieted, then stopped. Liam and Eric could be heard laughing as they marched through the front of the house toward the dining room. They stopped cold at the scene before them. Kennedy took them both in. Eric’s jacket was ripped on one sleeve; he had a cut over his left eye. Liam’s face was far worse: his nose red and swollen, lips split, drops of blood on his shirt. He looked like a walking disaster. Kennedy rose from her seat. Panicked, she hurried to him. “What happened? Oh God, were you in an accident?” “Liam?” Sally rose in alarm. “What happened, Eric?” Harper rushed toward him, racing up behind Kennedy. Neither of the men spoke and it was then Kennedy smelled the beer on them. Liam reeked, as if he were doused in it. Kennedy knew that smell. Not just drinking. But the times when locals and the enlisted men would get into stupid fights at bars or on basketball courts. Where beer bottles were used as weapons and her man came home pumped with wild adrenaline, smelling like some kind of animal. She hated those days, just as she hated it now. Kennedy stepped back, crossing her arms. She wouldn’t disguise the hurt and disappointment she felt. She could barely keep from putting her hands around his throat. “I’m all right, Kay.” “Where were you?” Eric pushed Harper aside, shaking his head no as a warning to her. “It’s my fault Kennedy, I—” “I asked my husband the question, not you!” Kennedy shook her head sadly. “Tell me the truth. You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?” “I took him to the bar, blame me.” “Oh shut up, Eric!” she glared at her husband. “He can handle himself. Right, Liam?” She stepped closer to him. “Your daughter, who has been waiting for you, is hungry. Do you think you can manage to join her for dinner?” “I’m sorry, babe.” “Of course you are.” She walked away. She was barely able to stand next to him without wanting to scream, but she did. How could he humiliate me like this? “Daddy, want to open my presents after dinner?” Mackenzie asked, grinning from across the table. “We have to wait for Santa, right?” Liam winked. “Excuse me.” Kennedy couldn’t make herself go back to the table, not even for the sake of Mackenzie. She went for the stairs. Christmas Eve was ruined. Christmas would probably be more of the same.

Liam followed, but Kennedy was motivated, and he was a little drunk, with a bum leg. It took him time to get up the stairs. He paused outside of her room to take a deep breath before venturing in. Kennedy stood near the window, staring through it. She refused to acknowledge him. “Can I come in?” “No. I don’t want to see you.” Liam stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He could barely turn to address her before she was in his face. “How could you do this? How could you go get drunk on Christmas Eve, and—and get into a bar fight? Don’t you dare say it’s this house or Phil, because that’s a lie, Liam! Do you hear me? I know why you did it. Because it’s easier to hurt yourself than…than be with me. I’m not going to let you keep punishing me!” “Kay, this wasn’t about you.” “Right. Of course it isn’t. You haven’t put Mac or me first since you walked through the door. Everything has been about you!” she shouted, straining her voice. Immediately she regretted it. She covered her mouth, panting, shocked and embarrassed by an outburst that was certainly heard downstairs. “You’re right,” Liam offered. “I’m right? That’s all you can say?” She lowered her hand. “I fucked up, babe. I’m sorry. Things got out of control and I…I have no excuse. I swear to you it’s out of my system. C’mon sweetheart, it’s me. Give me another chance here. Please?” “Do you want me to stop trusting you? Is that it?” “Hell, no. You’re all I got in this world. I couldn’t stand it if you stopped believing in us. It’s time I proved my commitment to you guys. I will.” “I’m tired. I’m too exhausted to stay angry and too hurt to forgive you. I need space. Go see Mac. Dinner, everybody’s waiting, go. I need to be alone.” Liam’s hand closed on her arm and drew her forward. She came up bodily against him, and her head went back. “Fight with me.” “What?” Kennedy tried to pull free. “I need to hear you say it.” “Say what?” “Say whatever it is you’re holding back from me. Everything you’ve wanted to say but haven’t. Fight with me. Let’s get it out so we can move past it.” “We fought, remember? I got the broken mirror to prove it.” “No. That was different. That was me being a jealous jerk and you defending yourself. I’m sinking Kay, and admit it, sweetheart, you’ve been pretending not to notice.”

“Not true! I’m here, I’m trying.” “Shh….” He grabbed both sides of her face. “Shh,” he repeated, pressing his forehead to hers. “I know you have, babe. But it’s not working for you, for either of us. You’re angry with me. Not about the bar fight, not really. It’s me, this, all of it. Tell the truth.” “Let me go, Liam.” She twisted free. He released her. “Talk to me.” “Why?” She shouted at him, throwing her hands up in defeat. “So I can inflict more pain on you. Why do you want me to hurt you?” “I want your love, not your pity. I can’t stand you holding back because you feel sorry for me. That’s everyone downstairs. All of them watching me limp back into their lives with pity. Every time you hold back I feel it. You don’t trust me anymore.” “Oh Liam, stop. I don’t want to do this with you. We’ve been together a few days and already we’re fighting. No.” “Babe, it’s me.” He touched her. “Stop pretending that things are fine, dammit!” Kennedy whirled on him. “How dare you say that to me! I’m here with you trying to show you that you’re not alone. Do you feel that? Do you see me? Really see me? Forget what you lost. What about what’s been waiting for you? What about that little girl who thinks you’re her miracle, who’s dying to know you? This isn’t me pretending, this is me being patient and understanding, and you’re taking it all for granted.” Kennedy stepped back. He’d never seen her more angry. “Want to know what I feel now? This very moment? I tell you. I feel lost.” “Me too.” “Then great! Finally we agree.” Liam looked away. They stood in a tense silence for a moment before Kennedy spoke again. “We’re different. I’m different now. I don’t know what to trust between us anymore, Liam, especially when you keep scaring the hell out of me. Hitting Eric, then a bar fight. That’s just twenty-four hours in your life. What’s next?” He glanced up. She placed both hands over her eyes. He watched her struggle to control the tremor in her voice. “I know you’ve been through a lot, but so have I. Not once have you asked me what it took…what I went through when—when they said you were dead. You have no idea how bad it was. The nightmares, the pain, the anxiety, the regret, and the loneliness, Liam. I’ve never been so lonely in my life.” “I do have an idea, Kay.” She glanced up. Her heart split in two. “Of course you do. I only meant…I don’t know what I meant. It’s Christmas Eve and it could’ve been so good between us tonight. If you’d tried. You didn’t even try.” “Every day I’m trying. It’s not you, and it’s not just this place, it’s me. Something is broke inside of me Kay, and it scares the hell out of me. What if I can’t fix it? What if it gets in between us and I lose you? What then?”

They stood in her bedroom in silence. It was true. There was something else in him that she didn’t understand, something she couldn’t reach. “I want my husband back, my best friend, but you have to let me in. Even if what you’re feeling scares you, I can take it.” He reached for her but she sidestepped his touch. “Go downstairs, have dinner with everyone. I’ll be there in a minute.” “Kay, babe, don’t shut me out.” She stepped back and pointed at the door. “Go.” He sighed. She watched him leave, before her conviction collapsed and tears began to well in the corners of her eyes. Kennedy released a deep sigh and turned away from the door.

Chapter Twenty-three Christmas Eve was a bust. Despite the tension between them, he and Kennedy tried to salvage the evening. Though uncomfortable, they managed the stares of others at the table who thought they weren’t aware. Together they endured the sly quips and barbs exchanged between Gail and Sally. Kennedy managed to remain extremely patient with a cranky little four-year-old, who kept insisting she be allowed to open a present from under the tree. Liam even swallowed a few bites of food and initiated small talk with Gail about her cooking. He found himself constantly seeking excuses to ask Kennedy a question, a reason to reach across her for something on the table. When she smiled at something Mackenzie said, Liam grew bolder and eased his hand under the table to her thigh. Thankfully she didn’t knock away his touch. But she didn’t acknowledge him either. He really hated being ignored. Once dinner ended, Kennedy and Sally began to clean, and the rest of the family drifted away. Gail volunteered to give Mackenzie a bath and put her to bed. Eric and Harper headed for the den, but soon slipped out the front door. Liam hoped it was to have the talk that would save them both a lot of grief. That left Liam behind. The urge to leave overcame him but he suppressed it. He wasn’t going anywhere until he and Kennedy finished their talk. So he found himself alone in the living room next to the Christmas tree. He brooded over their argument, particularly over the things his beloved didn’t say. The looming threat that scared the hell out of him could become a sobering reality. Each time he stumbled, he feared she doubted their future. Gone was the spark when he looked into her eyes this evening. What he saw there was a dull sadness that eroded all the beautiful things they’d shared with each other since he returned. How did he manage to royally fuck everything up in one night? He was going to lose her if he didn’t fix the thing in him he didn’t understand. He felt it. “Can I join you?” Andrew asked. Liam glanced up. “Sure.” Andrew lowered his tall frame into the sofa chair across from him. He had his pipe in his hand. He looked prepared to sit whether the invitation was extended or not. Other than Andrew, Liam didn’t know a man, black or white, who smoked from a pipe. He watched his father in-law pack the tiny briarwood chimney with tobacco from a small leather pouch he kept in his front shirt pocket. Then he lit the stack. The pungent smoke blew from his wide nostrils and filled the air. Liam relaxed, or pretended to as they both settled into a comfortable silence. “So how are you?” Andrew eventually asked. “Good. I mean I’m okay,” he said, wiping his sweaty palms down the tops of his thighs. “And you?” Andrew smiled. “Best Christmas ever.” The response made Liam grimace. He was just thinking the exact opposite. He forced what he hoped looked like a smile to his face. “I have to say, I really did miss you,

Andrew.” Andrew gave a curt nod. “Same here. Damn near gave me a heat attack when I saw it on the news. Still can’t believe you’re sitting in this room. To see you and Kennedy together makes me so happy.” Liam sighed. “Me too.” He glanced toward the kitchen area. He didn’t see Kennedy, but he heard her, slamming pots and cleaning. Sally came out with two beers. She offered one to Andrew who declined, saying something about his blood pressure, which the pipe certainly couldn’t be helping. Liam’s mouth watered at the sight of the frosty green bottle. He could go for a beer to smooth out his anxiety. He declined. It was best he ease back on the booze. His lady had taken notice of his nasty habit and thus alcohol was marked off his list. “How’s Kay?” he asked Sally. His mother just shrugged and turned away. Had he passed the test? Had Kennedy sent out a beer to see if he’d drink it? Liam groaned inwardly. He wished he could throw his lady over his shoulder and take her to his place. Lock the doors and let her yell and scream at him until she was in his arms again telling him how wonderful he was. Selfish maybe, but he could go for it right now. He needed to feel her. “Guess she’s a little pissed, huh?” Andrew asked. “I ruined Christmas Eve. She has a right to be angry.” Andrew removed his pipe from his dark, thin lips. He exhaled two streams of smoke from his nostrils. “She’s strong.” Liam nodded. “I know. I love her so much. I just…I want…I want her to be okay.” “You don’t think she is?” Liam tried to decide if he could speak from his heart. With Andrew, he knew he could. “She started a new life without me. She could again if she wanted to. Guess I always feared she’d wake one day and not need me—and she did.” Andrew nodded. “You two married young.” “She grew up in our marriage,” Liam said, averting his gaze from the hard stare Andrew gave him. Another dose of guilt made his palms sweat even more. He could feel the moist heat of perspiration gathering on his brow. “She grew up outside of your marriage too,” Andrew stated, without a hint of mockery. “I guess that makes me a real asshole. Wanting to come home and find her the same as she was when I left.” Andrew shook his head. “No. It makes you human.” “Why do you like me, Andrew?” Liam asked. “I took her from you. I know Gail can’t forgive me. I just never understood why you could. In fact, I never understood why you didn’t call the police on me when you arrived in Texas.”

Andrew stuck his pipe in his mouth and sat there for a moment, staring. For several tense minutes Liam wondered if his father-in-law had heard the question. Then Andrew withdrew his pipe and spoke. “I didn’t like you, Liam. At first. What father would? She was my princess. I never even considered she’d be anything but my baby girl. I thought you saw her naïveté and exploited it. But I changed my mind about that.” “When?” “When what?” Andrew asked. “When did you change your mind?” Liam pressed, as if he didn’t believe the story. “The day I came to the diner and you sat across from me as a man.” “You did?” Liam frowned. He always believed the threats he and Kennedy had made after their talk in the diner were the turning point. “You told me about the SEALs, remember? The program. How tough it was, and how the benefits would protect Kennedy. You were willing to sign your life over to your country to protect her, to love her. That’s why I made sure things worked out.” “You what?” Liam gasped. Andrew gave him a knowing smile. “Son, how do you think you got accepted into George Mason?” Liam blinked at him, shocked. He’d taken the entrance exams, sent for his transcripts. He thought they’d taken pity on him and let him in. He never guessed Andrew’s involvement. Even now he wasn’t sure how his father in-law managed it. He’d gone to Yale. But he was a good man, and a powerful man, so it seemed plausible. “Well, I’ll be damned,” Liam sighed. “I’ll be damned.” Andrew continued. “I had hoped when you went to BUD/s, she’d come home and finish school. She went off to William and Mary, and that made me even prouder.” “She’s smart,” Liam said. “Yes, she is. I’m her father, I wanted her to be my little girl, but I knew those days had gone. Kennedy is like me. She thinks, lives, and breathes with her heart. And you were in her heart. You called me when you were in trouble, then stood your ground. As incredible as it sounds, I respected you for that. It eased some of my fears.” Liam shook his head. “Not sure I could do the same if some punk kid tried to take Mackenzie.” Andrew smirked. “Karma.” Liam tensed, but managed to smile. They settled again into silence. “I remember the day her world fell apart,” Andrew began. “Kay?” Liam asked. “Kennedy.”

Liam swallowed. His throat was so painfully dry it made his voice raspy. “When?” Andrew just stared at him for a moment. Liam knew when. The day their lives changed. When he lost her and she lost him. Andrew nodded, seeing in his eyes that they were on the same page. “Kennedy said the Navy told her you were killed in action. She called me screaming in the phone. Told me that your unit had abandoned you, or so she believed. She begged me to help. As if I could do anything. They couldn’t even tell her if they would recover your body. Apparently she got the news before Eric and the others could warn her. I’ve never seen her so devastated.” The truth about his wife’s pain was an uncomfortable lesson. He closed his eyes and conjured images of a pregnant Kennedy alone, sick with grief. It made that cold feeling of rage rise under the surface of his battle-scarred heart. He ground his molars in resistance. Who could he blame? Sarkhir? The Navy? Himself? “There I was sitting in my office, between meetings, when my daughter’s world exploded. She needed me. It was the first time since you two were married that she did. I’ve never felt so helpless.” Andrew cleared his throat. “I’ll tell you this. She never gave up on you, Liam. When she tells you that its not just words, it’s the truth. We all wrote you off as a dead hero, and she refused to accept it.” “I’ve caused her so much grief.” “No son, you’ve given her the happiness she deserved, and you kept your promise to her. To me. I told you I wanted Kennedy to finish school, attend college. No babies until after she had. You and she honored my wishes. She didn’t get pregnant until after she graduated. Son, your word has been golden from the day the two of you married. You said you’d never abandon her, never fail her, give your life to protect her. You did all of that, Liam. After everything you’ve been through you came back to her. I know you survived a lot, just as she held on for you.” Liam met Andrew’s stare. Andrew nodded. “You made more of a sacrifice than any man I know. I’m proud that you are my son-in-law. Hell, I’m proud to know you period. Welcome back home, son.” “Thank you,” Liam managed to say. Andrew rose. “Take her somewhere tonight and talk it out. She’ll listen if you will. Okay? Good. It’s time for the old man to pack it in. I think I will go to bed now.” Liam reached for his cane. “Thanks for the talk.” To Liam’s surprise Andrew approached and pulled him into a tight hug, a lasting hug that forced Liam to lift his arms to hug him back. “We got you back, now stay with us. Don’t give up, Liam. You’re home.” “Thank you, sir,” he said. Andrew released him. Sally observed them, drawing their attention. She had her purse. “Ready to go when you are,” she headed for the door. Liam nodded to his mother. It was indeed late. He should take her back to his place

so she could get some rest. Liam sucked down a deep breath. He stared at the tree a moment longer, then shook his head. He turned to leave and found Kennedy staring at him. “I’m not coming with you tonight.” The words were like a bullet to his chest. “I understand.” “You’ll be here in the morning?” “I will.” “She wakes at six. She’ll expect you to be here.” “I’ll be here, Kay. I promise.” She looked him over. He lowered his gaze to his beer-and-blood-stained shirt. He knew his face must have been ghastly. He couldn’t hide his mistakes from her, so he just waited for her to speak. “Good night.” She turned and walked back toward the kitchen. “Kay?” She stopped. “I love you, babe,” he said. She nodded, and went back into the kitchen. *** Eric looked up when Sally walked out the front door. She went around to the passenger side of Liam’s car. A few minutes later Liam stepped out. Eric had been sitting outside in Harper’s car for nearly an hour, debating, arguing, agreeing, and listening to her. The girl was a master negotiator. She could talk bin Laden out of the Afghan mountains if she wanted to. They reached the point where words weren’t enough. They remained trapped in a disagreeable silence and watched the house. Liam moved a little sluggishly with his head low, his leg stiffening his walk. He approached the car, got in, then backed out of the drive. “You think he and Kennedy will be okay?” Eric asked. Things had to be bad if his boy was leaving alone. He felt like shit for taking him to a bar on Christmas Eve. But he knew his friend. He had to let go of some of that pent-up aggression. It was the only cure he could think of. “They’ll find their way.,” Harper sighed. “We cool? We understand each other?” “I get it, Eric. You like the sex, but don’t want the girl.” “Fuck, Harper. You know that’s not what I’m saying.” “I said I get it. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Eric reached over and touched her hand. She turned it over so she could hold his. He brought it to his lips and kissed her knuckles softly. “You’re pretty damn special to me, kid. Thank you, Harper.” Her eyes were weepy. Tears shimmered from the tips of her long lashes. “For?” “For teaching me a few things about myself. You made a man who is usually certain of everything, uncertain of everything. Do you understand?” “No.” “Trying to do the right thing here, Harper. Cut me some slack.” “Eric…we….” She paused, took a deep breath, and then continued. “If we tried to get to know each other, date, just try—” “I’m not your guy, Harper. Okay?” She slowly withdrew her hand. “Fine. I get it.” He opened the door and eased out, taking his helmet with him. Eric’s heart was packed tight with misery so he forced his legs to move. He was glad he had a helmet; it provided the distraction he needed to keep her from seeing the conflict on his face. He put it on and flipped up the visor so he could see for his night ride. Climbing on his bike, he heard her car start and slowly drive away. Eric cursed under his breath. Fuck it all to hell. I shoulda just gone to damn Jakarta. *** Kennedy shut off the light in the kitchen. If she had scrubbed the place any longer, the enamel would have been eradicated from the countertops. She tossed the rag, dropped a hip to the sink, and folded her arms. The darkness was a welcome event. The silence? Splendid. At last she didn’t have to pretend, put on a brave face, hide her feelings. But his absence pained her. The urge to grab her keys and run to him was so strong it suppressed her reasonable objections. Kennedy considered she could have overacted. Like a beaten, love-starved child, she even considered that she deserved his thoughtlessness. After all, this was another’s man house and life he had to walk into. This was not his Christmas, but hers and on her terms. The Liam she knew never allowed their life to be so disorderly. After the chaos of their origins, their life was carefully planned. He put the boundaries around them to ensure it. Together they existed in bliss within their marriage—their very own private world. Liam would go out and slay the dragons, and she’d be waiting anxiously, to cage his beast, heal his wounds, and give him comfort. Wifely responsibilities as Mrs. Flanagan weren’t suffocating. She never felt cheated in that role. When she was in school and he’d be up to visit, he’d help her with her class assignments. Getting her GED just required her to take a test, one she passed easily. But freshman year of college proved to be pretty tough because she just wasn’t interested. She knew the schooling and maturing for them both had been Liam’s way to prove to her parents he hadn’t ruined her life. All she’d truly ever wanted was to be his. She wanted

him; she wanted his babies. Kennedy had romanticized the struggle of building her perfect family with him. Liam had been more of a realist. He would have none of that. He forced her to focus on their life plans. How many stolen moments over the years had she just wanted to be held by him? Inhale the strong maleness of his skin, and the barley on his breath from a dinner beer. Too many to count. Liam wasn’t perfect. He did irk her at times, leaving the toilet seat up and destroying her kitchen just to make a simple sandwich. Oh, and the remote. He was a remote hog. Really selfish. Always wanting to watch some sports show, not caring which. And if she watched one of her favorite reality shows, he’d seduce her to avoid having to sit through it. There were little things, big things, and insignificant things that wore her nerves on some days. But when he was gone, she craved each and every moment of marital strife. “What am I doing?” she asked, sinking to the floor. She put her back to the kitchen cabinets, and drew her knees up. Her head dropped into her open palms as her elbows rested on her knees. “He only made a mistake. Isn’t he entitled to make mistakes? He’s only human. Right?” Kennedy closed her eyes and shoved her weakness down. She wasn’t helping him by slipping into insecurity. They had a life to rebuild. She had to be strong. Lesson one: he would soon learn that he would not take her and their daughter for granted. They needed to restore their faith in each other and it had to start with mutual respect. Lesson two: she would stop making excuses for his behavior. He disappointed her, then she’d call him on it. And he’d own up to it. Enabling him would be a disastrous move. And her final lesson of the night is that she would seek some professional help. She talked about it, encouraged Liam to do so, but the truth was she needed it. Not a conversation from Angelina or a lecture from her mother, but an unbiased professional to help her deal with her guilt, fear, and elation. She needed perspective. She needed to be whole. Change had come and neither of them could face the truth. Different felt scary. Talking with Liam about this would keep them grounded and connected. He was her soulmate, so he had to understand. She reached above her head and grabbed the edge of the sink. When she rose she found herself weak, nauseous, and before she could reconcile the conflict churning in her gut, she turned to the sink and vomited. Kennedy quickly released the faucet and ran the tap to rinse away the evidence. Her hands shook. She clenched them to stop the trembles. I have my secrets, too. In the beginning, there were days when she wanted to die. Quiet, lonely moments when Phil was called away on something the military wouldn’t allow him to share and it was just her and her sweet baby. The doctors called it post-partum. She knew it was far worse. It was post-Liam, and part of her was out there in the desert, lost and unreachable. Kennedy dreamed of death. What it would be like, how quickly and easily she could do it. And how wonderful it would be when she didn’t have to pretend to be okay, when she didn’t have to hide her grief for fear someone would try to fix her. Liam would be in Heaven waiting. She could see him in his Chicago Cubs hat and Green Day T-

shirt. He’d give her that sly smile and say he’d missed her. That he’d been waiting for her. That’s why she needed Phil. He was her salvation. He’d keep her feet on the ground when she wanted to float away into the dark void of depression. She remembered Mackenzie, and how much she loved her, and how hard it was to even hold her and not think of Liam. She and Phil talked. That’s what they did the first year, almost daily. Talk, and talk through her feelings. He never pressured her to get over it. He just listened, and held her and Mackenzie as they healed. Phil was her safety net. Liam would never understand the pure nature of their bond. And Phil would never forgive her for casting him out of her heart. She couldn’t win. Slowly, she left the kitchen, climbed the stairs, and headed for her room. The soft sound of her parents’ voices stopped her. Hearing her name made her ears twitch. She stepped over to the guest room door. “I’m making things worse Drew. Aren’t I?” “Sweetheart, try to sleep. Tomorrow’s Christmas.” Gail turned toward her husband. She put a hand to his jaw. Smiling into his eyes, she sighed. “I love you, Drew,” she admitted softly. “I know it’s been hard between us. I know that’s my fault. Sometimes I do things…say things. I’m sorry for punishing you so often.” “You’re my life. Nothing with you is hard.” He kissed her brow. “Why do you put up with me?” she asked, and snuggled his chest. The top of her head was tucked under his chin. “I’ve pushed you past the limit many times, and you’re here. You never gave up.” Andrew smiled. “I love you. It’s that simple. Just like it has been for our daughter. She loves Liam, always has. And she’s strong, Gail. Very strong. You two are so much alike. My girls.” “I’ll admit I wasn’t happy when they said he was alive. I’m sorry, but I wasn’t. When he was gone, she needed us again. We saw her rebuild her life, how she became her own person without him.” “She suffered, sweetheart. She just did so in silence because she didn’t want to upset everyone. But you’re her mother. You know she never let him go.” Gail sighed. “Yes, and I feel awful. As her mother I shouldn’t be another source of pain for her. I’ve made so many mistakes with her, Andrew.” “Gail…” “I did something. Something I shouldn’t have. My heart was in the right place, but I crossed the line—again. When she finds out, she won’t forgive me.”

“What? What did you do?” “Never mind. It’s between me and Kennedy. I’ll talk to her in the morning. I’ll apologize. Liam’s alive, and we’re family. Right? We should, um, heal. Together.” Kennedy drew away to the sounds of her parents’ love. She didn’t want another confrontation with her mother, especially on Christmas day. Burdened and tired, she retreated to her bedroom and as soon as she crossed the threshold she fell on top of her bed and closed her eyes. All night she had resisted the urge to cry. Now that she had the opportunity, she couldn’t summon the strength to drop a single tear. She just wanted to close her eyes and wait for the sun. Try again. Deal with everyone tomorrow. The phone rang. She snatched up the receiver. “Hi,” Liam said. “Hi,” she answered. “Can you come outside?” “Huh?” “Took Sally home and came back. Been sitting out here for a while working up the nerve to knock on the door. Do you want to go for a drive with me?” Kennedy sat up on the bed. He’d been outside all this time? She walked over to the window and looked out the blinds. He was parked in the driveway. Her heart skipped a beat. “Yeah, I’ll be right down,” she said. Kennedy hurried to the bathroom and washed her face. Then she put on two sweaters and her boots. Swiftly and silently she left the house. She hadn’t ridden in Liam’s GTO in years. Once she was in the car with him, she felt ten years younger. He didn’t speak. He threw the car in reverse and backed out to the street. So they rode for the first ten minutes in silence before she cleared her throat. “I think we need some boundaries.” Liam glanced over to her, then returned his eyes to the road. “I’m listening, babe.” “No more drinking. Not for a while. I’ll go dry with you, but absolutely no alcohol.” “Okay.” “No more fights. You want to hit something, we’ll put a punching bag in the garage.” “I don’t want to hit something,” he muttered. “I know you’re aggressive. It’s who you became when they made you a SEAL, and

I know that bar fight wasn’t about me, it was about you and feeling something. I understand. But I don’t want any more violence in our lives. We’ve had enough.” “Kay—” “I mean it, Liam. I won’t sit back and watch you self-destruct. If it gets bad and you need space, then take it, but what you did tonight went too far. Look at your face.” “I agree, sweetheart. No more of the bullshit. I get it.” He nodded. “What else, Kay?” “Never mind the rest,” she sighed. “Let’s start there.” “I spoke to your father today. He shared some things about what you went through when I was gone.” Kennedy focused on the night as they drove at a moderate speed through a sleeping town. “Sally told me a little more on the drive home. She said you suffered from postpartum depression. Is that true? Hun, you never told me any of this.” Kennedy drew in her bottom lip. She closed her eyes. “I…don’t like talking about it.” “Why?” She shook her head. “Why don’t you like talking about it, Kay?” “Why? Because for the first year of our daughter’s life she didn’t just lose you, she lost me too. I don’t like talking about her needing us both and having to rely on others for the affection she should have had. We wanted her so much, and neither of us could be there for her. I knew that and still I couldn’t get past…my issues. Now I look at her and think of the bonding we should have shared and it kills me. She’s my baby. A part of me Liam, and I couldn’t even bring myself to breast feed her, for Christ sake.” “Damn, sweetheart, I’m such an idiot for not seeing this. You’ve been through hell and I should have known. I’m so sorry.” “It’s okay, I got help. I had help.” “You mean Phil. He helped you.” She slowly returned her gaze to him. Liam gave her a shy smile. “I think I get it now. I mean understand why you two were close. He was there so you had no choice but to let him help you.” “No, Liam. He was more than just there. He made me face the pain instead of trying to coddle me. He was tough on me when I needed him to be and a friend on most days to understand when I just needed space. Phil was an important part of my healing process and my life, and it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I’ve been really cruel to him. That’s going to stop. I care about him—deeply. Part of me always will.” Liam went silent. She sucked in a deep breath. Honesty burned on her tongue and

she felt it charging the air. But she wanted her husband back, so he would have to accept the good and the bad. “Things with us Kay, I—” “I feel lost.” She cut in on him. “And that scares me, Liam. I’m different, you’re different, and I just want us to be like we were. I’m scared we can’t be.” Liam nodded. “That’s how I feel. Lost.” He turned off the road and drove into the empty parking lot of a closed convenience store. “I love you, Liam. I’ll go to hell and back with you, I just want…I need you to be with me, and not just physically. What I’m saying is every day since you’ve returned I crave what he shared before a war came between us. Yes, the passion is there but we’re missing something else. I know you feel it. I know it scares you and it scares me, too. If we don’t work hard at believing in each other again we’ll lose everything. Does that make sense?” Liam nodded. “It does. The doctor told me about the process I’ll need to go through. He said I have rage issues. He said there would be moments that I won’t be able to differentiate between today and the past. Kay, my training Kay is to be strong, and that shit I’ve seen and done in the service I keep locked tight in me. Always. But I’m a civilian again—or will be. I have to function day to day as your man, not the SEAL I’ve been for the past eight years. I guess I thought I’d take you and my baby girl and it would be okay. We’d start again. The thing is, it’ll take years of therapy for me to learn how. So I’ll fuck up, babe. I might fuck up so bad that you’ll think it’s the end of us.” He looked over at her. “But I won’t give up on us. I’ll do everything they tell me to. Just say you won’t give up on me either.” Kennedy exhaled. She reached over and took his hand and put it to her breast. “Let’s get something straight. If I’m angry, disappointed, sad, none of it means I’ll give up. I’ll never give up on you either. I never have.” Liam leaned over and captured her lips. This kiss was full of promises. just like the ones he’d made on their wedding night. “Does it hurt?” she asked, tilting her mouth away, and touching his split upper lip gently with her index finger. “Only when we kiss,” he smirked. “Then let me give you your punishment,” she said, kissing him deeply. *** April 1995 “Come closer, Mrs. Flanagan. Mmmm, yes. Right here, babe.” Liam dragged her to the center of the bed. She was worn out. But the heat of his

body flush against her back felt so arousing she wouldn’t deny him. Both his arms around her kept her locked to him. He held her by the waist with his left hand and used the other to cup her breast under the covers. For several long minutes he fondled her nipple while his erection pressed hard against her backside. Kennedy couldn’t stand it a minute longer. She stretched and rolled so they could be face to face, nose to nose. She threw her thigh over his, tangling their bodies together and he smacked her lightly on the ass. “I thought you would let me get some sleep.” She half-yawned. To her delight, he surprised her with a roll to her back. Her thighs parted and she cinched them tightly around his waist. He hovered above her. “I need to say my vows.” “Vows? We already did.” Kennedy frowned. Liam moved his hips and his erection rubbed against her sensitive bud. Her eyes nearly fluttered shut. She gripped his nape and lifted her pelvis, wanting him to do her again. It was too soon. His erection was mild compared to what would happen when he was fully aroused. They’d already had sex twice that morning. “You listening, babe?” He asked. “Mmm….” She moaned. “I, Liam Henry Flanagan, take thee Kennedy Michelle….” Her lids parted and her breath hitched in her throat under the intense stare he fixed upon her. With a serious, determined look on his face, he continued. “To be my lawful wedded wife. This is my vow. I promise to love you when things get tough. I promise to love you when things are easy. I promise that you will never regret being my wife. Never. I vow to be the faithful and good husband you deserve.” “That is so beautiful,” Kennedy said in awe. Liam smiled. “It was, wasn’t it?” Kennedy pushed him off and flipped over on top of his chest, straddling him. Liam put his arms behind his head. “It’s my turn,” she said. “Go ahead, babe. I’m listening.” She sucked in a deep breath that made her breasts heave. Liam licked his lips instead of the tips of her nipples, as she would have preferred. “I, Kennedy ‘Kay’ Michelle Flanagan, vow from this day forth to be the best wife, best mother, best friend and um, lover to the most wonderful man that God has sent me. I promise to not get all bratty when you go to school and through training. And oh, I promise to always make sure you remember what’s waiting for you whenever you come home.” “That’s beautiful, babe.” “Stop, Liam, don’t mess with my nipples. I’m not done.” She knocked his hands from her breasts. “Kay, you’ll be saying these vows forever. Come here.” He pulled her down to him. “Give me a kiss, a final promise, and we will be together.” “Forever, Liam?”

“Forever.” Kennedy kissed him softly. She felt the strength of that promise on his lips. It tasted sweet, and hopeful. It tasted like a new life. Hers and his. “I want a baby,” she announced, lifting her head. “A little girl. We can name her Mackenzie, after your sister.” “Yes. We’ll call her Mac.” Liam ran his hand down her spine as she rested her face on his chest. “She’ll have your smarts and my smile.” “She’ll be beautiful and talented just like you, babe.” “Let’s make a baby tonight. On our wedding night.” She looked hopefully into his eyes. “Not yet. You know the promise I made to your dad. School first. Then we’ll start our family.” He cupped her face. “But soon. Our own family.” “And don’t forget the mini-van!” Kennedy exclaimed. Liam laughed. “I won’t.”

Chapter Twenty-four “It’s getting late.” Kennedy said against his lips, pressing hers gently, sweetly, against the pair she couldn’t get enough of. The urge to slip him some more tongue and recapture the passion he evoked in his apology was strong, but she resisted. Her fingertips brushed his jaw in remembrance. She freely admitted that making up with Liam was the best kind of love. “We have a big day tomorrow.” “Christmas, Mac’s Party?” He nodded. She sat back, but kept her eyes on him. “You need me tonight? I can um, go home with you.” Liam smiled. He started the car, threw the gearshift into reverse. “First I need to say something.” “We’ve said enough.” “Hear me out.” He cleared his throat. The GTO idled at the edge of the road. He exhaled deeply and returned his gaze to her. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry all the way back to my calling you a bitch. I don’t even know who that man was that said those things. I’m sorry for crashing through your life and hurting you, for scaring Mac and Harper. I apologize for leaving you on Christmas Eve to face the family without me. I’m sorry for Phil. For not respecting…um, understanding what you two share. I mean, I wasn’t here. And he um, he’s your friend. So yeah. I’m sorry for not respecting that. I guess what I mean to say is I want a do-over. I’m here, Kay. Underneath the anger and disillusionment, I’m right here babe.” “I forgive you and you forgive me. Now we’ll be okay.” She leaned over and hugged him. He hugged her back. “Take me home. Let’s go back to our place and sleep. Wake up and get to the house early so we can be there with Mac on Christmas morning.” He let her go. “How about we go back to your place, Kay? I’ll sleep on the couch in the den and you take the bedroom upstairs.” Kennedy drew back confused. “Why?” “Mackenzie wakes up in her bed on Christmas Day I want to be there. It’s where she feels safe, so that works for me.” Kennedy smiled. “Okay.” “One more thing. There’s something I haven’t shared with you. I think I should.” “Something else?” Liam wouldn’t look at her this time when he spoke. He kept his eyes trained ahead. A cold sense of dread moved over her elation and she almost asked him not to say it. They were in a good place. She wanted to remain there for as long as possible. He then lowered his head as if ashamed. He closed his eyes and the strong muscle in his jawbone clenched. “You okay, baby?” she asked, reaching and touching his hair.

“Not sure.” He said, and it was almost a wheeze. “Liam?” “I had an incident. The day I took Mac to Fun World.” “What kind of incident?” “I thought I saw someone.” His head slowly lifted and so did his gaze. Kennedy felt a surge of desperation tighten her lungs. Was he saying what she thought he was saying? “Then I had another incident driving the other day. Thought I was being followed, ended up chasing a car that…I don’t know…I’m not sure if it was there.” “Oh, Liam.” “I’m not sure if it’s me or if there is a threat, but I don’t want you and Mac traveling on the roads until I work this out. I will speak to Eric and Alex and…well, if it’s me, then I’ll get help. I just wanted to be honest.” Kennedy nodded. She knew how hard it was for him to admit weakness. What he’d just shared took more courage than even he was aware. “You’re okay, baby.” She soothed the back of his head with her stroking. She could tell by the way he relaxed. “I’m not sure what you saw or think you saw at Fun World, but I trust you and your instincts. Okay?” Liam blew out a deep breath. “Right. Let’s go.” The drive back to the house was quick. She hummed through the Temptations’ rendition of Silent Night, and he rubbed and caressed the top of her thigh. She set aside his confession. Deep in her heart she did trust him, but Liam had been through a lot and PTSD was something she knew little about. It was unlikely that there really was a band of terrorists this close to him. They’d been flanked by military since he returned. And the car tailing him could be more of Alexa’s doing. Of that, she was certain. After Christmas he’d get help and they’d sort through his anxiety, night terrors, these visions of people stalking him that didn’t exist. And then they’d heal. That was enough for her. When they entered the house, she hurried ahead of him. She went to the shelves in the den and took down every picture of her life before his return. He came into the den a little surprised by her efforts but said nothing. She wanted him to feel comfortable. “I can sleep on the sofa with you. If you want.” She tossed the suggestion at him casually, hoping he didn’t pick up on her eagerness. Sleeping in his arms was a tradition she wanted to maintain. “I’d like that, Kay,” he replied. “It’s the only way I can sleep.” He said. She pretended not to notice. If she were honest, she’d admit the same thing. He eased the heavy leather jacket off his broad shoulders. He was picking up weight. Slowly. When he looked up at her, she winced at the bruising over his left eye. There were times when he and Eric would return from a mission and have unexplained bruises. She hated those days. The idea of someone hurting him haunted her each and

every time he was deployed. But in all of her naïveté, she never once envisioned a day when he wouldn’t return. Reality came hard and fast. She left the porch light on for most of a year. For five years, someone had abused him, hurt him, and tormented him beyond any thing she could imagine. “You okay?” Liam asked. “I am now.” To resist the urge to explain her thoughts further, she turned away and went to the closet. There she located blankets for them both. When she returned, she saw him ease his belt off. But he kept his pants on before he dropped wearily on the sofa. Kennedy tossed the blankets to his side and pulled a sweater up and over her head, then another, leaving her with a camisole top and bra. The den had a door that when closed, shut the back room off from the rest of the house. She made sure to lock it. He watched her in the dark. She felt his eyes on her with everything she did. Undoing the top button of her jeans, she eased them down her hips and stepped out of them. Liam studied her a moment before extending his hand. Kennedy accepted and came over him, resting between his legs. She kissed his chest, moving her lips over his Wolfpack tattoo. “Kay?” “Yes,” she purred, easing his zipper down. “I want another baby.” Kennedy froze. She jerked up, deer in the headlights. He stared down the line of his chest into her eyes. “When you’re ready. I just want you to know that.” “I understand. I’m not ready, Liam. Not yet. Let’s focus on us first, then we can talk about making our son.” Liam smiled. He stroked the top of her head. She rested on him and closed her eyes. “So it will be a boy?” he asked. “I’m almost positive.” “I can’t wait,” he said. “Liam?” “Yes?” “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas, Kay.

Chapter Twenty-five Liam woke to the sounds of the heater kicking on. A warm moist breeze of heat blew over him. The sofa cushion had compressed and molded to the contour of his back and long frame, and he was alone. The pain in his knee shot straight to his hip when he tried to stretch out his leg. “Urgh,” he wheezed. The pain soon eased and the rich fragrance of coffee drifted under his nose. His head felt as if it had been hit with a sledgehammer. Those beers and the bar fight had caught up with him. “Morning, sweetie.” He glanced up. Kennedy brought in a mug of coffee. She was dressed differently. She wore a gray oversized shirt with the Navy SEAL trident on the front and a black pair of cutoff shorts. Her locks were groomed back into a neat ponytail. And her face was freshly scrubbed, free of makeup. For a minute he was stunned at how young and vibrant she appeared. Sometimes he kicked himself over how lucky he was to have her heart. “Here. You need this.” She passed him the warm mug. “Where is she?” Liam heard a scratchy voice he was surprised to find was his own. He sat upright and stretched his leg out in front of him. Though the pain hit him again and his eyes watered, he made no mention of it. Kennedy checked her watch. “We got maybe thirty minutes, and she’ll be running down those steps.” Liam smiled. He sipped the coffee. She was right. He needed it. Kennedy combed her fingers through his buzz cut, and then rubbed her hand down his back. “How you feeling this morning?” “Like crap. But I’ll live.” “Your face looks a little better,” she said, cupping his chin and turning it toward her. She kissed his chapped lips. “Much better.” “Hurts when I smile.” “You don’t like smiling, do you?” “Never did,” he acknowledged. “Can’t help it when I’m with you.” Kennedy kissed his jaw. “So today is going to be a madhouse. We have the party. Everyone will be here. Then the neighborhood caroling.” “Are you kidding?” Liam frowned. Kennedy laughed. “It’s a tradition for Mackenzie. She’ll want to do it.” Liam shook his head. “Can’t wait to make some new traditions.” Kennedy elbowed him. He winced. They settled into a comfortable silence, staring

out into the house, waiting for their daughter to come down the stairs. “Phil’s bringing a date.” Liam didn’t expect that news. He glanced over at Kennedy, who continued to stare ahead. “Seriously?” “Yes.” “You cool with that?” he asked. As if he would care if the loser had another woman. In fact, he was glad he did. Kennedy cast her gaze to him. “Truth?” “Yes.” “I’m not sure.” It was not the answer he wanted. He needed her to say she was definitely cool with it. That she was relieved the loser was gone. But he held his tongue. He’d told her to be honest, to stop holding back. Guess he should have been careful of the truth he asked for. “What’s up?” “He’s hurting. Whoever she is, it’s for show.” “He could be seeing someone he cares about. Someone you never knew.” Kennedy smiled. “It’s not my ego talking, Liam. Though I seriously doubt that Phil cheated on me when we were together. I just don’t want him lashing out. I want a truce, between us and you. For Mac and for me. I know it might be too much to ask for but I’d like for us to part as friends.” “That’ll take time, Kay. Neither of us can stand the sight of the other.” “I was thinking last night, about the past. You were right. I knew Phil had a crush on me. I thought it was harmless. Then he made it clear after I lost you that it wasn’t. Kind of like you and Alexa.” Liam began to choke on his coffee. He felt Kennedy’s hard stare. “Babe, c’mon, Alex was never an issue.” “You sure about that?” Kennedy said. “Yes. I’m sure.” She shook her head. “Liam, it may be hard for you to hear but I understand where Phil is coming from. I started crushing on you first, remember? I became obsessed with my crush, and then I fell in love with you. Thing is, you loved me back. Can you imagine having those kind of strong feelings for someone who doesn’t return them? I’m not jealous he has a date and if I thought it meant the end of our time together could be easier for him with someone else, then more power to him. I’m worried. He’s hurting, and right or wrong I caused that.” “I’ll talk to him.” It was Kennedy’s turn to laugh. “No thanks. Just be civil. After today, we’re moving in with you. We’ll have Mackenzie’s furniture delivered to the new house. This

place belongs to Phil. We shouldn’t stay here. Oh, and I’ll need to meet with him. Work out our separation, financial things. You understand.” “Hallelujah!” Kennedy smiled. “Mommy!” Mackenzie screamed. Liam let go a deep sigh of relief. He didn’t want to hear of her feelings for Phil. He said he would listen to her and understand her more, but fuck it, he had his limits. “I guess our daughter is up.” “Let the fun begin,” he said, rising, extending his hand. She accepted and Liam spun her then brought her into his arms. Kennedy giggled. “Merry Christmas Baby!” “Our first Christmas with you home. Mmmm, I’m so happy.” She hugged him. “Later, me and you, I got something special for you.” He kissed her forehead. “I can’t wait!” “Mommy! Ooooh! Oooo-weee!” “Your daughter’s happy. Go join her.” Liam let her go. Dragging his leg, he went in search of another ray of sunshine. Mackenzie peeled long strips of shiny silver and white Frosty the Snowman wrapping paper from a large box on her lap. Liam lowered to the floor. Kennedy could hear Andrew and Gail descend the steps behind her. Everyone arrived in time to see Mackenzie reveal a pink Barbie mini-van. Gail gasped. “Oh darn it, I got to get my camera.” She turned for the stairs. But Andrew stopped her. He showed her the camera in his hand. Gail smiled up at him. Kennedy caught the exchange between her parents and had to double blink. It appeared the tender moment she witnessed yesterday between her parents was lasting. Her mother had had epiphanies before. But something was different about them. It was the holiday for miracles, fresh starts, forgiveness. “Turn around for Grandma, sweetheart, and let me see,” Gail said. Mac stood holding the box with a Barbie grinning behind the wheel of her soupedup minivan. Gail snapped the picture. Next Gail ordered her granddaughter to pose with Liam. Mackenzie rushed to her father and nearly bowled him over backward when she plopped on his lap. Immediately she gathered more presents. Gail captured each moment. It took a good twenty minutes to get through most of the presents. There would be more brought over for the birthday celebration. Kennedy slipped away and headed for the kitchen. Her mother handed the camera to her father and followed. “They’re so cute,” Gail said.

“Who’s cute?” Kennedy yawned. “Mac and Liam, silly! Don’t pretend you didn’t notice.” Kennedy nodded. “I’m just glad you noticed, mom. Thanks for taking those photos, I want a copy of each.” She reached for the frying pan and placed it on the front burner of the stove. “I’m not heartless. She’s his daughter, and she loves him. He loves her.” “He does love her. He’s trying really hard to know her, make up lost time for all those years he missed. That’s why this Christmas is important to us both. Do you understand?” Gail sighed. “I owe you an apology.” Kennedy smiled. “Let’s just forget yesterday and start again.” “No, sweetheart I did something wrong. I um, I think I caused you more problems.” “The press conference?” Kennedy asked, going to the fridge and removing a cold pack of bacon. When Gail didn’t respond, she stopped. She saw her mother with her eyes cast down and arms crossed over her bosom. “What? What now?” “I gave Phil the impression that you had an abortion.” “You did what?” “I implied it. After talking to that lady—” “Sweet merciful Jehovah!” Kennedy snapped. She threw the bacon in the sink. Gail put her hand to her brow. “Let me explain.” “How could you do something like that? Say something so cruel to him when you knew what he was going through. Let alone think so little of me!” “I’m sorry, Kennedy. I thought I was helping.” “That’s the problem mama. You didn’t think you were helping. Let’s be honest, you were trying to force me to stay with Phil. You were interfering.” Gail approached. Kennedy took two steps back, seething with rage. “You’re right, honey. I’m your mother and I’ve been acting like anything but since he returned. I know I’ve punished you and Liam both unfairly for years. The two of you made a choice I didn’t agree with, yes, but it doesn’t give me the right to interfere in your lives. Not anymore. I know we don’t talk about it, but I was so miserable when you ran away. It hurt so bad to lose you to him. I never let myself forgive. Still, you are my daughter, my first born. I should have dealt with everything better than I have.” “Mom, it’s just too much. I’m tired of this.” Kennedy put a hand to her brow. “Leave me alone.” Gail smiled. “Of course you’re tired. It’s Christmas. We’ve seen God’s miracle with Liam returning to you. Today isn’t the day for drama, meddling, bickering. I wanted

to apologize to you now, tell you what I did so I can prove to you that I’m ready to change too. I don’t know why it took me so long to see you’re your own woman. Now I do. That’s why I will fix this between us. Forgive me. I’ll speak to Phil and explain I was mistaken —” “You lied! That’s not the same as a mistake!” Kennedy said through clenched teeth. “Kennedy, sweetheart, please.” Kennedy gave a defeated sigh and turned away. She put her hands to the sides of her head. Her mother’s meddling wasn’t the worse of it. The repercussions could blow up in her face and undo everything she and Liam were trying to build. How did her mother even know she’d thought she was pregnant? “What woman?” “Huh?” Gail frowned. “What woman? You said you told Phil this after some woman said something to you.” “Oh, it’s the military lady. Liam’s friend. Alexa?” Kennedy narrowed her eyes. “Really? So Alexa is going around saying I’m pregnant by Phil?” “Well…she said Phil told her.” “This is unbelievable. I’m not pregnant. I don’t believe this mess!” “What can I do? Tell me. I want to fix this Kennedy.” The request seemed earnest but Kennedy was emotionally exhausted. Dealing with Liam and their problems had taken its toll, and now this. What if Alexa told Liam these lies? He’d lose it. She was certain of that. “I’ll handle Alexa. Just stay out of it. Can you do that?” Gail’s tear-streaked cheeks glistened with joy. “I love you. I love Mackenzie, and I do care about Liam. I’m happy you two are going to begin again. I swear it. Give me another chance to prove it.” An inexplicable feeling of understanding befell her. Kennedy released her anger. There was no reason to hold on to it. She embraced her mother. Forgiveness, like a warm, cozy blanket, covered them both. It felt genuine, and a bit surreal. How many times had she pretended they were closer and her mother rejected her choices? How often had she closed her eyes to the truth? She and her mother needed closure, and this was the first step. Silently, Kennedy prayed that this Christmas would heal her family. “Well, this is a beautiful thing.” Kennedy lids flickered open and her gaze met with the most caring pair of blue eyes, looking down from her over her mother’s shoulder. “Hi,” she said. Liam smiled. He only did so with her and not often, but when he smiled all the worry in her heart seem to evaporate. She could survive off of his smiles from this day

forth. Her arms fell away from Gail, who turned to see Liam as well. Thankfully, she and her mother were all cried out. The only thing Liam could witness between them was love. And that’s what the day would be for her family. Love. “Excuse me,” Gail said as she left the kitchen. She stopped in front of Liam then threw her arms around him. Liam blinked, surprised, but welcomed the embrace. “Welcome home, son.” Gail lifted on her toes and kissed his cheek. “We’re all happy to have you home again.” Gail glanced back at Kennedy and winked before leaving. “Wow.” Liam touched his cheek from her mother’s kiss. “Guess Christmas is the day for miracles.” Kennedy beamed proudly. “Is Mac done? Already?” “She wants you to come see. Me too. We need some of mommy’s attention. Can breakfast wait?” “For you two, yes.” She gave him another hug. Her hand rubbed up and down the center of his back. Liam’s brow quirked. The misty blue swirls in his irises became clearer than ice and more hypnotic. Kennedy pressed her body against his hard frame and felt her heartbeat ease up to a racing flutter. When his hand gently grasped the back of her neck she immediately lowered her gaze to his mouth, licking her bottom lip. The kiss was brief and sweet but she became lost to it. Lingering on the edge of desire and lustful want, she tried to capture his mouth for more. “Our daughter is waiting,” he said, only inches away from continuing the kiss. Kennedy blinked. “Um, right. Okay.” She pushed free of him and tried to ignore the moisture that gathered at the seat of her panty and the throbbing in her core. It sent spasms of lust through her pelvis. His body had become a magnet. She was drawn to him each and every time he was near. How had she ever survived these years without this joy? “C’mon sexy, let’s finish opening presents. I got to get home, shower, bring Sally and my gifts for my girls.” “Oooh! Let me go get yours.” “Hey.” He caught her by the midsection and spun her back to him. “Wait until we can exchange them properly.” “Yes, sir.” *** “Mom!” Liam yelled as he entered the door with the aid of his cane. He closed it and headed toward the stairs. “Up here! About to get in the shower!” Sally called down. Liam figured he’d shower first when he arrived home. The cold had his body

aching all over for a massage of the warm spray. Still, he felt happier than he’d been in a long time. He really felt like he was making progress. First the talk with Kennedy that proved once again loving her was the best thing he’d ever done. Second came the biggest reward, Christmas morning with his little girl. Nothing compared to the family moments with Mac. This holiday wasn’t a day he remembered or missed during his captivity. Sometimes it would cross his mind. He’d wonder if Kennedy and his baby were able to have the love and sanctity of the season without him. Now he knew they thrived and it filled him with small measures of peace. There was something else, a new truth, more profound. Though he’d had his bleak moments, they were fewer. He now slept without nightmares. And the dark anxiety gripping him since his return lessened to a mere shadow as well. Did that mean he’d healed, somehow? As a SEAL they’d trained him for torture, combat, stealth take downs, and controlling one’s consciousness over horrors witnessed. Those methods were locked in the deepest chambers of his mind. Having Kennedy and Mackenzie filled him with such a positive energy that no darkness could linger. He was winning, overcoming; he could feel his strength returning. Fuck, yeah, he’d be okay. Hell, he didn’t need a stranger poking around in his head. He was still his own man after all. The phone rang. Liam paused, surprised. He thought Eric had turned the service off so they could order their own after the holiday. “Answer it, Liam. Kennedy had the line turned on yesterday and she gave me a phone to bring.” Liam shook his head, smiling. He should have known his sweetheart was on top of things. Tossing his keys to the kitchen counter, he picked up the phone. “Hello?” “Morning, brother.” “Eric?” “You know it.” “How did you get the new number?” “Your wife was passing it out last night.” Liam chuckled. “Yeah, well she forgot to give it to me.” “Catch you too early?” “Nah, opened presents with Mac. Got to get Sally back over there for breakfast.” “Man, I sure would like a invite.” “You know it’s cool.” “Yeah, well that’s not why I’m calling.” “Okay.” “Had a visit last night.” “Should I ask?” “Couldn’t tell you if you did.”

“So what’s the news? How bad is this?” “It’s okay. Alexa has been neutralized.” “You got your appointment.” “That’s confidential.” “Shit. I’m never going to get used to you guys keeping me out of the loop. But I understand it.” Eric paused. Normally he’d have a quick comeback. Something sounded off in the stillness that settled between them on the phone. “What is it, man?” “Vice president wants to meet with you.” “When?” “Tomorrow, when you get your Purple Heart.” “What? Purple Heart? You shitting me? They’re going to take it that far? I don’t want no…wait? Did you say tomorrow?” “President wants you there at 0800. He’s going to surprise the press with it. Make a big fucking deal. I got my orders to bring you to Washington.” “Fuck no.” “Liam. This one you got to do. Alexa has planted the seed that you are critical to some hot shit we’re trying to contain. She’s got two senators backing her now. The Vice president and the SecDef are pretty clear on their wishes to sit down with you. They want a debrief on Scorpion.” “I told you that I don’t know—” “Doesn’t matter. I can’t get into it over the phone. Just know that this is the best compromise I can swindle.” “Shit, man, I got my family. I got—” “Bring them. It’ll only be a two-day trip. I think little Mac will get a kick out of it. Got a private jet idling to take you in.” “It could be cool if I stood in front of the media with Kay at my side. Let the world know we’re family. I see the shit they are saying in the news about us.” “True.” Liam mulled it over. “Is there something else?” “There always is.” “Lay it on me.” “You’re not going to like it.” “What the fuck is it, Eric?” “DoD is under pressure to pull you back in. Clayton is leading the campaign. Alexa has done some damage by insisting Sarkhir had plans for you. Um, that you might

actually be a security risk. Thing is, people are starting to listen. Brother, you stayed alive for five years in some hot shit. Even if you don’t think they had a purpose, it doesn’t mean they didn’t. You could um, have some things in your head you aren’t aware of. Things we need to know. I can’t get them to cut you loose, man. Not yet. Not until…well, until we know what they want, Liam.” “No. No way man, I’m done. I want my fucking life! I earned it. I can’t go in the tank. Have them poke and prod me again. I got my own doctor. I let them get in my head and I-I—I won’t survive this time..” “Liam! Stop. It’s an order, Lieutenant. You know how this will play out.” “With all due respect, Commander, I don’t give a fuck!” He slammed his fist into the refrigerator door. He paced and tried to steady his voice. When he spoke, his vocal cords trembled from the forced effort. “Okay. Maybe Sarkhir knew why we dropped in. Maybe he used those villagers as human shields to get those warheads off the mountain. Maybe I know that Clayton is tied to how that fucker got them in the first place—” “Liam, enough. Do not say another word.” “Fuck it! Maybe I can tell you something, Eric, something useful. I’ll meet with them. And I’ll try. Then they need to cut me loose. I saved your fucking life. I sent you out in the first wave. Save mine, dammit! Don’t….” Liam closed his eyes to the weakness he heard in his voice. “We go in knowing we will die, Eric. That’s the truth my baby Kay doesn’t know. When I joined the brotherhood with you I knew it would end bad. The thing is, I didn’t mind the sacrifice. I owed it to Kay for taking her from her family. She gave up so much to be mine, so I could deal. But five years, man! I had to sit and remember why I loved her in the first place. What life could be like if I had one more chance. Help me. Don’t make me beg.” “Help yourself, brother,” Eric said. “You’re right, you belong to the pack first. A choice you made, man. You can’t turn on it now.” “I can’t go into my head and dig up every fucking detail of the past five years and be the same man. You hear me? I can barely get through the day without that shit making me want to gut a motherfucker. What they’ll have me do. Put me through. It’ll tear my family apart. I-I…I will lose her.” “Slow down. You still have options.” “No, I don’t. They dig, they’ll find something, Eric. Then they’ll never let me go. My head’s not right.” “We can’t get into it. Trust me, man. I’ve never turned my back on you.” Liam paused. Eric hadn’t been just his second-in-command. He was much more than that now. He would know things before Liam even conceived them. And the government wasn’t releasing their prized POW to wander the streets unchained. They had eyes on him. “You know already, don’t you?” Liam said. “The car chase? The near miss on First Street? Yes. I know.”

“I thought it wasn’t real. I mean I couldn’t remember if I was chasing someone or if someone was chasing me.” “And? Now? What do you think?” “Dammit, Eric, don’t play me. I nearly killed a civilian. A fucking family! I don’t even know if it was a threat. I wasn’t supposed to walk out of that desert. I get that. I was prepared to meet my fate, made peace with it. Then Vasquez showed up and gave me something I wasn’t trained for, a second chance. And now? I got her back, man, and I can’t lose her again, not even for the cause. Not for the brotherhood. Not for anything.” “I understand.” Neither man spoke. Liam regulated his breathing and calmed his racing heart during the short reprieve. If it was a matter of national security, he knew his boy would make the tough call, just as Liam would if he were walking in Eric’s shoes. That’s who they were. “You’re sane, brother.” Eric began. “Of course we got eyes on you and the family.” “Yeah, that’s what I figured,” Liam said. “Still don’t explain what I saw at Fun World. Vasquez didn’t see shit. That was in my head. Alex and her cronies will get it out of me. So you see why this can’t go down.” “Liam, stop questioning your sanity. I don’t have to run it down for you. The stress, anxiety, night terrors…sure you see things.” “Right. I get it. I just got this feeling of dread and I can’t shake it. It’s like I’m going to wake up and be in that hole again. I know people question why he let me live. I got no answers for you. The sadistic bastard thought I was his pet. Today was the first day I could honestly say the shit I been through didn’t matter. And Kay, she believes in me, man. But sometimes….” Liam’s gaze went to the frost-covered window pane. He felt as if someone had poured ice cubes in his gut. He shivered hard. “I told Abrams I’d start seeing him right after the holiday. I think you’re right. He can help. Not no fucking military detail that will make me a pin cushion and squeeze my brain to shit. Maybe Abrams can put me on some meds. Something.” “There’s another way.” “Then tell me. What is it?” Eric didn’t answer. Liam paced a tight circle, silently praying that Eric would give him something to cling to. “I’m a dead man walking, right?” Liam said. “Not if you do what I tell you.” “Name it.” “You have to check yourself in for a 30-day eval with Dr. Abrams at the VA center —voluntary. We can leverage his diagnosis to cut you loose.” “Check in? Commit myself?” “Hear me out—” “Are all you fucking crazy?” he shouted in the phone. “Either I get dragged into

another mission and leave my wife and kid behind or I check myself into a military psychiatric hospital for 30 days? You have got to be shitting me!” “You know how this works,” Eric said calmly. “No deal. Do you hear me? My answer is no!” He slammed the phone down. Liam closed his eyes. He tried counting backward, he tried focusing on the mental image of Mac’s smiling face, he tried thinking of pink bunny rabbits and yellow hippos. Nothing worked. He yanked the phone from the wall and threw it into the sink. Taking down deep breaths, he tried to steady himself. He wouldn’t lose his family again. He wouldn’t be separated from them. To hell with them all. He wouldn’t do it.

Chapter Twenty-five “Merry Christmas happy birthday Everybody!” Mackenzie screamed as she ran through the house. Kennedy laughed. The place buzzed with holiday excitement. Liam and Mackenzie were a hit. He lifted their daughter in his arms and managed to walk her back into the den area, where the clown performed several magic tricks. He smiled once at her and she smiled back. Kennedy couldn’t ask for a more perfect day. Almost. She still had her mother to deal with. The temporary truce between them would hold for Mackenzie’s and Liam’s sakes. Then, after that, she was going to resolve her issues with her mother once and for all. “Mac’s having a ball,” Angelina said. “The girl has been hyper since she woke up. I’ve never seen her so excited.” Kennedy said, bringing out Mac’s favorite meal. They had about thirteen kids over to eat corn dogs and French fries, and a lot of grateful parents who had an excuse to drop them off and get a little peace in their day. She set the tray on the table and checked the time. It was close to two and Harper hadn’t arrived, nor had Phil. After the kids ate lunch they would do the cake, and sing. It was time for the adults to sit down to her festive meal as well. “Something wrong?” Angelina asked. “Where’s my sister?” Kennedy looked out to the living room, where Eric sat with her father and two other men—neighbors. “Call her.” “Good idea.” She turned for the kitchen when the door opened. Harper chirped, “Merry Christmas” and strutted in the door with her arms loaded with gifts. Behind her was a handsome young man. Very athletic, stocky, he wore a collegiate jacket and jersey with hood underneath. The door shut behind them and a silence fell over the room. In his hands he carried bags as well. Kennedy immediately searched for Eric’s reaction. His discomfort was all over the deep scowl he fixed on them both. “Merry Christmas, sis!” Harper gave her air kisses to both sides of her cheeks. “You’re late,” Gail stated from behind Kennedy. “Oh mama, I had to visit Jason’s family first. Jason, come here and meet my mother and sister.” “Merry Christmas to you both,” he said. “I’m Jason Maxwell.” Kennedy accepted the bags from his hands. “Welcome, Jason. It’s a little crazy. My baby’s birthday is today, too.” “I told him.” Harper handed her bags off to Gail then slipped her arm around

Jason’s waist. She dropped her head on his shoulder. “Where is the munchkin?” “In the den,” Angelina said, looking Jason up and down. “C’mon Jason, you have got to meet her.” Kennedy and the others watched them go. When her head turned she saw Eric walk out the front door. “I didn’t know she was dating someone?” Angelina asked. “She wasn’t. I thought. Good grief, never mind. Let’s put these where the other gifts are.” It had snowed. The neighborhood looked as if fuzzy white fake fur had been poured over it. Eric paced outside of the front door. The cold didn’t bother him. His head was already splitting from the argument with Liam. He understood his friend’s pain. But Alexa had fucked him good. He didn’t share the agenda sweeping through the Senate right now, but Liam was at the heart of it. Once he accused Alexa of being in love with Liam. Maybe that had been true before the war. Since then, the cold-hearted bitch had fallen in love with power. Now what the fuck choice did he and Vasquez have? The world was different. So was the enemy. The rules of engagement had changed since Liam disappeared. He was splitting himself in half to try to help his friend. Why couldn’t Liam understand that? Vasquez even got called away on Christmas morning. No one belonged to their families, least of all themselves. They belonged to the cause. To make matters worse, Harper had arrived. Fuck, he’d been waiting to see her all morning. He was damn near pacing the floor worried because she was late. He’d screwed things up, couldn’t sleep a wink last night. Had to change the linens twice ’cause her scent was still in his fucking room. He had wanted to talk again, maybe talk his way through his deepening ache to possess her. He knew it was selfish. He never let a broad get her clutches in him. He had no taste for them young. Harper was different, though, and he planned to tell her. Then in she walks, dressed beautiful in a white sweater that hung off one shoulder and tight, faded blue jeans. Fuck, her chocolate stiletto boots were hot too. As soon as he heard her voice and saw her appear with that raven-dark hair, bangs cascading around her oval face, he couldn’t help but smile. That was until he spotted the punk kid behind her. So this is how she wants to play it? Tell me you can’t live without me last night and parade another man in front of me the very next day. “Fuck!” The gentle purr of a car engine grew stronger and Eric lifted his gaze from the frozen grass. He watched Phil’s Mercedes park at the curb. What he didn’t expect to see was who rode shotgun. “What the fuck?” Alexa Sinclair opened the door and stepped out. She reached behind her and retrieved her purse and a nicely wrapped Christmas present. Phil hurried around the car

and met her. Shaking his head, Eric marched across the lawn and met them before they approached the door. “What are you doing here?” Alexa smiled sweetly at him. “Merry Christmas, Commander Drake.” Eric shot Phil a glare. “Why did you invite her? Today of all days.” “Alexa is a friend, my date, and that’s my fucking house so I can invite anybody I damn well choose.” Eric narrowed his gaze on him, then her. “You heard from the vice president’s chief-of-staff?” “Congratulations.” She gave a curt salute. “He’s under my command now.” “Is he?” Alexa smirked. Eric felt a renewed strain move through his clenched fist and up his right arm as he repressed the urge to grab her throat and snap her pretty neck. Alexa tossed her auburn locks and blinked her sky-blue eyes at the house. “Does Liam know about our trip tomorrow to the White House?” “Don’t start anything, Alexa. I mean it. I’m on to you and Clayton.” “I wouldn’t dream of it.” She winked, then walked around him with Phil. He watched them head up the walk. Eric cursed again under his breath and followed. He had no other choice. *** “Daddy, you’re so funny!” Mackenzie squeezed Liam’s neck. Her sweet breath, reminiscent of cherry soda, blew in his face. He hugged her tighter and bit her cheek. Mackenzie let go a burst of giggles that had her kicking her feet and swinging her tiny fists. “Time to eat. They can’t start without you.” He calmed her down and set her on her feet. “Okay!” She helped him from his chair. The twins and a few neighboring kids raced out of the back room. All had gathered to watch his magic trick, as he made any small objects they could find, mostly coins, disappear up his sleeve and out of his hands. Liam had spent the afternoon trailing his daughter and playing with the kids, effectively avoiding the others crowded through the house. It was a good, solid plan and before long his frustrated anger over what Eric had told him began to ebb away. Liam rose to his feet and grabbed his cane. Children surged through the den, bowling over the gathering adults. He never understood why adults without children gathered at kid’s parties. Too many stood around with cups of eggnog, hot chocolate or wine—a sea of bubbling faces. The loud chatter with pockets of isolated conversations was deafening. He felt his chest tighten with anxiety. When he was chained to a wall and

kept from humanity he’d felt claustrophobic, crowded. It was the suffocation that made him rage inwardly. Now he forced himself to adjust. “Mind over bullshit, mind over bullshit,” he repeated, squeezing his eyes shut and then opening them again. Liam recognized this stressor. Mentally he checked himself and found the strength to back down his anxiety. The room blurred then returned to focus and the first pair of interested eyes he perceived were Alex’s. Imperatives disguised as choices ruled his senses suddenly and he made a move to throw her out on her ass. But he stopped cold. Phil stepped to her right and dropped his arm around her shoulder. He spoke to Andrew, then to Kennedy, who glared at them both with her arms crossed. What the hell is this about? They came together? You have got to be shitting me. He shifted his weight on his cane, and held back. No matter what, he would not lose his cool today. He smelled the setup and it had a rotten stench to it. They wanted to break him, both of them. Well fuck that. He wouldn’t let his daughter’s day go up in flames because he couldn’t handle the stress. He would not play into Alexa’s hands. But even as he made the silent vow, he worried. “The kids are enjoying Mackenzie’s birthday lunch. I want to invite all the adults to the dining room to join us. Please everyone, come in and find a seat,” Gail announced with Sally at her side. Kennedy had set a huge table with a Christmas feast. The kids were busy at smaller tables enjoying their special meal. His wife drifted to him and leaned up to kiss his cheek. She smiled at their guests. “We have a lot to celebrate this Christmas morning. Our daughter is—” “Five!” Mackenzie shouted from her small table. Many people laughed. Liam hugged Kennedy from behind and kissed her neck. She wiggled in his hold but made no other move to escape it. “Yes, she’s five today. After we eat we will all sing Happy Birthday.” Kennedy turned in his arms. “Go sit Liam, and entertain our guests. I got to help mom and Sally with the food.” “No babe, sit with me.” “I’ll come join you. Go on.” He popped her on her fanny as she sashayed off. Resolved to the task of being the man in the house, he followed the stream of adults heading to the dining room. Alex had found a way to get close him. He wasn’t sure when, but she was at his side in a flash. “Merry Christmas, Liam.” “Same to you Alex.” He ground out through clenched teeth. “Surprised you’re here. With Phil?” She blinked at him innocently. “I wouldn’t miss this holiday. You’re home. And I, for one, can’t get over the miracle.” She placed a hand to his arm. Liam narrowed his eyes on her and she let her hand fall away. “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m on to you. I heard of your little plot to drag me in.

Not going to fucking happen.” “Careful of your tone Liam. I expect respect.” “Well fuck respect. I’m not under your command. This is my daughter’s day. You watch your step, and don’t upset my wife.” Alex nodded. “Of course. I wouldn’t dream of it.” As he took his seat he felt the heat from Kennedy’s glare. Alexa made herself comfortable in the chair next to him; Kennedy arrived in time to witness the seating arrangement. She lowered the final serving of roasted chicken to the table and was forced to sit across from them with Phil on her left. Liam tried to smile at her, but the sourpuss face she gave made the effort awkward. He considered forcing Alex to change seats with his wife, but the festive cheer from others be interrupted and all focus would be centered on them. Not wanting to come off as jealous or territorial, he swallowed the urge and hoped the meal wouldn’t last long. Liam tried to join in the conversation at the table. He answered a few questions from people he didn’t know and ignored the smug look of satisfaction on Phil Freeman’s face when neighbors greeted him as the man of the house. Andrew gave prayer. The adults eased into the meal, and Liam swallowed down his sweetheart’s cooking, barely tasting it. Christmas dinner dragged on. Soon Liam began to notice the discomfort of his friend. Eric couldn’t take his eyes off Harper, who made a big show of her affections for her new boyfriend. His sister-in-law went as far as trying to feed the guy from her plate. Phil and Kennedy kept speaking to each other in clipped whispers. It was evident the conversation upset her, which in turn pissed Liam off. Alex had tried to engage Liam in friendly banter, but each time she spoke, Sally pounced on her. His mother had taken an immediate dislike to her presence next to her son and everyone on the south end of the dining table was witness to it. Through it all Liam maintained his cool. When the meal ended, Mackenzie was in his arms once more, whiny and lethargic. He could tell she was tired of all the commotion, even in her honor. In his arms she settled, staring at the smiling faces of children and adults that tried to speak to her. Liam had to admit his daughter had no problem allowing him into her life. He wondered if all children had a natural draw to their biological parent? He wouldn’t dare test his theory by passing her off to Phil, though he caught him staring at Mackenzie often, smiling her way. The day had been a great one. The best medicine was Christmas through his daughter’s eyes. He couldn’t wait to sing Happy Birthday with her. Her happiness melted his heart. He considered giving her his present then, but decided he’d make his gift to her the very last one she opened. “Liam, it’s time for everyone to sing to Mackenzie. Come on, sweetheart.” Sally coaxed her from his lap. He let her go. He rose and stood behind her with his arm around Kennedy while the chorus rang out through the room. Mackenzie seemed to have gotten her second burst of energy. She blew out the candles and grinned at everyone. Soon after the celebration died down, Gail and Sally cut and dispersed cake to the kids. Liam slipped from the circling crowd. Dragging his leg, he headed for the

bathroom. “Can I talk to you?” Alex stepped in his path. “Not now. I’m in no mood.” He grimaced. “It’s important.” He had to admit she hadn’t changed much. Alex had a chameleon-like ability to adapt to her surroundings. Neither his mother’s nor Kennedy’s heated glares deterred her. She met his stare dead on, never blinking or averting her eyes. A seductive smile curled along her pouty pink lips. Why was she so damn calculating? What the hell did she want? “What is it?” he demanded. “It’s you. I’m worried about you. Everyone wants to coddle you, treat you like less than a man, fearing you’ll break. But I know better, Liam. I know how strong you are. Let me help.” She moved in closer. “I don’t need your help, Alex. Never did.” “I think you might. Take, for instance, your wife.” She turned her gaze to the front of the room and Liam followed her line of vision. Kennedy and Phil walked out of the front door—together. “She’s not being honest with you.” “What did you say?” He grabbed Alex’s arm and snatched her away from listening ears. “I said she’s not being honest with you.” She shook off his grip. He released her when he saw the look Eric and Angelina gave him. “What are you talking about?” he seethed. “She’s pregnant with Phil’s child.” Liam took the news hard and fast. He froze, feeling the blood drain from his face and rush to his wounded heart. Alex shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry to be the only one brave enough to tell you the truth.” “I am not pregnant!” Kennedy hissed. “I just want the damn truth for once!” Phil shouted in her face. She was furious. Her pulse pounded erratically in her temples and her throat grew dry and tight. “I’m sick of this. It’s Christmas day. Your step daughter’s birthday, and you come here with this? All day you’ve been baiting me into a fight, trying to get a rise out of me, saying snide things to my family and our neighbors. Why? To provoke Liam? That’s it, isn’t it? You want some big confrontation.” “Deal with me. Not Liam. I’m angry too, and I have a right to be!” “You and I could have discussed mama’s lies rationally. But no! You chose to handle it like this. Well, it’s over. I’m done trying to reason with any of you. I want you

and Alexa to leave now!” “Answer the question. Why the hell would your mother think you had an abortion? Why would she say that to me if it weren’t true?” Kennedy threw her hands up. “Because like you, she never truly knew or understood me. She wanted to get a rise out of you. Thought she could force us to remain together when we both agree that’s not going to happen!” “No, you were the one that decided we had no future. I had no say it in it, Kennedy.” “Oh please. We talked, we agreed. I know I hurt you, but to go this far is ridiculous. I would never lie to you about something as important as a baby. The fact that you would think me capable of it means you never knew me at all.” “Don’t you dare!” Phil seethed. “I’ve spent five years proving my faith in you, putting you first, trying to heal you, and none of it mattered when your broken hero husband returned. I’m sick of pretending that I don’t have feelings! Do you hear me?” Kennedy stepped back. She bit back the sob rising in her throat. The raw hurt in Phil’s eyes reopened all the buried guilt she carried in her barely healed heart. He was honest with her, committed to her, and she’d failed him. She didn’t know how to repair what had become of their friendship and part of her, the part that owed him, desperately wanted to. “I loved you, dammit.” This time tears glistened in his eyes, threatening to spill. The door opened behind Phil’s back and Liam limped out on his cane. Kennedy felt her heart arrest by the accusation in his. Alexa followed him. Phil turned on Liam. “You want to tell him? Or should I!” “Stop yelling at my wife.” Liam pointed his cane threateningly at Phil. “I know what this is about.” Kennedy immediately got between Phil and Liam. To her relief, Liam lowered his cane. “I can explain…calm down.” Liam put his hand up and she immediately went silent. She bit hard on her bottom lip and shivered. The hurt and pain in Liam’s eyes cut her to the bone. What had Alexa and Phil done? How could she keep it from exploding in her face? “Answer one question for me, babe. Are you pregnant?” Everyone looked to Kennedy. She wanted to scream and scream. She didn’t. She fought back her desperation and panic and faced her husband. “No, Liam. I’m not. Not pregnant.” Phil dropped his head, shaking it. “It’s a lie.” “Why does he think you’re lying?” Liam asked. “Did you think you were pregnant when I returned?” The question threw her. She didn’t expect his directness. His fury, yes. But he had a steely calm to him she couldn’t trust. Which answer of hers would break him? What

could she do to turn things around? Was this the moment when he lost all faith in her? She switched her gaze to Alexa. She nearly charged the woman. Somehow this had been her fault. She orchestrated this moment, Kennedy was almost certain of it. “Answer me,” Liam seethed. She swallowed hard. “I can explain.” “I want an answer. Dammit, Kay. Did you think you were pregnant? Is that why you…is it what you’ve been keeping from me? I’ve felt it, Kay. You holding back. I thought…. Never mind what I thought. Tell me the truth. Now.” “Yes. I thought I was pregnant when you returned. It’s what I was trying to work out when I said I needed space. I didn’t tell anyone but Phil. Now it seems that everyone knows. Thing is, none of you know the truth. I went to the doctor and he said I wasn’t.” She turned on Phil. “I didn’t have an abortion. I would never do that to you, to our child. There never was a baby. If there had been a baby, nothing and no one would make me get rid of my own child. It’s not the woman I am. I’m sick of you, sick of mama, and you….” she glared at Alexa. “Spreading rumors about something as painfully private at this. Who the hell do you think you are, coming here and making these accusations when none of this has anything to do with you!” “I’m Liam’s friend.” Alexa smiled. “No, you’re his stalker!” she lunged at Alexa, but Liam caught her. Alexa, however, didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. In fact something in her sneer revealed her desire for things to get physical. “Get the hell away from my house, you bitch! Get the hell out of our lives!” “Stop it, Kay.” Liam shook her by one arm. Kennedy looked up at him hurt. She shoved her way out of his hold. Did he just defend that tarantula? The glare he fixed on Phil said otherwise. She had to remember where they were, what was at stake. She couldn’t lose control and expect Liam to keep his. “Liam?” She grabbed his face and forced him to look at her. “I’m sorry. I should have told you. I should have trusted you and what we share to know I could tell you. I’m sorry. Okay?” “I know. But you don’t know everything, Kay. Does she, Phil?” “Huh?” Kennedy blinked away her tears. She released his face and looked around at them all. “What’s going on? What don’t I know?” Liam released her. He took a step toward Phil. “Since we’re being honest. Alexa tells me that you knew about my return. That she warned you a week prior to my coming home.” Phil’s eyes went wide. He looked at Alexa, who smirked behind Liam. Kennedy snatched him by the arm and forced him to address her only. “Is that true? Did you know Liam was alive?” Phil didn’t answer. “You knew? And you said nothing?”

“I did. But I wanted a family with you before then. I always did. You know this. I’m sorry.” Kennedy slapped him. Though the blow was swift and direct, neither she nor he were shocked by it. Liam grabbed her by the arm and snatched her back. “Kay. Enough!” “No!” she shouted back through her tears. “How dare all of you keep this from me? Liam, you were out there for three months, and you said nothing. Phil, you, you betrayed my trust. You should have told me. You made me think I had failed you when all along you were manipulating me? And you!” she seethed at Alexa. “You evil bitch! You did this. Tried to break us apart after everything we’ve been through! You could have reunited my family months ago, but you chose not to. Now you come here on my daughter’s day and try to destroy it. For what? For this country, for some sick bond you think you two have? No. Because you’re a miserable, insufferable bitch who can’t stand anyone’s happiness since you’ll never have your own!” “Kay! Listen to me,” Liam said. She turned, shocked. Where was his anger? He should be trying to kill Phil. Hell, she wanted to kill him and Alexa both. He touched her face. “It’s okay, babe. Look at me. I understand. You hear me? I understand.” She put her hands to her eyes and tried to calm herself, expelling deep breaths into her palms. He pulled her to his chest and hugged her. She was so angry, but she didn’t know at who, them or herself. “This is my fault, babe. I screwed this up from the beginning. I wish I had handled things differently.” Liam whispered into her hair. “Liam?” Alexa said to his confession. He ignored Alexa and continued to hug and soothe her. She relaxed in his hold. Eventually he did release her and she too had to let go. He addressed Phil. “You loved her,” he said in a dry tone. Kennedy looked back at Phil, who stood tense, still not trusting Liam’s calm demeanor. She held Liam by the waist and prayed that what her husband said next wasn’t the catalyst for more drama. He spoke in the same even tone. “I’ll admit it kills me, man. It does. You and Alexa both know what she means to me. Still, I can see why you feel the way you do. If I lost her, I….” Liam choked back the words and Kennedy felt her heart sink. She wanted to say that she would never leave him. But she held her tongue. Instinctively she knew to let Liam finish whatever it was he had to say to them. He lifted her chin and forced a half-smile to his face. “Nothing could stop me from loving you, babe. I made you afraid of me when I came back and accused you of abandoning our love. If I had been able to listen to you, things would’ve been different. You thought you were pregnant. That must have torn you apart. Being caught between him and me. I get it now.”

“I’m not pregnant, Liam. I wasn’t. I swear it.” “I know, babe. Thing is, if you were pregnant it wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t love you any less. I wouldn’t love any child of yours any less. You’re my heart Kay. My rib. Do you understand?” Liam kissed her. Phil and Alexa looked on in angry silence. Kennedy felt her heart turn over under the soft press of his lips and his sweet vow that erased all doubt. She could question the mysteries around this miracle transformation from anger to acceptance in her husband later. Liam’s faith in her was the best Christmas gift he could give her. The kindness in him that made her ache for others to understand him. He was still her husband, her lover, her best friend. “I just want it all to be over Liam.” “Me too babe.” Kennedy eased out of his embrace. Liam adjusted his weight on his cane. He narrowed his blue eyes on Alexa. “I want you to leave. But before you do I want you to understand something. If you do one more thing to hurt my family or manipulate my life, I will deal with you, Alexa, directly, in the way that you understand best. Look at me. You say you know me. Then you know I don’t make threats.” “Sounds like you’re out of your head, soldier. Threatening a ranking officer?” “Our friendship came during a time when we both needed it. I know it’s hard for you to trust people. I remember the stories you told me of your childhood, of your parents. I know what it takes to become who you’ve become. But that’s not my issue, Alexa. It’s yours.” “Spare me.” She snorted in disgust. “After all we shared, it boiled down to nothing more than friendship. I never wanted more, never asked you for more. What you did today helped me see what’s important. My family. Let go. The man you knew is gone. I’m not a soldier anymore. I’m just Liam, and I came for one reason. To get my life back.” “I just opened your eyes to the mess of a life you have. Things are different now, Liam. You heard her, and him…. This is not where you belong.” “Did you not hear him?” Kennedy asked. “I never understood why you obsessed so much over a man who clearly didn’t want you. Are you that damn pathetic, that even now you can’t let go?” Alexa released a deep sigh. She addressed Liam. “There are boys, men, even heroes in the world, Liam. But there’s no one like you. You didn’t survive five years in a desert because you’re weak. You’re what we need in this war, what I need to finish our mission. The battle isn’t over. Do you want all your fallen brothers to die in vain?” She returned her gaze to Kennedy. “You don’t know him. Not really. You haven’t seen what we have, been through what we have. If he told you he was yours, he lied. Liam made vows your marriage can never compete with.”

“He didn’t lie to me. He sacrificed for me. You said it yourself. Liam didn’t need the SEALs, you needed him. Now he’s done. Trust me, I know my husband better than any of you. I don’t care what your so-called cause is about. He came home to be with his family. His real family. And he’s mine, Alexa. Do you hear me? He’s mine.” “Alexa.” Phil spoke up. “It’s over.” Kennedy cut him down with a glare. Phil averted his gaze. “I’m sorry, Kennedy. I was desperate. I lied to you. I made mistakes. I know you wouldn’t have an abortion. Part of me wanted to be angry, because at least if we’re angry, we’re still connected. I love you, and Mac. I do. When you both are ready…I want to be a part of her life again.” Liam extended his hand to Phil. Kennedy looked back at him, not sure she was seeing the gesture with her own eyes. Phil grasped Liam’s hand and shook it. “I came to you before I was deployed and I asked you to look out for Kay. I knew then that despite my reservations you were the man for the job. That you cared about her almost as much as I did.” Liam tightened his grip on Phil’s hand. Kennedy could see it from the grimace on Phil’s face. “This isn’t about how I feel about you, Phil, or how you feel about me. It’s about my daughter. She loves you. So yes, I want you to be a part of her life. I won’t interfere with you having a relationship with her.” “Thank you, Liam.” Phil pulled his hand out of Liam’s grip. Alexa had gone inside the house and returned with her purse. She was on the phone, ignoring them all, as she walked straight for Phil’s car, as cold and detached as ever. Kennedy knew differently. For whatever her reasons for her obsession, she got a hard dose of reality when Liam didn’t play into her plans for him. That was satisfaction enough for Kennedy. “Merry Christmas, Kennedy,” said Phil. “Merry Christmas.” She forced herself to answer, not able to forgive his actions just yet. He gave her a nod of understanding and walked away. Kennedy couldn’t look at Liam. She just watched Phil and Alexa leave. Liam stepped to her and put his arms around her waist. “You okay?” “Me?” “It’s over, Kay. The fighting, the lying, the manipulating. I want it over. I have to believe that we can be who we were if we stop the blame.” She turned in his embrace. “I would have told you about the baby, but you were so upset over me being with Phil.” “Hey, we talked about this last night. I can’t change the past. And I understand now that I don’t have to. I’m not going lose you, Kay. Not to my pride, not my fear, or my jealousy. I won’t let it happen, babe.” She lifted her arms to his neck and held him. ***

Eric seized the moment to follow Harper the second she stepped away from her new boy toy. He followed her into the kitchen and stood there for several seconds, unable to speak. Breaking himself apart to express his true feelings to her wasn’t a task he was up for. But watching her with another man made him want to act. “Merry Christmas, beautiful.” Harper turned from the sink and locked eyes with him. “I, um, been waiting to say that to you all day.” She stood mute. His compliment fell flat. “You do look beautiful, Harper.” When her bold gaze faltered and lowered he found the courage to approach her. He was sending her mixed signals, but she’d tortured him today on purpose. They were both miserable. Neither of them had to be. Curling his index finger under her chin he forced her to lift her face and look him in the eye. “Aren’t you going to say something?” “Merry Christmas, Eric.” He gave her a sly smile. Harper came up against him and wrapped her slender arms around his waist. Her lush curves pressed into him and he was smothered in the sweet smell of her natural fragrance, a banquet of scents that rushed his head and caused his loins to flame with need. He lowered his head into her hair and took another deep inhale of her while running his hand down her spine and cupping her backside. Harper pushed him off, breaking their connection broken. “Excuse me.” “Wait.” He grabbed her wrist. She paused. “Who is this Jason character?” “A friend. Please let me go.” She tried to pull away. “Dammit, Harper. You’re doing this on purpose.” “No.” She yanked her hand away. “I told you that I loved you, remember? And you told me to grow up. Well, I am growing up and moving on.” She dropped her hands to her shapely hips and Eric had flashes of what they’d felt like in his palms while making love to her. “Stop looking at me like that, dammit. I’m tired of this.” His gaze shot up and he felt his cheeks heat with shame over where his thoughts lingered. Was it lust between them? He enjoyed women, but he didn’t lust for them. There was no need. He wanted someone in his bed, he’d make a phone call and she’d be his. Sex wasn’t what was keeping him up at night. It was her, how she made him feel when they were together. Only her.

Eric pinned her to the counter. She blinked up at him with those round brown eyes, a little caught off guard by his boldness. “I don’t play games. You brought him here to get a rise out of me. And it worked.” “Somebody might catch us, Eric. Move. My parents might walk in.” “Now you care about what your folks think?” “I’m serious. Stop.” “No. Send the Boy Scout home. We aren’t done, Harper. Not by a long shot.” He touched the side of her face and kissed her. Her lips parted and she deepened the kiss. He tasted of the mint she’d sucked on after Christmas dinner. He couldn’t name the brand, he just knew he wanted more. “Eric. My folks might see us. Please.” She pushed gently out of his arms. Eric smiled. “Now who’s playing games?” “Okay. I’ll send Jason home. And then….” “And then you’re leaving with me. We’ll um, talk. Again.” Harper smiled. “You want to spend Christmas with me? Talking?” He stepped back. “I’m in a lot of trouble with you, aren’t I?” “No. Not if we agree this is what we want.” “I’m not sure of that ,sweetness.” “Then we’re done.” “Wait. Not so fast.” He blocked her in. Harper folded her arms and pouted. “I know it’s weird for you, but I, um, I do love you. You just have to stop fighting me. I’m perfectly legal. Grown. I run my life.” “And your folks? My best friend? What about them?” Harper pressed her lips together. “Why do we have to start with them when you can’t admit that you have feelings for me? What do you want, Eric?” He stepped back, forcing his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “Not sure, sweetheart.” “Well, give that some serious thought, then call me. Don’t touch me or kiss me again until you can answer that question.” She walked out on him. Eric dropped his head back against the refrigerator. He closed his eyes, clenched his jaw. “Jesus Christ.” *** Liam helped the twins settle into their car seats.

“Anthony said he’ll call you later tonight. You know he’s in Washington.” Liam closed the door and winked at the boys. “Yeah, Eric told me. You okay?” Angelina cast her gaze away and ran her hand down her round tummy. “I guess. Christmas apart is hard. You know the drill.” “Anything me and Kay can do?” “No. No. I’m good. Thanks, Liam. Merry Christmas.” She hugged him best she could with her belly between them and then eased into the car. He closed her car door and stepped back, feeling a pang of sadness for his friend, that he was away from his wife and sons on the holiday. Even though Angelina put on a brave face, he could see how being without him affected her. It made him even more determined to do what he needed to do for Kennedy and Mackenzie. He entered the house and sought out Eric. “Hey, man. I need a second.” Eric rose from his conversation with Harper and Sally and followed him to the hall. “We’ll be ready to leave in the morning. I need your word that I’m there and gone. I’ll meet with the vice president, whomever, but me and Kay are leaving after. Understood?” “Clear. What went down with Alexa? Got a call. She left straight for Washington?” “Don’t ask. I don’t think she’ll be a problem anymore,” Liam muttered. Eric gave a bitter chuckle, and then all humor drained from his face. “Alexa is always a problem.” “Here’s the thing. Um, I was thinking that, I will do what you suggested. See Dr. Abrams and agree to this thirty-day evaluation. If you can push that along it would be great.” Eric looked relieved. “I have a condition.” “Another condition?” Eric frowned. “What the fuck, man? This ain’t Burger King —have it your way. You can’t make conditions.” “Hear me out. This you can do. My commitment has to be outpatient. I’ll do the drill. Hell, I need it. But I can’t be locked up. Work with me here. I just can’t handle that again.” Eric nodded. “I understand. Let’s talk to Abrams and see what he says. Either way, this is a good thing, Liam.” “Yeah. I feel that.” Liam extended his hand. Eric grabbed it and pulled him into a hug. “Need you ready before dawn.” “I will be. All of us.”

Liam headed for the garage and entered through the side door. The cool quiet greeted him, far different from the rambunctious celebration that claimed the house. To the left of Kennedy’s car was a small cage half-covered in a blanket. His mother had kept an eye on the little puppy, periodically giving him updates on how she was doing. Now the little ball of fur slept in the cage. Liam struggled to kneel and reached inside. He gently pulled the resting animal off her sleep pillow. The puppy stretched her jowls and snuggled into the warmth of his hand. “Mackenzie will love you,” Liam smiled. When he entered the house, he noticed only one family remained. Kennedy sat at the table with Gail, apparently deep in conversation. He hoped they were working through their issues but didn’t stop to confirm it. Liam found his daughter in Andrew’s lap, reading a picture book to him. When she became aware of him, she released a sharp scream of delight. Her excitement drew everyone to the TV room. Liam lowered the puppy into her arms and Mackenzie bucked with joy, waking the sleeping animal. He’d given his daughter the gift that made all others pale in comparison. “I see you’ve given her the Christmas present?” Kennedy said. She slipped her arms around his waist from behind. He lifted his arm and dropped it over her shoulder to bring her forward and to his side. “See how happy she is, babe? This was a good idea.” Kennedy nodded in agreement. They watched the puppy lick Mackenzie’s chin. “Yeah, I see.” Liam leaned over and spoke against her ear. “Now it’s time for your gift.” With everyone gathered in the den he led his special lady to the front of the house. He wished he could present her gift to her in their new home. He didn’t care about territory, only about the moment when she said she’d be his again. “Wait, Liam. Let me go upstairs and get you your gifts. I didn’t put them under the tree since Mackenzie pretty much overwhelmed the space.” “No. Give it to me later. I want to do this now.” “Do what?” Liam struggled physically with his plan. He lowered to the floor on his good knee. Pain cut through his hip as he bent the other leg to balance his weight, but he withstood. His mother and Gail must have sensed his intent. They both appeared in his peripheral vision, watchful. Liam maintained his focus. He gazed up at his wife and remembered his first proposal. It was so imperfect he thought it a failure. But now in hindsight, he realized it had sealed their commitment to each other. “Kennedy Michelle, will you do me the honor of becoming Mrs. Flanagan, one more time?” Kennedy stood frozen. After the day they’d shared he could understand her doubts. She kept looking for the big disappointment. There would be none. This was his first Christmas home and he was determined to make sure it remained perfect. When she didn’t

answer, he took her hand in his and slid a gold and diamond band on her finger, stopping at her wedding ring. He couldn’t afford the one he wanted. This ring set him back a good two grand. Every penny he spent on it was worth it. He held her gaze and sensed that the rest of the family had come out to watch as well. “What’s daddy doing, grandpa?” Andrew whispered Liam’s intent. No one else spoke. It was Kennedy who broke the silence. She dropped to her knees and faced him. “Yes, Liam. I will marry you again. The sooner the better.” A warm blast of relief rushed through him and he felt the strength of a hundred men. He didn’t dare test it, though. Instead, he grabbed her and kissed her. “You make me the happiest man in the world.” “I love you,” she said.

Chapter Twenty-five The night had ended unexpectedly swift. As much as he wanted the chance for some alone time with his lady, he regretted seeing the day come to an end. Tomorrow he’d be buried in bureaucratic bullshit. He’d be the prize pony for the president to parade in front of the press, and the test subject for every punk smartass military official to dissect. Hopefully it would end there. “I think I’ve packed everything.” Kennedy walked down the stairs. “I still think we should bring her with us.” “We talked about this, Liam. She’s exhausted from the day. We don’t need to put her on a plane and take her to DC in the morning. Mom and daddy are going to stay here with her. It’s best.” Liam reluctantly agreed. He felt more in control if he kept them with him always. But his wife was the voice of reason. “I’ll take the bags and put them in the car.” “Wait.” She sidestepped him and blocked his escape. “I never got a chance to give you your wedding gift.” Liam smirked. “Sweaters? Jackets? Undershirts?” Kennedy blushed and he knew he was right. She was practical and that’s why he loved her. Everything she bought him was something he could use, but wouldn’t stop long enough to buy for himself. “I love it already, babe. We can open them at our place. C’mon.” “No. I have something else.” She took his hand. “You know every time you were called on a mission, you left your ring with me. To keep it safe.” “You kept it?” Liam brows lowered and his gaze sharpened. “You kept it, Kay?” “I could never part with it, Liam.” She revealed it in the palm of his hand. “Confession time. You were right. I bought you clothes and shoes for Christmas. I feel guilty for donating your things, giving them away. I did so because it hurt to see your clothes, smell your scent. Your ring was the only piece of you I had all to myself. Even when you returned I couldn’t bring myself to let go of it. What if you left again? What if you couldn’t forgive me for remarrying? I had to be sure I could let my heart truly believe we were going to be together, forever. Now it’s time for me to let go of my fear, and to trust us again.” Liam stood there, stunned. “My ring?” She took his hand and eased the band along his calloused finger. “With this ring I do pledge that I will make a new life with you Liam. We’ll have the family we always wanted. Everything we ever dreamed of. Because we’ll have each other. I love you so much. I’m so happy.”

He drew her closer and swept her up in his arms. Kennedy peppered the side of his face with kisses until her mouth naturally found his. The kiss sealed their vows. And Liam believed, for the first time since he’d been thrown into hell, that he deserved a bit of heaven again. “You ready to go home? Our home?” she asked. He lowered her to her feet. “Sit down.” “Huh?” She blinked at him, confused. Liam took her hand and guided her to the sofa. He sat next to her. “I’ve been struggling, Kay, all day. How much should I tell you. If there is a need to tell you.” “Tell me what?” “The mission I went on. The reason why Alexa and people you don’t know don’t want to cut me loose.” “You said that you would be getting out of the service.” “I intend to. Still, I know how things work. I can’t explain it all to you but I can tell you there is a chance they may try to keep that from happening.” “No. No.” Kennedy shot to her feet. “No, dammit! Not again, Liam.” He stared up at her sadly. Maybe he should have kept it to himself. He didn’t want to scare her. But he needed her. They needed to be a team. “Kay, listen to me.” “No! I can’t!” She started away. Liam struggled to rise and nearly fell from the sudden movement. She returned to his side immediately and he seized her arm. Despite her protest he brought her down to his lap. “I want you to know something, something that may be useful one day. Never speak of it, unless you have to. A last resort. Do you understand?” “No, Liam. I don’t.” He kissed her lips. “The mission I went on was an Easter-egg hunt. We had to recover nuclear warheads Sarkhir planned to use for another attack, a bigger attack. These weapons weren’t stolen, but sold to them before there was a war. Sold by special interest groups in the government. Men lost their lives keeping this secret. We stopped them, but it came at a big cost.” Kennedy’s eyes welled with tears. He knew her fear. He never spoke of his missions, never even hinted at the intelligence he knew. “Why, Liam? Why tell me this?” He forced a smile. “I’m not sure, Kay. It’s been five years, and nothing I know from before can change the present.” He rubbed the side of her face. “If it does, then I need you to be strong. To protect Mackenzie, and to trust no one. Do you understand?” “I think so.” He brought her face to his and kissed her deeply. She returned the kiss and soon he felt her trembling cease. He smiled and slipped her more tongue. “Are you ready to go

home, beautiful?” She sniffled and nodded. “Good. So am I.” *** “No more!” Kennedy laughed. Liam collapsed on top of her. He kissed her face and fell over to her left side. Though his strength and endurance improved daily, making love with his sweetheart exhausted every inch of him. She curled up next to him and he ran his hand down her sweaty backside. He needed a reprieve to catch his breath. Liam couldn’t formulate another word. “We need to get showered. The car will be here to pick us up in about four hours.” “Sorry,” Liam gasped. “I should have let you sleep.” “Are you kidding me?” She glanced up. “No way in hell I could sleep after the day we had.” Kennedy propped the side of her face in the palm of her hand and pressed her elbow into the pillow. “You surprised me, Liam.” “When?” “With Phil. I don’t know. I just thought you’d lose i