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Ellie Hilliard caught herself staring at Deacon, her dead husband's best friend. He stood at the surf's edge, glaring at the angry Atlantic. For August, it was a gloomy, miserable day. The rest of the crowd gathered at her in-laws' to commemorate Tom's life was inside, clustered about the big screen TV, which flashed home videos of happier times. Family clips had been merged with lighter moments shared with his Navy SEAL team. The worst to bear were intimate scenes caught with him and his daughter. Hard to believe a year had already passed since Tom had been gone.
The rain had stopped, but wind still whipped Ellie's hair. Holding it back, and kicking off her heels at the foot of the beach house stairs, she picked her way through saw grass on the dune and then across the beach. Seagulls shrieked over a find farther down the shoreline.
Reaching Deacon, she said, "We need to talk."
"'Bout what?" At six-four, he towered over her by nearly a foot. His black hair was cut in a military buzz, and his square jaw was as hard as his muscled body. Tom used to say once you got to know him, Deacon was a big softie. Ellie had known him in the most intimate way a woman could. He'd led her to a dangerous ledge, then had urged her to jump .
She wanted to spill everything, but found her pulse racing to an uncomfortable degree.
"Ellie! Deacon!" Tom's father, John, stood at the deck railing, hands cupped to his mouth. "Dinner's ready!"
Ellie's spirits both soared and deflated. It had taken her a while to work up the courage to tell Deacon her most closely guarded secret. This latest interruption had been hell on her emotions.
He sighed. "Guess we better head for the house."
"Deacon, wait." Instinctively reaching out, she clasped his forearm, only to just as quickly draw away. Considering their past, touching him was never a good idea. "We really do need to talk."
"Later." His back was already turned, and his size allowed him to take one step for three of hers.
Swallowing her disappointment, Ellie doggedly followed.
Deacon wasn't even supposed to be here. Well, he'd been invited, but no one had expected his team to have returned from their latest mission.
Deacon had come to her after Tom's funeral, explaining that as his friend had lay dying, he'd asked Deacon to watch after Ellie and his one-year-old daughter, Pia. Each week, Deacon faithfully mowed the lawn and performed light maintenance on the Cape Cod house. When he was off on a mission, he arranged for a lawn company to tackle outside chores. He even insisted on regularly changing her car's oil. In the physical sense, Deacon worked hard to live up to the promise he'd made. But emotionally?
He barely spoke to her. Probably a good thing, but it still bothered her. Why, she couldn't have said. It just did.
Entering the house, she and Deacon joined the crowd of just over forty seated around the dining room table and folding tables, which had been draped in Tom's favorite color, royal blue. Tom's father stood, raising his champagne. "Helen and I didn't invite all of you here to mourn our son, but rather to celebrate his amazing life. We want you to rejoice, as we do, in the blessings of his daughter, Pia, and dear wife, Ellie. On this anniversary of his "
When John's voice cracked, Helen put her hand on his shoulder. "I think what my husband is trying to say is thank you. Words can't express how much comfort it brings us, knowing our son was loved. So here's to Tom."
All assembled raised their glasses.
The dinner proceeded. Helen had hired a caterer for the occasion and the Italian food Tom loved soon had everyone in high spirits, swapping humorous stories about Ellie's late husband, and in general trying to make the best of the tragedy of a young life taken.
A few times during the meal Ellie felt Deacon's gaze on her. But when she looked at him, he'd glance away. The one time their eyes did meet, she flashed a faint smile, and he did the same.
Pia, who was almost two, sat in her high chair beside Helen. The toddler was adored by her grandparents, which made Ellie's secret all the harder to bear.
By the time they had eaten their fill, the clouds had broken, and the majority of Tom's SEAL family headed outside for beach volleyball. Unfortunately for Ellie, Deacon got caught up in the game.
Had she been wrong in thinking that having him with her today of all days was a sign? That she'd held on to her secret long enough?
Pia had hauled all her favorite beach toys from the box Helen kept on the deck. Her giggles rode on the wind when the seawater she poured into her sandcas-tle moat pooled for a moment, then vanished. "Gone, Mommy!"
"I know, sweetie. Funny, huh?"
"Yeah " She was already engrossed in trying the trick again.
Ellie wished she could enjoy the simple pleasure of playing with her daughter, but for whatever reason, telling Deacon seemed to have taken on crushing importance. She'd heard through the SEAL wife grapevine that this latest mission had been brutal. By the grace of God, the team had all returned home safely, but what if they hadn't been so lucky?
How would she live with herself, knowing two men had died without learning a truth they'd both been entitled to hear?
Deacon Murphy made a point of avoiding Ellie and her daughter like the plague. He'd promised his best friend, Tom, that he'd watch over them, and to the very best of his abilities, he did just that.
The night Tom had died, they'd been in Afghanistan, taking care of business the way SEALs know how, when from out of nowhere enemy fire had started raining down as if hell had sprung a leak. The night had been so black, their faces and gear so well camouflaged, it'd taken precious seconds for Deacon to even see blood pulsing from his buddy's neck. He'd loved the man more than he loved his own brother. He and the rest of their team had finished the mission, then carried Tom's lifeless body eighteen miles across rugged terrain to their rubber combat craft, which they'd partially buried on the beach.
The whole way, Deacon had fought dark, drowning emotions he hadn't been equipped to handle.
Now, with Virginia Beach sunshine boring a hole through his head, he felt Ellie sitting on the sidelines, watching his every move, no matter how hard he tried distracting himself with the game. The two of them had their own special dancethe avoidance shuffle. Even though she'd married Tom, it had been Deacon who'd known her first. Known her in every way a man can know a woman, at least physically.
The ball came at him, but his reaction time was off.
"What the hell, Buns?" his pal Garrett complained. Lord, Deacon hated the name all of his buddies called himespecially when they were pissed. On weekend leave from BUD/S, it hadn't escaped their notice that base bunnies seemed to enjoy that particular portion of Deacon's anatomy. "That was for the win."
"Sorry. Guess my head's not in it."
While his team brokered a deal for the best out of three games to win bragging rights, Deacon headed into the house for fresh beer. He was careful to walk the long way around Ellie and her daughter. He couldn't imagine what she wanted to talk with him about, and he honestly didn't want to know.
Much the same way it'd been hammered into him to shut out physical pain, Deacon did the same with the emotional wounds of Tom's passing.
Tom Hilliard had been the best man he had ever known, a hero in every sense of the word. He would blast through bad guys, only to then save their starving dogs. Everyone had loved Tom, which was why Deacon had introduced him to Ellie. She might have been the best lay he'd ever had, but she was also deeply spiritual and intrinsically good. Soft-spoken, and tender enough to have kissed his battle scars. Deacon was a surface dweller who didn't believe in getting too far under anyone's emotional skin. Connecting with his SEAL team was one thing, but women? Not for him.
Truth was, he wasn't even sure why he'd come to this thing for Tom. Maybe out of respect for his friend's folks. Deacon hated swapping stories, or talking about how Tom was in a better place. Screw that. Tom's heaven had been with Ellie and little Pia.
When she approached this time, Deacon again tried to dodge her.
"Deacon, wait," she said, grasping his arm.
Lips pressed tight, he stared into the blue sky, rather than look her in the eye.
"T-thank you for being here."
"Thank you, too, for the new trash bin. It's big enough that even the neighbor's Dalmatian can't tip it over."
How could he politely tell her he had no interest in small talk? Even though the two of them had never so much as shared an inappropriate glance when she'd been with Tom, the fact still weighed on Deacon that she'd been with him first. He couldn't have explained why, but when Tom had been alive, the former hookup hadn't been a big deal. Now it was.
"I'm, uh, glad to finally get a chance to talk." She sipped her white wine.
"Lord, Ell." Head tipped back, Deacon released a long sigh. He couldn't do this. He could go days without sleep, food or shelter, but facing his best friend's widow? Wasn't happening. "I really don't have anything to say."
"That's fine." She nodded toward a more secluded area of the deck. "I'll do all the talking."
"What about Pia?"
"Ada's with her. Please, Deacon. ."
He made the mistake of meeting Ellie's tear-filled gaze. Her blue eyes mesmerized, while at the same time made him feel like the world's biggest jackass for even thinking of skipping out on her, regardless of what she had to say.
"Why is it so hard for you to talk to me?"
"You know why." He glanced over his shoulder to ensure they weren't being overheard. "Last thing I want any of these people knowing is that I slept with the widow. Sure, it might've been before you met Tom, but it bugs me."
"You think the fact doesn't bother me? I'd give anything if we could take back that night, but we have to"
"For whatever you feel you must say, now's not the time or place," he interrupted. "If it's waited this long, as far as I'm concerned, it can wait indefinitely."
Ellie was so shocked by Deacon's rejection, she couldn't react quickly enough to stop him from walking away. This was the second time that day he'd refused to talk to her. What was wrong with him? Was he missing a vital sensitivity gene?
Why ask? She already knew the answer. After their one wild night together, he hadn't invited her to spend the morning with him, or even asked for her number. He'd merely thanked her, before explaining he had a long-standing date with the gym.
Determined to once and for all get her most closely guarded secret off her chest, Ellie tried chasing after Deacon, but was cut off by the base commander and his wife.
"This has been such a great day," the portly, white-haired man said. "Paula and I think of Tom often."
"Thank you." Ellie was momentarily too consumed with her anger at Deacon to think straight, resulting in her blabbering the first thing to pop into her mind. "Tom thought highly of you. Just before he died, he quoted your Independence Day speech."
Dabbing at tears with a tissue, she said, "He was playing with Pia when he reminded her, 'True bravery stems not necessarily from those with the biggest muscles, but the biggest hearts.'" Flashing a misty smile, Ellie added, "Only to him would that quote seem apropos, while purposely losing a game of tug-of-war with a baby."
The older man chuckled, and tears filled his wife's eyes.
"Where's Deacon?" Commander Duncan asked. "This anniversary must be hard on him, too."
"He, um, was here just a minute ago."
From the driveway came the muted, yet unmistakable revving of Deacon's Harley.
"Don't you worry, dear." Paula gave her husband's arm a reassuring squeeze. "We'll find him."
Good luck, since the weasel is at this very moment fleeing the premises.