Read an Excerpt
The high-pitched squeal echoed through the overcrowded airport arrivals lounge.
Penny Cartwright dropped her bag to the floor, not caring where it fell. She could have been flying, her feet moving so fast across the ground it was as if she had wings.
"Gabby!" she cried back. "Gabby!"
Her little girl ducked beneath a barrier, brown curls bouncing, the smile on her face so wide it almost broke Penny's heart.
"Mommy!" The scream was louder now.
Penny forgot everything else. The sounds of too many people talking, flights being announced over the speakereverything. She dropped to her knees, skidded on the floor as her daughter flew into her arms. Her hands gripped Gabby so tight she thought she might have crushed her.
Penny inhaled the scent of her, closed her eyes as tears fell onto Gabby's soft hair. "I'm here, baby. I'm home."
Her daughter wriggled. "You're hurting me."
Penny slackened her grip, laughing as tears started to roll down her cheeks, curling down to her mouth. She didn't try to stop them. After all these months, these were happy tears.
The kind she didn't mind shedding. The kind she'd been looking forward to shedding.
"You know what?"
Gabby gazed up at her. "What?"
Big brown eyes looked into Penny's, open and trusting.
"You're even more beautiful than the last time I saw you."
Gabby giggled. "Didn't you have a photo of me at work?"
Penny sighed. She'd always called it work to her daughter, wanting what she did to sound normal. Not wanting her to know how dangerous it was to have her mother serving overseas.
"I went to sleep each night with your photo beside me." Penny had to look away then. Away from the almost-shy expression on her daughter's face. Away from the innocent way Gabby gazed up at her, not knowing that her mother was lucky to be coming home when so many of her fellow soldiers hadn't been so fortunate. "There wasn't a day I didn't think about you, honey. I am so glad to be home."
Gabby wrapped her arms tight around her again. "Me, too."
Seeing the happy, smug look on her daughter's face made her heart beat so fast she thought it might actually explode from her chest. Having Gabby in her arms made the hours of flying worth it, even if she was only back for a week.
Penny kept her arms folded around Gabby. Took a deep breath. Then slowly released her daughter, dropped a kiss to her head and straightened.
This was the only part of the homecoming she hadn't been looking forward to.
She didn't want to let go of Gabby, didn't want this little bubble of happiness to burst. But Daniel's deep voice drew her to her feet.
Penny made herself look up, forced her eyes to lock on his on her husband.
He hadn't changed a bit. His hair was thick and rumpled; a hint of stubble grazed his chin, dimple peeking out from the corner of his right cheek.
"It's great to have you home, Penny."
She smiled. Reminded herself that she was here for Gabby. For their daughter.
It was all about Gabby.
She had to be strong.
"It's so good to be back," she replied, looking at her daughter, conscious that her little ears were listening to every word they said. That she didn't know anything was wrong. "I've missed you so much."
Gabby grinned up at her, twirling away to sidle up to her father. She wrapped one arm around his leg, curling into him.
Penny ran her hands down her jeans, the denim rough and foreign beneath her fingertips. After so long in army issue clothing, everything about her jeans and T-shirt seemed unusual.
Just like standing here with Daniel was unusual.
"Aren't you going to hug her, Daddy?"
Gabby's innocent question made Penny's head spin. Of course she expected to see her parents embrace, to be happy to see one another.
"Ah." What was she meant to say?
"Of course," Daniel said, without a hint of hesitation. "We've missed you so much."
Daniel took a step forward, looked awkward. Penny could feel Gabby watching.
She'd missed him so much, too.
Daniel folded her gently into his arms, his cheek skimming hers as he pressed a barely there kiss against her skin. Penny forced herself to respond, to put her arms around him, too, but it was hard. She so wanted to fall against him, tuck so tight into him that she could hardly breathe, and for everything to be like it always had.
The thought made her pull back and move away, to put distance between them.
Penny glanced at Gabby, to see her smiling again.
"Shall we go home?" Daniel asked.
Penny snapped out of her trance.
"Sure, let's go."
Daniel reached for her bag but she stopped him. Gave him a sharp glare that made his hand pause, midair. Just because she'd hugged him for Gabby's benefit didn't mean she was going to let him off the hook. Was going to pretend like nothing had happened. And she was more than capable of carrying her own bag.
"I'll get it."
She reached for the duffel, careful not to let her hand brush against Daniel's. The pain that crossed his gaze, the way he looked at her, made the dull thud of raw hurt propel through her body again, but she forced it away.
She didn't want to touch him again. It hurt too much.
"Let's go," she said, bag slung over her shoulder.
Gabby reached for her hand, her warm little palm fitting snugly against Penny's.
Penny looked over her shoulder as Daniel quickened his pace, taking the other hand that Gabby held outstretched.
Their daughter giggled and laughed, pausing until she was a step behind them so they could swing her through the air.
"Whee!" she squealed, laughing.
Penny looked over at Daniel, almost smiled to him at Gabby's excitement, then stopped herself.
This was the sort of thing they'd always done, the kind of family they used to be.
But she wasn't sure how long they'd be able to pretend they were still the happy family of old.
Because Daniel had ripped her heart out, and she doubted she'd ever be able to forgive him.
"How long are you home for, Mommy?"
She smiled bravely down at her little girl as she swung through the air.
"Not long enough, honey. Not long enough."
Daniel Cartwright was pleased Penny was walking ahead of him.
Because he couldn't take his eyes off her.
The curve of her back and the sway of her body as she moved; the gentleness of her expression, the twist of her smile when she looked at Gabby; the strength of her shoulders as she kept them straight no matter whether she was standing still or walking. The way her long, dark hair fell over her shoulders in a silky curtain.
He'd missed everything about her.
Only he'd always imagined this day to be different. Had seen his wife with her legs wrapped around his waist, lips pressed to his in happiness. The way it had been the last time. When they'd both finished their tours.
If he hadn't stuffed up, that's exactly the homecoming they'd have experienced this time.
"Where's the car?"
Penny's voice took him by surprise. He caught up to them again, having lagged behind to sort out the parking charge.
"Just over there." He pointed ahead.
He tried to catch Penny's eye, to smile at her, to try to connect with her again, but her gaze skipped past him like it was too scared to stop.
"Mommy, are you back forever yet?" Daniel's heart thudded to his boots. "Sweetheart, we've already had this conversation," he told her.
This time Penny did look at him, like she didn't want to have to answer their daughter alone. Or maybe like she didn't want to answer at all.
Daniel took the lead.
"Remember how I told you?" he asked Gabby, crouching down before her, holding her hand. "Mommy is here for your birthday, for the whole week, but she has to go back."
Daniel heard Penny sigh, like this was a conversation she wasn't ready to have. Yet.
"To work," she said, before crouching down beside him.
Daniel fought not to close his eyes. It was too close. Her body so near to his that he missed her like a fish deprived of water. Even after all this time, he knew how soft her skin would feel against his, the way her body would mold against his.
"Why?" Gabby's lower lip had started to tremble.
"I promise I'll only go away one more time," Penny told her, stroking her hair. "You'll only have to see me go away once more, and then I'll be home with you forever. I promise. I won't leave you again."
Daniel glanced at her, met Penny's eyes, before she looked away.
They'd said that before. That it was the last time. Only Penny hadn't had a choice about her involuntary extension of service.
"Mommy has a really important job," Daniel explained, shuffling closer to Gabby. "Do you remember how I told you that Mommy works for all of America? That she helps to keep everyone safe, with lots of other brave men and women."
Gabby nodded, but her eyes were full to overflowing with tears.
Penny gave him a sharp stare, like they would be talking about this later, but he didn't stop. Gabby didn't know exactly what Penny did, but he hadn't been able to dodge her questions forever. He'd had to tell her something. Skirting around the fact she was a soldier wasn't always that easy.
"So when your mommy is away, we have to be brave, because even though we miss her she's a very important woman. Lots of other people need her, too."
Gabby threw her arms around him, tucked her little face into his shoulder and started to sob.
Penny looked as though her heart was broken in two, like she was shattering into a million tiny pieces inside. She swayed back on her haunches before rising, pressed her palms to her cheeks.
Daniel would have said sorry. Felt guilty that he held Gabby when Penny was clearly so desperate to touch, to hold, their daughter.
But there were only so many times he could say sorry. And the next time he said it, he wasn't going to stop until Penny was convinced he meant it.
The short car journey home passed mercifully quickly, Penny content to sit in the backseat alongside Gabby and listen to her chatter away about her life. Daniel sat alone in the front, focused on the road, but that didn't stop him from casting the occasional glance in the rearview mirror at the tender and somehow blissfully normal scene taking place in the rear of the car.