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The Fourth of July began like any other summer morning. Lucy Knowlton woke up, well-rested after a dreamless night, and showered. Then, with sunlight streaming lemon yellow through her open kitchen window, she ate her normal breakfastmultigrain Cheerios with sliced strawberries and almond milk.
The early morning air was still cool, though she knew the temperature would continue to rise. All in all, she felt good. Surprisingly upbeat. Maybe because she'd actually slept well. She supposed she should feel grateful that she'd finally stopped having nightmares about Tucker and how he must have felt when the plane went down.
Rinsing her dishes in the sink and stacking them in the dishwasher, she'd just finished when her three-month-old baby, Eli, cried to let her know he was awake and wanted to be fed. The obvious delight in his bright
blue eyes as he latched on to her breast made her happy and she smiled. Vaguely amazed at the soft happiness she felt, she thought her smiles came a little bit more frequently these days. Or at least she hoped so.
After all, she had so much to be thankful for. Though Tucker's absence had left her with a gaping hole in her life, over time she'd tried to pull the tattered edges closer together. A week, a month, a day, a minute at a time.
Still, at any given moment she could calculate exactly how long it had been since Tucker had died. Today marked one year, two weeks and one day. Ignoring the ever-present ache of missing him, she spent the rest of the morning puttering around the house doing myriad daily chores.
Humming nursery rhymes to entertain Eli in his playpen, she washed two loads of laundry, cleaned her bathroom and mopped the kitchen floor. In between she changed Eli's diaper, sang to him, rocked him and cuddled him. She found if she kept busy, she didn't think so much. All in all, life kept getting better.
Come early afternoon, she put Eli down for a nap. At three months old, he slept a lot still, for which she was guiltily grateful, as she couldn't seem to find enough hours in the day to get everything done.
Especially today. Glad her energy was high, because she still had a lot to do before the holiday celebration later. And it was very important to her that she attend the fireworks display, even though she wouldn't take the baby inside the stadium because of the noise. She'd watch from a distance and try to stay until the very end. She planned to do this in honor of Tuckerthe Fourth of July had been his favorite holiday. Last year, she'd been too devastated to even consider attending any kind of celebration.
This year, she'd do it up right.
So, on this day of all days, she pushed aside her grief at his untimely death and tried to feel lighthearted. At least she could count on Sean Morey, Tucker's best friend and her brand-new fiancé, to help her as they watched the fireworks display explode in vibrant colors in the velvet sky above them.
When the doorbell rang, the muted sound of the clear, mellow chimes made her smile again. A gift from Sean, he'd installed them only a few days ago. She loved the way they sounded, too quiet to wake Eli, but loud enough to let her know someone was at the door. Her obvious delight in the chimes had to be the reason why Sean rang them now instead of just walking inside as he usually did.
Keeping her smile firmly in place so Sean wouldn't worry because she always looked so sad, she hurried to the front door and pulled it open.
"Hey, you!" As she took in the sight of the tall, broad-shouldered man standing on her front step, her less than genuine smile froze in place.
A ghost looked back at her from sapphire blue eyes exactly like her son's. Her heart skipped a beat and she struggled to breathe. Not Sean, as she'd supposed. But Tucker, instead. Tucker Drover, the man who, for all intents and purposes, had died a little over one year ago in a fiery plane crash in Mexico.
Died. She'd attended his funeral, wept over his grave.
This. Could. Not. Be. Real.
Had she finally lost it? Closing her eyes, she inhaled and counted to three before opening them again.
He was still there, his shadow long and dark behind him in the bright sunlight. Standing on her doorstep, staring back at her, his amazing eyes roaming over her as intimate as a touch, making her shiver.
Tucker? Really? She couldn't speak, unable to trust her eyes. He continued to watch at her, his expectant smile fading as she continued to stare in shocked disbelief.
"Say something," he entreated. "Welcome me home, curse me out, I don't know. But say something, Lucy. Do something."
Though he sounded weary, his tone low and ragged, she would have recognized that beloved voice anywhere. Tucker. Tucker was alive? How could this be?
Paralyzed, she tried to form words to demand answers. Pain warred with hope, agony with desire. Tucker was dead. He couldn't be standing here on her doorstep. Was this a trick? Some kind of hallucination? One of those nightmares that she'd thought she'd vanquished?
Had she finally completely gone insane?
"Lucy?" he rasped, narrowing his eyes. "Are you all right?"
She didn't faint, even though the edges of her vision momentarily went gray and the ground seemed to tilt in front of her. Staring at him, she tried to remember to breathe, still dimly certain that this couldn't be real.
"Lucy?" he said again, cocking his head and studying her with that serious, glinting blue gaze she'd always loved. Finally, hope slammed into her, mingling with joy and shock and disbelief and.love.
"Tucker," she managed, her throat closing up as words failed her. But it didn't matter; nothing did, because Tucker was here, with her. Alive. He'd come back alive.
She let her gaze devour him, feeling starved. Taking in his rugged, beloved face, his broad shoulders and muscular arms suddenly wasn't enough. She needed to feel him, his arms around her. She needed to bury her face in the crook of his neck, to inhale the woodsy scent of him. She needed reassurance that she wasn't dreaming, that indeed, this was real.
"Is it ?" Her voice came out in a croak. Trying to understand, to assimilate how he could both be here and not, she took a step forward, dizzy, swaying, confused. "Tucker? It's you? It's really you?"
Head tilted quizzically, he gave the smallest of nods. Still, he made no move to take her in his arms, to hold her close. She didn't understand why not, didn't really care at this point. Tucker was home!
She made the first move herself. Taking a step forward, she threw herself at him, joy filling her. Her heart beat a frantic tattoo in her chest as she wrapped her arms around him, holding on like she never wanted to let him go. Which she didn't. Not ever.
Gradually, she became conscious of the fact that, though he hugged her back, something was different. He held himself stiffly. Rather than relaxing into her embrace, he seemed to be only going through the motions.
She pulled back and looked up at him. While his eyes were still the same shocking shade of sapphire, the look in them was not. Anger and bitterness, rather than love, warred in his amazing eyes.
Anger? At her?
As she eyed him, Tucker, this man who'd disappeared from her life so suddenly and violently, whose supposed death had ripped the heart from her chest and stripped all the joy from her world, she suddenly realized she was angry, too. Furious.
Glaring up at him, she stepped back, keeping hold of his arms. "What happened to you? Where have you been all this time? Why didn't you call?"
"I couldn't," he said simply. "After they got me out, they wouldn't let me have access to a phone, even after my debriefing. Take my word for it. If I could have called, I would have."
"They? Debriefing?" She needed answers. She deserved answers. "Tucker?" she kept her voice level. "I don't understand. What do you mean?"
"Sorry." Letting out a breath, he dragged his hand across his chin. "It's a long story and I'm dead on my feet. Can I come in?"
Without hesitation, she stepped aside, gesturing for him to move past her. Once he did, she closed the door, quietly clicking the lock into place. All of her motions were slow and deliberate, as though the simple routine of performing regular gestures could make everything normal again.
Normal. As if. For a heartbeat, one frozen moment, she let her own anger simmer, then took a deep breath and ruthlessly pushed it back down inside her, allowing the joy to come flooding back. Tucker was alive. He'd returned home; miraculously back from the dead, like Lazarus pushing aside his funeral shroud. Alive.
They would rejoice, they should rejoice, but first, surely he owed her a few words of explanation. He'd disappeared for over a year, made no effort to contact her, and let her believe he was dead. She needed to understand why.
Trembling from the effort of remaining calm, she turned again to face him. He watched her, expression impassive, detached when he should have been joyful. This, she also didn't understand.
"You seem surprised to see me," he commented, one corner of his mouth lifting in a twisted sort of smile. "It's been a while, hasn't it, Lucy girl?"
Despite herself, warmth curled inside of her at the familiar nickname. She hadn't been called that since the last time she'd seen him.
"Of course I'm surprised." Her voice came out wobbly. Taking a deep breath, she eyed him, full of a cautious sort of loveand pain. "Seriously, I really need to know where you've been all this time. We thought you were dead."
"Dead?" He lifted a brow, inadvertently making her insides clench from the sheer masculine beauty of his rugged features. "Really?"
Scarcely able to believe that he wasn't taking her seriously, she nodded. "Yes. We were officially notified that you were dead."
"Sean and I. Remember him? Your best friend? Or did you forget about him, too?" Guilt and anger propelling her, she swept by him, leading the way into her living room, hyper-conscious of him right behind. Alive. Alive.
"We thought you were dead," she repeated. "I wept over your picture at your funeralwe didn't even have a body to bury. Your parents flew in from Nepal." Her eyes filled with tears and she turned away to hide it.
Gathering her composure, she continued. "I've mourned you, Tucker. You don't know how much I've grieved over you. And now you're here. Alive and waltzing into the house as though nothing has happened, asking me if I'm surprised to see you."
Perching on the edge of the couch, she gestured for him to take a seat in the overstuffed chair he'd always claimed as his own. "I don't understand. Explain this to me. I don't even know what page you're on."
"I'm sorry," he said softly, sounding both bewildered and sad. "I've been through so much. I'm confused and recovering. But I swear to you, no one told me you thought I died."
He took a deep breath and blew it back out again. "I was in pretty bad shape. The ones who rescued me, they were mostly concerned with making sure I didn't really die to tell me anything."
Again with the odd, sketchy references.
"Once they got me back to health, they had questions of their own that they wanted answered," he continued. "Too many of them to remember. And yes, I've been told I was gone over a year, though time passes differently when you're in that sort of situation. In this, I had no choice in the matter."
"I still don't understand. I guess you think what you're saying is clear, but it makes no sense to me."
Slowly, he nodded. "I'm sorry. Let me start over."
Crossing her arms to keep from touching him, she caught her breath as she belatedly realized exhaustion showed white around the edge of his mouth. Despite his tanned skin and corded, muscular arms, he was thin as a rail, too, though his shoulders were still as broad.
And he was just as beautiful.
"Start at the beginning," she offered.
"Okay. Let me tell you as much as I remember," he said. "One minute I was striding through the Mexican fields with the man I went to meet. You remember. His name was Carlos, and he claimed to have grown a completely new and fantastic strain of coffee beans."
He'd gone to obtain samples to see if his company, Boulder's Best Brew, would be interested in distributing them.
"I felt a blow at the back of my head like an explosion," he continued. "After that, I regained consciousness chained and was trussed like an animal, with a headache the size of Denver."
His eyes were haunted as he paused. "I had no idea where I was. I'd gone down in the wilds of the Mexican jungle. Carlos, the two employees who'd traveled with me, as well as my Spanish interpreter, had vanished either dead or captured, too. I was a prisoner, with no way to contact you or Sean or even the American embassy. Worse, I had no idea why."
Though he paused as if inviting comments, Lucy didn't interrupt. Holding her gaze, he swallowed and continued.
"They tortured me enough to put me on the tattered edge of crazy. Without my interpreters, I couldn't understand most of what they asked me, though after a while I realized they thought I'd stolen something. Instead, I tried to figure out a way out of there, a way home to you. I began making up lies to keep them from torturing me more. But no matter what they did to me, I couldn't tell them what they wanted because I truly didn't know."
"They? Who were they?" she asked, her throat aching at the haunting look on his face. "Who did this to you?"
He winced as he shrugged. "As best as I could tell, I was held prisoner by a major Mexican drug cartel."
"Did you tell them that they had the wrong person?"
"I tried. But since my Spanish is extremely limited, the explanation I tried to give them fell on deaf ears."
"You're lucky they didn't kill you."
"I don't know about that," he said. "At first, I dreamed of escape, of home. After a while, I mostly dreamt of death. I wanted them to just go ahead and kill me. Get it over with. But they wouldn't end my suffering and let me die."
His voice broke and he looked down briefly before continuing. "I still don't understand why not. Drug cartels like this one are ruthless. They usually kill spies or anyone who pissed them off without blinking. You've heard the stories of the mass graves found near the border, where they lined their enemies up near a shallow ditch and shot them in the back. But not me." He sounded bitter, but this time, she understood why.