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A butterfly-soft shiver ran down Olivia Brown's spine. After all this time, she was scared of seeing her husband again. Scared of being confronted with the reality of the man who'd left her, and scared of how their son would react. Had she been right not to meet him at the airport? "Is it almost time, Mommy?"
Olivia looked over at her son. His ruffled blond locks and paint-stained fingers tugged something inside her, and the worry started to knot in her stomach again.
"Not long now, honey. He'll be here soon."
She moved over to sit with her son, and squeezed his hand.
"Will I like him?"
"Your dad? Of course! You'll love him, Charlie." Her boy nodded and twisted his mouth into a smile.
"Will he like me?"
Olivia laughed and gave him a playful punch on the arm. "Have you ever met anyone who didn't adore you?" Charlie jumped up then, his eyes wide. "Did you hear that?"
Olivia's eyes fluttered shut for a heartbeat. Yes, she'd heard it, and if it wasn't for her son she might just have fled the scene. When her eyes opened again, she was sitting at the table alone. The Welcome Home Daddy poster lay spread out in front of her, splotches of paint and glitter a blur to her eyes. This was it.
In less than thirty seconds, if the slam of a car door was anything to go by, her husband would be stepping back into her life. Would be seeing his son for the first time in two years.
Charlie's excited squeal pulled her out of her daydream and she squared her shoulders, determined to stay strong. There was a knock at the door. She moved out into the hallway just as Charlie lunged forward to open it.
Lieutenant Colonel Luke Brown was officially back home.
Olivia watched Charlie tugging open the door, and wiped her palms over her denim jeans. She might not be looking forward to this, but her son sure was.
Charlie was frozen as he looked at the man on the other side of the threshold. The one who'd smiled at them from the fridge these past two years. The one in the photo that Charlie kissed every night before bed. Well, the man himself was standing right on their doorstep, all tanned, toned and handsome, just like he'd always been. Only this time he was in uniform, the starched trousers and jacket hugging his frame.
There was no mistaking it was him, though. His blond hair was cropped short, skin golden as if he'd spent a week on an island. His dark brown eyeseyes she could never forget even if she triedstaring straight back at her. He stood tall, uncomfortable almost, in his immaculate uniform.
Charlie's delayed yet exuberant outburst broke their stare. Olivia dropped her gaze and watched as her son saw his dad for the first time. Watched as he clutched on to the crisply pressed trousers as if he'd never let go.
"Charlie?" He hated that it was a question.
Luke counted to five in his mind, trying to stop from grabbing his little boy and squeezing the lifeblood from him. He'd waited for this moment for so long, and now this child, with hair the same blond as his own, stood before him, waiting expectantly as if his father would know what to do, when the truth was he had no idea how to even greet him. But he was back now and that's what counted.
Before he could drop his pack to the ground the tiny body hurtled forward, grabbing him tight around the legs. Luke barely had time to lock eyes with Ollie again, to see the reaction on her face, before he was thrown headfirst into fatherhood.
"I see you're not shy, huh?" He recovered from the tackle enough to straighten, bag dropped to the ground, one hand on his son's head. "Thought you'd be big enough for a handshake by now."
Charlie jumped back, saluting his dad, a grin plastered on his face. Luke responded in kind, straight-faced, at his boy pretending to be a soldier.
"You've been taking good care of the little soldier, huh?" Luke turned his attention back to his wife.
Olivia stood in the hall, her slender body braced by the wall. His eyes flicked over her, at the long honey-brown hair falling over her shoulders, at the slim arms crossed over her chest, and the sad blue eyes staring back at him. He hated seeing her like that. Knowing he was responsible for the sadness in her gaze.
"Aagghh! The poster!" Charlie spun around and motored down the hall past his mom, disappearing from sight. Luke watched for a moment, then stepped inside and closed the door behind him. "How are you, Ollie?"
He stood at ease, feet spread evenly. His hands slipped into his pockets as he watched herwatched those beautiful, big blue eyes that were looking straight back at him.
"It's good to have you back, Luke."
Olivia's voice was strained. He tried to ignore it, but it hit him hard. He had imagined this day for a long time, thought about what he'd say and how he'd apologize to her. But now that he was here, expressing himself wasn't coming as easily as he'd hoped.
"It's good to be home." Should he close the distance between them and kiss her? Hug her and say "sorry"? He almost made himself laugh. What would he pick to say sorry for? Leaving her when he'd promised to stay? His royal failure at being a husband, or for being the world's worst father?
"He's been so excited about seeing you." Olivia gestured with her head as a thunder of footfalls echoed their way. "He hardly slept a wink all night."
Luke understood. How could he not? His son was excited to have him home, his wife wasn't. He didn't deserve anything more, but it still hurt.
"He's sure turned into a pretty special kid."
"Welcome home!" Charlie stood at his mom's side, arms stretched wide with the homemade poster. Luke looked at Olivia first, then at Charlie, and he wished things could have been different. That he'd been away a few months, maybe six. That he was coming home to a real family, to a wife who loved him still. The kind of family he had wished for over and over when he was a child.
"I love it," he said, dropping to his knees to inspect the picture. "You did great, kid."
His son beamed and grabbed his hand, tugging him in the direction he'd come from. "Come on, Dad."
Luke looked over his shoulder at Ollie and almost wished he'd stayed away. This was harder than he'd expected, and then some. He'd come home to see his son, but looking at his wife, he was wishing he'd made more of an effort in that department, too. More than an effort, he wished he'd taken the time to make things right.
When Luke looked back at her, gave her that soft smile he used to throw her way so often, Olivia almost broke down, but she was determined not to cry. She had to be strong for their son. It was all that mattered right now.
After all this time, of wishing Luke would come home, to almost wishing he'd never come back into their lives again, he was here. And she had to deal with it.
Those first few months had been the hardest, but then she'd become used to not having her husband around. She'd met other moms, new friends, fitted in in a way she hadn't thought possible. Developed a new life, like a widow. And regretted all the times she'd raised her voice at her husband, when she should have tried listening to him instead.
She'd well and truly prepared for the fact that he might never come home. Until now. His dedication to the army was something to be proud of, but the way he'd hurt her wasn't.
Olivia walked bravely into the living room and watched her son, rabbiting on to his father and dumping toys all over the ground as if he was playing show-and-tell. Luke had taken his jacket off and lay spread out on the floor, his uniformed legs eating up the carpet, white undershirt a contrast to the charcoal weave.
She ached to reach out and touch him, no matter how much she hated herself for thinking that, but he was just so damn gorgeous. So handsome, and the memories she had of him were so good. It was as if she needed to make contact with his skin to prove that he was here. Alive. In their house.
But reuniting with Luke wasn't a possibility. The thrum of hurt still ached like a constant thud, and having him back only made the pain more real. She couldn't do it again. Not now. She'd finally rebuilt her life, and if she lost him again she'd never recover.
The divorce papers were in her bag; she just had to decide when to tell him. She was sure he'd given up on their marriage long before she had, so now it was just time to make it official.
"Okay, time to let me talk to your mom, okay?" she heard him tell Charlie.
Olivia turned to see Luke pull his big frame up to full height.
"Coffee?" she asked, busying herself in the kitchen for something to do.
He nodded and sat down across from her. She sensed him watching her as she dropped instant coffee into each cup. Scooped sugar into her mug, then refilled the dis-penseranything to avoid his gaze.
"Nice place here."
Olivia paused and looked at him. "I had to move. It just wasn't practical to stay in the old house." Her voice had a bite to it. A snap she hadn't intended.
Luke raised his hands. "I didn't mean anything by it. You don't have to explain."
Heat hit her cheeks and she turned to pour boiling water into each cup. Of course he hadn't meant anything by it. She was just jittery and jumping to conclusions.
"Luke, I " She placed the mug in front of him and tried to find the words.
He reached out to her, catching her wrist as she let one hand rest on the counter. The simple press of his skin against hers made her pull away, recoil. But it also made her flush with something other than anger. Because she still wanted Luke, no matter how much she tried to make herself think otherwise.
"You don't have to say anything. This is hard for me, too, Ollie."
No! she wanted to scream at him. You have no idea how I feel, no idea how lonely I've been, how some nights I just wished you were dead, so I could move on with my life.
There had been times when she'd almost wished the worst would happen to him, even though the guilt of her thoughts would later eat away at her. But the way things had ended between them, the regrets she had for what she'd said and done, the pain from his actions, had pushed her to the edge.
She stood and sipped her coffee, hand shaking ever so slightly. Luke did the same, but he didn't look back at her. Instead he stared into the black liquid, eyes down. She hoped he couldn't read her thoughts.
Charlie's voice pulled her back to reality. A welcome relief to the strained feeling between her and Luke. "Can we go outside?"
She glanced at Luke and he nodded, taking a few quick sips of his drink before standing. Charlie looked innocent, his head on a slight angle as if he wasn't sure what was happening.
"Let's go kick a ball or something, huh?" Luke suggested.
Ollie watched as he took Charlie's hand. Watched as they walked from the room and out the door, father and son.
Luke was all musclelean and toned. A bit on the thin side, but handsome and strong nonetheless. Her body still yearned for him, and so did her heart, but things were different now. He'd broken his promise and left her, and she could never forgive him for ending things. She had to protect herself and her son.
It wasn't that she didn't believe in patriotism. She did. But she also believed in family. A soldier didn't just walk out on his family, no matter what. Not like Luke had. Could she ever trust him not to leave Charlie again?
"He's out cold."
Luke sat back down at the table and poured himself another glass of wine. He hadn't drunk more than the odd beer in years, but this was at least helping him deal with being back.
Ollie looked up at him, and he resisted the urge to reach out. To touch her and remember what things had once been like for them. He knew it was a lot to expect, her having him here, but it wasn't as if they were pretending to be together again. Except maybe just a little, to keep things uncomplicated for their son.
"Why didn't you call, Luke?"
If he could have hung his head any lower, he would have. He'd been a lousy husband and an even worse dad, and he had no excuse. But her question still made him feel like dirt. Luke took another sip of wine and stared back at her.
"We were lucky to hear from you every other month." He frowned. "It was hard to make contact." He knew it sounded phony, and the truth was he should have made more of an effort, but damn it! He knew he'd stuffed up, and it wasn't something he'd wanted to do.
"Bull!" She stood with a thump, glaring at him as she swore. "Don't lie to me, Luke. You had a little boy here who cried for his daddy night after night, and you couldn't make the effort to call more? He's had to grow up without even remembering or knowing who you were."
Luke stayed seated. He was not going to argue with her. Not on his first night home. Not like they used to. But at one point, when he had been at his lowest, that's what he'd wanted: for Charlie to forget him so he never knew the pain of loss.
"Keep your voice down, Ollie. You'll wake Charlie," he said.
"How dare you!" she growled. "I've kept my voice down every night, doing nothing but look after our son. He's been my life, Luke. While you've been off fighting for our country, I've been fighting for our son. For me. For our family." She paused and glared at him, her voice dropping an octave. "While you decided not to give a damn."
Her eyes were full of tears. Luke looked away. He couldn't watch her. Couldn't bear to see the sadness, the emptiness in her eyes. Worst of all, he knew she was right.
"I know it's been hard for you ."
The silence that stretched between them seemed to drain the air of oxygen. But it wasn't just his fault, was it? Ollie hadn't exactly acted as if she'd wanted him to stay, and he'd never forgotten it.
"You have no idea how hard it's been, Luke. Don't even try to understand. I was here alone, with a little boy who deserved a father." Her voice cracked. "It wasn't that you left me, it was that you left our son."