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Mykal Marten held out his cupped hands and opened them slowly. Perched on his palm was the most stunning butterfly Janis Davos had ever seen. Its lacy wings sparkled pink and silver as they pulsed in the sunlight.
"Be careful," she cried without thinking. "Don't hurt it."
He gave her a quizzical look, as though wondering why her first thought might be that one. "I would never hurt it," he said, his voice low and rough with emotion. "I just wanted you to see it. It's so beautiful, so precious ." His voice went so soft she could barely hear his words. "It reminds me of you."
She turned to look up into his crystal blue eyes, her heart in her throat.
"Oh, Mykal," she whispered, tears threatening. She looked more deeply into his eyes, hoping for truth. Did he really mean it? About her? There had been so many lies in her life, she was almost afraid to believe. And then she laughed with happiness.
Her laugh must have startled the butterfly, because it took off, circling above them, rising higher and higher in the offshore breeze, until it was just a sparkle against the blue sky.
They watched until it disappeared, and then she tucked herself into the crook of his arm and sighed.
"Here's the truth, Mykal. That butterfly was my heart. You set it free." She looked up, searching his eyes, hoping to see that he felt like she did, almost afraid that he wouldn't. "I never knew life could be like this," she said simply.
He pulled her in closer, wrapping her in his strong arms and smiling down into her face. "Neither did I," he said softly. "I never knew what love was until there was you."
He kissed her lips slowly, touching her tongue with his, savoring every nuance of her taste. "Promise me we'll never let it slip through our fingers, like other people do," he murmured. "Promise me we'll always remember this day and how we felt."
"I promise," she said, reaching up to get more of his kisses. "And what's more, I promise it will only get better."
Only get better. Only get better.
Her own words echoed mockingly in her head no matter how hard she tried to blot them out. That was then. This was now. How did you celebrate the death of a romance?
You didn't. You just tried to survive it.
And now, here she was in front of Mykal's family home, ready to sign, seal and deliver an official end to all they had meant to each other only months ago. She shifted the satchel she was carrying and wrapped her fingers around the beautifully twisted bars of the wrought-iron fence that topped the limestone wall that held back those who didn't belong inside.
Of course that meant her. Especially her.
Blame it on the war. Everybody else did. She'd used that excuse herself when she'd married Mykal, a man she'd known at the time for less than two months. Their marriage had been passionate, intense, and only lasted for a few weeks before their separation. All in all, it hadn't quite been half a year since they'd first met, though it seemed a lifetime. Blame it on the war. A whole generation of young Ambrians had given in to impulses they never would have thought of before the war drums had begun to beat a rhythm to their lives.
She and Mykal had both volunteered for military intelligence work, both taken some very tough training, and when they met later on as the war was ending, they'd seemed to be so well matched, she found it hard to believe that the man she'd married could have possibly grown up in this well, it was a mansion, wasn't it? There was no way to put a more modest face on it. Rich people lived here. Very rich people.
She and Mykal had never talked much about their backgrounds. She hadn't realized he was hiding his just as surely as she had been hiding hers. She'd been pretty sure he didn't secretly have a family in organized crime like she did. But then, she didn't talk to anyone but her brother Rolo about that.
And here she was, standing outside of the address where she'd been told he now lived, trying to get up the nerve to go to the door and ask to see him. She didn't belong here. Her heart was beating a wild salsa in her soul and her knees felt like water. She was scared stiff.
But what she was most afraid of was her own traitorous heart. Would she let him walk all over her emotions again? Would she be able to keep the cold, sharp edge of her bitterness alive once she looked into his mesmerizing blue eyes?
She had to. She wasn't just building a life for one any longer. She couldn't afford to follow her heart. Two months in a prison camp had taught her to stop dreaming and start facing reality. That tended to happen when the man you thought was the love of your life turned you over to the secret police.
She looked at the brass bell meant for visitors to announce their business. What was she going to say to the butler? She had to get in to see Mykal one last time.
Mykal. It still took her breath away to think of him, and she had to control that. He didn't love her anymore. That much was perfectly clear. But she needed his signature on a couple of official documents. And then they could cut the last ties between them and walk away and never look back.
Her hands were trembling. Could she hold it together long enough to get all that done? She had to.
The street was empty. Clumps of grey snow lingered in the shadows. It was almost twilight. It had been a long, hard journey to get here and she'd hurried to make it before dark.
"So, what now?" she murmured to herself. "Shall I ring? And if they say, 'No visitors', then what? Do I make a scene? What do I do?"
Suddenly, a medical van turned onto the street, siren blaring. Janis jumped back, stepping behind a bush. She knew it was coming right for this house. Somehow, she knew. And as it turned in, the iron gates began to open.
Despite everything, she was still quick and resourceful. She didn't know if the van was bringing someone in or taking someone away, but she did know this might be her only chance to get onto the property without anyone challenging her. Trying to stay inconspicuous, she held the satchel with her papers close and slipped in through the gates alongside the van, staying well away from where the big side mirrors could pick her up. She was still wearing the dark blue jumpsuit they'd made her wear in the prison camp and now she was glad for it. Anyone looking out and seeing her would assume she was in uniform and working with the medical van. This way she would have a chance of finding Mykal before someone kicked her out.
The van turned and pulled slowly into place, backing toward the wide stairway. A serving person had opened the double doors to the house and was on his way down the stairs toward the van. She went the opposite direction and seemed to escape notice, as all attention was on the van as the door opened and a paramedic jumped out, shouting orders forward to the driver.
She was almost in when a voice stopped her.
She gasped and looked up. A medic was looking down out of the ambulance at her.
"Hey, miss," he said. "Can you make sure they're ready for him inside?"
"Oh." She almost laughed with relief. "Sure. No problem."
That answered that question. This was a delivery, not a pickup. There had to be a lot of people living in a house this big.
A few more steps and she was inside, giving only a quick glance at the beautifully appointed foyer and the sweeping stairway to the second floor. She had to figure out how to find Mykal and in a house this size, that wasn't going to be easy.
"Yes? Can I help you?"
She whirled and faced an imposing-looking gentleman in formal wear. She was caught. She had to think fast. She wasn't sure just exactly what was going on, so it was difficult to make adjustments. She needed a story that would fit in. Luckily, her military intelligence training had been thorough and it kicked in now.
"I came in with the medevac van," she said, careful not to do any actual lying. She glanced out at where the van had backed up to the front stairway. The double doors were open and someone was being unloaded on a gurney. She looked again, gaze sharpening. There was a man and he looked familiar.
Her heart stopped and she reeled.
The man on the gurney was Mykal.
Mykal! her mind screamed, and for a split second, everything went black. Mykal was hurt. All the love, all the feeling came pouring back. The anger, the pain, the betrayalall that disappeared in a puff of smoke. Mykal was hurt. Everything in her demanded she go to him.
But she couldn't. She saw his head move. He even nodded in answer to something one of the paramedics said to him. Relief filled her heart. At least he wasn't unconscious.
But what was he? Wounded? Ill? She couldn't tell. But she knew what her plan had to be. It came to her very clearly in a lightning-quick flash. To people in the house, she had to appear to be with the medevac team. To the medevac team, she had to appear to belong at the house. Mykal was hurt and she knew she had to pretend she didn't know him for now. Until she had a chance to see him alone, she couldn't let anyone know who she was or why she was here. For all she knew, there might be standing orders to keep her away.
It would be more than tricky, because she needed to stay out of Mykal's line of sight at the same time. If he looked up and saw her.
All of that thought process transpired in a fraction of a second. As she knew from her training, acting like you belong there and you know what you're doing is half the battle. She turned back to the butler and managed to put on a professional smile.
"If you could direct me to the room he'll be using, I'd like to check it out and make sure the accommodations will suit his needs."
The man hesitated a moment and she thought she could detect just a hint of suspicion in his eyes. But he didn't say anything. Instead, he stood back and gave her a gracious bow of welcome, then turned and led her past the sweeping curve of the huge staircase to a room at the back of the house.
"We decided to prepare the extra bedroom here on the first floor rather than his usual suite so that the stairs could be avoided for now," he told her, and she nodded her approval of that decision after a quick look inside. But his words also made her wonderwas he in a wheelchair? Was he paralyzed? Each thought made her quiver inside.
"It looks fine," she said, noting there was a bathroom attached. All in all, it was larger and nicer than any apartment she'd ever had in her life and it was just a spare room. "I'm sure we will be able to make him comfortable here."