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Like gunfighters of the Old West, they faced each other in the middle of their living room, intent, it seemed, on making their first fight a humdinger.
"Don't be so naive," Mitch shouted. "Things like this don't happen every day. Besides," he added, jabbing a forefinger into the air, "you knew what I did for a living when we met."
Ciara matched his ire, decibel for decibel. "Isn't this a fine way to celebrate our one-month anniversary… hollering and yelling and—"
"Well, pardon me all the way to town and back," he retorted sarcastically, "but nobody ever told me I was an idiot for becoming an FBI agent before." He threw his hands into the air. "I sure didn't expect to hear nonsense like that from my wife!"
"I never said you were an idiot. I said if anything like what happened to Abe ever happened to you…"
He crossed both arms over his chest. She'd never seen him this way before, so it surprised her that her soft-spoken young husband's eyes darkened when he was angry.
Ciara held her ground. Narrowing her eyes, she said, "Abe died in the line of duty, and you have a bullet wound in your left side… pretty good evidence, wouldn't you say, that you could…"
He sighed heavily. "I've told you and told you—I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a flesh wound. And it happened years ago, when I was a dumb kid, straight out of Quantico."
Her eyes widened. "Is that supposed to comfort me?"
Shaking his head, Mitch's shoulders slumped. "I don't know Ciara. I honestly don't know."
"It's just that I thought… I hoped once we were married, you wouldn't want to take risks like that anymore."
He plowed his fingers through his hair. "Oh for the luvva Pete. Now you're being downright silly. I don't want to take risks, but…"
The tears of frustration and fear she'd been fighting since their argument began, now threatened to fill her eyes. Life had taught her that crying accomplished little more than to make her nose stuffy. If she won this debate, it would be because she had right on her side, not because Mitch couldn't stand to see a woman cry. She covered her face with both hands and prayed for control of her emotions.
Mitch's hard stare immediately softened, and he crossed the room in three long strides. "Ciara, sweetie," he said, his voice thick and sweet as syrup, "don't look at me that way." He bracketed her face with both hands. "Aw, honey, I don't want to fight with you."
She looked deep into his brown eyes. This was the man she'd fallen in love with…warm, caring, understanding. Ciara was about to tell him she didn't want to fight, either, when he said, "Except for that little mishap, I was always careful—" he wiggled his brows suggestively "—even before I had a beautiful wife waiting for me at home."
He stood a head taller than she, outweighed her by seventy pounds, yet she'd bowled him over with one misplaced pout. Lord, we both know he's nothing but a big softie. Please don't ever let me take advantage of that.
She laid her hands atop his. "I love you, but I don't know if I can…" Her hands slid to his shoulders, and she shrugged, a helpless little gesture. "I'm not like your mother or your grandmother or your brothers' wives." Unable to meet his penetrating gaze, she glanced at the packing boxes still stacked all around the room. "We haven't even finished unpacking yet, and already we're making plans to attend an FBI funeral."
"I know it's hard, sweetie, but—"
Ciara wagged a finger under his nose. "Don't you dare tell me that his wife knew what she was getting into."
He grabbed her finger, kissed it. "Ciara…"
Her voice grew raspy, and she bit her lower lip in an attempt to stanch a sob. "I don't know what I'd do in her place. If anything ever happened to you…"
He held her tighter. "I love you, too. And nothing is going to happen to me, I promise. In a year or two, you'll be so bored with my nine-to-five routine, you'll wonder what all this fuss and bother was about." He kissed the tip of her nose. "In the meantime, you've got to remember that I know how to take care of myself. I don't take unnecessary chances."
She looked directly into his thick-lashed eyes. "I'm asking you not to take any chances."
The brown of his eyes went black again as he deciphered her meaning. "You're a cop's daughter, Ciara. You of all people should understand. It isn't just a job—being a special agent is my life."
She jerked free of his embrace. "According to the vows you took four weeks ago, I'm supposed to be your life!" Lifting her chin, Ciara added,"You're the center of mine…."
Mitch knuckled his eyes. "Look," he groaned, arms extended beseechingly, "can't we discuss this like grownups? Why does it have to be 'either/or'?"
"It doesn't get any more 'grown-up' than this, Mitch. If you keep doing what you're doing, it's just a matter of time until—"
Ciara perched on the arm of the sofa. "If only you could find a safer line of work…"
She ignored his sullen pout. "I don't know. But there must be something… something that doesn't put you in the line of fire quite so often."
His frown intensified. "Well, I could always be a receptionist. Or a secretary, even!"
She ignored his scorn. "Save the sarcasm, Mitch. That's not what I meant and you know it. But at least you're on the right track." Ciara tapped a fingertip against her chin. "My dad left the department," she said thoughtfully, more to herself than to Mitch, "started teaching Law Enforcement at the University of Maryland when—"
"I'd go nuts," he blurted out, "staring at the same four walls all day, every day."
Was he being deliberately mule-headed? Or had this been part of his character all along? Ciara completed her sentence through clenched teeth. "When he realized his job was worrying my mother to death. Dad left the department…because he cared about her."
The frown became a scowl. "I care plenty. Why else would I be standing here, trying to justify why I need to bring home a paycheck to support my family!" He paused, looked at her long and hard. "Go ahead, flash those big blue eyes all you want. Getting mad at me doesn't change the facts— your dad quit… because your mom henpecked him into it."
Ciara gasped. "My father is not henpecked. And he isn't a quitter, either!"
Mitch clapped his palm over his eyes. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. But cut me a little slack, will you? I'm still trying to figure out what pushes your buttons."
She had to admit, they had gone through the normal courtship process faster than most folks. A lot faster. Ciara wondered how many other couples found themselves at the altar three months after their first meeting.
Gently, Mitch gripped her upper arms, gave her a little shake. "I don't know what to say, Ciara, except I love you."
"And I love you. But I want to grow old with you. How can I do that if you end up like Abe?"
He stomped over to the window, leaned both palms on its sill. "You might be just a little slip of a thing, but you've got a stubborn streak wide enough for an NFL linebacker." He faced her, tucked in one corner of his mouth. "I'd never ask you to give up your job."
Ciara harrumphed. "I'm not in any danger from my fourth-graders."
He poked his chin out in stubborn defiance. "Give me a break. Those kids are crawling with germs."
She couldn't suppress a giggle. "Nothing that would kill me—" her smile faded "—and make a widower of you."
He pocketed his hands, stared at the toes of his shoes. "Frankly," Mitch said softly, "I'mdisappointed. I expected better from you. You seemed so different from other women I'd known. That's why I fell forehead over feet in love. You were more than the most beautiful thing I'd ever laid eyes on, you had a heart as big as your head, and—" Mitch shook his head "—I never expected you to make me choose between the two most important things in my life."
He was a gun-toting, badge-carrying FBI agent, for goodness' sake; couldn't he see the evidence that was right under his nose! I'm so afraid, Mitch, Ciara wanted to shout, I'm terrified of losing you!
Exasperated, she rolled her eyes. "And here's a 'button' you can avoid in the future, Mahoney—I wouldn't have married a man who could be henpecked. I am not 'making' you do anything."
"Listen, Ciara," he said, massaging his temples, "I can't talk about this right now. I need to find a neutral corner, where I can think, and—"
"Fine," she said, heading for the stairs.
"'Fine' yourself!" he countered at twice the volume. "I'm going to the office for a couple of hours."
Simultaneously the bedroom door and the front door slammed.
It would be the last sound either of them would hear from the other for a very long time.
Ciara ran back down the stairs. He'd locked the bolt from outside, and her hands were shaking so hard it took three tries to get the door opened. "Mitch! Wait!"
But he hadn't heard her, for he was already backing down the drive. He must have been furious, she admitted, to make it that far in so little time. Standing in the open doorway, shivering in the wintry wind, she prayed he would look up and see her there on the porch, pull back into the drive….
Her pleas did not reach God's ear. If they had, the shiny red convertible wouldn't have peeled away from the curb like a speedster in the Indy 500. Probably, when she retrieved the morning edition of the Baltimore Sun, she would likely find skid marks from his '66 Mustang stuck to the asphalt, pointing like an accusing finger in the direction he'd gone.
Ciara retreated into the house they'd owned for one whole week and locked the door behind her. Her heart tightened as the bolt slid into position with a metallic thunk; it seemed such an ominous, final gesture.
She passed the first half hour pacing back and forth in front of the picture window, elbows cupped in her palms, heart lurching every time a pair of headlights rounded the corner, heart aching when they didn't aim up the drive.
There in the corner, amid to-be-hung pictures and stacks of books, stood their foot-high Christmas tree. Since they hadn't unpacked the ornaments yet, Ciara and Mitch had made do with several pairs of her earrings, a couple of his cuff links, curly ribbon, and a big red bow on top. It had looked adorable when they'd finished it last week—Christmas Eve. It just looked sad now, and Ciara resisted the urge to cry. She should be dry-eyed when he came back, not teary and sniffling, like a spoiled little girl….
It wasn't until she'd chewed a cuticle and drawn blood that Ciara decided to do some more unpacking. The activity, she hoped, would keep her from doing further damage to her fingernails. More important, it would draw her focus from the ever-ticking clock.
She arranged the good dishes and silverware in the glass-doored china closet, stood brass candlesticks on the mahogany sideboard, put a centerpiece of burgundy silk peonies on the table. Ciara had promised that on Sunday she would serve Mitch his favorite meal at this table— lasagna and Caesar salad. Surely things between them would be right by then.
Ciara tossed the empty boxes marked "dining room" into the attached garage, then got started on the family room. On either side of the flagstone fireplace she hung the carved wooden plaques and framed parchment awards he'd earned during his years at the Bureau, stood his guitar and banjo on one side of the hearth, his collection of walking sticks on the other. She filled the bookshelves with hard-bound adventure stories by his favorite authors, Dean Koontz and Jack London, and arranged his assortment of ceramic wolves.
Taking a break, she dropped into his brown leather recliner, which sat in its special place, facing the TV. It was an ancient, cavernous thing that had seen better days, but Mitch loved it, and the deep impressions, permanently hollowed into its cushions, were proof of that. Though it didn't match anything in the room—not the pale oak tables or linen-shaded lamps, not the blue-checked sofa or the white tab-topped draperies—the ugly old chair belonged.
She pictured him in it, size eleven feet on the footrest, one hand behind his dark-haired head, the other aiming the remote as channels flicked by at breakneck speed. How many times had she looked at him in this chair, and felt her heart throb with love, her mind reel with amazement that an exciting, adventuresome man like Mitch Mahoney had actually chosen her as his own?
Could she make a man like that happy…for the rest of his life?
Not if tonight was any indicator.
Why did you ask him to choose between you and the agency? she asked herself. Didn't you learn anything from Mom and Dad's mistakes?
They'd been three days into the two-week church-sponsored cruise when her mother found out how much time Ciara had been spending with Mitch. "He's a cop," her mother had said. "You want to live the way I have for thirty years? You want to be miserable all the time, worrying every minute that—"
"He's FBI, Mom," Ciara had gently corrected. "And besides, we're just seeing one another. It doesn't mean we're going to get mar—"
"He's a flatfoot, just like your father. You want to know how he got that name? By stepping all over me, that's how!"
Eyes narrowed by fury, her mother had concluded the tirade through clenched teeth. "Why waste your time, seeing him at all… unless you're hoping to end up at the altar?"
Ciara glanced at his big, empty chair. He should be sitting there now, she told herself, rather than in some stuffy office… alone and angry and—
She could only hope that when he came home they could resolve the problem, ensure nothing like it ever happened again. Otherwise, scenes like that would become a habit, as it had with her mom and dad.
She remembered her college roommate, whose parents seemed more in love after twenty-five years of marriage than Ciara's parents had likely ever been. Surely Kelly's mom and dad weren't lovey-dovey all the time; in quiet private moments, their real feelings for each other surfaced. "They fell head-over-heels in love," Kelly had said dreamily, "just like in the movies." Love at first sight? Ciara had thought. No way!
And she'd kept right on thinking that way, until she first caught sight of Mitchell Riley Mahoney….