Read an Excerpt
Drew stood outside Grace's door, shifting from foot to foot. He wondered if the bouquet of mixed flowers was overkill.
He shrugged, then winced at the dull throb in his shoulder. A reminder of shrapnel that had mercifully missed all major organs, along with his body armor.
What if she was married and her husband answered the door? Drew would feel foolish, but at least he'd have a clear conscience. Thoughts of Grace had both sustained and haunted him in the Middle East.
Besides, Kat would have told him if Grace had someone in her life, wouldn't she?
Maybe that's why her voice had sounded a bit strangled when he'd called. He'd gotten the distinct impression she'd been surprised to hear from him. Even more surprised that he was asking for Grace's new phone number so long after their blind date. Kat had refused, offering instead to give a message to her friend.
When a week passed and he hadn't heard anything, he'd bought her contact information online for the low price of nine ninety-five. Ten bucks and a few minutes later, he'd found her. Annie Grace Marsh.
The door opened.
"You're early, Kat"
"Grace." It was the only word he could choke out. The reality of seeing her in front of himwith new light brown hair and funky black-rimmed glasseswas overwhelming. The kid perched on her hip barely registered.
Her eyes widened.
And she slammed the door.
Of all the possible reactions, that was one he'd refused to consider. His top fantasy early in his tour had been of Grace throwing herself into his arms, inviting him inside for a repeat performance of their lovemak-ing. But now, the changes he wanted to make in his life dictated refusing. And having afling with her again would pretty much negate his apology. Still, he was a man and couldn't help longing for the simpler days before he'd become uncomfortably aware of the finer distinctions between right and wrong.
He owed Grace an apology and he intended to follow through. He couldn't begin to contemplate making a career change until he had this settled.
He rang the doorbell again. Then he knocked. "Come on, Grace, open up. I just want to talk."
Except his motives weren't as pure as he wanted to believe. Maybe he wanted to see if they could somehow start over on a saner, slower note? See where it led? Something about Grace made it impossible to forget her. Something more than being good in the sack.
He knocked again, louder.
After minutes that seemed like hours, Drew knew when to admit defeat. But only temporarily. He would talk to her one way or another. He owed it to her, owed it to himself. And, probably most importantly, he owed it to the men and women he'd left behind in Iraq. He dropped the flowers, turned and strode away.
After the knocking stopped, Annie let the lullaby she was singing trail to an end. Opening her eyes, she gazed down at her son's beautiful face as she held him in the rocker while he drifted off to sleep. Tracing his velvety cheek with her finger, she marveled that she'd brought such a perfect child into this world.
Her eyes misted when she thought of the night Micah had been conceived. It had been a mistake, an error in judgment she could never regret. Because she had been given a gift that made her embarrassment seem an insignificant price to pay.
But now she wondered.
Drew was alive. Her heart pounded.
Then the weight of what she'd done came crashing down hard.
Annie smiled, watching Kat push Micah on the swing. He laughed and kicked his chubby legs in no particular rhythm. "Higher," he squealed.
Annie bit her lip as she watched her friend comply. Logically, she knew the infant playground was designed for safety, but she couldn't quell her anxiety that something might happen to him.
She sighed with relief when Kat said, "Enough swinging for now, kiddo. I want to talk to your mom."
Micah protested as she took him from the swing, but Annie quickly distracted him with a plastic shovel and bucket. He happily plopped on his rear end in the sand to play.
Kat brushed her hair out of her eyes, her waist-length curls shining almost auburn in the sun. "Have you forgiven me yet?"
"It's not your fault. You didn't send Drew over to my place. You didn't give him my contact information."
"But I didn't tell you he'd called, either. You do believe I intended to, don't you? I'd never keep something like that from you."
Annie squeezed her friend's hand. "I know. I just wish I'd been prepared. It was such a shock opening the door and seeing him there."
"Kind of like seeing a ghost? When I heard his voice on the phone "
"It was worse than seeing a ghost." Annie's stomach started to churn. "I've done nothing but turn it over in my mind. How it'll affect Micah. How it might appear to Drew."
"Look, Annie, you did the best you could during a really tough time. The casualty list made it sound like he was as good as dead."
"I was so sick throughout the pregnancy. Then when they thought I might miscarry, I quit thinking about how Micah was conceived and just focused on delivering a healthy baby." That at least was part of the truth. The other part was so twisted, she didn't totally understand it herself. The bottom line was she'd convinced herself Drew was dead and that she didn't need to contact his family about the baby.
Annie gazed over the playground, trying not to think about that night with him. How equally wonderful and scary it had been to let go of her carefully constructed goals, if just for a few hours. To go back to being a little wacky, a little daring. It was the last time she'd felt free in a very long time.
"The truth is, I thought if I lost Micah it would be because I was being punished. Because I'd tossed away my rules for a night of meaningless sex."
"Was it meaningless?" Kat asked, her voice low. "I've never known you to have sex just for the sake of getting laid. Even during your wilder days."
Annie repressed a shiver. "He was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen and he had the kindest eyes. There was this this electricity between us. Then it was over and I couldn't believe what I'd done. I cried."
"Aw, honey. You never said a word."
"Drew was so sweet that night . So understanding."
"Then maybe it's a good thing he's back."
Annie shook her head. "Micah's mine. It's just the two of us. I've known since the first flutter of life that it would be him and me against the world. I decided then and there he wouldn't miss out on anything because he didn't have a father. I'd be his everything."
"And you have been. I totally admire how you've dedicated yourself to Micah. But maybe it's time to share some of the load."
"Micah is not a burden."
"You know that's not what I meant. All I'm saying is give the guy a chance. At the very least, he should be profviding for his son."
Annie sipped her latte. She would have normally savored it. Just as she normally savored this Saturday-morning ritual with her friend.
"I don't want Drew's money." And then the truth slipped out before she could temper it. "I don't want things changing."
Warmth trickled over Annie's toes. She glanced down, suppressing a smile as she watched Micah pour sand on her foot. Reaching down, she steered his hand to the pail. "That goes in the bucket, sweetie."
He giggled and poured more sand over her toes.
Sighing, she decided shaking the grit off her flip-flop was a small price to pay for Micah's delight.
"Think it through before you make a decision about Drew." Kat sipped her iced coffee. "Maybe go see an attorney first."
In Annie's shock at seeing Drew, she hadn't really considered the legal angle. "I wish he'd never come back."
"Yeah, who could've known he'd survive."
Annie's eyes widened. "I don't mean I wish he was dead. I just wish he wasn't here."
"From what little I know of the guy, I'd guess he's not going anywhere."
And that was exactly what Annie feared.
The diaper bag banged against Annie's hip as she trudged across the parking lot after work on Monday.
"Mac. Cheese?" Micah smiled, excitement in his brown eyes.
"Let me guess. You want macaroni and cheese for dinner again?"
"You're going to turn into a big macaroni noodle." She tickled his ribs and his giggle warmed her heart.
"No, you're Micah, silly."
Kissing his cheek soundly, she was smiling as she rounded the corner to their apartment.
Her smile froze.
Drew pushed away from the wall, his muscular body blocking the walkway to her place. "Hi."
Annie felt her world tilt. She'd suspected this moment was coming. But she hadn't been able to figure out what she'd do.
"I need to talk to you."
He knew. And if he was in Phoenix to stay, he was going to demand joint custody.
Annie pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, stalling for time. "What's this about?"
He glanced around. The curtains in the apartment next door parted. "It's private. Can we go inside?"
It was on the tip of her tongue to refuse. After all, he was a stranger.
The irony made her want to smack her forehead. "I guess I know you're not dangerous." She lowered her voice, "I mean, I did sleep with you."
"That's what I want to talk to you about."
Annie tightened her grip on Micah.
"Hey, no STDs here. You can sleep soundly now. Well, I'm glad we had this little talk. See you later." She tried not to wince at her desperate attempt to deflect him.
"That's not what this is about. Besides, we used protection."
"Uh, yeah." Protection that had failed big-time. Was it possible he hadn't connected the dots?
She continued walking to her apartment, hoping against hope he'd simply turn and leave.
But he didn't. His hand at her elbow was light, but firm.
Reaching her door, she fumbled with the zipper on her purse and was finally able to locate her keys. Unlocking the door, she reluctantly gestured for him to follow. "Come on in."
Micah squirmed to be let down.
Annie fought the urge to hold him close and never let him go. She set him on the ground, and he ran through the wide arch to the family room, where he found his toy train set.
Drew stepped closer. He was still as physically imposing as she remembered. But his face was thinner, his eyes shadowed.
Annie swallowed hard. "I'm glad you came home okay." It was the truth. Even if it turned her world upside down.
He reached out to touch her cheek, but stopped. "I thought about you so often." His voice was husky.
"Yes. Did you ever think of me?"
Annie avoided his gaze. "I was busy."
"Is there a man in your life, Grace?"
His use of her middle name irritated her. It reminded her of the harmless lie that had tangled itself into a big, hairy knot.
Licking her lips, she said, "No."
He stepped closer and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. His scent washed over her, reminding her of all that they'd shared in such a short, disjointed period.
"I owe you an apology."
Annie briefly closed her eyes. This could not be happening. She wondered if it were possible to die of guilt.
"I've relived that night we spent together," he continued, seeming not to notice her discomfort, "and can't believe I thought it was okay. I kind of exaggerated some stuff, made it sound like I wasn't coming back, so you'd feel sorry for me and, well, you know, go to bed with me. I figured it was no big deal, but it was. The way you cried afterward. It's bothered me."
You lied to me? Then again, she was the last person to question motives.
She went into the family room, gesturing for Drew to follow. Snatching Micah's stuffed dragon off the floor on the pretense of tidying, she found herself holding it close, as if it could protect her.
"It was really sweet of you to apologize after all this time. Don't worry about it. I was overreacting."
He stepped closer and traced her cheek with his thumb. "No. Not overreacting. I treated you dishonorably. And I want you to know how sorry I am."
"You didn't do anything wrong."
"Yes, I did. I was freaked out about going into active duty again and I reached out to you as a way to forget for a few hours. I shouldn't have used you like that."
"I was a willing participant, remember?" Annie's cheeks warmed when she recalled exactly how willing she had been, and it had nothing to do with the Long Island Iced Tea the harried server might have given her by mistake. Even now, completely sober, she was drawn to him, wanting to feel his fingers in her hair, his warm breath on her neck. She could recall every exquisite detail of their night together, his scent, how he tasted.
She resisted the urge to glance at her son. "No harm, no foul. You've apologized and it was nice of you, but unnecessary. Now, I'm sure you have somewhere you need to be."
She tried to edge him toward the door, but he didn't budge. Her maneuver simply put her uncomfortably close to a man who exuded pheremones.
"No, I need to say this. You were sweet and sexy and just about every guy's dream. But I could sense it wasn't something you would normally do. I should have been a better man and walked away."
She couldn't believe what she was hearing. Most men wouldn't have been bothered by shading the truth for sex. And coming back years later to apologize? Head injury perhaps? Or was it a ploy to check out Micah and look for a family resemblance?
"Your injury was severe?"
"How did you know I was wounded?" He flexed his shoulder out of habit, even though it hadn't troubled him in months.
She turned away. Her family room seemed entirely too small. All she wanted to do was scoop Micah up and flee.
As if sensing her thoughts, her son flung himself at her leg. "Mommy."
She brushed her fingers through his fine, silky, dark hair. His father's hair.
"Grace? How did you know I was injured?"
"It was on one of those antiwar Web sites that post information the mainstream media doesn't."
"Were you looking for me?"
"Yes," she said quietly.
She glanced down at her son, who lifted his arms to her. Unable to resist, she picked him up and settled him on her hip.
"He's yours?" Drew asked.
Raising her chin, she said, "Yes, he's my son."
"Yes, he is."
"How old is he, Grace?"
She squared her shoulders. She would do the right thing. Arguably, the honorable thing.
"First off, my name is Annie. Grace is my middle name. Micah is a little over a year and a half old. He was born eight months after you shipped out."
She waited for Drew to do the math.
She saw relief flash in his eyes.
"He was a month premature."