However, a fake marriage might work. Lucas may not be too keen, but Merry knows he won't let her down.
When her father makes an unexpected recovery, Merry's simple plan goes into a tailspin. And family expectations aren't the only problem. A spark has ignited and playing house with Lucas is becoming a little too real.
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Lucas Calder had spent the past eight years flying his chopper in places where no one spoke a language he recognized. But the hand signals and facial expressions of Afghani kids had been easier to understand than the scene he was witnessing now.
His father, Admiral Dwight Calderfamously rigid, gimlet-eyed and about as warm as a midnight watch on an aircraft carrier in the Arcticblew a raspberry on the tummy of his baby daughter, Lucas's half sister, who was lying on her changing table.
Incomprehensible. And right now, damn inconvenient.
Lucas glanced at his watch: 3:00 p.m. Ten at night in the Gulf. He should be sitting at the tiny desk in his cabin, processing the next day's minesweeping flight plan, imprinting it on his memory.
"Who's a smelly girl?" Dwight teased. Mia shrieked with delight, apparently undisturbed by the stench emanating from her diaper.
"Dad, can we talk?" Lucas tried again to drag his father's attention to more serious matters. Such as Lucas's down-the-toilet military career.
"Of course we can." Dwight untaped the diaper.
Lucas took a hasty step backward. "Man, she stinks."
"Don't talk about your sister like that." Dwight wielded a wet wipe with surprising efficiency. It went without saying that he hadn't done any diaper changing when Lucas and his older brother, Garrett, were babies. Their father's metamorphosis to doting dad was very new. For Mia's sake, Lucas was pleased.
He just wished it was possible to have a conversation with his father that wasn't about feeding or potty time.
As Dwight tossed the diaper in the trash, Mia wriggled, a flurry of pudgy arms and legs. Lucas surged forward to block the side of the changing table.
Dwight held her in place with a hand on her chest. "I wouldn't let her fall," he growled.
Lucas hadn't come back to New London, Connecticut, to argue with his dad. He stepped away.
"Pass me a new diaper," his father ordered. The return to something approaching military style was so welcome that Lucas obeyed.
When Mia was dressed again, Dwight picked her up. "Would you like to hold her?" he asked Lucas.
"Uh, no. I'm good, thanks."
Mia nestled against Dwight's shoulder, eyelids at half-mast.
"She'll nod off soon," he predicted. "Let's talk downstairs in my study."
As they reached the bottom of the staircase, the glass-paned front door opened. Stephanie, Lucas's stepmom, came in and set her purse on the hall console. She gave a squeal of pleasure. "Lucas! When did you get here? Come give me a hug, you adorable boy."
He squeezed her tightly. "I don't need to ask how you are. You look great."
She smacked his shoulder. "Liar. Do you know how hard it is for a woman in her mid-forties to lose baby weight? But I love you for saying it." She pulled away to address Dwight. "Darling, you know very well Mia should be in bed."
"She kept calling to me over the baby monitor," he protested.
Lucas noted with some discomfort that his father sounded sheepish. Great. The country had benefited for decades from Admiral Calder's unrelenting sense of mission, but the one time Lucas needed his dad operating at full aggression What had happened to Admiral Cold-ass, as he'd been irreverently known to his crew?
Stephanie took the baby from Dwight. "I'll put her to bed. Sorry, sweetie," she crooned to Mia, "but Mean Mommy's back."
Mia babbled something that may or may not have been an attempt at words. Her parents cooed as if she'd just recited Shakespeare.
Lucas couldn't help noticing that Dwight caressed his wife's bottom as she passed. Things really had changed.
Was his dad even capable of focusing on Lucas's problem?
Lucas reminded himself that Dwight had been a navy man far longer than he'd been a family man. If he could just recall his "preenlightened" state, he would understand why Lucas needed his help.
"It's good to have you home," Dwight said as he settled into the burgundy leather chair behind his oak desk. The desk had once graced the captain's stateroom on a nineteenth-century sailing ship. "How's the hand?"
"Fine," Lucas said. "Great. Fully recovered." Sixteen months ago, his minesweeping chopper had been shot down in the Persian Gulf. Lucas had been medevaced to the U.S.A. for treatmenton the day Mia was born, as it turned out. Getting over the concussion, broken ribs and ankle and punctured lung had proved easy. Or so he'd thought at the time.
The surgery on his shattered hand had been more complex, the rehabilitation endless. Partly because Lucas had insisted on doing it all in one long stretch, relocating to Baltimore to be closer to the rehab center.
"Shame about your eyes." Someone must have reported the details of Lucas's latest physical to Dwight. Shouldn't happen, of course, but Admiral Calder had so many friends in high places, there was always someone keen to fill him in about his son. Even though Dwight would have been too honorable to ask.
"The only problem was my depth perception," Lucas said. "Everything else was fine." He'd had no idea that, after working so hard to restore his hand, he would fail his back-to-duty physical because of his eyesight. The doctor had attributed the change in his vision to the deep concussion he'd sustained in the crash.
The skeptical pursing of Dwight's lips said his father wasn't fooled by the words the only problem.
It was an insurmountable problem.
Nothing is insurmountable.
"You've heard they're discharging me, as of December 31," Lucas guessed. "I'm on leave until then."
Dwight nodded. "I understand you turned down a desk job."
"I want to fly." They'd told him that couldn't happen. He should have known better than to issue an ultimatum to the U.S. Navy. But no way did he want to sit at a desk while, out there, men risked their lives to protect others.
Thanks to his ultimatumsend me back or discharge mehe'd be out at the end of the year. A man without a mission. He couldn't get his head around the idea.
Hopefully, he wouldn't have to.
"You failed the physical, you can't fly," Dwight said.
Usually, Lucas considered having his father so high up in the navy to be a disadvantage. Today, he hoped that for the first time in his life, it would help.
"That's what I want to talk to you about," he said. "I need to see a different doctor, get a retest and a second opinion. I figured you'd know someone."
Someone who would understand his need to get back out there.
"We don't do retests," Dwight said. "Besides, if you failed it once, you'll fail again."
"There are exercises I can do to improve my depth perception," Lucas replied. He hoped what he'd read on the internet was true, not some urban myth. "If I'd known I had a problem, I would have done them already. As it is, I want to spend a month strengthening my vision, then sit the test again."
Another pilot had been assigned to Lucas's chopper on a temporary basis, on the assumption that he'd be back. Now that he was out, his C.O. wanted to appoint the other guy permanently. At Lucas's request, he'd agreed to hold off for a few more weeks. Seemed he had more faith in Lucas's ability to swing a retest than his dad did.
"I'm not sure I like the idea of you going back after what you went through," Dwight said. "You're lucky to be alive. You've done your duty to your country, and then some."
"It's not about duty," Lucas said. "It's about " No one in my unit is better than I am at undersea mine detection and destruction. No one is better at protecting our ships and their crews. They need me. He wasn't about to argue with his father about the numbers of lives and ships that were at stake every day over there. "This is who I am, Dad."
"Maybe this is a time to reevaluate who you are." Dwight's emphasis recognized the irony of a man like himself talking such postmodern jargon. "The navy isn't everythingI almost lost what really mattered before I figured that out."
He and Stephanie had split up briefly before Mia's birth. Lucas wasn't sure what happened during their time apart, but Stephanie had said his father had come through it a changed man. His dad hadn't seemed much different when he'd visited Lucas in Baltimore, but here at home
Change wasn't always a good thing.
"I'm a bit young for a midlife crisis, Dad," Lucas said evenly. "I know who I am, and I know what matters. Will you help me or not?"
His father picked up a fat, cigar-shaped gold pen and flipped it between his fingers. "What does Merry think you should do?"
"We haven't talked lately, and I haven't seen her since I got into town. I came straight to you."
Merry Wyatt was the daughter of John Wyatt, retired navy lieutenant and Dwight's best friend. John and Dwight had served in Vietnam together, on a submarine, back when they were practically kids. John had saved Dwight's life. Which Lucas assumed was why his unsentimental father had always shared John's desire to see Lucas and Merry's childhood friendship evolve into a romantic attachment.
He and Merry had humored their dads by dating once a year for the past, what, nine years? Yeah, nine, starting right after Merry graduated from high school. That first date had been a disaster, but some of the others had been interesting. Over the years, each of them had used their on-again, off-again "romance" to their own advantage. Such as the year Lucas had claimed a back-home girlfriend as an excuse to refuse the attentions of his captain's daughter without offending the captain.
Their last date, six months ago in Baltimore, was responsible for the recent radio silence he and Merry had been observing.
"You should ask her what she thinks," his dad urged. "Merry's a sensible girl."
Sensible wasn't the word Lucas would use. But if talking to Merry would help bring Dwight around
"Sure," he said. "I'll go see her now."
Sooner or later, they would have to meet up again. Might as well be now.
Merry was the forgiving type wasn't she?
She's a romantic. An idealist. Idealists are quick to forgive.
Dwight beamed in approval of the plan. Since his father wasn't the beaming type, Lucas found it creepy. Still, he took advantage of that approbation to push his luck. "Dad, you didn't say if you'll help me get a retest."
An appeal against medical disqualification would require Dwight to pull strings. Something he had an aversion to.
Dwight steepled his fingers on his desk. "I'll think about it. How long are you staying?"
"Until you've thought about it," Lucas said.
Lucas slid open the double-wide, yellow-painted iron door of Wyatt Yachts' waterfront workshop. The track needed oiling; Lucas despised the effort the movement took.
A year of rehab on his right hand and it still felt as if muscle and sinew could turn to water at any moment. Part of his rehabilitation had been schooling his expression to not show pain.
He stepped into the workshop. The familiar smells of wood, mineral oil and polyurethane overlaid with salt hit him. High above his head, light filtered through salt-crusted windows, set below the roof trusses. The scale of the building dwarfed the overturned wooden hull in the middle of the floor, and dwarfed the man who was buffing it with sandpaper even more. Not for John Wyatt the electric sander, not once he got beyond the first stages. Wyatt Yachts created handcrafted wooden yachts, and it had a waiting list a mile longeven with Merry running the admin side so that John would be free to do what he loved most.
The older man must have heard the clank and rattle of the sliding door, but he didn't look around. He wouldn't, until he'd finished the line he was sanding. Back in high school, Lucas used to work here over the summer, so he knew John's methods. The place hadn't changed a bit.
Lucas veered right, toward the end of the workshop that had been closed off to make an office and kitchen.
A large window allowed people in the office to look out, and vice versa. No sign of Merry.
Relief mingled with irritation. Now that he'd decided to clear the air, and to ask for her help, he didn't want to delay. Of course, he might have ensured a better response if he'd called her in the past six months. Or emailed. Or texted. He should probably have told her he was coming, at least.
He'd hoped it might all blow over if they didn't speak for a while.
At last John straightened, one hand pressed to the small of his back. "Lucas, when did you get in?" He came over and clasped Lucas's hand in both of his. "How're you doing? Your dad tells me you'll be out by yearend. Must be disappointed."
That was more like it. John knew how Lucas felt.
"I am," he said, returning the handshake. "But how are you?" John had always had a spare build, but today he looked almost skinny, and his grip was bony.
John rubbed his back again. "My kidneys are giving me trouble. I'm on the blasted dialysis twice a day now. At least the hospital has set me up so I can do it here, or at home." It was a cheerful grumble, the way a guy might complain when someone drinks the last of the two-percent, forcing him to pour skim milk over his cereal.
Or when he's being pursued by an enemy aircraft, faster than him and with more firepower, and he doesn't want his buddies to know he's terrified.
Lucas had seen a flash of terror in John's eyes.
"Your blood pressure still bad?" he asked. It was the older man's hypertension that had damaged his kidneys in the first place. "You seen the doctor lately?"
"The doctor can't do a thing to knock my BP down." John chuckled, as if it was all a joke. "Though Merry has me on egg-white omelets." His heavy sigh suggested his only daughter had devised a particularly cruel form of torture.
"Tell it to Amnesty International," Merry said from behind Lucas.
When he turned around, she was crossing the workshop. She must have squeezed through the sliding door he hadn't managed to open very far. She wore skinny jeans and a pale green T-shirt that crossed over in front, creating a deep V. With her shoulder-length, light brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, she looked more or less the way he remembered her at twelve years old.
She'd been eyeing her dad with loving exasperation, but when she turned to Lucas, the loving disappeared.
To be replaced with an entirely adult glitter in her gray eyes. A woman-scorned kind of glitter.
I should have called.
"Lucas, I didn't realize you were coming home." Which was more or less the same as you should have called, uttered in a cool, distant voice that didn't suit her at all.
"Surprise," he said, forcing a smile. He stepped closer.
John would think it odd if he didn't at least kiss her cheek. No need to broadcast their rift to her dad, and therefore to his own father.
Lucas pressed his lips to Merry's cheek.
And was startled by a rush of sensation, of memory that he'd thought he'd put behind him, provoked by the scent of her skin. It was sweet, like the wild strawberries they used to pick at the start of summer. If he moved an inch or two to his right, to her lips and if she opened her mouth he knew she would taste of wild strawberries, too.