Friendship Heirlooms Series:
Return to the quaint little town of Peaceful, Wisconsin, from Karen Wiesner's award-winning Family Heirlooms Series, where you first met and fell in love with these colorful, lovable friends. Now you can read the stories of those secondary characters in an all-new spin-off series. Nuggets of faith can be passed down as heirlooms from friend to friend, heart to heart, soul-mate to soul-mate.
Book Two Friendship Heirloom: Courage
"Did you finish it?" she demanded when he walked into the kitchen.
Mike Fremont pulled himself from his single-minded focus. He hadn't expected his foster sister Eliza to be in here. It wasn't often that anyone in this house changed his or her routines. He'd had every intention of going out the front door, but his foster mother had been coming through that door more than fifteen minutes earlier than usual. What was going on?
"Your homework is in the laundry basket inside your bedroom," he muttered, not looking at his foster sister or slowing toward his destination of the patio door.
Two weeks. Two more weeks, and Eliza's blackmailing days are over. Only two more weeks and I can leave here with LeeAnn and never look back.
For five years, he'd been doing Eliza's homework, listening to her vicious manipulations and threats. He felt no gratitude whatsoever toward the Stern family--any more than he had all the other foster parents he'd endured after his mother committed suicide in front of him when he was in his single digits. That the Sterns would do anything for money was no secret, even for just a few extra dollars a month. Mrs. Stern washed dishes at a restaurant. Her husband worked the night shift at a factory close to their home in North Chicago. Mike thanked God daily that the couple worked different schedules, leaving little opportunity that all of them would run into each other or be forced into family events, like eating meals together. The couple could barely tolerate each other on their days off. Everyone except Eliza wondered why they remained together.
Each weekday of his life, Mike ate a hastily-thrown-together sandwich in his room after he got home from his part-time job, then he did his chores and completed his--and Eliza's--homework. He wouldn't consider himself smart. Only because he got better grades than his foster sister did she blackmail him into doing hers. Shop was the only class he truly enjoyed.
Just as he expected, before he could reach the patio door, Eliza got up and positioned herself in front of it, her arms crossed smugly over her chest. The smile on her ugly face was one of pure pleasure. Mike knew there was nothing she enjoyed more than torturing him. Now that her mother was home, she would revel in it, as a criminal would with a partner in crime.
"Did you take the garbage out, Mike?" Mrs. Stern muttered in irritation when she entered the room.
He was trapped between the two females with no way out. The family had enough mismatched furniture to fill an antique junk museum. Junk was all it qualified as, too. In all the years he'd lived in this house, the back door had been blocked by an extra-wide chair.
"Yes," he said quietly, between his teeth. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his threadbare jeans, refusing to look at his foster mother any more than he had her nightmare daughter. He'd taken the garbage out after sweeping the floor, hand-washing the mess of dishes piled in the sink since breakfast, and transferring the load of laundry he'd put in the washer that morning to the dryer. After straightening up the house, he'd raced through the homework. None of it was any challenge--certainly not the moron classes Eliza took because she wasn't proficient at any subject. She'd been held back more than one grade before the family took Mike in. No one seemed to wonder why she was suddenly on the honor roll. They might next year when she flunked every class because he wouldn't be around to relieve the stresses of each Stern family member. He'd be long gone, out of reach for them to find fault with, torture and order around. Eventually, they'd run out of steam today and then he could escape next door to see LeeAnn. She was the only person in the world, the only thing, period, that mattered to him.
In the meantime, Mike stood utterly still, waiting for what he knew was coming. Mrs. Stern set her purse on the kitchen counter. Her frizzled hair and face were greasy, and she looked like she'd swallowed Willy Wonka's giant blueberry. She'd smeared that brown lipstick over her fat lips again, as if she believed she was making some improvement with it. More so than ever, she looked like the witch Mike had had nightmares she was. When he peeked up at her once, he saw that her roving gaze was the norm--without design--but he never doubted for a second what she was up to. Once again, Eliza had deliberately provided her mother with the incentive to lay into him. Mrs. Stern lifted a plate out of the sink. Eliza must have made herself a snack and put it there instead of leaving it on the table. Her mother would check the sink first. Mike turned to glare at his foster sister. As bloated and sweaty as her mother, Eliza barely kept herself from laughing out loud at his predicament.
Mike's teeth ground together. He hated everything about her. The way she looked, smelled, acted. I hate the way she breathes. Hate her and her mother and her coward father.
"I work all day in a restaurant!" Mrs. Stern exploded words as familiar to him as her question, "Did the reimbursement check come?" at the end of every month. "Do you think I wanna come home and see more dishes piling up?" Menacingly, she shook the plate in front of his face.
He didn't flinch. He didn't even look at her. She turned and threw the dish back in the sink with a clatter. "Why don't you try thinking of someone other than yourself for a change, Mike? We took you in and gave you a comfortable home, food, clothing..."
Sure you did. Out of the goodness of your hearts, too. And you've made me feel so welcome. Right. Not. Not even once. After five years, he'd learned how to tune them all out. He walked to the sink and washed the plate, barely hearing a word either of the females said. Neither of them mattered. LeeAnn...
When he finished drying and replacing the dish in the cupboard, he turned and waited until the witch would let him go. He knew he wouldn't have to hold out much longer. Finally, Mrs. Stern gave him a dismissive glance. Unfortunately, she took that moment to notice what he'd hoped no one would. He'd put an ice compress on his swollen cheek when he got home, but the damage had been done by that point.
"Did you get in another fight?" she barked out furiously. "What's wrong with you? Lord, you'll be in jail before you're even legal. Thank God you'll be outta here in two weeks, and we won't have to bail you out anymore."
Mike only just kept himself from bursting into laughter. When had they ever bailed him out? It'd been the other way around so often, the sheer number of times had blurred in his mind and become indiscernible.
Looking exactly like a pig, Mrs. Stern grunted her exaggerated exasperation. "What exactly is it you do to provoke these fights anyway? Don't you know you'll never win?"
Of course she would assume he'd done something--beyond simply existing--to bring on his own beatings. Until he'd met LeeAnn Wagner, his goal in life had been to fade into the woodwork and never be seen by anyone. Even then, bullies had seemed to see him as a target. That he was all height, little weight, and certainly no muscle at the age of eighteen didn't help his situation at all. But something mattered to him now, and he wouldn't let the bullies get away with their cruel taunts of LeeAnn.
"It's that hideous dwarf next door, Mom," Eliza said in a superior, know-it-all tone. "She's his girlfriend, and he feels he has to protect her."
Eliza pulled faces and used a soppy voice to utter her second sentence. Mike's hand itched to slap the smug satisfaction from her pig-like face. Hate came over him so intense, so hot, he recognized the stench of it inside his nostrils like something old and rotting. He'd hated his biological mother almost as desperately as he'd loved her. She would never, ever get over being abandoned by the father of the child she'd never wanted, never cared a damn for. That had always been his fault. His fault that she'd gotten pregnant by a man she loved blindly but couldn't convince to marry or even stay with her. Mike's fault that she'd busted her ass, alone and overburdened, having to support him. His fault that she couldn't love him, that nothing and no one could fix her. His fault when she'd decided to end two miserable lives at once... If a neighbor in the apartment building hadn't heard the first gunshot that blew his mother's head off, if the apartment door hadn't been unlocked, eight-year-old Mike would have picked up the same gun and followed her in blissfully quick death.
A year ago, for the first time in his life, Mike had found a reason to live, a reason to be glad he was alive. Last year, a painfully shy angel had moved in next door to the Sterns. They'd been two halves of a whole, and both of them had recognized the other from the start. LeeAnn lived with her reclusive mother. Before LeeAnn, Mike had never loved anyone and certainly never loved purely so that everything he did in his life was for her. He'd fallen in love with his angel the minute he laid eyes on her. Because of her, he believed in miracles, in destiny, in the possibility of happiness.
Unbelievably, LeeAnn had seemed to recognize him, too, and she'd opened up to him the way she'd said she never opened up to another person her whole life. She'd become his sole reason for living, his purpose for going on and trying to build a better life for both of them. Somehow she'd healed every last hurt in his life just by being. One look into her soft, fearful, heather gray eyes, and he'd been lost, he'd been found, he'd been whole and filled with unquenchable determination. He would rescue LeeAnn as she'd rescued him.
The job he had at the repair/junk shop a few hours a night on school days and all day on the weekends had become crucial to their future. He'd refused to let his foster parents take a penny of it, the way they had before LeeAnn came. He'd asked his boss to pay him in cash, and Joe had accommodated him because he was a good guy. All the money went directly into the bus station locker he rented with his and LeeAnn's backpacks of clothes, their birth certificates and social security cards, all waiting for when they'd leave this place forever. When Joe first hired him, he'd given him a beater of a car and told him the vehicle was his if he could fix it with odds and ends around the junkyard. Mike had. The old junker wasn't great, but it ran and all he had to pay for was gas. He and LeeAnn could leave at a moments' notice if they had to. They wouldn't have much, but it was enough to get them away and settled until he could secure a job to support them. In a mere two weeks, his hard work would pay off. He and LeeAnn had already picked out their destination--a tiny town northwest of Milwaukee, aptly named Peaceful. They could be safe there.
Mike couldn't risk jeopardizing their future. He lectured himself a million times a day, but he couldn't tolerate when anyone was cruel to LeeAnn. He'd become so protective of her that he wanted to kill the kids who teased her for being so small, barely seventy pounds. Her ragged clothing didn't fit right, just like his never had. Their clothes were either too big or too small.
Beyond how 'unfashionable' she was, LeeAnn was shy to the point of debilitation, too afraid of the world to make friends anywhere. She'd told Mike her mother kept them moving around all her life, never settling down anywhere for longer than a month. It was how they'd lived for as long as she could remember. But just after they got here, her mother had fallen in love with some guy at the factory where she worked. She no longer seemed fanatical about keeping herself and her daughter hidden from her insane, murderously jealous husband. When she'd given birth, her husband, Samson Oligee, became utterly convinced LeeAnn wasn't his daughter. LeeAnn didn't want to say the words, but Mike suspected the truth: Lindsey had cheated on her husband, and her fear of his conclusion and his threat to kill them both for her infidelity had been justified. LeeAnn and her mother had been on the run for so long, maybe she'd left behind her terror that Samson was right behind them. She'd relaxed, mostly because she was in love, and therefore let herself believe her husband had long ago given up on finding them.
Lindsey had already left her mark on LeeAnn--the teenage girl lived in mortal fear. The mission her mother had set for her life to keep her daughter safe had become LeeAnn's goal instead. LeeAnn was incapable of relaxing, more so than ever lately. In the last month, she'd become jumpy and skittish, looking over her shoulder constantly. Mike knew she wasn't sleeping at all, and that didn't help her state of mind. She'd told him she believed Samson was here in North Chicago, watching them, lurking in the shadows--a ghost in the darkness with his unnaturally pale white hair and red albino eyes.
A part of Mike feared that the psychosis LeeAnn told him her father (if indeed he was her biological father) had been diagnosed with as an adult had been passed on to her. Ultimately, it wouldn't matter to Mike if she did have that disease or any other. He would protect her and take care of her no matter what.
Eliza's kissing noises cut through his ability to refuse to let anything the Sterns said or did touch him. When he lunged at her, she darted out of the way and gave him the escape he'd wanted from the start. Both females yelled at his back in shock, threatening, but he didn't turn or acknowledge either of them as he rushed through the patio door. He'd barely crossed the lawn when he heard a sound that shocked him so much, he stopped dead for a few seconds to listen. Then he realized exactly what he'd heard. A gunshot--like the one he'd heard when his mother killed herself in front of him, leaving a huge mess on the cheap, already stained vinyl floor.
He ran as fast as he could to the backyard of LeeAnn's home. She wasn't there waiting for him on the swing, the way she usually was. Her bedroom window was opened just enough, though, for him to push it up the rest of the way and slip inside the house. Crouched in the shadows of her room, he could hear screams from another part of the house. He acknowledged the voice as her mother's. Lindsey was crying and begging, "No, Samson, don't. Don't hurt us..."
Mike's heart was beating as fast as a MacLaren F1. Where was LeeAnn? She was his only concern right now. Stooped, he crept away from the window soundlessly, making his way toward the voices. Only because he was all but crawling did he see LeeAnn huddled inside her closet. He knew she often hid in there because she didn't feel safe out in the open.
The screaming was still coming from the living room. Mike skulked to the open doorway of LeeAnn's room and peered around the corner in that direction. He glimpsed something lying on the hardwood floor, just away from the area rug. That gunshot... Blood. Broken glass from a lamp. And the gray stuff... The figure inside the pool of dark red blood and gray matter spilling from his head was male, and Mike knew the victim had to be Jeremy, the man LeeAnn's mother had foolishly fallen in love with, grown lax about protecting her daughter because of... How could she? Lindsey was kneeling beside Jeremy, rocking back and forth as she sobbed brokenly and pleaded with the other man standing over them.
Mike saw him in profile and understood that the ghost LeeAnn had become terrified of was this man in flesh and blood. Everything about him was ghastly white, almost as if he'd covered himself from head to toe in white chalk. He wore sunglasses that completely covered his eyes with protective shields along the sides.
He spoke barely above a whisper: "You cheated me, Lindsey. You promised to love me until death parted us. You destroyed my faith in you, in the love I thought we shared. You tried to pass off another man's child as my own, and then you tried to run. You didn't know I never stopped hunting you and your bastard offspring, did you? I've been here for more than a month, watching you and this child you tried to tell me belonged to me. Now you'll pay for your sin, and I'll make sure no trace of it is left on this earth..."
Mike jolted in comprehension. Had this evil entity been lurking in the shadows of LeeAnn's bedroom at night, keeping her from sleep, forcing her to live her life in terror?
Sagging in horror at his failure to believe her, protect her, Mike swung the bedroom door closed an inch, only breathing again when it didn't creak and no one in the living room turned in recognition of something moving. Another inch. That should be enough.
Mike backed toward LeeAnn's closet, then turned toward her and put a finger to his lips. She was trembling violently, her eyes as huge as saucers. When he reached his hand toward her, she couldn't seem to resist. She slipped into his arms and went limp against him. Mike easily dragged her almost weightless form out of the closet and lifted her as he stood, hunched over, and went to the window. He set her outside on the ground. Somehow she stood on her own two feet, but she lost that ability as soon as he was beside her, his arm closing around her waist protectively to propel her to his car parked on the approach outside the Sterns' house.
"Miss Candy," she whispered, a mere breathe of air in his ear.
He shook his head. He'd foolishly given her the kitten a few weeks ago without realizing she was severely allergic to cats. She'd come to love the feline anyway. "We can't go back," he told her gently.
Scooping her up, he ran with her in his arms to his rattletrap car. His keys were still in his pocket. Even at night, he slept in his clothes, never letting the keys leave his person because he didn't trust the Sterns, nor could he take the chance that his getaway with LeeAnn would be hindered for any reason.
Just after he tucked LeeAnn into the passenger's seat and told her to get down on the floor, another gunshot sounded. That was all it took for Mike to bolt like he was teleporting. He ran around the car, jumped in and shoved the key into the ignition, starting it up the first time. He backed out of the driveway with the squeal of tires, saying in a surprisingly calm and decisive voice to LeeAnn on the floor, "We'll just stop to get our stuff from the locker. Then we'll go, angel. We have to go now. We can't wait two weeks."
She was huddled in the alcove of the passenger's seat, her waist-length hair coiled around her neck like Rapunzel. He wasn't sure she could hear him, but he asked anyway, "Did he see you at all, Lee? Today? Did he know you were there?"
"He knows. I told you, I've felt him watching me all night in the darkness. I... saw his skin, hair...eyes... So white..."
A shiver ran through Mike's spine. Her mother hadn't been paranoid all these years. She shouldn't have relaxed. Somehow she'd stayed one step ahead of her homicidal husband until they got here. What would I have done if Lindsey had been diligent this time? She would have run with LeeAnn... and I never would have seen her again. Lindsey had let her guard down, and Mike knew it didn't matter now whether Samson had seen LeeAnn today or not. Either way, the demon-ghost will come after her wherever she goes because he believes he has to purge every trace of his wife's sin against him, destroy it completely. But I won't let him. No one will ever hurt my angel. If it means I have to die to protect her...
Mike rammed the car out of reverse, into drive, and something caught his eye in the rearview mirror. He saw the ghost, cowering in the full sunshine in the center of the suburban street, covering his head with his arm when he couldn't take the light any longer. Mike understood what his presence meant. Samson knew LeeAnn was alive and well and finding out who'd run with her wouldn't be difficult for a man who'd pursued his betraying wife all around the country. That means I can never, ever relax my guard...
"Sir? Are you all right? Is anything the matter? Can I do anything for you?"
Mike Fremont woke with a start and realized his flannel shirt was drenched in sweat yet he was shivering. Someone was leaning over him, shaking his shoulder. He belatedly recognized her as one of the stewardesses on the flight. She'd obviously caught him in the midst of the recurring nightmare he'd endured for the past thirteen years. He flushed, knowing he'd been moaning, too. He sensed the passengers around him looking at him as if he might suddenly do something crazy.
He shook his head. "Sorry. I'm fine." Under his breath, he muttered once more, "Sorry."
Looking uncertain whether to believe him, the stewardess moved along, and Mike stood, reaching up to the compartment overhead to get his small carry-on. He took it to the lavatory and changed his shirt in the cramped confines. A long time passed before his heart stopped pounding in response to his fight-or-flight reaction thirteen years ago.
We escaped. We're safe. And Samson Oligee is dead. Mike had kept tabs on him as much as he could. He'd known the day the ghost-demon had been institutionalized for insanity after he'd been convicted of committing the murders of his wife and her lover Jeremy. The Sterns had, unbelievably, beat Mike to calling the police when they heard the gunshots, and the cops had arrived just in time to arrest Samson. A year after he'd been sentenced to the institute, the expansive building had burned to the ground. Samson had been inside at the time. While Mike felt bad about all the employees and patients who'd died in that fire, he'd breathed easier for the first time in what felt like forever at the news. That was the moment he'd done what would have seemed unthinkable before that: He'd contacted the FBI and told Special Agent Frank Tomlin everything he knew about Samson Oligee, who he and LeeAnn were, that they'd been hiding for the past year, and why. He'd asked the agent to make sure Samson was dead--because if he wasn't, he would come after LeeAnn again. But Tomlin assured him no patients had escaped when the institution burned, that Samson had been identified as one of the numerous victims. The man who'd stalked LeeAnn and her mother was dead. The nightmare was over.
Mike had relaxed, but never fully, especially after he joined the Marines and lived in fear that Agent Tomlin had made a mistake reassuring them of something that wasn't true. Mike's four years were almost up, though, and LeeAnn was still safe, waiting for him to be discharged.
The only hurdle left is the one I joined the Marines to avoid. Had LeeAnn healed after a lifetime of terror, healed and become whole enough to want what he'd agonized for with her since the very day they met? After the trauma she'd been through, was she even capable of having a relationship with him beyond friendship? Was she capable of the intimacy he longed for with her? If LeeAnn loved him and wanted to get married, too, the nightmare would truly be over. Maybe this time for good.
LeeAnn Wagner was breathing clearly, sneeze-free, for the first time in a month, but she knew the blissful state wouldn't last long. She'd stayed away from her apartment for most of the day. That was the only reason her vicious allergy had abated for the moment. As soon as she got home for the night, she'd be sneezing her head off again the way she had every single day of the three and a half months Zoe Rossdale had lived with her. LeeAnn considered her reaction to Zoe's monster-sized, long-haired cat, Nutmeg, a small price to pay. Zoe had been living rough in a hovel, starving, barely surviving one day to the next. She'd needed a friend, kindness, and certainly feeding. LeeAnn had done what she had to by asking Zoe to move into her spare bedroom.
Then, a month ago, the love of Zoe's life had returned, and she and Curt Bertoletti had been married in no time. Even though Nutmeg had moved out with her mistress, LeeAnn's allergies hadn't been appeased. No amount of cleaning had helped--in fact, cleaning had only stirred up the endless cat dander and infestation of hair and made her allergy worse. What will I do for the wedding tomorrow? I'll be up all night sneezing, my eyes will be bloodshot and swollen, and I'm one of the bridesmaids! I won't be able to hide anything.
But that's not the only reason I don't want to go home.
Michael had joined the Marines four years earlier, but somehow, miraculously, LeeAnn had gotten accustomed to living alone. She used the multiple locks and deadbolts on the door of her apartment without fail, she avoided strangers, but the odd thing was that she'd felt safe by herself during the years. She'd become strong even though Michael had been gone.
She could only guess having Zoe live with her had changed her back to someone who didn't like being by herself. Zoe's chatter had filled her life with joy. She missed her dear friend... But that's not all. There's a ghost in my home, and I don't know where it came from. My own head? Am I losing my mind...again? Or did genetics kick in and the insanity that plagued a man who may or may not have been my biological father start?
LeeAnn swallowed the fear that crammed into her throat and all but suffocated her. For most of her life she'd battled the demons inside her own head. Acting normal sometimes made her feel normal, but the unbalance was always there lately, tormenting her, lurking and waiting to return. She couldn't blame it all on Zoe's departure because, although at first she'd hated the silence of being alone again, there'd been nothing to make her afraid. Lately, the walls seemed to scream. Worse, they whispered. She felt menacing eyes watching her. The very air in the apartment felt alive and terrifying. She hated going home.
As a result, she'd been working longer and longer hours. The only night she went home early was Thursday, when her best friends came over for their weekly girls' night. Zoe, Samantha Feldmann and Jordan Palunachek were all happily married, and, unbelievably, happily pregnant. Zoe hadn't had that officially confirmed by her doctor yet, but she hoped she would soon. Samantha and Jordan had gotten pregnant at about the same time and were hoping to give birth on the same day in early to mid-January, or at least as close as they could. Their husbands, Kyle and Micah, treated their delivery dates as a friendly competition between them. They'd even wagered a bet concerning who would give birth first.
LeeAnn longed for another girls' night like the one she'd had last night with her close friends, but she was the only single one in her group now. Working late was her only option. Luckily, there was always plenty of work for her to do as the administrative assistant at Glass Angels Rape Clinic, which had been started by Jordan and Samantha. Samantha was also a counselor there. Zoe worked next door in the building at Feldmann Christian Divorce Counseling, Kyle's practice, as his assistant.
LeeAnn finished logging the daily sessions for one of the several counselors who worked at the clinic, saved her work, then stretched in her chair. Her gaze was drawn to the growing darkness behind the windows. Michael wouldn't like that she had to walk to the bus stop in the dark. The streets were well-lit, of course, and the closest stop was only a half dozen blocks away, yet Michael would be furious if she told him how often she'd been out at night. He would never believe she could take care of herself, despite all the evidence to the contrary she provided him with.
No, Michael wouldn't easily accept that she was strong and independent on her own. What other choice had she been given when he told her he was going into the Marines? Since they'd fled North Chicago, he'd taken care of her because she couldn't take care of herself. She'd been sick, wrong, helpless. The betrayal she'd felt at knowing the only person in the world who loved and cared for her was abandoning her had quickly faded when she'd realized she needed the time and space Michael was giving her, too--needed to find her own strength, her own ability to survive and flourish. She'd gotten a job and she made good money. She'd moved into a new apartment because she couldn't be in the one she and Michael had shared when he was here. That would have been her undoing. Until Zoe, she'd all but forgotten how much she missed having someone to talk to, to cook for, to be there whenever she was at home. Unimaginably, because her life had been so busy and full with work and friends, she'd forgotten her crippling dread of being alone. She'd become the woman she'd only dreamed she could be. She wouldn't go back, and yet she wasn't sure anymore that she could move past this fear.
Somehow the loneliness was even worse now, knowing that Michael had planned to come home this weekend and now he wouldn't. The pastor of the church they'd started going to when they arrived in Peaceful, Wesley Horace, the man who in so many ways had rescued them, was getting married. Wesley asked Michael to be his best man, and Michael had even gotten leave for the celebration. But then something unexpected had gone wrong between Wesley and his fiancée Jasmine--Jazz--Pepowski. Wesley had called off the wedding. Michael had held out hope for months that his close friend would change his mind. Eventually, he'd had no choice but to reschedule his leave. Out of nowhere, Wesley and Jazz had gotten back together. Unfortunately, Michael's superiors had taken his leave away and wouldn't allow him to take it during the time he'd planned to in the first place. Though several aspects of Wesley and Jazz's wedding and reception had to be revised, the date hadn't changed. Michael couldn't attend the wedding--as best man or even simply as a guest.
LeeAnn wasn't sure how she'd survive being at the front of the church without Michael tomorrow. Seeing his empty space at Wesley's side... As always happened when she considered how long it'd been since the love of her life had been home, tears flooded her eyes. She fought against how desperately she missed him, wanted to be everything to him as a friend. A lover. How can that be wrong? But if he still sees me as weak, helpless, crazy, it will be wrong. I have to convince him I'm bulletproof. I have to show him I'm normal. I just don't know how. I've tried every way I know to make him see that I'm healed...only lately, I'm no longer sure I am.
Her cell phone rang, and she jumped in shock. When she recovered enough to pick it up, she couldn't help wanting the call to be from the very man she was thinking of at that moment. They'd rescheduled their weekly call for Sunday evening, since their usual time tomorrow night wasn't possible. She'd be at Wesley and Jazz's wedding reception.
Out of habit, she said, "Glass Angels Rape Clinic. How may I help you?" But then she remembered it was her own cell phone. Quickly, she amended, "Sorry. Hello. It's LeeAnn."
"You're working late," Michael's gravelly deep voice said.
Even as her heart leapt, alive and jubilant, LeeAnn frowned. "How could you possibly know?"
"Turn around, angel."
LeeAnn spun her office chair toward the glass door that led out to a foyer between the two office suites in the building. The doors were locked this time of night, yet Michael was standing inside the foyer. Someone--one of her fellow employees, many of them friends--had to have unlocked the doors to let him in.
She took the phone from her ear and rushed to him. He was wearing his uniform, and she threw herself into his waiting arms as soon as she unlocked and opened the inner door for him. Always, when they were finally together, she noticed how tall and muscular he'd become in the years he'd been a soldier. Next to him, she was utterly tiny and overwhelmed by his sheer masculinity and strength. She never felt truly safe outside of his shadow. "You said you couldn't come. How...? Why didn't you...?" she blathered incoherently.
She drew back only enough to look up into his face. She reached for the buzzed, salt and pepper gray hair he'd had since he was a teenager.
He was smiling, his beautiful crystal eyes narrow and infinitely sleepy and sweetly shy. "I wanted to surprise you."
LeeAnn shook her head at him, her tone serious. "Michael, tell me how it is that you're here."
"I didn't lose all my leave, but I was afraid I might at the last minute and I knew how disappointed you'd be if I said I was coming and then didn't."
LeeAnn's throat hurt at the words. He was protecting me again. Afraid I'd fall apart at the first sign of bad news. He'll never see me as anything but the weak head-case I was all my life, all the time since we met.
"I'm only here until Sunday, Lee. I have to be back on the base Monday morning. My flight leaves Sunday night, as late as I could get it."
"Then we only have tonight, the wedding and festivities pretty much all day tomorrow, and Sunday," she realized unhappily.
His mouth was set in a line. "I know, angel. It's all they'd give me on short notice, after I tried to reschedule everything. I'm grateful for the time."
He was here now. She hugged him, pressing her cheek against his wide chest and closing her eyes when she heard his heart beating so strong against her ear. "I'm grateful, too. I'm sorry if I sounded disappointed. I'm not at all." She pulled herself up closer to him so not so much as a millimeter separated them. He held her just as tightly as she needed. Their breathing fell into sync in the long, long minutes they simply rejoiced in each other's presence. Inhaling deeply of his familiar scent, she put her cheek against his. I fit with you. Only you, Michael. We're part of each other, and I'm not whole unless we're like this.
"Why are you working so late, angel?" Michael asked without letting her go at all. "Didn't Jazz have some kind of pre-wedding party?"
"A bachelorette party? No." LeeAnn chuckled and he seemed to join her, their chests rumbling, yielding together, with the action. "Wesley said he didn't want a bachelor party. I guess they were afraid something might go wrong again. They didn't have a rehearsal or rehearsal dinner, like they originally planned. Maybe it was the cost. They lost a lot when they canceled."
"I still don't know what he was thinking when he did that."
"He didn't confide in you why he broke up with Jazz?" She looked at him.
He shook his head. "I don't think he just got cold feet. He kept saying he didn't wanna talk about it, but I suspect he found out something about her he didn't believe he could live with."
"I got the same feeling from Jazz, but it's unimaginable there could be something like that about her. She's such a sweetheart. Maybe they're protecting each other or someone else. Jazz is so perfect for him. He would have been a fool to let her go." Saying the words caused something inside her to come down like a submarine hatch blocking out a flood. A flood of resentment and bad feelings. Because I know for a fact it was Wesley who talked Michael into joining the Marines, talked Michael into leaving me. Nothing else could have convinced him to leave me. Sometimes I don't think I'll ever forgive Wesley for that, even knowing how badly I needed the separation myself. I can't understand why Michael went along with Wesley's suggestion. What don't I know about that situation? What coercion did Wesley use to convince Michael? I know Michael; he would never willingly abandon me. So why did he do it?
She forced herself to change the subject so she wouldn't have to think about questions she hadn't let herself ask him, ones that had all but eaten away at her heart like acid. "I don't want to get my allergy tonight. I've been avoiding my apartment because it's so bad whenever I'm there."
He stroked her hair tenderly, and she leaned back into his caress, nodding. "We're gonna take care of that, Lee. I called a friend of mine, Ethan Lynwood. For all intents and purposes, he's a professional cleaner, among his many other skills. I asked him to spend tonight and tomorrow cleaning your apartment so there's no trace of cat hair left to make you sick."
"Every time I try to clean, it makes it worse," she reminded him.
"I know. You're only stirring it up. He plans to irradiate the cat hair and dander."
LeeAnn chuckled. "Irradiate? Wow. That sounds dangerous. I don't know, Michael. Is it safe?"
"Definitely. Trust me, most everything he uses is natural and 'green'. But it's best that you're gone most of the time he's working, so the place will get a chance to air out."
"I suppose I could ask a friend if I can..."
He shook his head, effectively cutting her off. "No arguments--you're staying with me at the hotel. I got double beds."
Whenever Michael was in Peaceful, he got a room at a hotel just outside of town. Once upon a time, they'd shared a bedroom and a bed in their apartment, but everything about their life had been innocent and free of any taint--until they'd given their lives to Christ. Pastor Wesley had made it clear to them that it wasn't biblically right for them to be living together. Because of appearances.
Because the parishioners and our neighbors would talk and believe the worst.
What do I care about any of that?
The Lord knew she and Michael were without sin in the area the pastor was referring to without specifying. At one time, Michael hadn't cared about the talk either. His only concern had been in protecting her and being there for her, as close as a heartbeat, when she needed him. And she'd needed him constantly. The only time she'd felt safe had been when he was with her, always touching, assuring herself she wasn't alone, that Michael would protect and watch over her. While she knew Michael could never, ever trust his own instincts about anything, believing that everyone--Pastor Wesley foremost but also his long-time friend Jay Samuels, also a pastor and originally the chaplain where Michael had been stationed--had to possess superior godly wisdom about everything, she wasn't sure how that factored into the situation. Something had changed in Michael, and she'd never discovered exactly what. She could only believe she'd lost something vital when the change had come about, yet ironically they'd both gained so much by their separation.
"So you're working late to avoid your allergy?" Michael asked, smiling softly when she ran her fingers through his military haircut over and over.
She shrugged "For the wedding, I didn't want to look like one of those bug-eyed cats so popular on greeting cards."
Michael laughed as she'd hoped. "Okay, do you need anything from your apartment--for tonight or tomorrow?"
"Everything I need for the wedding is already at the church. Jazz's best friend Ashley is doing makeup while Jazz does everyone's hair." Ashley was married to Jay Samuels--and, as was the case of everyone it seemed lately, also expecting her first child soon. "I don't have pajamas."
"I packed a t-shirt you can wear."
She nodded. "I won't get to cook for you though." Her face raised to him, she rested her chin on her hand, pressed to the center of his chest. She'd always adored cooking and making Michael all of his favorites. Seeing him enjoy what she'd prepared was a particular joy in her life--something that didn't happen often anymore. Outside of cooking for Michael, she baked and experimented with goodies she brought to work for her colleagues every morning. Lunch never rolled around before everything she made was devoured.
"We'll just go out for dinner. What are you in the mood for?"
"I know. We should go to Zoe's husband's family restaurant, Ciatti Italiano."
Michael whistled through his teeth, obviously assuming it would be expensive.
LeeAnn gave him a teasing glare. "Come on, we're not on a budget, Michael. I know for a fact you never spend anything. Pretty much everything you've ever made in the Marines is direct-deposited into your checking account."
His expression became slightly frantic. "That money is for you, LeeAnn. I set the account up for you to use while I'm gone."
Because you expected me to need it. You expected me to fall apart without you. So why did you leave me if you believed that, Michael? "I have a job, honey," she told him without a trace of bitterness or anger. "It pays for everything I could ever want and allows me to have savings of my own. That money you set aside is your money. You'll need it when you're discharged."
He shook his head at her, his arms tightening at her back. A strange wave of excitement rushed through her at the forcefulness of his expression. "Lee, I want you to promise me you'll use that money if you need it. I told you I would take care of you while I was in the Marines, and that'll never changed. Everything I have is yours."
How could she not love him for how protective he was of her and how well he took care of her, albeit from a distance these days? On tiptoes, she looked at him with the full strength of her love, her hands cradled around his scratchy jaw. Then she tucked her head into the alcove of his throat, pressing her mouth to the hollow there. Did she imagine he shivered with the lingering caress of her lips? "I promise, Michael." She was certain he would have accepted nothing less from her.
He relaxed, raising one arm to put it around her shoulders and hold her against him so he could breathe in the scent of her hair. Oh, Michael, can't you tell that I have everything I could ever want? Can't you tell that you're everything I want?
In truth, there was one thing she didn't have but wanted. She wanted her own car. She'd been using public transportation since Michael went in the Marines, but she'd been learning how to drive. She wanted to prove she was normal enough for that, and Zoe's husband had been teaching her while refreshing his wife's driving skills since she had to sell her car after losing her job. Michael would worry sick if he knew, so she didn't plan to tell him any part of her plans until she surprised him by picking him up at the airport the next time he was home on leave. Maybe if he saw she could handle a big, complicated piece of machinery like a car, he would see her as a competent woman. Maybe he could love her completely, without pity, without obligation. She wanted only his love, pure and perfect, without taint.
She could hear the reluctance in his voice when he said, "I'm starving. You must be, too. Let's go to your friend's restaurant. I can afford to take you out to a nice dinner."
"I am hungry." She felt his lips on her neck, then he drew back and kissed her mouth just off-center like he always did, like it was illegal to kiss her lips. Like that was forbidden or maybe he just didn't want to kiss her there fully. The yearning inside her was almost unbearable, and she could see herself kissing him the way she'd dreamed of a billion times since they met. His lips were hard and yet she knew how soft they were when she felt them elsewhere on her skin. She craved Michael's lips so badly, sometimes when she was alone, the chance long gone and spoiled, she wondered how she got herself to hold back from kissing him the way she wanted to. Someday she would. She had to. But she wanted him to make the first move. She wanted to know he wanted her that way first. Was that even possible? Did Michael desire her the way she did him? Please, God...
She got her purse and locked up the office doors on their way out. She tucked both of her arms inside his. There was only one car in the parking lot--the one Michael kept in storage while he was away and used whenever he was here. It wasn't the piece of junk they'd arrived in this town in, kept alive only by Michael's amazing talent fixing everything and anything, even those items that should have been dead and unusable long ago. This vehicle was slightly newer, but he would never consider getting himself something newer and more reliable until this one was beyond repair. "Does Wesley know you're home and can be his best man tomorrow?" she asked him, her head resting on his muscular bicep.
He nodded, his hand reaching down to hold both of hers in his. "He planned to hold out until the day of, in case I could make it. He picked up my tux today himself."
Michael opened the passenger door for her, but she had trouble letting him go even long enough for him to get in his side. As soon as he was inside with her, she insinuated her arms around his. He didn't even try to get away. He'd gotten used to driving with her wrapped around him like a vine. "I'm so glad you're here, Michael. I don't know what I would have done tomorrow if you weren't standing up there with me."
Turning his head slightly from starting the car, he grinned and teased, "Danced with every guy at the reception?"
She laughed. "Who would ask me?"
Even in the mild orange light from the street lamp overhead, she could see the adoration in his gaze as he looked at her. "You're so beautiful, angel. You'll be the most beautiful bridesmaid ever. I feel sorry for the bride."
What about me being the bride? Your bride, Michael Fremont? The steely questions rose inside her. Since he'd enlisted, he'd been saying things to tease her about other men. As if. Did he want her to date other men? She couldn't fathom him believing such a thing might be an option for her, and she hated that the mere idea didn't make him insanely jealous. She belonged to him. She wanted to belong to him wholly. She'd never been certain he wanted the same.
Whenever he came home, she tried to show him her passion for him. She'd even tried to be obvious about it, as much as someone of her personality could be. During this short visit, she would hit him over the head with her love for him. He'd have to be blind not to see the truth and know how she felt.
Accepting that he was leaving her hadn't been easy for her. But her prayer from the beginning had been that, when he did finally come back to her, hopefully for good, he would be ready to share the intimacy they'd been denied before.
Mike had been hearing a lot about LeeAnn's roommate for the past almost four months, but he'd never met Zoe or her husband Curt, a friend Wes had mentioned frequently of late, before they decided to have dinner together that evening at the restaurant. Though Zoe seemed a little spacey, he could see why LeeAnn liked her so much. Curt was a good guy, too, Mike learned during the delicious Italian feast he devoured like he hadn't eaten for a week despite the fact that he would have preferred LeeAnn's cooking. Zoe proclaimed him a human being after her own heart, seeing how much he could pack away.
Curt and Zoe were obviously in love. Whenever they looked at each, they spoke the words without saying them out loud. Mike suspected that was part of the reason the two of them let them go so easily after dinner. He coveted free time alone with LeeAnn, but he couldn't have said that in so many words in her friends' hearing. He wanted to be alone with her the whole weekend, but they would be occupied pretty much all day tomorrow with the wedding. That left tonight and Sunday.
He wasn't sure why, then, he felt slightly uncomfortable when they were in his car, her head on his arm, her hands clutching his forearm, on the short drive to the usual hotel he stayed in when he was in town. Often, he looked down at her, so small and slim with subtle but definite curves, those huge, heather-gunmetal gray eyes that made her face look doll-like, especially with a headful of thick, waist-length, golden blond hair. He'd always loved her hair.
"What are your plans, Michael?" LeeAnn asked in a tone of voice that made him sure she was also feeling awkward. Outspoken man of God that he was, Wes had made them both inadvertently conscious that unrelated men and women couldn't be friends, couldn't innocently participate in activities that would make others assume the worst, namely anything licentious. "I mean, you'll be discharged from the Marines at the end of the year, won't you? Will you re-enlist?"
The hard knot that'd started more than four years ago in his heart seemed to tighten implacably at her words. "Never. No way. Four years away from you was too long, angel. I don't ever wanna be away from you again. Not so far and for so long."
Her sigh was immense, and his body sagged along with hers. Her response was exactly what he wanted.
"What will you do when you're discharged then?" she continued. "Will you go to work for your old boss..."
Mike's gaze lowered once more. Her sharp little chin was resting on his arm so she could look up at him. "Nah." He'd had a job at a repair shop in Peaceful all the years they'd been here. But he knew the place was no longer in business. His boss had retired, and Mike hadn't kept in touch with him. "I've got some ideas. My friend Ethan...well, he works full-time as a handyman at A&A Design--you know Jay's wife Ashley owns that interior design business?"
"Yeah, so Eth has a part-time gig going that pulls in a lot of extra money for him and for the other guy, Chad Feldmann--who's still in high school--on his freelance team. They're jobbers."
LeeAnn giggled. "What a funny word. What does it mean?"
"Basically a jobber's somebody who deals in special, odd, or job lots--they work by the piece, or at odd jobs."
"Oh. So like fixing things? Cleaning things? An all-around handyman?"
"Yeah. There's nothing official about this side business of Ethan's. He runs it completely on word of mouth. He and Chad hire themselves out for seasonal work done on homes or businesses--any aspect of mechanical, technical, plain old back-breaking work. They repair, set up and install appliances, water heaters, you name it. They custom-design furniture or build into spaces, like shelves and cabinetry. They do roofing and siding and any kind of home repair. Upgrade and repair computers. Rake leaves, remove snow. Regular and industrial cleaning jobs. No job is too big or too small."
She could obviously see where he was going with this a mile in advance. "And you're good at all sorts of things like that. There's nothing you can't repair, maintain or build," she said softly, the pride in her voice evident. She squeezed his arm, and his heart seemed to constrict, too.
Trying to keep his head from igniting with needs he'd tried so hard to bury, he continued in what sounded like a calm voice, "The world's going that way. With everything computerized, no one can change the oil in their own car, fix anything under the hood or on the dash, anymore unless they need specialized equipment. And because no one wants or knows how to do the simplest tasks anymore, they're hiring people who do know how to do all this stuff. That's where a business like this comes in. An official business."
She'd backed up a little to show him how excited she was. "It sounds brilliant, Michael. It's perfect for you and your unlimited talents."
Mike flushed, embarrassed even in the confines of a dark car. Because it wasn't his way to accept anything like a compliment, he shrugged. "The real value is in the potential for expanding what Ethan and Chad have already started. Ethan already has a full-time job and doesn't really want to do this as anything but a part-time hobby. He gets like ten times more work than he and Chad can take on. And Chad plans to go to college as soon as he can afford it. He's got a young kid, so there's no way for him to consider his education now. He does this to save for the future. But I wanna make a business out of the concept. A real business, where I hire full- or part-time or freelance-pay people with all different kinds of specialties who want to make money. I want enough people on call that I always have more than one I can bring in to do any job that comes my way."
"It's so exciting, Michael. Your head must be filled with ideas on setting it up. If you need me to help--not on actual jobs, of course--"
They both laughed at the mere idea. She was excellent at baking, cooking, and anything and everything of a highly organized nature, but repairing things had never been her area of expertise. Mike was surprised when she said, "I've actually gotten good at small home repairs and installations. I didn't want to pay a repairman every time something broke or I bought an item that needed assembly. Anyway, if you need help advertising or whatever, I can help with stuff like that."
"That'd be great, Lee."
"What are you calling it? This business?"
Mike felt hot with uncertainty because he already had so many plans. Was it presumptuous? A dumb idea? LeeAnn would never tell him if it was. "Odd Jobs."
A slow smile spread across her face. "That's perfect, too. You've thought of everything. I can hardly wait."
Neither could he. But he wasn't sure if he had any business sense to pull something like this off. He knew he'd need Ethan's help and guidance--and patience. He didn't see he had that quality in abundance.
Inside his hotel room, he pulled out one of his t-shirts and she changed into the old scrap--drowned in it was more like it. She was so much smaller than he was. That alone made him protective, but this feeling wasn't the same as it'd been when they were just teenagers, barely able to take care of themselves. He was no longer a gangly boy, throwing his fists in fights he could never win. He'd filled out, matured. His needs had followed suit, and that'd been the hardest part for him to accept. Even now, he still hadn't. Because he was too afraid to do anything that might hurt LeeAnn or make her continued reliance on him change.
Only one thing hadn't changed: He still wanted her. He'd thought he would die wanting her as a teenager. As an adult, he'd learned the meaning of true, horrific agony when it came to desire. Sexually, he'd been almost out of control, and he'd known he could never trust himself. He had to do something. So he'd gone to Wes, begging him for help. Maybe that was the stupidest thing he'd ever done, or the smartest.
Four years after following the pastor's advice--because Wes had made the consequences of not doing so black and white, more like life and death--he wasn't the only one who'd undergone radical changes. LeeAnn was impossibly more beautiful than before he left, her skin so pink and creamy, her nose small, lips full and moist, her curves petite yet womanly. Drop dead womanly. Even the scent of her made him revel in her femininity. Before he'd gone into the Marines, she hadn't been a woman. Not in this sense of the word. Nothing like this. In the sense of being capable of intimacy, considering it, possessing the capacity for a healthy, normal relationship with a man, she'd been on the opposite spectrum. She'd been so innocent and helpless. Any move I might've made toward her in that regard would have been criminal. Wes was right about that. But what is she now? The only thing he could say for sure was that she wasn't the same as she'd been before. She was stronger. She was capable. But of how much? Was she healed? Was she ready for the same things he'd wanted for so long with her? He was too uncertain of himself to find out. If he pushed, would he lose her? What could be worth that risk? Nothing.
When she came out of the small bathroom, he was unbearably aware of her long, slim, gorgeous legs. Even after she'd safely tucked them under a blanket, he thought about the perfection of them, of what it would feel like to run his hands up their silky smooth length. She'd always been otherworldly pretty, but now he couldn't breathe for looking at her and thinking about how she affected him, what he wanted and maybe could never have with her.
He didn't trust himself. That was the bottom line. He never had. The only man he'd ever respected had been Joe from the junkyard where he'd worked as a teenager. Mike hadn't trusted many, and he sure as heck didn't trust himself to make good decisions. What wisdom did he possess? None. Experience had taught him that he was worthless if he didn't have something to offer. What did he have to offer LeeAnn Wagner? His heart. His life. His endless, undying love. But how could any of that be enough? He didn't deserve her, yet he couldn't let her go.
Pastor Wesley Horace had become Mike's lifeline for all things right and wrong after he and LeeAnn became Christians. He'd believed every word Wes said. The man knew everything. His wisdom was undeniable, and he truly was a man of God. As such, Mike knew he couldn't go wrong following his advice in any and all situations.
Despite this acceptance, Mike knew there wasn't anything wrong with him and LeeAnn living together, or even sleeping together. When Wes insisted that if they weren't married, the situation couldn't continue, Mike had told him nothing could convince him to leave her alone, vulnerable. But Wes had brutally made him see that the only thing LeeAnn wasn't safe from was him. She was completely naïve and helpless in sexual matters--a child in every sense of the word. LeeAnn had been talking about marriage since they were teenagers, but Mike realized she wasn't ready for that, despite her uninhibited, constant displays of affection for him. Those weren't the attentions or needs of a mature woman. Her affection was naïve, child-like and wholly innocent. She had no idea she was doing anything wrong, had no concept at all that she tormented him day and night when she was so close and he couldn't... He couldn't anything. And Mike's sexual needs were almost uncontrollable. Eventually, his resolve would have broken and she would have given in to please him. He would have caused her to sin and lose the salvation they'd found in Christ. That would have destroyed her because she wasn't whole, wasn't at all healthy. She never would be until Mike let her go to find her own strength and maturity in the Lord, released her to begin the healing process. Wes proved to Mike beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the obstacle standing between LeeAnn and true, restorative salvation. Mike would have rather died than be that obstacle in her life. So he'd made the choice he never could have before.
Enlisting in the military was the only way Mike could protect LeeAnn and give her the time and space to heal and maybe come to the place of strong maturity she needed to be an independent woman capable of an intimate relationship. He'd understood that his decision based on Wes's assessment of their situation would devastate her. Just as he did, she would feel he was abandoning her.
If FBI agent Frank Hamlin hadn't assured Mike a dozen different ways and countless times that Samson Oligee was dead, he couldn't have done it. He wouldn't have been able to trust in Wes's promise that he and his congregation would make sure LeeAnn was safe and well cared for. Mike had been prepared to hold his friend responsible if anything happened to her. But, as he had been every single other time before, Wes had been right. The separation had worked wonders on LeeAnn. She couldn't have handled what he wanted with her back then. But lately...lately he'd gotten himself to believe that maybe she could be ready for him. That she might be ready soon. At the end of the year, when he was honorably discharged, he could tell her he loved her and wanted to be with her, wanted to marry her and be her husband. Could he hope for that? She was so amazing. Unbelievably, she seemed to have come to grips with the past. She could do anything, be anyone. She'd become a strong, healthy, unbelievably sweet Christian woman. All while I haven't done much of anything to progress as a human being, let alone a man of God. I'm not worthy of this woman. Maybe I'll never be. If I was a better man, maybe I could accept just being her closest friend and protector instead of wanting things she might not be capable of giving any man. None of it stopped him from wanting everything with her.
Mike sat above the covers on her bed, and she snuggled against him, growing sleepier as their endless talking finally took its toll on her. He could see by the dark circles under her eyes that she hadn't been sleeping much--probably because of her allergy. That would be fixed this weekend. He'd ensured that and wished now he'd thought to do it much sooner. Listening to her tell him what was happening to her over the phone every Saturday night for the past four years had made him feel helpless and unable to do anything to make her life easier or better.
For a long time in the dim lamp light, he watched her sleep and held her against his stomach, where her head and one hand rested flat. The pure side of his brain loved her so much, loved being able to hold her like this again. The impure side said this tenderness wasn't enough. What would she do if he scooted down until their bodies were aligned? What if he kissed her sexy lips, dead-center, kissed her and opened her mouth beneath his...
He forced himself up as gently as he could at the moment of painful arousal and re-checked the doors and windows. To keep himself from looking at her, he gazed out into the still darkness of the parking lot. The night was nice, warm. Peaceful. This town was so aptly name. When they came here years ago, they'd both agreed that God had led them to this amazingly friendly, small town. Neither of them wanted to leave it, ever. It'd become home to them. A place for second chances and a happily-ever-after.
Mike sighed in frustration. I should try to sleep. He knew it didn't matter that she was so close by. Even when they were far apart, he never slept well. He missed her too much, worried that something would happen to take away all that mattered to him.
He jolted when arms surrounded his waist. He'd only just recovered from the agony of desire stirring him up, and all the good distance had done disappeared. LeeAnn must have gotten out of bed and crept up behind him without a single sound. The nearness of her warm, sexy curves put him fully on red alert. Imagining them making love tonight was too easy.
"You need to sleep, honey," she murmured in a sleepy voice, snuggled against his back. "We have a big day tomorrow."
"I know." He heard how tight his voice sounded, almost stretched to the breaking point.
"Are you all right, Michael?" She inched around him until she was facing him, surrounded by his arms. He couldn't do anything but envelope her against him when she was this close. She would know, realize, feel... Would she know how hard he was trying to control himself and failing?
"I'll go to bed soon, angel. You need to sleep."
She was so pliant against him, her body yielding sensually to his hardness. He couldn't handle the desire she provoked so easily in him. Why did he have to be so weak, so single-minded? Every time she touched him or even looked at him with those big eyes of hers, his dreams came true. Why couldn't he just accept all of that for what it was, not wishing for a single thing more, especially something intimate and deep and explosive?
"You need to sleep, too, Michael."
"I will. I promise."
He led her back to her bed and tucked her in while crouched by the bed to hide his physical state. She looked at him plaintively, her hand reaching for him so they wouldn't lose the physical connection between them. There was nothing he wanted more than to lie beside her the way he used to for years, when she was afraid of the world and he was the only person who could calm her. That hadn't been sexual, but his mind had made it that way so many times. He didn't know now how he'd controlled himself, but Wes was right. Eventually he would have reached the breaking point, and LeeAnn would have suffered for his weakness. When she reached for him back then, needing his reassurance, he was there for her. Always. And if I reached for her with my need...would she have been there for me? Would I have destroyed her?
His entire body felt like it was incinerating. He had to force himself away so he could get hold of himself. He grabbed sweat pants from the open suitcase and ducked into the bathroom. Hoping she would fall asleep in the length of time it took for him to gain control of his unquenchable needs, he prayed while sitting on the toilet seat, his head in his hands, in the small cube of a room.
She seemed asleep when he went out, and he quickly got into the second bed and shut off the lamp. Finally, rest came for his mind and body, but he'd only just begun to drift off when he felt motion. Abruptly, LeeAnn was there under the covers with him. She snuggled against his side, her head in place on his chest. Even when he wanted to deny her, he knew there was no way he ever could. He'd survived the torture before. He would again. As many times as it takes.
"We only have a few days. And then months apart," she whispered, her tone pleading with him to let her stay here in his arms all night.
All he wanted was to be close to her, too. No, that's not all I want. I want you, angel. I want to love you the way a man does the woman he loves. I don't want anything between us. I don't ever want to stop. "I'm here. I love you."
"Oh, Michael, I love you so much. More than ever. More than anything."
He couldn't help remembering her plans for their wedding when she was too innocent to realize what marriage entailed, what an ideal wedding night should be like. She spoke of blissful happiness, in a place far from the rest of the world, of never being apart for a single second. Together, the circle of their wedding bands would signify their loves had become complete together, as one. But none of that had been realistic. He no longer wanted cotton candy dreams either. His needs had grown so far beyond that naivety, he could only hate himself until LeeAnn joined him in them. If he told her the truth, would he taint her fairytale dreams? Or would love heal them even there? Was she ready?
Getting away from the past had brought Mike friends that he'd never had before LeeAnn. Wes, Jay Samuels who also hailed from Peaceful but had been the chaplain at the base Mike was stationed at for years, Ethan, and Taps, the guy who'd taken over for Jay on the base. For years, his friends had been encouraging him to tell LeeAnn that she owned his heart. Even Wes, after seeing LeeAnn stand on her own two feet all these years, believed the time for disclosure had come.
Mike belonged to her and her alone--that was true even if she didn't want to belong to him in the ways he'd fantasized. He couldn't explain the terror he felt at the mere idea of losing her. Nothing was worth the risk. Patience wasn't one of his virtues, but he would force himself to wait until his discharge from the military was final before he took a step toward his own dreams with this woman. He had to be a hundred percent sure she was ready and able for the things he wanted, that she wanted the same. As close as LeeAnn had convinced him she was to that hundred percent proof, she wasn't quite there yet. One way or another, he would hold out for total assurance, never faltering in his belief that she was worth the wait.