Authors: Karen Rock
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Domestic Life, #Family Life, #Military, #Adirondack Woods, #Safety, #Dark Memories, #Bronx, #Danger, #Orphaned Bear Cub, #Conservation Officer, #Poachers, #Peaceful World, #Rehabilitating, #Support, #Courage, #Tragic Past Events, #Compassion, #Clean Romance, #Heartwarming
She thought of calling Liam. Like most people in the city, his family had only one vehicle. Mary Ann had complained it was in the shop, but he could call for car service...though a bus would get here sooner. It was pointless to worry him. Especially since she’d already phoned before leaving the meeting and, despite her short nap on the bus, wasn’t overdue by much...yet.
She pulled out her pepper spray and forced herself to walk at a normal gait, to not appear panicked despite her struggle to breathe. The night of her attack had been like this. She’d been so certain then. So naive. Sure that nothing bad could happen to her. Not something so extreme, anyway. But that innocent belief had been ripped from her, and with it her ability to live life to the fullest. Her assailants had killed her spirit.
Up ahead she noticed a gap between houses, much like the one she’d passed that long-ago night. The hair on the back of her neck prickled as she imagined ominous eyes watching her. Assessing. When a cat fled across her feet, she jumped. Her pepper spray fell from nerveless fingers, rolled over the curb and into a sewer grate. She dropped to her knees, grabbing for the can, but missed. It vanished, and fear, dark and thick, poured through her.
This was it. She was defenseless. Completely unprotected.
On wooden legs, she forced herself forward. The bus stop stood just past the alley. If something terrible lurked, she’d have to face it. She pictured Liam, Maggie, Button, Scooter and Jinx. For their sakes as well as hers, she would defend herself. Fight back. Whatever the outcome, at least it wouldn’t mean returning to her bubble of an existence.
Across the street, a muscular man ambled, his gait unsteady, his shaved head shining as white as the moon. When he spotted her, he stopped and grinned, looking much too happy to see her for comfort.
“Hey, pretty lady,” he called. “You new here? Haven’t seen you around. I would have noticed.”
She shook her head, every muscle tensing as he crossed the road toward her. Behind her the alley loomed black and impenetrable. A feeling of déjà vu overcame her, and her knees dipped.
“You solo or what?”
She smelled the booze on him before he attempted to scale the curb. His hands gripped a car’s back hood when his foot slipped. She pictured Liam. Wondered if he worried about her. If he could see her now...
A stream of expletives escaped the man and he pointed at her. “Better not be laughing.”
She was anything but amused. It took everything she had to stay calm and not to give in to tears. She’d cried the last time and it hadn’t made a difference. According to Liam, nothing would have. She rubbed her bare arms and forced herself to stay where she was. Stand her ground. She had a right to be safe, wherever she was, and she’d defend it. After the fire, she understood that walls, things...didn’t matter. Hiding behind them hadn’t helped her fully heal.
He conquered the curb and sauntered closer, hitching his slipping pants. They seemed weighed down by something heavy in his pocket. A gun?
“What do you want?” she asked, her voice as steady as she could manage.
His gray teeth flashed, years of hard living turning his face masklike. “What are you offering?”
“Got a picture of my bear.” She clapped a hand over her mouth. What a crazy thing to say. But in this dangerous moment, her loved ones ran through her mind and Button sat high on the list.
The man steadied himself against the broken street light. “No kidding? You have a bear?”
She nodded and fished out her wallet, realizing, belatedly, that was the dumbest thing she could have done. But she forced herself on, pulling out the snapshot of her pushing Button on her tire swing. Liam had taken it...
The man yanked the snapshot away and held it close to his face, taking his time studying it.
“You raise these things?” he asked at last, passing the picture back.
“Just got certified.” The conversation felt surreal. As if she watched it from a distance, assessing her performance, unable to intervene or guide it.
The man reached into his pocket and she froze. Here it came. A knife, a pistol, something to punish her for tempting fate...not being vigilant on the bus... But instead he retrieved a pack of cigarettes and held it out.
She nearly collapsed at the reprieve. Didn’t they offer that to death row prisoners? A final smoke? When she shook her head, he lit one, blew out a stream of smoke and pointed the glowing end at her.
“You are one tough lady. Heard some dealer supposedly got a tiger guarding his stash, but I stay away from that. Don’t do drugs. Wish I could kick these.”
He waved his cigarette, his rheumy blue eyes wide. “Wild animals, man. Dangerous.”
Vivie almost laughed. Wild animals scared him and he petrified her... Maybe, like everything else, fear was relative.
“Her name’s Button.” She craned her neck. Where was the bus?
He exhaled slowly, smoke curling out of his nostrils and drifting up to his red-veined eyes. “I like that. Button. Could be one of my kids’ stuffed animals.”
Hoping to keep him talking until the bus, or someone else appeared, she asked. “How many do you have?”
He tapped his chin and she noticed a deep scar running through it. “Five now. One on the way. Old lady kicked me out, though. Don’t appreciate me. Girls will be lining up when they find out this is available.”
He gestured to himself and grinned.
“I see.” Please, oh please, don’t let him imagine her on that list. If he did, if he forced the issue, she wouldn’t freeze this time. Wouldn’t cry.
“Want to hang out more? Been crashing at a friend’s. Not fancy, but it’ll do.”
“Uh. No thanks. Though I appreciate the offer.”
His hoop earring swung as he angled his head and studied her. “You got nice manners, lady. I appreciate that. What are you doing in this place, anyway? You’re alone. Right?”
She met his eyes and her fingers tightened around her wallet, picturing her animals’ pictures inside. He had no right to them or anything that belonged to her. She would never surrender a part of herself again. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—accept that.
“I’m waiting for the bus.”
He flicked his cigarette to the ground and its embers trailed into the sewer grate.
“Just passed a couple minutes ago.” He stepped closer, his eyes narrowing. “Ain’t safe to be out here alone. Waiting. Don’t know who’s going to show up.” His voice lowered and felt like a threat.
A sudden calm swept through her. She’d heard that kind of voice before. Once she’d been at its mercy, but never again.
She stepped close, near enough that the tip of his sneakers touched hers. “I’m not afraid.” She pressed her finger into his grimy T-shirt. “And I don’t care about being alone. I can handle myself.”
Exhilaration pulsed through her, filling her with a strange mix of hysteria and power.
He threw his hands in the air and rolled his eyes. “Hey. I believe you. But still. Why don’t I sit with you at the bus stop? Got some shady characters around here I don’t think you’d like to meet...or maybe
should be afraid.” A phlegmatic laugh rattled out of him and she stared at him in astonishment.
“You want to make sure I’m safe?”
“I know. You got this. But I’d feel better seeing you get on that bus. Don’t want that bear missing you now, do you?”
Astonishment and relief rushed through her, making her sway on her feet. When she stumbled, he cupped her elbow and steered her to the bus shelter. He swept debris off the bench inside, pointed for her to sit, then dropped beside her.
“Th-thank you,” she stammered, meaning it on many levels. More than he knew.
“You thought I was going to do something bad, didn’t you?”
She opened her mouth to deny it, but nodded instead. No lies...especially to herself. Not ever again.
“I’m sorry.” She smiled into his grizzled face. “It’s just—”
He held up a hand. “Hey. I know how I look. Been stopped by the cops enough times I call them by name. Not everyone like me is a bad guy. I drink a little too much sometimes, but that’s it.”
She nodded slowly. No. There were a lot more good men than bad. The weight of fear she’d carried all these years dropped away, leaving her buoyant. A relieved chuckle escaped her, and suddenly a dam burst inside. Laughter poured out, carrying with it the dread she’d buried deep.
“No offense, but you sound a little crazy, lady!” He chuckled to himself, then shook his head. He pulled out a pair of glasses before picking up a paper off the ground and popping it opening.
Her laughter subsided at last and she grinned. She’d never felt saner in her life.
buttercream frosting filled Liam’s nose as he cut another slice of wedding cake the next day. He tipped it onto a plate and laid it on the serving table beside him.
“Got any pieces with a rose left?” He glanced up at Vivie’s teasing voice and the knife slipped from his hands to the platter. In a strapless blue dress, with her hair up in a curling mass, she looked even more beautiful than usual.
“Pink or purple?” Forcing himself to stop staring, he pointed to the uncut middle tier.
“Pink. No. Purple.” Vivie laughed, enchanting him. “How about both?”
He lost himself in those glowing, light brown eyes. “You got it.”
He gave himself a little shake and picked up the triangular cake cutter. “Right.”
When she cocked her head, her dark gold ringlets bounced around her long neck. “Are you okay? You’ve seemed off all day.”
Off? He was lost. Floundering. Struggling with emotions for her that he couldn’t deny or admit.
“Tired, but I wanted to wait up for you yesterday. You still haven’t said why you got in so late or left without me.” He passed her the plate, knowing he sounded like some jealous boyfriend. It’d been hard to hold back his questions last night, but the exhausted, breakable look about her had kept him from pushing it.
A strange expression crossed her face. “Trust me, it wasn’t planned.”
“Did you meet an old friend? Someone from culinary school?” A man? he added silently. His fingers mashed one of Mary Ann’s silver-bordered napkins.
“I’ll tell you later.” Her lips curved again and she peeked at him over her shoulder before strolling away. He watched her rejoin his family on the edge of the tavern’s impromptu dance floor. A hunger to follow her took hold. To hold her close. But when he caught her, what would he do? He couldn’t keep her.
A trio of musicians rocked some fast tune. His brother Daniel spun on the floor while Ella, dressed in a pink replica of Mary Ann’s gown, twirled with her hands overhead. Close friends and extended family joined in the clapping and cheering. He surveyed the transformed pub. Flower arrangements with candle centerpieces and lace tablecloths gave the room a vintage, elegant feel. Gleaming silver platters and warming trays filled a laden buffet table. White tulle covered the exposed-beam ceiling and gathered in the center at the White Horse’s famous chandelier.
If he ever got married, he’d want something small and intimate like this, though it’d be on top of a mountain. Nature’s beauty to decorate. His hand stilled, midcut. When had he ever considered marriage before? His eyes sought out Vivie again, his heart knowing the impossible answer.
She fit in perfectly with the Walsh crew. Daniel dragged her onto the dance floor and she nimbly copied some elaborate robot moves, making the crowd howl in approval. His chest squeezed to see her so relaxed and happy, surrounded by family...children...a home...everything he couldn’t give her. Exactly what she deserved.
Yet the need to hold her, to kiss that soft mouth, pounded through him. He’d never regretted parting ways with women before. They’d always been casual relationships. Had an expiration date. But with Vivie, he didn’t trust himself to let go so easily. She’d crept under his skin and into his heart.
A small line formed at the cake table and he passed out more plates, his eyes staying on the captivating woman he wished he could truly call his date...or more.
He’d fallen for her, he realized with a jolt. Loved her for her headstrong ways, though he could throttle her for them, too. Admired her determination to help those who couldn’t help themselves, like Button. Was undone by that big heart that accepted his chaotic family and even him at his worst.
This weekend together had dialed up his emotions. Watching her interact with his family—teaching Ella elaborate braids, convincing Connor that ties were cool, going through his parents’ wedding album with his mother—had made him want a life he’d never imagined. One with Vivie. But would she be happy moving on whenever his surroundings closed in around him?
Her bell of a laugh rang out as she flapped her elbows, shook her backside, then shimmied to the ground alongside some of his elderly aunts. The “Chicken Dance.” A family staple. Of course she’d love it along with everything else she’d missed during her nomadic childhood. How could he inflict the same future on her? It would be unfair and he loved her too much to do it.
“She’s a keeper,” said Mary Ann beside him. He tore his eyes from Vivie and flinched at his sister’s observant gaze.
“Yes. She’ll make someone happy someday.” Though he spoke casually, the thought tore through him. Vivie with another man. A partner who would be content with the stable life she needed.
“Not you?” His sister’s sharp brown eyes found his. “Let’s go outside,” she said abruptly. “I could use some air.” She tugged on his arm and led him through the front doors to the small fenced-off sidewalk seating area.
“You look beautiful, sis,” he said, meaning it. Against her white lace gown, her hair shone red as a warm blaze, her freckles accentuating her uptilted nose and round cheeks.
She kicked off her shoes and propped her feet on the seat next to her. A group of tourists clattered by, snapping pictures and stopping when they saw the Closed sign on the tavern’s front door.
“Thanks, Liam. But you’re not getting me off topic. We’re talking about you and Vivie.”
“There is no me and Vivie,” he admitted. Now that the wedding was winding down, it was time to come clean. “We’re just friends.”
“Thought so. When you were playing with Ella yesterday, your cell phone screen lit up with a message from park services out in Yellowstone. So you are moving again.”
“You’re reading my phone messages?”
She lowered her chin and looked at him from beneath stern brows. “I’m your older sister. It’s a given...”
He shook his head. “What was I thinking?” He loosened his bow tie. “I should have told you, but I didn’t want you worrying on your wedding weekend. Wishing I’d settle down.”
“You also lied about just being friends with Vivie.” Mary Ann unpinned her veil and folded it on her lap. “Stop deceiving yourself.”
He shifted in his metal seat. His older sister saw too much. “I’m not.”
“Uh-uh. Not buying it.” When she shook her head, her pearl earrings swung.
“Even if I do care, there’s a lot about Vivie and I that can’t work.”
“Not from my perspective. You two were adorable together last night at dinner. She loosens you up. Makes you laugh more than you have since the war.” Mary Ann put her elbows on the table and leaned forward. “She’s good for you, Liam. From the way she looks at you, I can tell she cares about you, too.”
“I’m not good for her,” he confessed.
Mary Ann moved to the seat next to him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “That’s not true, Liam. I know that whatever happened to you in Afghanistan changed you. Made you on edge. But the rest—the kind, caring, smart, funny, strong brother I love—is still the same.”
The backs of his eyes pricked and he rolled them skyward, to the setting sun. Mary Ann had no idea how it felt to watch your best friends die. To know that there was nothing he could have done to stop it. No matter how much Vivie made him believe he could forget, he’d never shake the past. That helpless trapped feeling wouldn’t leave him, no matter how far he ran.
“I’m a survivor. That’s all I am.” Funny how, until this moment, he hadn’t realized that Vivie’s description of herself matched his own. She was right—pulling up stakes before he got too attached wasn’t really living, either.
Mary Ann’s floral perfume folded around them when she dropped her head to his shoulder. “You are so much more. If you’d stay still long enough, you just might see it.”
She squeezed him around the middle, then turned when her groom poked his head through the door. “It’s time to throw the bouquet,” he called.
“Be right there.”
Mary Ann straightened and studied Liam, her mouth firm. “When we go in, I want you to ask Vivie to dance.”
He suppressed a groan and nodded, glad, at least, that his sister’s playful smile returned. She didn’t need to worry about him today. Shouldn’t think of anything but her happy future.
Following his sister, he ducked inside and headed for the assembled pack of single women by the back corner. Vivie slouched in the middle of the group, as if someone had shoved her there. He guessed Ella, who bounced on her toes beside Vivie, was the culprit. His pulse picked up when he envisioned holding Vivie as they danced in a few minutes. Would he be able to keep his feelings in check? It’d be a Herculean task, but he’d manage. For both their sakes.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One!” The group chanted and Mary Ann flung her flowers over her shoulder and turned. Feminine squeals filled the room and a scuffle broke out. At last one victor emerged—Ella, who grinned as she held the arrangement aloft, then passed it to Vivie.
“I got it so you’d marry Liam and be my sister someday.”
Vivie brushed her wet lashes and stooped to hug Ella. He strained to hear what she said, but the band started up another tune. The slow, romantic song quieted the group and couples drifted out onto the dance floor. Mary Ann narrowed her eyes at him, then jerked her chin at Vivie. Aiden stood behind the bar and nodded at Liam. Were his older siblings conspiring against him?
He squared his shoulders. Nothing for it. It was his sister’s day, and what she wanted, she got, no matter how difficult the demand. And when it came down to it, he wanted to hold Vivie.
“Care for a dance?”
Vivie lowered the bouquet from her nose and handed it to Ella.
“I’d love to.” Her wide smile drove out his breath. It took him a minute before he stepped forward and swept her into his arms.
The feel of her licked through his blood, driving him senseless. Her intoxicating scent, something wild and fresh, reminded him of home...only he couldn’t call the Adirondacks that much longer. The jarring thought sent a chill of regret through him. This was exactly why he avoided connections, ties. But something about Vivie felt inevitable, unavoidable, meant to be...only she wasn’t.
“Having a good time?”
“I love family weddings. So personal.” Her eyes shone up at him and his arms tightened around her slender waist as they swayed to the song. She was lovely, and totally unconscious of it.
“They definitely like you.”
“Ella’s adorable. They’re all wonderful, but I expected that.”
Their eyes met and held. “Why?” His voice rasped. He could hardly hear himself over the steady pounding in his ears.
“Because you are, too.”
Her words exploded inside him. He rubbed his hands along the back of her neck, feeling her shiver. She stood on tiptoe and pressed her cheek to his and he groaned, low in her ear.
“This feels nice.” She wrapped her arms around his waist and nuzzled close.
“You don’t mind being held?”
She shook her head. “Not by you. And not after last night.”
She took his hand and pulled him to a side table when the song ended.
“I’ve got something to tell you.”
* * *
called me crazy.” Vivie grinned as she wound up her story, pleased all over again. Only Liam’s face was dark, flushed. He didn’t seem to share her excitement.
“You spoke to some stranger past midnight in an unknown neighborhood?” His fingers drummed on the wooden tabletop.
“You should have called me.” She’d never seen anyone actually speak through clenched teeth, but somehow Liam managed it.
“The bus would have gotten there faster.”
“Or called the cops.”
“Oh. Sure. What would the 911 call be? A man is talking to me? I’m sure they would have rushed right over since nothing else important was happening in the city.” Her excitement transformed into agitation. Couldn’t Liam see what a giant step forward she’d taken? What it meant in terms of working through her past?
He yanked off his tie and pulled open a couple of his shirt buttons. He looked devastatingly handsome in his tux today. All broad shoulders, square jaw and tall, dark good looks. Yet now, he resembled a charging bull, or a fire-breathing dragon, as anger singed the air around him.
“Tell me again how you wound up there?”
She sighed. “I missed my stop. Must have fallen asleep for a few minutes. It’d been a long day and I wasn’t familiar with the transfer.”
“Well you should have been, Vivie. Or brought someone along who would have kept you safe.”
“Like you?” Her temper rose to meet his. “I don’t need a knight in shining armor. Or a gun-toting man in uniform. As it turned out, I only needed myself.”
“You got lucky.” His eyebrows met over his nose and his nostrils flared. “You could have been hurt again or—” his eyes dropped to her scar “—worse.”
She swallowed hard, imagining the possibilities. But wasn’t that the very thing that kept her house-and diner-bound, stopped her from leaving the areas she’d designated as “safe” and enjoying her life?
“I was lucky. That guy could have attacked me. But he didn’t. Maybe I had something to do with it and perhaps I didn’t. What matters is that I didn’t back down. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Liam shook his head at her, shocked. “It could have been the worst.”
“I didn’t go looking for it, but like you said, bad stuff happens and we can’t control it. What’s important is that I got through it. I’m not just a survivor anymore, Liam. I’m a—a—”
They both gawked, startled to see Connor loitering nearby. He shrugged at their stares. “What? Nothing else interesting is happening at this lame wedding.”
“Stop eavesdropping, Connor.”
The teenager slipped in his earbuds and slouched away. “Whatever.”
Vivie turned the word over in her mind, liking how it felt. Connor was right. She had conquered her fears and would never see herself, or her life, the same way.