“Your team, my family, they’re all fine. Aiden and Lisabeth are across the row with Joshua.”
While unable to move his head, he scanned the seated passengers and was able to find the family seated together. Joshua played with his new father’s glasses while his mother fed her son a banana. Hugh’s throat went tight at the sight of Joshua’s six teeth gleaming with his smile. The family tableau was… perfection.
Amelia kissed his forehead. “Thank you for making that possible.”
“You held up your end.” And then some.
“Well, my brother wants me to let you know he’s permanently on call for you if you need him.”
“I’m sure having an extra doctor on hand came in handy after I passed out.” He tried to put together the sequence of events in his head. “What happened to Jocelyn?”
“She’s dead. The baby she had with her is still on the island, with the military nurse in custody for questioning.”
All the pieces fell into place, neatly tied up in his mind. The nightmare was past and Amelia was safe. “It’s finally over then.”
She placed her hand on his chest, on his heart. “Actually, I was hoping that this is actually the beginning for us.”
Hoping his knocked-around brain wasn’t playing tricks on him, he said, “You’ll need to spell that out a little more for me. I’m still kinda thick from the blow to the head and I wouldn’t want to misunderstand.”
“I believe we shared something very special this past week and I don’t want to lose that.” She stared back at him with those beautiful cornflower blue eyes that had so captivated him from the start. “We may not have known each other long, but it’s long enough for me to be absolutely certain that I love you, Hugh Franco. What’s more, I’m in love with you, so much so, you’ve filled my heart and life in ways I never even imagined was possible.”
His hand fell to rest on top of hers and he wished he could hold her. He let the words sink into him and settle, his future coming into focus again for the first time in five years.
“You do have a way with words, madam lawyer.” He lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles, lingering before putting her hand back on his chest. He wanted to do more, but aside from being strapped to a litter, they had a cargo hold full of people around them. “I want to see you again after we get back to the States.”
“See me?” Her fingers drew small circles on his chest.
“Date you, be your boyfriend, buy you flowers and candy, take you on dates.” Give her all the romance there hadn’t been time for while they were on the run. Let her know how much he treasured the gift of having her in his life.
“I like the sound of that very much.” She leaned forward, her hair draping over him and offering a silken curtain of privacy as her mouth met his.
This kiss wasn’t as long or frenzied as others they’d shared, but the ease with which they came together, the way they connected… He was a lucky man.
“I love you, Amelia Bailey,” he said against her lips.
And he looked forward to showing her just how much every day, for the rest of his life.
Four months later
The world had opened up for Amelia. Literally.
She stood alongside Hugh as he pushed wide the French doors leading to the balcony of the beach condo. Gasping, she took in the incredible ocean view. The Gulf of Mexico spread out in front of her from the home Hugh was considering buying.
He was relocating.
“Hugh? Is this place for real?” She stepped to the white railing overlooking a beach with pristine white sand. The place was a corner unit, townhouse style with three bedrooms and even a little dock slip of its own.
“As real as it gets.” He tucked an arm around her shoulders. “I take it you’re giving the place a thumbs-up?”
“Definitely, two thumbs-up.” That he was consulting her on his home purchase spoke of just how much he’d committed to their relationship too.
So much had happened for them in four short months. But then her whole life had changed in those first days with Hugh, so that now she couldn’t imagine her life without him.
Once they’d returned from the Bahamas, Hugh had been put on medical leave to recover from his broken ankle. Thank God his injuries hadn’t been any worse. Amelia had taken vacation as well to play nurse at his southern Florida base—and make the most of his time off to be together in his place and then go to hers. She’d been dreading his return to work, so far away, with even longer deployments looming.
But he’d surprised her on that last day of his leave, telling her that Major McCabe had helped pull some strings to get Hugh a transfer to a base in northern Florida. Hugh would be stepping out of the field for at least two or three years to teach newbie incoming pararescuemen at the Air Force Combat Diver School—located in Panama City, Florida. It was closer to Alabama. Closer to her. And with less time away.
She’d started job hunting in Panama City the next day and accepted a position the next week.
Sliding in front of him and leaning back against his chest, she soaked up the late-day Florida sun, the beauty of a seagull dipping along the rolling shore. His arms slipped around her with an ease that both calmed and excited her.
She tipped her face into the sea breeze, watching sailboats and jet skis on the horizon. “What a peaceful place to end the workday, having supper out here on the balcony.”
“When I saw the place, the first thing I thought of was sitting out here with you, my guitar, a bottle of beer—”
“—a glass of wine.”
“Together.” His chin rested on top of her head.
“I still can’t believe you came out of the field for me.” That he would make such a life change to help them be together touched her. Deeply.
“The decision wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be. I realized I’d been working too close to the edge. You helped me see that. And here? I figure that makes me the right kind of instructor to teach students how to make that distinction between laying it all on the line and being so reckless you endanger others.”
“You’re a good man, Hugh. They’re going to learn a lot from you.” She folded her hands over his on her stomach. “I would have moved farther for you.” As much as it would have hurt to be far from her brother and his family, she knew her future was with Hugh.
“Thanks”—he dropped a tender kiss on her forehead—“but this is where we’re supposed to be.”
“I agree.” So easily they both already spoke of the future together. Things may have started off tough for them, but the love part? They were in total sync on that.
“Besides, I enjoy seeing you spoil Joshua rotten. You’ve taken well to the role of indulgent aunt.”
Hugh took part in quite a bit of that spoiling. There were still times shadows crossed his eyes when he looked at her nephew—or any child, for that matter—and she knew he was thinking about his daughter. But she also saw he wasn’t letting that stop him from enjoying Joshua.
News of Lisabeth’s pregnancy had caught her by surprise, but Amelia had done her best to ensure any postadoption paperwork proceeded smoothly. Aiden and Lisabeth had been tapping into every support line imaginable to help Joshua bond securely, and they had additional counseling help in place for any contingency after the baby was born.
Everything was being done by the book. Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart had shown them too well how playing fast and loose with the rules could wreck precious lives.
Authorities in the Bahamas and the States were still threading through the tangled mess by cutting deals with Courtney, Erin, and the military nurse, Lieutenant Gable, in exchange for information. So far, two young children had been rescued from a transaction Oliver had overseen. Amelia shuddered to think what could have happened if they’d been lost forever in the abyss of a child-prostitution ring.
She shivered and Hugh’s arms wrapped tighter around her.
“Do you want to go inside?” His deep voice vibrated against her back.
“Let’s stay here a while longer, if the real-estate agent isn’t in a hurry.”
“Actually, I convinced her to have coffee across the street. We’re free to hang out a while longer.” He ducked around in front of her, leaning against the rail. “I was hoping we could talk.”
His green eyes went serious, crinkles at the sides fanning out. Her stomach flipped as hard and fast as a fish flopping in the distance.
“Okay, is there some kind of problem?” She smoothed the collar of his camo—he’d come straight over from work.
“I was thinking, since your stuff is still in storage, you might consider moving it here rather than searching for another place.”
Surprise stilled her. She’d been so careful to give Hugh time and space in the their relationship that she hadn’t been fully prepared for this moment. She’d told herself she was fine living separately. Taking it slow. But—wow. The thought of being with him full time grabbed hold of her heart.
“You’re asking me to move in with you?”
“That’s part of why I wanted to make sure the place met with your approval before I bought it.”
Nerves—and excitement—kicked up her pulse. “And the other reason?”
Holding on to the rail, he dropped to one knee in front of her. Her stomach dropped right along with him. There was no mistaking his intent.
He pulled his hand from his pocket, holding a small black-velvet jeweler’s box. “Amelia, will you marry me?”
Such simple words, but the feeling behind them, the emotion in his eyes and in his voice, was so far from simple, it humbled her. This complex man who had every reason to fear risking love again was giving himself, his heart, his future to her.
She sank to her knees, clasping both of her hands over his. “Of course, I will—move in, marry you, spend the rest of my life loving you.”
Hauling her to his chest, he hugged her hard and close, whispering “Thank God” against her hair with so much relief she couldn’t help but be moved. Then he kissed her or she kissed him. They moved so fluidly together it didn’t matter. The way he turned her inside out with a touch, a stroke, the glide of his mouth along her lips… her skin tingled, the heat radiating inward and rivaling anything that sun could crank out.
He eased her to her feet again, ending the kiss with a final brush across her lips. “I do have a ring here.”
He creaked open the velvet box to reveal…
She clapped a hand over her mouth.
A marquise-cut diamond of orangey pink hue, in a platinum setting with white diamonds on either side, refracted rays from the setting sun. “It was my mom’s. It’s never been worn by anyone but her. She passed away a couple of years ago. I would like you to wear it. I want you to marry me, be the mother of my children…” He paused, a long swallow working down his neck, hinting at just how big a risk he was taking here, offering up his heart again. “And God willing, should we be so fortunate, I’d like you to grow very old with me.”
Too choked up to speak, she simply held out her left hand. And it didn’t so much as tremble. She was that sure of her love for Hugh, that sure of how well they fit together.
He slipped the ring in place and pulled her hand back to his heart. “I understand that this is all happening fast, and if you need a long engagement, I’m okay with that. But I can’t just date and pretend we’re testing the waters when I know that you’re the only woman I want to be with. I know that’s not romantically poetic—”
“Shhh…” She placed her fingers over his mouth, unable to resist staring at the ring on her finger. “I understand what you mean, I understand you. And your proposal is wonderfully romantic and perfect in every way.”