Twenty-two years later, July 22
"It's my birthday on Saturday," Lucy Carlton said softly, not looking up. In the passenger's seat of the deluxe motor home, the tiny Ragdoll kitten in her arms snuggled deeper against her warmth, purring contently. Lucy had found her, half dead, at one of isolated locations they'd camped in a week ago. Despite her husband's disapproval, she'd thrown herself into nursing back to health the kitty that couldn't have been more than four weeks old.
Vic glanced over at them from the driver's seat. His gaze lowered to Cute Boots, so named because the cat was all heather gray except the long, white boots she wore on all four legs. "Isn't that pitiful thing your birthday present?" he asked, an eyebrow lifting.
"Cute Boots isn't pitiful!" Lucy cried out. "She's had a hard life. I rescued her. Look how much fatter she is than when I found her."
Vic chuckled. "I'm not surprised. How much did we spend in that pet store? She's eating filet mignon a la kitten."
He spoke in a teasing tone, but she knew he worried constantly about her getting too attached to the animal. She couldn't keep her. Lucy knew that--and would deal with the "giving up" part later, when she had no other choice.
Lucy sighed in exaggerated heaviness. "As I was saying, Saturday's my birthday. And our vacation will be over soon. Don't I get a birthday wish?"
Tension stole over Vic's face and entered his dark eyes. Then he was turning away, fixing his focus on the rustic road surrounded by thick forest on both sides ahead of them. She knew he'd been waiting for her to ask for what he didn't want to give her--what he would feel was an unnecessary risk to their safety.
"You worry too much, babe," she insisted with more breeziness than she felt.
"And you don't worry until it's too late."
He spoke the words under his breath, but she heard him and looked at him pointedly again. "There's a campground five miles ahead. Let's stay at a real campground for a few days. I'm so tired of being completely isolated from the rest of the world. This is our vacation. Our honeymoon. I want to swim and talk to other people and listen to them living their lives around us when it's night and it's supposed to be quiet." Her gaze stole to the gold and silver braided wedding band she wore. Vic's matched perfectly. If only they could wear them forever and never take them off for any reason.
When she glanced at him again, he shook his head. "Most people would hate that."
Lucy's chin went up stubbornly. "Well, I'm not most people. If I can't live a normal life, then, darn it all, I want to hear and see it going on around me."
"It's not worth the risk."
She couldn't be mad at him, especially when she studied his hard, deeply tanned face in profile. Once upon a time, he'd fooled her with his tough, protective hulk routine. Now she knew his every expression, every look in his beautiful, seductive Spanish eyes. She could read him so easily. There was nothing in the world he wouldn't do to protect her--or to make her happy. But sometimes the two were in complete conflict and there was no way to do both. And I don't make it any easier for him with my "recklessness."
"My father used to take me camping when I was a little girl."
Sharply, Vic's gaze flew to her. "What do you mean?"
His surprise was warranted. She remembered very little of her childhood--so little she couldn't even be sure who'd raised her. She couldn't recall why the two of them were hiding, but she'd known always they were in hiding. All she remembered of who'd raised her was a soft, beautiful face--one in shadows--dark hair, and a voice that soothed her during storms and after nightmares. A voice that reassured her when she was disappointed to the point of death. My mother? She didn't know, couldn't grasp names or connections.
One of the very few things she did recollect clearly were the times her father came--so infrequently, she had only two or three memories that blended so much that she couldn't tell them apart. But she knew his green eyes, his imposing height and muscular form in a glance and her heart would soar right out of her chest at the sight. He would appear for only a day or two. Each time, she'd gotten to the point of forgetting him altogether, and then he'd show up out of the blue and take her camping--in a tent, with a real campfire. They'd swim in the lake, eat fresh fish and roll themselves into sleeping bags at night. She would never forget the way he'd held her and told her someday they could be together all the time. "Even when we can't be together, you fill my every thought. My love for you is so huge, it stretches across the miles we're apart, and sometimes I feel you like you're with me. Do you ever feel that way, sweetheart?"
"Yes, Daddy. But I wish you could be with me always."
Lucy swallowed. "I remember...my father used to come and he'd take me camping."
"You remember him?"
She shook her head, trying to shake off the memories that could barely be considered true memories they were so vague. He never came back for me. "Just little things. But it's why I love camping." It was why she and Vic went camping from one state to the next in this motor home every year when they had a month's downtime. He'd agreed the first time she suggested it, then he'd gone to work securing the RV and renovating it to his specifications so they would be as safe as he could make them.
"Were there other people around then?" he asked, still sounding surprised.
"No. It was just the two of us, but..." She turned to him. "Please, Vic? It'll only be for a few days. I'll be careful. I promise."
She reached over and stroked his head. Usually, he shaved it, but during this time they'd been on vacation, he'd let it grow out. His hair was dark brown with red highlights from all the sun they'd been taking in. So soft and silky. He'd even let the hair on his face grow for a few days. He looked rugged and gorgeous and worried, and she felt a rush of tender arousal just looking at him. At thirty-eight, just a few years older than her, he was the most incredible man she'd ever known. She loved him so much, sometimes she thought her heart would burst right out of her chest because it was so overfull of emotion for him.
His rock-hard jaw clenched even more, and he took her hand in his, turned it and pressed his firm lips to her palm. Then he locked her hand over his heart. She knew even without the words that he was giving in to her birthday wish, but he'd be stressed out until they drove out of the campground a few days from now, if not long afterward. She'd have to do everything in her power to show him that they could have this--they could have a good time without something bad happening as a result.
"We'll have a good time, babe. We'll be so happy," she assured him needlessly.
Cute Boots yawned on her lap, blinking open bright blue eyes that made Lucy as gooey as a marshmallow inside. She cradled the little ball of fur in both of her hands, bringing the fuzzy face to hers. She Eskimo-kissed the kitten's adorable pink nose, and she meowed lovingly. "Good afternoon, my tiny baby. What a little sweetie you are."
"Lucy," Vic muttered between clenched teeth. "You can't keep it. You can't think of it as your baby."
Stunned, Lucy glanced at him with tears in her eyes. I'll never have a child. I'll never have a baby that Vic and I made together from our love. This kitten is the only baby I'll ever have...and I can't even keep her.
Vic reached for her as much as he could while driving, cradling the back of her head with his huge, strong hand. "I'm sorry, honey. I just don't want you to get hurt when--"
"Can't I pretend? Just for a little while?"
"It'll just make it hurt worse later."
"I know. I need this. No matter how hard it'll be when we have to go back, I need..." Need the baby that was taken from me. Because my life belongs to someone else and I don't have any options.
He didn't say anything, but she read his expression, just as he read hers when she went back to cuddling and cooing to her sweet kitten.
They checked in at the campground store and Vic drove back to their lot, one that could never be isolated enough for him, and parked. She knew he had every intention of securing their campsite and the motor home immediately. But when he shut off the motor and stood, she jumped to her feet, set Cute Boots on the sofa, and reached for him. "Thank you, my beloved husband, for making my dreams come true."
Calling him her husband still gave her shivers of pleasure. They'd been married at sea, by a suitably-qualified captain of the Navy, only a day before they left for their vacation.
Vic drew her into his massive body. At six foot four, he towered over her. His body was solid muscle from head to toe. Whenever he wrapped himself around her, she felt like nothing and no one could ever touch her. Nothing could harm her as long as she belonged to him.
"I want you to be happy, honey. But I can't compromise your safety. You understand that, don't you?"
"I'm safe," she assured him, closing her eyes in bliss when his hands captured her face, long fingers slipping into her hair. "How could I not be safe in this armored tank with my own personal Iron Man?"
She grinned. He didn't. He sighed, leaning his forehead against hers. "I have to get security set up..."
She shook her head, dropping a kiss on his jaw. Then she stood back and pulled her top over her head. She was bare beneath, and his eyes gleamed as he took in her ripe curves. Her short shorts were gone a moment later.
Smiling enticingly, she pulled him back to the bedroom with her. Tension aside, his breathing was ragged by the time she'd unfastened and rid him of his denim shorts. He tore his sleeveless tank off. When she lay back on the bed, she used her legs to drag him down to her--deep inside of her. "You can make the world safe for me..." she whispered against his mouth when he groaned at her possessive hold on him, "just as soon as I have my way with you."