Two years later:
Cartoons lit up the TV on the corner stand. Melanie finished picking up the rest of her son’s toys from the living room floor and closed the lid of the plastic toy chest by the couch.
“Don’t forget your purse,” her roommate reminded from the easy chair as he put the bottle down and positioned the baby in his lap for a good burping.
“Thanks. And you have barf on your shirt again,” she teased with a wink.
Mac’s mustache quirked as he continued to pat the baby flung over his shoulder. “That would be Sasha’s.”
Melanie spotted Sasha’s monogrammed pink blanket on the floor, picked it up and handed it to him on her way to the kitchen. “You’re working late tonight.”
“Her mom’s working late. Should be by in an hour or so to pick her up.”
Since their shared apartment was so small, Melanie could easily hold the conversation from the open kitchen as she put the dinner dishes away. “You sure you don’t need me to stay?”
The big man almost looked affronted by her lack of faith as her fifteen month-old son, DJ, played on the floor at his feet. “Hey, I’ve dealt with a lot worse than upchucked peas and carrots. You have a long drive ahead of you. Better go before it gets too late.”
Her eyes darted to the microwave clock. “Bull Shoals isn’t that far.”
“Far enough in that heap of yours. Here, I’ll help you.” As soon as Mac transferred Sasha to the playpen, he went for Melanie’s luggage while she retrieved her son.
As he held the front door open, his fingers buried deep into DJ’s tickle spot. “Bye, sport. Have a good time this weekend with grandma and grandpa.”
DJ folded over with a giggle. Melanie ran a hand over his soft blond curls. “Herb promised to take us fishing.”
“Oooh, you get to eat worms. Wish I could be there to see it.”
“Oh! Speaking of goodbyes, we almost forgot!” She walked him over to the framed photo that hung just above the telephone table. “Say goodbye to Daddy,” and they both waved together.
“Ba Dada,” DJ said, his silky voice lingering over the last syllable.
It was a long, drawn out, respectful moment that never failed to clog her throat with emotion. As she studied Derek’s picture, her mind went back to the day it was taken. Fourth of July, almost a year before he was killed. The two of them sat in adjoining lawn chairs with their heads together, cold drinks in their hands and their faces alight with festive smiles.
Damn. His smile was just as addictive now as it was in life and she found herself answering it, albeit a bit sadly.
Mac put his hands on her shoulders from behind. “I get the ritual, Mel,” he said softly, “but it’s been two years. You need to try and move on.”
She frowned when she realized just how long she’d been standing there. “I know. I will.” And then she gave herself a mental shake. “It’s not that I can’t, it’s more because… you know, we’re so busy with the daycare and all.”
“Uh-huh.” Mac’s hands tightened their grip and he steered her back toward the door. “You’ve been using that excuse since we opened the place.”
“It’s not like you’ve been any better,” she complained over her shoulder.
“We’re not talking about my love life.”
“I think you should date Sasha’s mom,” she teased, the mood effectively lifted.
“Too straight-laced for me.”
It was all bullshit and she knew it. Mac was modest as ever. “You know she likes you.”
“It’s the babies. They’re chick magnets.” He tweaked DJ’s nose. “Especially this little stud.”
“Uh-huh.” Suspicion tinged her words. “I think you like her, too.”
He dismissed the notion with a grunt as he held out her purse. “She’s practically a kid.”
“She’s my age!”
They finally made it out onto the landing with luggage in tow.
“I’m more than a dozen years older than you.”
“Well, when you put it that way…” She grabbed DJ’s little arm and synthesized a wave. “Say goodbye to Grandpa Mac.”
Her cell phone rang on the counter. Apparently that hadn’t made it into her purse yet. Melanie transferred DJ over to Mac’s arms and went back inside. Her best friend’s face lit up the phone’s screen and she answered. “You’re an angel, Danny Cahill.”
There was a slight pause on the other end. “Okay…”
“And you’re DJ’s favorite aunt.”
“I’m his only aunt. Why all the love?”
“You just saved me from forgetting my phone. We were just about to leave for our big weekend with your parents.”
“That’s why I was calling. It might be a good idea for us all to go. Can you stop by our place first? We’ll take the truck?”
By the tone of Danny’s voice, Melanie could tell something was up. “Sure, sounds great. What made you change your mind?”
“We just got a call from our friendly neighborhood Sheriff.”
Uh-oh. Melanie turned toward Mac and gestured for him to come back inside while she transferred the call to speaker.
Danny said, “Guess who just escaped from prison?”
Melanie Parker. She was the last woman he’d ever made love to. The last woman to hold him with tenderness. The last woman to touch him without pain. His last good memory before falling headfirst into a harsh, questionable existence. Somehow this first covert look at her put him in a place he thought he’d never know again. And that was bad. As with the last mission, there was no room for feelings. It could only lead to failure.
Blond hair cascaded down a slender back in glorious, silken waves.
His hands fisting passionately in the sex-tangled mass.
A man stood with her in front of her apartment building holding an infant in his burly embrace. They were close enough so that when the baby dropped her monogrammed blanket, it landed on Melanie’s shoulder. The infant squealed when the soft pink bundle of cloth was returned to her and she immediately stuffed it between toothless gums.
The woman giggled and pressed her full lips to a tiny forehead.
Sculpted for kissing, tender, glossy…they taste of vanilla beneath his tongue.
Those same lips delivered another farewell kiss to the man he now recognized from another lifetime ago. Mac? What the hell?
Gloved fingers parted the leaves to offer a better look. A brushing wind drowned out her words, but they were spoken softly, affectionately as the trio stood in her assigned parking space.
So… she was with him now. One big happy fucking family.
Unwanted emotions washed through him like a harsh cleanser despite his attempt to tame them. Did he really expect her to wait? Not really, he’d been gone a long time, but a child? Yoga pants? She’d even cut herself some bangs, which screamed, “I’m settled.”
Suddenly, her lips stilled, remained parted in silence. When she glanced tentatively in his direction, he moved further into the shadows. His own heart stopped beating for a moment then crashed into a thunderous rhythm when her cautious perusal was over.
Damn. She’d felt him.
Leaving the infant behind, Melanie turned to the same old beater car she’d had when they were together and slid behind the wheel. If he remembered right, that ignition would turn over three sluggish times before… Yep. Just like he remembered. Everything was just as he remembered; only now there were two new players in her life: a husband and baby girl.
A slight pressure bore down on the tip of his toes. “Soon, Chewie,” he whispered, slowly returning the thick branch of leaves to its natural position. The anxious Shepherd mix beside him stood on all fours and brushed soft midnight fur against his knees. “We’ll get her soon.”
And then what? Electric heat arced down to impact with his groin. For some reason, his pecker wasn’t on the same page as his head, but he must not lose focus. Lives hung in the balance. Everything depended on his ability to pull off this particular heist.
With bolstered fortitude, he touched his leg thus giving his partner-in-crime the signal to proceed.
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