“Afraid not. As a matter of fact, you’ll need lots of sunscreen.”
Florida? Somewhere like Washington State or North Dakota might have been a little easier to grasp, but then she’d never been one to embrace ease. “I’ve always dreamed of visiting the beach again. And in the meantime, it’s not like you’re going to the moon. We’ll be able to talk, right?”
“Periodically, yes. Some of the guys set up Skype accounts.”
“I definitely prefer face-to-face Internet now.” She shivered to think how easily her seemingly innocent Internet café had been a portal for such evil. Brett Livingston had set up shop in her backyard, closing down their communication to the outside world so that everything was filtered through him.
Funny that she’d grown up in a community that shunned most technology, while she’d embraced it, setting up a business that helped residents connect to the world. Yet she’d probably walk away from this nightmare more wary of technology than most people.
“You’ll always know who you’re talking to,” Wade promised as he knuckled her chin upward and kissed her frown away. “And I’ll be able to tell you to your face how very much you mean to me.”
Her heart did a little flip over the touch of his mouth, the promise in his words. “How much would that be?”
“More than you can imagine. More than I could have imagined feeling for someone.” His chocolate-brown eyes deepened to molten sincerity. “I’m falling in love with you, Sunny Foster. And I say falling, because what I’m feeling increases every time I see you. And my gut is telling me I’ll keep right on falling in love with you more and more every day.”
He kissed her before she could answer back, and she so very much wanted to share the words bubbling up inside her. Love for him had rolled over her fast and fierce, but then she wasn’t a woman to shy away from a challenge. And one thing was certain: Wade Rocha was a brick-headed, sexy, loyal-to-the-end kind of man who’d taken her whole heart.
Cupping his beard-stubbled face in her palms, she vowed, “I love you too, so much I can’t even come close to telling you in just one night. I’m going to need lots of nights and days, months, years, to express it all.”
His forehead fell to rest against hers. “I’m sorry we don’t have longer before I leave.”
She grazed her heel up the back of his leg, already planning a homecoming to remember. “Then we’d better start making every minute count.”
Patrick Air Force Base—4½ months later
He’d never looked forward to a homecoming more.
Inside the cavernous C-17 cargo plane, Wade lined up with his PJ team and other airmen returning from their rotation in the Middle East. Beyond the open load ramp, the sun beat down on the crowd of waiting families and friends with flags and banners. A military brass band played, but it was tough to tell which was louder, the music or the cheers.
He’d gone from Alaska to his deployment in Afghanistan and was returning to his new duty station at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. All his household goods—not much to speak of—were in storage. But he had somewhere to bunk in the meantime. At Sunny’s place.
The fact that she’d actually moved here still stunned him, humbled him. In fact, she’d embraced the adventure of it all, as he should have known she would. After seeing Misty through her surgery and recovery, Sunny had landed a job at the Patrick AFB gym and even found a tiny bungalow to rent, tucked away in a marshy cove. Nothing here would be as isolated or open as Alaska, but she assured him an ocean view provided some of the vastness her pioneer soul craved.
One shuffle at a time along the cargo deck, he moved forward as they gathered gear and made their way toward the back ramp. Anticipation hummed inside him as tangibly as the idling jet engines. He ached to hold her, catch the scent of her hair, the taste of her. They’d spent every day together before he deployed, but still had spent eight times as many days apart as with each other.
They’d done their best to stay connected, talking and cyberdating via Skype, and true to his word, he’d stuck to webcam, face-to-face discussions where they’d actually learned a lot about each other—beyond where to touch to drive her over the edge fastest. Although he was looking forward to resurrecting that knowledge the second they got to her bungalow.
As much as he’d missed sleeping with her, he most regretted not being with her during all the massive changes in her life. Not everything that had come into the community via email had been a lie. The surgeon Misty had communicated with was real and the offer to perform her surgery at his teaching hospital had been valid. It hadn’t been completely free by a long shot, but she had her hearing back. She and Flynn had decided to move back home, raise her nephew, and lead the community in rebuilding with a more open environment.
Not that a mountainside on the Aleutian Islands was ever going to be a vacation playground. But there would most definitely be watchful eyes on that little off-the-grid village from now on.
The records recovered from the boat wreckage had rocked the intelligence community. He was privy to just the tip of the iceberg, and only that much because Lasky needed help connecting some dots. Asking Wade sat better with the agent than letting Sunny in on such explosive, top-secret information. Wade was still rocked to his boots over learning Brett Livingston had been aiding Russian mob groups smuggling terrorist spies into the U.S. through Alaska. Deputy Rand Smith had been his hired assassin. Sunny had been that close to death so many times. That bastard Livingston had cut a deal to avoid the death penalty. Already over a dozen arrests had been quietly made, all prior members of Sunny’s community. She and the rest of the village would never know the full extent of how horribly they’d been manipulated.
For the best, in his opinion. Sunny already had enough pain to carry around, with her brother still missing.
Wade’s boots thudded down the metal ramp and finally the bottlenecked human traffic jam eased. He stepped out onto the tarmac, searching the masses behind the roped off area until finally he saw her.
Her hair loose and lifting in the wind, she wore a floaty green dress and a smile brighter than the Florida rays. A pink stripe gleamed in her hair these days and he loved her unpredictability. Hell, he just loved her.
Dropping his gear, Wade double-timed toward her. The ropes gave way and things got more than a little chaotic. He sidestepped a family of five huddle-hugging and a young couple crying buckets.
He found Sunny just as she found him, meeting him halfway. Before he could speak she was in his arms and he wasn’t sure who was holding tighter. His eyes closed and for the most awesome second he could remember, he just breathed in the scent of her hair that somehow still carried the crisp perfume of wide-open Alaska spaces. The sound of the band and other reunited couples faded away.
Cradling her face in his palms, he kissed her, then kissed her again because he could, and that was something he did not take for granted. Words became jumbled in between, but no doubt they were on the same page. I love you. I missed you. God, I’ve waited so long to hold you again.
A jolt against his leg finally hauled his attention back to the crowded runway. He looked down to find Chewie head-butting his leg, demanding equal time.
“Well hello, big guy. Sorry I didn’t see you there at first.” Wade dropped to his knees, scratching the dog behind his ears. “Thanks for taking such good care of her while I was away, pal.”
The malamute mutt garbled a half-howling response.
A second dog peeked its head around Sunny’s leg. Now that, he hadn’t expected.
Laughing, Wade patted the wirehaired scrap on a leash and looked up at Sunny. “Who’s this fella?”
Sunny scooped up the little terrier mix of some sort. “This is Princess Leia. Or Princess, for short.” She straightened the dog’s patriotic bandanna. “Your mother responded so well to Chewie when I flew out to meet her, your father and I thought a small lapdog might be a good idea. He asked me to pick out a good candidate and suggested we bring it to her.”
That she would reach out to his family on her own, that she would find a way to give his mother comfort… So much emotion welled up inside him he cleared his throat, twice, before he could push words free. “You’re too amazing, do you know that?”
“You’re not a slouch yourself there, superhero.” She pressed a hand to his chest, then his neck, his cheek, as if she couldn’t get enough of touching him in the flesh.
He folded his hand over hers and pressed it to his heart, which damn near thumped through his chest just because he stood next to her. “I don’t take for granted how difficult this move must have been for you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate you saying that.” She sidled closer, a glint of promise in her hazel eyes. “And you can show me just how grateful you are once we get back to my place.”
“Roger that, pretty lady. I’ve got you covered.”