Authors: Teresa Hill
"So?" He was still practically roaring.
"I don't think it was an order. I think it was an invitation, one she welcomed."
He lowered his voice, so it was just him and her. "I would never treat you that way, calling you and telling you I expected you to be naked when I got home."
Rachel smiled up at him and wasn't as quiet when she answered. "Well, maybe you should try it sometimes, Sam. You might like what happens next."
* * *
Grace did not take him to her parents' that weekend, after her mother warned it would be a good idea to give her father some time to calm down. But she did agree to meet the women of the family on Monday after she dropped Aidan off at the airport.
"Okay, we've been really good about not pressing you for information," Emma said, as they stood around the island in the middle of the kitchen, the women's favorite gathering spot. "And as a reward for how patient we've been, we think you should tell us everything."
"Plus, Rachel defended you beautifully to Sam over the whole, 'Why aren't you naked already?' thing," Julie said.
"What?" Grace asked, laughing and trying not to blush, because, of course, everyone had heard that story.
Her mother said, "I just told your father that I was sure what he heard wasn't so much an order as an invitation, a nice one."
"Tell her the rest," Emma insisted.
"Sam claimed he would never say such a thing to me, and I said he should try it sometime, that he might like it."
Then they all giggled like schoolgirls at a slumber party at two in the morning, when everything was hilarious.
"Wow, thanks, Mom."
"You're welcome, my darling. But I wasn't the only one who did her part to help you. The guys kept grumbling about how badly they fear this man is treating you."
"So Julie and I issued invitations of our own, along the lines of, 'I'm naked. Come home now.' " Emma said. "Believe me, neither one of our guys complained."
"We made the sacrifice, all for you. So, we think we deserve to know everything," Julie said. "Spill it. How did you end up going to your in-laws, then meeting him and the dog instead?"
"I was trying to figure where Luc took his other woman," Grace admitted.
"Oh." They groaned.
"And when I got to the lake, there Aidan was, at the cabin, and... I kind of, never left. I never went to Ellen's house that weekend," she admitted, definitely surprising them, maybe even shocking them.
"Oh," her mother said finally. "I don't think we need to explain that, exactly, to Sam."
"No, let's not," Emma agreed.
"We just won't say anything about exactly how they met. It's our turn to keep secrets from them," Julie said, and they all agreed.
"So, your big project in Cleveland all those weekends you spent away? You were with him then?" her mother guessed.
"And when you supposedly took the service-dog certification classes?"
"The dog classes were real, but Aidan was the art project. He's in the Navy, an intelligence officer, stationed in Washington, DC, and on limited duty while he's recovering from injuries in Afghanistan. It's a miracle he's still alive, and his right hip is barely held together with titanium and cadaver bone. We cannot let the guys talk him into a basketball game, not the way they play. Because if they knock him down and hurt that hip again, I will hurt them."
"Okay," her mother said. "But, honey, is he going to stay in the Navy?"
"I don't know," Grace said. "He planned on making it a career, and he really believes in what he does. It's important—"
"Of course, it is," Rachel agreed.
"I can't ask him to give it up. I won't. But I can't imagine ever losing him. I love him so much," she confessed. "And not like Luc. Not anything like the way I felt about Luc. I know that now. Aidan helped me see that, helped me understand... everything. He's an amazing man, and I can't imagine not having him in my life. I never want to be without him."
"Then you won't," her mother said, putting an arm around her.
Grace leaned her head on her mother's shoulder. "It's the only thing I'm worried about. That he might end up going back."
* * *
Aidan figured his first meeting with Grace's father had to rank right up there with the worst first-meetings of all time between any man and the father of the woman he adored. He'd known since then, they were on borrowed time in terms of him avoiding the meet-the-whole-family thing, which he was seriously dreading.
One, they adored her. Two, they were very protective of her. Three, they were obviously a very close family. Four, the last man she loved had been a complete shit. Five, she'd been sneaking around behind their backs with him for months. Six, he'd told her they'd lied and not told her about her former husband cheating on her. Seven, he'd accepted the family's hospitality at their cabin on the lake and... Well, he wouldn't say he'd taken advantage of Grace, exactly, but... Oh, hell, he just didn't want them to hate him on sight. And he wanted to maybe be able to convey to them how much he adored and loved the wonder that was Grace. That was really all he was hoping for.
Okay, maybe he also wanted to have time to prepare in some way for the ordeal.
But Grace... Ahh, Grace.
She tricked him.
They'd been taking turns flying back and forth to see each other, every three weeks or so, if they could manage it, and in mid-March, the next time he was in Ohio, he feared he couldn't put it off much longer. He'd have to face them.
Still, Grace didn't say a word about it, was as sweet and sexy as could be, lulling him into a false sense of security. On Sunday afternoon, she claimed she wanted to go out to eat, and he thought they were heading into Cincinnati for a meal. No big deal. When she wanted to take the dog, he thought... nice day outside. They'd get some take-out and go to a park, maybe.
Three minutes after they left her house, though, she parked in front of a big, beautifully restored Victorian home with six cars in the driveway and on the street in front of it, and Tink gave one big, happy "Woof," and Aidan knew.
"It has to be done. You know that," Grace said. "And I've been thinking about how to do this. It's a beautiful day, so this will likely be a cookout. I thought informal would be better. Plus, it's my youngest niece, Lizzie's, birthday. She's turning four. Great distraction, trust me. Everyone's happy at a four-year-old's birthday."
"And here I am without a present," he said.
"We—" She reached into the backseat and pulled out a gift bag, pink and glittery, embellished with purple, curly streamers, and handed it to him. "Got her a stuffed dog who looks like Tink. She adores him."
"Okay," he said.
"They're really very nice," she said cheerfully.
So, reluctantly, he got out of the car and followed her and the dog down the walkway to the pretty front porch, keeping a hand at the small of her back. Life was so much better when he was touching her, and he liked that little kick of satisfaction it gave him to show the world in that subtle way that she was his.
Glancing at the pretty panels of stained glass to the sides, above and actually a part of the front door, he imagined Grace arriving here as an innocent baby, not even old enough to be scared, landing like a long-awaited miracle, no doubt a true bundle of joy.
How could they not absolutely adore her? And spend a lifetime protecting her? He understood completely, felt the same way. He just had to convince them that he was worthy of her.
"Beautiful house," he said, as the dog pawed at the door, looking eager to get in.
"Yes, it is. It belonged to Mom's grandfather, was a real mess when she and Dad moved in. It took them years to get it into the shape it's in now." She opened the door and the dog waltzed in like he owned the place. "Could you try not to look like you're being court-martialed?"
He nodded, got that hand on her back once again to steady himself, and in they went.
Her mother, Rachel, proved to be the easy part, beautiful and welcoming, giving him a big smile and a hug as Grace introduced them.
"You look just like your mother," he told Grace, then remembered... No biological connection.
They both laughed.
"Everybody says that," Rachel McRae told him.
"Where's Daddy?" Grace asked.
"Right here," the man called out, striding toward them from the door to the backyard, looking every bit as grim and intimidating as Aidan remembered.
He couldn't help it. Did everything but salute the man again, his back ramrod straight, Sir-this, Sir-that. It didn't seem to be helping. All too soon, he had met everyone, and Grace was pulled away by her mother. Aidan found himself cornered by all the important men in her life, her father, her brother and her brother-in-law.
He'd felt more comfortable in villages full of terrorists in Afghanistan.
They all started throwing questions at him.
"How exactly did you meet Grace?"
"She showed up at the lake," he said, wanting to skirt around her spending the next five days and nights with him.
"Grace never goes to the lake," her brother said.
"Which apparently made it a perfect place for her former husband to take the woman he was seeing."
They swore, practically in unison.
"Okay, help me make sense of this," her father insisted. "She just shows up there and... What? Spills the whole story to you? When she hadn't told any of us?"
had to be a sore point for all of them.
"I think she was just ready to talk to someone about it," he said, as diplomatically as he could.
"And then you told her what I told Tommy, about me knowing what that little shit, Luc, was doing behind her back?" This from her brother, again.
"I did, but I certainly wasn't happy about it. I didn't want to hurt her any more than all of you did, and I knew how much it would hurt her, because she's told me how much she loves her family. But I wasn't going to lie to her. I never will." Aidan wasn't taking shit for this. "Are you really going to give me a hard time about being a man who's unwilling to lie to her?"
That obviously hit a sore spot, made them even madder, but he hoped it bought him a little bit of respect.
"Look, I get it," he said. "I know how amazing she is. She's beautiful and sweet and kind. I don't know how there could be a man in this world who didn't appreciate her and treat her right, but I guess one found her. So I understand why you'd all be so protective of her, especially now. I feel the same way. You don't have to tell me I don't deserve her. I know that. But I love her, and I will do anything to make her happy. She'll be safe with me. I'll take good care of her, I swear to you."
"Wait a minute," her father said. "You sound like a man asking for permission to marry her."
"With all due respect, Sir, she's the one I'll be asking."
. He didn't say it, didn't want to be that blunt. But her father's expression grew even more grim. He definitely got the message.
"You sound like you're awfully sure of what her answer will be," Sam said.
"We both know what we want, Sir. I haven't asked her yet, but only because I had some things to settle with my surgeon and the Navy first. I'm not some candy-ass boy living off his family's trust fund, somebody who doesn't know how to work for a living or who's never been through anything hard in his life."
"Yeah, about that," Sam said. "I know you went through some kind of hell in Afghanistan that I can't begin to understand, and I have all the respect in the world for what you do. But she's my little girl, and she's been asking questions about PTSD. I've got to think that's because of you—"
"I need to know that you've got your head on straight again, that you're not going to hurt her."
Aidan nodded, thinking, tough room. Really tough room. He pulled out his wallet, flipped through it until he found a receipt from the airport shuttle that was the size of a business card and blank on the other side. "Anybody have a pen?"
The lawyer produced one, and Aidan wrote down a name and number, then handed it to the man married to Emma, the shrink.
"That's my shrink's number. I'll leave him a message tonight and authorize him to answer any questions Emma has about my mental health. I figure all of you would agree to having her take the lead on this? They can talk shrink to shrink. I understand you needing to know what she's getting into with me." He hoped they didn't take it too badly, that the picture his shrink painted wasn't too grim. "What else?"
The brother-in-law pocketed the card and said, "She's already buried one husband. No woman should have to bury two."
"I know that."
"If you're going to spend your life in war zones..." Sam said.
"I know that, Sir. I have to make some changes."
"Regardless of that, it's barely been a year since her husband died. She needs time—"
"She can have as much time as she wants. I know what she went through, that she feels like she rushed into marriage with Luc and how much that cost her. I don't want her to have any doubts this time, none at all. Because I love her. If I didn't think I could make her life better, I wouldn't be here."