“All it says is that you’re ready to be in control. And that means surrounding ourselves with people who are better at what they do than our enemies are at what they do.” He wraps me in his arms. “Everything that happened today worked in our favor. As of tomorrow at ten, all of our loose ends are tied.”
My hand flattens over his heart, and I relish its steady, calm beat. “Does this mean we agree to stay here? No safe house?”
“No safe house, baby,” he promises, his lips curving at the edges. “We’re home—and that means we celebrate.”
I yelp as he scoops me up and cradles me to his body. “What are you doing?”
“Taking you to our playhouse,” he says, heading for the bedroom door.
I laugh, my worries falling away. And in this moment, the way this man keeps carrying me off to bed, I’m beginning to feel a bit like a princess with her own personal barbarian prince.
I FALL ASLEEP CURLED UP NEXT to Liam, warm and safe, a smile on my lips, slipping into a sweet memory and a dream.
I awake in the darkness of my room and glance at the clock that reads midnight. I smile, throwing off the blankets and grabbing my robe. It’s Christmas, the first one in years the entire family has been home.
Quietly, so as to not wake up Mom and Dad down the hall, I open my door and tiptoe to the stairs and all the way down. Once I’m on the bottom level, I rush into the living area to the massive tree flickering with multicolored lights and find Chad sitting on the floor beside it, still fully dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. We both grin at each other like little kids, though I’m nearly eighteen and he’s twenty-four, and I love it.
I hurry to him, then sit on the floor Indian-style and he nudges me. “I thought you were turning into an old lady, going to bed so early.”
“You weren’t here when I went to sleep.”
“I went to see Dawn,” he says. “She still hates me.”
“You missed your girlfriend’s birthday. What do you expect?”
“I was in Egypt.”
“You could have called her,” I argue.
“Yeah. I suppose I could have. I guess I’m just not the sentimental type.”
“No. You really aren’t,” I agree and laugh. “You used to unwrap your presents before Christmas morning and rewrap them so Mom wouldn’t know.”
His eyes light. “Good idea.” He reaches under the tree and grabs a package.
“You can’t,” I warn. “Mom will be furious.”
“She doesn’t have to know.” He shows me the tag on the top. “It’s for you.” He starts unwrapping it and adds, “You know watching me do this makes you guilty, too. You know that, right?”
“I had a story planned if we were caught. You threatened to beat me up if I didn’t stay.”
“Because I always beat you up,” he says dryly.
“I was going to say you’d secretly done it for years.”
“Devious, sis. Really damn devious.”
I snicker and he pulls a box out of the paper, lifting the lid and sliding it over to me. I gasp at the sight of a photo, mounted in glass, of us all at a dig site, me holding up a wooden spoon I’d dug from the ground. Next to the picture is a piece of stone from the site.
My heart squeezes at how special it is. “I miss those days.” I glance at him, a long lock of his blond hair swooping in front of one eye. I reach over and tug it. “Do you think we’ll ever be together like that again?”
“Even if we aren’t in the same place, we’ll always be like that. We’re family. No amount of space, time, or obstacles can keep us apart.”
It’s a wonderful thought, but not the answer I really want. I open my mouth to say so, but I’m cut off when Mom rounds the corner in a rush of long blond hair and fluffy white robe, calling out, “You naughty children!” like we’re still kids.
Chad and I both laugh and she towers over us, hands on her hips. “If we’re opening presents, I need to get your father. Chad, make the hot chocolate.” She whirls around and takes off up the stairs.
“Lara, make the hot chocolate,” he tells me.
Then he’s tickling me, just like when we were little, and by the time Mom and Dad come down the stairs we’re flat on the floor, laughing until we both have tears in our eyes.
I wake from the dream with the same smile on my lips I’d fallen asleep with, replaying Chad’s words in my head. No amount of space, time, or obstacles can keep us apart. The memory gives me hope that he’s not lost to me.
I shift next to Liam, who’s apparently awake and waiting for a cue. I no more than blink and he’s climbing out of the bed, coaxing me into a hot shower that he makes much hotter. Afterward, I wrap myself in a red silk robe and he’s in a towel, and we stand side by side at the shiny white vanity, each with our own sink. I’m drying my hair and he’s trimming his goatee and I pause, watching him. He stills, his gaze meeting mine, and the bond I feel in this moment is downright surreal. I have this sense that we’ve left the troubled waters for a smoother course.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m attempting to flatiron my hair to the silky blond veil I aspire to but never quite achieve, when Liam emerges from the closet looking scrumptiously male in black jeans, a black sweater, and boots. He pauses next to me, tall and broad, fixing me in a wolfish look that says he’s thinking about taking me back to the shower.