I lunge to my feet and give in to the need to pace, ducking into the hallway so my torment won’t be on full display. Even though it feels as if I wear it on my sleeve, twenty-four hours a day. Out of view from the main room, I plant my hands on the wall and breathe in and out through my nose. What the hell am I going to do here? I’d just as soon flay the skin from my body than give this woman up, but the fact remains that we’re going in opposite directions.

The service has always been a commitment to me, but it never felt like one until now. Never felt like something that could cause a major drawback in other areas of my life. It is my whole life.

No, it was my whole life.

Serving my country will never be a responsibility I shirk or take lightly. But it’s no longer the only purpose driving me. I have love to offer Naomi. So much of it. I need to protect and serve her. I need to make her happy. Her own happiness is in direct relation to mine now.

My sister is not completely healed from the loss of Natalie, either, despite the progress she’s made. When I came home, everything was temporary. Babysitting duty. I still thought of Birdie as a child. That’s no longer the case. I don’t want to miss what she does after graduation. I don’t want to come home every six months and play catch up. I want to see it all in real time. Never in a million years would I have thought myself capable of mending her pain, but I think I might be. Naomi made me believe in that hidden part of myself.

I’ve already committed to another tour of duty, though, and I won’t back out. That kind of wishy-washy behavior isn’t in me. Once I make a promise, I keep it. Always. Am I out of my mind to think Naomi would wait for me? When she’s returning to a whole heap of money and comfort in Charleston…and potentially the arms of a man whose feet could not be more firmly rooted on US soil. A fucking mayor. Do I have a hope in hell?

Yes.

I close my eyes and let that single word roll through me. This relationship between Naomi and me isn’t make believe. I know her flaws and strengths. What makes her laugh and cry. She’s the first thing I think about in the morning, last one at night. I’m so in love with her, the feeling would keep me warm in a blizzard. Would melt the fucking snow before it hit the ground. The way she gives herself over to me when we’re making love isn’t a mistake. I catch her looking at me sometimes like I’m already gone. There’s something there. I’m not alone.

In my line of work, risks are par for the course. I’ve never taken one that would have this much reward. Or potential to fucking maim me.

With a steadying breath, I push off the wall and walk back into the room, just as Birdie messes up the final turn. Again. My chest constricts when I see the frustration on her face. I wish there was something I could do to take it away. Her partner looks irritable as all hell, spearing his fingers through his hair. He holds his tongue, however, when he sees I’m back in the room. I’ve been enjoying having that effect on him.

“Hey,” Naomi says, approaching from the left. Cool comfort settles around my neck, balancing the hunger that snakes into my belly. God, what this woman makes me feel. I look down to find her searching my face with anxious blue eyes. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah.” My blinders have allowed me to keep thoughts of her leaving at bay, but they rush in now and topple my sanity, turning me desperate. I cup the back of her neck in my hand, sliding it up to bury it in her hair, which she always wears down now, loose around her glowing face and slightly sunburned nose. Damn, she’s so beautiful. My throat closes up and I have no choice but to lean down and kiss her, letting her sweetness soothe my singed edges. Not gone yet. She’s not gone yet. “Baby,” I mutter between kisses. “Baby.”

“Jason,” she says back, warming to the kiss, going up on her toes and opening her mouth for me. I have the presence of mind to turn my back, so we’re not making out with an audience, but Naomi absorbs all of my focus after that. I’ve seen how cruel this world can be, but taking her away would be another level of cruelty. Her taste is so familiar to me already, but the more used to it I get, the more of it I need. My pulse is hammering in my temples as I tug her chin down, getting my tongue in deep. Memorizing her. And yeah, seducing her, because I want her to fucking rip my clothes off when we’re alone.

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