Never again, Hannah promised herself, would she send Riley off to sea the way she had this last time. When theUSS Atlantis docked, he’d know how sorry…

He was. Riley was determined to make up for this rocky start with Hannah. Never again would he give her reason to doubt him. He was committed to her, committed to their marriage, committed to their child; and God willing, he fully intended to prove it.

"You’re sure I don’t look too fat?" Hannah asked, carefully watching Cheryl’s reaction to the maternity top. There was no disguising the soft swell of her abdomen any longer. She’d changed in other ways, as well. Her thick brown hair fell past her shoulders, the ends curving under naturally. She’d pulled the thick waves away from her face, locking them into place with two gold barrettes.

"Oh, Hannah" Cheryl whispered, her voice lowering slightly, "you look so… beautiful."

Drawing in a deep breath, Hannah sincerely hoped her friend was right. The USS Atlantis was due to dock that afternoon, and she’d spent a good portion of the morning preparing herself and the house for this homecoming celebration with Riley.

Everything was ready, right down to the last-minute details. Thick steaks were marinating in the refrigerator; a homemade apple pie, Riley’s favorite, was cooling on the kitchen countertop. A single bottle of beer was resting in a bucket of ice along with a soda for her. The table was set with a lace tablecloth and dishes. The centerpiece of carnations and candles was ready to be lit. The only thing needed to make the celebration complete was her husband.

Although she’d had six long weeks to work out what she planned to say to him, Hannah could think of no words that could adequately voice what was in her heart. She was anxious about this meeting, concerned, longing for everything to be as perfect as she could make it. She had missed him dreadfully and sought to prove how much by planning every aspect of his homecoming.

"I doubt that Riley will be able to keep his eyes off you," Cheryl told her. In the weeks that their husbands had been out to sea, the two women had become good friends. "His hands, either," Cheryl added. "Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. When Steve comes off a cruise, he can’t leave me alone for two or three days straight. Not that I’m complaining, mind you."

Hannah found speaking so frankly about one’s love life slightly embarrassing. Especially when her and Riley’s marriage had yet to be consummated. Looking away from her friend, Hannah smoothed the maternity top over her hips in an effort to disguise her uneasiness.

"I’m showing now---I wasn’t when he left---Do you think he’ll notice?"

"No," Cheryl admitted, laughing. "He won’t be able to take his eyes off those beautiful eyes of yours long enough to realize you’re into maternity clothes now. Besides, Riley isn’t going to be looking at your stomach."

"He’ll notice." Of that Hannah was sure. "I can barely button my coat." She wasn’t even six months pregnant, and already she felt like a blimp. The baby was so active now, no longer leaving her guessing when he chose to thrash about. The love she experienced for her unborn child overwhelmed her. Often when she sat, she flattened her hand over her abdomen, reaching out to her child, reassuring him. At night in bed, she spoke to him, telling him about his father and all that she was doing to prepare for his arrival. When she’d first suspected she might be pregnant, Hannah had tried to ignore the pregnancy, push it from her mind, unable to cope with the fruit of her night spent with Riley. Now, the baby dominated every thought and action.

The day was bright and cold, Hannah noted as they rode down to the waterfront. The nuclear-powered submarine was docked at Delta Pier, the largest of the three wharves at Bangor.

Other family members of the Atlantis crew were crowding the waiting area by the time Cheryl and Hannah arrived, although they were several minutes early. The air was thick with excitement and anticipation as wives and children anxiously looked for sighs of their loved ones.

The early-December wind cut through the front of Hannah’s coat, but she was too nervous to think about being cold. She stuffed her hands in her pockets and turned her back to the intermittent gusts.

As the men started down the gangplank, Hannah bit into her lower lip as the waiting crowd hurried forward to greet their husbands and fathers. A small pain gripped her stomach, but she ignored it, certain it must be nerves; certain everything would be all right the instant she caught sight of Riley.

"There’s Steve!" Cheryl exclaimed, pointing out her tall, lanky husband, then waving the small bouquet of flowers she’d brought as a welcome-home gift. "Oh, damn, I’m going to cry," Cheryl added, smearing the moisture across her cheeks. "I hate it when I do this. His first look at me in weeks and I’ll have mascara streaks running down my face. I’ll look like a zebra."

Hannah smiled at her friend’s joke, impatiently watching as the men of the Atlantis disembarked, eagerly searching through a sea of unfamiliar faces, hoping to find the one that was.

"Riley’s three men behind Steve," Cheryl said, pointing him out to Hannah. It took her a moment to locate him, but when she did, her mind spun at a feverish pace, attempting to make sense of all that was happening to her. Her heart thudded. After all these weeks of torturous waiting, she was about to come face-to-face with the man who’d overshadowed every waking moment of her thoughts. All that she’d done, everything she’d bought, every place she’d gone, every person she’d talked with receded into the background as she focused her attention on Riley.

He paused at the top of the gangplank and seemed to be searching through the crowd. He didn’t see her, Hannah knew, just by the way he squared his shoulders and shoved his duffel bag over his shoulder. There wasn’t any reason he should expect her. The only means of communication between the submarine crew and family members during deployment was family grams, and Hannah hadn’t known what those were until it was too late to send one. Even if she had known, she wasn’t certain what she could have said in a few short lines.

As Riley stepped onto the pier, Hannah hurried forward, scooting around several other women and children. Riley seemed oblivious to the heartwarming scenes going on around him, determined to make it off the wharf as quickly as possible. She thought to call out to him, but her throat was so tight she would have choked on his name.

Riley stopped midstep when he saw her, his brow pleating into a look of surprise and wonder. The duffel bag slipped from his fingers seemingly without notice.

Hannah smiled and ran into his arms, closing her eyes as she savored the feel of his powerful arms when they surrounded her. He was warm, and even through several layers of clothing she could feel his heart pound against her own until it seemed that the two had merged and beat as one.

His hands were in her hair and his lips were searching out hers. His mouth was rough and urgent as he claimed her lips with a tender violence.

"Hannah… Oh, God. I’d hoped you’d come," he whispered between kisses. "But I didn’t expect it."

"I’m sorry, so sorry for everything," she sobbed.

His mouth covered hers, halting her words. "Shh," he pleaded, kissing her face, her neck, bouncing his lips off hers as though he weren’t certain even now that she was there with him and that she was actually in his arms.

Hannah had to pinch herself to know it was real. Nothing could have prepared her for the kaleidoscope of wild emotions that burst to life within her. It was as if she’d lain dormant the entire time Riley had been to sea. Only upon his return could she feel again, and feel she did: warm and loved and needed. Tears splashed down the side of her face.

"We’ll talk later," Riley promised. "But for now let me kiss you."

"Yes," she cried, "yes." She slipped her arms around his neck, standing on her tiptoes as she nestled her face in the curve of his neck. For now there was no mired past, only the present, which felt incredibly right, incredibly good.

Several minutes sped past. It might have been hours, for all Hannah knew. Riley gently eased her away from him as he carefully studied her. His eyes widened when he noticed how nicely round her stomach had become. Silence stretched into silence.

Hannah pushed the knotted emotion from her throat enough to be able to speak normally. "As you can see, I’ve been eating well."

His gaze rested on the strained buttons of her coat, and a gloating, happy smile curved up the corners of his mouth. "How are you feeling?"

She grinned. "Never better."

"And Junior?"

"He’s growing like a weed. I…1 think we might have a soccer champion on our hands."

Riley laughed outright. "So he’s doing his share of kicking these days?"

Hannah nodded. "You’ll be able to feel him now."

"Good. I’ll look forward to doing exactly that." He reached for his duffel bag, tossing it over his shoulder with familiar ease. "Shall we go home, my love?" he asked, draping his free arm over her shoulders.

Hannah agreed with a quick nod of her head. Home. Their home. It was where she belonged. Where Riley belonged. The two of them together.

Chapter Eight

In all his years of military life, Riley had never experienced a homecoming more profound. There’d never been anyone waiting at the wharf to greet him before. No wife to rush forward and run into his waiting arms. No one to shout with joy and excitement when he stepped down the gangplank.

Until this day, Riley never realized how much he’d missed. His heart felt full, brimming over with a happiness, a contentment that radiated from deep within his soul.

He couldn’t stop staring at Hannah as they drove back to the house. She’d changed, and the transformation left him dumbfounded. Her hair was different – longer, thicker, shinier. She wore it pinned up, away from her face, exposing high, prominent cheekbones and gray eyes so beautiful it was like staring into a darkening winter sky. Her color was back, her cheeks rosy and her eyes clear and bright.

The beauty he saw in her was enough to steal his breath. He struggled for words, wanting her to know what was in his heart; but a hard lump had formed in his throat and it was impossible to speak. He slowed his breathing and swallowed, hoping to ease the pressure so he could say the things he wanted, but for then it was impossible. There was so much he longed to tell her, so much he wanted to explain. He would in time, when he could say it without trembling like a schoolboy.

He’d been starved for the sight of her, rushing through the crowds along the wharf in his eagerness to hurry home, praying she’d still be there, praying she could find it in her heart to forgive him, praying she’d be willing to put the ugly past behind them and start anew. He hadn’t dared to hope she’d be at Delta Pier waiting for him with the other wives and families.

Riley parked in front of the house and felt its welcome penetrate him like a hot bath on the coldest day of the year; warmth, love and acceptance awaited him inside. He climbed out of the car, went around to the passenger side and opened the door for Hannah. Together they walked into their home, shutting out the winter. Copyright 2016 - 2024