Riley was struck almost immediately by the changes that greeted him. The house had been living quarters before he was deployed; he returned to a home. It took him a few minutes to ascertain the differences. First he noticed a bright orange, gold and bronze afghan draped over the back of the sofa, with matching pillows tucked at the corners. A large oak rocking chair rested between his recliner and the end table. This, too, was new. But by far the most prominent addition was a large oil painting hanging on the wall above the fireplace. His gaze had been drawn to it almost immediately.

"I wondered if you’d notice that," Hannah said shyly.

"It’s beautiful." Rolling hills of blooming blue and gold wildflowers waving in the wind beneath a blue summer sky. Fluffy clouds skirted the horizon. It must have cost a fortune, but Riley didn’t care how much she’d spent on it. Wildflowers were damn special to him.

"I’m so pleased you think so," Hannah responded happily, looping her arm around his and pressing her head to his shoulder.

"Where’d you ever find it?"

She paused. "I didn’t exactly find it."

"Oh?" He dropped his duffel bag and was removing his coat.

"I painted it myself."

Riley went still, stunned by the richness of her talent. "I didn’t realize you painted."

"I didn’t, either," she returned with a light, slightly embarrassed laugh. "It was something I’d always longed to do, but had never had the time. I signed up for classes while you were away. Come," she said, her voice bubbling with excitement, "there’s something I want to show you." She took him by the hand and led him through the kitchen and down the hallway to the bedrooms.

She opened her door, stepped briefly inside to turn on the light, then stood back proudly for him to see.

Riley glanced inside and turned to his wife, awestruck. "You painted this?" She’d turned one entire wall into a mural for the baby. A long-necked giraffe nibbled foliage from a bright green apple tree heavy with luscious fruit. In the background two lambs frolicked along a hillside, chasing butterflies.

She nodded, smiling broadly. "Do you think Junior will like it?"

"He’ll love it."

"Cheryl and I found this in a garage sale last weekend," she went on, excitement creeping into her voice as she moved across the room to the closet, opening the door and retrieving a bassinet. She looked up at him expectantly.

The white wicker bed seemed more suited to a little girl’s dolls than an infant. "Junior will fit in there?"

"For about three months. Then we’ll need a crib. I’ve been pricing them," she said as her eyes rose steadily to his. "Be prepared. I was shocked by how expensive they are, but," she added quickly, "we might be able to find a used one that’s far more reasonable."

Riley nodded, barely hearing her. His attention was caught by the stack of tiny clothes and blankets Hannah had put inside the bassinet. He held up one impossibly small T-shirt, amazed that any human could ever be so tiny.

"I’ve been picking up a few things for the baby every paycheck," Hannah explained, running her palm across the top of the freshly folded cotton diapers.

Riley couldn’t understand the hesitation in her voice, as though she feared he’d disapprove of her spending his money. He lifted his gaze to connect with hers.

"I…took a part-time job as a legal assistant. I work fewer than twenty hours a week," she ventured haltingly. "I hope you don’t mind."

"Of course not. I shouldn’t have been so dictatorial before. You know far better than I how much you can and can’t do."

She seemed relieved at that, as though she’d been dreading telling him about her part-time employment.

"We’ll buy a new crib," Riley stated decisively and, unable to resist, he threaded his fingers through the hair at her temple and gently kissed her there.

She smiled, her eyes as warm as fresh honey. "I was thinking we should… since we’ll probably be using it again a few years down the road."

For Riley, the implication was like a silken caress. In time there would be other children.

"Oh," she said excitedly, rushing toward her dresser drawer, "I nearly forgot." She opened the top drawer and pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Riley, enchanting him with her smile. He had trouble dragging his gaze away from her. He swore he’d never seen anyone so beautiful.

When he could, he looked at the slip of paper for several moments, puzzled by the series of dark circular lines that followed no pattern that he could discern. To him it resembled a sonar reading. "What is it?"

Hannah’s sweet, delicate laugh filled the room. "Not what! He… or she. That’s Junior."

"Junior?" Riley was amazed.

"It’s an ultrasound. The doctor took it on my last visit. See," she told him, pointing out the vague outline of the baby’s head and spine. "Oftentimes they can determine the sex of the baby by these pictures."

"And?" He didn’t bother to disguise his curiosity.

"Junior was sleeping with his back to us so we can’t be sure. Dr. Underwood will probably do another one in a few months."

"We might well be having a daughter, you know," he said, returning to the bassinet and holding up a pale blue sleeper. Nearly everything Hannah had purchased was geared for a boy. For some odd reason, the realization pleased him immensely. Repeatedly he’d told himself the sex of their child didn’t matter; but deep down, he longed for a son, although he hadn’t admitted it even to himself.

"I’m prepared for that." Her face lit up with pleasure as she dug through the small pile of clothes until she found a frilly pink dress with lace trim. "I couldn’t resist this. Isn’t it adorable?"

Riley nodded, thinking he’d never seen anyone more adorable than Hannah. Her eyes widened and her gaze shot to Riley. "He’s kicking now. Do you want to feel?"

His nod was eager. Sitting down on the edge of the mattress, he flattened both hands against the soft swell of her stomach.

"You might not be able to feel him through all these clothes," she said, pushing aside her pretty green top. Her skin was warm and as smooth as silk as she gripped him by the wrist and pressed his palm just below the elastic waistband of her wool slacks. "Here," she whispered as though she feared she’d disturb their child, sliding Riley’s hand to the right. "He’s kicking now. Can you feel?"

Riley closed his eyes, concentrating, then with a shrug of disappointment, shook his head. "Not yet."

"You will soon."

He nodded, brushed his lips over the distended roundness at her waistline and then reluctantly righted her clothes. Hannah sighed softly and wrapped her arms around his head, gently laying her cheek over his crown. "Junior and I have missed you so much."

"I missed you, too," he murmured, wrapping his arms around her waist and hugging her close. He shut his eyes, savoring her softness, drinking it in the way a man dying of thirst swallows down a glass of cool, clear water.

They held each other for several moments, swaddled in tenderness and appreciation for what they’d found, for what they’d both come so close to destroying. For the love he’d feared would forever escape him.

Yes, love, Riley realized. He hadn’t wanted to admit it until now, but he did love Hannah. He knew so little of the emotion, his acquaintance with it was so brief, that he hadn’t recognized what should have been obvious. Some part of him had known it the night they’d met. It should have been obvious later when he spent so much frustrated effort on locating her again, tearing up the city in a futile attempt to find her.

Her hands were in his hair, gently fingering his nape. "Are you hungry?" she asked after a while.

Riley tried to speak, but the words didn’t come. His heart, his throat, were too full, so he simply nodded and with a good deal of reluctance released her.

"I’ve got dinner all planned," she announced happily. "Steak, twice-baked potatoes, fresh green beans with almond bits, and salad."

"It sounds delicious."

"I wanted to bake homemade rolls, but I ran out of time. I did get an apple pie made."

He felt like laughing for no reason and knew she was watching him, hoping he wasn’t disappointed. "Apple pie is my favorite."

"I thought it might be."

Hand in hand, they strolled into the kitchen. They’d moved through it earlier, but Riley hadn’t had time to notice everything Hannah had done to prepare for this homecoming. His heart swelled with appreciation as he saw the table and centerpiece.

"Can I do anything to help?"

Hannah shook her head and reached for an oven mitt. "No, thanks, I’ve got everything under control. It’ll only take me a few minutes to cook the steaks."

"What about the mail?"

"I…opened some of it – what looked like bills – and paid those when your check arrived. The rest I set on top of your dresser."

He nodded, kissed her cheek and headed for his bedroom.

As she’d promised, dinner was ready in only a few minutes. Riley couldn’t remember a meal he enjoyed more. The steak, juicy and succulent, was cooked to perfection. The salad, crammed full of sliced fresh vegetables was a small work of art. The piecrust seemed to melt in his mouth. He complimented her again and again. Hannah blushed with pleasure each time.

Sweet promise filled Riley’s heart. Later, perhaps this very night, he told himself, he’d approach her about sleeping in his room. He wouldn’t pressure her into anything physical, he promised himself. He’d go out of his way to be sure she understood that he’d be content to hold her in his arms. When she was ready for love-making, she should let him know. They’d go slow and easy, and she could write her own ticket as far as the physical part of their marriage went. It sounded reasonable, and he felt good about it, waiting for just the right moment to make the suggestion.

The right moment never came.

About halfway through their dinner something changed. For the life of him, Riley didn’t know what. Hannah grew quiet. One moment she was chattering like a magpie and the next she went still and silent. Not understanding what was happening, Riley made up for the lack of conversation, conscious of the abrupt change in her mood the entire time he was speaking. In an effort to cover the uncomfortable silence he told the details of what he was allowed to relate about the cruise and his job, filling in the everyday particulars of his life aboard the nuclear-powered submarine. She seemed genuinely interested in what he described, and asked questions, but he couldn’t shake the feeling he’d said or done something terribly wrong.

After dinner she quickly washed up the dishes, refusing his help. "I’m going to bed now," she announced stiffly, then disappeared into her bedroom, closing the door.

Riley was left standing in the kitchen, stunned. Mentally he retraced everything that had passed between them for something, anything that might offend her. He could think of nothing. Not one damn thing. An altar boy couldn’t have faulted his behavior. Hell, he was so much in love with her he would have cut out his tongue rather than hurt her. Copyright 2016 - 2024