Blake Madison reached for the alarm at the first ding so it wouldn’t wake his wife.
“It’s Saturday,” Cait said sleepily, reaching for his arm. “Sleep in.”
“I’m going for a quick run.” He crawled out from under the covers, carefully moving their ninety-five-pound German shepherd, Max, off his legs. “It’s a lot of pressure having a young trophy wife. I have to stay in shape.”
She threw a pillow at him, but then reached over and ran her hand over his abs. “You’re doing a pretty good job. Feels like the body of a young Navy SEAL.”
He laughed. “Young? No. SEAL? Not anymore.” Then he leaned in close. “How do you know what the body of a young Navy SEAL feels like anyway?”
Her lips broke into a smile even though her eyes were closed. “Just guessing. Don’t worry, I prefer the old, retired model.”
“Good answer. I think.” Blake got up and fumbled around in the dim light to find a pair of sweatpants and a tee shirt. After getting dressed, he had almost reached the door when he heard a voice from beneath the covers.
“You forgot something.”
He came back and bent over Cait. “I know. But I was afraid I’d be tempted to crawl back into bed.”
“Good answer. I’m sure.” She reached up, grabbed a handful of his shirt, and pulled him down for a kiss, causing him to linger.
With his hands propped on each side of her pillow, he stared into her eyes. “Do you know how much I love you, Mrs. Madison?”
She grinned sleepily and pulled him close again. “Show me.”
He sighed. “I just did that a few hours ago. Remember?”
“Umm hmm.” She drew the words out with her eyes still closed and a contented smile on her face. “But that was last night.”
He glanced at the door, then back at the bed.
She must have sensed his hesitation. “I’m just kidding. We have all day. Go for your run.”
Blake lifted her hand off the covers and kissed it. “We’ve been married almost a year. We need to start acting like an old married couple, not newlyweds.”
Caitlin opened one eye momentarily. “Are you saying you want me to become a nag?”
“Only if you nag me about getting back into bed with you.”
He gave her another long kiss and then stood and stared down at her in the dim light. She was wearing his NAVY tee shirt—or as she called it, her favorite negligée—with the pearl necklace he’d given her the night before contrasting brightly against the dark blue. His gaze shifted to the wedding band on her hand and then drifted to her tousled hair spread out on the pillow, and her long lashes resting on her cheeks. He reconsidered his need for outdoor exercise.
“Bring me a cup of coffee when you get back,” she murmured, pulling the covers up and rolling over.
“I won’t be long, baby.” He headed toward the door and patted his leg for the dog to follow. “I’ll take Max so you don’t have to get up and let him out.”
His heart flipped. “Love you more.”
Just as he started to close the door, she spoke again. “Don’t miss me too much.”
He grinned as the door clicked shut. She always said that when he left, even if they were only going to be separated for a few minutes. It had become a routine. Even the kids said it now when they left for school or went to visit a friend. Don’t miss me too much, Daddy.
Heading down the stairs, he turned off the security alarm and went out onto the porch, taking a deep breath of the cool morning air. After doing a few stretches, he sprinted down the gravel lane, his heart bursting with happiness and contentment. Until recently, Blake had been blind to the beauty of the scenes that surrounded him; now, he felt as if he were seeing the world through fresh eyes that noticed the gifts that had always been right in front of him.
He knew there was only one reason for that—and that reason was lying in the bed upstairs, waiting for him.
As he listened to the cadence of his feet hitting the dirt road and the sound of his steady breathing, his mind drifted to his upcoming wedding anniversary. He wanted to come up with something really special to celebrate—something that would show Cait how much she meant to him and the kids. It had been on his mind for weeks, but now the milestone moment loomed just days away, and he still didn’t know what that something was.
It had to be a gift that was special and personal, one unique enough to make Cait understand the depths of his affection. The pearl necklace he’d given her the night before as an “early present” had made her squeal with surprise and delight, but that was the kind of thing every husband got his wife.
Cait was different. Their circumstances were different. Although their marriage was a happy one, the months that had passed since they’d said their vows had not all been easy ones. Lots of changes had come about—some had tested their relationship, others had strengthened it. The fact that Cait had given up a successful journalism career to concentrate on becoming a wife to him and a mother to his children was a testament to her commitment. She had poured her heart and soul into making his life perfect. But he knew that choice had been a tougher adjustment than she let on.
Bypassing the security gate for vehicles he’d installed, Blake turned left at the end of their long driveway and continued on the dirt road toward the main thoroughfare. The gate seemed out of place in this peaceful country setting, but had become necessary after he and Cait had exposed a scandal at the U.S. State Department. They’d tried to keep a low profile and return to their private lives, but the press reports and social media campaigns from political fanatics made that impossible.
Blake glanced down at Max, who trotted contentedly beside him. The dog had been one security measure Cait had not argued about. In fact, it hadn’t taken Max long to move from protector to pet—Cait’s pet. Max followed her everywhere, including their bedroom. The longstanding house rule that dogs didn’t sleep on beds had been reluctantly withdrawn by the second week. Blake consoled himself with the knowledge that the connection between Cait and Max meant no one was going to get out of their house alive if the dog thought her life was in danger.
Passing the three-mile mark he knew by heart, Blake picked up his pace again. But just a few strides later, the image of Cait lying in bed pulled at him like a magnet, causing him to turn around before he’d made it to the main road. If the kids were still asleep, maybe he’d take a quick shower and re-join her.
Sprinting the last hundred yards, Blake was surprised when Max didn’t follow him up the porch but continued around the side of the house with his nose to the ground. The dog usually had a hearty appetite after a run and wanted to be fed immediately.
“Where you going, boy? Smell a raccoon or something?”
Blake let him go and entered the house to find his daughter, Whitney, walking slowly down the stairs, looking disheveled but wide awake.
So much for going back to bed.
“What are you doing up so early, young lady?”
He didn’t hear her answer as he continued into the kitchen, humming Oh What a Beautiful Morning from the show Oklahoma, then shook his head to rid it of the song.
After turning on the coffee pot, he stood in the glow of the open refrigerator door, trying to figure out what he could scrounge up. Maybe he’d surprise Cait with breakfast in bed as another early anniversary gift.
Whitney shuffled into the room behind him in her big pink slippers and noisily pulled out a chair at the small kitchen table. “When is Cait coming back, Daddy?”
“What, honey?” Blake continued staring into the fridge. Having just turned four, Whitney talked a lot, but didn’t always make sense.
“When are those men bringing her back?”
Even before Blake could resolve in his mind what she’d said, his body responded as if he’d just heard the click of a trigger shattering the stillness of a dark night—and within the span of a heartbeat, the small twinge of alarm ignited into an urgent need to react. He closed the refrigerator door slowly, reminding himself to appear calm, even though the high-octane dose of adrenaline pulsing through his veins was making it difficult to breathe, let alone think. He turned to Whitney and knelt down beside her. “What men, honey? What are you talking about?”
“The mean ones.” Her eyes brimmed with tears.
Blake didn’t ask any more questions. He stood and turned in one movement.
Racing to the stairs, he took them two at a time and headed at a full sprint down the hallway to the master bedroom. He tried to enter the room quietly, but almost tore the door off its hinges in his urgency.
The bed was empty.
Her novels appeal to both men and women and are featured in library collections all over the United States including Harvard and the U.S. Naval Academy. By weaving the principles of courage, devotion, duty, and dedication into each book, she attempts to honor the unsung heroes of the American military—past and present—and to convey the magnitude of their sacrifice and service.
James resides in Gettysburg, Pa., and is a member of the Military Writers Society of America, the Independent Book Publishers Association, and the Romance Writers of America.