With a permanent marker, Whitley crossed off the date. She rubbed her stomach, while Will, Jr. continued his afternoon kickboxing session on her ribs. Only two squares left on the calendar before his predicted arrival, and like his daddy, he couldn’t wait to get out in the world on an adventure.
Tracing Liam’s face in the family photo, her chest tightened. “Daddy might not be here for your big day but know he loves you so much. He had an important mission.” She counted the days back to Liam’s last call—too many. Tears pushed at the backs of her eyes.
Liam always volunteered for the dangerous missions. She’d begged him to let someone else take this one, but he’d refused. In the end, she’d barely mumbled, “love you.” As her stomach churned, bile stung her throat.
The door slammed against the refrigerator.
Swallowing, Whitley gripped the counter.
“Mommy.” Mallory toddled across the kitchen. “Park.”
Mom followed her, disentangling Mallory from Whitley’s legs. “Give Mommy a minute.” Mom rubbed Whitley’s back. “Stop worrying. He’ll make it in time.”
Whitley shook her head. “Unlikely, and I need to accept it.”
Checking her phone display, Mom quirked her lips like she was hiding a smile. “I’m with Mallory. Let’s walk to the park. Everything’s better in the sunshine.”
Sighing, Whitley hugged Liam’s shirt around her. If only it were his arms. “Y’all go. I’m not in the mood.” She inhaled deeply, but his scent no longer lingered. What if she never felt his embrace again?
“This walk is just what you need to improve your mood.” Mom plunked Mallory on her hip. “Promise.”
“Fine.” Whitley shrugged. No use arguing. Mom always got her way. “I’ll get the stroller.” She pushed open the door, bumping a chair. “When we move off base, I want a gigantic patio.” She spun the stroller.
“One day, you’ll miss these close quarters.” Mom fastened Mallory into her seat.
When Liam was here, the tight spaces were delightful. Whitley bit down on her lip as the corners lifted. De-light-ful.
“See, already better.” Mom pushed the stroller.
“Wish he’d call.” Wringing her hands, Whitley’s smile faded. “I live in constant fear of a knock at the door with bad news. Started crying the other day when I got a UPS delivery.” She sighed. “Glad you’re here. If he doesn’t make it back …”
“My sweet girl, please trust me.” Stopping beside a bench, she squeezed Whitley’s shoulder. “Liam will be home soon.” Mom surveyed the park. “Be patient.”
“Being an army wife is good practice.” Whitley unhooked the buckles and lifted Mallory to the ground, pecking her cheek.
“Slide.” Mallory dashed across the woodchips and climbed the stairs as fast as her chubby legs would go.
Pressing a hand against her lower back, Whitley waddled to the slide. “Be careful, sweetie.”
From the top of the play structure, Mallory smiled, waving. “Daddy.”
Heat rushed to Whitley’s cheeks. “Daddy’s not here.” She didn’t dare glance over her shoulder and make eye contact with some strange man. “Slide down.” Whitley clapped.
“Daddy!” Mallory pointed, stomping her foot.
“Mallory, come on.” Whitley shook her head. “It’s not your—”
Two camouflaged arms encircled her waist, clasping his hands on her rounded belly. A familiar cedar scent tickled her nose. “Looks like I made it just in time.” Liam kissed her neck.
Whitley gasped as her knees swayed. “Li-li—”
Catching her under the elbows, he turned her, wrapping her tightly. “Surprise.” Tears shimmered over his slate eyes. “Sorry to make you worry, but I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure I could make it.”
With trembling fingers, she clung to his neck. “This must be a dream.”
Grinning, Liam bent his head to hers, sliding his hand up her back and cupping her head. Brushing his lips over hers as he drew her closer, concentrating all his love on her.
He twirled a lock of her hair. “Still think it’s a dream?” He cocked a brow.
Sniffling, she pulled him back, burrowing her face into his neck. “S-sorry, I can’t let you go.”
“Fine with me.” A jab from her abdomen hit Liam. Chuckling, he caressed her belly. “But seems Will, Jr. needs his space.”
“Not yet.” Whitley pressed her quaking body against his. “Please, just hold me.”