“Maxwell Martinez, do you not like to be tickled?” She jabbed a spoon at me, and I plucked it out of her hands. Her legs were parted, and more than anything I wanted to take advantage of the space, whether there was a possibility of being tickled or not.
She jumped off the counter. “So…” From behind me, she pressed her soft tits against my back, only to sneak her hands under the bottom of my shirt to touch my stomach. “If I did this”— she trailed her nails down the front, and I shuddered under her touch— “then it wouldn’t bother you?”
I jerked my hips back as she did it again, my breathing unsteady. “Nope.” I turned around and grabbed her by the waist, only to slide my tongue across her neck.
“Eww, stop.” She shoved me away with a giggle.
I smacked her ass, then pointed to the counter. “Now get your cute butt back on the counter and watch your man work.”
She laughed but pulled back, doing as I asked. “You suck.”
I poured lemon cake mix in with the eggs and whipped cream I’d put in the bowl. “Cooking is an art form. If I get distracted, I’ll fuck up.”
For a while after that, she got quiet and just watched me. The two-person project had soon turned into a one-person job. I liked teaching her how it was done though.
And pretending to speak in a French accent put a smile on her lips that I couldn’t stop staring at. For Lia, I’d always act like a dumb-ass if it meant I could see her sweet grin.
Once the cookies were on the cookie sheet, ready to be put in the oven, I turned to look at the mess, finding her eyes on mine yet again. Something shifted inside me at her look, even more than before.
I needed to kiss her. Again.
I took my time moving closer, my hands drifting up her bare thighs. She shivered but made no move to push me away. Maybe she needed this too. When I finally stood between her knees, I took a deep breath, thanking God for the small things—like Lia’s patience, my second chance, and a few more silent hours alone.
“What do you see when you look at me, Lia?” I tipped her chin up, forcing her to meet my stare. “Tell me.”
“Let’s see…” She tapped her finger against her lips. “I see someone who’s smart and sweet, with a great ass.”
I squeezed her thighs, urging for more. “What else?”
Her smile fell a little, but the happiness in her eyes didn’t budge. It was my goal to keep it there. “I see someone who’d do anything for the people he loves.”
I lifted my hand, using my thumb to wipe a bit of flour from her cheek. “That it?”
Goose bumps spread across her bare arms, and I pressed my hands up higher.
“I see a friend, and an occasional smart-ass who can make me laugh.”
Eyes shut, I lowered my forehead to hers. “You see all that in me?”
“I see more.”
I pressed a soft kiss to her cheek. “I see those things in you too.” And then some.
I saw her as my best friend, dressed in white, with a veil on her head and flowers in her hands. I saw her swollen and round with my son or daughter, even though I knew she wouldn’t be ready for either of those things for a long while. Still, the vision was there in my mind, and I knew without any doubt that I’d wait forever to make it happen if I had to.
She shook her head. “Want to know what else I see?”
“I see the only man I’ve ever loved.”
I lifted one hand and stroked the spot by her ear. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”
Tears were in her eyes, but this time I knew they weren’t from fear or pain or anger. They were for me.
They were happy.
“You gave me hope when I thought it was lost.”
“You know, I’ve probably loved you since the day I came home from my last tour. Since I saw your blue eyes light up with recognition when you saw me in my gear at the airport that day.”
“I saw you first.” She grinned so widely that my heart skipped. “Even before I saw my brother. I felt like crap about it because he’s blood, and you were like this… this fascinating memory I thought I’d conjured up. But then you weren’t.”
I held my breath as she continued in a rush, “You were coming down that long hallway, a backpack slung over your shoulder. Your hair was buzzed, and your face was all tan and scruffy.” She stared over my shoulder, her eyes half- glazed with the memory. “You looked so handsome.” I laughed. “Hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours. Not sure how I looked handsome.”
“You smiled when you saw my dad and my mom.”
“I smiled when I saw you too.”
Her eyes continued that sparkle thing they did, lighting up with every word I said. “Yeah, but then you took one look at Chloe as Collin tugged her into his arms, and it’s as though everything in life made sense to you again. You looked so complete for someone who’d just gotten back from war.”
That day, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Lia either. She’d looked so different from what I remembered. Stronger, angrier, feistier. There were bits of that pink mixed in with her black hair. But her eyes were the same. They were so big and wide and blue, and filled with love for her parents and her brother and Chloe too. I remember thinking to myself that I wanted someone to look at me the way she looked at her family—like I was all that mattered.