There was nothing that Mike hated more than a wedding. It didn’t matter whose it was, the season, or the amount of love the happy couple professed to each other. He would still have rather ridden bareback on an angry bull than sit in some kind of mushy gushy feel fest.
Though, when push came to shove, it wasn’t the love part that he despised. Nah. He had just found there were two events in people’s lives that always brought out both the worst and the best from those around them—weddings and funerals.
The last nuptials he had attended had been so filled with poorly masked rancor that by the time the open bar hit, things had turned to verbal tongue-lashings and two brawls. If he hadn’t interceded, he was sure a funeral would have soon followed. The last thing he had wanted was to attend two emotionally explosive events that close together.
He definitely would have preferred taking on the bull.
Thinking about bulls, a mechanical bull was exactly what this thing needed to kick it up a notch. He glanced in the direction of the reception hall, a ski lodge just beside the meadow that served as the bunny hill for new skiers in the winter months. Of course, the only thing he could spot through the windows of the A-framed building was a chocolate fountain and a tall, white wedding cake. Nothing gyrating, at least not until his cousin Savannah hit the bottle.
The pastor was talking about the meaning of life or something, but Mike wasn’t really listening as he watched the crowd seated in front of him. Aunt Carlene had her signature beehive bun, now sprinkled with a few more gray hairs than when he had last seen her. She’d always been his favorite aunt, and as she and his uncle Bingo sat up at the front on the groom’s side in what was traditionally the parents’ seats, it made him miss his mom and dad.
Their dad had talked about being at their weddings, a conversation that had always made tears well up in his mother’s eyes as she’d wistfully added how she hoped they would all find spouses who helped them be the best versions of themselves. At the time, Mike had teased her and accused her of clearly thinking they all had room for improvement. Of course, she had always waved him off and called him a stinker, but they’d both known what she’d really wanted for him and his five siblings was that they lived lives in which they were truly fulfilled and happy.
When he had gotten engaged to Summer, his mother had been over the moon. Within a week of finding out his news, she had called Summer and they had already decided on the location, colors and bridal parties. He had still been trying to come to terms with the fact their lives were about to change.
Summer had always been too good for him. She was the kind of woman who was strong and could weather any storm, but she was also the woman who understood that as a military contractor he was cut from a cloth that meant he would never be happy sitting still and would rarely be home. At the time, they had both thought they understood what their lives would entail and had naively believed their love was unlike any other, and that no matter how many horror stories they heard about contractors’ relationships falling apart, theirs wouldn’t. They had fully bought in to the idea that they, and their relationship, were different.
What idiots they had been.
Many times, like now, when he was forced to go to social functions without a date, his aunt would inevitably try to set him up with someone. He couldn’t do it, though. He missed Summer. He missed the way they could just look at one another and know what the other was feeling and thinking.
What they had…it had been something special. But looking back, he wasn’t sure they’d been an ideal fit. They were different. She liked hot and he liked cold. He wanted to conquer the world while she wanted to perfect her corner of it. And their biggest difference was their fatal flaw…he wanted all of her heart and she wanted every bit of his soul.
He’d never really get over losing her. Late at night, he would often have to console himself with the thought that, in the end, they had been too young for the kind of commitment they had made to one another. Who could promise forever when they weren’t even sure where in the world they would be tomorrow?
She had deserved better. He should have answered her calls after they’d broken things off, but some things were just too damn hard.
In front of him at the altar, the bride, Kate Scot, slipped the wedding band on his brother’s finger as she smiled up at him and said her vows. There was no mention of her obeying his brother and Mike had to hold back his chuckle. Summer had always protested that particular vow, as well. He and his brother Troy had always had a similar taste for independent women.
He had to get his mind off Summer or he would only swirl further into madness, madness that would lead to far too much beer and he’d be the one who’d end up dancing with his gyrating cousin.
Nope. He couldn’t get himself roped into any of that kind of nonsense. He had a stoic, lone-wolf reputation to uphold.
As soon as Kate and Troy kissed, he got up from his chair and moved steadily away from the crowd, not so fast to give his retreat away, but quickly enough to get out of the melee of family members who would try to rope him into a conversation. He’d dropped the gift off and watched the I do’s, the rest he could hear about later.
He had parked at the far end of the lot, nose out in case he had to make a quick escape. But as he approached his truck, he noticed a woman standing near the tailgate. She had her back to him, looking toward the timber like there were answers in the pines. The only thing she would find by standing so close to his truck was a problem.
“Can I help you?” he asked, hoping the woman was just someone like him, trying to escape the ceremony, rather than a spook up to no good. In his business, he had to view everyone as a potential threat.
The woman turned around and, as she did, their eyes met. Those green eyes. Those eyes, the vibrant, down-to-earth color of spring moss, had always had the power to weave right into his soul. They, and the woman they belonged to, had an unspeakable gift to sparkle with contagious joy and instantly darken when danger beckoned. A thousand words were not enough to explain all the things her eyes had conveyed to him over the years; in fact, no words created could elicit the same feelings that she could with a simple glance.
A hint of a smile flickered over her features as she looked at him, her eyes lighting up, but just as quickly as the light had come, it disappeared and was replaced with pure unadulterated hate. Sadly, he understood why and how confused she must have been feeling, and a guilty sadness filled him. He had done this to her. He’d had a hand in the look she was sending him and the woman she had become.
“I’m sorry.” It was the only thing he could think to say. As soon as it left his lips, he wished he’d led with something more innocuous, maybe a hello instead. Yet, the milk was spilled.
She chuckled. Blading her feet, she turned slightly away from him. He didn’t blame her for not wanting to look at him a second longer than necessary. Then again, she knew this was his truck…she must have been waiting for him.
“I was hoping you would be here.” He surprised himself with those words. If anything, he had feared seeing her—seeing her only made everything rise to the surface.
“We both know that’s not true. I’m the last person you wanted to have be here.”
Sighing, he tried to quell the ache that had suddenly filled his entire being. If he wasn’t careful, this would only lead to a fight; they had one hell of a track record in bringing animosity out in one another.
“You were waiting for me?” he asked, trying to keep the question inquisitive instead of kindling for her rage.
She sat on the bumper of his truck, covering her chest with her arms and protecting her core. He’d seen her take this position a thousand times, and none had ever turned out well.
“I’m not here because I really want to be, let me start by saying that.”
He had no doubt, but he wasn’t about to say that aloud, so he simply nodded, waiting for her to continue.
“I was in the city for work. Ran into Kate and she invited me. I figured I needed to be here to show my support. Troy was always a good man.” She paused, like she wanted him to respond, but he was far too gun shy.
He had a number of things he wanted to ask her, starting with how her life was going. The last time he had spoken to her, she had been employed by a contracting company, running intel.
“Still working with STRIKE?” he asked.
She gave him a sidelong look, but she didn’t answer at first, as if she was checking to see if he knew about the company; and if he did, what his opinion was. He gave her nothing, though he’d heard all about the company. They had made waves by controlling American gas reserves on military bases, gas that had lost thousands of barrels along the railways between bases and even more in the pipelines leading into the American strongholds. “Still working intel?” he asked, trying again.
She nodded. “Yes. By the way, I heard about you and your brother’s run-in with Rockwood.”
It had only been a couple of months since he had found his ass getting shot at in the streets of downtown Missoula— after the group had worked to take down Kate’s family’s company from the inside out—but it already felt like ancient history. “Yep, it’s how Kate and Troy met. Never thought things would move this fast between them. You know Troy, he’s typically about the speed of cold molasses.”
“No,” Summer said with a laugh, “that’s you.”
He felt the lash. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
“You can try to feed me all that nonsense if you want, but you and I both know that you are never one to jump into or out of anything without a hell of a lot of thought—thoughts that you generally forget to express to others.”
This time the whip struck faster, harder, and the lashes cut deeper with their truths.
“You said that.” She sounded almost glib. “It doesn’t change the fact that you did what you did. And you are going to have to forgive the fact that I may never get over how badly you hurt me. Move on, sure. Move forward, you know it. But hurt…forever.”
“I know.” He stared down at the toes of the wing tips his brother had asked him to wear for pictures, wishing he had stayed for the reception instead of trying to find any kind of refuge away from the crowds. They would have been a hell of a lot easier to deal with than this. “I hurt, too, Summer. It was never my intention to—”
She put a stop to his talking with the wave of her hand. “I didn’t mean to take things this direction. The past is the past. Let’s leave it there.”
He didn’t dare to believe she was done talking about their shared history, but he was glad for the parley. “Done. Now, what do you need?” If there was anything he could do to get back in her good graces, he would.
“Who said I needed anything?”
“I know you’re friends with my brother and Kate, but we both know this kind of thing isn’t your scene.” He shrugged, making her smirk.
He had loved that guilty smile.
There was so much he missed about her and so many things he wished he could just tell her… Like the fact he would never stop loving her. He just hadn’t been ready to walk down the aisle. Maybe he would never be ready for a real relationship. Marriage meant putting her in danger, and he was a protector at his core; a job that required he focus on things bigger than himself. The only way he could do that was by being selfless and giving up what he loved the most.
“I am here for them…and I don’t hate weddings, even though…” She brushed the rest of the sentence away like it was some kind of pestering fly. “I did have something I wanted to talk to you about.”
He didn’t want to talk about work, but he had a feeling that was exactly where she was going to try to take things since she had brought up his and Troy’s run-in with Rockwood. He was especially attuned to subtle snooping, and the fact that she’d asked about his recent job put him on edge. “STEALTH’s work for ConFlux is strictly confidential. As much as I would like to help you out, you know how it is.”
“Kate said your team would be who I needed to talk to about the security breech. That you could give me information.”
“The way I see it, there are a few things wrong with this, Summer. First, I’m not the guy you want to be talking to if you want answers about this. And second, who is to say the people at STRIKE are people who can be trusted?”
She slid him a sly smile. She was hiding something, but he didn’t know exactly what. “You know I’d never be a part of anything I hadn’t vetted. My team is with the good guys gang, same as your teams at STEALTH. We work for the greater good.”
She could do all the vetting she wanted, but that didn’t mean she saw everything or had come to all the right conclusions. And when it came to the greater good, they both knew that was a load of nonsense.
“As far as I’m concerned, whatever was stolen from ConFlux is between them and the federal acronyms they are working for and with. If you stick your nose too deep into this kind of warfare, you will lose your face. Be careful, Summer.” He turned as he moved to retreat.
“Stop,” she called after him. “I have one more thing…”
He halted and faced her. “If this is about your work, as much as I want to, I can’t help you. I’m out, Summer.”
“I know, and that’s fine. But my work isn’t why I’m really here.” She paused, chewing on her bottom lip as she clicked on her phone. “I have something—someone actually—you need to meet.” She lifted her phone and he had to step closer to see the picture.
Smiling up at him was a baby. He had big blue eyes and appeared to be giggling at something off-screen.
“This is Joseph. I call him Joe.” There was a soft cadence to her voice, an unmistakable tenderness that came when a mother looked upon her child. “Joe is our son.”