Part Seven

Javi stayed until Friday afternoon. Nola, for one, was glad to see the back of him. That wasn't to say she hadn't enjoyed seeing him and spending time with him—not that she'd gotten much chance to do the latter with Gideon monopolizing his company. Or was it the other way around? Regardless, the result was the same: since Javi turned up, Nola got very little chance to spend time with Gideon.

As much as the rational part of her mind told her it was for the best, the needy, emotional portion of her brain missed him terribly. Just his presence at her side soothed the jagged edges of her grief and her worry, allowing her to function almost normally. Without him, she found it harder to cope.

The deepest, darkest parts of the night were the worst. When the nightmares hit, she could no longer go to him for comfort, nor could she leave the warmth of the bed she shared with Bridget to watch TV in the living room. Javi was out there, and though he'd offered her his shoulder, she didn't feel comfortable accepting it. Besides, it wasn't as if any shoulder would do; if that were the case, Bridget would've been a sufficient substitute.

The night Javi left, a scant few hours after falling asleep, Nola jerked awake. Tears dampened her cheeks, and she just barely bit back an audible sob to avoid waking Bridget, who snored quietly beside her. Bad dreams weren't unusual lately, but this had undoubtedly been the most severe.

Lying next to her friend, Nola tried to get her short, choppy breathing under control by soundlessly singing one of her favorite songs. It didn't work. Kicking off the blankets, Nola slipped out of bed. Across the room, she cracked open the window a couple of inches, hoping to cool her overheated skin, and breathed in the brisk night air. Again, instead of calming her, it made her feel claustrophobic, as if the walls were closing in around her.

The constant weight on her heart became suddenly crushing, constricting around her chest and stealing her breath. Clammy sweat erupted on the skin on the back of her neck and above her upper lip as her pulse began to pound in her ears. Beneath her ribs, her heart raced, fluttering madly like the wings of a moth trapped inside a glass jar.

Thoughtless, overcome by the sudden urge to escape the suffocating confines of the house, she hurried outside. She possessed enough wherewithal to keep her flight as quiet as possible, but even that was out of self-preservation. They couldn't see her like this—weak and shaking with terror. How would they trust her to keep Liam if they saw her now? Their support—or the lack of it—could make or break her petition to receive custody of Liam. They were behind her now, yes, but only because the elder Martins truly believed Nola to be who was best for Liam. If anything caused them to doubt that, to doubt her, they wouldn't hesitate to say so.

Having Liam taken from her wasn't an option for Nola. They were all each other had left, and she would run away with him before she allowed anyone to take him away.

Her mind filled with half-formed, panic-induced plans, Nola stumbled her way down to the dock. The end of the short pier came up sooner than her tear-filled vision told her it would, and if not for one of the tall wooden pilings at the edge giving her something to brace against, she would've gone right into the water. Gripping the post, the rough surface scraped her palms as she lowered herself to kneel, head down, at its base like a penitent at prayer.

Nola couldn't bear to make that image reality. It wasn't that she disbelieved, but her faith in Him was ambiguous at best. The last time she'd prayed in earnest was long before her mother fell ill, and the only time she said the Lord's name lately was in vain. Then again, her prayers had been in vain, too, so maybe it was the same thing.

A quiet sound echoed through the still pre-morning air, disappearing out over the fog-shrouded surface of the lake. She lifted her bowed head, recognizing the sound, and twisted to peer fearfully behind her. His form materialized out of the black shadows along the side of the house, his golden gaze locked on her, flashing with predatory intent.

As he got closer, his mere existence calmed the wild panic inside her, and she saw that she was wrong. Her panic made her see something dangerous when she looked at him, when the only thing intent in his eyes was concern.

"Hey," Gideon murmured, sinking to his haunches just behind her and to the side. "I got worried when you didn't come back in."

There were times when she loved how much he worried about her welfare. Now, while feeling foolish about a nightmare having given her an anxiety attack, was not one of those times. Snorting, she turned away from him to look out over the mist covering the lake towards the distant shore she couldn't see.

"I've been out here like five minutes. Little soon to overreact, don't you think?"

The heat of his palm burned her skin through the thin cotton t-shirt she wore when he placed his hand on the center of her back. "Nola, it's been almost half an hour," he corrected gently. Her eyes widened; she could hardly believe so much time had passed, but he had no reason to lie. "C'mon, let's go inside. You're freezing."

Nola dropped her chin to her chest, idly noticing the cold had turned the tips of her unencumbered breasts diamond-hard. She wondered if they were his reason for saying that she was cold, or—the focus of her gaze dropped lower to her legs—if it was the goosebumps covering nearly every inch of the rest of her. Didn't matter; she didn't want to go inside yet.

The panic, though receding, still threatened, turning the edges of her mind muzzy and leaving her composure shaky. The urge to choke grew almost stronger than she could control at the thought of going back into the house.

She set her jaw, prepared to fight him on this. "I'm not ready yet."

From out of the corner of her eye, she saw his firm lips part, as if to voice his inevitable objection, but instead he just sighed and shoved to his feet. Nola hadn't anticipated winning so easily and she felt empty inside as she heard his bare feet pad back up the walk. After spending not even a minute in Gideon's presence, being alone no longer sounded so appealing.

When, a couple minutes later, she heard the same quiet sound as before—the slap of the screen door against the jamb on the front porch—all she could do was smile. Of course he hadn't left her alone out here in the dark. His protective instincts were far too strong for that, even if he rarely exercised them.

Soft fabric settled comfortingly around her shoulders, enveloping her in warmth and Gideon's distinctively no-nonsense soap-and-man scent. Shifting to pull her knees to her chest after she shoved her sleeves into the too-long sleeves of the black hoodie, she fastened the jacket around herself. She hugged her shins, resting her cheek against her upraised knees in a way that wasn't entirely comfortable but allowed her to look at him.

She studied the patrician line of his profile as he looked out over the water, wished she were brave enough to reach out and feel the scrape of his stubble against her palm. She bit her lip as she imagined tracing his lips with the tip of her finger, feeling the press of them against her own, the slippery slide of his tongue against hers. In that moment, she wanted him so badly she ached with it.

Unaware their thoughts were running on parallel tracks, Gideon reached over and gently brushed a lock of her hair from her cheek, tucking it behind her ear. The caress lasted too long to be purely friendly, but not so long that she read anything in it. There had been many moments lately that, had it been someone else, she would've intuited the impulse that drove them. Instead, she chalked it up to Gideon being Gideon, and ignored the quickening of her pulse.

The graze of his fingers against the soft skin of her neck beneath her ear was far less than what Gideon wanted after several days of intentionally keeping himself distant from her, but was far more than he should've risked. He didn't want to hurt her, and he knew he would if they pursued anything romantic. More than that, he couldn't bear to have her think of his feelings as a betrayal of the trust they were beginning to build between them; he wouldn't ruin that for anything, especially not for his own nebulous feelings.

Javi had been a huge help in Gideon's quest to stay away from her, keeping him distracted with various outdoor sports during the day—mostly hiking, kayaking, and fishing—and trips to the bars in town at night. But Javi was gone now, down to Key West to visit a friend from his former unit, and it was hard to hold himself back.

He would, though. He didn't have the choice to do otherwise.

The sky was beginning to lighten in the east before Nola voiced the fears that, as tonight made abundantly clear to her, haunted her most. "What if they take him from me?" she asked in a strangled whisper. "How am I supposed to do this alone?"

"Look at me," Gideon ordered gently. She squeezed her eyes shut tight in denial. "Nola."

Unable to look at him as she shared her fear, she was equally unable to ignore the gravity-like pull of the way he said her name. Opening her tear-filled eyes, blinking a few times to clear her vision, she saw the expression on Gideon's face and the birds beginning to sing their morning songs went silent beneath the sudden rush of blood through her ears.

He looked angry, furious even, but not at her. With a shaking hand, he cupped her cheek in his palm and let his forehead fall against hers. He didn't say anything for a long time. Nola, for one, was content simply to breathe him in.

"I don't know what's going to happen with Liam, I wish to God I did," he whispered finally, bringing his other hand up so he framed her face in his palms. Putting some distance between them so he could look in her eyes, he brushed her tears away with his thumbs. "I can promise you this, Nola. Whatever happens, you are not going to be alone. You hear me? You're never alone. Ever."

His words washed over Nola like a balm, not eradicating her fears completely, but lessening them greatly. Incapable of speaking, overcome by his vow, she wrapped her fingers around his wrists and squeezed. As far as thanks went, the gesture was pitifully inadequate, but Gideon understood, leaning in to press his lips against her brow.

"I mean it. Anything you need, I'm there."

She nodded, releasing his arms to wrap her own around his waist and burrow into his embrace. He readily folded himself around her, tugging her into his lap so he could hold her properly. She nestled into him, as trusting as a well-fed and well-loved kitten safe in its master's hands.

One day, Nola promised herself as Gideon's heart, so much bigger than she could have imagined, beat slow and steady in her ear, I'll tell him how I feel.

Feeling her grip on him tighten, Gideon rubbed his chin against the top of her head, following it with the press of his lips. "I'm here, Nola. I'll always be here."

It was a promise he intended to keep, no matter what. So, as they sat there in tranquil silence, Gideon resigned himself to never having her—not in the way he truly wanted. In time, he thought he could even learn to be okay with that. He could get sex anywhere, after all, and having Nola in his life trumped having her in his bed.

From behind them came the sounds of a slowly waking household, and it wasn't long before Liam, still in his PJs, came running outside to excitedly confess they were having pancakes for breakfast. Bridget followed soon after, carefully juggling two over-filled mugs of coffee, snidely telling her brother he would have to get his own as she sat down next to where he still held Nola in his lap. Their parents came last, an extra cup of joe for their baby boy in his mother's hands, and settled, with assorted groans about getting old, on the edge of the dock. Together, they all watched as the sun rose over the lake.

"See?" Gideon whispered into Nola's ear. "Never alone."

She nodded and sipped her coffee, a small smile playing on her lips. "No, never alone," she murmured in agreement. "God help me."