“What about you, Beast?”
“My daddy hit us,” Max said, and clung to Preston as though he was afraid to let go. “Mommy says he’s gone. That he’ll never come back.”
“That’s true,” Preston told him. “But if you want, I’ll be your daddy now.”
Emma pulled back and gaped at him. “What’d you say?”
Unconsciousness edged closer. Preston shut his eyes, fought it off and leaned against the wall for support. “Marry me, Emma.”
He felt her touch his cheeks, his forehead, his mouth. “What about your reason for coming to Iowa? What about the past?”
“It’s over.” He breathed in the scent of her hair, still trying to reassure himself that she was alive. “So what do you say? I’ll buy you that little house you wanted, the one with the white picket fence…here or in Nebraska…. Anywhere you want…. We’ll start over.”
She smiled through the tears swimming in her eyes. “I’d marry you even if we had to live in the van. I’m in love with you, you know that.”
He could hear the cops at the door. “In here,” he called as he slid farther down the wall.
“Preston?” Emma’s voice was filled with worry. “Hang on, okay? Don’t leave us.”
“Does that mean we’re going to be a family?” Max asked eagerly.
Preston nodded. “You—” he swallowed “—me…and…your mom, Beast.”
“What about a dog? We need a dog.”
“We’ll get…a dog,” Preston promised. Then footsteps pounded down the hall and a cop poked his head into the bathroom.
Everything was going to be okay. Knowing that, Preston let himself slip into unconsciousness.
One year later…
THE BIRDS CHIRPED loudly in the trees overhead as the first rays of sun filtered through the branches and began to warm the tent. Emma stretched and yawned, then snuggled closer to Preston. She loved camping, enjoyed the solitude, the beauty of the mountains, the wildlife. Fortunately, Preston and Max liked it just as much.
The crack of twigs outside made Emma wonder if maybe a bear had come to visit. She would have known for sure if they’d brought Bob, Max’s German shepherd. But they’d decided to leave the dog with Preston’s mother rather than bring him into bear country.
Rolling over, she peered through the flap. It was only a squirrel. Their food and garbage was still safely stowed on a pole two hundred feet away.
“You awake?” Preston murmured.
Emma slipped her hand up under his T-shirt to feel the smooth warm skin of his stomach. They’d been married nine months already, but she felt as if they were still newlyweds. “I’m ready to go hiking. What about you?”
“I’m ready for bacon and eggs,” he said. “Camping makes me hungry.”
Max burrowed out of his sleeping bag, which he’d placed next to Preston. Max worshipped Preston, imitated everything his new daddy did. “Do you think we’ll get to see a bear today?” he asked.
Gone were the days when Yellowstone National Park had black bears waiting on the side of the road for handouts from motorists. Now park officials strictly enforced their no-feeding-the-animals rule, which kept the bears farther from humans. But Preston had managed to get them a backcountry campsite. According to the information Emma had pulled off the Internet before their trip, grizzlies were often viewed between Canyon and Fishing Bridge at the northern range of the park. They planned to do some hiking and take along their binoculars.
“Maybe,” Preston answered. “Should we test your blood, Beast?”
“In a minute.” Max started to get dressed.
Preston faced Emma. “You know what today is, don’t you?” he asked, tucking her disheveled hair behind her ear.
She nodded. Today several members of the Rodriguez family were going on trial to face drug-trafficking charges. She hoped they’d join Hector Linz, who was spending the rest of his life in prison for killing Vince Wendell.
He drew her hand to his mouth and kissed the scar Manuel’s cigarette had left. “Are you afraid they’ll get off?”
“No.” She glanced at Max, who was busy pulling on his T-shirt. “I’m pretty sure you-know-who never told anyone I had that list of names and numbers,” she said. “If he had, they would’ve found me by now.”
“What do you think stopped him?”
“He probably didn’t want the grief he’d get from his mother,” she said with a laugh. “And he was probably too confident that he could recover it.”
“Sending it anonymously was a good move.”
She brushed a kiss across his lips. “Living with Manuel seems like another lifetime. It was worth it because of Max, and chances are I wouldn’t have found you if I hadn’t been on the run. But I’m glad it’s behind me.”
He grinned at her. “How glad are you that you found me?”
She knew by his expression that he was up to something. “Why do I get the feeling you’re baiting a trap?”
“Hey, Max,” Preston said.
Max crawled toward him. “What?”
“Should we tell your mom what we want?”
Max looked perplexed for a moment, but smiled broadly when Preston rolled over to whisper in his ear. “Yeah!”
Max agreed so readily that Emma narrowed her eyes. “If this is another plea for a motorcycle, the answer is still no. I’m terrified one of you will get hurt.”
“It’s not a motorcycle this time,” Max said.
Emma felt her eyebrows come together. “What, then?”
“We want a baby,” Preston said.
“Pul-leeze!” Max added, putting his hands together in a gesture of exaggerated pleading.
Emma’s eyes fastened on her husband’s. After Max, she hadn’t planned on having more children. The way Manuel had used Max against her had been too frightening. But Preston wasn’t Manuel….
“What do you think?” Preston asked, hope apparent in his voice. “Can you trust me enough?”
She knew what a good father he’d be from the way he treated Max. He was good to her, too. She’d never been so happy.
A baby…She pictured holding a sweet-smelling newborn—Preston’s child—in her arms, and couldn’t help returning their smiles. “When?” she asked.
“As soon as you’re ready,” Preston said.