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Raising the Soldier's Son

By:Clare Connelly


PROLOGUE

“It’s not just that I love you. It’s that I can’t live without you.”

Annabeth stared into his eyes, and it almost felt like it was the first time she’d really seen him. His handsome face was set earnestly, the blonde hair she liked to run her fingers through so short now. Not like over the summer, when it had been thick and slightly curly, streaked fair by the sun they’d spent days under. He’d been so carefree then. Youthful, vibrant, powerful and confident. Now, he just looked serious.

“Then don’t go,” she whispered, only partly joking.

His smile was indulgent. “We’ve had this conversation a thousand times.”

“I know. And you just never seem to listen to reason,” she chastised, tossing her magazine aside and standing to face him.

Kirk’s sigh was heavy with emotion. “I think I’d be put in prison if I didn’t show up tomorrow,” he pointed out, both logic and fact behind him.

Annabeth wrinkled her small ski jump nose, quirking her lips to one side like she did when she was thinking things through. They’d had this argument so many times, and the result was always the same. She didn’t want to ruin their last night with a fight she couldn’t win. “Kirk, you know I love you, too.”

“I get deployed tomorrow,” he said, urgently, his frown deepening. His pale eyes were clouded with feeling. “We don’t know how long my tour’s going to be.”

Annabeth swallowed past the pain she’d grown accustomed to. At first, joining the Navy had seemed like an abstract concept. He’d been a high school senior, and so many obstacles had peppered his path that she hadn’t let it rattle her.

His father, an Alabama Billionaire with a rich political background, for one. Annabeth had been sure she could count on Don Robinson to pull the pin on Kirk’s military aspirations. Far from it, though, old Don had actually thought it a good idea. He’d said it would bode well for any political aspirations of Kirk’s own.

And Kirk had clung, steadfast, to his desire to serve and protect his country. To better the world however he could.

And his time had come.

He was now only hours from shipping out.

Their future hung by a thread, because nothing was certain when it came to young men and faraway wars.

Annabeth squeezed her eyes shut, trying to delay the inevitable feeling that her heart would surely break. She’d loved Kirk for as long as she’d known him. Oh, she’d only been a teenager when she’d first really met him, but he was legend in their small town, and she’d heard about him all her life.

At first, she hadn’t known that the way her heart raced and skin tingled meant she loved him.

But now she did.

“You don’t need to tell me when you get deployed.” She jerked her head towards the big calendar on her dormitory wall. “See?” Circled around the following day’s date was a big frowning face.

He smiled wistfully, pulling her into his arms. “You’re the only person who’s ever made me doubt this decision.” He pressed a finger under her chin, forcing her to look him square in the eyes. “Baby, I don’t want to leave you. You know that, right?”

She shook her head slowly from side to side, letting the tears moisten her eyes, finally. “Then why are you?”

He brushed his palm over her curling blonde hair. “I think it’s every fit and able bodied man’s duty to give something back to his country. Especially someone like me.” He stared straight ahead, trying not to think about how good she felt pressed against him. How right it was to be by her side. “I have every opportunity at my disposal because of wealth. I’m lucky. We’re lucky. This country, what we have… it’s something we take for granted. So many people in the world live in poverty, not even able to get a meal on the table.”

Her smile was watery. “Well, if you’re hoping to feed them, you’ve got another thing coming. You’re a hopeless cook, Kirk Robinson.”

He didn’t feign amusement. “I’m coming back for you, Beth. And I want you to wear something for me, to remember me while I’m gone.”

She shivered, as sadness at the inevitability of their parting washed like a wave over her body. “I don’t need to wear something to remember you.” She pushed her fist against her chest. “I have you in here. I always will.”

He lifted her hand and kissed her palm. “Nonetheless…”

While she watched, he bent down, kneeling to the floor in front of her. The dormitory seemed larger somehow, without his tall, broad figure crowding the space.

“Kirk? What are you doing?”

He cleared his throat, and pulled a turquoise velvet pouch from his shirt pocket. “Beth, for as long as I can remember, I’ve loved you. For as long as I’ve known you, I’ve known you are my only future.” She watched as he pulled at the drawstrings then tipped the pouch upside down, emptying a perfect circlet into his hands. She gasped. It was a ring. White gold with an enormous diamond held in a four-claw setting. “Would you do me the honor of agreeing to marry me, Annabeth Sparks?”

A complicated weight of emotions pressed into her. Delight, so heady and real it was like cotton candy on her tongue, warred with despair that the wedding must be delayed for as long as he was serving. It could be years. And still, she had no option. He was right. He was her future, just as she was his, and nothing – no amount of time, nor duty – would alter what they both knew to be inevitable.

“Yes.” She said simply. Who needed more words than that, when her smile was so bright it could outshine the sun?

CHAPTER ONE

Five years later.

“Don’t look now, but the past just walked right on in here.” Emma Whittaker, loyal friend and confidante, tilted her head in the direction of the glass doors, her newly cut bangs blowing into her eyes.

Annabeth didn’t have time to chat, much less look. The Whistlestop was thronging with its usual Friday night crowds. Every stool at the bar was occupied, the tables at the back were filling, and Annabeth was down a waitress. She slid the tap off and placed a foaming beer on top of the bar. “There you go, Muddy,” she smiled at one of the regulars, ringing his drink on to his well-used account.

He lifted it to his lips by way of thanks, leaving Annabeth to scan the bar for her next customer. It was then that her eyes landed on The Past Emma had been referring to. She froze. Her body felt limp suddenly, her face tingled and her eyes stung.

Kirk Robinson. The man she had loved desperately, who had broken her heart with his cruel coldness, the man who had promised her the world and then disappeared into nothingness, was standing in the middle of The Whistlestop. And he was staring right at her.

“Geez, he looks even better than ever,” Emma whispered unhelpfully, her dark eyes sailing over Kirk curiously now.

He’d always been a total hunk. With his Quarterback’s body, thick blonde hair, a tan that was golden like caramel, deep blue eyes and a square jaw, he was a teen heartthrob like no other. And he had been her teen heartthrob. Annabeth’s pulse was racing furiously through her body, as her eyes were drawn, as if by a magnetic force, to stare into his.

How she’d loved him.

She cleared her throat and forced herself to look away. Her cheeks were pink, and her hands were shaking. She wiped them down the front of her apron and resumed her scan of the busy bar. “What’ll it be, Dan?” She forced a smile to her face as she addressed the local doctor, and her close friend.

“Light beer, thanks,” he responded, his New York accent so different to the southern drawls she was used to. When Doctor Dan Spencer had first moved to Clearview, Alabama, he’d stuck out like a sore thumb. With his penchant for wearing suits in a town more suited to jeans and sweats, and his fancy convertible, he was as different to the local folk as could be. He was young too, which didn’t help matters. Old Doc. Carter, who’d resigned and made way for Dan, had been in his seventies when he’d finally hung up his stethoscope. Many were skeptical of just what skills a man in his early thirties could possess. Not Annabeth. She’d needed Doctor Dan from the minute he’d arrived in town, and since then, he’d attended to so many cuts and scrapes that she’d lost count.

Looking into his kind green eyes was comforting now. She passed his beer over and then moved back to Emma. Annabeth was steadfastly ignoring Kirk; Emma, she realized with a rush of gratitude, was doing the same. She’d put an earphone into her right ear, and was staring determinedly ahead, despite the fact Kirk was just a few feet down the bar.

“Annabeth.” His voice was just as she remembered it, deep and hoarse, powerful even in just that one word. And damn it, it still had the power to turn her blood into a raging torrent of fire. She balled up her courage. She couldn’t ignore him. She wasn’t a kid, and she didn’t still love him.

The last time they’d seen each other, Annabeth had been twenty years old, with a bright future at her feet. To see her tending her dad’s bar now left Kirk with an unmistakable lump of disappointment lodged in his chest. Whatever else had happened, he’d at least believed she would make a good life for herself. A good life for herself, without him in it to screw it all up.

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