My hand hovered over the signature line.
Ephesus was almost six thousand miles away. A foreign country. A language I didn’t speak. But at least I’d be within three thousand miles of Josh. The same continent for two whole months.
My fingers tightened on the pen, and my name unfolded onto the line with sure, fluid strokes. There. Done. I would be the youngest member of the Ephesus Excavation Fall Team. I sealed and stamped the envelope before I could change my mind.
Five knocks sounded in Paisley’s signature rhythm on the front door. She was right on time, as usual. Then again, living next door made for quick travel. I tightened my ponytail and stuffed the spare house key into the tiny pocket of my workout capris before I answered.
“Morning, sunshine!” she drawled with a grin. “You ready to hit the trail?”
“I signed.” My tone suggested I’d just committed murder.
“It’s about time! Really, it’s the right choice, and I’m so excited for you! Let’s celebrate with some chai afterward?”
“If by chai, you mean coffee, then I’m game,” I answered, dropping the letter in the mailbox and then turning to lock the door behind me. Besides, a four-mile hike deserved a caffeinated treat. Damn, the freaking key stuck in the lock. Again.
“Oh my God, Ember.” Paisley’s broken whisper sent chills racing from my scalp to my stomach.
I abandoned the key and turned slowly, my tennis shoes catching lightly on the concrete of our shared porch.
That feeling—the one I’d left behind in Colorado—swept over me, sickening my stomach in less time than it took to close my eyes…and I knew.
I faced our sidewalk, and the air rushed from my lungs in a soundless sob. This was how my world would end, on a cloudless Saturday morning. God, no. Josh. Please. His name was the sweetest prayer in my mind, the desperate call of my soul to his…wherever he might be.
Paisley shook as she took my hand, intertwining our fingers and grounding me. Which one? God, which one? There was no right answer.
My world paused, as though my mind knew to take in every excruciating detail of this moment—the sunshine filtering through the hanging baskets of flowers we’d just planted, the sounds of laughing children one house over, and the somber expressions of the two officers who walked steadily toward us…
In dress blues.
Four Months Earlier
“I’m just saying that not all of us are six-foot-four, Joshua Walker.” I tilted my head to the side as he put another cooking gadget Mom swore we needed onto the top shelf of the kitchen cabinets.
Josh turned that damn smile on me and shut the door with a flick of his hand before caging me between his hips and the counter. “Okay. When you need something from the top shelf, I’ll race over and get it down for you.”
“Not the point.” I fought back the smile that had been a nearly permanent fixture during the last two days that we’d lived together.
You live together. No more long distance. No more missing him.
I looped my arms around his neck, letting my fingertips graze over the newly cut hair at the base of his head. “What about those times you’re not here?”
His gaze dropped to my lips. “Well, then maybe you could simply choose not to fondue for lunch?”
My stomach warmed at the look in his eyes—the one that seemed to ignore that we’d just gotten out of bed an hour ago. His arms tightened around me, bringing our lower bodies flush, and my pulse leaped.
“But maybe I like melted chocolate,” I whispered. “It has all kinds of uses.”
Those smoldering brown eyes locked on to mine, and I saw it there—the longing that had been our companion these last two years, waiting to finally be together, the insane chemistry that never failed to turn my body pliant the moment he so much as whispered my name.
That did it. I was a puddle before his lips even touched mine. His mouth brushed them once, twice, before settling over me in a languorous kiss that had me arching against him. I opened for him, and Josh took advantage, stroking his tongue against mine with enough friction to set me on fire.
My heart soared, pouring so much emotion into me that I wasn’t sure my body could handle it. A laugh burst free, and I felt him smile against my mouth in response.
“Kissing me is funny?” he asked, lifting me to the counter to bury his nose just beneath my jaw.
“No!” I giggled again as he growled.
His face lifted, the light in his eyes reflecting the sheer joy I couldn’t contain. “What then?”
My fingers traced the lines of his face, catching on his rough morning stubble. God, he was just so freaking gorgeous. Somehow he’d gotten hotter in the last two years, time stripping away the last vestiges of boyhood from this glorious piece of man. “I’m just happy.”
“Well, that’s the idea.”
“I keep thinking about the hours we spent driving between Nashville and Fort Rucker, and the stolen weekends, and the good-byes…” And the times we both wondered how long our relationship could stay this strong without living in the same zip code.
He kissed me softly. “No more good-byes.”
“Promise?” A tremor slipped into my voice.
He cupped my face and looked so deeply into my eyes that I knew he was reaching for my soul. “I will never leave you again by choice, December. This is it. We made it through the worst, and now we’re here.”