Decorated military veteran turned civilian trauma nurse Kate Dalton was known for keeping a cool head under fire. But she'd never faced anything like this.
Here she was, back in the United States, biting back bile and terror as strong as any she'd experienced overseas. When she was in a combat situation, she was braced and prepared for things to go wrong. Here at home, her guard was down. Ten minutes earlier, she'd been enjoying the reception at her friends' masquerade-themed marriage ball. But then the text message arrived.
Phone clutched like a pinless grenade, Kate strode from the wedding reception room to the nearest exit. There. Patio. Best way out. If she could get there before hurling blissfully consumed cake.
Regal-hued LED lights danced over her sapphire costume and skin tanned by a three-year deployment under Middle Eastern sun. She probably looked striking—if you didn't notice the tension in her shoulders or the frown on her face.
"Breathe, Dalton, that's an order. You can't fall apart. Especially not where everyone you know can see you. You don't break down. You don't give in to fear. That's not who you are."
Despite her drill-sergeant self-talk, Kate's thumb quivered as it scrolled again over Mom's frustratingly cryptic text.
I'm afraid I have some upsetting news. Call me when you've got time to talk.
Unable to wait, Kate had found a quiet corner of the room and called immediately, but Mom was too distraught to talk. Mom never cried. Something was really wrong. Worse, Dad wasn't answering his personal or military phones.
Terrible scenarios raced through her head. Had something happened to her father? Or to her grandfather, who was scheduled for surgery? She knew the procedure was risky already—her career-military grandfather had ruined his lungs inhaling so much military jet fuel over the years. Had there been another complication? Or maybe her parents had bad medical news of their own. Cancer, heart disease…the possibilities went on and on.
Kate couldn't breathe. Her chest tightened, eyes burned. She rushed out a side door hoping no one saw. She couldn't be around people right now, not until she composed herself. In a secluded corner of a low-lit garden patio, she hid under an ornamental fuchsia tree. Heaving fresh Southern Illinois air, she redialed her mother's number.
An answering click, then sniffles sounded. Kate's jaw clenched. "I'm not getting off this phone till you tell me what's going on. Don't make me leave my good friends' wedding to drag it out of you."
"The wedding! I forgot, Kate. I shouldn't have texted you."
"Did something happen to Dad?" He was a deployed war general, sure, but he hadn't been near danger, had he?
"No. Your dad is safe. It's…honey, it's us."
"What's 'us' mean?" Kate paced. "Me and you?
You and Dad?"
"Your dad and I. I didn't want to tell you by phone, but I fly out in the morning for Grandpa's hip recovery. That'll keep me out of touch for days, and I don't want you hearing secondhand. Kate, I need to tell you, your dad and I are divorcing."
"Div—" Kate choked on the last word she expected to hear. Surely Mom is kidding. Right? Her mind couldn't wrap around it.
"Kate, Grandma's calling in, probably with a surgery update on Grandpa. We'll talk later, okay? I love you." Click Teeth grinding, Kate redialed Dad, stat.
Finally! "Dad?" Kate hated that her voice broke in front of her five-star military hero dad. "Please tell me it's not true."
A deep sigh. "I'm sorry. She served me papers today."
Kate's voice and composure broke. "Daddy, why?"
"Your mom can't handle me overseas all the time. She waited to break the news until she was sure. Kate, are you okay?"
"Not with this. She texted me while I was at a wedding."
"Mitch, your surgeon friend, right? He's one of the ones who founded Eagle Point Trauma Center, isn't he? I remember now. Kate, sorry about the poor timing. With her dad so ill, your mom probably wasn't thinking. Neither am I."
"Clearly. You both aren't thinking. How can you flippantly throw thirty years of marriage away? Our family? And to do it now, when we might be losing Grandpa. Daddy, don't let—"
A presence stirred behind her, and Kate froze. "Gotta go," she barked out, suddenly eager to end the conversation as quickly as possible. "I'll call later, okay?" The last thing Kate wanted was to ruin the festive mood of Lauren and Mitch's wedding by letting one of the guests overhear her having a breakdown. Or let anyone see this crack in her tough-girl image. She never cried. Ever. Not even in the worst combat scenarios overseas or trauma cases here.
Kate flicked a tear but others followed. "Nice night out," she called to the tall shadow over her shoulder. She pretended to gaze at brilliant stars glittering against a raven sky to keep from turning and letting whoever was there see her tears.
No answer—not out loud. Instead, the figure moved; a strong hand weighted her shoulder and turned her around. Heady masculine cologne mingled with pleasant garden scents. Kate tucked her chin to hide red-rimmed eyes, but a leather-gloved finger lifted her face.
Oh, my. The most gorgeous, mysterious man stood before her. What she could see of his masked face seemed carved from exquisite stone. His eyes, etched in ebony and concern, were so piercing they arrested her breath. His impressive height strained her neck as her eyes skimmed a firm jaw and sensual mouth and a muscular build that showed serious dedication to fitness.
Silent as a sniper, he removed her fancy feather mask and dabbed her eyes with a blue camouflage-patterned kerchief, the item odd and out of place with his all-black Zorrotype ensemble.
"Thank you." She hated how her warbling voice revealed how she was falling apart. What did the masked intruder want, anyway? "May I help you?"
Dark eyes bored into hers, so intense she startled backward. Embarrassed by her reaction, she opened her mouth to apologize and found herself rambling instead. "I must look raccoonish with mascara running down my face. I didn't even bother to buy the waterproof kind—I wasn't expecting to cry. Not that I'm not happy for Mitch and Lauren, it's just… I don't cry." She let out a brittle laugh. "Except for now. My parents just informed me they're divorcing after a lifetime together." Her voice fractured as the words, spoken aloud, made the truth suddenly become a cruel kind of real.
His chiseled face softened, compassion shining out of his eyes as if he really cared about her, cared about her pain. But how could he? He had to be a stranger. She'd helped each costumed guest sign in and knew each name on the list. No one had been conspicuously absent. He must be a wedding crasher. That she didn't know the guy made him seem infinitely safe. He didn't know her, so he wouldn't judge her for breaking down.
As though sensing her thoughts, he shifted his stance and sweetly adopted a listening pose. Kate drew herself up, surprised at the level of relief she felt at being able to say how she really felt to someone she'd likely never see again.
"My friends inside…they all think I'm strong enough to do anything. I served overseas as a trauma nurse in the army. After that, anything should be easy, right?" Tears pressed for release again. "The problem is, people expect me to be some kind of superhero all the time." Her voice dragged to a whisper. "How can I let them see me cry like this? Especially here. It's a wedding—we're supposed to be happy and hopeful and…and all the things I'm not."
His grip strengthened on her shoulder, fingers gently kneading. She wanted to lean into him. So she did. He stood so near, the leather on his jacket cooled her cheek.
"It's not just because of my parents," she admitted in a low voice, barely more than a whisper. "It's me. The truth is, I hate weddings. They make me scared I'll end up alone after all my friends pair off. I look at brides and grooms who seem so in love, so wrapped up in each other, and I know no one's ever made me feel that way. I've never been able to let go and get lost in the moment and the person I'm with. Maybe I'm too practical to ever truly fall in love. I worry so much about not making a mistake that I never take a relationship risk, never fall into anything—not even love."
His sustained presence girded her with courage. His gloved hand settled against her back, nearly a hug. Stalwart. That's what he was. Plus a stranger. Which meant she could spill her guts without leaving behind an emotional mess she'd have to clean up, explain away or deny to death later. And something about the night…the moon…the masks…made her embrace being honest, being vulnerable. What could she possibly have to worry about when being in his arms felt so safe?
He responded by drawing even closer. Care ebbed off him in waves, dangerously appealing combined with his handsomeness. It didn't even occur to Kate to protest as he dipped his head and covered her mouth with his in a mesmerizing dance.
He exuded strength, mystery, masculinity and hints of delectable spearmint. His breath, his kiss were so soft. So delicious. Everything else fogged. Stress from her parents' devastating news melted. Her world contracted to the cove of his arms, the core of gentleness driving his kiss and the calming rhythm of his breathing.
He broke contact to press his mouth to her ear and whisper, "Hang in, sweetness. Darkness never defeats the dawn." His voice held a gravelly quality, as if he'd disguised its coffee-rich depth. She tilted her chin up.
Uncertainty flickered in his eyes before his lips found hers again. This kiss felt final. Declarative, like a seal over a covenant. Dizzy and disoriented, Kate swayed. Strong arms braced her up as he pulled her in for a hug that felt more like pure comfort. Then he bolted.
"Kate?" The voice of her best friend Bri Landis drifted from a doorway. No wonder the bandit had fled. The crasher had sensed company before Kate had, and hadn't wanted to get caught.
After the sensation of being stun-gunned subsided, Kate faced his retreating back. "Wait! Who are you?"
But her bandit had already scaled the eight-foot-tall wood fence, cape flying behind him like a flag, and she lost sight of him.
"Marvelous Masked Intruder, come back," she whispered into the inhospitable night. Bri's voice neared, reeling Kate back to reality. Kate banged her forehead on the fence. Why hadn't she chased him down? Simply put—she couldn't.
He had taken her by such sublime storm and surprise, and that kiss had so incapacitated her, she wondered if she'd imagined it. She put fingers to her lips and tingles there whispered she most certainly hadn't.
Kate couldn't kick the insane urge to find him and spend time with him again. Not only because of the amazing kisses, but also for the way it had felt to have someone she could really talk to—someone who would listen without judging and comfort without questioning. All the things none of her friends would imagine she'd ever need and that this stranger had offered automatically. That kind of thing could go to a girl's head. It made her sad to think that the beautiful moment they'd shared would be the only moment they'd ever have.
"Hey!" Bri approached, dressed to the nines in a frilly-winged fairy costume but with a warmly concerned look on her face. "I got worried when I couldn't find you. Everything okay?"
Kate slid onto a nearby bench. "Yes. No. I don't know." Bri was the one person she could talk to about this. Kate thanked God Bri was who He sent.
Bri sat next to her. "What's going on?"
Where to begin? "Well, there was Mom's mysterious text and thirty years thrown away like yesterday's trash, then a man dressed as a bandit in black leather appeared out of nowhere. We talked—well, I talked and he listened. And then…we kissed. He swept me off my feet, really—until he vanished. Jumped the fence when he heard you coming out to find me. Night swallowed the most appealingly compassionate creature who ever lived."
Bri blinked slowly. "Wait, text? What text?"
Kate calmed herself and took time explaining everything from the first text from her mom, to the blue camo handkerchief wiping away her tears, to the kiss that ended with her bandit disappearing over the fence. She only left out the part where she'd confided her fears about never finding love. Bri was currently engaged and blissfully happy—Kate didn't want to make her friend feel bad. That part of her little breakdown could remain a secret between her and her bandit.
"Kate, there's no one remotely dressed like a bandit here. I took photos of each and every person in their costumes for Mitch and Lauren's memory-book gift."
Kate shrugged. "I know. He had to be a stranger." Kate left out the part where knowing he was a stranger made him easy to talk to. It would hurt her best friend's feelings to be told Kate found it easier to pour her heart out to someone she didn't know. "Probably a wedding crasher who heard about the masquerade theme, since he knew enough to show up in costume. Whatever his reasons for being here, he did manage to show up at exactly the right time, when I needed someone to listen to me unload about my family fracturing apart."
Bri nibbled her lip. Kate flinched at what she'd said and the painful memories she might have stirred. If anyone knew what fractured family felt like, Bri Landis did. Her father had been the first to drop out of her life—he'd walked out on the family when Bri was a child. Now he sat incapacitated in a nursing home with all hope of reconciliation gone. Her mom had passed away recently, leaving Bri to tend a run-down family lodge alone. Her brother, Caleb, the only family she had left, was deployed overseas, dedicated to building his military career.
Kate sighed. "I'm sorry, Bri. I shouldn't be melodramatic, in light of all you've been through."
Bri shook her head. "Nonsense. Things are looking up for me. While I desperately miss my geeky gun-toting army-medic brother, I'm freakishly in love and freshly engaged to Eagle Point's most gorgeous anesthesiologist." Bri wiggled her ring-embellished finger, reminding Kate how much there was to be happy about. Yet a twinge of sadness hit Kate instead. Mom, Dad…
"I'm also fulfilled being a mother figure to Tia. Though she's only five, you and I both know Ian's daughter is an amazing gift and constant source ofjoy. And of course her daddy and our wedding plans are equally bright on my horizon."
Bright horizon. Kate recalled the bandit's admonition that darkness never defeats the dawn, as the confidence that usually carried and defined Kate ebbed back. Grandpa could still get better. And her parents' divorce wasn't finalized yet—maybe things could still be fixed. If not, as Bri had reminded her, there was still so much to be thankful for.
Like a moonlit kiss from a handsome stranger.
Kate brushed the thought aside. She'd probably never see the bandit again. He was just someone God sent her way to give comfort she needed at her lowest moment. She'd weathered it, and was ready now to be strong on her own again—as always.
"Speaking of that handsome fiance of yours, let's go back in before he wonders where you are." Kate rose to her feet.
Bri stood, as well. "Sure you're all right to go back in?"
"Of course." Kate flashed Bri the grin that used to win her the tiara back in her beauty-pageant days. "I'm always all right."
For a second, Bri looked as though she wanted to argue, but with a shrug she let it go, leading the way back into the reception hall. Kate followed her with a quick, confident stride.
And if she paused for a moment before stepping through the door to look back at the spot where she'd last seen her bandit.. well then, that was no one's concern but hers.