Stripping Her Defenses Excerpt

 Chapter One

Kara

Life was good. I’m talking about, can’t stop smiling, singing in the shower, and an added bounce in your step kind of good. Ever since I’d told my husband, Riley, the news five months ago—that we were unexpectedly pregnant—the problems plaguing my marriage had seemingly disappeared.

I couldn’t help smiling down at my small, protruding belly. He was the reason everything was better, after all. Little Riley Sullivan Jr. wasn’t going to be here for another three months, but he was already a miracle baby.

Hearing a sound from the direction of our kitchen, I looked back over my shoulder. Riley was walking towards where I was sitting on the living room couch, with two glasses of sweet iced tea in his hands. When he saw me watching him, his lips spread into that boyish grin of his that had always melted my heart since the first day of our junior year of high school.

Setting our glasses down on the coffee table, he eased down on the couch, trying not to jostle me too much, and then slipped his arm around my shoulders. I cuddled into my husband’s side so I could lay my head on his chest. While the movie we’d been watching started to play again, Riley started running his fingers through my short hair.

Yes, life was practically perfect now. Perhaps Jr. was an ‘oops baby’ because the condom broke, but he was still very much wanted by his parents. This was a relief because my husband had planned our life out before he’d shipped off for Navy boot camp, and a baby at this point in our lives had not been in his grand plan. He’d wanted to be further along in his military career and expected me to at least have graduated from college before we started trying to have children.

Therefore, when my period had never shown up, fear had hit me like a ton of bricks. Not because I was afraid my husband would ask me to do anything drastic, like get an abortion, but because, as far as I was concerned, our marriage was already in the danger zone. A baby could metaphorically shoot us from the level of ‘rocking the boat’ to proportions similar to that of the Titanic hitting the iceberg.

Riley never said anything about the precarious state of our relationship, but his actions had been the reason I knew we had problems. He didn’t cheat. He didn’t lie, steal, or abuse me in anyway. He just left all the time. He was never home.

As a military wife, especially one of a Navy seal, it was expected of me to understand that when my husband had to go, he had to go. It wasn’t his assigned missions that bothered me, though. It was the unassigned ones. The missions he volunteered for. seals deployed for six months and then came home for a period of time between six and eighteen months, depending on when they were needed.

Being back in the U.S. didn’t always mean that he was home with me, though. Some of that time was spent training elsewhere. So, in other words, Riley was gone a lot for his job. Add in the missions he volunteered for, and Riley was gone all of the time. And if a man was happy at home, would he really want to be gone from his wife? This led me to start to wonder, is my husband no longer happily married to me?

I had thought I was a good wife.

After growing up with a single mother, who was a Vegas showgirl, I’d been determined to be everything my mother was not. Instead of my mom’s sassy, free-spirited attitude, I’d strived to have a more conservative outlook on life. Mom showcased her pinup girl body, loving the way men followed, begging for a few seconds of her time, while I worked my butt off to fight her sultry genetics. I constantly watched what I ate, exercised religiously to keep my weight as low as possible without looking like a walking skeleton, lifted light weights, and bent myself into sideshow carnival contortionist yoga positions to try and keep my breasts and hips small instead of the hourglass figure they wanted to be. Mom was Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, and I’d forced myself into a Mary Ann mold to avoid becoming her.

Riley thought all of it was ridiculous, but told me he understood my fear of turning into my mother. With the way he’d been acting the last couple of years, I wondered if he really did understand, or if he was simply telling me what he thought I wanted to hear.

Honestly, I thought the two of us had been on the same page about all of my hang ups since we’d started dating in high school. Riley had even helped me pick out a career to pursue when I’d explained to him that I wanted: something as far from my mother’s profession as possible. He’d suggested I be a kindergarten teacher because, as eighteen-year-old Riley had put it, “Seriously, babe, what’s more wholesome than being a kindergarten teacher? You can work with little kids and that will keep you busy while I’m deployed. It’s perfect for you.” Then with an eyebrow wiggle, he’d added, “And we can play teacher. That’s hot.”

After I had smacked him for his joke, I’d realized he was right. It was perfect for my goal to be as normal as possible, compared to the insanity my mom had raised me in behind the curtains of her Vegas shows. Therefore, after the two of us had moved to his first duty station, I had started college. It had ended up taking me six years to complete a four year Bachelor’s Degree in Education, due to moving from one base to the next, but I was almost done.

My final exams were tomorrow, and then I would finally graduate in a week. The fact that Riley would actually be here to see me walk across that stage for my diploma, instead of on a mission, was like a dream come true. Even my mother was flying in two days from now so she could see me accept my diploma, which was like icing on the cake for me. I might be determined to not be my mother, but that didn’t mean I didn’t love her.

My mom was an amazing woman. At forty-five, she was still drop-dead gorgeous. She was also intelligent and resourceful. I loved that she had raised me with an abundance of affection, always making time for me when I had needed her. I just hadn’t loved growing up behind the spotlights of Vegas with half-naked dancers and the revolving door of men who followed them.

Men, such as my father, who were attracted to the Sin City living that was abundant under the bright lights of Vegas. The problem with men like my father: they were never happy. They were also looking for more. More good times. The next big gamble that could pay off. The newest gorgeous showgirl. And men who liked living like that didn’t want to stick around with a wife and a kid.

After growing up with that, I wanted a normal life. I wanted any future children of mine to have the kind of family life you saw on Leave It To Beaver. Add in my hidden fears of Riley leaving me, as my father had left my mother, and you could say I was determined to be the next June Cleaver. I hadn’t realized that might bother anyone until Riley had started acting funny, which, unbeknownst to him, had only caused my fear of him leaving me to worsen.

Over time, he’d volunteered for more and more missions until, finally, he was gone all the time. On several occasions, I tried to talk to him about it, but if he didn’t brush off my concerns, we ended up in an argument.

The day I had heard him mutter under his breath that I was acting crazy and too obsessed with my appearance and our lifestyle, my heart had broken in two. Why would he say those things after I’d explained to him about how I felt? Didn’t he understand how lucky he was to have a solid home life? Didn’t he understand my desire for trying to create that for myself? For us? Was he that unhappy with me?

Did he not love me anymore?

His love for me used to be such a tangible thing. I felt it every time he touched me, stroked my body with his hands, kissed me in slow, worshipping sweeps of his lips, made love to me with such a sweet tenacity that every inch of me tingled from his possession. All of those beautiful validations of his feelings for me had been lacking lately. I missed those displays of affection. I needed my Riley back, desperately. I felt lost.

In fear of losing my husband, the man I loved beyond measure, I stopped asking questions. Even though every mission he took, that he didn’t have to, broke my heart a little each time, I didn’t say a word. Instead, I kissed him goodbye, told him I loved him, and said I’d be waiting for him to come back to me. I carried on with school, kept up with some of the other military wives on base, and continued my workout routines to stay busy.

If I was lucky, Riley would come home only weeks later, but it usually ended up being months. I would tell him how much I missed him, using my hands, mouth and body to show him. Hoping that, if I stayed quiet—didn’t voice my displeasure over his missions or bring up any of the topics that he’d dubbed my ‘craziness’—Riley would eventually give up the voluntary missions.

But he didn’t.

Over time, my hope was smothered. I woke up each day knowing that I was one step closer to losing my husband forever, to being a failure as a wife. One day closer to the point that he wouldn’t come home to me at all. It didn’t matter if it was because he was killed in the line of duty on some mission or because he wanted a divorce. Either way, I would know that I had driven him to that point. When my husband left me for good, it would be my fault. I would have nothing but an empty existence before me as a consequence of it. I slid into a depression that eventually led me to my doctor and prescriptions—all of which I hid from my husband.

Then Jr. happened. One condom mishap during a ‘Welcome Home Riley’ session had led us to the revelation of my sweet baby boy. The minute I’d told Riley about the baby, everything had changed. His happiness and excitement about our child had waylaid my fears of him feeling like this had messed up his grand scheme of plans.

The best part? He stayed home. No more voluntary missions, just the ones that were assigned to him. He told me he was determined to be an active father, despite his love for his career. I knew it was wrong to depend on a child to fix my marriage, but it was the first real hope I’d possessed in years.

However, my fears didn’t disappear overnight. We’d been living in an unhappy marriage for at least the last three years. Half our marriage. Apprehensive didn’t even begin to describe how I felt about his change in attitude. Yet, as the months went by and he was still by my side, hope had grown inside me again. Everyone might say that a baby couldn’t fix a relationship, but perhaps we were the exception to the rule.

Now I was happily cuddled with the man I loved, practically purring in contentment as he ran his fingers through my hair. With my hope back and Jr. on the way to give us a new chance, I just knew I could do it right this time. I’d be the perfect wife. The perfect mother. And Riley would never want to spend any time that he didn’t have to away from my side again.

~~~

Riley

I concentrated on the feeling of Kara’s soft breaths as she napped against my chest. She had made it thirty minutes after I re-started the movie before falling asleep. Pregnancy seemed to zap all of her energy. It was amazing she’d been able to stay awake during her classes this last semester.

Lethargy wasn’t the only side effect my wife had experienced. After the morning sickness had passed, she’d finally started to put on some weight. Now she was twenty-five pounds heavier, and I was drooling over the perks of it. Not that Kara had looked skeletal skinny before, but she’d been too close to it in my opinion. Not every woman was meant to be that small. My Kara was one of them.

After meeting her mother for the first time, I’d understood why the beautiful, new girl at school had looked slightly… off. Kara was meant to have curves. And I loved curves on a woman. Although she counted calories like some scary ass, food psycho, she couldn’t get rid of all of her other attributes. Kara still had a healthy C cup bust. Her mother had been blessed with a set of breasts that I’d bet my left nut were DDs. Not that I’d looked at them too long or too closely, but you’d have to be blind not to see them. Fuck, I could barely hug my mother-in-law on her rare visits without worrying that her large breast were going to pop out of her push-up bra and give me a black eye.

The only thing better than my mother-in-law’s breasts were her hips. How many times had I wished that Kara would eat a couple of cheeseburgers to plump out her hips and ass? My wife didn’t have much in the hips department, like her mother did, because she ran all the time. I’d hoped that, over time, she’d calm down and put some weight on, but she never had. By the time I had realized that my girl had some serious issues over this, it was too late. I was already in love with her—burgeoning crazy, health nut obsession, and all.

There were times, over the years, I’d wondered if I should have just walked away. Her unnecessarily strict diet could be annoying when I saw absolutely nothing wrong with the way her mother was built. The way Kara was meant to be built—all tits, hips, and ass. I preferred a woman with soft curves. It was better than feeling nothing except bones when you were fucking them.

But as I kissed the top of her head, running my fingers through her perfectly styled short hair, I couldn’t help remembering the woman underneath all of that mess. The person I kept praying would come back to me.

In high school, she’d been spirited; a tough girl who had refused to take shit from the kids who would pick on her for being born out of wedlock to a Vegas Showgirl, single mother. Kara was proud of her mom; she just didn’t want to be her.

I could still see flashes of that girl I’d admired in high school from time to time. I was hoping that, when the baby got here, she’d be too busy to worry about counting every fucking calorie on her ridiculous mission to be something she wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe the baby would open her eyes; let her see that she didn’t have to strive to be Ms. Perfect. How could she not see that she was fucking perfect exactly the way she was when she let herself just be? I only wanted my girl back.

I loved her no matter what, but there were times when I felt like I was now married to a stranger instead of the Kara I used to know. Grandpa Pat had said all I had to do was keep the faith and stick by my wife, she’d eventually come around. Man, I hoped the old man was right.

My cell phone started to ring from the counter in the kitchen; as a result, I disentangled myself from Kara and laid her gently on the couch. Snatching the phone up before it shut off, I flipped it quickly open when I saw that it was my Commanding Officer on the caller ID. Quietly slipping into our bedroom, I closed the door then answered with, “Sullivan.”

“There’s a situation. Are you available?”

Looking back through the small crack between the bedroom door and its frame, I watched Kara sleeping for a few silent seconds. Things had been good lately. Her pregnancy was going fine, and my CO wouldn’t call to ask my availability for a voluntary mission unless it was dire circumstances and operators were badly needed. I might miss her graduation, and I hated the thought of doing that to her, but I hated the thought of not being by my fellow seals’ sides when they needed me more. Not to mention the possibility that innocent lives might be on the line. Life and death situations trumped happy moments at home. Kara’s graduation would be one small point in time I missed. I could make it up for her down the road somehow, couldn’t I?

Decision made, I turned my back to the bedroom door as I answered, “Affirmative.”

“Report to base at sixteen hundred hours.” Dial tone.

Looking down at my watch, I calculated I had roughly forty minutes to pack my bag and report in. Not much time since the drive alone took fifteen minutes. Guess I’d better get my ass in gear.

~~~

Kara

It was the chill that woke me. Since the last thing I remembered was being cuddled up to my husband’s delicious warmth, the chill I felt now made no sense. Forcing my heavy eyelids open, I turned my head to look at my surroundings, searching for Riley.

Realizing he was nowhere to be found in the living room, I used my arms to push myself up when I heard a sound coming from behind the closed door of our bedroom. What was he doing in there?

The closer I came to our bedroom door, the more my stomach started to twist in knots. For whatever reason, I just knew I wasn’t going to like what was going on behind that door.

Pushing the door open with my hand, my eyes came to rest immediately on my husband’s back as he stood at the foot of our bed, shoving stuff into his bag. My stomach stopped doing somersaults and promptly dropped to somewhere down by my feet. He was leaving?

The fact that the muscles in his back and shoulders were now obviously tense, causing him to stand a little straighter than he’d been before, clued me in that he wasn’t looking forward to whatever it was he thought I was going to say.

Just when I had let myself truly hope that things were getting better, reality had felt the need to slap me in the face with this wake up call.

My shoulders drooped as resignation set in. The only thing I could hope for now was that his team had been activated, and he wasn’t leaving me right before my college graduation voluntarily.

Clasping my hands tightly underneath the swell of my belly, I softly asked, “You get called in, sweetheart?”

His shoulder stiffened as he paused in his motions to stuff something else in his bag. “Something like that.”

He started to move again, faster this time, almost rushing to finish his preparations. That renewed vigor, that motivation of what must be ‘Hurry the hell up before she starts her ridiculous hysterics’ was probably the death of my tenuous faith that my marriage was taking a turn for the better. As if someone had come along and smacked me square in the forehead, everything became crystal clear for me. The state of my marriage had never improved; the problems had just been put on pause.

Riley hadn’t left for a voluntary mission these past few months because there hadn’t been a need for him. There was no doubt in my mind that this was a voluntary mission. His vague answer had confirmed it for me. If his team had been called in, his response would have been a straight forward ‘yes.’ Instead, he’d given me a lie, painted in pretty half-words in the hopes I wouldn’t make a scene before he left.

As my eyes pricked with the threat of tears, I nodded my head in acceptance. I wouldn’t make a scene. In fact, I wouldn’t say a negative word about it. While he was gone, I would sit down and think it all over again. Perhaps there was something I hadn’t thought of yet that would help me reconnect with my husband. Someway, somehow, I would find a way to confirm that the love of my life—the man who owned me heart and soul—still, in fact, loved me.

When feet came into my view on the floor, I looked up into his eyes as he stood just inches from me. He eyed me warily, looking as if he was bracing for an impact of some sort. And it made me wonder, how could someone be so close to you physically, yet still so out of reach emotionally?

Refusing to make a scene, I stayed silent and chose to simply watch him. Run my eyes over him, memorizing his features in case something happened on this mission and I never saw him again.

“I’ll try to make it back by your graduation, but if I miss it, I’m sorry.” His muscles tensed again, as if waiting for a strike of some sort.

I realized I just didn’t have it in me to fight back. At least, not right now. Not when I was dealing with my heart feeling like it was lying in brutalized, little pieces on the floor; more likely next to my stomach that might not regain its regular appetite for days.

Not knowing what else to say, I nodded in understanding.

My lack of response seemed to confound him. Maybe I’d been a bit more of a raging bitch about this issue than I’d thought?

I watched him reach out a tentative hand towards my face as if he wanted to caress it, but he stopped just short of actually touching me, faltering before dropping it back to his side. Turning around, he walked back to the bed, picked up his bag, and then walked over to give me a kiss on the cheek.

“I love you, and I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

Not bothering to wait for a response, he walked past me. Seconds later, I heard the front door close.

Standing in a bedroom as empty as I felt, I whispered back to absolutely no one, “I love you, too.”

Once again, the man who was my everything had left me.

Chapter Two

Kara

The next day…

Finals were over, and I was ninety-nine percent positive I’d passed them. I’d pasted on a fake smile for my friends when leaving our classroom for the last time, wishing it could have been a real one to share with my husband. In just a few days, I’d graduate with my Bachelor’s Degree in Education. I was one step closer to achieving that perfect life I’d dreamed about as a kid.

I had everything I’d always thought I wanted: married to my high school sweetheart, pregnant with our first child, and a college degree. So why wasn’t I happier? Why was I still questioning every move I made these days? Constantly asking myself what I could do to bridge the ever expanding divide between me and my husband?

Shaking my head, I tried to push those negative thoughts away. Everything was fixable.

Right?

Walking away from the college towards my car, I tried to think of the positive things to push away the encroaching dread. All I had to do was keep up with my plan. This morning had brought a ray of renewed hope for my marriage in the form of an idea on how to get through to my husband. I would continue in my efforts to be a good, little seal wife, understanding Riley’s needs to do his perceived duties. My hope was that, when our son was born, he would want to slow down. Later, after little Jr’s arrival, I’d find a way to open the lines of communication between us and ask him to talk to me about whatever was bothering him. If we could talk it all out, work through our problems, everything would be fine.

At least, that was what I seemed to be attempting to convince myself of. I had a baby to consider. I couldn’t simply give up on my son’s father, nor could I turn my back on the first and only man I’d ever loved. I would keep my head up, remember not to go bat-shit crazy on him from the pregnancy hormones that were turning me into a walking, talking, constantly crying basket case, and the two of us would figure this out. We had to.

The gray clouds above my head rumbled with thunder, and that was the only warning I got. Approximately two seconds later, it started raining like it was the freaking monsoon season in China.

Carefully jogging across the wet asphalt, I finally made it to my car and jumped in, completely soaked, my clothes sticking to me like a second skin. Turning on the air to make sure the car didn’t fog up caused me to shiver. As soon as I made it home, I was going to take a nice, long, warm bath. That would be relaxing.

As I headed out of the parking lot, the rain became worse. Driving in conditions like this always made me nervous. I kept the car at a slower pace, ten miles under the speed limit, with my eyes glued to the blacktop in front of me. However, with my nerves shot to hell, the silence in the car started to drive me a little crazy. Because, really, who liked sitting in a quiet car? Therefore, I blindly reached over with my right hand until I found the button that would turn my stereo on, sighing in contentment when music started to play through the speakers. The song ended and the DJ began to speak about some of the community events coming up. A photography contest being held by the local art center was announced; with the grand prize a brand new, top of the line, digital camera that I’d been drooling over for months.

I began to imagine the kind of pictures I could take of the baby with that sweet-ass camera! Maybe I should flip through my portfolio and see if there was anything I could submit. The shots of the dolphins jumping out of the water the day I rode the ferry were pretty good. But as I eyed a familiar sharp curve ahead, I let thoughts of photo contests and pictures drift away.

On a regular sunny day, this curve was a nasty one. It cut sharply to the left and many accidents had occurred because of it. On a day like today, where the rain was pouring down so hard you could barely see five feet in front of your car, it was best to concentrate and be careful.

Slowing my little sedan down even more, braking as gently as possible before the curve, I drifted carefully to the left and started praying I wouldn’t hydroplane. I started to round the worst of the curve when something flashed and caught my attention from the corner of my left eye. My hand started to jerk the wheel away from the oncoming threat, but I found the strength to stop myself. There was a deep embankment to the right, and it was too dangerous to risk. The loud squeal of tires drowned out the song that had just began to play on the radio.

Not understanding what was going on, my breath hitched in my throat, and a second later, the sound of metal crunching and scraping overwhelmed my ears. My shoulder impacted against something, and I screamed as pain radiated over the upper left side of my body. Then I felt something like claws digging into my left side, over my ribs. The world began to spin around me.

Terrified that something would happen to my baby, I turned my body away from my driver’s side door as much as I could and hunched over, using my arms to protectively cover my stomach.

The world kept spinning until there was another devastating impact of some sort against my driver’s side door. More glass shattered. My car finally shuddered to a stop, but the momentum of the sudden cessation threw my body backwards into my door, causing a scream to rip from my throat as the sharp, penetrating claw sensation tore across my mid to lower back. It felt like something was trying to rip me open, and I couldn’t get away.

I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand as a debilitating pain stabbed through my abdomen. I felt my mouth open, and my chest and throat vibrated from the wail I let loose, but I didn’t hear it.

My ears were buzzing, my head felt like it was swimming, and even though I knew my car had stopped moving, the world still felt like it was spinning around me. I tried to suck in some air, but found it impossible to do so. It felt like there was a ten ton elephant sitting on my chest, refusing me the breath I desperately needed.

Another harsh, crippling pain shot through my midsection, and that was the moment some clarity hit me. My baby! Oh, God, my baby! Was he okay? Had something happened in the crash and this pain was telling me he was in trouble?

I tried to call out for help, but I still couldn’t hear anything. Screaming in both pain and aggravation, overwhelmed by the sense of helplessness, I begged for help.

Spots appeared in my line of sight, and the edges of my vision turned black. Please, God, no. Not now! I couldn’t lose consciousness now! I opened my mouth as far as I could and prayed that I was yelling for help as loud as possible. It was hard to know since I still couldn’t hear anything other than the white noise vibrating between my ears. Could anyone hear me?

As the dreaded black spread across what little I could see of the mangled remains of my car around me, I prayed. Begged God. Offered him everything, including myself, if he would save my child from death. Pleaded for someone, anyone, to come along and help me save my precious boy. Nothing was more important than my son.

And as the black took over, I hoped fervently that someone had heard my cries for help. Because, as much as I had thought before that a life without Riley in it would be impossible, I now realized that a life without our child was what was truly unimaginable.