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The returning salesperson popped that fantasy faster than any cork.

“Um, Captain Seabrook, I’m afraid there’s a problem with your loan application.”

Back home, Nola stared at her computer screen with disbelief.

Still, there was no denying what she saw. Her bank account was empty. Her savings account—also zilch. Her credit cards all canceled.

What the hell was going on?

Her fingers hovering over the keyboard, her hands shook as she studied the mess of her financial life.

She spun in the office chair to face Rick in the extra chair beside her. “Any other ideas I might have overlooked?”

He scrubbed a hand over his five o’clock shadow. “You’re a computer whiz lady. Appears to me like you’ve covered every angle here. This guy must be damn good. Still, there’s always a path. I’m sure the bank will be able to straighten this out fairly quickly. There are safeguards out there against identity theft.”

“And there are nightmare stories about people who never recover from the financial damage.” Her throat started to close up as her mind traveled the path of all the bills she had to meet and couldn’t…

“Nola, breathe. Think.” His hand rubbed along her back. “This could also be a way to track the person who’s been tormenting you.”

She sagged back into the wheeled office chair. This totally sucked. “You’re right. I just feel so…”


“Pissed off!” She kicked back from the desk, in need of distance. It would be too easy to move closer to him again and continue to take that comfort.

“Atta girl.”

And somehow that distance made things worse because she wanted to move closer. This stalker creep had her really on edge. “And yeah, violated, too.”

“You have every right.”

“My life is so screwed up. This has gotten to the point where they’re going to take me off flying status until things are settled. I just know it because what normal person could think straight right now?”

“Quit focusing on what you can’t do and let’s think about what we can. We can notify the police right away to file a complaint to add to your case. And after Thanksgiving, having the Air Force’s OSI—” Office of Special Investigation “—check into things could be a valuable extra civilians don’t have.”

“I realize that.” She hated feeling so under a microscope again. She needed to think about something else—anything else. “Did you get settled in with everything rehab wise here?”

“I only have to go twice a week now. No big deal. The rest is on my own. My disability pay meets the bills, but once we nab this guy of yours, I’m gonna have to start thinking about something to do so I don’t go stir-crazy.”

She started to ask him what might interest him, but all the memories from her divorce came slamming back down on her. She’d fallen so short of the mark in being supportive for a man she’d claimed to love. How could she be sure she would say the right thing here and now?

And with those kind of thoughts kicking around in her head, the last thing she needed was to dive back in for a repeat of that kiss, no matter how much her body screamed, “Go for it!”

She would stand a better chance at success untangling her messed-up finances.

Rick popped the DVD into Nola’s player and hoped the movie would help her think about something tonight other than the ill-fated car shopping spree. Since tomorrow was Thanksgiving, nothing could be done until banks reopened on Friday. And probably nothing would be solved until the following week.

At least they had gotten the report filed with the police to add in with her other information about the stalker.

He wished he could do better for her than supply the turkey and entertainment, but at least he had an ATM card and a full bank account. There hadn’t been many movies left at the video store by the time he’d talked her into abandoning the computer and making some Thanksgiving plans. So they’d opted for old mysteries.

Rick commandeered the remote and hit Play, grabbing hold of the chair as he made his way slowly back to the froufy-poofy sofa to sit beside her. “We’ve got to do something about the size of your TV.”

“What’s wrong with the size of my television?”

“You need a magnifying glass to see the screen.”

“Excuse me,” she sniffed, “but twenty-seven inches is plenty respectable. I assume you’re one of those wide-screen plasma guys.”

He grunted a respectable ugh.

“Now thump your chest. Come on. Give it a good thump along with that grunt.”

Rick pitched a handful of popcorn in his mouth and fought back the urge to, to…what? Kiss her again? No. More than that he wanted to charge out of here and set things right for her. Instead, he was stuck watching freaking movies and eating chestnut stuffing for the next thirty-six or so hours. But then, keeping her calm had to count for something.

Damn. He was now her babysitter.

She had to hate that as much as he’d hated having sitters. Must be the holiday making him so morbid. And the phone call he had to make.

He looked forward to talking to his daughter…and he didn’t. He would have to lie. That was never fun.

Not much longer, he promised himself.

“Quarter for ’em.” Nola’s voice cut through.

“What?” he asked.

“Quarter for your thoughts. I figured a penny would only buy me a grunt, what with the way prices have gone up and such. So I hedged my bets with a twenty-five cent request.”

He couldn’t think of a reason not to tell her. “I have a daughter.”

Her pretty blue eyes blinked fast. She seemed surprised. “Oh, I imagine I should have guessed… There’s no reason I shouldn’t have… Um, oh. Anyhow. How old is she?”


“Do you have a picture?”

He pulled his wallet from his back jeans pocket and flipped it open to one of Lauren a year ago. Poor kid looked like him. He thought she was perfect and knew she would grow into a stunning woman, but his ex had let him know all about Lauren’s self-image struggles—which always translated into requests for more money for a beauty treatment or clothes to make Lauren feel better about herself.

He thought backing off and letting the kid be a kid would make her feel better. But what did he know?

“You’re going to have to beat the boys off with a stick,” Nola proclaimed and won a piece of his heart for seeing his kid the way he did.

How interesting that Nola could see what Lauren’s own mother couldn’t. “Not as effective as I used to be with the intimidation factor, but yeah, I think I can keep my daughter safe.”

Or he intended to be able to soon. Focus, dude. Focus.

She passed his wallet back. “You must have been young when you had her.”

“Lindsay and I got married right out of high school.” He tucked the folded leather into his back jeans pocket and tried not to think about the fact that he’d added a condom to his wallet again this past week.

“You worked through college?”

“Both of us did. It wasn’t easy.” Not by a long shot. But they’d had a lot in common then, same background and family friends. He still didn’t understand what had gone wrong, other than too much time apart. And if he couldn’t understand, then how could he try again? Damn. “We knew the odds were against us from the start. Then the TDYs piled on and Lindsay met someone else. I’d seen it happen so many times to my pals and still I was surprised.”

“And hurt.”

Only a robot wouldn’t be hurt when a marriage fell apart and as much as he tried to keep his feelings in check, he was far from robotic.

“I’m sorry if I overstepped there. I’ve been in the divorce war trenches… Well, I’m sorry.”

“No need. We stopped loving each other a long time ago.”

She peered down into the bowl as if searching for answers under the pile of popcorn. Finally, she spoke again. “So tell me more about your daughter.”

He was embarrassed to admit how little he knew about Lauren. He vowed to make things better… except he’d been vowing that for a long time. Another example of how he sucked at relationships.

Nola looked up from the bowl. “Is that sacred territory, too?”

“We don’t get to see each other all that often.”

Her pretty arched brows rose.

“You disapprove.” And who did she think she was to pass judgment?

“It’s not for me to say. I don’t know your life. I’m not a parent.”

Damn straight. Except she was right.

“But you obviously have an opinion.”

“I’m of the opinion that you are hogging the bowl of popcorn. Pass it over or pay the fine.”

“The fine?” Thank God they’d left the other discussion behind.

“You’ll be doing the dishes for the rest of the week.”

“I’m recovering from serious injuries.”

“You seem totally able-bodied to me.”

He snitched the bowl from her lap. “Tyrant.”

“Popcorn hog.”

He scooped kernels up and brought two to her lips. Slowly, she opened and let him feed her. Holy crap. He recognized an invitation when he saw one.

While she chewed, he kept his fingers against her lips, his eyes locked on hers. Less than a week and they were already getting this close. There was no question that they were headed for n**ed pretty soon. If not tonight, then sometime in the very near future.

He wasn’t sure about the wariness in her eyes. Because of the stalker maybe? Hell, he would just have to dig deep for sensitivity and ask. Maybe he would kiss her first and knock down a few more walls and years between them.

As soon as he formed the thought, a ringing jarred him out of the sensual haze.

Her phone?

No. His cell. Rick blinked fast twice. He reached into his pocket for his cell phone. He glanced at the faceplate…Lauren.

“I’m sorry, Nola.” He shuffled the bowl of popcorn to the coffee table. “I really have to take this call.”

“It’s okay. Please, go ahead.” She hit Pause on the remote and grabbed the bowl on her way off the sofa and toward the kitchen. “I’ll make more popcorn.”

Fear. He saw flat-out fear in the woman’s eyes as she backed away from him. He’d been in combat with enough people to recognize the emotion when confronted with it.

What had happened to her during the past five years? And why was she so frightened of him, a man she’d known all of a few days?

A few very intense days and sexual nights.

He could only deal with one crisis at a time, starting with the one in his hand. “Yeah, hello, Lauren. Happy Thanksgiving, kiddo.”

Chapter 7

Lauren? Who was Lauren?

Wait. Nola stomped down the initial flash of jealousy she had no business feeling after knowing this man only a few days and thought through the snippets of conversation she couldn’t help but overhear. She forced her feet to keep on carrying her across the living room, through the dining area toward the kitchen.

He had called Lauren “kiddo.” This must be the daughter he mentioned.

Emotions tangled in Nola’s stomach like two silver dog tag chains clenched too tightly in a fist. Her feet slowing, she willed her stomach to settle and worked to untwine the emotions so she could understand her feelings.

She’d learned the benefit of exploring the causes behind emotions during the darkest months of battle with her disease. Sometimes the process of digging for root causes only unearthed stark fears she couldn’t help. But other times, she’d excavated more tangible concerns that she could combat on a concrete level.

Struggling to recapture the tactic, she realized that relief emerged first, an obvious reaction. Rick wasn’t speaking to another woman. She didn’t have a claim or right to feel that way, but emotions weren’t logical. So there.