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And then? The next silver chain… Far more intricate.

He had a child with his ex-wife. Nola pressed a hand to her stomach, less clenched but totally churning. She’d come to peace—at least somewhat—with the fact that she wouldn’t have children. Her insides had been so fried from the radiation. She could have had eggs frozen and stored…she’d considered it, and finally been too emotional to make any more decisions.

She’d been certain she wouldn’t marry again. Even facing life had been more than she could envision and if—a big if, that scared her to even consider—if she lived, a career was all she could consider.

So here she stood, with her career rock solid and a hot man in her house, a man who attracted her big-time. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to make a move for something she obviously wanted.

Sheesh. She’d faced combat in Iraq. Even been taken prisoner by an arms dealer during a mission gone rogue in South America. Still, here she was running from a man she’d already had wild monkey sex with, just because he might give her a warm wonderful kiss tasting of butter and blessed promise.

“Lauren?” His voice drifted from the other room. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”

Nola hooked her shaking fingers in her back pockets. The kid deal definitely freaked her out. He was a father. That put him in a new light, one that scared her. Why, she didn’t know since she didn’t want long-term.

Good golly, what a mess she made.

He cupped his hand over the phone. “Nola, could we put our conversation on hold for a few? It’s my daughter, Lauren.”

Uh-oh. She hadn’t realized she still stood in the kitchen doorway and he must want privacy. She’d thought she’d left. Yipes. This guy robbed her of awareness of her surroundings, a spooky thought for an independent woman who prided herself on her self-control.

From the sofa, Rick stared at Nola in the doorway and wondered who she’d thought he was speaking to. He didn’t have time to think that one through at the moment. His daughter’s tone set off alarms in his head.

Either way, Nola was hotfooting it into the kitchen as if she couldn’t get away from him fast enough and Lauren was waiting on the other end of the line.

Rick slid his hand from the phone. “Hey, kiddo.”


“Yeah, Lauren? Everything okay?” he asked again, totally unsettled by the quiver in her voice.

“Sure, why do you ask?”

“You don’t sound so good, kiddo.”

“I’m just wondering where you are.”

How strange that she would ask. She never asked, trained from the cradle to know that her military father often couldn’t say where he’d gone. He hadn’t even told his ex about his medical retirement from the service, only that he’d been injured, not how seriously.

“I’m in Charleston, South Carolina.” There couldn’t be any harm in telling her that much.

She would assume he was TDY to the base there, perhaps on his way out to another assignment. He would explain more soon.

“Oh, well, I’d like to write to you, if you don’t mind. Could I have an address?”

“We have e-mail.”

“Sure, but I’ve got some things from school and all I want to share. Please, Daddy?”

There couldn’t be any harm in giving her a snail mail address. It seemed petty to hold back. He’d given his kid so little. “Sure, kiddo. I’m staying with a friend. But I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”

“At least for a week, though, right?”

“At least a week, and I’ll leave a forwarding address.”

Where would he go after that? His mind actually wandered down paths of what-if he hung around here. Lauren would enjoy coming to Charleston. Teens were lured by beaches, right?

Had it been over a year since he’d seen her? What a crummy excuse for a father. He’d gone that long before because of deployments and he’d worked his ass off to make it up to her when he’d returned.

He would do the same soon when he was steadily on his two feet again and had an equally steady vision for his future. She deserved a real father.

There had to be a reason she called. Holidays? He didn’t think so since he always did come through with the holiday calls. “Is there a particular reason for this conversation? Is something wrong?”

Her deep breath rattled through the airwaves, building until the words seemed to roll free from her. “Daddy, Mom’s getting married again to this total dweeb. I can’t stand living with them anymore. It’s going to make me freaking insane if I have to listen to him call Mom ‘sugar pie’ one more time. Please, I want to come live with you.”

Sugar pie? Lindsay had obviously found the tenderness she’d always claimed Rick lacked. He was glad for her. That part of the conversation didn’t bother him—beyond reminding him what crap material he was in the relationship department.

He needed to focus on the important fact here. Lauren wanted to live with him. Now.

And just that fast, the few props he’d managed to rebuild cracked in two. He heard her request and all the pain in Lauren’s voice as loud and clear as when she’d fallen off her bike at seven.

Sure he wanted to be the kind of parent his kid could count on to tend to those wounds life inflicted on a regular basis. But he knew straight up, he wasn’t anywhere near ready to be the father his daughter needed.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Nola whispered softly, guessing Rick was awake, too, but keeping her voice low in case she was wrong.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Rick answered, a large shadow in the moonlit double bed across the garage apartment. He sprawled on his back, hands under his head, chest stretching his brown military T-shirt.

“Everything okay with you?” Nola asked from the sofa bed. She tucked her Laura Ashley comforter up under her chin. She might be on a pullout sofa bed, but that didn’t mean she had to leave her froufrou behind, the pampering that made her feel sensually a woman.

“Yeah. Fine.” The deep timbre of his voice rumbled across the room and over her heightened senses deprived of full sight.

“Finished all your prayers?” Prodding him to keep talking might be reckless. She should cocoon herself in her covers and fake sleep until reality took over. A wise woman would. But her usual wisdom rarely came into play around this fellow.

“‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ and the whole bit.”

More of that rumbly voice of his wrapped around her with more comfort than any luxury spread. She missed those late-night exchanges in the dark and couldn’t resist continuing the conversation. “Did you used to say that with your daughter?”

“When I was around, which wasn’t often.”

“So make up for it now. You’ve got time on your hands and a full disability paycheck to cover expenses.”

She sat up and hugged her knees. And yes, she couldn’t deny how much more wonderful it would be to have his arms around her instead. So why was she risking putting more space between them by venturing into the dangerous terrain of giving him parenting advice when she knew it could put them at odds? But his strained relationship with his daughter seemed too important to tiptoe around.

His feet flexed and stretched rhythmically under the covers.

Why, she wondered for a moment, then realized his legs must be bothering him. He must have pushed himself pumping those weights in the dining area. He pushed himself with everything. She’d noticed all the little repairs around her house…the door that didn’t squeak anymore. The faucet no longer dripping. A nail on the stairs that didn’t protrude.

Every time she took a shower or did anything out of his sight, she found something else fixed in her home. The man never rested and apparently his healing body was paying the price.

He hitched another pillow under his head. “You’re full of advice.”

“Unwelcome advice by the sound of your voice.” Her chin fell to rest on her knees.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”

No wonder he flexed his feet—to stretch out his calf muscles. He couldn’t sleep because of the pain racked up from helping her. She’d meant to help him by freeing him from the rehab center he’d so obviously resented.

Guilt prickled over her. Maybe he’d been better off there with the more assertive care. She’d been so caught up in her car hunting and then her financial mortification—not to mention the whole stalker creepiness—she’d selfishly forgotten that Rick needed to take care of himself. “Are you feeling okay?”

He shrugged. “Pushed a little hard. No big deal. I’ll be fine in the morning.”

She flexed her own healthy toes under and thought of all the times she’d come home from the hospital after radiation, sick as a dog with no one to hold her after she emptied her stomach. “I’m being a bad babysitter then, if you’ve pushed yourself too hard. I really didn’t mean for you to do so much for me.”

“I’m an adult. I know my limits. You’re not responsible for me.”

No, she wasn’t, and he wasn’t responsible for her. They were two loners here together, both of them damaged and wounded, alone to heal, alone for the holidays, for some reason unable to resist taking care of each other now.

Unable to resist each other. Period.

Maybe it was the holiday sentimentality. Maybe it was logic or the memories of how amazingly they’d come together before with such compelling combustion. Regardless, time to quit fighting the inevitable.

She flung aside her comforter and swung her feet to the floor. “I’m supposed to be taking the place of your nurse. That’s why they let you out of the place, because you were in my care.”

Conscious of her pajamas, even if they were simply running shorts and a T-shirt with no bra, she made her way across the room and sat gingerly on the edge of his bed.

Rick went still. Overly so. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

His words carried a wealth of meaning beyond the simple massage of aching muscles. By sitting on the bed with him, she knew she would be crossing a line.

She rested her hands on the bedspread over his feet, committing herself to the cause by pushing the boundary a little more. Even with covers between him and her, still the jolt of awareness made her shivery all over. “I want to massage your legs for you, if you’ll let me. I want to be here.”

In bed with him.

Rick went completely immobile under her touch. He reached out to halt her hand in place so she touched him through the covers, but couldn’t venture further. “I like what you’re doing a helluva lot, Nola, but we both know it would be wiser for me to climb into a Jacuzzi tub instead.”

Wiser? Who cared about wisdom when it was guts she’d been lacking lately? She needed to take a chance. Gamble with life—her heart—the way that fully healthy people did.

“I have one in the main house if you would prefer.” Still she didn’t move away.

Neither did he, fingers gentle and warm on her skin. “I want to know what you prefer and I guess I need to hear why. No pity.”

She took that as consent to continue. Talk about serious tummy flutter. Time to make the move and climb in bed with a man again after five years.

“I can assure you that pity has nothing to do with what I’m feeling right now.” She sat on the edge, convenient, since her legs weren’t all that steady. Just a few inches of shared mattress, but so damn intimate it thickened the blood in her veins.

He released his hold on her hand and trailed a broad fingertip up her arm. Before she knew it, her hands were moving, too. Covers still shielded him from her touch. Not that it mattered. Her hands still tingled from the heat of want. Nola squeezed, gently at first, watching his face for signs of pain, seeing none, then working with firmer pressure.