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She slid her hands under the covers to his legs, finding bare skin. Warm flesh that sent prickles of awareness through her fingertips. Traveling higher, she met ridges of scar tissue that in no way detracted from the moment, only made him more human. More of a man, honed in the fiery trials of life. “I do understand your situation better than you can imagine.”

Now she realized the time had come for her to tell him about her injuries…her scars, external and deeper. For so long she hadn’t told people because it seemed none of their business, but perhaps she’d used that as an excuse to dodge thinking about what she’d been through.

It seemed the most natural thing in the world to say to Rick, “Before we go any further—and I believe we both know this is going further—there’s something you need to know.”

He eased back to look in her eyes. “Sheesh, lady, you sound so serious.”

She tried to offer him a smile. And failed.

“There’s no easy way to say it, so here goes.” She finally told him what she hadn’t told another man in bed. “I’m a breast cancer survivor.”

Chapter 8

Of all the things Rick had been expecting to hear from Nola, “breast cancer survivor” wouldn’t have even appeared on the list.

He had figured from her serious expression she wanted to share something big, but holy crap… Right now, he sure could use some of those psychologically sensitive and appropriate catch phrases. Because it was really important he say the right thing to this woman who’d said more right things to him than anyone in his life.

Rick rested a hand on her arm, keeping the touch simple, not certain if she wanted a full-out hug, deciding it was best to wait on that one rather than risk pushing too hard. “That’s quite a conversational jump, but thank you for trusting me.”

She kept massaging his legs and watching him through narrowed wary eyes. “Is that some kind of counseling talk from your rehab days?”

He offered her his best charming smile and hoped like hell his best was good enough. “I’m trying my ass off for the right reply here, lady.”

“How about quit trying and just say what you’re thinking.” She slid her hands from beneath the covers and folded them in her lap. “I really hate it when people treat me with antiseptic correctness. I’ve had more than a bellyful of that.”

“Now that, I can identify with. So what am I thinking?” He sat upright and took her hands in his. “I’m thinking you’re an even stronger and more amazing lady than I knew.”

She met his eyes dead on with a bravado that seemed a hint forced. “I’m also a lady who doesn’t look the same without her clothes as the last time you saw me.”

Okay, now he saw where this was leading a bit more clearly, and it also explained the mystery about differences in her figure. “You had a mastectomy.”

“Yes, a mastectomy, along with reconstruction, but I’m not the same.”

“Neither of us is.” And that was the God’s honest truth.

She avoided his eyes, her gaze skipping around and finally landing somewhere around the door—away from him. “That weekend we met, it was my last time before…”

Holy crap. No wonder she was eyeing the door. This was a heavy-duty admission that probably had her yearning to run. Or at least considering the possibility. The weight of what she’d shared settled over him heavier than any of these overstuffed comforters she seemed to prefer.

He’d been the last man she’d made love with before her mastectomy.

Along with the weight of that responsibility came an understanding of why she’d left so abruptly with no word five years ago. She could have told him and he would have tried to be understanding, but they hadn’t built any kind of relationship that would have called for him to stand by her side throughout. Yet he would have felt… Obligated? Yeah, definitely drawn at least to see her through the surgery and she would have hated that.

She’d used him…and he couldn’t blame her a bit.

He scavenged deep for something sensitive to say. “I’m honored that you chose me to be with that weekend.”

She stared at him, her body a sexy shadow in the moonlit room. She tugged her hands free and he wondered what her verdict would be on his attempt at sensitivity. Finally, she scooched to sit cross-legged, taking his feet into her lap and resuming her massage.

He exhaled. He must have passed her test. She may or may not be ready for sex, but she wasn’t running for the door.

He let her fingers soothe him, but his mind still hopped with thoughts about how this new information fit into the relationship they’d settled into, a relationship on the verge of changing.

Was he ready to sleep with her? Hell, yeah. But should he be having sexual thoughts when a woman just admitted something so darkly personal?

Still, she looked so right in his bed with her tousled blond curls, her long legs stretching from those shorts, legs he could already imagine wrapped around his waist.

And her whispery thin T-shirt. Yeah, he could imagine tugging that off, the trust that would come with that and them pressing skin to skin, scars and all, because, heaven knew, he brought his fair share to the party.

So yes, he wanted to sleep with her, but would take his cue from her and respect whatever she wanted. Most of all, he would pray like crazy that if she did want to sleep with him he could handle things with a sensitivity his ex-wife swore he didn’t possess.

No thoughts of the past. Focus on the present. The new people he and Nola had become. And the new Nola was giving his legs the most amazing and healing massage.

How did she know exactly the right pressure to exert? He leaned back on his hands and watched her. Those hospital techs could take lessons from her.

She slid her soft fingers higher to his knee, firm, sure. Sensual. “Well, don’t get your ego too inflated by my choice. It actually had more to do with the push-ups than your looks. In my crazy messed-up mind, I wanted somebody mega healthy, as if that would make me healthier.”

Was it her way of saying he was out of the running now? His ego pinched at that. Which pissed him off and made him want to push his legs to the limit, pump some weights, turn her head.

Then turn her down.

Whoa. Hold on. He needed to get his ego the hell out of this. He took a mental step back and looked more objectively into her eyes and yeah, he saw it, the deep defensiveness. A protective wall already erected to guard herself against possible rejection.

With an intuitiveness he never would have had five years ago, he knew. That ex-husband of hers had done one helluva number on her. And with a further insight, Rick suspected she hadn’t been with anyone since. The thought seemed improbable. Five years without sex…

Rick stared into her eyes. He’d gotten better about that, trying to sense emotions rather than just the physical. He couldn’t dodge the notion that he would be her first since the surgery…which hell…meant… “Is this your first time since we were together?”

She simply nodded.

Wow. Talk about pressure to perform.

Hold on. This was about her. Suddenly he didn’t worry so much about his own legs and what she might think about his differences between then and now. It wasn’t about then for either of them. They were both different people, physically and emotionally.

He figured the best course of action now was to stay silent and let her talk rather than risk saying something wrong. Besides, her massage felt damn good after so long without a woman’s touch.

“Even after the doctor told me the results of the biopsy I still couldn’t believe it was true. You know? There’s this surreal feel to things, like you’re stuck in a tunnel and if you hold your breath and blink you’ll be back in the sunlight again.”

He understood well the need to be back in the light, the sky, the feeling of freedom he’d only ever found in his job. A fulfillment in bringing someone home.

Where would he ever find that now? At thirty-six years old, he faced the rest of his life with nothing matching up. A darkness so deep, he didn’t know how to claw his way out.

“I just focused on getting home so I could curl up against my husband. He would put his arms around me. And yeah, I would hold my breath and blink my eyes. Then things would be okay again.”

He couldn’t hold back any longer. He couldn’t change the past—and he couldn’t beat up the bastard who’d hurt her all those years ago—but Rick could offer her comfort now, even if it came years too late. He scooped her up from the foot of the bed and draped her over his lap, tucking her head under his chin. “You wouldn’t happen to have the address of your ex-husband handy so I could deliver an ass kicking?”

She laughed, just a little and a bit tight, but a welcome sound. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. But for the most part I’m over that. My ex wasn’t a totally crass ass. He did hug me, but I could feel his distance. He wasn’t okay with this. The first round of treatments, they removed the tumor and did radiation. To his credit, he stuck it out through that before filing for divorce. But when the cancer came back and the docs insisted on a mastectomy, I was a single woman on my own.”

She shook her head, her tousled hair calling to his fingers as strongly as the tears he wished he could have wiped away for her then. He indulged himself and smoothed her hair, held her closer, dropped a kiss on top of her forehead.

Nola wrapped her arms around his waist. “Well, not totally on my own, because you were there TDY on a weekend that meant more to me than months of fake forced support from my ex-husband.”

She glanced up. Met his gaze. Held. “Thank you.”

He’d been thanked countless times by people he’d rescued in the field. Thanked in other languages. Even had a couple of kids named after him. Only now did he realize how he’d taken those two words for granted. Somehow he’d grown numb to the impact, the power, the emotional weight of those two simple words, only to have them slam into his chest now when he didn’t deserve them.

“You can’t give me credit for that.” He’d been an arrogant cuss enjoying a weekend with a gorgeous woman. “I didn’t even know.”

Her hands smoothed over his face in sensual strokes. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve learned that character is so deeply ingrained in a person…it’s just something you sense or you don’t.” She cocked her head to the side and winked. “You’ve got it in spades, buddy.”

He wished he had her faith in him, because he wanted to be the man she envisioned. This woman saw needs where he hadn’t ever realized they existed. Too easily he could get used to being around her. Too easily he could take advantage. What did he have to offer her?

He could be there now for what her fool of a husband hadn’t been there for five years ago. All right, so he would forge ahead. “Do you want to tell me more? I’ve spent a fair amount of time under the knife so there’s not much that can surprise me.”

A long breath shuddered through her so hard it gusted over him. “I think I do, uh, want to tell you, if you don’t mind. But I need you to stay where you are, okay?”

Rick tucked her head against his chest, under his chin and held her tight. “Can do.”

Her arms slid around his waist and held so tight it damn near broke his heart. “I had stage two cancer. It hadn’t moved to the lymph nodes, which was a blessing, but the tumor was so large and aggressive I needed both radiation and chemotherapy.”

Nola plucked at one of the curls teasing around her ear. “The curls are new. They came when my hair grew back.”

The thought of her going through all of that alone was more than he could take. He smoothed a hand over those new curls of hers and wished he could have cupped her head when she’d lost her straighter hair and told her she was beautiful then, too.