Page 17

God, she’d been rude and he was being nice and perceptive. This really sucked because now she had to be honest when pissed off and sulking would have been so much easier.

Still, she did keep her eyes averted, thumbing moisture off every gauge. “Yes, I’ve considered adoption, but with my health problems I’m a poor candidate. Then there’s my travel schedule. When it comes to motherhood, I believe my time has passed.”

She didn’t appreciate the way the old hurt came up to bite her now, harder than ever, when she’d successfully stuffed down the heart-shredding regret countless times before. Maybe Rick’s daughter had gotten under her skin deeper than she’d realized if this young woman she’d never even met had the power to elicit so much heartache from the past.

His hand skimmed up to her shoulder, a steady weight, squeezing gently. Firmly.

Unexpected tears blurred the horizon. “I think I could use a platitude now.”

“I don’t have one to offer,” he said, even as his eyes glinted with a hint of sympathy she couldn’t miss. “We’ve both seen how unfair life can be, but I swear to you I’m going to see this stalker thing through. I won’t let you down.”

This flight, the sky, the sympathy in his eyes—and yes, making love—had definitely left her feeling more vulnerable than she’d expected. She’d never let her emotions gain control during flight before, a dangerous habit. Rick had a power over her no one, not even her ex, had exerted before.

This whole surprise gift had backfired on her, because now more than anything, she needed breathing space.

Steering the SUV along the dark back roads to Nola’s house, Rick had to acknowledge he’d learned something unexpectedly valuable on that flight.

Nola had a way of tearing down defenses.

Once he’d woken up from surgery after the Hurricane Katrina accident, he’d planned to put his Air Force days behind him. He’d done a pretty decent job of that—until Nola strutted into the rehab center with her chocolate chip cookies and killer legs.

Now, forgetting was damn near impossible while sleeping with a hot lady pilot, not to mention living in her house with all the military gear and photography scattered throughout her cluttered home. Then she’d up and thrown his past into his face with that flight.

He could still smell the open blue sky even in the murky night. Yeah, that sounded nebulous and all woo-woo. But the clouds and open air up there filled him with a familiarity he’d missed more than he’d been willing to admit.

Would flying in a little civilian prop plane every now and again be enough for him? Or would it be like dribbling bourbon on an alcoholic’s tongue? Could he turn his old life into a hobby or did he need to cut ties with everything Air Force—including Nola?

All moot points at the moment because first he had to call his daughter. As conflicted as he felt about Nola, the woman had dropped some heavy-duty guilt on his doorstep in regard to his parenting. He’d been so sure the kiddo should live with her mother.

He was such a mess himself. How could he deal with a typical teenager whose moods swung around with about as much regularity as a hurricane? The stakes were so damned high.

Rick dialed the number and waited for the pickup. Moonlight streamed through the towering trees arching over the road on one side, marshy shore on the other. God, this deserted area left too many places for someone to hide.

“Levy’s house. This is Joel,” a child’s voice answered. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Yes, could I speak to Lauren DeMassi, please? This is her father.”

He scanned the nearly deserted road, the entrance to the nearby tiny subdivision, the ex-cop Malcolm Cuvier’s house blazing with lights but no cars. Seemed he was alone for the holidays in spite of his assertion he had family flying from the West Coast. Something to file away.

Rick pulled his attention back to the phone conversation.

“Sorry, you’ve got the wrong number, mister. This isn’t Lauren’s house.”

Wrong number? Dread and a dawning realization gripped his stomach as he neared Nola’s home. “My daughter goes to school with Becca Levy. They’re spending Thanksgiving together.”

“Right. Becca’s here, but Lauren didn’t come home with her.”

Sweat popped along his forehead. This dawning nightmare-come-true sucked for a parent.

“Hey, Joel, could you get your mother or father to come to the telephone, please?” He pressed the earpiece more securely in place while the cell phone rested in his lap. He reassured himself Becca’s parents would have answers. The kid Joel was just confused. Could Lindsay and Lauren have gotten their wires so horribly crossed?

Waiting for the kid to track down a responsible adult to clear up this mess ASAP, Rick turned the steering wheel, maneuvering the car off the road and onto Nola’s tree-bowered driveway. His mind rolled through a hundred possible—positive—scenarios.

Just as many horrendous possibilities played out in his imagination, as well. Damn it, why didn’t that kid Joel hurry up?

Headlights swept the driveway, the sleeping lawn, the house. His instincts jolted to life because this time he did see someone waiting. Parked on Nola’s front doorstep sat a teenager with a backpack stuffed full and a familiar face.

Lauren DeMassi stared back with a defiance betrayed by her trembling chin.

Chapter 11

Rick’s daughter? Here?

Stomach as shaky as her newly rocked world, Nola watched the father and daughter ready to greet each other. Lauren resembled her dad so strongly, Nola recognized the family connection even if Rick hadn’t cursed and explained the second they’d pulled up in the driveway.

Nola and Rick exchanged a look with a world of meaning. Lauren was in grave danger being here with Nola’s stalker on her tail.

Rick didn’t grab for his crutches. Nola wanted to chastise him for being reckless with his health but knew she needed to butt out of this father-daughter moment. No easy feat when she longed to tell him not to come down too tough on Lauren, who looked as though she was trying very hard to play it cool while she bit the side of her lip in obvious worry.

Teeth set, Rick made his way slowly across the walk toward the willowy brunette dressed in shorts that had probably been right for wherever she’d come from, but that gave her goose bumps in the South Carolina autumn night. Although something seemed off in her greeting. The patient way Lauren watched her father make his way across the patchy lawn… Ohmigod, Lauren showed no surprise at her father’s pained progress. What was going on?

“Lauren.” Rick held out his arms and Nola wondered if he noticed his daughter’s calm reception when he had devastating injuries he’d kept from her.

“Dad.” She shrugged off her backpack and hugged him back, but with little enthusiasm for a kid who’d made her way this far.

Nola watched the two and wanted to knock some sense into both their heads. She’d known things were strained, but she’d had no idea how much. Their awkward hug just about broke her heart.

She realized Rick cared about his daughter. Anyone could hear the concern in his voice. And the yearning for affection was obvious in the teenager’s face as she embraced her father—when he couldn’t see her.

Then they pulled apart and the blasé expression was back on the girl’s face again.

He stepped back and it was all Nola could do not to shove them both inside so the man could rest the legs he pushed too hard every day. “Your mother’s going to have a coronary.”

She shrugged again.

“You’ll need to do better than that. Why aren’t you with your friend? And where have you been for the rest of the week while you were supposed to be there?”

“I’ve been following you around.”

“What?” His so-quiet response spoke louder than any lion’s roar.

Nola hung back, waiting by the SUV, delaying by searching in her purse—nothing actually—to give the father and daughter a moment’s privacy.

Lauren finally fidgeted. Heck, Nola found herself fidgeting, too. She knew how tense Rick had been about his daughter. This news had to be rough.

“Gawd, Dad, it had been so long since we’d seen each other. You’d never been gone a year without at least coming home for a week. Never. So I called your squadron commander and pretended to be Mom. I found out what happened.” Lauren’s eyes outlined with mascara filled with tears. “You’re a real jackass for not telling me, ya know?”

Ouch. Looked as if Rick had raised his daughter to be just as plainspoken as him. That could work in their favor if Lauren was strong enough to wrestle the relationship from her father that she wanted. Or, it could mean there would be a lot of hurt feelings before the two of them were done with each other.

Either way, Nola couldn’t wait to duck inside the house and take refuge from this battle of wills.

“I understand that you’re frustrated, but you can’t talk to me that way, kiddo,” he said with just the right amount of parental censure before looping his arm around her shoulder. “Honestly, I didn’t want to worry you.”

“That’s bull.” She stared him down, defiant. No question where this kid got her strength. “Anyhow, I decided if you wouldn’t see me, I would see you. So I left New Hampshire and went to Texas. I even got a job as a waitress for a few days where I thought I could watch you. That gave me enough money to follow you here when you left after I’d only been in town a couple of days.”

Fear sloshed over Nola like a tidal wave as she imagined all the things that could have happened to this child during the week she’d spent on the road alone. No matter how steely Rick appeared, she could see the fears seething under the surface for him. A protectiveness she couldn’t squash drew her nearer to the pair.

“Enough.” He cut the air with his hand. “I understand you think you’re being all grown-up, but you’re damn lucky you’re not dead. I love you, kid, but there’s going to be some serious grounding over this stunt. Did you ever consider there might be some things going on that you know nothing about?”

She furrowed her brow. “Like what?”

“Nola.” He gestured for her to close the rest of the gap between them. “Lauren, I would like for you to meet my…friend, Nola.”

Friend? Nola turned the word around in her head. She could live with that description. Heaven knows she didn’t expect him to announce to his daughter that they were lovers. As a matter of fact, she didn’t know what they were. Friendship almost involved more intimacy and that knotted her stomach all over again at a time she really needed to get her head in the moment.

She was meeting Rick’s child. This was important. Big-time.

She extended her hand. “Hi, Lauren. I’m Nola Seabrook. Your dad and I met a long time ago when we were both TDY in Texas.”

The teen offered her hand but her eyes offered no welcome. “Yeah. I saw you in Texas this week, too. You’re the cookie lady.”

Sheesh, the kid didn’t have to make the cookies sound so…lame. How did teenagers manage to reduce competent adults that way?

“Lauren,” Rick said in that low parental tone of his again.

Nola shook her head and smiled. “It’s fine.” She shook the teen’s hand. “Nice to meet you and I would be glad to make you some of those cookies while you’re here. You’re very welcome in my home. I know you’ll want to talk to your dad, so I’m going to head inside and make up a bed for you.”

Nola made tracks toward the front door, Rick’s conversation with his daughter drifting on the marshy breeze.

“Lauren, you should have called. I’m here helping Nola because she’s got a stalker threatening her life. Now my attention will be cut in half watching over the two of you.”