Rick took a step, not bothering to grab for a tree to hide the limp. He just let it show, the reality of his injuries, and walked to his daughter. He also looked into her eyes with the new way of seeing that he’d learned from Nola and saw…
The same hero worship he’d found when he’d swept her up at five years old. It had been there all along.
He held open his arms.
Lauren ran into them without hesitation and sobbed against his chest. “I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m so sorry.”
“I know, kiddo, I know.”
“I didn’t mean to make things worse here, I just wanted to see you, I just…” She babbled on and on and he let her, stroking her hair the way he had when she was little and scraped her knee.
The instincts to parent were there. He’d just been too scared to listen because messing this up came with stakes higher than any out in the field.
Finally, her tears slowed, but he sensed the need to talk more. Inspiration struck. “How about we step over here.”
He gestured to the tire swing. Her eyebrows knit together, but she shuffled over to sit. Rick planted a hand between her shoulder blades and gave a gentle shove to launch her just as he’d done hundreds of times when she’d been a toddler.
“I’ve been thinking, kiddo.”
She swished back, her face wary. “And?”
“Good thoughts. No worries.” He gave the swing another nudge, higher. He remembered she enjoyed higher, like him. The rope creaked on the branch. “How about you come see me for Christmas break? Two full weeks of no pressure, no stalkers and we see how it goes. If everything works out, we can talk to your mother about your staying with me for a semester.”
She swung back toward him. Her feet dragging to slow the momentum. “Do you mean it? Really?”
He grabbed the rope to bring the swing to a complete stop. “I may not have always been there for you, but I kept my promises when I made them.”
She rested her head on the rope and grinned. “Cool.”
A resounding endorsement from a teen. He didn’t delude himself that it would be all smooth sailing, but he was learning. Lauren was trying.
He was scared as hell—and so damn excited to have more time with his child.
She leaped from the swing and gave him a quick, almost bashful kiss on his cheek so quickly he nearly missed it.
Lauren bolted across the yard and up the steps and into the house. Rick dropped into the swing, the tire laying flat, tied in three places.
Damn. This parenting gig was more exhausting than battling a South American drug lord.
And the strangest thing of all, he wanted to share this moment with Nola. He needed to hear her feedback on what he’d said to his daughter. How amazing that the woman could have become such an integral part of his life in such a short time.
Still he could hear the words they’d exchanged in the heat of battle.
I love you.
He’d meant it.
Then there she was, framed in her doorway with her hair damp, curls clinging to her face in swirls. Lord, she did things to jeans with those long legs of hers that should be illegal out in public.
“Wanna hitch a ride, lady?” He patted his lap.
“That ride looks far better than that bullet thing you lured me into trying.”
Grinning, she hobbled across the porch, one foot bandaged from the sting and in a flip-flop. She limped across the sparse lawn, her foot apparently still throbbing from the scorpion sting. Residual anger stirred in him that wouldn’t go away anytime soon, probably not until the trial ended with Chavez locked up for life. But Rick refused to let it spoil his plans for tonight.
She settled across his lap, looping her arms around his neck. Her head fell to rest on his shoulders. “Hmm… Yes, this ride I like. How bizarre to feel so content and exhausted at the same time.”
“I hear you.” He rested his chin on her head, the sweet smell of flowery shampoo teasing his nose. He scuffed his boot against the dusty ground and set the swing into motion.
“You were something, the way you brought him down in the water.” She wrapped her arms around his waist.
“I figured the water was my best bet at leveling the playing field.”
“I know. I saw that in your eyes.”
He’d thought they communicated there in that moment, but he hadn’t been sure. Now he knew she felt the same connection. They had something special and he intended to hold it fast.
She hugged his waist tighter and pressed a kiss to his neck, snuggling closer. They stayed linked like that for…he wasn’t sure how long but the familiarity felt so good he went with it until the moment seemed right to continue.
“I like your place here.”
“You do?” She smiled against his neck. “Are you angling to take up a permanent residence?”
He’d already asked her to tie the knot in the adrenaline surge after knocking out Chavez, but he understood this practical woman needed details. Grounding. And maybe because she was a warrior, too, she understood the primal desire to stake a claim on life after a battle with death. Maybe she didn’t know if she could trust his off-the-cuff proposal.
She would find out soon enough.
“I’m not much for being a kept man. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking out here tonight. It’s amazing how fast plans can come together when you think you might lose everything that counts.”
His arms convulsed around her, though he tried not to hold her too tightly. It was tough when his brain kept replaying the horror of seeing a gun pressed to her head, to his daughter’s head. His whole world had almost been blown away tonight.
He forced himself to relax and continue. He wouldn’t let this second chance slip away. “I’ve got a plan for my future. Or at least the start of one. I’m in a unique position. With my disability pay, I don’t need to make big bucks. I can pick any profession. I want to train volunteer search-and-rescue teams out of that small airport where we flew on Thanksgiving. I’ll even be able to do some jumps on occasion once my body finishes healing.”
“Where does that leave us with moving in together?”
Her fingers traced over his heart, shaking ever so slightly. He clasped her hand and brought it to his mouth for a kiss, linking their fingers before continuing.
“I would have to contribute something to the equation. I spent so much time on the road, I never spent much on myself. I’ve got some money saved up.” He gestured out to the water’s edge. “Maybe I could put in a dock there.” Then over to the large stretch of patchy lawn where grass never seemed to grow well. “Perhaps a pool here.”
“Lauren would like that,” she said with unmistakable nudging.
“Yeah, she would.” And here things got complicated. “What would you think if she came to live here for a trial semester?”
“I would think that would be great for her.”
“What about for you?” He wanted her to be a part of his life and still she hadn’t mentioned his impromptu proposal when he’d hauled himself out of the water.
“That girl has a way of working her way into a person’s heart very quickly.” Nola eased back to look up into his face with what he hoped was love in her eyes. “Very much like her father.”
Time to take a leap bigger than any he’d ever attempted, and he’d managed some mighty death-defying jumps in his time. “I meant what I said there at the end. That wasn’t adrenaline talking.”
Her gaze skated out to the murky waters. “It surely made for a memorable proposal.”
He mentally thumped himself as he realized perhaps he should have given this more thought. “Would you like something more romantic?”
She shook her head, her damp curls beginning to dry and rustling around her face. “We haven’t done anything conventionally from the start.”
“You’ve got me there, lady.” He’d read her eyes so well in bringing down Chavez and Rick thought he could read her now, still he wanted to hear the words. “You still haven’t answered.”
Then it hit him. He still hadn’t given her much of a real proposal, either. Just the under-pressure “I love you” they’d shared in passing.
He stopped the swing. Stared into her eyes. He needed to make this count. “All of these plans, they feel right, being a part of a group, something big again. But without you, I wouldn’t have been able to wrap my brain around the possibility. God, Nola, you’ve given me so much. I just hope I can give you as much in return, because without you none of it means anything.”
He cupped her face. “Nola, I love you. I wish there were fancier words, but I’m a plainspoken man. I’m also a man you can count on. I don’t quit. My love for you is forever.”
He laughed. “I’ve made you speechless. That’s quite a feat.”
She pressed her hands to his chest and kissed him on the mouth, “I love you,” on the cheeks, “I love you,” on the eyes and the forehead, “I love you!”
“And thank goodness you weren’t speechless for long.”
“I guess this means we are officially and fully engaged?”
“Absolutely. We had milk shakes for Thanksgiving.” He took her hand in his, linking their fingers and holding on tight. For a lifetime. “I was thinking perhaps we could shop for a diamond for Christmas.”
“Sounds like a plan to me, my love. Definitely sounds like a plan.”