Stop. She wasn’t going there today. Except how could she not?
Ah hell, this was gonna be a long night with more than likely a few tears. She was human and closing this book was hard.
Rick grabbed for his crutches at the end of the bars and nodded for the sergeant to pick up the cookies. “I’ll walk with you to the door.”
She started to tell him no need to bother but then thought of that prickly male ego and opted to keep her yap closed. Let him do what he pleased. She stayed silent while he worked his way to his feet, shuffling to reach for crutches in what must have been a painful maneuver, yet he never even winced.
He nodded toward the hallway and began thumping his way down the hall alongside her. The awkward silence grew heavier with each step down the hall closer to the door. The crisp November air outside along with the bright sun did nothing to lighten the moment.
“Thanks for the cookies.”
He cocked his head to the side, quizzical. Not rude enough to glance back at the rehab clinic, but she could sense his itchiness for her to leave.
What had she expected? A resurrection of the relationship? The attraction was still there, but Rick’s walls were high. More of that pride. He undoubtedly just wanted to get her in her car and return to his room without falling on his face. The longer she waited, the harder she made things for him.
She needed to quit being selfish. “I know it seems strange, my showing up like this out of the blue. I probably should have called first.”
She’d most definitely been selfish, because she’d feared if she’d called first he might have rejected the notion of her coming. God, she didn’t like what that said about her. Asserting her needs above the needs or wants of others.
He stared at her for a whole cycle on the red light before shaking his head. “I gave up trying to understand women a long time ago. You did a nice thing coming here today for whatever reason. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”
She could see the strain of standing so long etched on his face, the color seeping away. Yet somehow that took nothing away from his strength, instead only adding to it because of the sheer will it must take to keep his feet under him. She understood well the grit it took to haul yourself through that kind of pain.
Whoa. Hold on. This was getting way too deep.
She backed toward her SUV, fishing in her purse for her keys so she could thumb the remote starter and warm the car. Texas in November wasn’t as cold as some of the Northern climates where she’d been stationed, but there was a definite chill in the air. Besides, she always started her car first to get the temperature right.
The weather matched her mood. This hadn’t gone at all as she’d expected. She should be happy. Instead she felt chilled.
Nola smiled her farewell to a man she knew she would never forget.
“Goodbye, Rick.” Her fingers closed around the keys. She thumbed the remote starter—
And the world blasted into a fireball of heat as her car exploded.
Blast still ringing in his ears, Rick dropped his crutches and flung his body on top of Nola’s. Thank heaven his professional instincts hadn’t abandoned him in the rubble of Hurricane Katrina or that flying shard of fender would have caught Nola square on the temple.
He’d lived through his fair share of explosions overseas, but he’d never expected to face one on American soil. What the hell had just happened with Nola’s car?
The crackle of flames echoed in his ears, the stench of burning fuel stinging his nose. He stayed on top of Nola while he scanned the parking lot.
No sign of anyone suspicious. Just people with concerned and shocked faces pouring from around the medical park, others running or flattened to the concrete watching. A couple of persons had cell phones in hand, dialing. Good. Cops should be on the way soon.
“Nola?” he asked against her ear, working like hell not to think about how much better her hair smelled after months in a hospital. “Are you all right?”
“I’m okay. Squished, but okay,” she gasped. “What about you?”
“Fine,” he lied, his left knee already aching like a sonuvabitch.
Nola elbowed him gently in the gut. “Rick? Let me up, please.”
“Right.” He rolled to the side while still keeping an arm hooked around her waist to anchor her to the ground so she wouldn’t do something reckless like spring to her feet. She might be a trained combat vet, but he didn’t have any time in the field with her to know anything about her skills. “Sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize. Good God, you saved my butt from flying debris.” She kept her position, breaths steady as she grappled for her keys a few inches away. “I’m not some prickly ingrate. I just got a little smooshed. You’re a big fella.”
Not so much as he used to be, but hey, he hated the self-pity gig. No use dwelling on that. Since there didn’t seem to be any further immediate threat, time to haul his sorry hide the rest of the way up.
He shifted. His knee hollered back at him.
How was he going to get to his feet and keep her safely at his side until the cops arrived? He searched around him for options to brace himself… If he rolled right, he could grab a bench for leverage, pull himself up and sit. From there, he could retrieve a crutch and stand.
Easy. In theory.
Nola reached for her purse from under a park bench and jammed her keys inside. “Do you need help?”
Like hell. “No. I’ve got it.”
“Prideful guy, aren’t you?”
“When I fall on my ass you can help me.” He reached for the bench and kept his eyes open for surprise threats in spite of the seeming calm after the storm. Screw worrying about himself. Her safety had to be his first priority. “Until then, I’ve got it. How about that?”
“Fair enough, big guy.”
Deep breath. Thirteen teeth-gritting seconds later—yeah, he counted every one to keep his mind on something other than the grinding pain—he was on his feet again scanning the perimeter. And he damn well waved away the attendant coming toward him with a wheelchair. The smart young goon knew to back off and help somebody else who’d apparently twisted an ankle in the mayhem.
Meanwhile, Rick kept the lone crutch jammed under his arm, enough to hold his balance since the majority of the damage was to his left leg. In some portion of his brain, he heard the rustle behind him of Nola pushing to her feet, too. Good. That meant he truly hadn’t hurt her when he’d shoved her to the concrete.
Keeping the crutch tucked securely, he grabbed her wrist and urged her to the safety of the portico of the rehab center, into the anonymity of a cluster of nurses and orderlies in purple scrubs. That should serve as a decent safety net of anonymity for now in case someone was gunning for her and waiting around. Watching.
He continued to scan. Adrenaline surged. Damn, he’d forgotten the rush that compelled his body beyond normal endurance, but he welcomed it now.
Still, what kind of guardian did he make? Well, at least he was one more barrier between her and whoever was trying to blow her up. He had his brain and instincts.
And that brain and those instincts were telling him whatever threat there was to her had passed for the moment.
Her voice stalled him.
“What happened to your back?”
Hell. Now that she mentioned it… His back did sting almost as much as his knee.
Her hands skimmed over his shoulder blades. “Something hit you. It looks like you’ll need stitches.”
The glide of her touch almost made him forget the pain.
“Am I going to bleed to death until I get to the doc?”
She moved to his side, the loose blond curls of her bangs brushing along the top ridges of her furrowed brow. “I don’t think so.”
“Then it can wait.” He exhaled long and slow, his fingers itching to thread through that cap of whispery curls all around her face and pull her to his chest where nobody could hurt her. Except his chest wasn’t as invincible as he’d once thought. “Any chance your car was a rental?”
She shook her head, curls dancing. “I wish, but no. That was my car. My totally brand-new, just-off-the-lot SUV I’d bought because of my to-do list.”
To-do list? Whatever. Irrelevant really. And along the lines of irrelevant thoughts, he could have sworn her hair was straight before. But then women changed their hair. His ex-wife kept her hair permed on a regular basis. God, his mind was racing a million miles a minute.
“Damn. Sorry about the car being new.” He scratched his neck and resisted the urge to reach over to his throbbing back. “That sucks for you.”
Sirens whined in the background. The cops undoubtedly, a fire truck, too. With some luck they would have an easy answer, not to mention protection.
“Let’s just hope there’s some mobster who has a car that looks just like yours, who was supposed to be here today visiting his old infirm relative.”
Her nervous laugh didn’t reassure him in the least. She had a fatalistic look to her that said she accepted she was the target.
More of that adrenaline pumped, reminding him of missions past, the calling that had urged him to join the Air Force. Everything he’d been and done scrolled through his mind, nudging him, whispering at him to reclaim it all. He heard the cops’ siren drone closer and yet he couldn’t force himself to relinquish his post guarding her. There was no shaking the inevitable.
Uniformed or not, he was back on duty.
Apparently she had a new watchdog after all.
Rick hadn’t left her side except when the cops insisted on a solo interview. They’d acted as if they suspected him of being a stalker boyfriend or something worse.
His growl hadn’t done much to further his innocence.
She rolled her eyes. Men. She stopped by their uncomfy sofa—or at least that’s what she’d started to think of it as from their earlier chitchat in the rehab room. Given that most of the physical therapists had headed off for supper, the place was for the most part deserted except for the occasional health-care professional bustling by, past and away.
She was on her own to get her head together before she said goodbye to Rick once and for all, a more emotional event than she’d expected, what with them almost getting blown up. He could have so easily been injured worse if he’d been standing closer to her car. She could have died if she hadn’t bothered to warm up her car with the remote starter.
Her knees folded and she flopped to sit on the couch, her black leather boots thudding on the tile floor.
“Are you okay?” He joined her, the cops having stopped keeping them apart.
“I was just thinking how lucky we both are. What if I’d waited to start the car from inside and you’d been standing beside? God. We both could have died.” She swallowed hard.
“Two warriors taken down by a car bomb.” He shook his head. “Quite an ignominious end.”
“No kidding. Is your back okay?”
He shrugged his shoulders, only wincing a hint as the Air Force PT T-shirt tugged at the blood on his back. “Doc put butterfly bandages on while you were interviewed by the cops.”
“I’m so glad you weren’t hurt worse because of me.” She hated to think about causing him more pain.
“You’re certain this was meant for you?”
She might as well be up-front with him. She was surprised he hadn’t found out during the interview with the police.
Nola slid her purse from her shoulder, unzipped the leather bag and withdrew a manila envelope. She plopped the envelope onto his lap.
“Go ahead and open it.”
Without answering, he pried apart the metal prongs and poured out a dozen or so sheaves of paper, all black-and-white copies of notes comprised of words clipped from magazines.