Page 5

Now he couldn’t do more than write checks.


His thumb hovered over the On button…then he pitched the phone on the bed. He would have to speak to Lauren eventually. Now just wasn’t the best time, right after he almost had his butt blown up by a car bomb…

Then agreed to move in with a woman he’d slept with five years ago. Talk about another sort of bomb in his life.

The phone jangled again.

He stared as if he could will it to silence, prepared to wait it out again…but his hand stretched out with a mind of its own and clasped the receiver. Hell, he couldn’t ignore her call anymore than he could ignore her baby cry at 2:00 a.m. no matter how many times his ex vowed their kid would never learn to sleep through the night that way.

He thumbed the On button. “Hello, Lauren.”

“Hey, Dad.” Her familiar voice greeted him through the airwaves along with the sounds of some fast-food joint. She always enjoyed hanging out with friends over a burger after school. “How come you didn’t answer before?”

“Sorry, kiddo, I didn’t have my phone with me.” His head thumped back against the wall as he lied to his child. Guilt sucked.

“You always have your phone with you. I mean, God, like whenever I see you your cell phone is like an extension of your arm.”

“Like father, like daughter.” He swung his legs up on the bed. Might as well get comfortable. She was chatty like her mother, but damn, he’d missed Lauren’s voice so much he wanted to take in every second of this conversation.

“Dad, I’m not that bad.”

“Kiddo, I pay your cell phone bill. I’ve seen the number of text messages.”

She giggled over the airwaves at their ritual pseudo-bickering. “I’ll try to cut back on the LOL responses.”

“Don’t sweat it. I’m just ragging you.” He held the phone and wished he could give her more than a few flipping extra text messages. “It’s good to hear your voice. But why aren’t you using the home phone?”

“I’m at a friend’s house for the Thanksgiving week. I wish I could see you, though.”

Damn. More of that guilt.

He stared out the window at Nola breaking away from the cops in the parking lot near the greasy spoon across the street. She would be back inside before he knew it. His time with Lauren was short.

“Soon, kiddo.

“Sure. It’s just…”

He hated hearing the disappointment in her voice. He loved his kid, but better to make sure she had lower expectations than to let her down. “The job makes it tough for me to get away sometimes, you know that.”

“Yeah, yeah, you have important things to do.” Her laugh thinned. “You would tell me about them, but then you would have to kill me.”

How could he know her laugh thinned? Maybe it was just some weird sentimentality on his part because the cell phone connection was so clear she could have been right here in the room with him as they made more small talk. He asked her about school. Thanksgiving break. Things that didn’t mean anything, but he should have already known about.

“Was there anything else you needed, kiddo? Because if not, can we talk later? I have to cut this short.” Nola would be back any second now.

“Sure, Dad. Whatever.”

He couldn’t miss the forced cheer in her voice and wanted to kick himself—not that he could do that much damage with even the better of his bum legs. “I will call later.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“Goodbye, Lauren, I l—”

She disconnected before he could even finish saying he loved her.

Nola hesitated in Rick’s door, hating to pull him out of his reverie as he stared at his closed cell phone cradled in his hand. You’d never know he was injured the way he sprawled on his bed like any other guy lounging at the end of a long day of work. He’d changed into fresh sweatpants and a T-shirt stretching over muscles.

His hand still clutching the cell phone.

Who was Lauren? Not that it should matter to her. Logic told her if he had a serious girlfriend, he would be moving in with that woman rather than Nola.

One weekend five years ago gave her no right to feel jealous.

So why was she standing here with the cookies he’d forgotten in her hand feeling the need to close the door on that part of her life? Had she asked him to move in with her because she had some maniac blowing up things in her life?

Maybe the whole move-in thing had been some spontaneous goof-up that he already regretted now that the Lauren person had called.

Nola rapped her knuckles on the door, drawing his attention away from the phone and to her. “Did you mean it when you said you were going to move in with me?”

“I never make promises I can’t keep.” His thumb moved back and forth over the small silver phone.

“Never?” She inched into the room, unable to help noticing how stark it looked for a place he must have lived in for months. Whenever she’d spent even a week in the hospital, she’d brought pictures and a water fountain from home along with her helmet to serve as motivation to recover her health and her life. “It must be tough carrying around that much perfection.”

He crossed his feet at the ankles, lounging in bed, a look she remembered as well as the errant twinkle sparking to life in his eyes. “When you have a mouth this big, you have to be right.”

Laughter bubbled from her in a surprising burst.

She smiled along with him. How could she not? And what a time to realize she hadn’t smiled this much in… She couldn’t recall how long. “That ego must be mighty heavy to tote around, too.”

“You’ve spent enough time in the military to know it’s important to be able to make decisions quickly in the field. Once committed to the plan of action, see it through.”

Except she wondered if he could still be in the military with the injury to his legs. That would have to chew at him. Attitude was so important to recovery. She wondered if she would have even made it without the hope of regaining her place in the cockpit again.

Imagining his pain stole the smile from her face. She set the cookies on his bedside table. What a pitiful offering to someone who’d lost so much.

He popped the lid off and pulled one out, waving for her to have a seat in the leather recliner beside the industrial hospital roller table. “Have you had any more thoughts on who would want to blow you up beyond that mystery stranger?”

She sat, because then he would have an excuse to stay right where he was, all comfy on his bed, not because she wanted to stick around longer. Hah. Liar. “I lead a pretty benign life. The only people who want to blow me up are enemies overseas and it’s not a personal thing, ya know?”

“Sure.” He couldn’t stop from asking, “You’re absolutely certain your ex-husband’s not the stalker type?”

“The last thing my ex wants is to lay eyes on me again. Peter’s happily married with a pretty new wife living in Georgia. And yes, that stung for three frozen margaritas, a hangover and a week beyond that before I decided to move on.” She took a deep breath. “He has two baby girls and another kid on the way.”

“That bites.”

She jolted. She hadn’t expected sympathy. “Yeah. Far worse than losing the scumbag.”

“My mom still seems to think I want updates on my ex’s dating life.”

“God save us from helpful relatives.” Was that plural ex wives? Or just one? She was tempted to ask but that would put them on a more intimate footing before moving in together.

Not wise.

He toasted her with a cookie, chewing down two before he spoke again. “Who knew you were here?”

She bristled. “Are you insinuating I didn’t tell the police everything?”

“God, you’re a prickly thing. I was just wondering if you held back. Sometimes there are things we think sound silly or unimportant.”

Her stiff spine eased. “You’re trying to help and I should be grateful. This whole thing just has me wound tight. I’m used to worrying on the job, but damn it, I treasured the safe haven of home to recharge between missions and now this stalker has encroached on that.”

“Burnout bites, too, doesn’t it?”

Burnout? He had his wires crossed there, but she wasn’t going to argue with the man. Better to change the subject. “I’m going to say this one last time. The second I asked you to move in, I regretted it. These are my problems and I won’t be able to live with myself if something happens to you because of me.”

“Well, like I said before, seems as if we’re stuck with each other. So if you don’t mind a stubborn, bum leg bodyguard, I’m ready to sign on for the job. God knows I’d like to get out of this place and the last thing I want is one of the prison warden nurses watching over me 24-7.”

“So you think I’m a pushover?”

“Hmm. I guess I don’t really know you, do I?”

She swallowed hard against the memory of the things they did know about each other, intimate things that heated the air like the lotion he’d rubbed all over her body the second day they’d made love because one night hadn’t been near enough. Leaving him had been more than difficult. She’d wanted more, so much more, but time had run out for her.

Now here they were again. What was he saying? She needed to keep sharp around him or her mind would muddle up and she would do something impulsive like ask him to move in with her.

“I may not know you, but I have decent instincts, and I believe you’ll be fair. Plus, you have a day job that will give me some breathing room.”

“Breathing room is important to you.”

She seemed to give him claustrophobia, because his gaze finally broke with hers, away, out the window to the sky he no longer sailed through, only him and his parachute. She imagined the clouds called to him. That she could well understand because the sky called to her as a pilot. She couldn’t imagine having her wings clipped.

Finally, he looked back. “Breathing room is critical. Call it my cave time.”

“A man who admits to Cro-Magnon traits?” She stuck a finger in her ear and twisted. “I can’t have heard right.”

“What can I say? My ex made sure I understood myself well.”

There he went mentioning the ex again. How recent was the divorce? Did it have anything to do with his injuries? He hadn’t been wearing a ring five years ago. Okay, she was thinking way too much about his personal life. “This whole moving in together sounds good, but…”

“You’re having second thoughts about my coming to Charleston with you.”

“I have some kind of maniac trying to blow me up and the last thing I want is to put somebody else in danger. Damn it. I should have thought this through.”

“I’ve already told you, lady, you can’t shake me loose now. If you won’t let me in your house, I’ll be sleeping in a tent in your yard, and believe me, the cold air and humidity will play hell on the rods in my legs.”

In spite of his humor, he was set on a path as steely as the metal in his legs. She could tell he wasn’t going to back off. She would just have to hope and pray the police protection around her house would be enough to keep them both safe.

Rick had helped her before, and while it had only taken a couple of days, she couldn’t walk away from him while he was in need even if it took longer to help him through his recovery.

As much as she chafed at the idea of playing to the he-man syndrome, she also walked in that world daily. She understood how much more it must chafe at him to have the props kicked out from under him.

Men didn’t seem to get the fact their strength came from so much more than catapulting out of airplanes.

All a moot point. Apparently he’d decided his redemption lay in protecting her. And he did need her, too. She owed him for that weekend five years ago. She might not have made it through without the confidence he gave her. So much of her survival depended on the mental.