Something she could give him now.
“All right, roomie. How fast can we spring you from this joint?”
Through the café window, he watched the smoldering remains of her car in the lot, firefighters waiting, their foam caking and crackling like an over-baked meringue. Cops were long gone, having already finished their note taking and investigation.
They never even saw him from his perch in the nearby greasy spoon where he inhaled the scent of frying hamburgers and humanity.
If he wanted Nola Seabrook dead now, she would be six feet under. But he liked the hunt.
She always used her remote starter for her car, so he’d known she would thumb the button rather than turn the key. The look of shock, the fear on her face when her car exploded had been well worth the risk of planting the device in open daylight. Of course the thrill, the rush, that’s what this was all about.
Recapturing what he’d lost.
She would die—eventually. He had his timetable, but it would be his. He was in control of his life again. He didn’t need his youthful body. He’d learned to dominate with his mind, his brain. Working his way onto the military hospital parking lot had been a rush.
His street-smart wits combined with his warrior-honed skills made him indomitable.
The fun was in the cat-and-mouse game. She owed him for the humiliation she’d caused. She wouldn’t get away from him this time.
He started to leave, but reconsidered. He needed to eat after all. What better way to savor this victory than with a meal while he regrouped for the next stage of his battle plan?
Apparently he wasn’t the only one watching the rehabilitation center with such interest long past what the burning vehicle warranted. A teenage girl stared at the medical building—the windows, not the SUV. She clutched her cellular phone in her hand, her too-tight jeans slung low on her h*ps with too many holes in them to be accidental. Why did these youths want to appear poor? He’d been poverty-stricken and it was not fun or trendy.
She pocketed her cellular phone and sidled up to the linoleum counter. “I’d like an application for a waitress job.”
The woman behind the cash register shook her head. “We’re not looking for any more after-school help.”
The girl shoved her hands in her back pockets. “Please, I work really hard and it says right there you need help.”
“Don’t want no troublemaking teenagers.” The woman—Jo Nell, her tag read—folded her arms underneath her well-harnessed breasts.
“I won’t cause trouble. Besides, it doesn’t look to me like you can be picky.” The girl’s eyes stayed strong, defiant, but her voice had just a hint of desperation. “How about I work for a trial hour, with no pay? Then you can decide. Looks to me like you’ve got your hands full with all these gawkers trolling in from that car explosion…”
The man working the griddle leaned into the pass-through window. “Jo Nell, quit your yacking and give the girl a chance. She’s right. Orders are coming faster than you’re filling them.” He pitched a pad and pencil her way before snatching up a spatula again. “Number seven coming up!”
The teenager snatched an apron and hooked it over her neck. “Thanks a million. You won’t regret it. I’ve got hardworking genes.”
Tennis shoes squeaking, she wound her way across the room with a single-minded determination that made him grin with memories he had not allowed himself in months.
Pencil poised over her paper she stopped by his table. “Have you decided yet what you’ll have?”
“I most definitely have.” He folded the menu closed. “What is your name, chica?”
“Lauren, and hopefully that’ll be on my own name tag at the end of the next hour so I can work here near my dad’s hospital.”
Once he finished placing his order, he smiled at the innocent child, thinking of his own family he’d lost because of Nola. “Good luck, little Lauren. And be careful in this big city. I would hate for bad luck to visit anyone as lovely as you.”
Eyes gritty from lack of sleep, Nola turned the rental car into her dusty driveway and wondered what Rick would think of her little waterside bungalow on a barrier island outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The headlights sweeping the yard showed nothing disturbed. Her alarm system wasn’t blaring. Her nearest neighbor, ex-cop Malcolm Cuvier, had kept the lawn in order and watched out for intruders.
All seemed right in her home at least.
Moonbeams reached across the reedy water to illuminate her yellow clapboard house. One story, two bedrooms, with a long living-kitchen area that overlooked a porch along the bay. Not much space, but then how many square feet did a woman need who never planned to marry or have children?
Car idling, she stretched in the leather seat, only to find Rick…
Of course he was still recovering and this had to have been a long day for him, even for a fellow who appeared as vital as he did. They both knew he was around for show more than any actual protection he could provide. That had to grate on him. She remembered well her own frustration with how long it took to get back up to speed with simple tasks like cooking a meal without needing a nap—which then meant reheating the darn meal if the whole thing wasn’t ruined by the time she woke up.
Rubbing the back of her neck, she threaded her fingers through her hair and shook it loose, relaxing in her seat and staring at her home through “Rick eyes.” What had once seemed a lovely hide-away now appeared dangerously isolated. A few lonely crickets chirped, even this late in November, hearty stock hanging around until Thanksgiving week, but nothing else, no one else, her nearest neighbor a mile away through thick trees filled with Spanish moss.
She would be spending the holiday with a man she barely knew, even given the day spent in the car making small talk. Now she knew what fast food he liked—a Big Mac. And what kind of music he enjoyed—retro rock. Still, in her house out here in the middle of nowhere with no family, no love, she felt…vulnerable.
Nola didn’t like that feeling much. The cancer nightmare had been rife with helplessness and while she’d tried her best to hold strong, nobody could make it through something like that without moments—hell, to be honest, much longer than moments—of gut-wrenching tears and fears.
This stalker thing brought those feelings back to the fore at a time when she should have been able to put the whole experience behind her. The bastard trying to scare her may not have harmed her, but he had stolen the beautiful sanctuary of her home.
She’d bought the waterside cottage as a gift to herself once she’d begun to trust remission and wasn’t trucking it to the doctor every three minutes for some treatment or another. Solitude became a treasured rarity during that first year, her body out there for every doctor, nurse, aide and student to poke, prod and study.
The pain, the total loss of privacy, the tubes, everything had been beyond imagining. Nothing could have prepared her, and heaven knows she’d read and researched every last detail.
Whoa. Back up. Dump that in the past. She didn’t want to go there ever again, especially now. Wasn’t seeing Rick again about moving ahead? She could help him even if she couldn’t help herself.
“So,” Rick’s deep voice growled from beside her, “are we gonna sleep in the car or head inside?”
Nola would have jerked clean out of her skin if it weren’t for years of military training. She turned the key off and pulled it from the ignition. “I thought you were already asleep.”
“Nope. Just watching you through my eyelashes.” He straightened with a stretch and yawn, his bulging arms and body filling the confines of the vehicle, a bulk better suited to a larger SUV. “People give away more when they think people aren’t looking.”
“What did you expect to find out about me from staring?” She hated the whole lab item under a microscope feel. “Sheesh, Rick, you could just ask.”
She didn’t like this at all. What had she given away about herself to this apparently too perceptive man?
He opened the door and hauled himself out by holding on to the door frame, the moon casting shadows down the hard angles of his face. She couldn’t help but notice more hollows than before.
Sympathy tweaked, chasing away her own insecurities. “Can I help y—?”
“No.” Balancing with seeming ease, he opened the back door and pulled out his crutches, his shoulders blocking the moon and any further chance of reading his expression.
She opened her door and swung her legs out onto the dusty driveway. “Just because someone offers help, you don’t have to be rude.”
“Sorry.” He made his way around the hood. “You’re gonna have to overlook my grumpiness sometimes. Habit born from frustration.”
“Oh, I’m sorr—”
“Don’t apologize.” He held up a hand. “That makes the frustration worse. I appreciate that you’re a nice sympathetic babe.”
“Babe?” She snorted. “Are you trying to get me to kick that crutch out from under your arm?”
He grinned and pointed toward her with said crutch, balancing on the other. “Now that’s more like it.”
Sighing, she waved for him to follow her and charged toward the garage apartment entrance on the side of her cottage. Why hadn’t she taken more time to get to know this guy five years ago? Oh yeah, she’d only wanted him to bang her brains out.
“This is it.” Her fingers fisted around the keys. A memory of her car exploding swelled in her mind, closing her throat.
Rick rested a hand on her shoulder. “Flashbacks suck.”
“Pretty much.” She clenched the keys tighter. “Nothing to do but deal with it.”
She didn’t question how he knew and understood what she was thinking. They had that career experience in common. The trauma of the car explosion may have happened in the civilian world, but it bore a stark resemblance to the type of event that could have taken place on an Iraqi roadside. They’d all been wound tight to be on the lookout for such things for years now.
Nola fit the key in the garage apartment lock. The door swung wide to a one-room studio. She’d used it for friends to visit—more privacy that way. God, she really was a mess these days, but yeah, she had some personal space issues left to deal with.
“You can move things around if you want.”
“I’d like to buy some weights tomorrow, so I can work out.” He thumped past, proficient with the crutches. “If you don’t mind, I’ll move the dining table to the side and put mats there.”
“Sounds fine to me. You’ve still got the bar and stools for meals.”
He grunted. “Sofa and TV are fine for mealtime.”
Sounded pretty much like her mealtime. How logical it would be to eat together. How logical…enticing…habit forming.
Dangerously addictive. “Do you need help settling in or would you prefer some peace and quiet?”
“I really can manage.” He propped his crutches against the wall and walked slowly around the apartment, not running any races, but making his way by unobtrusively holding on to furniture or walls. “They held me back by babying me at that place.”
Of course he could manage. Right up until the point where his legs gave out under him. She would have to figure out pride-saving ways to offer help.
Or just quit asking.
Nola walked outside, popped the trunk, yanked his suitcase and hauled it inside before he could argue. She pitched it on the sectional sofa. The bed in the corner would have been optimal, but she figured it was better to ditch the thing fast.
“Okey doke. You’re all set.” She pivoted on her heel and was out the door lickety-split, before he could get all uptight and macho again.