“Nola,” he called from beside her, sprawled in an iron lawn chair just outside the door.
She spun around, startled to see him sitting there.
“Uh, sure.” She stared back, the moon streaking star sparks against his jet-black hair and eyes. “No problem.”
“Nola, come here.”
Nerves pattered. She tamped them down, tossed her shoulders back and inched closer.
“Yeah?” she asked, stopping toe-to-toe in front of him.
“I figure if there’s anyone looking at your new watchdog, we’d better clear up that whole me sleeping in the garage thing and why you carried my luggage. Just to be safe, we want them to believe I have a vested interest in keeping you safe.”
Hmm. She hadn’t thought about that. She backed away a step from the intensity in his opaque eyes.
Her feet shot out from under her—thanks to slick dew in the mulchy leaves. She’d been so busy worrying about him she hadn’t thought about herself falling flat on her own butt on top of him.
Then he folded her into his lap, his arms going around her in unmistakable possessiveness. His face hovered just over hers, his mouth so close. She remembered. Oh yes, she remembered the confidence of his kiss. The way he seemed to know right from the start exactly what she wanted.
He listened to her needs.
His thumb resting on the curve of her breast twitched.
With his face so close to hers she could feel his breath caress her as gently as his hands once had. A simple stretch up on her toes and she could press her lips to his again. Would reality match the memory?
That simple thought was enough to help her pull away. She didn’t want to lose the special remembrance that had carried her through. To find out it had somehow been a fantasy could make her lose faith in her recovery. How messed up was that? But she’d fast learned much of the healing process involved the body and mind working in synch.
She simply couldn’t risk…fear.
Nola scrambled off his lap and gave him a bold once-over. “All right, pal, no more of that. People don’t have to think we’re dating for you to be a watchdog. And about the lap thing…” She swallowed hard. Harder. Gave up getting rid of the lump and just moved on. “We can rest easy since we’ve now officially cleared away the wrong thing to do right off.”
“Just how we said all the wrong things on that first night in the bar?”
“Exactly. Because anything intimate would be unwise. I’m not in the market for a relationship.”
“And I came here to watch out for you—not to watch you.”
“You have to know, though, that the attraction is still there. We’re only human.”
His eyes went harder than the steel of his muscles as he stood. “I don’t need a pity f—”
“Whoa. You can stop right there. There’s no reason for you to assume that from what I said.” Her own voice went as hard as his eyes. She didn’t take that kind of crap from anyone. “I don’t deserve that kind of garbage tossed my way. I wasn’t pitying you and I don’t say or do things I don’t mean. I also don’t give my body away that lightly, thank you very much.” She pulled herself upright and braced, in charge. “Besides, you’re the last guy I would pity. You seem to be able to hold your own just fine.”
He smiled, damn him. “Right when I think you’re going to piss me off, you go and say something all sweet and perfect.”
Sweet? Sheesh, he was charming.
Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. “I’ll be back in a few with some clean sheets. You can make your own bed, though, because I’m not any man’s maid.”
Spinning away, she held her rigid spine stance even though his wicked smile could deflate a dirigible. Whoa, mama, what had she let herself in for?
Well, hell. She’d sure told him.
The grin Rick hadn’t even realized spread across his face dug deeper until next thing he knew he was laughing so hard his legs gave out from under him and he fell on his ass in the iron chair again. Even then, his humor didn’t fade. It felt good to be treated like a man instead of a patient. Damn good.
Laughter tapering off, he made his way on aching-like-hell legs back into the garage apartment by holding onto trees and then walls until finally he collapsed on the sectional sofa. Plenty of room to stretch out—he liked it, a couch that wasn’t institutional-board hard. Air that smelled “home normal” rather than “hospital antiseptic.”
Home normal. What would that be? Regular cleaners? Like Windex and some air freshener. What did women call it…?
Yeah. Sure enough, over there in the corner he saw a little glass bowl with shreds of red leaves and other leafy stuff.
Man, he was seriously losing it if he was getting all worked up over the smell of glass cleaner and nature shavings. Except each of these items were clues about Nola, a woman he’d moved in with when he’d vowed no way in hell would he ever live with a woman again.
After splitting with his ex-wife, he’d been certain he would live alone forever. Not that he was actually living with Nola. Still, here he was learning more about her.
Except he did already know about the way she enjoyed having her br**sts stroked and nuzzled while he rocked inside her. Definitely not a wise thought to be having after a year without sex.
His brain must be malfunctioning from sex deprivation because now that he thought of it… Damn it. He should have checked her part of the house, not that he would make much of an intimidating watchdog right now. His body was pretty much shot. Better to check on her and go in armed with cops as backup if needed.
He reached for his cell phone and dialed her cell from memory.
She picked up after two rings. “Hello?”
“Are you okay?”
“Rick? Why wouldn’t I be? I told you in the yard…”
Ah, so she thought he was referring to the almost kiss. She definitely didn’t sound as if she had a stalker at her throat. He exhaled long and hard, his heart slowing to half time. “I wondered if maybe your letter-writing buddy might be around.”
“Oh. Uh. Right. No new messages.” Rustling sounded in the background, like her feet shuffling, a soda can popping, the refrigerator door closing. “I’m just getting something to drink before I bring your sheets. Hope you don’t mind the wait.”
He wondered what she was drinking, what it would taste like on her mouth.
“No hurry.” He could use a few extra minutes to gather some restraint when it came to seeing her, smelling her. Wanting to touch and taste her. Back to business, pal. “We need to come up with a duress word so even if someone dangerous is with you, you can let me know there’s a problem.”
“You’re right.” She slurped another sip, the slightly undignified sound kinda endearing because it was…personal? “I should have thought of that. How about milk shake?”
“Milk shake?” Another personal fact. She must have a weakness for them. What flavor? Knowing it was wrong, stupid and definitely unwise, he made a vow to find out her favorite flavor someday.
“Sure. Milk shake. I can work it into a sentence without it sounding weird, but the chances of me accidentally using it are next to nil.”
“All right then. Milk shake it is.” He held the phone and wondered why he didn’t just hang up now. “You’ll reset your security system after bringing the sheets? And make sure I have the code?”
“Tomorrow, I’ll check the place over more thoroughly.”
“It’ll be good to have fresh eyes and ideas. The guys at work have been driving me crazy hovering over me. Maybe now they’ll back off with the kid gloves and start treating me like an equal again instead of acting like I might break.”
The guys at work.
She’d already had watchdogs? So why had she asked a busted up dude like him? For some reason her pride had needed to keep them at a distance. Interesting. He wasn’t sure whether to be complimented or insulted. This woman was tough as hell to understand. “Good night, Nola.”
He thumbed the Off button.
Potpourri and pride.
Hell. The more he knew about her, the deeper she trenched into his mind.
He levered himself off the sofa, held on to the kitchen island, braced his other hand against the wall. Yeah, it was the principle of the thing, he would get to that crystal dish without his crutches.
And he did. It hurt, muscles tightening and straining, overworked and yeah, he would pay with a sleepless night, but he made it.
Every day a little more.
Leaning against the counter, he opened a cabinet, picked up her decorative bowl and hid the sweet-smelling junk behind a mixing bowl he was mighty damn certain a dial-a-meal guy like him would never use.
He was here to keep Nola safe, heal his legs and move on once her stalker had been nabbed. Nothing more.
Mind set, he closed the cabinet door on the mixing bowl, potpourri and sweet-smelling temptations.
He was tempted to kill her tonight. Drive his chilly rental car from where it was parked two neighborhoods over. Go to her house, break in and just end it all.
Following her from Texas all the way to South Carolina, he had suppressed the urge to run her off the road so many times. The crippled man would have died with her, but there were often unforeseen casualties in war. Given the man’s injuries, he would probably welcome death anyway.
Heaven above, he personally would not want to live with half a body. Half a man. Half a fighter.
The temptation was growing so strong to finish it that finally he needed to put distance between himself and her. Once he had been certain she planned to return home, he had sped ahead, skipping meals in order to reach her house first and leave her a welcome-home gift.
She should be finding it soon. Too bad he would not see her face when she discovered his “gift,” but he could not risk staying so close to her house. Oh, he didn’t doubt that he could remain unseen, but he did question his ability to keep his hands from around her beautiful, vulnerable neck.
He would simply have to relive the expression on her face when her car had exploded into flames. And about her car… She would need to shop for another soon, which gave him another idea. Oh the ideas of ways to torment her. He definitely wanted to play this out a while longer.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The rapping on the rental car window startled him from his plans, reminding him of the need to stay sharp. She was a fighter, too, after all. A fighter who’d beaten him once before.
He turned to look and found a local police officer with a flashlight.
Relax. Not Nola.
He rolled down the window. “Is there a problem?”
“Well, sir, vagrancy is against the law around here.” The county cop kept the flashlight pointed in his eyes. “If you need somewhere to sleep, you’re going to have to move your car someplace else.”
“I am not sleeping.” Indignation sparked. He was not some vagrant, even if he did plan to sleep here eventually, and yes, he hoped to hang around long enough to catch a distant glimpse of her leaving on some errand. Just a look to carry him through.
“Sir, I have received calls from two concerned neighbors about your vehicle sitting here for the past five hours.” The policeman swept his flashlight through the car, inspecting. “Thing is, you have stayed in the car. That’s making people uncomfortable.”
“Since when is sitting in a car against the law?”
“I need to know your business.” The flashlight swung directly back into his eyes, blinding him.
All right. He was wise enough to know when to stop questioning the authority figure. He did not need to be hauled in, especially since Nola had reported his letters to the authorities. He was two neighborhoods over, but he did not want them making the connection. In fact, he should line up another rental immediately. “I am going to pull out my wallet now, all right?”