“Okay, now. Take it slow and easy, mister.”
“I hear you.” He reached with one hand into his back pocket, carefully dodging his concealed Taurus .40 caliber pistol. “Here is my private investigator’s license. I am simply watching that house over there to see how long he stays with the lady. Let us just say the man is not her husband.”
The police officer lowered the beam to the documents, wide-brimmed hat shadowing his eyes until eventually his shoulders lowered as well. If body language could be believed, apparently he had bought the cover story. “I really don’t like people causing trouble, loitering around. Don’t make me pull your license.”
“I know my rights, and the police can only file a complaint against me. They cannot actually pull it.”
“Fair enough. But if I receive any more calls about you…”
“My business should be through tonight.” A lie, but he lied well and with a straight face. He would simply have to be more careful about staying hidden.
Perhaps he could even look into renting one of the small places nearby. Except the time seemed to be drawing closer. The hotel would serve his purposes as long as it had wireless access for him to work on his next plan to keep the heat turned up on Nola Seabrook’s life.
After dropping off Rick’s sheets without lingering, Nola finished her diet drink and tossed the can in the recycling bin back in the main house. She should probably find something to eat, but her stomach still hadn’t settled from her car explo—
Oh, hell. Who was she kidding? Her belly was turning loop-de-loops over the fact that she had a man living under her roof again. Didn’t matter they weren’t sharing a bed. They were sharing shingles.
She’d trusted a near stranger with her safety over a squadron full of friends. How messed up was that? Or maybe it made total sense because this way she maintained some control. Some distance. Not that she’d kept her distance very well when she’d landed in Rick DeMassi’s lap earlier. What a freaking mess.
Okay, she would reclaim her life. Be normal.
Nola snagged an apple from a basket on the counter and crunched. She hit the remote to turn on her favorite jazz music and started shedding clothes on her way to her bedroom.
She thrived on disarray in her home. She had more than enough of regimen at work these days. Her T-shirt went sailing to land on the back of her sofa. Nola kicked one shoe under the dining room table, the other under her telephone table.
And speaking of her phone, she’d better keep her cell phone with her for emergencies. She looped the string holder around her wrist.
“Milk shake. Milk shake. Milk shake.” She repeated the duress words a few more times with a dance step to her walk as she committed it to memory.
She unbuttoned her jeans and kicked them into a pool in the hall until she wore only her sport bra, high-cut cotton panties and Christmas-green socks. Back before her cancer, she’d lived in a totally orderly world of beige and white, only to discover she controlled nothing. Now, she lived her life differently, vibrantly, with a certain respect for the psychedelic chaos factor.
Her problem lay in trying to blend the two parts of herself, past and present.
She padded down the narrow hall full of pictures of planes and friends snapped around the world. During her recovery, she’d taken a framing class and matted photos from her past in bright colors. She’d populated her home with the memories to give herself hope of adding more images someday. And she had.
Would she add one of herself with Rick to look at after he left?
Now wasn’t that a dangerous thought to carry into her bedroom? She creaked open the door, swinging the cell phone on her wrist, a reminder that Rick was only a simple call and wall away.
Had she been totally reckless to invite him here with their sexual history? Or maybe he was exactly the man to invite under her roof, perhaps under her bedspread, as well. He had scars, too. Could he be the one she could trust to show her own?
All-too-deep thoughts for her exhausted body tonight. She stepped into her room and clicked on the switch for her Tiffany lamp to cast multicolor lights over her Laura Ashley patterned pink-and-white room full of pillows and trinket boxes and her newfound joy in clutter. She soaked in the familiarity of it all, readying to flop into the plump comfort of her bed…
Only to stop short.
Lying on her floral pillow sham rested a surprise box of Godiva chocolates. Which would have been creepy enough by itself, except the box was open with half the candies missing and only the light chocolates remaining, as if someone had removed all the dark.
The kind she didn’t like.
Her fingers shook as she reached for her cell phone, already whispering, “Milk shake.”
“You can’t sleep on a sofa.”
Can’t? No word stirred Rick to be contrary more than that.
Standing in Nola’s living room after the cops had left from taking their statements, he had plenty of frustration built against her candy-leaving stalker as it was. Rick refused to let her boot him out of her place in some misguided sense of independence that was flat-out unsafe.
Nola had to know this ramped things up to a new level of dangerous. She might look unfazed standing there in her sweatpants and T-shirt with her fists perched on her hips. But he still remembered those same fists shaking when he’d seen her in the sport bra and high-cut panties she’d been wearing when he made his way into her place after her “milk shake” call.
This stalker guy had slipped past her security system while she was out of town—and blown up her car in another city. The fella was freaking everywhere at once. Not a chance Rick was letting her out of his sight, even if it meant sleeping on her flowery sofa that oozed estrogen.
He met her nose-to-nose. Okay, more like nose to curly hair. “Like hell I can’t sleep there.”
“Let’s be realistic.” Her fists slid from her h*ps and she backed away to sit on the edge of the matching poofy chair. “You’re still recovering from major injuries. There is no way I’m putting you on a sofa, or even a pullout couch.”
“And there is no way I’m letting you sleep in this house alone.” He wasn’t going to be maneuvered through her obvious attempt at low-key body language. “The cops may not have been overly concerned about the private investigator vagrant they mentioned being the only disturbance recently, but I’m not dismissing it so easily.”
“It was actually a couple of neighborhoods over,” she said, her voice rock solid. “And my neighbor—”
“That Malcolm Cuvier fella, the ex-cop?”
“Yes.” He’d been Johnny-on-the-spot when the cops showed up. Forced into retirement at forty when he took a bullet in the lung, he still listened to his police scanner religiously. “He’s going to call in some favors and look into it a little deeper for us.”
Rick dropped to sit beside her on the arm of the chair. Besides, his legs were aching a little. He wasn’t getting all softhearted over this lady. He just needed to take care of his body since she was counting on him.
Still his hand gravitated to rub along her back between her shoulder blades absently while she stared off into space. He thought through what the cops had relayed about the stranger dude nearby. “All right, so the vagrant had an accent and was around fifty and claimed to be a private investigator. Could be our guy or hired by our guy. It’s a start, more than we knew before.”
“We?” She tipped her face up to his.
“Duh. You asked me to help out, remember?”
“Right.” She half smiled. “Duh.”
He started to pat her back again only to realize he was still touching her, in fact had been rubbing soothing circles along her back the whole time.
She looked up at him, his head beginning the dip down that would take him to her lips. Already the memory of the feel and fit of her came back to mind a second before he rediscovered… Yeah. He skimmed her mouth with his, his hand palming her back more firmly, drawing her closer. The scent of her filled him, spurring him to take this further, deeper, but what did she want?
He took her little gasp, the tiny moan in the back of the throat as an affirmation and delved into her mouth. No protest. Definitely no protest. Her hands slid up to his shoulders, around his neck.
At least she had her clothes on now. He couldn’t erase the image of her in those high-cut panties and sport bra, but at least the clothes offered a boundary of sorts or they would both be in serious trouble. Because as much as he was enjoying this kiss, he knew things wouldn’t go any further.
He didn’t question how he knew their limits when they’d both hopped into bed so quickly before, but somehow, he just knew…call it taking a radar read off the woman. She had a wariness to her now that hadn’t been there before, a steeliness too, no question. Nola also had more boundaries, and he had to admit he felt pretty damn much the same.
He couldn’t help but notice other differences, too. She was thinner, more whipcord. His mind played tricks on him because he could have sworn he remembered fuller breasts, but still he found her no less attractive. Just different. Like with her new curls.
Of course a lot of years had passed. His memory could well be faulty. His hand fisted in her T-shirt at her waist as he thought of how he’d palmed her breast…
No. Stop. He wouldn’t go there in his head and if he didn’t pull back from this kiss soon, he would be going much further than either of them was ready for.
He couldn’t afford the distraction when he needed to think about her safety—especially when he had a long night ahead of him sharing a room with her. Easing away, he ended the kiss with a final brush over her lips, then the tip of her nose, her closed eyes, her forehead, before resting his chin on top of her head.
Best to keep things light. They couldn’t pretend the kiss didn’t happen, but he didn’t want to talk it to death. He’d better grab hold of the conversation first.
“About watching over you tonight and the whole couch dilemma, if I sleep in your bed, I think I may suffocate from all the ruffles and powder puff.”
She chuckled. “That bad, huh?”
“Nah, just a surprise since I expected something more…sleek. But I like surprises.” His smile faded and his hand slid away from her back. He draped his arm along the back of the chair. “Even if I conceded and let you sleep on the sofa, you would be out in the living room while I’m in the next room, down the hall, too far away.”
Her spare room only contained office furniture, not even a sofa.
“How about this then,” she offered. “We’ll both sleep in the garage apartment tonight. You sleep on the bed and I will sleep on the sectional sofa, which does have a pullout sofa bed.”
He could live with the compromise. The place had fewer entrances to guard and the guy would actually be less likely to look for her there. Yeah. It fit. She was a reasonable woman. A reasonable woman who’d had one helluva day. He couldn’t resist teasing another smile from her.
“On one condition.”
She cocked her head to the side. “What would that be?”
“Tomorrow, you let me bench-press you as my weights so I can restore my lost testosterone percentage points.”
Her shoulders shook with another laugh, weary, but still a solid chuckle. She extended her hand. “Deal.”
“Deal.” He closed his fingers around hers—soft, long fingers he could remember stroking over him with tender thoroughness, leaving him damn near begging at times.
He gritted his teeth.
Definitely a long night ahead of him.
God, this was a long flight.
Nola gripped the stick in her hand. She’d been called in to sub for Bronco, who’d thrown out his back in an intramural game of basketball. She’d barely made the requisite twelve-hour crew rest for the afternoon flight, but the squadron commander really needed this mission—with the demo of new upgrades to the aircraft. And, quite frankly, she hadn’t minded the space from Rick after spending the night in the same room, after sharing a hair-curling kiss neither of them discussed. Instead, she’d hugged a pillow and listened to him breathe.