Page 9

Roll over.

Rustle the sheets.

Too many memories stirred of sharing sheets with him.

She’d suspected his legs were bothering him and she’d wished she could offer a massage, but… They couldn’t go there, not without things leading further. She needed more time with him before she made a decision about that.

He’d ridden with her today to the base, checked in with the clinic about his rehab and then detailed his own plans to check out her security.

Nola worked her boots against the rudders, slicing the planes wings through clouds. Another ten minutes and they would be on autopilot, so she soaked up these remaining seconds of control, power. Freedom. She loved to fly, had known it was her destiny since the instant she’d sat behind the controls for the first time. Sure she’d started out piloting because she wanted to prove as a woman she could equal any man… Now she flew because she couldn’t imagine not flying.

She and her ex-husband had met in flight school, had fallen hard and fast. Their relationship had been based on attraction and shared dreams…. Until Peter had washed out of flight school in the last month.

He’d been one of the lucky ones who could stay in the Air Force. Some who washed out of training didn’t even get to stay in the service. Peter hadn’t considered himself lucky at all. Losing his dream had changed him. He’d served four more years in the service at a desk job before putting in his papers.

Why was Peter so heavily on her mind today? Had to be because of having a man under her roof again, even if it was purely platonic.

Purely? That kiss had been anything but platonic. If the two of them were already traveling this far and fast down memory lane, they wouldn’t last too much longer without making their way to the end of the map. Had this been her reason for tracking him down? She’d chosen him to be her last lover before the operation, did she want him to be her first after surgery, as well?

That scared her witless because the intent would have been subconscious and she liked to think she was making her own choices these days. And what did all of this have to do with her ex and him washing out of pilot training?

More of her flipping subconscious at work.

“What would you do if you couldn’t fly anymore?” The words fell out of her mouth of their own volition. Luckily, only her boss flying beside her would hear and not the crew in back.

“Who gave you the grumpies instead of bananas with your Cheerios?” Lieutenant Colonel Carson “Scorch” Hunt glanced up from checking the fuel display.

“Ha-ha. Very funny. Not.” Her hand clenched around the stick. She wished she could mask her feelings as well as the clouds hid the ground below. “I’m being serious.”

“Is there something wrong?” All humor vanished from his poster-boy-perfect face—she preferred craggy these days. “Oh damn. Is your cancer back?”

“No! Ohmigod, no.” Thank heavens. “And I certainly wouldn’t tell you in the middle of flying and risk unsettling our concentration.”

“Of course. All right.” His exhale filled the headset long and slow before he continued, “This is about the man living with you. There are going to be a lot of broken hearts around the squadron once this becomes common knowledge.”

How did he already know about Rick liv—? “Are there no secrets in this squadron?”

“Afraid not,” he said as he opened his flight bag to pull out his lunch with Beachcombers Bar and Grill stamped across the sack containing a hamburger that smelled too good. “I heard from Bronco that you called his wife since she’s a flight surgeon to get her advice on the best options for rehab in the area.”

Bronco always had been a big ole gossip. He must have spilled all when he called in sick because of his back. Well, this squadron thrived on practical jokes and Bronco was about to be the recipient of a whopper practical joke except she wasn’t feeling particularly funny right now.

“Yes, I have a friend recovering at my place for a while.”

“A PJ.” A parajumper, also known as a pararescueman.


“Must be hell.”

“Excuse me?”

“Those guys are hard core. He must be going through hell adjusting. You’re a good friend to take in somebody carrying that much baggage.”

“And you sure are one chatty boss.”

A boss she had dated back when their ranks and positions were closer, before he was the head honcho. They’d gone out a couple of times, had fun, but soon realized there simply wasn’t any chemistry. The friendship stuck, though.

Scorch turned to face her full on, the plane skimming through a sky as blue as his serious eyes. “Yeah, I get that you want me to back off, but hell, Bronco’s a gossip and I’m freaking Ann Landers. So here goes. How did you feel when you thought you wouldn’t fly anymore?”

She started to tell him to take a hike, sir, and then…she stopped and thought. If she meant to move forward, she had to stop pushing people away. Scorch truly was a good boss who cared about his people. Beyond that, he knew her well as a friend, in fact knew more about her than most folks.

Yet, she’d never told him about Rick.

Still, she could carry on this conversation without relaying that tidbit.

Deep breath. Leap. “I was so wrapped up thinking I might not even live, the notion of losing my wings wasn’t up front in my mind.”

“Whereas your friend’s mortality isn’t in question since his isn’t a life-threatening illness.”

She nodded.

“There’s no question that this job of ours is more than a job, a calling, service to country, to others above self. Those PJs really push themselves—That Others May Live.”

“Their motto.”

“Think about your cancer, how you fought so damn bravely, but all the while preparing yourself to die.”

Ah. The clue bird landed on her head. “He has prepared himself to die, but never prepared himself to live.”

“And since I’m the boss and know everything, you might want to take those words to heart yourself.”

An image flashed to mind of Rick’s face as they’d driven around base earlier—the hunger in his eyes as he’d stared out at the flight line at the airplanes. Planes he’d once jumped out of to save lives.

Just as her boss had said. She’d faced the possibility of death. But she’d never thought about living—and losing her dream.

Rick faced that nightmare every day, something far less clear-cut in its healing. How could she have been so dense? Hell, she lived with a man who couldn’t face losing his dream. She’d seen how it tore apart her ex-husband watching her put on her flight suit each day.

Rick would help her, but this had to be painful for him in ways he never would have anticipated. And—ouch—that stung her in a way she hadn’t foreseen, either.

Self-revelations hurt as much as any incisions. This healing process just went on and on and on. Sheesh, when would she get to just live a normal day?

Maybe this was normal. The good and the bad. Learning and moving ahead. Time to quit grousing and start embracing those lessons so she could live each day a little stronger and wiser before she moved on to the next.

Definitely ouch.

Chapter 6

“So I’ve finally found your vulnerability,” Rick pronounced from the passenger side of the rental SUV, working to inject levity in his tone.

He hurt like hell. The rehab folks here took torture lessons from the same folks as the technicians in Texas. His legs hurt. His head hurt.

And after three nights sharing a room with Nola, other parts of him hurt even worse.

He was grouchy as all get-out and determined not to show it.

“Huh?” Nola glanced from the road to him then back to the street, turning off the interstate.

“Your weakness.” He hooked his elbow on the open window. Tough to believe tomorrow would be Thanksgiving, with temperate weather like this. The time for family dinners. He squelched thoughts of Lauren at two with mashed potatoes all over her chubby cheeks. Patience. “Your tender spot.”

“Fat chance. I have no tender spots. I am a warrior woman, invincible.” She winked.

“Yeah, right. Okay, warrior woman.” Actually, there was something to what she said. She did have training he hadn’t given as much thought to as he should. She could fight her stalker, maybe better than he could right now with his exhausted body. God, he needed a nap, but she’d been all psyched up to go car shopping and he wasn’t letting her out of the house without him or one of her flyboy buddies.

He shifted in his seat, his legs protesting—loud—at the lack of space. He needed a half hour of Jacuzzi jets massaging his sore muscles. “Aren’t you curious as to what I’ve determined?”

“Do tell.” She pulled off the access road into the auto-mall.

“You’re scared of car dealers.”

“Not hardly.” Poorly masking her distaste, she stared at the line of dealerships proclaiming holiday sales, multicolor triangular flags flapping in the wind.

“Then why ask me along?”

Her knuckles went white, her jaw set, she put the car in park. “Because you’re supposed to be watching out for me and making this stalker guy think I have a big-ass tenant. And by big-ass, I do mean that you are being an ass today.”

“Why thank you, ma’am.” He’d forgotten how prickly women could be. Living alone in a cave had its appeal. Well, except for the no sex and soft womanly curves part. “I do believe we may have more in common than we thought.”

Her baby-blues eyes went wide. “Did you just insult me?”

“You insulted me first.”

“Well, that’s mature.”

“More and more in common by the second.”

That spurred a laugh from her, something he enjoyed doing more and more by the hour, enough that it took his mind off his legs for the moment.

“Okay, fine. I brought you along because, yes, it will be easier to work with the car dealer if you’re here.” She held up one finger, firmly. “I have absolutely no doubt that I could get the same deal on my own, but it would take longer and be far more exhausting than if I just let you two men do your grunt, grunt, bump chests, circle the fire, macho thing.”

“All right, now that I’m clear on my role.” He cleared his throat. “Ugh.”

“Perfect.” She gave him a regal nod. “Here are some examples of the car I’m looking for, with my hopeful price listed as well as my absolute top-dollar price.”

Nola passed him a flyer insert from the Saturday paper with three cars circled in red marker, with her notations alongside.

As they made their way to the dealer of her choice, he asked questions concerning loan lengths and payments until he had a firm grasp of what she wanted. He even did his best not to roll his eyes when she specified color—why was car color so important to women? Must be like the potpourri thing. And maybe somewhat like how he hated bargaining while on crutches.

Three haggling hours later, he’d landed the deal she wanted, closer to the wish price than the top-dollar price. All they needed was the bank okay to clear the loan and she could turn in the rental for her spiffy new convertible.

Damn, he felt as if he’d speared the wooly mammoth to haul back to the cave, and double damned if he hadn’t forgotten about his aching legs for more than thirty seconds. Not an evolved kind of thought by a long shot, and surely she would laugh and label it another “ugh” moment. Thing was, her laugh would spark another chest-thumping thrill of victory in him.

What was it about this woman? She could take care of herself, manage this on her own and yet here he sat, waiting to help her.

There was…something about her.

Something that made him want to share the Jacuzzi with her for more than sex, but with champagne and strawberries while her laughter rolled with the bubbles.