Authors: Alexis Morgan
Okay, stupid question. A better one was how long could he stay without getting even more emotionally tangled up in Callie’s life than he already was.
As if he’d conjured her up from his dark thoughts, Callie came walking around the corner of the house. “So this is where you’re hiding.”
“I wasn’t aware I was. Hiding, that is.”
Although that was exactly what he’d been doing. Unwilling to actually lie to her face, he kept his focus on the paper as he finished his notes before looking up again. “Did you need something?”
“No, actually, but I thought you might. I was about to start dinner and wondered when you’d be over. It’s such a nice night, I thought I’d fix some steaks and roasted veggies on Dad’s grill.”
Now he felt like more of a jerk than ever. “You sure you still want to feed me?”
She motioned for him to scoot over on the step to make room for her. “That was the deal, wasn’t it? Grub for drudgery?”
“Pretty much.” He had to laugh. “And in that case, I’d be delighted to collect my pay.”
“Good.” She stared into the distance, avoiding looking at him at all while she spoke. “So there are two ways we can do this, Nick. You can either fix your plate and come back over here to eat by yourself or you can stay for dinner and tell me what was going on in your head this morning. Your choice.”
Never let it be said that Callie couldn’t play hardball when she wanted to. “Look, I know my moods can be a bit unpredictable.”
Her laugh had nothing to do with humor. “You think? One minute we’re fine and the next you’re looking as if you need to punch somebody. What was up with that? At the very least, I thought after you cooled off, you’d be over to talk about it.”
How could he explain that he’d been fighting a bad case of jealousy without sounding like even more of a jerk? When he didn’t answer, she pushed herself back up off the steps.
“Well, then. Dinner will be ready at about six. You have my number. Let me know if I should set the table for two or if you want yours to go.”
Nick stared after her until she’d disappeared into the woods leading back to her parents’ house, not even protesting when Mooch trotted after her. He didn’t blame the dog one bit for deserting him. He didn’t much like his own company right now himself.
He put a few finishing touches on the sketches before heading back inside. Maybe a cold shower would clear his head enough so that he could figure out a way to make things right between him and Callie. He hoped so.
• • •
“Mooch, I’m not sure I did the right thing by putting your buddy on the spot like that. But I hate never knowing what to expect from him.”
The dog wagged his tail and bumped against her leg in a show of support. She savored that little bit of comfort. However, as much as she liked Mooch, it wasn’t his touch she was craving.
She adjusted the flame on the grill and put the steaks on to cook. While they sizzled, she set the picnic table for two, using paper plates in case Nick chose to go back into hiding. The trouble was that even if Nick couldn’t come up with a rational explanation for his behavior, she already knew she wouldn’t send him away.
Stupid, but there it was.
So far her cell phone had remained silent, and it was almost six. As she brushed the zucchini and asparagus with olive oil and arranged them on the grill, it finally buzzed. He’d texted instead of calling. Great. Was he afraid to even talk to her?
But one glance at the message had her popping the tops on a couple of beers. He was on his way over, bringing his explanation with him.
Mooch took off toward the woods, barking like crazy. She automatically touched her hair, hoping it still looked okay. Even though this was supposed to be another dinner between friends, she’d felt compelled to take a little more care than usual with her appearance. A touch of lipstick, a hint of blush, and a nicer shirt with her jeans.
Who was she trying to impress?
As soon as Nick stepped out of the woods, she was glad she had made the effort. His hair was still damp from a shower, and his shirt looked freshly ironed. She hoped like heck she wasn’t drooling.
To her surprise, he held out a bouquet of fresh-cut roses. “I thought you might like these. They’re from Spence’s yard.”
She breathed deeply of their sweet scent. “His mother had a beautiful rose garden. I’m surprised they’ve survived after being neglected for so long.”
“They’re a bit ragged, but they should come back with the right care.”
“I’ll go put these in water. Can you keep an eye on dinner for me?”
Inside, she hunted up one of her mother’s vases for the roses. Already the scent was perfuming the air. She drew one last deep breath of their rich scent as she stared out the kitchen window at Nick. He looked so at home flipping the steaks on her father’s grill, like he belonged there. Too bad he’d be leaving soon. For the first time in ages, maybe ever, she was tempted to break her rule about avoiding short-term involvements.
But she had a gut feeling that a short-term fling with Nick would have long-term effects on her heart. It might be far wiser to keep things casual with him, more like the easy friendship she’d always had with Spence.
The steaks must be ready because he was reaching for one of the platters she’d brought out for them and the veggies. Time to rejoin the party.
He turned to face her, his eyes bright with emotion. “I didn’t like seeing you touch Gage. I apologize for being a jerk.”
Her heart did a slow roll in her chest. Well, then. She suspected she shouldn’t be pleased by his explanation, but she was. Still aiming for casual, she kept her response short. “Apology accepted.”
Just that quickly, the tension between them disappeared. When he joined her at the table, she passed him a baked potato and the steak sauce. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
“Me, too.” He added some asparagus and zucchini to his plate before handing it off to her. “About Spence’s house. Your house, actually. I think the whole place could end up being a real showcase. I’ve been working on a list of what still needs to be done to the yard if you’d like to see it. Better yet, after we eat, maybe we can do a bit of a walk-through so I can show you exactly what I’m thinking.”
It would be interesting to see how closely his vision matched hers. Either way, she couldn’t wait to see what he had in mind.
“I’d like that, Nick. I’d like it a lot.”
y the time the two of them had cleaned up the few dishes from dinner, the sun was starting to slip away for the night. No matter. This far north, it should be light enough to navigate the yard for a couple more hours.
Nick picked up his notebook and waited for Callie to rejoin him. As soon as she stepped outside and locked the door, his pulse kicked into hyperdrive. She’d changed into a long-sleeved shirt made out of some kind of clingy fabric that emphasized all of her, um, attributes. He feigned an interest in Mooch’s explorations long enough to give himself a chance to settle down.
“Come on, mutt. We’re headed back next door. Play your cards right, and I might even feed you.”
The dog might not understand much English, but his vocabulary definitely included every word that had to do with food. He barked happily and came running. He passed them by at a run, circling back every so often to hurry them along.
Back at Spence’s house, Nick filled Mooch’s bowl and gave him fresh water. He patted the dog on the head. “We’ll be outside for a while.”
He wanted some alone time with Callie, though being jealous of the dog was even more stupid than being jealous when she’d offered Gage the simple comfort of her touch. Stupid or not, he couldn’t deal with any competition right now.
“Look, Mooch, I’ll handle this patrol on my own. Finish your dinner and then enjoy some downtime. I promise to make it up to you later.”
At the moment, Mooch was more interested in his kibble than he was in anyone else’s problems. At least the food kept him distracted long enough for Nick to get back outside alone. He headed toward Callie, who was walking around in the circular flower bed located in the driveway turnaround.
She smiled up at Nick. “You’ve worked a miracle out here. I’m so glad this many of Spence’s mother’s roses survived, even if they’re in rough shape. I’ll have to add a few more to do this space justice.”
He stood close enough to feel the warmth of her skin. “I think I saw a photograph upstairs that was taken out here. Maybe you could take it to one of the local nurseries to see if they can match the roses that used to be here.”
The suggestion clearly pleased her. “I’ll do that.”
Then she looped her arm through his. “So show me what you’re thinking.”
They made a slow circuit around the front yard before moving on to the sides, talking ease of maintenance and color spots. By the time they reached the backyard, his list had almost doubled in length.
“If it were me, I’d put a gazebo in that back corner. If you do turn the place into a bed-and-breakfast, it would be a perfect place for your guests to enjoy the garden, even on rainy days.”
Callie’s smile was a bit wistful. “I can just see it, but I doubt there’ll be room for something like that in the budget, at least not right away. For sure, I’m going to get bids for having all this yard work done.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I appreciate all the thought you’ve put into this. To be honest, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done. I don’t have any experience working with contractors at all. Would I be better off hiring a general contractor to oversee everything?”
“That’s what most people do. The only downside is that you’d be paying his profit on top of all the subcontractors, too. The upside is that the best general contractors know which ones to use. That alone can be worth the price.”
Unless Nick himself stuck around long enough to get it all organized for her. His father had taught him a lot over the years in the hope that someday Nick would let him add “and Son” to the name of his company. Had he pretty much given up on that happening anytime soon? Nick had.
Staring toward the back corner of the yard, he imagined how the gazebo would look there. Not only would it be perfect for any future guests Callie might have, but also he could imagine other, more private, uses for it.
Heck, it wouldn’t take him all that long to build one. A few days at most. Even if he never got a chance to try it out himself, he liked the idea of leaving behind something that would bring him to mind every time Callie saw it. First thing tomorrow, he’d download a couple of patterns and then price out what the materials would cost him.
“What’s got you thinking so hard?”
No way he was going to share that—not yet, anyway. “Just trying to think of anything I might have left off the list for the yard. If you’d like, tomorrow we can go through the house together. I should be able to give you a general idea of what needs to be done as far as basic repairs. Maybe that will help you prioritize the work when you pick a contractor.”
“That would be great, Nick, but I still feel bad about you spending so much of your leave working on all of this stuff. Surely there’s something a lot more fun you could be doing right now.”
Oh, man, he really wished she hadn’t said that, because all kinds of fun ideas popped into his mind, all involving her and a certain part of his anatomy that was now sitting up and begging for attention. At least it was now getting dark enough that the sudden change in the fit of his jeans wasn’t obvious.
“I’m right where I want to be, Callie.”
His words seemed to please her. She took his hand in hers and gave it a quick squeeze. “I’m glad you’re here, too, and not just because you mowed my grass.”
The light was quickly fading, but he was pretty sure she’d blushed as she said that. Could it be that the attraction he was feeling wasn’t all one-sided? Even if it was, he shouldn’t act on it. His conscience had him withdrawing his hand from her grasp.
“Look, maybe I should walk you home now. It will be completely dark soon, and I’ve got . . .”
What? To get away from her before he gave in to the impulse to kiss her? He tried again. “I’ve got stuff to do.”
Callie’s stance went rigid. “What kind of stuff, Nick? What kind of pressing engagement do you have this late in the evening? You know what? Never mind. It’s obviously none of my business.”
Without waiting for him to answer, she walked away. When he started to follow her, she spun back. “I’m a big girl, Nick. Believe it or not, I’ve managed to walk from Spence’s house to mine all by myself for years now.”
He coasted to a stop, watching her stalk away, caught between his duty to Spence and his hunger for Callie. Okay, he’d managed to piss her off big-time, but he wasn’t about to let her walk through the woods in the dark unescorted. What if the lurker was back?
Screw this. He’d see her home if it killed him.
She’d already disappeared from sight by the time he reached the woods. A short distance in, something moved in the brush off to his right, followed by a loud screech. His mind told him it was a cat on the prowl, that there was no real danger.
But right now reality had nothing to do with how he was feeling. He charged forward, determined to reach Callie, to make sure she was safe, to make sure the enemy didn’t steal another life. Once again he’d left the house without a weapon, but he’d kill anything or anyone who threatened her—with his bare hands if that was what it took.
There. He could see her moving in the shadows a few yards ahead of him. If she was aware of his pursuit, she gave no sign of it. At least, not until she cleared the woods. Then she turned to face him, her eyes glittering with anger.
“I told you I could get home on my own, Nick. What about that did you not understand?”
How could he fix this?
The minute he opened his mouth to try, the words came pouring out. “It’s dark out now. Too many shadows to hide in. Had to watch your back.”
He was breathing hard and fast, thanks to his adrenaline-soaked fear. “Go inside. I’ll patrol the perimeter. If everything is secure, I’ll leave. I promise.”
She backed away several steps. “Nick, are you all right?”
Fuck no, he wasn’t. “Doesn’t matter. Won’t hurt you. Not ever. Go inside,” he repeated. “When you’re safe, I’ll retreat.”
She rocked back and forth, clearly waffling on how to respond. Then she surged forward, closing the distance between them. Despite his protests, she wrapped her arms around Nick’s waist and laid her head against his chest. At that moment, he couldn’t have said whether the full-body contact would soothe him or destroy him.
Gradually, her words made it past the roar in his head. “Nick, you run so hot and cold. One minute, we’re chatting like old friends. The next you’re backpedaling like crazy and making up lame excuses to get away from me.”
Her scent clogged up his senses, making it even harder to think. But then he didn’t need to think, only feel. He wrapped his arms around her, tightening his hold on her so that there wasn’t room for a single thought between them. He nuzzled her hair, loving its silky texture against his skin.
“Nick? What’s going on?”
That question had no easy answer, so he asked one of his own. “Do you want me to pack up and leave, Callie? Just say the word, and I’m gone. Right now. Won’t wait until morning.”
He held his breath, dreading her answer. At least she didn’t immediately let go.
“No, Nick, I don’t want you to leave, but you’ve got to quit sending me such mixed signals. I know the reason you came here was because of Spence and to find a home for Mooch. If all you want is to be just friends, fine. I can live with that, especially knowing that you’ll be leaving soon.”
She finally looked up at him. “But I’ve got to tell you, Nick, you’re not acting like a man who is only interested in being friends. Tell me I’m not completely misreading the situation between us.”
Resting his forehead against hers, he whispered, “You’re reading me loud and clear, Callie, but that doesn’t make it right.”
Her eyes flashed hot and angry. “Make what right?”
He tightened his hold on her. “This. You’re hurting over what happened to Spence, and I’m your only connection to him. His death left a gaping hole in both our lives.”
Even in the faint light from the newly risen moon, the pain his words caused her was clear. Son of a bitch, he hated hurting her. She’d been through enough already. They both had.
He let go of her even though it was the last thing he wanted to do. “Go inside, Callie. I’ll be all right. So will you. It will just take time.”
“Now, Callie, while I have the strength to let you walk away.”
“Fine, I’ll go, but there’s one thing before I do.”
Before he could ask what it was, she’d captured his face with her hands and dragged it down to plant a hungry kiss on his mouth. Instantly, all thoughts of duty, honor, and loyalty blew apart, leaving nothing behind but the need for this woman. Callie’s touch and Callie’s taste kept him grounded as the world around him exploded. Her arms held him steady. Her body gave him warmth. Her kiss gave him so much more.
But gradually the world around them righted itself, and all the reasons he shouldn’t be doing this came rushing back. He was visiting Spence’s hometown, staying in Spence’s house, and sleeping in Spence’s bed. Above all, this was the woman Spence wanted to spend his life with.
The truth pounded in Nick’s head over and over again like a heavy barrage of artillery fire: Spence’s life, not his. And the price of admission to this roller-coaster ride?
The death of his best friend.
God, what was he doing here? Nick didn’t want to hurt Callie with a full-out retreat. Slowly, he banked the fire and stepped away.
She started to follow him, but he held up his hand. “Go inside, Callie. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
If he was still there. Right now, even that much was uncertain. At least this time she didn’t argue. He watched until the kitchen light came on. Making good on his promise to check the perimeter, he did a slow patrol around the yard, front and back, being careful to keep to the shadows. More than once he saw her at a window, tracking his progress around her family home.
He held it together until he entered the path back to Spence’s place. Without either Callie or Mooch to keep him focused, the last of his control shattered. His chest ached with the need to howl out his pain, but he held it in. He’d already upset Callie enough for one night. If she heard him, she’d either call for the medics or the cops or both.
Neither of them needed that.
He’d learned to control his fear in war; he could do the same here. But once he was through the woods, he was going to do what any good military leader did in the face of overwhelming odds. He would call in reinforcements.