A Time for Home: A Snowberry Creek Novel (14 page)

For the first time a bit of temper showed in Callie’s hazel eyes. “So you two weren’t actually asking me if you could build the gazebo. You were telling me it’s a done deal.”

Okay, so maybe it was time to pour everybody some more coffee. A little distance between him and Callie right now seemed like a good idea. “I guess you could look at it that way.”

The chill of her displeasure followed him across the room and back. “How else should I look at it, Nick?”

A movement on the other side of the table caught Nick’s attention. Yeah, his so-called friend was having a hard time containing his amusement. He gave Leif one of those looks that promised retribution at the first available opportunity.

“Leif, wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the living room? Like right now.”

The jerk actually laughed. “Yeah, probably, but then I wouldn’t have a front-row seat watching you grovel, Sarge. She’s got you on the ropes.”

That last crack drew some of Callie’s anger in his direction. “You think this is funny, Leif?”

All good soldiers knew when it was time to make a strategic retreat, and Leif was definitely a good soldier. “Maybe stretching out on the couch would be a good idea. Sarge, can you get me a glass of water so I can take my pills?”

Nick frowned. Was he due for more already? Maybe so, considering that those lines bracketing his mouth had become more pronounced again. “Sure thing.”

While he took care of that little chore, Leif kept Callie distracted. “Would you have some extra sheets and blankets? I thought I’d sack out down here on the couch rather than battle those steps tonight.”

Soft touch that she was, Callie immediately leapt to her feet. “Actually, the sofa in the den is a hide-a-bed. You stay here while I get you all set up.”

She was off and running before either man could respond. Leif swallowed his pills before standing up. “She’s something, isn’t she? No wonder Spence felt the way he did about her.”

Rather than answer, Nick watched Leif stand up and waited to be sure his friend could make it to the bathroom off the utility room on his own. Leif didn’t need to hear that Nick understood all too well exactly why Spence had wanted to build a life with Callie.

Because, God forgive him, Nick felt the same damn way about her.

ter 18

fter giving Leif time to get settled, Callie peeked into the den. “Good night, Corporal. Can I get you anything else before I head back home?”

He mumbled something that sounded like a cross between “Good night” and “I’m fine.” Either way, she suspected he was nearly asleep, which was a good thing. By the time he’d reached the den, he’d been breathing hard with the effort it took him to walk. Callie hurt for him but knew better than to let it show.

She debated over whether to close the door but, in the end, left it open. If Leif needed to get up in the night, the fewer the obstacles in his way, the better. With that in mind, she’d also dug up a couple of nightlights to leave burning in the hall and kitchen to light his route to the bathroom.

Nick was waiting for her near the front door. “I’ll walk you out.”

She didn’t bother to argue but walked on past him. He’d do what he wanted to anyway. When they reached the car, he handed over the plastic bag that held her dishes, including the empty cookie container. After stowing them in the backseat, she closed the door. When she turned around, it was to find Nick standing close behind her. Too close, or maybe not close enough. Her confusion on the subject had her casting about for something to say.

“You guys weren’t kidding about the cookies, were you?”

He smiled for the first time since he’d told her about the gazebo. “Nope. And what Leif doesn’t know is that I already squirreled the rest away where he won’t find them.”

Despite it all, she bet he’d be sharing them with Leif tomorrow. “Next time I’ll know to make a triple batch. What do you think? Chocolate chip?”

“Oh, we’re not picky.”

She feigned hurt feelings, placing her hand over her heart as if his words had wounded her. “So any old cookies will do? Even store-bought?”

He wrapped his hand around hers, his eyes staring down into her face. “Not at all. I’m pretty damn selective about some things, Callie.”

Were they still talking about cookies? Somehow she didn’t think so. Her body didn’t think so, either, as a heavy ache stole through her, starting in her chest and moving south. She could feel his body heat and wanted to lean into it. Rather than worry about where all of this was headed, she returned to their earlier topic of conversation.

“About the gazebo.”

He leaned in closer. With the car at her back, she had no room to retreat. “What about it?”

“I love the whole idea, and it’s sweet of you to want to do something like this for Spence. If you want to build it, that’s fine with me. All I’m asking is that next time you talk to me first.”

His fingers were now toying with a lock of her hair. “Next time? How many gazebos do you think one yard needs?”

“You know what I mean.”

She gave his chest a soft shove, but he didn’t budge an inch. If anything, he leaned closer. Enough so that there was the slightest contact between the sensitive tips of her breasts and the hard wall of his chest. Temptation and frustration all rolled into one.


“Callie.” He said her name in a whisper, his breath mingling with hers. “Tell me you want this.”

She did. That didn’t mean she should. “Are you going to get mad again if we kiss, Nick? Because if so, the answer is no.”

They hovered there for a long, painful heartbeat while he thought about it. That was answer enough for her. “I should be getting home.”

He backed up half a step. “Maybe you should.”

She scrambled into the car and pulled away in a spray of gravel. Her pulse didn’t slow down until she was back at her parents’ house with the doors safely locked. What should she do next? Maybe Leif had the right idea about turning in early, with the added feature of a long soak in a bubble bath first.

When she carried the empty dishes into the kitchen, she was drawn to the back window. Staring out into the night, she knew exactly what she’d see. Sure enough, there was Nick out walking the perimeter with Mooch at his side, two soldiers on patrol.

She unlocked the door and stepped outside. It told her a lot that Mooch remained with his sergeant rather than charging over to greet her. Was it because of the mood his friend was in or had they noticed something wasn’t right?

“Is everything okay?”

Nick’s steps faltered briefly before he continued his determined march along the edge of the woods. “All is secure out here.”

That might be true, but it was obvious not everything was okay. He kept moving even when she started down the steps. Callie aimed straight across the yard to cut him off.

“Nick, stop.”

When he would have kept walking, she planted herself directly in his path. “Please, Nick. What’s wrong?”

He finally stopped. “Nothing is wrong. I’m just making sure you got home safe and sound.”

“There’s more to it than that, Nick.”

He kept staring past her into the darkness. “I needed to know you’re safe. That there’s no one out there.”

There was a wildness about him that she’d only glimpsed before. Was this what it was like for him back in Afghanistan? Living with the knowledge that the enemy could be anywhere, anytime, hiding in the shadows or behind the nearest door? Maintaining constant vigilance, nerves on edge all the time?

She edged closer to him, not sure what his reaction would be if she were to actually touch him. “You’re not downrange, Nick. You’re right here with me in Snowberry Creek.”

His laughter was ugly. “I know that in here,” he said, pointing at his temple. Then his hand dropped to his chest. “But in here, sometimes I’m still there, still on the hunt for the bastards who wanted me dead and killed my friends. I can feel them out there, just waiting for me to make another mistake.”

Her heart lurched. “What mistake did you make, Nick?”

He shook his head and moved back from her, clearly about ready to bolt. “You don’t want to know, Callie, and I don’t want to tell you.”

He was probably right about that, but she couldn’t stand to see him hurting like this and not do something to help.

“Fine, Nick, you don’t have to tell me anything, not until you’re ready.”

This time when she tried to approach him, he remained still, his eyes open wide enough that the whites showed all around. Her hand brushed down his arm lightly as she tried not to spook him into full retreat.

When he accepted that much from her, she used both hands this time, letting them drift slowly back up his arms to rest on his shoulders. He quivered, his breathing rough, but he stood his ground. Damn, she wished she had a better idea of what to do, but all she could do was go with her instincts.

She leaned into him, pressing her body along the length of his, but made no effort to wrap him in her arms. They stood there absolutely still for the longest time. Slowly, his stance relaxed slightly. When he finally did move, it was to pull her more fully against his chest, wrapping her in his arms and holding her close.

Nick rested his forehead against hers. “I don’t mean to scare you, Callie. That’s the last thing I want to do.”

She tilted her head back far enough to make sure he could see her clearly. “You don’t scare me, Nick. Frustrate me, yes. Confuse me, yes, but that’s all.”

“Well, considering you have the same effect on me, lady, it only seems fair.”

When he smiled, she knew everything was going to be okay, at least for now. When she started to step away, he tightened his grip on her. “I’m going to kiss you, Callie, unless you tell me to stop.”

Then he claimed her mouth before she had a chance to respond one way or another. His kiss was hot, hungry, and demanding. His tongue swept past her lips, staging a gentle assault on her control. Her knees turned to jelly and her hands didn’t know what to do with themselves. Finally, she latched onto the soft cotton of his shirt and held on for dear life.

His shorts did little to disguise the impact this was having on him. She moaned and rubbed against the rigid length of his erection. He immediately cupped her bottom with both hands and raised her up to increase the pressure enough to almost send her flying over the edge.

“Nick, please!”

She didn’t know exactly what she wanted, but what she got was dragged down to the ground. The grass was cool and damp along the backs of her legs and arms, but that was a luscious contrast to the burning heat of the man stretched out above her. There might be better, more appropriate places for what they were doing, but right now she couldn’t think of a single one.

His hands were everywhere. Tangled in her hair one second as he kissed her hard and deep and then kneading her breasts the next. When he tugged her shirt up to reveal her plain cotton bra, she wished she’d worn something better, something lacy. Nick didn’t seem to mind, especially because with a quick flick of his fingers, he unfastened the front clasp and shoved it out of the way.

His mouth was liquid heat as he worked the sensitive tip of her breast with his teeth and tongue. She arched up, asking him without words for more. He obliged her, murmuring in approval against her skin.

She tugged on his shirt, pulling it up until she could slide her hands across the well-defined lines of his tanned skin she’d been aching to touch for days. His muscles flexed under her touch, all that masculine strength hers for the taking.

Nick surged up her body for another deep kiss, his big body settling over hers. Their mouths mated as he lifted her leg high along his side as he flexed his hips hard against hers. The sheer wonder of the powerful connection arcing between them was amazing.

This was insane, rolling around in the grass out of control and nearly out of her clothes. But right now she didn’t want to think; she wanted to feel, to savor this.

Nick slipped his hand beneath her waistband, his fingers spreading out across her stomach, leaving a burning trail of heat in their wake. He eased to the side, staring down at her with eyes that glittered in the faint light from the kitchen window.

His hand had stilled, as if asking permission to go any farther along this path. She couldn’t find the words, didn’t know what she’d say if she could. When her own hips flexed, he nodded, accepting her unspoken answer.

Her breath caught in her throat as those strong fingers stroked lower, still short of where she thought they were headed. Hoped they were headed. His touch was slow, gently circling across her skin, leaving a trail of hungry fire in its wake.

She tugged his face down for another kiss, his skin so hot to the touch. Then she brushed her hand over his hair. Still military short, it tickled her palm. She liked it. Liked all of this.

“Nick, don’t stop. Not this time.”

•   •   •

He didn’t need a second invitation. Not when Callie was his only anchor is this world. Without her touch, without her warmth, he’d slide right back into his past. He’d be trapped in the endless stench of fear mixed with adrenaline. Where death stalked the streets or out on the bare hillsides that offered no protection from the enemy.

God, her skin was soft. Warm. Enticing. As she kissed him, drawing his tongue into her mouth, he tasted her hunger for him. For this. He quit holding back and clamped his hand between her legs, brushing a fingertip across her slick folds. Callie whimpered softly, then louder when he increased the pressure.

As focused as he was on the woman in his arms, a part of him was still aware of their surroundings. The cool night air in sharp contrast to the heat pouring off her skin, warming him from the outside in. The light of the moon sweeping across them as the clouds drifted across the sky. The slight rustle of the trees in the breeze.

Callie’s eyes were closed, allowing him time to drink his fill of her pretty face. Right now, her eyebrows were drawn down tight and she bit her lower lip, her expression so serious. He could feel the tension building as she strained for completion. He wanted that for her, for them both, but not quite yet.

When he backed off, stopping short of sending her over the edge, her eyes popped open to stare up at him.

“Two can play at that game, Nick.”

Her threat was accompanied by direct action. She shoved him over onto his back. He could have fought back, but he wasn’t that crazy. If this woman wanted to take charge, he’d let her. She quickly had his shorts down far enough to allow her easy access to his pride and joy.

As soon as she gripped him in her fist, he about exploded. The woman definitely had the touch—and knew it, too. Her mouth, still swollen from his kisses, quirked up in a superior smile. She worked him slowly, never quite as hard or fast as he wanted, but enough to hold him prisoner.

But her plan backfired. Yeah, he was so hard for her it hurt, but she wanted him even more. An experienced soldier knew when to spring into action. Any further delay in completing his mission would nearly kill him. He sat up long enough to peel off his shirt and then reached to do the same with his shorts, already down around his hips. Oh, hell yeah, this was going to be so good. Skin against skin. Her slick heat and his . . . Oh, hell. His whole train of thought derailed.

“We can’t.”

The two words dropped between them like a bombshell. Callie looked up at him in confused hurt. “Why?”

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