Authors: Alexis Morgan
“Nick, you’re thinking way too hard.”
Angling his head to look down into Callie’s pretty face, he meant to tell her that he shouldn’t be there. Or maybe to thank her for making him feel so welcome. Yeah, that would be good. But instead, he did the one thing he shouldn’t have.
He kissed her.
ick sure knew how to kiss. He tasted like the night: cool and mysterious, his lips surprisingly soft, especially in contrast to the slight rasp of his whiskers against her skin. He probably hadn’t shaved since that morning, but she didn’t care, and now wasn’t the time to be thinking about it anyway.
This was a moment to savor and definitely one for the record books. She sighed and tipped her head back to rest against the strong curve of his shoulder, parting her lips just enough to let Nick know that she’d welcome an even deeper kiss.
The hint worked. He wrapped his arms around her as his tongue swept in and out of her mouth on a quick foray. Murmuring her approval, she raised up to do a little exploring of her own, at the same time tracing the curve of his cheek with her fingertips.
The night air took on a special warmth, surrounded as she was by the strength and heat of Nick’s warrior body. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to crawl right up on his lap, to feel the press of her body against his. That would be too much too soon, but if she didn’t back away now, she might not be able to resist.
Before she had a chance to retreat, Nick took the initiative and broke off the kiss, jerking back out of reach. He stared down at her, his eyes flared wide and looking a little panicky. His breath came in short gasps, but then her own sounded as if she’d been running sprints, too.
His expression abruptly morphed from confused to absolutely blank, every emotion he’d just been feeling evidently disappearing between one second and the next. Her skin prickled with goose bumps as if the temperature had suddenly dropped ten degrees.
She would have retreated to the far end of the swing if his arm wasn’t still holding her prisoner. As if reading her mind, Nick shifted his arm off her shoulders and up onto the back of the swing. Callie inched away, opening up a far larger breach between them than the short distance she’d actually moved.
His eyes dropped closed and stayed that way for several seconds. When he finally looked at her again, she was looking at a total stranger, so cold and distant.
“Callie, I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”
Okay, now she was getting mad. “Do what, Nick? It was a kiss. Nothing more.”
Evidently he didn’t agree. Nick stood up and walked a short distance away, hovering just out of reach. Callie stayed on the swing, not sure what had just happened and not all that anxious to find out.
“I’d better go, Callie. And unless you’ve changed your mind about me sticking around, I’ll get started on the yard tomorrow morning.”
He kept his back to her as he spoke. Did he really think she’d send him packing because of one ill-advised kiss? Maybe so, because he sure sounded dead serious. She wasn’t even tempted to ask him to leave, if for no other reason than she hadn’t had time to decide what to do about Mooch.
Keeping her voice businesslike, she gave him his answer. “I’m not sure what yard tools you’ll find over there in the garage, but feel free to borrow anything you need from my dad’s toolshed. If there’s stuff like fertilizer or weed killer that you need, make a list so I can pick it up for you.”
“I’ll do that.” The rigid set of his shoulders softened a bit. “And, Callie, just so you know, the problem is with me, not you.”
She wanted to point out that that was what they all said, but he was already gone. Mooch stopped to get petted one last time and then charged off into the darkness to catch up with his buddy. Callie set the swing in motion, swaying gently as she listened to the soft murmur of the fountain. Gradually, the last bit of her own tension drained away. It was definitely time to go inside.
Tomorrow she’d get back to work on her plans for the bed-and-breakfast. Since Nick would be working outside in the yard, she could work inside on the detailed inventory of the rest of the house. Maybe it was time to start clearing out the garage and attic over there, too.
Hopefully she could keep busy without crowding Nick too much. She paused at the top of the porch steps to listen to the night one last time.
And even knowing he wouldn’t hear her, she called softly, “Good night, Nick. You, too, Mooch. I hope you both sleep well.”
Then she went inside and locked the rest of the world out.
• • •
Nick took sanctuary just inside the tree line. This time the shadows offered him a chance to hide, a place to lick his wounds. God, could that have gone any more wrong? What had he been thinking? That answer was simple. He hadn’t been thinking at all. He’d been feeling: the warm press of Callie’s body next to his on the swing, the sweet touch of her hand entwined with his, and then her lips against his, their breath intermingling in the cool night air.
How the hell was he supposed to resist all of that?
He stayed at the edge of the woods, watching to make sure Callie was all right. He suspected—no, he
—his reaction had hurt her feelings. Tomorrow he’d find some way to make amends if he could. Maybe some coffee and pastries from that shop he’d spotted in town when he was on his run.
At least he hadn’t completely spoiled her time out on the swing. The moon was bright enough for him to see her face clearly. She had the look of a woman finding simple pleasure in the quiet of the night. After a bit, she headed back for the house.
And to his amazement, at the top of the steps she stared back toward the woods right where he stood waiting in the darkness. She said something just before she disappeared back into the house.
Her words had him smiling, some of his fear that he’d ruined things between them floating away on the night breeze.
“Good night to you, too, Callie. I’ll see you in the morning.”
It wasn’t until then that he realized that Mooch had been there with him the whole time. The dog was leaning against Nick’s leg as the two of them had silently watched Callie.
He patted Mooch on the head. “Damn, dog, we’ve got it bad.”
His furry companion sighed loudly in agreement. Nick laughed. “We’d better turn in for the night. We’ve got a lot of work to do around here tomorrow.”
As they approached Spence’s yard, Mooch froze. He looked up at Nick and then back toward the house, growling low and deep.
“What is it, boy? What are you sensing?”
The dog’s agitation left Nick wishing for two things. First, that Mooch could actually answer the question. And second, that he’d brought his gun with him instead of his pocketknife. A four-inch blade wouldn’t do squat if whoever was out there was packing.
Mooch finally started forward, his nose to the ground all the way across the yard. By the time they reached the porch, he was back to normal.
“I should kick your furry ass for acting that way over some stupid squirrel or a raccoon, dog.”
Nick let them both inside and locked the door.
“You did good.” He reassured his buddy with a good scratching. “I said that for their benefit.”
After flipping on the light for the upstairs hallway, Nick retrieved his gun from his duffel and positioned himself beside the front window, watching for any sign of movement outside. His gut told him that whatever had upset Mooch was walking around on two legs, not four.
The only question was if the intruder was still out there. A minute later, he heard the sound of an engine starting up and then fading away into the distance. Coincidence? Maybe, but he’d have to wait until morning to look around for any sign that someone had been hanging around the yard while he’d been over at Callie’s. If he found anything, he’d be having a talk with the police chief for sure to see if that uncle of Spence’s was back in town.
The solid feel of his gun in his hand was a comfort, familiar, although he would have preferred to have his rifle with him. Even without it, though, he’d be fine. It wasn’t himself he was worried about. What if it had been Callie coming back through the woods alone in the darkness? The possibilities had him wishing he had a handy target for his anger.
Because no matter what the risk, he’d do whatever it took to make sure Callie was safe. And he wasn’t doing it just because he owed that much to Spence. He hadn’t risked his own life and seen his friends shot and killed in that hellhole half a world away just to come home and put up with some bastard threatening a woman, and especially Callie.
No way and on no day.
There was nothing more to be done tonight, but tomorrow the hunt would begin.
here should be a law against phones ringing before . . . What time was it anyway? Callie raised her head to glare at the clock. Okay, it was almost eight o’clock, but still. It wasn’t as if she had to be anywhere by a certain time.
Rolling over onto her back, she grabbed her cell phone off the nightstand. She had a fair idea who it was because none of her friends would ever call her this early. Even if Callie had been up, she had a hard time communicating until after her first cup of coffee. Sometimes it took a second or even third cup before she could function at full speed.
She covered her eyes with her other forearm to block out the bright light. “Hi, Mom. What’s up?”
“Oops, sorry. Did I wake you?” Not that she sounded at all apologetic.
“Yeah, but I should probably get moving anyway.”
In a couple of hours. “So what’s going on? Are you and Dad enjoying your time in the sun?”
“Yes, we are. Your dad is due out on the golf course, but he wouldn’t go until I called you.”
There was a note in her mom’s voice that had Callie sitting up. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“No, well, not exactly.” Then she broke off to talk to Callie’s father. “I will! Give me a chance.”
A sick feeling settled in Callie’s stomach as she waited for her mom to get to the point.
“You see, honey, I got an e-mail from Rosalyn McKay this morning. She wanted to know if either of us would be interested in being on a new committee she’s putting together to work on bringing new business to town.”
All of that came out on one long breath. And none of it had anything to do with Callie. “So why the call, Mom? Surely she wasn’t asking if I wanted to be on the committee or anything.”
“Not at all.” Now her mom was sounding a bit too casual. “It seems she’d been talking to the new police chief. Do you remember Gage Logan? Well, he moved back to Snowberry Creek to take over for Chief Green when he retired.”
Again, nothing to do with Callie. “Yes, I knew Gage was back in town. We’ve talked a couple of times. What does all of this have to do with me?”
“Well, he happened to mention to Mayor McKay that he’d noticed the grass at Spence’s house had been recently mowed. She was surprised to find out that you have someone living there now. To be honest, your father and I weren’t happy to be the last to know.”
Sometimes Callie forgot how fast the grapevine worked in a town the size of Snowberry Creek. “I doubt you’re actually the last. There must be someone in town who hasn’t heard the news.”
Okay, sarcasm wasn’t the smartest response, but Nick’s presence next door was nobody’s business but her own. As tempting as it was to point that out, Callie kept that last part to herself.
“Anyway, your father is worried about you being there all alone with a total stranger living right next door. Do you want us to come back home? Or better yet, you could fly down to stay here with us. A kind of little vacation. It would do you good to get away for a few days.”
The fact that Callie had been living on her own in cities far more dangerous than Snowberry Creek seemed to have escaped her parents for the moment. “No, Mom, I don’t want you to come back early, and I really don’t have time for a visit right now. While I appreciate both offers, I need to make a decision about what to do with Spence’s house soon, and I can’t do that long-distance.”
“But what do you know about this man?”
“Do you remember Spence talking about his two best friends, Nick Jenkins and Leif Brevik? Well, Nick is back from Afghanistan and stopped by to introduce himself. Rather than make him get a motel room, I offered to let him stay over at Spence’s house. I thought that would be easier since Nick has that dog with him that saved Spence’s squad from an attack. He’s hoping I’d like to adopt him. The dog, that is, not Nick.”
Although her wayward libido might argue that point. She also didn’t mention that her first offer had been to let Nick stay at her parents’ house with her. She could just imagine how well that would have gone over right about now.
Evidently the fact that Nick was a friend of Spence’s wasn’t enough to reassure her mom.
“Besides being a friend of Spence’s, what do you really know about this man, Callie? How long does he plan to stay?”
It was time to put an end to this discussion. “I know he was Spence’s friend, Mom. That’s good enough for me. He offered to stick around a few days longer to finish cleaning up the yard over there as a favor to me. He’s on leave and I suspect feeling a little disconnected. Coming back from a long tour in Afghanistan is a big adjustment.”
Too wide-awake now to have any hope of going back to sleep, she got out of bed and made her way downstairs to the kitchen. Luckily, she’d set the timer on the coffeemaker last night so the coffee was already made. She filled her favorite mug and added cream and sugar while her mom continued talking.
“How do you know this is even the real Nick?”
Oh, brother. She was really grasping at straws now. “Because I talked to him when Spence and I were Skyping. I’d also seen pictures of him and Mooch, the dog. Believe me, there aren’t many dogs that look like him.”
She stuck a stale bagel in the toaster. “Tell Dad I appreciate him worrying about me.” Not. “But he doesn’t need to miss his tee time because of me. I’m fine, and Nick’s one of the good guys.”
Even if she had a hard time getting a solid read on him sometimes.
“Okay, if you say so, honey. But if you change your mind about wanting to come down for a few days, all you have to do is call.”
“Thanks, Mom. Like I said, I appreciate the offer. Now, let Dad get to his golf game, and you go soak up some rays with a good book. And don’t worry. I’m fine.”
Evidently her mom wasn’t quite ready to hang up, because she changed the subject and began talking about some family friends who’d stopped by to see them recently. As she talked on, Callie noticed a movement in the backyard out of the corner of her eye.
Sure enough, Nick was headed this way carrying a paper bag and two cups in one of those cardboard carriers. He was dressed in a pair of camouflage pants, a sleeveless T-shirt, and heavy boots. He looked as if he’d already worked up a sweat, his tan skin gleaming in the morning sun. Yum.
Which reminded her that she looked as if she’d just rolled out of bed, rumpled and with a bad case of bed head.
“Mom, I hate to cut you off, but there’s a contractor coming this morning. I need to get dressed before he gets here, so we can do a walk-through next door.”
She disconnected before her mom could do much more than sputter. Although she hated lying to her parents, she wasn’t about to tell her mom that she was going to let Nick in the house dressed as she was in flannel shorts and a tank top. No bra, either. Great. Odd how that one little thing made her feel so much more vulnerable.
Nick was already at the door, leaving her no time to do anything but tough it out. She unlocked the dead bolt and opened the door.
“Come on in.”
He stepped inside but didn’t immediately remove his sunglasses, making it hard to tell what he was thinking. Well, that wasn’t true, either, given that his mouth had just curved up in a huge grin.
“I brought breakfast as a peace offering, but I’m guessing I got you out of bed.”
Could this get any more embarrassing? “No, my mother had that honor. She was calling to grill me about you staying next door. Seems it was the police chief who told the mayor, who then told my folks. Nothing like a small town for spreading gossip at the speed of light.”
His smile faded a bit. “Was she upset?”
“No, just a bit overprotective. Seriously, as long as I’m working in some other city, they don’t seem to have problems realizing I’m an adult. But five minutes after I walk back in this house, they want to set a curfew and meet every guy I date or, better yet, his parents. You know, to make sure he comes from good family.”
Nick peeled off his sunglasses and hung them on the neckline of his shirt, a bit of devilment twinkling in his eyes. “I’ve been through my fair share of parental grilling and managed to convince most of them I was harmless.
“However”—he paused to give her a long look from her polished pink toenails back up to her tousled hair—“I suspect right about now your dad would kick me to the curb for what I’m thinking.”
Well, then. What could she say to that?
She pointed toward the bag he’d set on the counter. “Can that wait long enough for me to take a quick shower and get dressed?”
“The muffins were still warm when I bought them at Something’s Brewing in town. They’ll be fine, and it won’t matter if the coffee gets cold since you’ve made a fresh pot.”
He glanced out toward the backyard and put his sunglasses back on. “I think I’d better wait outside. You know, to make sure Mooch doesn’t get in trouble.”
Why did she think that was just an excuse? “It won’t take me long.”
She watched as he whistled the dog back to his side and then tossed a stick for Mooch to fetch. Watching the man and his buddy engage in some rough-and-tumble play held her riveted. Then, as if sensing her watching them, Nick looked up at her over the top of his sunglasses briefly before throwing the stick again.
Her face flushed hot, hopefully from embarrassment and not from a little misplaced lust. She stepped away from the door. What was she supposed to be doing? Oh, yeah, a shower, and maybe a cold one would be a real good idea.
• • •
Nick chased after Mooch, both man and dog enjoying the game even though they’d already gone on a long run earlier. But after seeing Callie all rumpled and fresh from her bed, Nick had a whole new kind of energy to burn off.
Damn, that woman was temptation personified. Despite his firm resolve to keep things strictly platonic, it had been all he could do to walk back outside without kissing her senseless. Did she have any idea how sexy she was? His mind conjured up the image of her standing in the kitchen, her long legs tanned and bare, the thin cotton of her white tank top doing little to disguise the dusky tips of her breasts.
Nick tossed the stick as far as he could send it. While Mooch chased it down, Nick stared up at the bright blue sky. “Spence, buddy, I could sure use some help here.”
No response, but then he wasn’t really expecting one. Maybe he’d be better off concentrating on something else. He’d already done a thorough search of Spence’s yard with the help of Mooch’s nose. If someone had really been prowling the place last night, he hadn’t found any sign of it. That didn’t necessarily mean no one had been there. The gravel driveway wouldn’t show any tracks, and neither would the porch and steps.
The two of them had also skirted the edge of the woods, looking for footprints or broken branches that would indicate someone had been there. No luck there, either.
Despite the lack of hard evidence, Nick wasn’t yet ready to write it all off to some stray varmint setting off Mooch’s hunting instincts. The one thing they hadn’t done was to check Callie’s yard, and there was no time like the present. He called Mooch back to his side and did a slow circle along the edge of the woods, studying the ground as they walked.
Again, the only boot prints were his. Feeling marginally better, he sat down on the swing while Mooch did some reconnoitering on his own. A few minutes later, the back door opened and Callie came down the steps carrying the bag of muffins and two steaming mugs of coffee.
He let her come to him but wasn’t at all surprised that she sat down on the far end of the swing after handing him his coffee.
She held out the bag of muffins. “You pick first since you bought them.”
Rather than argue, he snagged the blueberry. “It was hard to choose. That shop has an amazing selection of pastries. I might go broke sampling them all.”
Callie laughed. “I know what you mean. I went to high school with the owner. Bridey worked as a pastry chef in a big restaurant down in California before returning to Snowberry Creek to open her own shop.”
Nick bit into the huge muffin, the burst of flavor from the fresh blueberries making him wish he’d bought more. He eyed the bag that still held Callie’s muffin.
“You’d better eat that quick because I’m not sure one will be enough for me. Besides, how else am I supposed to find out if I like the blueberry or the peach better?”
Callie immediately pulled her muffin out of the bag and held it out of his reach. “Too late, mister. By and large I’m not a violent person, but I’m not above smacking hands when it comes to defending one of Bridey’s pastries.”
Then she relented and broke off a piece and held it out to him. It was every bit as good as the blueberry. “Next time I’ll know to buy two of each.”
“I hate to tell you, but the raspberry and blackberry muffins and scones are every bit as good, so bring plenty of money when you go.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Nick settled back into his corner of the swing, content for the moment to enjoy the rich coffee and the rest of his breakfast. It pleased him that Callie didn’t seem to be in a hurry to start her day’s chores, either.
He stared up at the tall trees and the puffs of white clouds drifting across the blue sky. It didn’t seem quite real to him. He’d been back in the States for weeks, not hours, but some part of him had yet to accept that he didn’t need to be wearing body armor all the time.