Christmas on 4th Street (Fool's Gold Romance) (4 page)

BOOK: Christmas on 4th Street (Fool's Gold Romance)
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“You’re coaxing me. I’m not some wild dog you’re trying to rescue.”

She grinned. “I can’t help it. It’s a girl thing.”

He grumbled something under his breath, then finally walked to the sofa and shrugged out of his jacket. He lay down. He was too tall to stretch out, but he was able to turn on his side, with his legs not too bunched. She draped the second blanket on top of him.

“You don’t have to sleep.”

“I won’t.”

“Of course not. I’ll be back a little before five.”

She walked out of the storage room and went to help her customers. They each bought two bears. A family with a toddler in a stroller came in and wanted to talk about the train set. Ten minutes later they left with one, along with three holiday DVDs and an angel doll for their young daughter. Noelle tiptoed back into the storage room to check on her guest.

Gabriel’s eyes were closed and he didn’t stir as she approached. Good, she thought as she backed out toward the front of the store. He needed the rest. It was the best way to heal. While she’d never been cut as badly as he had, she knew something about what it took the body to recover.

* * *

 

The afternoon passed quickly. Noelle was kept busy with customers and brainstorming sales and events. Important when one was in retail, she thought. About ten minutes before five, she walked into the break room and stopped by the sofa. Gabriel didn’t look as if he’d moved at all, but his color was better and some of the tension seemed to have faded. She put a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey,” she began, her voice soft. “It’s nearly—”

He sat up instantly, his eyes wide with alarm. “What?”

She kept her voice low and calm. “It’s Noelle. You’re in my store. You’ve been sleeping.”

His dark blue gaze locked on her face. “I cut my hand. I don’t have a brain injury.”

“Just checking,” she told him as she straightened and walked to the refrigerator. She took out her pitcher of water and poured him a glass. “Felicia phoned. She’ll be here in about ten minutes.”

He shifted until he was facing front. “She didn’t have to leave work early for me.”

Noelle handed him the glass. “It’s nearly five. You’ve been asleep for three hours.”

Gabriel took the glass. “I was tired,” he admitted. “Thanks for letting me crash.”

She turned one of the dining chairs toward him and sat down. As always, by the end of the day, her feet were ready for a break.

“It’s the least I could do,” she told him. “You drove me down the mountain. Of course I could have done you in with an umbrella and chose not to, so maybe
you
owe
me.

“Not likely.”

He drank the water. She tried not to notice how appealing a warm and sleepy man could be. His light brown hair was mussed, his expression relaxed. She was sure the wariness would return soon enough, but it was nice to see him without his guard up.

For a second she allowed herself to think what it would be like to crawl up next to him—to feel his arms around her and maybe snuggle on the sofa. She hadn’t been in a relationship in what felt like a millennium, but was actually just about two years. Long enough for her to be lonely, she thought.

He finished the water then set the empty glass on the table by the sofa. “Thanks for all of this,” he said, motioning to the blanket and the sofa. “You were right.”

“I usually am.”

His mouth twitched. “And modest.”

She shrugged. “I live with the burden.”

The twitch turned into a smile. “Are you thinking sainthood or just a tasteful plaque?”

“We’ll start with a plaque.” She studied him. “You’re still exhausted. Jet lag?”

He nodded. “I spent the past two days traveling.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Germany. There’s a big hospital there.” He looked like he was going to say more, but didn’t.

“How’d you get back to the States? Military transport?”

“Part of the way. Then commercial. There was snow in Chicago.”

She looked at the lines around his eyes and mouth. “Your hand is bothering you,” she observed. “Can I get you something for it?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re not.” She didn’t risk glancing at the bandage. “You’re forgetting I saw it earlier.”

“How could I forget? You fainted.”

“I didn’t. I
nearly
fainted. There’s a difference.”

He leaned back against the sofa, looking more relaxed. “Not much of one.”

“You’re trying to change the subject.”

One eyebrow rose. “From?”

“How you acting like a macho idiot isn’t going to help you get better.”

“This would be your medical opinion?”

She ignored that. “Pain is stress and stress inhibits healing. I read a lot,” she added, knowing she wasn’t ready to tell him why she knew what she was talking about. “Would it help if I said I wouldn’t tell?”

“No.”

“You’re so stubborn.”

“Do I get a plaque, too?”

She held up both hands. “Fine. Don’t heal. Have an open wound forever. See if I care.”

He stood slowly. She was tall, but he was taller. He looked all manly in her storage room, she thought. Out of place, but in a good way. If that was possible.

“I should go wait out front,” he said, reaching for his jacket. “So Felicia doesn’t have to park.”

“You up to this?” she asked, thinking that he hadn’t seen his brother in a long time. “Dealing with all the emotional stuff? If it gets too much, tell Felicia you’re still recovering from blood loss. She’ll force you to go lie down. Oh, but if you do that, don’t resist. She knows things.”

The amusement returned to Gabriel’s eyes. “What kind of things?”

“You know. Scary military stuff. Like how to twist you up like a pretzel and make you scream like a little girl.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed that about her.”

“It’s true. She’s not as good as Consuelo, but she has skills.”

He studied her for a second. She felt the heat of his gaze and hoped he was thinking how he’d like to rip her clothes off and have his manly way with her. Then he leaned close and kissed her on the cheek.

“Thanks for not running me through with the umbrella. And for the nap.”

“Anytime,” she murmured, holding in a sigh. Apparently Gabriel found her very resistible. Just her luck.

She walked him to the front door and was about to say she hoped to see him again when an older lady called for help by the glass ornaments.

“Be right there,” she said and turned back to say something to Gabriel.

But he was already gone.

Chapter 3

 

“Great view,” Gabriel said, tipping his beer bottle toward the darkness beyond the deck that wrapped around his brother’s house. During the day the side of the mountain was visible, but now there was only the outline of trees and the starry sky above. A little light spilled out from the house. Enough for him to make out the man sitting next to him and the railing of the deck. But beyond that was only the night.

Dinner had been more comfortable than he’d expected. Carter had done most of the talking. He’d asked a few questions, then gone on about his day and his friends. He was a good kid, Gabriel thought. Well-adjusted and friendly. Felicia had kept the conversation going, as well, but she’d been carefully watching Gideon, as if concerned this was all too much for him.

After the meal, she’d shooed the brothers out of the kitchen to “get caught up.” They’d come out on the deck, where it was cold and quiet.

“I like the light,” his brother said.

Gabriel thought of all the skylights in the house. He only knew the broad brushstrokes of his brother’s imprisonment, but suspected he’d been held somewhere indoors. It made sense to want to see as much sky as possible after that.

He sipped his beer, conscious of the constant throbbing in his hand. Later, when he was ready for bed, he would take something. Over-the-counter only, he amended, thinking that Noelle would mock him if she knew.

“Sweet setup,” he said. “You’ve done well.”

“I got lucky. I didn’t plan to settle here when I came to visit. Hell, I wasn’t planning to stay anywhere. But then I saw the radio stations for sale and I figured I might as well give it a go.”

“Because you know so much about radio.”

Gideon grinned. “I learned. I like what I do.”

“Oldies.” Gabriel shuddered. “Why?”

“It’s real music. Not everyone wants to listen to LL Cool J.”

“Then they’re missing out. Carter prefers my music over yours.”

His brother leaned his head back. “You’re guessing.”

“Maybe, but I’m right.”

“Everyone has flaws.” His brother turned toward him. “He’s impressive, isn’t he?”

“Yeah.”

“I want to take credit, but I can’t,” Gideon admitted. “It was all his mother. She did better than I ever could have. Then she got sick. That forced him to grow up fast.”

“Does he talk about her much?”

“Some. Felicia’s fine with it. She encourages him to make sure he has her picture around and that he tells stories about her. Keeping the memories fresh.”

“She’s great, too.”

Gideon nodded. “I can’t explain why she loves me, but she does. She’s fiercely loyal. Determined. When I was ready to give up on being part of a family, she wouldn’t. She was willing to take Carter and raise him herself.” He sounded impressed and a little in awe. “I didn’t want to let her in, but I couldn’t help myself. And once I stopped trying to fight her, it was easy to admit how much I loved her.”

Gabriel understood the concept of family. He’d been in one, had friends with families. He got that people loved each other. Some bonds couldn’t be avoided, but romantic love? It wasn’t worth the trouble. Life was tenuous. It could be over in an instant, so why bother?

“You’ve come a long way,” he said instead.

“I didn’t think I could make it,” Gideon told him. “But this damned town healed me. I can’t say how, but it did. I started to get involved.” He chuckled. “There are festivals practically every weekend. Wait until you see how they celebrate Christmas here. It’s an eye-opener.” He turned to his brother. “I know you only came because you got injured, but I’m glad you’re here.”

Gabriel was having trouble keeping up. As a kid Gideon had been open and friendly, but his time in Special Forces had changed him. The adult Gideon he knew was a taciturn soldier—a man who would rather cut off his right arm than discuss his feelings. Yet here he was, talking about belonging and love and connection.

“I should check the back of your neck for some kind of pod,” he mumbled.

Gideon laughed again. “I haven’t been taken over by aliens. I’m who I always was. Before everything else happened.” His humor faded. “Sometimes it’s hard, but Carter and Felicia are patient with me. I get through.”

Which sounded rational, Gabriel thought. Not like his brother, but healthy. “What happens next?” he asked.

His brother took a swallow of his beer. “We survive the parents’ visit.”

Something Gabriel didn’t want to think about. “How long will they be here?”

“Through Christmas. They have a vacation rental in town. They won’t be living here.”

“That’s something.” He couldn’t take too much of their old man.

“How you feeling?” Gideon asked.

Gabriel was about to point out that not everyone wanted to share at this meeting when he realized his brother was looking at his hand.

“It hurts.”

“What happened?”

Gabriel settled deeper into the chair. “A bunch of nineteen-year-olds got drunk.”

“It always starts that way.”

“You know it. My patient and his buddies got in a fight and one of them went through a plate glass window. They drove him directly to the hospital, which saved his life. There was a large piece of glass and I forgot I didn’t have superpowers and pulled it out bare-handed.”

The move had been stupid. He knew it and everyone in the E.R. had known it, too. One second he’d been a rational doctor, doing what had to be done to save his patient, and the next he’d been spurting blood everywhere.

Gideon raised his bottle. “We all have moments.”

“Not like that.” He’d tried to keep working on the teen, but there was no way. His team had stepped in and another doctor had seen to the kid. Gabriel had stabilized his own bleeding until the crisis was over and he could be looked at without endangering anyone. Unfortunately, he’d lost more blood than anyone had realized.

“I ended up having to be admitted myself,” he grumbled, then swore. “What was I thinking?”

“You weren’t,” his brother reminded him. “You were reacting.”

“Not well and not in the right way.” There was no point in reliving a past he couldn’t change. “I was lucky—there’s no permanent damage. It hurts like a son of a bitch. My CO told me it was time to go home on leave, so here I am.” Otherwise he would have worked through the holidays, like he did every year. He always volunteered to stay so others could be with their families. This time he hadn’t had a choice.

“I’m sorry you got hurt, but I’m glad you’re here,” Gideon told him.

“You want someone to take the pressure off with Dad around.”

“That, too. Although I figure we can throw Carter in his direction. From what everyone tells me, grandparents can’t resist grandkids.”

An interesting plan. “You’re not worried about what the old man might do to your kid?”

Gideon smiled. “Nope. Felicia will protect him. She’s tough and fierce. I wouldn’t want to go up against her.”

“Good to know. Then I’ll stay out of her way.”

“Just don’t threaten Carter and me and you’ll be fine. Oh, I guess the dog falls under that umbrella now.”

Gabriel started to say something, but the word
umbrella
reminded him of the woman he’d met earlier. Noelle, who’d been willing to defend her friend’s house with nothing more than bravado and an umbrella.

He was glad she’d seen the error of her attack. Had there been a real intruder, she would have been in trouble. But he’d been no threat and he had to admit she’d been an unexpected distraction.

For a moment he allowed himself to wonder how his evening would have been different if she’d been the one sitting out here with him instead of his brother. He grinned. For one thing, they wouldn’t be so far apart. And they sure wouldn’t be talking.

“What are your plans for after the holidays?” Gideon asked. “Staying in?”

By
in
his brother meant the army. His smile faded.

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

He’d always planned to stick around long enough to get his twenty years. He would still be young enough to move into a regular job at a hospital. But lately, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Or could.

It was the flights, he thought grimly. Those years of shepherding injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. They were in no position to be moved, but needed the more intense care only a permanent military hospital could provide. So they were patched up and flown out. He and his team spent the hours dealing with one crisis after another. The conditions were cramped, the patients critical. Space and weight limited the equipment.

When he hadn’t been on the flights, he’d been working in field hospitals. Those on the front line suffered from PTSD, while those who cared for them battled compassion fatigue. Watching the endless parade of injured, continually fighting against impossible odds without ever knowing who lived and who died, left a person drained. Even his rotations to the hospital in Germany didn’t provide much relief.

Gabriel knew that was where he was now. Exhausted and empty. Which increased the likelihood that a person made mistakes and he had the hand injury to prove it. He needed to get away. His brother’s invitation had provided a place. Going to spend time with the family at the holidays required no explanation.

The door to the house slid open. Felicia stepped out into the night. She crossed to Gideon and placed her hand on his shoulder. He put his fingers on hers.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, her voice quiet. “I wanted to give the two of you plenty of time to connect. A strong relationship between brothers would be beneficial to each of you and it would provide Carter with a view of how siblings interact.”

Gideon smiled. “How could I have resisted you?”

Felicia smiled. “You didn’t—at least not physically. It was your resistance at giving your heart that was the cause of your delay in admitting your feelings. I’m glad you’re more open now We’re going to have children and I want Carter to be comfortable as a brother, but also a member of the family. I don’t want him to worry he’s being pushed out.”

“Which is not what you came out to tell us.”

“No. Your parents just called.”

Gabriel felt the tension in his shoulders. “Giving us an ETA?”

Felicia looked at him. “Yes. They’re so excited about meeting me and Carter that they decided to drive straight through. They’re only an hour or so outside of town.” She returned her attention to her husband. “I knew you’d want to mentally prepare for their arrival.”

Gideon’s humor faded. He was on his feet in a second, already moving toward the far end of the deck. About fifteen yards away, he stopped and turned back.

Gabriel recognized the need to bolt. He was feeling it, too. Unfortunately he didn’t have anywhere to go. Although he remembered seeing a couple of hotels in town.

No, he told himself. He wouldn’t leave tonight. But the morning was a whole other matter.

* * *

 

The Boylan family could trace their service roots back to the Civil War. Each generation of Boylan men enlisted. They weren’t officers, they were never famous for their exploits, but they gave to their country and had the medals to show for their courage.

Gideon had wanted to be a soldier from the time he was little, but Gabriel had wanted something else. As a boy he’d dreamed of seeing the world, of visiting great museums and studying other cultures. Gideon had been loud and athletic. Gabriel had preferred reading to playing in the tree-house fort their father had built in one of their many backyards. He’d preferred theater to baseball and debate to football.

The summer he and his brother turned fifteen, his father had taken him for a long hike. When they were alone in the woods, the older Boylan had demanded to know if Gabriel was gay.

Gabriel knew he was different from his brother and his father, but there were other guys like him. Guys who wanted more than hitting a ball. And it had nothing to do with whether or not he liked girls.

He’d said he wasn’t and had known his father didn’t believe him. On the bright side, when Gideon got caught with a cheerleader in the back of the family car, he’d been grounded for a month. When Gabriel had been found with the pastor’s daughter in a very compromising situation, he’d gotten a slap on the back and unexpected praise. So there had been compensations.

But on the whole, it hadn’t been easy being his father’s son. Now, all these years later, as he waited in the cold for his parents to arrive, Gabriel told himself there was no need to head for the hills. Or in this case, the mountains. He might not have his brother’s Special Forces training, but he figured he could make a run at surviving for a few weeks on his own. Not that disappearing that way was an option.

They were all lined up on the porch. Even Webster, who had no idea why the pack was shivering in the cold but happy to be a part of things.

An aging Ford Explorer pulled up in front of the house and parked. Gabriel watched the couple that stepped out.

His first thought was that they were older than he remembered. It had been years and the time showed—more on his father than his mother. His second thought was that his father seemed smaller somehow. Not the imposing figure he’d always been.

BOOK: Christmas on 4th Street (Fool's Gold Romance)
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