Authors: Virginia Kantra



She put her hands to her hair. "Of course, you would show up now," she said resignedly.

She thought he winced. He laid a hand on the gate and came in. "Sorry. I know you didn't want to see me yet."

What was he talking about? "No. It's just for the past four days I've showered and dressed and made up my face and waited in my living room like a nice girl for you to come see me. And you never did. So when I've finally given up on you, and I'm covered in dirt and bug spray, here you are."

He was too tall, and she was at too much of a disadvantage. She climbed to her feet.

He stepped forward quickly, cupping her elbow with his free hand. His palm was warm and callused. "You shouldn't stand up so fast."

She wasn't about to tell him it wasn't standing that made her flushed and dizzy.
Or the heat.
It was him. "Thank you, Dr. Palmer. I can take care of myself."

He released her arm. "Sure, you can."

He couldn't even bear to touch her, she thought miserably. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

"I came to see you."

"Well, that makes a nice change. Pretty bad, aren't I?"

"Annie, don't. You look—" His fingers touched her jaw tenderly. Gently, he turned her face to the light. His look was a caress. "Beautiful," he whispered.

Regret burned at the back of her eyes. She wanted to fall into him, into his strong, hard chest and his warm, rough voice and the promise of his eyes. But of course she couldn't do that. He didn't want that.

He cleared his throat, proffering the little pot. "I brought you these."


She fought a shiver of aversion. Rob used to buy her flowers, at least in the beginning. Red roses when they were dating and on all the morning-
, showy apologies without scent or meaning.
Blood bouquets.

Maddox brought her
growing in a pot, pink star-shaped clusters. "I didn't know what else to bring," he said roughly. "I figured your jaw was still sore, so candy was out. Wine … I didn't know if you could take alcohol with painkillers. Flowers seemed safe. Besides, the color made me think of you."

They weren't safe. But they would be. Flowers from Maddox meant something. She just didn't know what. She looked again from the delicate pink flowers to his frustrated face, and tried not to mind so much that he was only doing his duty.

"They're lovely." She accepted the pot.
Forced a smile.
"Well, now that you've made your delivery, I guess you can go."

His mouth compressed.
"In a hurry to get rid of me?"

She felt her chin tremble and stuck it out. "I don't want you coming around just because you feel guilty."

"I do feel guilty. Annie—"

Quickly, she added, "It's all right. I'm responsible for my own feelings." She moved toward the porch, away from the temptation of his hot, solid body. "Things are pretty complicated now with Mitchell.
And the trial.
Cops can't consort with felons. I understand if under the circumstances you don't feel the same anymore."

He glared at her. "You can't think that."

"What am I supposed to think?" she asked crossly. Her jaw hurt. Her head ached. And her heart was breaking. "I tell you I love you, and you take a hike."

"You told me you needed time, damn it. My staying away has nothing to do with my feelings for you."

She set the pot down on the porch and faced him, crossing her arms. "Then why did you say you feel guilty?"

"Because I let you get hurt," he snapped.

Dear Lord, he meant it. The knot in her chest loosened. Dear, responsible Maddox. His granite cop face was set and unhappy. His back was stiff with stress.

She frowned. And his determination to assume blame was going to ruin everything.

"I don't need you to protect me," she said softly, deliberately. "I need you to love me."

His hooded eyes blazed. He took a stride toward her, quickly checked, and her brief flare of hope died. "I haven't earned the right yet. I wasn't there when you needed me."

Goodness, he was stubborn. Well, Annie had learned that she could be stubborn, too.

"Close enough," she said.

"You're the one who saved my sorry butt." Wry humor curved his mouth.
Touched her heart.
"You and that toy robot."

"It was the Avenger Droid." He had a lot to learn. She only prayed she would be the one to teach him.

"Whatever. The point is
I let you and Mitchell down."

Because you didn't come in with guns blazing?
You saved me, Maddox. You saved my son when you talked him into laying down that rifle. Mitchell needs to see that a strong man doesn't have to be violent. And I can't think of a better role model for him than you."

He shook his head, but she could see the desperate longing in his eyes. "Maybe you should think some more. I'm a screw-up, Annie."

"Once upon a time, maybe.
Neither of us is the same person we were twelve years ago. I'm not a teenager with a crush on the town bad boy. I don't need to be protected for my own good. I know what I want."

He stuck his fists in his pockets. "And is that what you want?" he asked steadily.
"A role model for Mitchell?"

Emotion clogged her throat. Didn't he see? Didn't he know?
"If that's all I can have.
What do you want?"

His need was naked in his eyes. "You know what I want. I want you, Annie. I've always wanted you."

All her doubts disappeared, and joy rose up to take their place.

"Come and get me, then," she whispered.

He swooped fast enough to make her dizzy. But his big, square hands, cupping her face, were tender enough to break a girl's heart.

"I want marriage, too," he warned her. "But I can wait until you're sure. I love you, Annie."

She smiled with all the love and trust in her heart and quoted back at him. "How long can you wait? Three months? One year? Five?"

His brows drew together. "Well, I—"

"Because I'll need a week to buy my wedding
and Val can't organize a reception in less than three."

His answering smile started deep in his eyes, a lazy, sexy smile that made her blood pound. "I think maybe I can hold out for three weeks," he said, and kissed her.

With concentrated gentleness, he touched his lips to her unbroken upper lip and then the corners of her mouth. His breath flowed warm across her sensitive stitched skin, making her shiver with surprise and need. His big hands framing her face, he feathered comfort kisses along her aching jaw, butterfly kisses on her cheek. He worked around her bruised and battered face with exquisite tenderness.

Ann sighed and arched into him, into his hot, hard, powerful body. She was melting. He was rigid with restraint and desire. Oh, my, she thought dizzily.

He lifted his head, breathing hard. "Three weeks," he growled.

She pressed her lips together to hold the bubbling joy inside, to keep the taste of him on her mouth.

"Two," she suggested. "I'll be better by then."

And Maddox laughed.



Fourth of July, one year later


he parade was over. The Cutler Cougars marching band had packed up their instruments. From the trumpet-shaped loudspeakers atop the picnic shelter "I'm Proud
Be an American" drifted over the park, a patriotic accompaniment to shouts from the field races and squeals from the dunking booth.

Ann's blouse clung to her in the ninety-degree heat. Her feet were swollen in their neat, flat sandals, but her heart was as light as the blue balloon floating over the tops of the trees. Pressed in a corridor of sweating, whooping parents, she clapped as a sturdy seven-year-old pelted over the finish line under the steady regard of her father's camcorder.

Ann glanced back to the start a hundred yards away, where the older children milled around, waiting for their race. There was Mitchell, his fair hair plastered to his head, his thin face anxious as he scanned the assembled parents. A tiny pang pierced Ann's happiness. Did her son even see her? Or was he looking for somebody else?

His therapist had advised that Mitchell have no more contact with his father than he wanted—and so far, he hadn't wanted any. But with Rob in prison for what would probably be the rest of his life, Ann figured Mitchell had plenty of time to come to terms with his father's guilt. After Rob was convicted of arson and attempted murder, Mitchell had soldiered on. His grades remained steady. At home, he was quiet and obedient. Too quiet, Ann thought.

But recently, be seemed to be coming out of his shell. Stretching at the starting line, his friend Sam leaned over and whispered in his ear. Mitchell nodded, giving her a quick thumbs-up.

"Sorry I'm late." Maddox's big arms came around Ann from behind. His rough voice was warm and amused. "Got caught up with some teenagers who decided to see how far the hose on the fire truck extended."

"Oh, my."
She leaned back against her husband, loving the feel of his broad, hard chest against her shoulder blades, enjoying his solid support.
"Everyone all right?"

"You bet. And that truck's gonna be real shiny by the time they're done waxing."

Ann laughed, reveling in the heat at her back, the strength of the arms around her. And then she straightened as the president of the Rotary Club stepped to the line with his tiny pistol. "They're starting."

"Looks like it." Maddox's voice was still lazy and amused.
But the arms holding her tightened.

Mitchell took his place in the lineup, eyes on the ground, face pale with excitement. Ann tensed in sympathy, remembering past athletic humiliations.

"It's only a race," Maddox said reassuringly over her head.

"I know that."

"Yeah, but did you know that when I hold you like this I can see down your blouse?"

Ann went warm with pleasure. "Stop it," she scolded. But she didn't want him to stop. She didn't want ever to lose the suggestive, tender, private conversations bad boy Maddox Palmer carried on with her in public—or the way he made good on his teasing when they got home.

The starting pistol cracked. The line surged raggedly as twenty-seven nine-and ten-year-olds bolted over the withered grass and their parents shrieked encouragement.

"Come on,


"Mitchell," Ann whispered under her breath.

And there he was, at the front of the pack, his long legs stretching, his wiry arms pumping,
look of absolute determination on his face.

"Go, sport!" Maddox roared, and the boy threw himself forward and over the finish line.


Ann jumped up and down in surprised delight. "He won!"

"Damn straight," Maddox said.

She turned to look at him, but he only grinned down at her with such obvious pride and pleasure that her heart eased. And then her boy was pushing toward them through the crowd of parents and children, his face red, his hair rumpled.

The words tumbled out before he could even reach her.

"Oh, Mitchell!
I'm so pr—"

He beamed, but his eyes went past her to Maddox. "Did you see me? I put my head up at the end just like you told me, and I won. I
, Dad."

Joy seized Ann by the throat. Tears started to her eyes.

Maddox stepped forward, extending his powerful arm to pull Mitchell to him and hold him tightly against his shoulder.

His own eyes were glistening.

"You sure did, son," he said gruffly. "You sure did." Mitchell flung his arms around Maddox's broad torso. As she stared at the two fair heads so close together, Ann's heart was so full she thought it might burst.

Sam came up to them, her dark ponytail bouncing on her neck. "Nice race, Mitch. Guess I owe you an ice cream."

Mitchell lifted his head and grinned. "Nice race, Sam. And you owe me an ice cream."

Maddox's shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. He straightened, reaching for his wallet. "How about you let it be my treat."

Pulling out a five, he handed it to the girl.

"Gee, thanks, Sergeant Palmer."

"Thanks, Dad."

They ran off.

Ann smiled. "Nice job,

Maddox colored with equal pleasure and embarrassment. "He never called me that before."

"I know." She touched his cheek, ignoring the indulgent glances of the people around them. He slid his arms around her, turning his lips into her palm.

"Better get used to it," she said. "I'd say you've got seven months."

He went very still. "Annie …
you sure?"

Anticipation brimmed inside her.
"As sure as I can be.
I'm not very far along. Six weeks? Eight?"

"Oh, God."
He closed his eyes and rested his forehead on hers.


He opened his eyes, and his hooded gaze was so deep and loving her heart wept with joy. "I'm just happy, Annie. You make me incredibly happy."

She smiled with tender understanding. "It takes me that way sometimes, too. I have everything I ever wanted with you. I'm still not used to it."

His slow, rare grin ignited as he quoted back at her. "Better get used to it, Annie Palmer."

"Oh, I think I will," she said. "After all, we've got—"

"—all the time in the world," he promised her.


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