Feisty Firefighters Bundle
Jill Shalvis, Alison Roberts, Gail Barrett
Feisty Firefighters Bundle
Aftershock By Jill Shalvis
THE PLACE wasn’t what she expected. Though she was alone, Amber Riggs kept her features carefully schooled so that nothing in her cool, serene expression reflected dismay. Control was everything. A deal couldn’t be made to the best advantage without it, and she did love a good deal.
She got out of her car without checking her makeup or hair. She didn’t need to. It wasn’t vanity that told her she looked crisp and businesslike. It was just fact. Her careful facade was purposely created with clothes and makeup so that people took her seriously.
If she were vain, she’d still be basking in the glow from the write-up she’d received in this morning’s paper: “A go-get-’em real estate manager.” “Best in San Diego county.” “No one gets the better of Amber Riggs.”
Great for business, but the praise meant little. Amber loved her work, and because she did, she didn’t need anyone’s approval.
That’s what she told herself.
She looked at the deserted warehouse in front of her and frowned. As good at her job as she was, making money from this building would be like bleeding a turnip. It was too far out of town.
Still, stranger things had been known to happen. At least the owner hadn’t cared whether she found a buyer or a renter, and that would give her some options.
Her heels clicked noisily on the rough asphalt as she moved closer. The place was two stories and mostly brick, which gave it definite character. That was good. So was the basement that held the offices. She had to sigh as she noted the deterioration of the roof and the decay of the old brick walls. That wasn’t good. And no windows, which meant that the client she’d contacted this morning, the one who wanted to convert an older building into an antique mall, wouldn’t be happy.
She could fix that, Amber decided, by going inside and finding something interesting. Something that would appeal. This was her forte, turning the negative into the positive. Her fat bank account could attest to that. For a girl who’d left home exceptionally early with nothing but the shirt on her back, she’d done okay.
She took the key out of her purse and let herself in. Darkness prevailed, but always prepared, she again reached into her purse for the small flashlight she kept there. As she flipped it on and moved past the reception area into the even darker open warehouse, the silence settled on her shoulders eerily. She swallowed hard, losing a fraction of her iron-clad control.
The dark was not her friend. It was an old fear, from childhood, where she’d spent far too much time alone, afraid. Unwanted.
Dammit, not the self-pity again. She was twenty-seven years old. Maudlin thoughts about her past were unacceptable, and she promptly pushed them aside. Her flashlight shimmered, cutting a path across the huge empty place. The beam hardly made a dent in the absolute blackness, and more of her control slipped. Her palms became damp.
Determinedly, she lifted her chin, letting her logic and famed concentration take over. She was a grown-up. Yes, she was alone, but she wasn’t leaving until she’d scoped out the place carefully. She needed something to lure her potential client.
She wanted the deal.
She made it three quarters of the way across the place when she came to a door. Stairs, leading down. Good, the offices there would be a good selling point. Swallowing her discomfort around the intense, inky blackness, she bravely wielded her flashlight and went down the stairs, entering another large and even darker room.
A damp, musty smell greeted her.
An unnatural silence beat down, so did a terrible, heavy foreboding. In the strange stillness, Amber’s every nerve ending froze, rendering her incapable of movement.
In the distance, she thought she heard a male voice call out, but that couldn’t be, she was alone.
Suddenly a sound like savage thunder ripped through the room, and Amber decided to hell with control. To hell with the deal.
She wanted out.
That’s when the earthquake hit.
The unexpected violent pitch and roll of the ground beneath her threw her to the floor, hard. The earth came alive like some monster clawing its way out of hibernation.
Time ceased to exist.
The earth moaned and rocked. As she slid across the cold, concrete floor, her ears rang with the deafening sound. Her skin crawled with horror.
Then she slammed into an unforgiving wall.
Stars exploded into the darkness.
And the last thing Amber heard was her own terrified, piercing scream.
DAX MCCALL loved driving. Loved the freedom of the wind ripping through his hair, the scent of autumn as the trees turned. Loved the eye-squinting azure sky.
Hell, he was feeling generous, he simply loved life.
The tune-up he’d done on his truck the night before had it running smoothly, and he took the time to enjoy the way it handled the unpredictable mountain roads of Point Glen.
He couldn’t have asked for a better day. Mother Nature loved Southern California, specifically San Diego county, and though it was nearly November, the breeze blew warm. Not a cloud marred the brilliant sky. And thanks to the Santa Ana winds, smog was nonexistent, leaving the air unusually clean and pure.
Sunday. His first day off in weeks. Not that he was complaining, he thought, cranking up the rock ’n’ roll blaring from the stereo. He loved his job, and knew he was the best damn fire inspector this county had ever seen. But the hours were ruthless, and ambitious as he was, even he needed brain-rest once in awhile.
The last few fires had really taken their toll. He’d just closed an arson case that had spanned two years and caused five deaths. Sometimes at night Dax would close his eyes and see the charred bodies. Worse, he could still see the expression on the family’s faces when he’d questioned them. Horror. Pain. Accusation. Sorrow.
Yeah, he needed a day off. Maybe even a vacation. He thought about the wildfires raging out of control in Montana. He could take some time and go help fight them. Not what most would consider a vacation, but in his heart, Dax was first and foremost a firefighter. When he’d turned investigator, he’d never given up his love of fighting fires. Every chance he got, he went back to it.
A shrill ring shattered the peace. Damn. Dax turned down the music and answered his cell phone with all the enthusiasm of a child facing bedtime.
“Better be good,” he warned, slowing his truck on the narrow two-lane highway as he came into a hairpin turn.
Shelley, the oldest of his five nosy, overbearing, sentimental, affectionate sisters, had only one reason for calling.
“The answer is no,” Dax said.
Undeterred, she laughed. “Dax, honey, you don’t even know what I want.”
“Oh, yes, I do.” But he had to smile because he loved her. He loved all his sisters, even if they drove him crazy. “It just involves a teensy, weensy favor, right? Just a teensy, weensy desperate favor-for a friend?”
“She’s not desperate.”
Yeah, right. “We’ve discussed this, remember? No more setting me up.” He’d told each of his well-meaning, meddling, older sisters that he refused to go out on any more blind dates.
So he was thirty-two and not married, it didn’t bother him any. It wasn’t as if he hurt for female companionship. But still, his sisters hounded him with friends. And friends of friends. And sisters of friends of friends.
He’d put his foot down long ago, but in their eyes he was still the baby of the family. A six-foot-two-inch, one-hundred-and-eighty pounder with the physique of a man who’d been a firefighter for nearly ten years before he’d become inspector.
“I’ve got to go, Shel,” he said, cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder as he maneuvered the winding road.
“No, you don’t. You just don’t want me to bug you. Come on, Dax, your last date looked like a twenty-something Dolly Parton and spoke in that stupid whisper no one could understand.”
He felt only mildly defensive. Why dispute the truth? So he was partial to blondes. Buxom blondes. Buxom, bubbly blondes, and last he’d checked, there wasn’t a law against that. “Hey, I don’t bug you about your dates.”
“That’s because I’m married!”
“You know what? I’ve got to go.” He simulated the sound of static through his teeth. “Bad connection.”
“Where are you?” she shouted, which made him grin and feel guilty at the same time.
“On Route 2, by the old mill.” Dax frowned as he slowed. Up ahead was the milling plant and warehouse. Isolated from town by at least ten miles and surrounded by woods, the place served little purpose.
It hadn’t been used in years. The land was on his list of dangerous properties, a potential disaster just waiting to happen. It was his job to keep properties such as these vacant of homeless people, mischievous teens and desperate lovers.
A small, sleek sports car was parked in front of it, empty. “Dammit.”
“Sorry.” He pulled into the lot. “Gotta go, Shel.”
“No, don’t you dare hang up on me-”
He disconnected and chuckled. She’d stew over that for at least half an hour before calling him back. Long enough, he decided as he got out of the truck, for him to hassle whoever was snooping where they shouldn’t.
The door to the building was locked, with no sign of damage or break in, which meant the trespasser had a key.
A real-estate agent.
He knew this with sudden certainty and shook his head in disgust. The bricks were crumbling. Some were missing. The place could collapse with one good gust of wind.
Who could possibly want to buy it?
And why would anyone go wandering around in it? Muttering to himself, he pounded on the door, waiting to face whatever idiot had decided to go into an unsafe building.
No one answered.
Curious now, Dax walked all the way around the building, calling out as he went, but only silence greeted him. Even the woods seemed empty on this unseasonably warm autumn day.
With a resigned sigh, he moved back around to the front, and examined the weak lock. “Juvenile,” he decided with disgust for whoever the owners were.
With a pathetic barrier like this, they were asking for trouble. It took him less than thirty seconds to break in. The large door creaked noisily as he thrust it open and peered inside. “Hello?”
Complete darkness and a heavy mustiness told him there was little to no cross ventilation, which probably meant no alternative exit.
It was every bit as bad as he’d thought-a hazardous nightmare.
He propped open the front door with a rock and entered. If no one answered in the next minute, he’d go back to his truck for a flashlight, but he figured by now, whoever had been inside would be more than happy to get out.
“County Fire Inspector,” he called loud and clear. “Come out, this place is dangerous.”
A door opened on the far side of the warehouse, and he frowned. “Hey-”
The door slammed. Swearing, he ran toward it, yanked it open.
Far below, he saw the flicker of a light and swore again. “Wait!” He stepped into the stairwell, angry at himself now for not stopping to get his own flashlight, because he couldn’t see a thing. “Stop!”
Those were the last words he uttered before the quake hit, knocking him to his butt on the top steel stair.
Born and raised in Southern California, Dax had experienced many quakes before. He considered himself seasoned. Still, it was unsettling to be leveled flat without warning, his ears echoing with the roar of the earth as it rocked and rolled beneath him.
The shaking went on and on and on, and he lost his bearings completely. He could see nothing, which disoriented him, and he hated that. Beneath him, the stairs rattled and shook violently. He held onto the rail for all he was worth, not even attempting to stand.
“Don’t give,” he begged as he clenched onto the steel for dear life. “Just don’t give, baby.”
At least a six-point-zero, he decided with some detachment, as he waited for the world to right itself again.
But it didn’t. He upgraded mentally to a six-point-five.
He heard a roar, then the crash of tumbling bricks, which was a bad thing.
As he ducked his head to his knees, protecting the back of his neck with his hands, heavy debris tumbled down around him.
A new fear gripped him then-the building couldn’t withstand the movement. The whole thing was going to go and, in the process, so was he.
Dax prayed fervently for the place, mostly the staircase that he sat clinging to, hoping, hoping, hoping, but with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He knew the ancient building couldn’t hold up to this kind of jarring.
It was going to collapse and there were two floors above him.
Dead meat sitting, that’s what he was.
A metallic taste filled his mouth and he realized he’d bitten his tongue, hard. Half expecting his life to flash before his eyes, Dax was surprised that all he could think of was his family. They wouldn’t know where to find his body, and that would destroy his mother.
His sisters would never be able to set him up again.
Then the bottom dropped out from beneath his world, and he fell.
As he did, he heard a scream.
DAX LANDED HARD, on his already bruised butt.
The hit jarred him senseless for a moment, and the all-consuming dark further confused him. He remembered the destruction of the stairwell he’d been on and knew that meant big trouble when it came to getting out.
He also remembered the scream.
“Hello! Fire inspector,” he called out roughly. In the blackness, he quickly rose to his knees, then coughed and gagged on a deep breath of dust and dirt.
Not being able to see, he felt disoriented, but his professional training and innate need to help others quickly cleared his head. “Hello?”
Female. Hell, he thought, scrambling as fast as he could over what felt like mountains of brick and steel. The collapsed stairwell, he realized. “I’m coming!” His lungs burned. “Where are you?”
“Here.” He heard her choke and sputter on the same dirt he’d inhaled. “Here!” she cried louder, just as he reached out and touched her leg.
“Oh!” Clearly startled, she pulled back.
But Dax was determined, and afraid for her. Had any of the falling debris struck her? Gently but firmly, he closed in, and feeling his way, streaked his hands over her.
She made an unintelligible sound.
“Where are you hurt?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he carefully and methodically checked her arms, silently cursing his lack of a flashlight. He ran his hands over her legs, during which he had the thought that even a saint-something he most definitely wasn’t-would have recognized what a fine set of legs they were. Long, lean, toned and bare except for a silky pair of stockings.
“Hey, stop that!” Hands slapped at him, and when he got to her hips, she went wild, scooting back and kicking out.
He caught a toe on his chin.
A toe that was covered in a high heel pump, if he wasn’t mistaken. And for the second time in so many minutes, he saw stars. “Stop, I won’t hurt you,” he told her in the same calming, soothing voice he’d used to placate hundreds of victims. No broken bones, thank God.
“Back off then.”
“In a minute.” He gripped her narrow waist in his big hands. “Are your ribs okay?”
“Yes! Now get your paws off me while I find my damn flashlight.” She shifted away from him, and then promptly let out a low, pained gasp at her movement.
Immediately he was there, reaching for her. “Let me,” he demanded quietly, running his hands up her waist, over each individual rib with precision and care. Nothing broken there, except his own breathing because there was something inexplicably erotic about touching a woman he’d never seen. Though he couldn’t see her, he sure could feel her, and she was something; all feminine curves, soft skin and sweet, enticing scent.
He felt her cross her arms over her chest, and as a result, the back of his knuckles brushed against the plumped flesh of her breasts.
At the contact, she made a strangled sound, then shoved him. “Not there!”
Her shoulders seemed fine, if a little petite, so did both arms, but he could feel the telltale stickiness on one of her elbows, which he’d missed before. Maybe it had just started bleeding.
Everything else vanished as his training took over. “You’ve cut yourself.” Concern filled him because they were dirty, with no immediate way out, and he had no first-aid kit. Infection was imminent.
Her fierce independence made her seem all the more vulnerable, and as all victims seemed to do, she tugged at something deep inside him. So did her cool voice, because in direct contrast to that, he could feel her violent trembling. He ripped a strip of material off his T-shirt and tied it around her arm to protect the cut from more dirt.
She was still shaking.
“You okay?” Damn, he wished he could see her. If she went into shock, there was little he could do for her, and the helplessness of it all tore at him.
“I just want out of here,” she said, slightly less icily then before.
“Are you cold? Let me-” He reached for her, but she shifted away.
“I told you, I’m fine.”
It amazed him how calm she sounded. Dax’s sisters were all equally loved, but also equally spoiled rotten. They were never quiet, never calm. And certainly never in control. If a fingernail broke, if it rained on a new hairstyle, if Brad Pitt got married, the world came to an end.
It wasn’t a stretch for Dax to admit that the women he dated-and since women were a weak spot for him, he dated a lot-were much the same.
But this woman in front of him, the one he couldn’t see, could only feel, was an enigma to him.
Again, she pushed away.
He heard her struggle to her feet. “Hey, careful,” he urged.
“I’m not going to faint.”
The disdain in her voice told him what she thought of that particular weakness.
“I’m not,” she added to his silence. “I had a flashlight. I want it now.”
At that queen-to-peasant voice, he had to laugh. “Well, then. By all means, let me help you find it.” Stretching out, he felt his way along the floor, painstakingly searching for the light with his fingers. “You’re a hell of a cool cucumber, you know.”
“It was just an earthquake.”
“Yeah well, that was one hell of an earthquake.”
“Do you always swear?”
“Yes, but I’ll try to control myself.” His back to her, he closed his fingers over the flashlight. Though the bulb flickered and was nearly dead, it came on.
Looking at the situation before him, he let out a slow breath and swore again.
Coming up behind him, she made a sound of impatience. “I thought you were going to control yourself-Oh.” She paused. “This isn’t good.”
“No.” Grim reality settled on his shoulders like a solid weight as he surveyed the situation in the faint light before him. “Not good at all.”
The stairway was completely destroyed, lying in useless piles around them. There was no other entry into the basement where they stood, except the hole far above them. On the ground, directly beneath that opening, was a huge mountain of fallen brick and steel.
The pile previously known as the staircase.
There was no way out. They were literally buried alive.
“The entire building…it’s gone, isn’t it?” she asked softly, still behind him.
Dax thought about lying. It would protect her and his first instinct was always to protect and shelter, at any cost. But he already knew she wasn’t a woman to be coddled. “Looks that way.”
“We’re going to die.”
So calm, so matter-of-fact, even when he knew she had to be terrified. “We still have oxygen,” he said positively. “And the flashlight.”
That was when the damn light died.
In stunned silence, she drew an audible deep breath.
Reaching behind him, he groped for her hand. Surprisingly, she took it and held on.
“If the quake hadn’t slid us across the floor, away from the opening,” she said, her voice very sober, very small, “We’d be toast right now.”
Burnt toast, Dax thought, gently squeezing her fingers.
“Well, we’re not dead yet.”
Maybe not, but they would be soon enough. Tons of brick lay on top of the thin ceiling of the basement above their heads. They’d been saved only by the dubious strength of that protection. Dax had no idea how long the floor would hold. He didn’t imagine it could withstand the inevitable aftershock.
“Does someone know where you are?” he asked, carefully keeping his growing shock and dismay to himself.
“No.” Through their joined hands, he felt her shiver again.
He’d been in some hairy situations before, it was the nature of his job. He was good at saving his own behind, even better at saving others, but he thought maybe his luck had just run out.
Regret and rage threatened to consume him, but he wasn’t ready to give up yet. He drew in a ragged breath and nearly gagged on the lingering dust. “Come on, this is the hallway, there must be more rooms. They’ll be far cleaner than this, it’ll be easier to breathe.” And maybe there would be some sort of steel-lined safe they could crowd into for protection when the ceiling over their head collapsed, assuming they had enough oxygen to wait for rescue.
“There’s two offices, a bathroom and a small kitchenette,” she intoned. “Furnished.” She shrugged, her shoulder bumping against his. “I have the listing in my pocket.”
Dax wished the flashlight hadn’t gone out, wished that he’d gotten a look at the woman next to him before it had, wished that he’d eaten more for breakfast that morning than a bowl of Double Chocolate Sugary O’s.
“We’ll be fine.” She sounded secure, confident, despite her constant shivers. “We’ll just wait to be rescued. Right?”
Dax decided to let her have that little fantasy since he wasn’t ready to face the alternative, though he held no illusions-when the weight of the crumbled two stories above them came through the ceiling, they were as good as dead.
Feeling their way through the inky darkness, climbing and struggling, they left the hallway. It wasn’t fast or easy, and Dax kept waiting for the woman to falter or complain, or fall apart.
But to his amazement, she never did.
They decided they were in one of the offices, which after a bit of fumbling around, they discovered had a couch, a desk, two chairs and some other unidentifiable equipment. The second office was smaller, and from what they could tell, void of furniture. The kitchenette seemed dangerous, the floor was littered with fallen appliances and a tipped-over refrigerator.
There was no safe place to hide except back in the first office. Like a trooper, the woman stoically kept up with him as they made their way. He couldn’t help but wonder at her incredible control, and what had made her that way.
A DISTANT rumbling was their only warning, but it was enough for Amber, who reacted without thinking by throwing herself at the stranger who’d become her entire world. Later she’d be mortified by her lack of control, but at the moment control was the last thing on her mind.
As the earth once again pitched and rolled beneath their feet, the man snatched her closer and sank with her to the floor.
“Hurry,” he demanded, pushing her under what felt like a huge, wooden desk. He crawled in after her.
She had time to think the earth’s movement was slight compared to the other quake before he hauled her beneath him, sprawling his big and-oh my-very tough body over hers, protecting her head by crushing it to his chest.
Time once again ceased to exist as she closed her eyes and lived through the aftershock. Huddled in the pitch dark, Amber knew what the man holding her so tightly feared-as she feared-death. It could easily happen, right this second, and she waited breathlessly for the ceiling above them to give and crush them.
Unwilling to die, she held on, reacting instinctively by burrowing closer to the stranger’s warmth, his strength. He had both in spades and shared it freely.
After what seemed like years-she’d lost all sense of time-the rocking stopped.
She became aware of how close they were. How big a man he was, how every inch of her was plastered to every inch of him. A stranger.
She’d thrown herself at a stranger.
Mortified, she pushed at him. Immediately, he rolled off her and they lay there beneath the desk, separated by inches. Holding their breath.
Nothing crushed them. In fact, the silence was so complete it was nothing short of eerie.
“It held,” she whispered.
“Yeah.” In the dark he shifted, and she got the feeling he was staring at her. “You’re incredible, you know that?”
No one had ever called her such a thing before. “Why?”
“You’re so calm. No panic.”
“You didn’t panic,” she pointed out.
“But I’m a woman?”
“I’m sorry.” There was a reluctant smile in his voice. “But yes, because you’re a woman I guess I expected you to wig out over that one.”
With hard won habit and sheer will, she never wigged out. Not Amber Riggs. She had too much control for that. The master himself had taught her the art. Her father had demanded perfection from her, and total submission.
He’d gotten it.
The fact that her cold, hard, exacting military parent could still intrude on her life, especially at a time like this, where every last moment counted, really infuriated her. She shoved the unhappy memories aside.
“I like control,” she said, and if her voice was tinged with steely determination, she couldn’t help it. She was proud of her cool, sophisticated front. It certainly hadn’t come easily. How many times had she been told she mustn’t be like the mother she’d never known? The mother who’d been wild and uncontrollable before she’d taken off after Amber’s birth?
A slut, her father liked to remind his daughter.
No, Amber must never be like her.
Little chance of that when she’d grown up with no maternal influence to soften her strict, unbending father. Once upon a time, she’d done everything in her power to earn his approval, but it had never come. She’d learned to live without it.
She didn’t need his, or anyone’s, approval.
As a result, her life was quiet, and okay, maybe a bit sterile, but she’d convinced herself that was how she wanted it. She didn’t need anyone or anything, and she especially didn’t need what she secretly felt unworthy of-love.
Instead, she buried herself in the one thing that would never hurt or disappoint her-her work-and she liked it that way.
So what was that stab of regret she felt now, while she lay waiting to die? What was this terrible sadness coursing through her, this certainty that by ignoring all emotion and passion in order to succeed at her work, she’d somehow let life pass her by?
She was single; no husband, no children. Not even a boyfriend or a casual date. A barren woman with a barren life.
What would it be like to have a man waiting for her right now, worrying over her? Loving her with all his heart and soul?
She’d never know now.
Another rumbling came.
Before she could react, the stranger was there, again yanking her close into the heat and safety of his arms. He had big, warm hands and they settled at her back, soothing and protective.
This quake felt much slighter, a huge relief. But it allowed other things to crowd Amber’s brain besides fear.
Things like the man she was glued to.
She could feel the fierce pounding of his heart, feel his large hands gently cup her head, feel the tough sinew of his hard body as it surrounded hers. The weirdest sensation flooded her.
Arousal, she realized in shock.
Good Lord, one little emergency and she started acting like her mother!
She couldn’t believe it, and promptly blamed the circumstances for her shocking lack of control. But the connection between her and this man felt like ice and fire at once, and it baffled her. Danger, she told herself. It was just the danger, the sense of impending death making her feel like this, all liquidy and…well, hot.
“It’s okay,” he whispered in that incredible voice, the one that made her feel like melted butter.
She couldn’t have it, wouldn’t have it, and yet she couldn’t seem to let go of him. A whimper sounded, and she was horrified to realize it was her own.
Needing to be free, she fought him.
“Shh, you’re all right,” he told her when she struggled against both him and the unaccustomed feelings swimming through her. With frightening ease, he lay her back on the ground, easily subduing her.
Above them came the booming sound of more falling brick, and it was louder, more terrifying than Amber could imagine. The falling debris hit the top of the desk that was protecting them, nearly startling her right out of her own skin.
They were going to die now.
She had to get out. But she couldn’t budge, he held her too close, protecting her body with his.
“Don’t fight me,” he coaxed in her ear. “We’ve got to stay right here.”
“No,” she gasped, wrestling, listening to the noise of the building crumbling to dust around them, feeling the heat of him as he held her safe no matter how she fought him.
Didn’t he understand? She’d lost it, her prized control was gone, and the greater danger lay right here, in his warm, strong arms. “I need out!” she cried.
“You can’t.” Regret made his voice harsh, but so did determination as he leaned over her, cuffing her hands over her head, restraining her with his superior strength.
“Listen,” he demanded as she silently fought him with everything she had. “Listen to me!” He gave her a little shake. “The building has collapsed on top of us. If you leave the safety of the desk now, when the ceiling of this basement gives…”
Not if the ceiling collapses, but when. He didn’t have to finish his sentence, but God, oh God, she couldn’t bear it, this enforced contact between them. She was plastered to him from head to toe and the opaque blackness only added to the sense of intimacy.
“It’s stopped,” he murmured, relieved, and she felt his cheek brush against hers. “It’s over.”
She waited with what she considered admirable patience, but he didn’t let her go. “Get off me.”
“Promise me you won’t do something stupid.”
Stupid. Oh, that was good. They were going to die when she’d never really even lived. She had nothing to show for her life, nothing except for what would soon be a useless bank account. Now that was stupid. “Let me up.”
“Not until you promise you won’t disturb the balance of things.”
Still helplessly stretched out beneath him, she shifted and discovered he had one powerful leg between hers. Every time she moved, the core of her came in contact with the juncture of his thighs.
She’d been too busy trying to get free to pay much attention, but suddenly she realized she wasn’t the only one who was affected by their closeness.
He was aroused.
He was actually hard, for her. It seemed so absolutely amazing. Surreal.
Later she would blame age-old instincts, but whatever it was, it made her hips arch slightly.
In response, he made a dark sound that shot an arrow of heat straight through her. This was life, came the insane thought.
Go for it. Take it.
She moved against him again, tentatively.
He muttered something; a curse, a prayer, she had no idea which, and at the sound, blind desire overcame her. Before she could stifle the urge, she pressed even closer.
“Your name,” he demanded, letting go of her hands to slide his down her arms. “I need to know your name.”
“Daxton McCall. Dax.” His hands came up now to cup her face, and a callused thumb brushed over her lips, so lightly she wasn’t sure if she imagined it, but it gave her a jolt of awareness that was almost painful.
Suddenly her world was rocking and she was no longer certain if it was another earthquake or just reaction to the insane sexiness of his voice, his body.
“You’re shaking,” he whispered.
She couldn’t stop.
“Let me warm you.” Gently, tenderly, he scooped her closer, running those big, sure hands over her spine to her hips, bringing her tight against his delicious heat…his incredible erection.
It was wrong to sigh over it; so very, very wrong, snuggling up to a man she’d never even seen. A stranger for God’s sake.
But for the life of her, she couldn’t pull away.
She needed this, desperately. Needed this reaffirmation that they were indeed alive, at least for now.
She was going to live life to the fullest, she promised herself. Every second she had left.
But as a huge thundering crash echoed around them, she couldn’t help but scream.
The walls shook, the ceiling shuddered, and they clung together, holding their breath, waiting, waiting, each second an eternity.
No more chances. This was it.
They were going to die.
TERRIFIED, Amber cried out for her stranger, her Dax McCall. She had no idea what she wanted to say, but in that moment, with their world coming apart, it didn’t matter.
He understood. “I’m here, right here,” he told her, his body close so she couldn’t forget.
“It’s so loud,” she cried, horrified at how weak she sounded.
“You’re not alone.”
“I know. I do, too. Come here, come closer.” And he enclosed her in a tight embrace that was so erotically charged, she could almost forget she lay huddled beneath a desk on cheap flannel carpeting in the basement of a building that had collapsed above them.
Her face was buried in his neck, and because it was so warm, so indelibly male, she left it there, inhaling deeply the very masculine scent of him. “We’re going to die,” she said against his skin.
She felt him shake his head.
His denial was sweet, but she didn’t want to be protected, not from this. “Tell me the truth.”
“I don’t want to believe it.”
“Neither do I.” It was unlike her to talk to a stranger, much less cling to one. Even more unlike her to admit to her real feelings on anything. But the words poured from her lips before she could stop them. “I don’t want it to end like this. It can’t. I’ve never really lived, not once, it can’t be too late!”
He didn’t say anything about the loss of her calm, cool sophistication, for which she thought she might be forever grateful. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all, he just continued to touch her, maintaining the connection between them.
“Dax, I think-”
“But there’s so much-”
“I can’t stop. I can’t turn it off.”
“You’re shaking again.” In his voice was a wealth of concern and compassion, two emotions sorely missing in her life. He worried. He didn’t even know her, and he worried. Just thinking about it had her eyes misting.
How was it that a stranger could care so much for her in such a short time, when no one else ever had?
That was her own fault, and she knew it. Another regret. She didn’t let people in, didn’t let people care. Things had to change.
Starting right now. “I want to live.”
“You’re thinking again.”
“I can’t stop.”
“Let me help.”
“Try this…” He angled her head up and met her lips with his.
Far above them, the ceiling groaned and strained under the weight of debris. The ominous, ever-present creaking got louder.
In opposition to Amber’s surging, very real fear, Dax’s kiss was soft, gentle, sweet.
“Stay with me,” he whispered against her lips.
His warm, giving mouth was heaven, such absolute heaven, that she gradually did just as he asked, she stayed with him, lost herself in him, drowning in the very new sensation of desire and passion.
A sound escaped her, a mere whisper of the pleasure starting to thread through her body. He soothed and assured, both with that magical voice and even more magical hands, kissing her again and again, until shyly, eagerly, she opened to him, only to jerk at the resounding thunder of more falling debris.
“Shh, I’m here,” he murmured, then dipped his head again.
The shock of his tongue curling around hers was a welcome one, and Amber pressed closer, grateful, desperate for more of the delicious distraction. One of his hands continued to cup her face, stroking her skin, the other drifted down her body, curving over her bottom, squeezing. He rocked her slowly, purposely, against his hips.
But when the ceiling made yet another terrible straining sound, she cringed.
“No, don’t listen to that.” Now his clever mouth was at her ear, his words sparking little shivers down her spine. “Stay with me, remember?”
As their world crumbled around them, Dax was right there, commanding her attention, drawing her out of her fear. “Listen to the blood pound through your body,” he murmured, pressing his lips to her temple. “Listen to the sound of our breathing…do you hear it? Do you?” he urged, willing her to let go of the terror to concentrate on what he was making her feel.
It worked, and when she felt his hot, wet mouth on her skin, she gasped and arched up into him.
“Listen to your body craving mine…”
Oh yes, yes she heard it now, the blood whipping through her system as he tasted her. She heard the sound of his low, rough groan when she writhed against him. Knowing she was causing his harsh, ragged breathing gave her an incredible sense of power. “More,” she begged. “Help me forget that we’re going to-”
Die, she’d been about to say, but he simply swallowed the word and kissed it away. He kissed her mouth, her face, her throat, all the while using his hands to stoke the fire. Her blouse fell open beneath his hands, and he treated her breasts to the same glorious magic, sucking and nibbling and stroking her nipples until she begged for more.
The rest happened so fast that afterward she could never fully recall it except as a hazy, sensuous, haunting dream. She tore open his jeans; he shoved them off his hips. He slid his hands up her skirt, groaning when he came to her thigh-high stockings, her one secret luxury. She might have spared a moment for embarrassment, but then he whipped off her panties and slipped his fingers between her thighs, dipping into her wet heat. Touching, stroking, claiming her until she couldn’t think of anything but getting more.
Penetration wasn’t easy, it had been a pathetically long time for her, but Dax slowed, teasing her aching, swollen flesh with his knowing fingers until she was ready to take him. He was huge, hot and throbbing inside her. Unbearably aroused, Amber tossed her head back, lifted her hips and sobbed as unfamiliar sensations rocketed through her. She was on the very edge, teetering, madly trying to regain her balance, but he didn’t allow it.
“Let it happen,” he whispered, his fingers teasing and urging and tormenting. “Come for me, Amber. Come for me now.”
The pleasure was so intense she couldn’t have held back if she’d wanted to. She was wild, completely out of herself, as the orgasm took her.
And took her.
It was endless. Above her, she felt him convulse, heard his hoarse cry, then they fell together, trembling, their hearts pounding violently.
Amber had no idea how much time passed before Dax lifted his head and stroked the damp hair from her face. “You okay?”
She thought about it and smiled. “Yes.” Crazy as it seemed, she was definitely okay.
Wrung out by their hollowing, grinding, shattering emotions, they dozed then, still locked in each other’s arms.
“ARE YOU TAKEN?” The minute the words fell out of her mouth, Amber winced. Stupid. And if she hadn’t so neatly cut herself off from socializing all these years, she could have done better. “I mean-”
Besides her, Dax laughed softly. “I know what you mean. And no, I’m not married, I never would have made love to you otherwise.”
They’d made love. Good Lord.
And they’d had two more aftershocks. They sat side by side, still beneath the desk. Mortified as Amber was over what they’d done, Dax had refused to let her leave the safety of their meager protection.
“Not that I have anything against the institution of marriage in general,” he offered. “But I come from a huge family. Five meddling sisters and two equally meddling parents. Ten nieces and nephews. Tons of diapers and messes and wild family dinners.” She felt his mock shudder.
It had always been just her father and herself, so Amber could only imagine the sort of life he described. But family or not, she could understand his need to be alone, uncommitted. She herself was alone most of the time, and greatly preferred it to the alternative. Letting someone in meant letting someone have control over her, which was not an option.
She’d had enough of that to last her a lifetime; first with her father, who’d been almost maniacal in his desire to curb her every impulse, and then she’d repeated the cycle with her ex-fiancé.
She didn’t intend to make that mistake again, ever.
“I plan to settle down in another twenty years or so.” Dax’s voice had a smile in it. “Maybe when I’m forty. Just in time to have a double rocking chair on my porch.” Then his amusement faded away. “That’s my hope anyway.”
If I live.
His unspoken words hung between them. “They’ll worry about me,” he said after a moment, very softly. “I hate knowing that.”
She could hear the deep, abiding love he had for the people he cared about, and wondered what it would be like to know she was unconditionally loved that way.
“How about you?” he asked. “Who do you share your life with? Who’s missing you right now, worrying about you?”
She opened her mouth, but had nothing to say.
“What? Too personal?” He let out a little laugh and nudged her. “What could be more personal than what we’ve already done together? Come on, now. Share.”
“No one what?”
He was quiet for a moment. Probably horrified. “I have a hard time believing a woman like you has no one in her life,” he said finally, very gently.
It shocked her, the way he said “a woman like you.” His voice held admiration, attraction, tenderness.
Under different circumstances, she might have laughed. The truth was she’d been a wallflower nearly all her life. Only when she’d struck out on her own, ruthlessly devouring magazines and books on fashion and style, had her appearance changed so that no one could actually see that wallflower within her. To the world, she appeared cool, elegant, sophisticated.
Apparently she’d fooled him, too.
“I think you know I don’t have a lover,” she said quietly. “Not recently anyway.” She ducked her hot cheeks to rest them against her bent knees. “No attachments.”
She could feel him studying her. Could feel his curiosity and confusion.
“There’s no shame in that.” He slid a hand up and down her back.
No, maybe not, she thought wearily. But there was in her memory. “I was engaged once,” she admitted. “Several years ago. It didn’t work out.” She didn’t add she’d discovered her fiancé had been handpicked by her father, drawn to her by the promise of promotion. That Roy had used her to further his military career, instead of really loving her as she’d allowed herself to imagine, had been devastating.
So had her father’s involvement.
Of course he’d been bitterly disappointed when she’d backed out of the arrangement. She’d failed him, and he’d made that perfectly clear.
Well, dammit, he’d failed her, too.
After that, Amber had hardened herself. Being alone was best. No involvement, no pain. She believed it with all her shut-off heart.
“I’m sorry.” Dax reached for her hand, but at the pity she heard in his voice, she flinched away.
“No, don’t,” he whispered, scooting closer, feeling for her face to make sure she was looking at him. “I’m sorry you’ve been hurt, but I’m not sorry you’re alone now.”
She had no idea what to say to that.
“Don’t regret what happened here, between us. I don’t.”
It was difficult to maintain any sort of distance when the man was continually touching her with both that voice and his hands. He was so compassionate, so giving, and he was doing his absolute best to keep her comfortable, all the while filling her with a traitorous sexual awareness.
For the first time in her life, she wondered if she’d judged her mother too harshly. It wasn’t a thought that sat well with her.
That was another thing about him, he refused to let her hide, even from herself. “I won’t regret it,” she promised, knowing they were going to die anyway. “It would be a waste to regret something so wonderful.”
“Yes, it would.”
“I don’t want to die.” She hadn’t meant to say it, but there it was.
The words hung between them.
“The ceiling is holding,” he said after a moment. “The desk has protected us.”
Yes, but they would be crushed soon enough. The ceiling above them was still making groaning noises and no amount of reassurances or placating lies could cover that up. They knew from Dax’s careful exploring that one corner of the office had collapsed under tons of dirt and brick. They now had half the space they’d had originally.
Suddenly Dax froze.
Dax put his fingers to her mouth. “Shh.” He sat rigidly still, poised, listening. “Hear that?”
She tried. “No.”
He surged to his feet, banging his head on the desk. He swore ripely, apologized hastily, then crawled out and shouted.
“What are you doing?” Amber demanded, fear clogging her throat. He’d get hurt, something would fall on him.
She’d be alone.
She didn’t want to die that way.
“Someone’s up there,” he told her with a shocked laugh. “They’re looking for us. Listen!”
Then she heard it, the unmistakable shouts of people.
She was going to live after all. She was going to get a second chance.
And thanks to Dax McCall, this time around she’d make the most of it.
IT TOOK HOURS to rescue them from the building, but eventually Amber was standing in the asphalt parking lot, blinking like a mole at the fading daylight.
Hard to believe, but they were okay. They were alive. And while they’d been trapped, life had gone on, business as usual.
Well, not quite. Southern California had suffered a six-point-five earthquake.
Amber turned to look at the small crowd of police officers and firefighters surrounding her perfect stranger, and she suffered her own six-point-five tremor.
Dax McCall was tall, lean and built like a runner. No, like a boxer, she amended, all sinewy and tough. Big. It was hard to discern the color of his hair, or even the tone of his skin, covered in dust as he was, but to her, he was stunningly, heart wrenchingly gorgeous.
He was her hero, in a world where she’d never had one before.
But that was silly, the stuff movies were made of, and she was mature enough to realize it. He was human, and she had no need for a hero in her life. Nor for a huge, warm, strong, incredibly sexy man. Still, she stood there, pining after him, allowing herself for one moment to daydream.
I plan to settle down, he’d said. In another twenty years or so.
She’d do well to remember that.
Yes, this had been an amazing episode in her life-literally soul-shaking. The way he’d held her, touched her, kissed her, as if she’d been the only woman on earth, was something she’d always remember.
But it was over now, and he wouldn’t want to cling to the moment. In fact, he was probably already worrying about how to let her down gently.
That wouldn’t be necessary.
Oh, he was kind, gentle, tender. Some woman had certainly taught him right. Probably many women. But Amber had no desire to be the flavor of the week, and he had no desire for more. He’d made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t into commitments. So really, there was only one thing to do, after she thanked him-cut her losses and leave.
Getting him alone proved difficult. Their rescuers had circled him and were deep in conversation, so she waited. Around her was the eerie silence of a regular day. Trees barely moving, sky clear and bright. Little traffic.
But it wasn’t a regular day. Suddenly feeling claustrophobic, more than she had while trapped in the basement, Amber knew she couldn’t stay another moment. Vowing to thank him in person later, after a hot shower, a good meal and a very private, very rare, pity party, she got into her car.
Taking control of her emotions and actions felt good. Still, her heart gave a painful lurch as she buckled in. Before Dax had finished giving his report to the police, she was gone, assuring herself she was doing the right thing by leaving.
A part of her, though, a very small part, knew the truth. On the outside, to the world, she was tough as nails and cool as a cucumber. Inside, where she allowed no one, she was one big, soft chicken.
And when she put her foot to the accelerator, it was the chicken who ran.
One year later:
DAX LED his very pregnant sister off the elevator of the medical center and headed toward the obstetrician’s office.
Suzette kept tripping over her own two feet, making him sweat with nerves. She was going to do a swan dive on his poor, unborn nephew or niece, he just knew it. “Please,” he begged, holding her arm tight, tempted to sweep her in his arms and carry her himself. “Be careful!”
“You’d trip, too, if you couldn’t see your feet.” But loving being pregnant, she grinned at him. “Don’t worry, I won’t go into labor on you.”
“I want that in writing,” he muttered, glancing at her huge, swollen belly. He’d delivered a baby before, during his firefighting days, when the paramedics hadn’t arrived in time. It had been miraculous, awe-inspiring…and terrifying.
“Oh relax.” Without mercy, Suzette laughed at him. “I feel great.”
“Relaxing around you is impossible.”
“Really, I’m fine. Except for a contraction every two minutes.”
Now he tripped, and she laughed again. “I love you, Dax.”
She kept smiling at him, with huge, misty eyes, and he immediately slowed, slapping his pockets for a tissue, knowing from past experiences she was going to get all sappy on him and cry. “Dammit, Suzette.”
“I’m fine. Really.” But she sniffed and blinked her huge, wet eyes. “You’re just so sweet. So much a part of my life. And sometimes I can’t help but think about how we almost lost you to that earthquake.”
Dax started to shrug it off, but she stopped, planted herself and her big belly in front of him, and said, “Don’t act like it doesn’t matter, don’t you dare. If you hadn’t been talking to Shelley just before you stopped to check out that building, no one would have known where you were. We never would have found you in time.”
Because she was getting herself worked up, and making him very nervous while doing it, Dax tried to soothe her. “It worked out okay-”
“You know darn well it almost didn’t! The ceiling of that basement completely collapsed on itself only an hour after they got you and that woman out.”
It had taken him all year, but Dax had managed to steel himself against the white-hot stab of regret he always felt at the thought of Amber. The pain had finally, finally, started to dissipate.
“What if we hadn’t gotten to you in time?” Suzette demanded. “You could have died, Dax. And you’re my favorite brother.”
“I’m your only brother.”
Suzette just shook her head and sniffed again. But he was tired of obsessing about the earthquake, and what had happened between him and Amber. It had invaded his thoughts, his life, his dreams for too long now. It was over. Over.
“Those hormones are really something,” he said, but he handed her a tissue. “Aren’t you tired of crying yet?”
“Nope, it feels good.” A big fat tear rolled down her cheek. “Thanks for driving me here.”
“Just as long as Alan makes sure to get off for the birth. I am most definitely not available for the coaching job.”
He was teasing her and they both knew it. He’d do anything she needed, and for just an instant, for one insane little spurt in time, Dax thought maybe he wouldn’t mind being a coach at all.
“Someday this will be you,” she said softly, bringing his hand to her belly so that he could feel the wonder of the baby’s movement.
“Not in the near future,” he said, but he spread his fingers wide, feeling the miracle beneath; moving, growing, living.
“It will be,” Suzette promised. “Someday, some woman is going to snag you, make you forget why you like being single. Trust me on this.”
Without warning, the memory of lying huddled beneath a desk, waiting to die, holding the frightened but courageous Amber hit him, hard. That day he’d prepared himself for a hysterical, whiny female, but she had surprised him with her inner strength, her quiet resolve to survive.
He’d been drawn to her on a level he couldn’t have imagined. Compared to his wonderful but flighty sisters, and the wild bombshells he had an admittedly bad habit of dating, Amber had seemed like a startling breath of fresh air.
He’d wanted, badly, to see her face, and for the first time in his life, it hadn’t been to determine if she was as sexy as her voice. He’d wanted to look into her eyes and see for himself if the connection between them was as real as it felt.
In those terror-filled moments, when they’d been so certain the end had come, they’d come together in the dark; desperate and afraid, hungry and needy, joining together to make unforgettable, perfect love, without ever having set eyes on each other.
It had been poignant, amazing…necessary. As necessary as breathing.
The image of Amber exploding in his arms wasn’t new; it was never far from his mind. What they’d shared had been incredible, as soul-shattering as the earthquake had been, and he couldn’t forget it, no matter how hard he tried.
And yet Amber obviously had.
Despite his best efforts to find her, she’d vanished. He’d gotten an all-too-quick glimpse of her that day, and though she’d been nothing like the women he usually found himself attracted to, he’d thought her short, sleek, dark hair and even darker eyes the most beautiful he’d ever seen.
At first he searched so diligently for her because there was every chance he had gotten her pregnant. That he hadn’t used a condom was disturbing, he always used protection. But then again, neither of them had expected to live through the experience.
By the time Dax tracked her down-not an easy feat when he hadn’t even known her last name-she’d been gone. He’d located her office, only to be told she’d taken a leave of absence. She’d subleased her condo.
No forwarding address.
Inexplicably devastated, Dax had gone to help fight the wildfires in Montana. He’d been there a month, during which time his disgruntled secretary messed up his office good, and then took another job.
When he’d gotten back, there were no messages, but by then he hadn’t expected any from Amber.
She was long gone.
Clearly, she’d wanted no reminder of that one day they’d shared, which was fine. He had his own life, which consisted of work, women and fun. He hadn’t looked back.
“Let’s sign you in,” he said to Suzette now, shaking the memories off. “This place is packed.”
AMBER WAS LATE. Her alarm hadn’t gone off, she’d annoyed a client by running behind, and now she was stuck in traffic.
Definitely, a terminally bad day.
Normally she’d have felt weighed down by all the stress. She’d have fought it with breathing techniques and her famed cool control.
But fighting wasn’t necessary, because none of it was important. Her life had forever changed on that fateful day she’d gotten caught in the earthquake, and now all that mattered was Taylor.
She pulled into the medical center knowing if she didn’t rush, she’d be late for their three-month pediatric appointment, and she hated that. She was never late, yet here she was racing through the parking lot with baby Taylor in her arms and a huge diaper bag hanging off her shoulder, hitting her with each stride.
If she’d gotten up on time, she chided herself, she wouldn’t be rushing now. But she was always so tired lately. It was all the change, she decided. Becoming a mother. Coming back to town after a yearlong…what?
What did one call it when a person ran away from her job, her home, her life?
A vacation, she reminded herself firmly. She’d never in her life taken one, certainly she’d been entitled. Just because she’d taken it immediately following the earthquake didn’t mean it had anything to do with the choices she’d made.
Neither did one rugged, sexy, unforgettable Dax McCall.
God, what a liar she was. The cooing sound stopped her cold. Staring down into her daughter’s face, her heart simply tipped on its side.
Baby-blue eyes stared back at her. So had a kissable button nose, two chubby cheeks and the sweetest little mouth.
Love swamped her. Amber had never imagined herself a mother, but Taylor was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her, and looking into that precious face, she had absolutely no choice but to smile.
In response, Taylor let out an ear-splitting squeal and grinned, while cheerfully, uncontrollably waving her arms.
Amber’s heart twisted again and she bent, touching her nose to Taylor’s. “You are the sweetest baby that ever lived,” she whispered fiercely. “I love you.”
Taylor drooled, making Amber smile again, though her smile was bittersweet this time. Taylor was her family, her life, her everything. They were alone together.
And together the two of them would be just fine.
That’s what Amber repeated to herself as she strode breathlessly to the elevator and hit the button for the second floor. It didn’t matter that they were unwanted-Amber by her father, Taylor by hers.
They would survive.
As she waited, she smiled at her daughter and wondered for the thousandth time if Taylor had her daddy’s eyes. Were the light, crystal clear baby blues, the kind one could drown in, from Dax?
It still hurt, the not knowing. She’d tried, she reassured herself. The day after the earthquake, after she’d made the rash decision to go to Mexico for an extended vacation that had turned into a yearlong leave of absence, she’d attempted to see Dax.
In spite of her embarrassment at having to face the man she’d thrown herself at, she’d wanted to thank him for saving her life, for she held no illusions. She never would have survived without him, without his quick thinking and razor-sharp instincts, without his warm, safe arms and incredibly soothing voice.
She had no idea where he lived, but knew that as a fire inspector, he had to work out of the main fire house downtown. Somehow she’d summoned her courage to thank him in person, but when she’d gotten there, most of her bravery had faded in the face of reality.
She’d found him all right. He’d been in the break room with one of the firefighters. A woman. And they’d been laughing and teasing and flirting.
She’d prepared herself for anything, anything but that. Standing in the doorway watching, yearning, she thought she’d never seen anyone so open, so absolutely full of life.
He was definitely far more man than she was equipped to handle, and with her words of thanks stuck in her throat, she’d turned tail and run. Not exactly mature, but it was done. To make up for her silliness, she’d sent a thank-you card and flowers before she’d left town.
It hadn’t been until later, much later, that she’d discovered her condition.
Her pregnant condition.
The elevator doors of the medical building opened and Amber got on, straightening her shoulders and hugging Taylor close. To her credit, she had indeed again tried to reach Dax, and at that memory, she reddened with embarrassment.
She’d called his office from Mexico, not wanting anything from him, just needing to tell him. She figured she owed him that. He had a right to know.
He’d been in Montana, helping to fight the out-of-control range fires there. She’d left a message with an unsympathetic secretary, explaining where she was and only that she needed to talk to Dax.
He hadn’t returned the call.
She understood. He’d moved on.
Yet whatever his faults, he’d once been compassionate and caring to her, and because of that, he needed to hear the truth from her own lips. In person. Though it had been easier to hide all this time, she couldn’t continue it.
He had to know about Taylor.
And he would, she promised herself, now that she was back in town-just as soon as she figured out how to do it right.
The elevator doors opened and she entered a huge reception area, filled with women; young and old, sick and healthy, and very pregnant. Most had little children with them. Resigned to a long wait, Amber signed in and stood there, surveying the grumpy crowd, trying to find an empty seat. In her arms, a wide-awake Taylor shifted, stared at all the chaos around her, and let out a happy little gurgle.
“Glad someone’s so cheery,” Amber said with a helpless laugh. She dropped the heavy diaper bag to the floor and sighed in relief at the loss of the weight. Another grateful sigh came when she sank into an empty chair. Sitting had never felt so good.
But then, from across the room, a sea of waiting people between them, stood a man. Not just any man, but the one who could stop her heart cold.
And, oh God, he was staring right at her. What should she do?
All semblance of control flew out the window. So did reasoning. Sure, she could run, but even if her legs were working, running seemed so undignified. She could lie, but that was no good, either. Not only was she horrible at lying, she could never live with herself.
No, she alone had brought on this awkward situation, she would face it. Easier said than done, she thought wildly, still pierced by Dax’s unwavering, highly personal stare.
For a second she allowed herself to think-hope-he wouldn’t recognize her. After all, the last time he’d seen her, she’d been covered in dirt and debris, battered and afraid, and very unlike herself. And then after that, he’d not returned her call, nor acknowledged her card and flowers.
She should have known better. He recognized her.
Strangely enough, around them life went on. Babies cried, though not Taylor, who was blessedly silent. Parents chatted. Moms-to-be flipped through baby magazines. Medical staff buzzed noisily, going about their rounds and duties.
Amber saw and heard none of it, her gaze held prisoner by Dax’s stare. He was exactly as he’d been in her dreams-tall, powerfully built. Unforgettable. He wore snug, faded jeans that fit his athletic physique, and a plaid flannel shirt, open and untucked over a simple white T-shirt.
Plain clothes, not such a plain man.
It didn’t help that Amber could remember exactly what lay under those clothes. Though she had never actually seen him in all his naked glory, she’d felt him, every single inch, and what magnificent inches they had been. She knew his every muscle intimately, had personally run her hands over those broad shoulders, his wide chest, his flat stomach, those long, tough thighs…and what lay between.
In her mind she was back there, back beneath that desk, hot and panting for him. If she remembered right, and she was horribly certain she did, she’d actually begged him to take her. Begged.
Heat flooded her face and she was thankful he couldn’t read her mind.
Still, he stood there, strong and silent. Charismatic. Even now, as he remained frozen, there were any number of women in the room shooting him frank glances of admiration.
He didn’t appear to notice. In fact, he seemed to notice nothing but her.
Unsure, weak in the knees, Amber smiled feebly and was thankful she’d found a chair. The urge to fling her arms around his neck shocked her, and she decided it was some sort of delayed reaction to what they’d been through last year. After all, there’d been a time, a very brief time, when he’d been her entire world.
He moved toward her, and she held her breath. She saw the exact moment he registered what she was holding-or rather, whom.
Hunkering down beside her chair, he gazed with awe and wonder into Taylor’s sweet face. “Yours?” he asked.
God, that voice. It should be illegal to combine that mixture of compassion and sexuality. Her pulse beat like a drum as she nodded.
Reverently, he reached out and touched Taylor’s pink blanket.
Amber closed her eyes to the sight of him, big and powerful, kneeling by his baby. His baby. This couldn’t be happening, not like this, God, not like this. How could she still yearn for him, so much that it was a physical ache?
Her heart thundered in her chest, her blood pumping so loudly she could hardly hear herself think.
What to say? How to make this all okay?
How to make him understand?
Dammit, why hadn’t she called him again? Yes, his secretary had been rude and aloof, but what if he hadn’t received the message? How could she have been so irresponsible, just because of her own stupid fears?
“How old is she?”
“Three months. Dax…”
“At least you remembered my name.” He let out a tight smile. “I wasn’t sure there for a moment.”
Shame heated her face, but she didn’t let it show. She’d lost her control once around him. She wouldn’t do it again. “I’ve never forgotten.”
“You’ve obviously forgotten some of it, or you would have contacted me.”
“That goes both ways.”
“Do you really think I didn’t try to find you?”
A thrill shot through her, and it was completely inappropriate. “I tried, too.” But the feeble excuse faded at his expression. And then at his words.
“Three months,” he said slowly. “You said she was three months-But that would make her…Oh my God,” he said hoarsely, staring at Taylor. “Oh my God. She’s mine.”
The pain in his voice was real, very real, and Amber had never known such regret and grief in her life. “Dax.”
“How could you not tell me?” he demanded in a hushed, serrated voice. “Did I hurt you that much? Were you that unwilling? Did you need revenge?”
“No.” His hurt registered and cut like a knife to her heart. She had no idea what to do, how to make this right.
Where was her easy sophistication now, the distance she needed to pull this off? It deserted her in the face of his utterly honest reaction.
In all her life, she’d never purposely hurt another. She’d never had the power. Her father had always been impenetrable that way. Roy, her ex-fiancé, had been her father’s emotional twin, or non-emotional. She couldn’t have hurt either of them if she’d tried.
There’d been no one else, until Dax. When he hadn’t returned her call, she’d figured he was much the same as the other men in her life, but she’d been wrong. Dax wasn’t the cold, unfeeling sort, not at all, and she should have known. He was deeply caring and wildly passionate. She imagined he was that way about his work, his playtime, his life, everything.
He’d never hold back, never ruthlessly control himself.
She admired that. Admired it, and feared it.
He didn’t move, just stood staring down at his daughter with a combination of awe and fear and devastating sorrow.
Amber couldn’t help but notice that he did indeed have the same pale blue eyes as their daughter. His hair, a thick, rich brown, naturally highlighted from the sun, fell recklessly to his collar.
It was the exact shade of Taylor’s.
But the physical attributes weren’t important, not when compared to the heart-wrenching, awestruck way father and daughter stared at each other.
Amber’s chest had tightened at the first sight of Dax, and the fist gripping her heart only tightened with each passing moment. She could hardly stand it.
“What’s her name?” he demanded.
“Her name, Amber.”
Amber hesitated, only for a second, but he noticed. His jaw tightened. “It’s a simple enough question, I think.”
“Her last name is Riggs,” she said quietly. “But you’re on the birth certificate.”
Dax looked at her then, with eyes as cold as ice and filled with fury.
“I have a copy of it for you,” she added inanely.
“You’re not going to deny it then?”
“No.” Her eyes were filled with bright, scalding tears she refused to shed. “She’s yours, Dax. That was the one thing I never had any doubts about.”
“DAMN YOU,” he said softly, the hardened expression on his face melting when Taylor drooled and waved two fists in the air. “How could you not have come to me?”
“I called. You weren’t in your office.”
He swore again, less softly and thrust his hands through his hair. “And you didn’t think that maybe this deserved a second call?”
“I left a message.”
Those ice-blue eyes pinned her to the spot. “I never would have pegged you as cruel, Amber. Never.”
“Oh, Dax. I never meant to be, but I knew how you felt about becoming a father.”
He stared at her in disbelief, so much hurt in his gaze she nearly couldn’t look at him. “You know nothing about me if you thought I’d appreciate your silence on this,” he said quietly.
“I’m sorry.” The words were completely inadequate, and she knew it. “Dax, I’m so sorry. I knew I had to call you again. I planned to, but I just got back into town myself and…” And she’d let her fear stand in the way.
“I looked for you.” His laugh was short and completely without mirth. “I wanted to see you. You were nowhere to be found.”
“I went to Mexico.”
He looked away from her, down into Taylor’s face. His eyes warmed and he lifted a finger to stroke it down the baby’s face. “What about your family? You didn’t go to them?”
Amber thought of her father, and how he’d reacted to the news of her pregnancy. After his shock, he’d recovered quickly, blaming her mother’s genes. He’d told Amber she was an embarrassment to him. Worse. And that he didn’t want to see her ever again.
She couldn’t admit that shame to Dax. “Going to my family wasn’t an option.”
“No? Well coming to me should have been. You should have told me. I should have been there. For you, for Taylor. For me.”
“You had no right to make that decision for me, no matter what you thought.” His voice was no more than a whisper, but it was so harsh, she cringed.
“You cheated me,” he said. “You cheated her, your own daughter.”
Amber knew that, God she knew, and she couldn’t possibly feel more cruel or guilty. Speaking past the lump of emotion in her throat was impossible.
At the soft voice behind them, he stiffened, then drew in an agitated breath before carefully rising to his feet to face the woman who was looking at them, confused.
With clear difficulty, Dax smiled at the beautiful, tall blonde whose stomach seemed ready to pop. “You should be sitting down somewhere,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Waiting for your appointment.”
“What’s the matter?” the woman asked, reaching out for him. “Something’s wrong.”
“I’m fine,” he said.
Something in his voice must have warned her. Now the woman looked Amber over in frank curiosity, and Amber looked right back. She couldn’t help herself.
“I’m Suzette,” the woman said to her, thrusting out her hand.
Amber stared at it, automatically lifting her own from years of enforced manners, wishing she’d stayed in Mexico, wishing that she and Dax could have had this inevitable confrontation without his “latest” witnessing it, wishing that she was anywhere but here.
“Suzette, this is Amber Riggs,” Dax said.
“Oh, are you a friend of Dax?” Suzette asked her.
Amber figured that as a not-so-subtle attempt to figure out the relationship between her and Dax, and she would have liked to crawl in a hole. “Well-” She glanced at Dax.
No help at all, he just looked at her from fathomless eyes.
Fine. She could handle this. “It’s been awhile since we’ve-”
Dax raised a brow.
“-seen each other,” she finished. “A year.”
“Well it must be nice to run into each other.” Suzette smiled. “And here of all places. How funny.”
Taylor chose that moment to squeal loudly, making her instant hunger known to everyone within hearing distance. Amber tried to soothe her by giving her a pacifier, but she spit it out and turned bright red, a sure sign of an upcoming fit.
“Let me,” Dax said, reaching for the baby. His eyes dared Amber to defy him.
She wouldn’t, not over this. She handed Taylor over.
At the loss of her mom’s arms, Taylor let out an indignant howl.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart?” Dax asked, expertly cuddling the baby close.
She’s had only me! Amber wanted to say, but at the equal mixture of terror and joy on Dax’s face, she restrained herself. “She’s hungry. I have formula.”
“You aren’t…?” Dax jutted his chin out toward her chest. “Breastfeeding?”
“Yes,” Amber said quickly, feeling herself go red at his bluntness. To add insult, her body betrayed her by reacting to his nonsexual gaze in a very sexual way. Her tummy fluttered, her nipples hardened. “When we’re out, I’d rather give her a bottle.”
“Oh.” Appeased, Dax looked down at his daughter, his expression so bare and honest and fierce she could hardly stand it.
Suzette jumped when her name was called from the main desk. “Oh, dear. It’s time.”
“Yeah.” Dax nodded toward a man who’d just gotten off the elevator. “Look, there’s Alan. You’ll have a ride home.”
“See you,” he said, kissing her cheek, nudging her gently away.
The look Suzette shot Dax over her shoulder was filled with questions.
“Have a good one,” Dax said, waving, ignoring her silent curiosity. “Talk to you later.”
“Yeah. You’d better.” With one last glance, Suzette left them to walk toward the man, but that last look Dax received wasn’t difficult to read.
She wanted answers.
Amber wondered if she’d get them. “She’s pretty,” she said inanely. “When is she due?”
“A week or so.”
Taylor reached out with a wet fist, and partly by luck, latched onto the front of Dax’s T-shirt. There was already a drool stain down the front of him, then she tugged, wrinkling it. Amber winced but Dax simply cupped the back of her little head with his big hand and smiled at her.
Watching them, Amber’s heart wrenched. She didn’t want to see how wonderfully perfect the two of them looked together, father and daughter, but there was no missing it. “Shouldn’t you be going into the appointment with Suzette?”
“Me?” Dax glanced after Suzette’s wobbly figure. “She’ll be okay.”
Anger vanquished her guilt. “Oh, I see. You don’t need to be there for all the hard work, right? Only the fun stuff.”
Dax’s mouth opened at that, then carefully shut. In spite of the hurt and anger still clearly visible, he let out a little disbelieving laugh. “Tell me you don’t think Suzette’s baby is mine.”
Amber lifted her chin, gave him her best intimidation stare.
He didn’t even flinch. “My God. You do.”
“I don’t know what I think.”
“Yes, you do. You’re just too polite to share it.”
She lifted her chin another notch and he shook his head, disgusted. “Suzette’s my sister, Amber. Alan is her husband.”
It was hard to remain indignant, she realized, when she was an idiot. “Oh.”
“Yeah, oh.” He leaned close, close enough that she caught the scent of him, one hundred percent male. It was so achingly familiar, it would surely haunt her that night.
“Fun stuff?” he asked, his brow raised. “Is that what you call it?”
She managed to keep her eyes level with his, barely, but she couldn’t control the blush she felt creeping up her face.
“I have to admit, I find it as ‘fun’ as the next guy,” he said a little thickly, his gaze dropping to her mouth for just an instant. “But as I recall, what we shared was a hell of a lot hotter than just ‘fun.’ In fact, it was downright scorching.”
Though he was right, she swallowed hard. The ball of lust he’d created inside her didn’t go down though. “Stop it.”
“You headlined my fantasies for weeks,” he told her in that same sexy tone. “The way you cried my name, remember? And those sexy little mewling sounds you make when you come-”
The teasing left him instantly and he straightened. “You’re right, this is not amusing. Not in the slightest.” He shifted Taylor closer, looking like a natural dad. “Let me ease your mind,” he said curtly, in direct opposition to the gentle way he surrounded his daughter. “I told you I’m not married. That’s still true.”
The leap in her heart was ruthlessly ignored.
“And you’re right about one thing,” he agreed. “I might never have chosen to be a father, not yet, but in no way does that mean I won’t be the best dad in the world to my baby. I’m a responsible man, Amber, though I have no idea why I’m explaining myself to you, when you obviously didn’t care enough to even ask.”
Taylor, tired of waiting, let out another warning cry. She still had a grip on Dax’s shirt, and with a kick of her legs, she tugged. Dax grimaced and unsuccessfully attempted to untangle Taylor’s fist. “She’s got chest hair in that fist,” he said, pained.
Good. But Dax’s second wince reached her, and with a sigh, she stepped close. “Let me help-”
Their hands touched, his big and rough, hers small and elegant.
The connection was startlingly electric, and given the way Dax went suddenly still, he felt it, too.
They stared at each other stupidly.
Ever since the earthquake, Amber had convinced herself that their undeniable attraction was a direct result of the death threat they’d been under.
Another untruth, it seemed, because there was no threat of death here, and that almost chemical heat between them existed strong as ever.
It was easier to stand and busy herself with loosening Taylor’s little fist than to meet Dax’s unwavering gaze. Only problem-now she was face-to-face with him, mere inches away, touching his shirt and chest with a familiar intimacy that made thinking difficult.
“Care to share that thought?” he wondered. “The one that’s making you blush?”
Her fingers faltered. “No.”
“Chicken,” he taunted softly.
Her lips tightened, and she might have given him a frosty comment, if she hadn’t noticed his breathing wasn’t any more steady than hers.
Mercifully, Taylor’s name was called from the front desk.
Amber looked up at Dax. He looked right back.
“I need to take her in,” she said softly, holding out her hands for the baby.
Dax didn’t relinquish her. “I’m coming.” His face had hardened into the stubborn expression of a man with a fight on his hands.
But she had no intention of giving him one. She didn’t intend to keep Taylor from him, nor did she want to hurt him in any way.
“And then we’re going somewhere to settle this,” he said firmly.
At that, her good intentions faltered. Memories crowded her, unhappy ones. Always, her father’s word had been law. Roy had turned out to be much the same way. All her life, she’d told herself someday things would be different, and now they were.
No one was the boss of her. Not even the man she’d had a child with. She’d share Taylor with Dax because it was the right thing to do, but she’d never let him run her life.
“Settle this?” she repeated evenly, as though her heart hadn’t settled in her windpipe. Would he try to take Taylor away from her? Would he tell the courts she was an unworthy mother, just as her own mother had been? “What do you mean by that exactly?”
“I mean that this is far from over.”
“Taylor,” the nurse called again, and without another word Dax turned, and still holding Taylor, headed toward the waiting nurse, leaving her to follow.
She hated that, mostly because she had never trusted anyone to lead the way for her before, and yet, that very lack of trust had led directly to the trouble she now found herself in.
BY THE TIME they got to Amber’s condo, Dax’s head was spinning. He had so many emotions running through his mind he was amazed he could even speak. He didn’t ask, but simply followed Amber inside.
He couldn’t take it all in.
He had a baby.
He was a father.
And then there was Amber herself. Her artfully cut, shiny dark hair still came only to her chin. Her even darker eyes were huge in her face, and full of haunting secrets.
But he thought she was the most attractive woman he’d ever been with. He’d always thought so, from that very first day.
Certainly his daughter was the most beautiful baby he’d ever laid eyes on. He’d held her through her doctor’s appointment, staring in stunned amazement at her scrawny little limbs and rounded belly, watching enthralled at the way she screwed up her face with fury when the nurse undressed her.
She had a hell of a temper, he’d noted with some amusement, and none of her mother’s cool control. No, his baby girl was all McCall, wearing everything she felt right on her sleeve for the world to see.
And she was his. His.
He was a father. He was a father. Dear God, he was a father.
Honestly, he didn’t know whether to dance or cry, but could have easily done both. “Excuse me,” he said, moving past a startled Amber into her living room, and folding his liquidy legs, he carefully set Taylor-still in her carrier-on the couch. He sank down next to her and just stared at her.
“I’m a father, Amber.”
She sighed. “Yes.”
The hesitation in her answer reminded him she hadn’t come to him. He’d happened upon her. The betrayal, even for a woman he didn’t really know, cut deep. Dax wasn’t perfect, not even close, but he was honest to a fault and expected others to be as well. He’d never have thought Amber capable of this.
“I want to understand,” he said, still looking at his baby. “But for the life of me, I can’t.”
“Why?” He lifted his head. “How could you not tell me?”
The question, or maybe his face, had her unbuckling Taylor and pulling her into her arms, possessively, protectively, so much so that it was painful to witness.
She actually looked hurt, afraid…and he didn’t understand.
He was the wronged party here!
“The reasons don’t seem to make much sense now,” she admitted, kissing the top of Taylor’s head.
“All right.” She was in control now, her voice smooth, her gaze steady. “What we had was a fling, Dax. Neither of us wanted more, or would have wanted to drag it out.”
Why that infuriated him, he couldn’t have said. Maybe because he’d so foolishly looked for her afterward. And then ached for so long at her disappearance. “Speak for yourself.”
Her gaze floundered but she remained outwardly calm. “All right. Long after it was over, and a full month into my vacation-”
“Vacation. Don’t you mean your Leave-From-Life?”
“-I discovered I was pregnant,” she finished without looking at him. “I tried to contact you. You didn’t call me back.”
“I didn’t get your message.”
“I’m sorry. I knew I had to try again, but I…” Her jaw tightened. “There are no excuses really. I was wrong. I’m sorry for that, so very sorry.” Something haunting flickered across her face. “I was used to being alone, so it seemed rational to do this alone, too.”
Dammit, he absolutely didn’t want to see that flash of vulnerability, didn’t want to be touched by it. With all his being he needed to hold onto his anger. “You’re going to have to get over that,” he said, not very kindly. “Being alone.”
She said nothing to that, and since she was the queen bee at hiding her emotions, he had no idea what she was thinking. She settled Taylor in a playpen, where the baby stared happily up at a musical mobile, kicking excitedly.
Dax could have watched that little girl all day long, but at the moment, the show was Amber. Her actions were smooth, and so purposely relaxed that he knew she had to be the exact opposite-strung tight as a drum.
“I like to be alone,” she said.
“That’s too bad.”
And that was where more unwanted conflicting emotions came into play for Dax. He didn’t pretend to understand this woman who had tipped his world on its axis, but at the time, he found he couldn’t purposely hurt her. “I’m not threatening you,” he said gruffly, hating that she clearly thought he was. “You’re the mother of my child.” Which made his stomach twist. “We need to talk this out, Amber.”
“I know.” No nervous fluttering for this woman. Standing directly in front of him, her body and hands still, her face guarded, she waited.
Waited for what exactly, he hadn’t a clue. Her eyes gave nothing away, but he could have sworn she was expecting him to light into her one way or another. Again, he was struck by her cool beauty. That he knew exactly how much heat and passion lay just beneath that surface didn’t help things. “Will you sit?”
She didn’t move a muscle. “I can’t handle the small talk. Just get down to it. You’re going to fight me for custody.”
It took him a full moment. “What?”
“You’re going to try to take her away from me, right?”
He stared at her, shocked. She was standing there, cool as a cucumber, waiting for the ax to fall, waiting for him to try to destroy her. “Hold on.” He shook his head, trying to clear it. Then he slowly stood to make them even. “Have I at any time in these past few hours said anything, anything at all, that could have possibly made you believe I would take Taylor from you?”
“You have to admit, it’s something a person in your position would consider.”
A headache started, right between his eyes. A tension headache, he realized with surprise. He almost never got tension headaches. “You’ve been in business too long,” he said wearily. “You think with that cutthroat mentality.”
She still just waited, making him sigh. Was she really cold? Or was she dying of fear inside? “I have no intention of suing you.”
“But?” Her lips curved, but the smile wasn’t warm. “I think I hear one at the end of that sentence.”
He let out a disparaging sound and massaged his temples. “But…hell, I don’t know. I can’t believe I’m here, doing this.” Restless, he strode to the playpen.
Taylor turned her attention from the mobile, staring at him with the somberness of an old woman. Bending closer, he smiled at her and suddenly she came to life, wiggling, waving her arms, pumping her little legs for all she was worth, cooing and babbling, doing everything in her three-month-old power to entice him to pick her up.
As if he could have resisted. He scooped her to him, cuddled her close and…nearly passed out. “Holy smokes.” He wrinkled his nose and held her out at arm’s length.
“I need to change her.”
“Yeah.” But at the dare he found in Amber’s eyes, he held onto his stinky daughter. “I can do it.” He tucked her close despite the smell and vowed not to inhale. Taylor’s head bobbed, not quite steady, and he settled a hand behind her neck, supporting her. She blinked and a long line of drool dripped from her mouth to his shoulder.
Then she gave him a toothless smile.
His heart tightened, and just like that, he fell in love.
Then she opened her mouth and spit up, hitting him full in the chest with a white, foul-smelling liquid that rivaled the scent coming from her diaper.
Amber bit her lip, and he knew damn well it was to hide her laugh. “Would you like some help?” she asked sweetly.
He had no intention of backing off now, even if his eyes were watering. “I can do this.”
Obviously pleased with herself, Taylor cooed and smiled wetly.
Dax held his breath and hugged her close. He’d throw his shirt away later. “Let’s go, Squirt.”
TWO MINUTESinto it, Dax was no longer so certain he could handle this fatherhood thing at all. He had ten nieces and nephews, and somehow he’d managed to avoid changing any of them.
Taylor lay flat on her changing table, naked and shiny clean from the sponge bath he’d given her. But for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how to get her to hold still long enough to get the diaper on her. She seemed to have twenty arms and legs, and all of them were doing the bicycle thing at the moment.
Amber appeared in the doorway, an unreadable expression on her face.
Dax wanted to think that the flash of emotion he saw was guilt, regret, sorrow, pick one of the above, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Need some help?” she asked.
Yes. “I’ve got it.” He managed to slide the diaper under Taylor’s bare tush, only to have her wriggle to her side and kick it free.
“She’s a slippery thing,” Amber said. “Tenacious, too.”
Pride filled him, and before he could remember how furious he still was, he grinned. “Yeah.” Once again he tried to corral her on her back. Taylor grunted and fought him, smiling as she did.
God, she was his. His.
All his life he’d been a goof-off, the class clown. And all his life he’d been treated that way. He had to face the fact he’d done his best to live up to that reputation. With older sisters constantly babying him, and women frequently offering themselves, he’d never really thought of himself as particularly…well, family worthy.
Even his job, as serious and important as it was, was really just an extended form of play. He caught bad guys who started fires.
The truth was, he’d never grown up.
The realization wasn’t something to be proud of, and suddenly he didn’t like his image. He wanted more.
Taylor blew him a bubble.
Putty in her hands, he had to smile, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he’d just been given more.
Oh, he was still hurt at Amber’s deception. Angry, too, and a whole bunch of other things he couldn’t name at the moment. But he found he could deal with that separately. He wanted this child with all his heart, and he had no intention of letting anything between him and Amber stand in the way of that.
Behind him, he heard Amber shift as she came forward. He could feel her, could feel that unnamed thing that shimmered between them. Glancing at her, he found her watching him as well.
And for a long moment all that was between them disappeared. He remembered the day they’d spent locked in each other’s arms. The heat, the passion, the fear, the need. It had been incredible, and he had to admit, he wouldn’t have changed a thing that happened.
Except for maybe Amber’s disappearance afterward.
Then he remembered, he was standing there, holding his daughter-his daughter!-and that Amber had kept her from him.
And just like that, the moment was gone.
With a strange sense of regret, Dax turned back to the baby and Amber left him alone, without a clue as to what she was thinking.
Taylor blew him a bubble, and Dax had to let out a laugh. “I don’t think she’s nearly as charmed with me as you are, sweetheart.”
Taylor just drooled.
TAYLOR SLEPT peacefully, oblivious to the tension around her, her little butt sticking straight up in the air, her fist stuffed in her mouth.
Dax watched her, actually feeling his heart contract. Just looking at her hurt.
It hurt to look at her mother too, he discovered, as he came down the stairs and met Amber’s deep, dark, impenetrable gaze.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said calmly, only her eyes giving away her nerves. “What do you want?”
“Want?” He laughed incredulously. “That’s an interesting question.”
“Do you have an answer?”
“How about you marry me?”
Her composure slipped on that one, but she regained it quickly enough. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Yes or no, Amber.”
“It’s simply not possible.”
“Sure it is. You just say, ‘I do.”’
She stared at him, and incredibly, he found himself wishing she’d come to him months ago. He would have been so thrilled to see her. He would have drawn her close for a hug and probably never let her go.
But marriage? His stomach cramped at the thought. Yet how else to resolve this? He hated the thought of Taylor feeling illegitimate. Hated the thought of being separated from her after he’d just discovered her. “If we were married, then neither of us would have to be away from Taylor. Seems logical to me.”
She gave a short, amazed laugh. “Logical.”
“More than the alternative anyway. I just found out I have a daughter, Amber. I can’t turn my back on her. Or, for some reason, you.”
“I’m not an obligation.”
“No,” he said softly, thinking of the life-altering experience they’d shared. “You’re not.”
Again, that thing shimmered between them. Heat. Passion. Need. But it annoyed him, and if he was truthful, it also scared him. “Look, it’s simple. Yes or no.”
“You’re serious,” she breathed, then she shook her head. “No.” Her shoulders straightened. “I won’t marry for anything less than…” She looked down at her hands, which were tightly clenched. She opened them, let them fall to her sides. “I am not going to marry a stranger.”
“We stopped being strangers the day of the quake, when we spent hours in each other’s arms, terrified, waiting to die.”
“I don’t usually act like that. I never act like that.”
Dax thought it was a shame, but she didn’t relent and he let out a sound of frustration. “Look, we’re parents. Together. We can’t be strangers, even if we wanted to be.”
“The answer is still no.”
“Fine. You don’t want to get married.” He wouldn’t admit his disappointment because he couldn’t believe he felt it in the first place. But neither could he ignore the feeling that, despite her calm control, she was frightened of him.
Much as he wanted to hold onto his anger and resentment, it was hard in the face of that.
“I intend to be a father. A good one. I want my daughter. Just as you do. We’re adults. We can share.”
She nearly sagged with what could only be described as profound relief. “You want to share her?”
For some reason that made him mad all over again. Dammit, he wasn’t the one who should have to prove his trustworthiness! “Hell, yes, I want to share.”
“You’re not going to fight for custody?”
“Do I need to?”
His tightly spoken words stabbed through Amber. He stood there looking so certain, so fierce. She hadn’t expected this, hadn’t expected him to actually want Taylor as much as she did.
But she’d been in business a long time, and what she hadn’t learned there, she’d learned from her father. Bottom line, she knew how to win a deal. Start out asking for the moon. Take all if you can. Settle for less only if you have to. “I want Taylor with me.”
“Sure.” He nodded agreeably. Even sent her a smile that could steal the breath from a nun. “Half the time.”
Her stomach twisted. “But-”
“Stop,” he said firmly, in that voice of rough velvet. Closing the distance between them, he touched her arms, slid his big, warm hands over her skin. Immediately, heat flooded her. Her body remembered his touch vividly, had craved it nearly every night since that time she’d first experienced it. The sensation of being this close to him again was so overpowering, she had to close her eyes for a moment, or reveal everything she felt.
“Look at me.”
Shocked at the command, she did.
“I understand you think we’re strangers,” he said. “And there’s a real fear in that. I’m not going to kid you. This isn’t going to be easy, we’re going to have to work hard. Together.”
Amber tried not to panic at the thought of what getting to know him would entail. Intimacy-and she wasn’t thinking of sex, but the other aspects-all of which terrified her.
With surprising gentleness, he slid his fingers up and down her arms. “I have the feeling you think I’m out to hurt you, or trick you. I’m not into games, Amber. You’ve been hurt before, maybe so much so that you feel you can’t trust me…” He paused, studying her when she was unable to maintain eye contact.
“I see,” he said quietly. He spoke huskily, as if he cared, and it hurt to hear it because she knew all too well how little she deserved his kindness.
“I’m not like him,” he told her, his hands still on her. “The ex-fiancé, or whoever hurt you.”
He remembered. She couldn’t believe he remembered so much about her.
“I’m not trying to frighten you, or threaten. I’m not going to bully you. But Amber-” He lifted her chin. “That baby is mine, and I plan on being a damn good father. We can do this and make it work. Together. It would be good. But it’s together. That’s the key.”
God, that voice. It brought her back to the terrifying magical time she spent with him, a time she could never forget because she’d felt so safe and warm and…wanted.
Unbelievably, she felt wanted now.
“It has to have been hard to do this all alone,” he murmured. “She’s a little handful. You must be exhausted. Wouldn’t some help be nice? From someone with as big a stake as you?”
Amber felt a tiny seed of long-dead hope take root. Was it possible he could forgive her? That maybe he could want her as much as he wanted Taylor? That he could grow to love and care for her as well as Taylor, the real her, the way no one else ever had?
She allowed herself to think about it. To consider it. To dream.
“We’ll make up a schedule,” he said, dropping his hands and stepping back. “That’s the easiest way, unless you have a better idea.”
“It’s the civil servant in me.” He flashed a surprisingly self-deprecating smile. “I like routine.”
“I don’t understand.”
“To divide Taylor between us so there’s no problem.”
“Divide her,” she repeated inanely, her stomach dropping to the ground.
“I don’t plan on being a weekend dad, Amber. I’m willing to share, but we do it equally.”
Well what did she expect? She’d turned down his marriage proposal. But still, the hope within her died a cruel death. He wanted Taylor, not her mother. Amber lifted her chin, because no matter what he said, she could depend on no one, no one but herself. “Fine. We share.”
Oh, God. She was actually going to have to do this, give him Taylor. Her eyes burned, threatened to flood. “I said fine.”
She needed him gone. “You can start tomorrow. Bring your schedule if you must, but for now, for today, she’s mine alone. I don’t want to share my day.”
Dammit, he looked hurt again. “It doesn’t have to be so cut-and-dried.”
“Yes, it does.”
Because she knew nothing else. “All we’re sharing is Taylor. There’s nothing else to worry about. Absolutely nothing.”
“Are you talking about our attraction?”
“There is no attraction. None. None at all.”
His eyes narrowed. “Who are you trying to convince?”
“I’m already convinced.”
He took a step toward her and she fought against instinct and stood still.
“So you look at me and feel nothing?” he wondered aloud.
When he took another step, she nearly bolted. Sheer willpower held her there. “That’s right.”
“You don’t remember what happened between us? Hell, what exploded between us?”
“This isn’t about us-” she stuttered silent when he touched her. “And it’s sure not about sex.”
“Oh, yes, it is.” His voice had lowered, which for some reason made her tummy tingle, but she could ignore that. What she couldn’t ignore was the look in his eyes, the lingering hurt mixed in with a good amount of pride and scorching intensity.
“It’s not about what I feel,” she insisted. “Besides, you can’t possibly feel something for me, after what I’ve done.” Her voice was a mere whisper as renewed shame crept up her spine. “I kept her from you, remember?”
“I remember.” He touched her face and her eyes nearly closed in pleasure. “You still have to tell me you feel nothing for me,” he reminded her.
“I-” She hesitated and saw his eyes flare with triumph. “I don’t have to tell you anything.” She stood back and crossed her arms over her chest. “Goodbye, Dax.”
He stared at her. After a moment, he shook his head and went to the door. “I’ll come for Taylor in the morning.”
He was leaving. She’d chased him away. Relief, she should feel relief.
And then she was alone, again. Always alone.
THEY SETTLED into a pattern, splitting Taylor between the two of them. Dax would have her on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and every other weekend.
It might have been a perfect arrangement, for any other man.
But as a week passed, and then another, Dax realized it wasn’t enough, it would never be enough. He wanted more, he wanted it all.
How did other single fathers do it, share their children with their exes? He didn’t know.
Even worse, he actually found himself forgiving Amber. Or if not forgiving completely, at least understanding her. He didn’t like it.
Thanks to the luck of his schedule, he’d managed to work only on the days Amber had Taylor. But two weeks after he learned he had a daughter, both work and the baby came on the same day.
It was an experience, to say the least. His family had fallen in love with Taylor, and any of them would have dropped everything to baby-sit, but he wasn’t ready to give her up yet.
So baby in tow, he went to his office, confident he could handle it.
Taylor started out the workday fast asleep in her carrier, and everything seemed great. The guys in his office kept poking their heads in to coo over her and Dax kept shooing them out so they wouldn’t wake her. But when Taylor’s morning nap was over, so was his day.
She cried while he was on the phone to the mayor. She threw up on one of his investigative reports. Then her diaper leaked all over his shirt, causing people to wrinkle their noses when they came too close to him. After a noisy fit over having to drink a bottle with a nipple that infuriated her, Taylor finally, finally, blessedly fell back asleep.
By that time, Dax was so exhausted, he fell asleep, too, face down on his desk.
And awoke to his daughter’s cries. Picking her up, he pressed her close and expected her to stop crying, as she always did.
No go. In fact, she worked herself up to a furious red, screaming, mass of rage. Dax tried everything; singing like an idiot, dancing like a bigger idiot, and finally begging. Nothing worked, though it amused the staff members who gathered in his doorway to watch.
Taylor was having none of it. Finally, when her screams threatened to bring down the house, he called Amber.
“I’ve done something to her,” he said over Taylor’s howl. “I-”
“I’ll be right there.”
Dax paced while he waited, holding a sobbing Taylor. When Amber finally appeared, he could have kissed her. “What have I done to her?”
Amber shook her head and took the baby.
Immediately, the baby hiccuped and stopped crying.
The silence was deafening.
Amber continued to sooth her with a wordless murmur, patting her gently on the back. While Dax stared in amazement, Taylor started making loud, smacking noises with her lips, her little hands fisted in Amber’s blouse.
She sounded like a starving kitten.
“She can’t be hungry,” he said in disbelief. “I gave her a bottle. She refused to even look at it.”
“Well…” Amber looked everywhere but at him. “The bottle isn’t what she wants.”
“She doesn’t want-Oh. Oh,” he said, understanding finally dawning. “She wants breast milk.” He laughed, the relief so overwhelming he could hardly stand. “But she’s taken formula from me before.”
“I told you, she’s a bit fickle.”
He grinned, now that he could breathe again. “Stubborn as hell, you mean. Gee, I guess she got that from both sides, huh? Here…” Leading Amber to a chair, he backed up a few steps and waited for her to satisfy his obviously starving daughter.
Amber just looked at him.
Taylor, frustrated, turned even redder in the face and let loose with her piercing cries.
“Hurry!” Lord, how could such a small, adorable bundle of baby make so much noise? “Damn, she’s got a set of lungs on her.”
Amber undid her blouse, then hesitated.
Dax had been staring at Taylor’s mottled face, but when Amber didn’t make a move, he lifted his gaze.
It caught on the strip of creamy skin she’d revealed from throat to belly. Just like that, his body temperature rose ten degrees.
“I can’t do this while you watch, Dax.”
It didn’t matter if she breast-fed in front of him. Not when he had a good imagination, and it was off and racing now. It didn’t take much to picture her peeling the material away from her flesh, exposing one softly rounded breast. The nipple would pucker and tighten, and when Taylor pulled her mouth away, the tip would be wet and swollen.
At the thought, he went weak in the knees. Disgusted with himself, he turned and left the office, going in search of a glass of very cold water.
A cold shower might have been more effective.
No matter how much he didn’t want to have feelings for this woman who’d ripped him apart, he did, and that confused him. He wasn’t used to being confused where women were concerned.
He could tell himself that this deep attraction was due to Taylor, but that would be a big, fat lie. Already he loved Taylor with all his heart.
But Amber was a separate deal entirely. He’d forgiven her, yes. But he didn’t want to forget.
THE NEXT TIME Amber came to the station to pick up the baby, her face was drawn. She was even more quiet and guarded than usual. She offered Dax one unreadable glance and went directly to Taylor, who was lying on a blanket and happily chewing on her own sleeve.
“Hey, baby,” she whispered, her face lighting up with the smile Dax had never, not once, seen directed at him.
Taylor wriggled with joy.
“Well, you lived through it,” Amber said to Dax over her shoulder.
“What about Taylor?”
“I wasn’t concerned.” She paused. “You’re a good father.”
“A compliment, Amber?”
Her spine stiffened. “No, just fact. Taylor can be a lot of work.”
“You’re not saying my daughter is a handful, are you?”
Amber turned and looked at him, lifting a brow at his teasing tone. Her gaze swept his office, taking in the full wastebasket, the sagging diaper bag, the baby paraphernalia scattered around the room.
And in the corner, at Amber’s feet, was the happily babbling, little handful herself.
In her well-fitted power suit, Amber kneeled on the floor and tickled Taylor’s tummy. “So how was it, sweetie? Did you have a good time?”
Taylor responded with a big grin and some drool.
“Should have seen her,” Dax told her. “She was in high form today. Spit up on the fire chief.”
Amber’s smile widened as she watched Taylor. “Did you torture your daddy today, sweetie? Did you? Tell me you did.”
What tortured Dax now was Amber herself. She wasn’t a tall woman, but she had legs to die for. And with her bent over as she was, he got quite an eyeful, up to midthigh. He wondered if those sheer, silky looking stockings ended at the top of those incredible legs, like the ones she’d been wearing on the day of the earthquake.
Oblivious, Amber leaned even closer to Taylor, nuzzling at the baby’s neck. Taylor squealed in delight.
Dax swallowed hard, because while he’d felt every inch of Amber’s body that fateful day so long ago, he’d never really seen her, and he’d certainly never gotten such a great view of the most mouthwatering, perfectly rounded rear end in town.
“She looks good,” Amber said of the baby.
“So do you.” The words popped out before he could stop them, but even when Amber whirled in shock and stared at him, he smiled, refusing to take them back.
“That was…inappropriate,” she said primly.
“No doubt. It was also the truth.”
As if realizing the suggestiveness of her position, she got up carefully, managing to keep her skirt from rising any further. No ungraceful scrambling for this woman, nope she remained cool as ice.
“You were looking at me.”
The words were spoken evenly, yet with such surprise, Dax had to laugh. “And is that so hard to believe?”
“Men don’t usually look at me that way.” She glanced away. “Never, actually.”
Odd how she could appear so strong, yet so utterly vulnerable at the same time. “Then they’re blind. You’re beautiful, Amber.”
She searched his gaze, clearly wondering if he was still teasing her.
“Just looking at you makes me think of hot kisses and stolen touches.”
She blushed. Blushed. So, the cool woman could be shaken. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, anything but. “I’m being inappropriate again, aren’t I?”
“You know you are.” Tough facade back in place, she walked the room, passed the piles of work on his desk, passed the additional piles that had simply overflowed to the floor. He’d vacuumed before setting Taylor down, so the vacuum cleaner was still in the corner. His coat, which had fallen from the rack, lay crumpled in a heap. His boots were sprawled on the floor, discarded after his last inspection. So was the bag his lunch had come in, from his favorite hamburger joint.
“You’re a pig,” she said lightly, scooping up his jacket and placing it on a hook.
He wondered at the gesture. Was it because she cared, or because she cared that Taylor was in such a messy room? “Talk to your daughter. She’s been a busy girl today.”
A small smile crossed her lips. But Dax could see past the exterior, past that cool defense she wore like a coat. Deep in thought, he stared at her.
“What?” she asked when he came close. She didn’t fidget like normal women, so she didn’t pat her hair or look herself over for flaws. But her eyes chilled in response to his silent study. “What are you staring at?”
Dax knew how to soothe a woman, but he had the feeling the usual compliments and flirtations wouldn’t work with Amber. She was different. Very different. Her dark, gorgeous eyes looked bruised, rimmed with light purple. Her mouth, carefully painted, was tight, pinched. And those shoulders, the ones that seemed to be strong enough to carry the burdens of the entire world, were strained, as if the weight had become too heavy.
“Stop looking at me like that,” she demanded.
“Like…you’re hungry, or something.”
Oh yeah, he was hungry. For her. How long, he wondered, would it take a man to dig under those walls? To find the real Amber, the one who’d had the guts to have a child by herself, the one he knew would protect that child with everything she had?
“Why are you still staring at me?”
Because she looked exhausted. Because she was a puzzle he couldn’t put together. Because he couldn’t seem to help himself. Backing her to a chair, he applied pressure on her arm until she sat.
“I don’t have time to sit.” Her voice was weary. “I still have to run to the grocery store, pick up the dry-cleaning and then when I get home, I have a report-” Carefully, she closed her mouth and in a rare gesture of emotion, ran her hands over her eyes. “I have no idea why I’m telling you all of this.”
“Because you’re too tired. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t say a word, you’d handle it all. Alone, most likely. But we’re a unit now, Amber. You should be able to vent.”
“And that means you’ll vent, too, I suppose.”
“If I need to, yes.”
She looked so genuinely unsettled that he wondered what her definition of vent was. “How about I keep Taylor while you do your errands? She’s fine here, the guys come in every two seconds just to look at her anyway. She’ll be entertained. I’ll bring her home to you later.”
“I can’t take advantage that way.”
“Amber.” He came from a family of touchers. It seemed perfectly natural for him to lift a hand and touch her cheek. And if he enjoyed the feel of her soft skin so much that he left his fingers there for an instant longer than he’d planned, what did it matter? He was just trying to comfort.
Okay, maybe it was more complicated than that, but he wasn’t ready to go there.
And besides, she backed away.
“Why do you do that?” he wondered. “Shy away from touch?”
“I don’t like to be touched.”
“You did once.”
A delicious shade of red colored her face. “I should make it clear to you,” she said in that prim voice he was perversely beginning to enjoy. “I’m not being coy here. I acted…wild with you then. I’m not going to do it again.”
“Are you thinking wild is a bad thing?”
She looked at him steadily.
“Or that I don’t respect you?”
Still, just that look. Damn, she brought new meaning to the word stubborn. “What happened between us was spontaneous, yes,” he agreed. “Hot, most definitely. Even wild. But Amber, it was as necessary at that moment as breathing, you have to remember that much.”
“It wasn’t necessary.”
He’d have liked to prove her wrong, right there on the floor of his office. He had no doubt he could do it. She had passion and heat simmering just beneath her surface, all he had to do was set fire to it. The way they kissed, it should only take two seconds.
But he wouldn’t, because he didn’t like how easily he’d come to forgive her, and he sure as hell didn’t like the way he yearned for her, even now. “Even before I knew about Taylor, I wanted to see you again.”
“Of course you did. I slept with you after only knowing you an hour.”
“Are you talking about when we made love?”
“Sex,” she said calmly enough, but the words came out her teeth. “We had sex.”
“That’s not how I remember it.” He smiled wickedly, figuring her imagination could taunt her with exactly what he was remembering. It would serve her right, since he’d been doing nothing but remembering.
“I acted cheaply. I don’t like thinking about it.”
“Cheap?” he asked incredulously, oddly hurt. “That’s the last thing that comes to my mind when I think of that day.” She turned away but he took her arms, forcing her to look at him. “God, Amber, we were terrified. We thought we were going to die. We needed to feel hope. We needed to feel alive, and we did, in each other’s arms. How could you have forgotten all that?”
She might have pushed away, but he held her still. “No, listen to me.” Somehow it had become critical to him that she not regret what they’d shared. “You didn’t betray yourself that day, it just happened. And it was…right. Very right, dammit.”
Her tortured look faded somewhat. “It gave me Taylor,” she said quietly.
“It gave us Taylor,” he corrected. “And I’ll never forget it.”
They stared at each other, so close that he could have leaned forward a fraction and kissed her soft, very kissable lips, but he didn’t. Much as his body ached for hers, she’d burned him before, and he wasn’t interested in getting burned again. “And as for tonight. You’re not taking advantage, I offered. I’ll even bring dinner.”
“You know, all that mistrust is getting really old.”
“I’m not mistrustful.”
He laughed. “Granted, it’s well hidden behind that sophisticated, sleek business front, but it’s there.”
“Why are you bringing me dinner?”
“See? Right there. Mistrust.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m bringing dinner because I’ll be hungry.”
“Oh.” She thought about it and started to give him a suspicious look, which she quickly squelched. “I suppose that would be all right.”
“Good.” He’d have shown up whether she liked it or not. If he knew his little daughter, and he was beginning to know her quite well, he figured Amber hadn’t had a hot meal or a decent night’s sleep in over three months. That was going to change.
“Go on,” he said, pulling her up, nudging her to the door. “We’ll see you later.” Then he ushered her out before she could gather her wits to resist, which he knew she would have done if she hadn’t been dead on her feet.
When she was gone, Dax turned to Taylor, hands on hips, a mock frown on his face. “You’ve been tiring out your parents,” he said, picking her up and holding her close.
Taylor gummed a wet smile.
“It’s got to stop. You hear me?”
She let out a sweet little giggle.
Dax kissed her noisily, making her wriggle with delight, which in turn warmed his heart in ways he’d never imagined.
He couldn’t fathom being without her.
He was beginning to understand he felt the same way about her mother.
DAX ARRIVED at Amber’s condo at exactly 7:07 p.m. with Taylor in one arm and dinner in the other. Not that Amber had been pacing, watching the clock for the past hour and a half.
She reached for Taylor and squeezed her so tight the baby mewled in protest. Amber couldn’t help herself; she’d missed Taylor so much. She kissed the baby’s nose and then her face, and then nearly leaped out of her skin at the sexy, unbearably familiar voice behind her.
“I’ll take one of those.”
Slowly, she turned. “You’ll take one of what?”
Her tummy fluttered. “Hmph.”
He grinned, and the butterflies in her stomach took wing. What was it about him? He should have hated her. Or at the very least, still been furious. That he wasn’t, and that he looked at her in a way that both confused her and made her…hot, was greatly disturbing.
“Hungry?” he asked, lifting a bag from a local deli.
“It’s my father’s birthday,” she said slowly, her mouth watering at the smell coming from the brown bag. “I was going to call him.”
“Call him. See if he’ll join us.”
He wouldn’t, Amber knew that. But she found she couldn’t admit any such thing to Dax. So, as he watched her with that quiet intensity of his, she picked up the phone and dialed the number.
“Hello, Dad,” she said calmly when her father answered, as if her heart hadn’t leaped into her throat at the sound of his voice after so long. “I wanted to wish you happy birthday.”
Her voice was steady. Steady was important, even if she was so nervous she felt as though she might shatter at any moment. “I was also hoping you’d come for dinner and meet your granddaughter.”
“Not likely,” came the voice that had ruled her childhood. “Not when her mother is a slut.”
Dax moved closer, but she held the phone tight to her ear so he couldn’t hear. “I’m sorry you’re still upset with me, but there’s no need for it.” She hesitated, then said softly, “I’m not like Mom. Really, I’m not.”
“Did you marry that baby’s father?”
“M-marry?” She glanced at Dax over her shoulder and found him still looking right at her. “Uh…no.” With a carefully blank face, she pointed to the living room, gesturing him away. Anywhere, as long as he was far from her and this conversation.
Dax just settled back and lifted a brow.
With a sound of impatience, Amber covered the phone. “Go,” she whispered.
“Maybe I should have extended the invite,” he murmured. And then he grabbed the phone right out of her hands.
“Give that back!”
“Not yet.” He held the phone out of her reach before bringing the receiver to his ear. He had to use his other hand to hold Amber off, but he did so with no problem, slipping one strong, warm arm around her. His forearm banded across her back, his fingers came to just above her rib cage, holding her stronger than a vise.
All she could think was that his fingers were pressed against the curve of her breast. Unbelievably, because she hated being restrained, her nipples tightened. Her breath quickened.
As if he could tell, Dax looked down into her face, his own breath coming a little faster.
“Give me the phone, Dax,” she murmured.
His fingers spread wide and brushed the underside of her left breast.
She melted a little. “Now.”
He shook his head. “Hello,” he said politely into the phone, his fingers driving her to distraction. “I’m Daxton McCall, Taylor’s father.”
Amber groaned. Her father had never approved of her, and this wasn’t going to help. He was convinced she led a wild, out-of-control lifestyle, and very likely, this conversation would confirm it.
She shouldn’t care that she disappointed him, but she did, and still, to this day, wished she could make everything right, wished that her father missed his own flesh and blood the way she missed having a family.
“I’m taking full responsibility for Taylor,” Dax said into the phone. “Any questions?” He continued to smile in that easygoing manner as he ruined her life, but Amber could see there was steel lining that smile and he was not kidding around. Dax was deadly serious and more than a little dangerous looking.
“We’d love you to join us tonight,” he said. “Oh, you can’t? Then how about you and I meet tomorrow, for lunch. I’m in the inspection office, downtown fire station. Yes. You can express all your anger and disappointment, and you can do it with me. Not Amber. Okay? See you then.”
Amber gaped at him as he hung up.
“I hate bullies,” he said conversationally.
Too late, Amber remembered she didn’t gape as a rule. It was, however, much more of a struggle to control herself than usual. She was discovering that was the norm with Dax. “I can’t believe he wants to meet you.”
“Well he really wants to punch me in the nose, but he’ll settle for a good look at me. I’m going to give it to him.”
“Let’s say he was polite.” He smiled. “Definitely curious.”
In less than two minutes Dax had gotten the approval from her father that she’d been fighting for all her life.
It was deflating, depressing and demoralizing, not to mention infuriating.
She was perfectly aware that her fury was illogical, that she was about to direct it toward the wrong person, but she couldn’t help herself. “I want you to go now.”
“What?” He looked so stunned she nearly laughed, but this wasn’t a laughing matter. “Why?”
“I realize you probably don’t get a lot of rejections. Consider this a learning experience.”
“Amber, listen to me.” He took her shoulders in his big hands to see that she did just that. “I can see that you care what he thinks-”
“Of course you do, it’s natural.” His understanding and compassion were far more than she could take at the moment, but he wouldn’t let her move away from him. “I don’t want to cause you any grief. That’s why I’m going to meet him, to take some of the pressure off of you.”
Couldn’t he see that just having him in her life was causing grief? Couldn’t he see that she needed him to leave, now, before she did something really stupid? Like crying on his broad, capable, oh-so-comfy shoulder? She was alone in this. She wanted to be alone in this. “I’m really tired.”
“Oh, baby, I know that one.” His smile was warm, sweet, caring. And when he slid his fingers over her cheek as if she was the most important person in his world, her throat burned.
“Why are you doing this? Being nice?”
“Because…” He lifted a shoulder. “It’s better than harboring resentment. It feels good. Because I want to. Pick one.”
“Amber, don’t you ever get tired of fighting it?”
“It.” He stroked her jaw with his thumb, then touched the racing pulse at the base of her throat. “This.”
“I…don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His gaze took a leisurely sweep over her body, ending at the straining button between her breasts. On either side, her hard, aching nipples pressed against the material of her blouse. He seemed fascinated by the play of his fingers over her collarbone. “Don’t you?” he murmured. “Don’t deny it, I can see that you do.”
With a huff of vexation, she crossed her arms. “I can’t help that.”
“I’m glad.” His smoldering eyes met hers now. “I’m glad you can’t control the attraction between the two of us, it’s the only way I know I’m reaching you at all.”
To hell with control and finesse. To hell with appearances. Screw all of it, she needed him gone, now, before she made a complete fool of herself and tore her clothes off, and then his. She marched to the front door and opened it. “Good night, Dax.”
He frowned, though whether at her husky voice or her abruptness, she didn’t know.
“Look, it’s nothing personal,” she assured him. “It’s just that I’ve had enough of men running my life, manipulating me, and deciding what’s right for me.”
He went very still. “And you think that’s what I’m doing?”
“Aren’t you? You want me to share Taylor-”
“She’s mine, too, Amber. Get it through that pretty, thick head of yours.” He cupped her face in his hands, tipping it up to meet his intense gaze. His fingers on her skin made her knees knock together. So did looking at his lips and she wondered, totally inappropriately, if he kissed her now, would she melt as she had a year ago?
Which was another reason to get him out of here, quickly. But he wasn’t budging, his big body was a stubborn brick wall she couldn’t move.
“I hate it that you shy away from me, from the connection between us,” he said.
She swallowed at the real glimpse of pain she saw in his eyes. Dammit, did he have to be so sensitive, so open and warm, so…perfect? “I don’t feel any particular connection.”
He set his hand to the base of her throat, let his fingers once again slide against the skin where her pulse beat wildly. “Liar,” he chided softly.
“Good night, Dax.”
He stared at her for one long moment, then walked to the door.
A small voice inside her head told her he was right. She was a liar. She wanted him to stay, wanted him to seduce her.
Or maybe she’d seduce him. It was mortifying to realize how close she was to letting her hormones run her, just as her mother had.
“You’ll dream of me,” he said.
She had a feeling he was right, but she shut the door and bolted it. Then she stood there for a moment, touching the door as if it were him.
Her body sizzled. Sizzled. A mother wasn’t supposed to sizzle! She didn’t want this. It would never work, not under these circumstances, not under the best of circumstances. Still, she nearly whipped the front door open again.
Instead, she went into the kitchen and ate as if she was still pregnant, refusing to feel guilty for eating a good portion of Dax’s food, too.
Later, after she took care of Taylor, she went to bed and tried to forget how fiercely Dax had defended her to her father. Tried to forget how good it had felt, for that one little second, to depend on someone other than herself.
And damn him, just like he’d said, she dreamed of him.
AMBER WOKE UP rumpled, still exhausted and haunted by visions of a starving Dax.
In the light of day she had to laugh at herself. So she’d eaten his dinner. He was a pretty capable guy, certainly he’d managed.
She got out of bed and checked on Taylor, who was still fast asleep. Grateful, she took the baby monitor and headed for the shower. Afterward, warm and steamy and still wet, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. It was rare to spend any time really looking at herself, especially naked, but she looked now.
Somehow, when she hadn’t been paying attention, she’d lost most of the baby fat she’d accumulated during her pregnancy. Still, her hips were fuller. Her belly was no longer concave, but softly rounded. And her breasts…they weren’t the simple, unobtrusive A-cup they’d always been, but two full sizes larger. Just looking at them made her wonder.
What did Dax think of her body now?
Even as she thought it, she blushed. She knew he saw something he liked, because whenever she looked at him unexpectedly, she caught him watching her with a wild, hot intensity that made her hot right back. She tried to pretend she didn’t notice, but in the deep of the night she often thought about what they did to each other.
She’d been rude to him last night, inexcusably rude. He had no idea why, couldn’t possibly understand how she was letting her past guide her. For most of her childhood, she’d blindly obeyed her father. She’d followed orders, squelched her need for a feminine role model and had done whatever it took to please the man.
Opinions hadn’t been encouraged.
As a result, she was naturally inhibited. Being quiet and unobtrusive had been necessary for survival, as had keeping thoughts and emotions to herself. They were habits she’d carried into adulthood.
Now she was fiercely independent, and she liked it that way. Few, if any, had penetrated her protective shell.
Dax had, though, and it was scary stuff.
She dressed, then took Taylor next door to her baby-sitter, Mrs. Chapman. The woman was sixty-five and spry as a woman half her age, even if she spent her days wearing formal velvet dresses and watching soap operas. She loved Taylor with all her heart, which was enough for Amber.
On the drive to Dax’s office, Amber practiced her breathing techniques and concentrated hard on calm images, but all she could think about was that one day they’d spent together, so long ago.
He would have done anything to protect her that day, and so far she’d paid him back by hiding his daughter from him and being as rude and hard to be with as possible. Something had to give, and she wasn’t sure it could be her. But she had to try.
She was climbing the steps of the station, her apology on her lips, picturing a miserable and hungry Dax, when he came out.
He had a woman on each arm, and he was smiling-grinning actually-looking happy, confident, strikingly handsome and not even remotely miserable.
The bastard. The least he could have done was to look hungry.
The women were smiling, too, also looking happy, confident and strikingly handsome.
Any urge to apologize vaporized.
Wishing she could disappear into a great big black hole, Amber faltered, but of course it was too late to run. She was out in the open, only a few steps below them. Any second, he was going to notice her.
If he ever took his eyes off the other women, that is. “Oh Dax,” simpered the tall, thin, gorgeous blonde on his left. “This has been a long time coming.”
“I know. You’ve been so patient.” Dax smiled into her eyes. “Work’s been a bear.”
“All I want to know is, are you going to make the wait worthwhile?” The redhead on his right lifted a suggestive brow, making promises with her eyes that made Amber roll hers.
“Absolutely,” Dax told her, still smiling.
“Good. Because…” The blonde leaned close and whispered something in his ear.
His eyebrows shot straight up.
“No secrets,” pouted the redhead, pressing her lush curves against Dax.
He smiled at her, too, his eyes heavy and slumberous.
Amber gritted her teeth. They were almost on top of her now, and he was so busy with bimbette-one and bimbette-two that he hadn’t even seen her!
This was the man she pictured as miserable all night because of her rudeness? Ha!
Since she couldn’t disappear into thin air, she would have to handle this as she would any uncomfortable situation, with her famed, icy control. “Good morning, Dax,” she said, ever so proud of her cool voice. She only hoped he couldn’t see the steam coming out of her ears.
“Amber.” He stopped short, clearly surprised. “Hello.”
Amber didn’t want to think about how his smile suddenly warmed, or how this time it reached his eyes. No, she didn’t want to think about that, or she’d lose her anger. Anger was good here, anger would get her through. “You look awfully busy this morning.”
He dropped his hold on his playmates and looked suddenly panicked. “Taylor. There’s nothing wrong with her…”
Well darn if that fierce worry in his expression didn’t defuse a good part of her temper. “No, Taylor is fine.” But since she wouldn’t apologize now, she needed another reason for her appearance. Frantically she searched her mind and came up with…nothing. “I was just out for a walk and thought I’d say hello. So…hello.” Forcing a smile, she turned away.
She didn’t, couldn’t.
She couldn’t get away fast enough, and behind her, she heard him swear.
Then he was there, alone, taking her arm and turning her back to face him. “Just out for a walk?” He shook his head. “Come on, Amber. What’s this really about?”
For some idiotic reason, her throat closed. “I told you. I’m just walking.”
He shot a doubtful look at her heels. “In those?”
Cool. Calm. That was the ticket. “Are my shoes a problem for you?”
“Not for me.” He smiled angelically. “That’s a pretty suit.”
“Personally, that short skirt could quickly become a favorite of mine, but it seems a waste to exercise in it.”
Dignity, she reminded herself. Keep it. “I always walk before work. It’s terrific exercise.”
His look was long and knowing. “This place is at least twelve miles from your place.”
“I’m in excellent shape.” She glanced at the women still waiting for Dax. They had rich curves and fabulous bodies, and she found her temper again. “For a woman who’s just had a baby, anyway.”
“That you most definitely are.” He ran a finger over her perfectly-in-place hair. “You sure look great for someone who’s walked so far. Oh, and look at that…” He gestured to her car, parked on the street only fifteen feet away. “How in the world did that get here? Don’t tell me it’s trained to follow you on your morning constitutional.”
He grinned. She should have known better. For whatever reason, there was no controlling herself around him. “Glad I’m such a source of amusement for you. I have to go now.”
“Like you did last night?”
Last night. The reason she’d come. “I’ll talk to you later.” No way was she going to apologize in front of an audience. “When you’re not so…busy.”
It was as if he could see right through her. “I’m not too busy for you.” He reached for her hand. His voice was low so that only she could hear it. Only problem, the exciting, rough timbre of it sent tingles down her spine. “What’s the matter, Amber? Can’t you tell me?”
It was hard, she discovered, to feel his hands on her. She liked the warmth in them too much. Liked how important she felt. How special.
That she could actually let herself depend on that warmth and strength scared her.
He scared her.
Then she remembered the women. “You visiting with your sisters?” she asked casually, not wanting to publicly misjudge him again, as she had in the medical center.
Was that a flash of guilt that crossed his face as he glanced at them over his shoulder? “Ah…no. Not today.”
Okay, then. “Gotta go.”
But she couldn’t, she just couldn’t.
DAX WATCHED Amber escape. His obligation, in the form of four fine legs behind him, burned. Not that Amber would have believed him if he’d told her.
Hell, half of the people he knew wouldn’t believe him.
He glanced over his shoulder at the two women. In response, they both waved and giggled. Skin shimmered. Breasts jiggled.
Dax groaned, but the decision was actually easy. He raced after Amber, catching her just as she unlocked her car.
She glared at him.
“Come on, baby-”
She went rigid. “I am most definitely not your baby. Check with the two women waiting for you. I’m sure either of them would swoon at the opportunity to be called by such an endearing term.”
He had no idea why he found her stiff unyielding attitude so wildly appealing, or why he suddenly felt like grinning. “Just listen to me, that’s all I’m asking.”
“I’m in a hurry.”
Oh yeah, she was in a hurry. But she’d come to him. And he wanted to know why. “Please?” He risked touching her again, running his fingers up and down her arm. He couldn’t seem to help himself, he had to have that connection.
She went completely still. Nothing gave her away, but he just knew she responded to his touch. He looked into her inscrutable face and wished she’d show him how she really felt, wished he didn’t have to guess. “About the women…”
“I know what you’re probably thinking.”
“I doubt it.” She sighed. “Dax, really. You don’t have to explain why you’re going on a date, much less why you’re doing it in the morning, with two women. It’s none of my business.”
“It’s not a date.”
The two women, apparently tired of waiting, came down the stairs. The redhead smiled at Amber. “We won him in an auction.” She smiled wickedly. “He’s ours for the rest of the day.”
“It’s true.” The blonde smiled, almost licking her lips in anticipation. “We can do whatever we want with him, we were promised.”
Together, they grinned.
Unbelievably, Dax felt himself blush. “The auction was a long time ago,” he said quickly. “And I’ve been too busy to meet my obligation-” This wasn’t going well, he could tell by the ice in Amber’s gaze. “It was to raise money for the fire stations on the west side,” he added. “All the guys did it.”
“But you brought in the most money,” the redhead added helpfully.
“Did he now?” Amber asked coolly.
“Uh…Ladies, I’ll be with you in just a moment, okay?”
Thank God they took the hint and backed off, giving him and Amber some desperately needed privacy. Only problem, he didn’t have a clue as to what to say.
Amber slid on a pair of mirrored sunglasses and got into her car. “Sounds like you’re in for quite a day, Dax. I’d say be good, but I already know you will be.”
SOMEHOW DAX managed to escape Ginger and Cici’s clutches relatively unscathed. It was mid-day by the time he did it, though. Ignoring his stacked messages and overworked secretary, he drove straight to Amber’s office.
He couldn’t explain his urgency or why, for the first time in the ten years he’d been participating in the bachelor auction fund-raiser, he resented the time he’d spent. All day he’d yearned to be somewhere else.
He’d wanted to be with Taylor. And okay, maybe with Amber, too, but that made no sense. Still, he couldn’t get to her office fast enough, couldn’t wait to try to soothe her ruffled feathers. And her feathers had most definitely been ruffled, whether she admitted it or not.
Suddenly that thought made him grin, and he loped up the stairs to the building where she worked.
Amber’s secretary explained she was in a meeting and couldn’t be disturbed. Dax gave her his most charming smile, but she didn’t budge. Around him, the office buzzed with new listings, new sales and the general excitement of a place on the move.
Dax waited until the secretary picked up a phone before he simply strode past her desk toward Amber’s closed door.
“Hey,” the woman called out, “you can’t just-”
Dax let himself into Amber’s office and carefully shut the door on her secretary’s protests.
Amber was behind her desk, a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose, a pencil in her mouth, a phone to her ear. Her eyes were even, her hands steady, her every hair in place. She’d shed the power jacket, but the white blouse she wore was wrinkle-free, prim and proper.
Somewhere beneath that icy control lay the passion he remembered so well. He’d caught a tiny glimpse of it that morning, behind her cool facade. She’d been mad as hell at him, and mad as hell at herself for feeling that emotion in the first place.
Dax grinned again.
At the sight of him, her carefully painted mouth tightened, but that was the only outward sign he received. She didn’t rush, and when she was done with her phone call, she slowly set down her pencil, removed her glasses and looked at him. “Back so soon?” Her voice was smooth and very polite. “I would have thought Barbie and Sunshine would keep you tied up for hours.”
“Ginger and Cici,” he corrected. “And though they were very…persuasive, I managed to escape.”
“Hmmm.” She bent to her work, but her knuckles went white on the pencil she gripped. “I bet.”
“And how was your day?” he inquired conversationally, sitting uninvited on a chair in front of her desk.
“Busy.” She glanced at him pointedly. “Still is.”
Ah, the cold shoulder. “You probably didn’t miss me one little bit, did you?”
“Not one little bit,” she agreed.
He couldn’t help it, he laughed.
Her eyes chilled several degrees. “If you don’t mind…”
“Amber.” He controlled himself, but the smile remained. “Admit it, you’re jealous as hell.”
Aghast, she stared at him. “You’ve been drinking.”
“I don’t drink.”
“Then you’re delusional.” She leaned forward. “Just so you know, I never get jealous. Certainly not over a nitwit who enjoys dating brainless-”
“Careful,” he said, laughing again. “You might prove my point.”
She was still for a long beat. Then regally she rose and pointed an elegant finger at the door. “I think you should leave.”
“So you can recapture that famous control?” He rose, too, and came around her desk. “I don’t think so. Watching your temper rise is fascinating, Amber. In fact, everything about you is fascinating.”
She shook her head, her composure slipping enough to show her genuine confusion. “I don’t know what you want from me.”
“Lots. But I’ll start with this.” He hauled her into his arms and kissed her. It was a stupid move, uncalculated as it was genuine, but he didn’t stop.
She went still as stone, but didn’t push him away. Taking that for permission, he dove into her sweet mouth, mating his tongue to hers, giving, urging, pouring everything he had into that kiss until he felt her hands open on his shoulders, then grab fistfuls of his shirt.
“Yeah, now that’s what I’ve wanted all damn day,” he whispered. “That and this…” He kissed her again, his hands gripping her hips, pulling her closer, then closer still.
With a little murmur of acquiescence that made him even hotter, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back until he couldn’t remember his name, much less his point.
When the kiss ended, he murmured in her ear.
“The women meant nothing to me,” he said. “It was an obligation, one I made months ago.” Lifting his head, he looked into her eyes. “They paid big bucks. Money that will be well spent.” He kissed her again. The helpless sounds of arousal she made were the most erotic he’d ever heard. “Be jealous, Amber. Wish you could take their place if you want. Kiss me stupid again if it helps. But please, don’t be mad at me anymore.”
She touched her wet mouth, looking shell-shocked, as if she couldn’t believe how she’d lost herself. “I’m not angry,” she whispered and sank into her chair. “I need to work now.”
She needed to think, he realized, and he would let her because that was how she worked, and he didn’t intend to rush her.
Hell, he didn’t want to rush himself.
Leaning in close, he gave her one last kiss, pleased to feel her cling to him for just a second.
He was half out of her office when she called him. Turning, he looked at her over his shoulder.
“I wasn’t jealous,” she told him. “Much.” Her mouth curved as she offered him a smile, and Dax felt the weight of the world lift off his shoulders.
THAT NIGHT, arms full of her briefcase, a diaper bag, dinner and Taylor, Amber let herself into her condo. Her feet were killing her and so was the whirlwind her life had become.
Going back to work had been good for her self-esteem because she was still good at it. She needed the money, too, having depleted her savings over the past year in Mexico. But balancing her wild hours with her newfound motherhood was much tougher than she could have imagined.
Naturally, before she could set a thing down, the phone rang. Dropping her purse and dinner to the counter, she freed up a hand to grab it.
“Let’s start all over.”
The low, sexy voice liquefied her bones. “Excuse me?”
“I want to start over,” Dax said.
Amber settled the phone between her jaw and shoulder, and kicked off her heels. “From where?”
“From the beginning, but I’d settle for the night I brought you dinner. Was it good by the way?”
Amber placed Taylor in her swing. Her jacket hit a chair and relieved of all her weight, she sagged against the counter. “I suppose I should apologize for that. But yes, it was good.” She paused. “So was yours.”
Dax laughed softly and the sound vibrated through her body, pooling in certain erogenous spots she rarely thought about.
“I like a woman with a healthy appetite.”
She thought about the smile she could hear in his voice and wondered if all the women he rescued fell for him. Probably, she admitted.
But she was above such things.
“How was lunch with my father?” she asked, purposely hardening herself. “I never got to ask you.”
“Your father is a single-minded, opinionated, walking, talking ego.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Okay…You care what he thinks of you.”
How was it that he went directly to the heart of the matter every time? And how was it that she let him?
“He’s also stubborn as hell,” he said. “Just like his daughter.”
Amber laughed, then shook her head at herself. Distance, she reminded herself. She needed to keep her distance.
Never an easy thing with this man.
She set a sleepy Taylor in motion by gently pushing the swing. “Is this why you called, to list my failings?”
“I grew up with five sisters, I know better than to list a woman’s failings. But I could give you a full list of your positive attributes if you’d like. I have a most excellent memory.”
Her breath caught. Laughter faded, replaced by a needy emptiness she didn’t want to face. “It was a long time ago. It’s best forgotten.”
“I’ll never forget.”
Her hand stilled on Taylor’s swing. “You think about sex far too much.”
“Well I’m red-blooded, aren’t I?”
“Yeah.” He most definitely was.
“But I’ve told you, it was far more than just sex. Let me prove it to you.”
His voice alone could convince her. She could only be thankful he wasn’t here in person to add his smile, his eyes, his incredible hands to the magic.
With a sigh, she set a kettle of water on the stove. She needed tea, her own personal comfort drink. “What did you want, Dax?”
About their kiss? About the fact she’d nearly let it go much further than a kiss? “About?” she asked cautiously.
“Lots of stuff.”
Could he really have called just to talk? With her?
“But let’s start with your father.”
Her stomach clenched. Of course not.
“He’d like to see Taylor sometime. I told him that was entirely up to you.”
“I’ve offered to take her to him before,” she said coolly.
“He wasn’t ready. He is now.”
“I suspect you had a great deal to do with that.”
“I thought you’d be happy.”
She should be, should also be grateful, but instead she only resented the fact that Dax had accomplished overnight what she hadn’t been able to do it in a year’s time. “I’ll think about it,” she said, knowing she sounded prim, polite. Difficult.
“Fair enough,” he said, accepting her answer so quickly she felt suspicious.
With good reason.
“I have another favor. This one’s a toughie.”
She’d nearly forgotten to be leery of him! How had he done this to her, gotten her to actually almost trust him? “I don’t care to be pushed into a decision about seeing my father.”
“My favor has nothing to do with your father. I wanted you and Taylor to come with me to a barbecue tomorrow night. At my parents.”
She blinked and drew a careful breath as her brain struggled to shift gears. “Why?”
“I don’t know, maybe because you’re the mother of my child?” He laughed at her silence. “It’s not a death sentence. You go, you eat, you smile, you laugh-Wait…it doesn’t hurt you to laugh, does it?”
“Sometimes.” But she did it anyway as she sat at her table. “I’m sorry. I thought…well, never mind.”
“You thought I was going to railroad you into doing something you don’t want to do.”
“For the record,” he said, his voice solemn now. “I would never, never, do that.”
“Never is a long time, Dax.”
“What will happen if we disagree about something?”
“What do you mean?”
She bounced up again, stalked the length of her kitchen. “You’ll expect me to do things your way.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of give-and-take?”
“You expect me to believe you’ll let me do things my way?”
“Yes! Look, I know I don’t hold back much. I have a wide range of emotions, and I’m afraid I have a temper, too.” His voice gentled, became disturbingly intimate. “But I’d never hurt you, Amber. It’s not a stretch for me to make that promise. It shouldn’t be a stretch for anyone to make you that promise.”
“Yeah well, you’d be surprised.”
“I wish we were having this conversation in person. So that I could touch you while I tell you all this.”
Heat, the kind he always seemed to cause within her, warmed her from head to toe. “That’s…probably not wise.”
“When I touch you, you let down that guard. When I kiss you, you let go even more. You let me see the real you.”
She took a deep breath because suddenly she couldn’t seem to get enough air, but the yearning deep inside her didn’t fade.
“I like that real you, Amber.”
She let out a disparaging sound and sat down again. “I never know what to say to you.”
“Say you believe me. That you believe in us.”
“There is no us.”
As if he heard her panic, he softened his voice even more. “Us as in Taylor’s parents.”
“That’s the most important,” he agreed. “For now. You and Taylor, you can depend on me, Amber. That’s a promise, and I’ve never broken one yet.”
No one had ever made her a promise and kept it.
“What do you think, Amber? Can I pick you and Taylor up tomorrow night. At six? You’ll have a great time.”
She swallowed hard, fighting her vulnerability with every ounce of strength she possessed. It helped to glance over and see Taylor sleeping peacefully. Happy and content. “Tomorrow, then,” she whispered, and hung up before Dax could question the quiver in her voice.
Drawing in a deep, cleansing breath, Amber beat back her emotions. It was a lifelong habit.
Then she fought her fears the best way she knew how, with food. Lots of it.
THE NEXT NIGHT, at nearly six o’clock, Amber stood in a bra and panties contemplating her closet. She’d been looking at her wardrobe for an embarrassing hour now. “A barbecue,” she muttered.
What did one wear to such an event?
Jeans, she decided, with a shrug that would have told anyone watching that she couldn’t care less.
But she did care, too much. She wanted to look good for a man she hadn’t wholly decided to let herself care for.
She slipped into the jeans and stared at herself. They were too tight, thanks to her just-given-birth-three-months-ago body, but she didn’t own a larger size.
Fine, so she wouldn’t wear jeans. With another shrug, she yanked them off. But her khakis had some sort of stain on them, one that could be directly related to Taylor. Her wool trousers were far too dressy.
Dressy, she could have handled. But this was a family party. Silk and stockings weren’t required.
And wasn’t that just the problem?
She tossed her wool trousers over her shoulder to join her other discarded clothing on the floor and stood in front of the mirror. “It’s not the clothes,” she admitted out loud. It was the evening ahead that had her nerves in a riot.
She’d admitted it.
Her bout of anxiety had nothing to do with where she was going, it was who she was going with.
Dax did this to her, damn him, caused this butterfly dance low in her belly. “And the mess in this room is his fault, too,” she decided, looking around at the cyclone she’d wrought. Nearly everything she owned was in a pile on the floor.
The doorbell rang.
She froze. “Oh my God.” Galvanized into action, she threw on a denim skirt and shoved her arms into a white button-up, long-sleeved shirt. Last minute panic time was over. She’d have to make do as she was.
Her usually perfectly groomed hair was wild. So were her dark eyes. She had no idea where the flush on her cheeks came from, but it made her look…young. Too young.
And the shirt, good Lord. White had not been the wisest choice, only emphasizing her new bra size.
The doorbell rang again and she dashed out of her room, past the second bedroom where Taylor lay sleeping and down the hall.
Her heart was pounding.
No rush, she told herself, and purposely stopped to draw in a deep, calming breath. She was fine.
When she believed it, when she had some semblance of calm, she opened the door.
And immediately lost it again.
Dax was leaning against the jamb, looking shockingly desirable. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt the exact color of his baby blue eyes.
Those eyes smiled into hers as he leaned close, and any semblance of calm flew right out the window. His scent assaulted her; clean, woodsy, and all male. Then her breath backed up in her throat because he was so close she almost-almost-tipped toward him.
She wanted a kiss.
Startled, she just looked at him, specifically at that mouth that she knew could drive her crazy. No. No kiss, she decided hastily. She couldn’t handle it, not now, not when her control was already long gone.
“Hey,” he said, moving even closer, and her heart stumbled. His sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes met hers for one long, silent moment.
Please, was her only, suddenly shocking thought. Kiss me.
As if he could hear her, his long lashes lowered over his eyes, his mouth brushed her jaw.
Yes, yes, he was going to do it, thank God, for she wanted that with every fiber of her being. Forget control, forget distance, she wanted his kiss. Now.
Softly, gently, his lips slid over her cheek, nipped at her throat and then…he straightened away from her. “You’re here. I thought maybe you’d changed your mind.”
“No.” She had to clear her throat. “I’m ready. I…just need to get Taylor.”
His grin was more than a little wicked. “You’re happy to see me.”
She managed a laugh. “Not really.”
“Another lie.” He tsked. “Santa’s going to take you off his list.” Then he smiled slow and sure. “You wanted me to kiss you.”
“In your dreams.”
His laugh was just as wicked as his grin. “Oh, you’re most definitely in my dreams.”
His eyes were so hot, so sure and knowing, she swallowed hard. “I’ll get Taylor.”
His gaze dipped down to her mouth, then further still, slowly running over her body in a way that might have, if she’d been a weaker woman, left her legs wobbly.
She locked her knees just in case.
“I’ve never seen you in anything other than a power suit,” he said huskily. “I like the change.”
She resisted, barely, the urge to tug at her snug shirt.
He reached for her hand. “You know, I’m beginning to think I’m getting the hang of reading your eyes. They’re so expressive they give you away, especially right now.”
Could he see then, how uncomfortable she was? How self-conscious?
“You look beautiful, Amber,” he said, his gaze directly on hers.
Yes, apparently he could.
“I mean it,” he said silkily, and for once, she believed him.
THE MCCALL house was packed with smiling, laughing, talking people, not to mention barking dogs and a blaring stereo. Halfway up the walk, Amber faltered. If this had been a business gathering, she would have known exactly what to do and how to act.
But this wasn’t a work function. This wasn’t a required cocktail party or fund-raiser. It was supposed to be fun.
She didn’t do fun very well.
She’d counted on using Taylor as a shield, but Dax had the baby secure in his arms, and she looked so content Amber had little choice but to leave her there.
Through the opened gate to the backyard the party looked to be in full swing. Couples danced, kids played, people talked. Everywhere.
Amber just stared at what seemed like a sea of hundreds, all happy and comfortable and having a good time. “Are all these people your family?”
“It’s…” Loud, came to mind, but that seemed rude. Yet she was incapable of coming up with a proper white lie since her stomach was suddenly in her throat. “Different.”
“I should tell you now, my family is bossy, nosy and opinionated.”
Gee, there was a surprise. “I’m sure I can handle it.” But she wasn’t sure at all. She had no experience with large families, no experience with families period.
Dax looked at the hand she’d unconsciously placed on her jittery stomach, and placed his own over hers. “They’re going to love you, Amber. They’re just going to be loud and nosy about it.”
The very idea of perfect strangers falling in love with her was as ridiculous as…well, as being at this party.
“They will.” He smiled, that special one he seemed to hold in reserve just for her. “Ready?”
“Yes. No. Yes. God. I don’t know.” It was the twenty-first century, but having a child out of wedlock didn’t feel like something to be particularly proud of, no matter what the circumstances.
Would they resent her?
Think that she’d trapped Dax on purpose?
Why had she agreed to this?
“I have no idea what’s running through that head of yours,” Dax said with a low laugh. “But I promise it isn’t going to be half as bad as whatever you’re thinking.”
“Okay.” She straightened her shoulders resolutely. “Let’s do it.”
Laughing again, Dax shook his head. “It’s not a firing squad, either. It’s going to be fun.” A sigh escaped him when none of the tension left her. “Come on, I can see you’re not going to relax until we get it over with.”
With Taylor snug and happy in one arm, and his other hand firmly holding hers, he drew them into the fray.
They were immediately surrounded.
“Dax! Let me have that baby!” The woman Amber recognized as Suzette pushed her way to the front and took Taylor into her arms. “Oh, she’s beautiful!” She turned a smile on Amber. “Nice to see you again, we’re so glad you could come. Dax has told us all about you.”
Amber shot a look at Dax, wondering what exactly he’d told them about her.
He just lifted a brow and smiled, leaving her clueless, which she was quite certain he knew she hated.
“Taylor is such a good baby.” Suzette sighed dreamily. “I can’t wait to see mine.” She patted her huge belly. “If he or she ever decides to come on out! I’m two weeks overdue now.” She kissed Taylor’s little nose.
Another woman pressed close, looking so much like Suzette that Amber blinked.
“Hey there, Dax.” The woman kissed him, then leaned over Suzette and kissed Taylor, too. “Hey, sweetie.”
Taylor drooled her pleasure and let out her characteristic squeal, which meant, “I like this! Gimme more!”
“Give her to me, Suzette,” the new woman said. “She likes me best anyway.”
“This is Shelley,” Dax informed Amber. “My oldest and most bossy sister.”
“Honestly, Dax, you know perfectly well I’m the bossy one.” Another blond, beautiful woman pushed her way through the crowd.
“Amy.” Dax grinned and endured her bear hug and loud smacking kiss right on the mouth. “And you’re right, it’s a tie. Amber, this is Amy. The baby of the clan.”
“I’m not the baby, you are!” But she smiled widely at Taylor, snatched Taylor from Shelley’s arms and reached out an arm to give Amber a brief hug. “Wonderful to meet you, welcome to the family.”
Hopelessly awkward and yet unbearably touched at the same time, Amber’s heart tied itself into knots. The strange tightness in her chest, the one she associated with Dax, was back. Actually, it hadn’t left since she’d first seen him again.
Hormones, she told herself. That’s all it was.
“Let me in, let me in!” The woman that pushed her way though this time had definitely been blond before the gray had taken over. She came only to Dax’s chest, was twice as wide, and had a face filled with joy and excitement.
She went straight for Taylor. “Let me have that precious little bundle of love! Hand her over to grandma right this instant!”
“That ‘precious little bundle’ smells to high heaven,” Dax warned as Taylor was passed yet again. “She needs to be changed.”
“What, like I’ve never changed a diaper? Yours included.”
“Just giving you fair warning, Mom.”
“Hey there, precious,” she cooed to Taylor, who all but soaked up the attention.
Then Dax’s mother turned with an expectant smile to Amber.
“Amber, this is my mother,” Dax said. “Emily McCall. And watch out, she’s-”
“Happy to meet you,” Emily interrupted smoothly. “My goodness, you’re lovely! I hope you like meat, you’re so thin for just having had a baby! Are you eating enough? Thomas!” she yelled, without waiting for an answer. She gestured wildly to the tall, darkly handsome man working the barbecue. “Thomas, get over here and meet the mother of your newest granddaughter. And bring a fully loaded plate!”
“Oh no, I couldn’t-” Amber protested, only to be hushed by Emily.
Thomas arrived, carting food and a pleasant smile. “Hello.”
Amber held out her hand. Thomas took it, and then gently drew her in for a warm hug. “Welcome,” he said, in the same silky rough voice as his son.
He’d hugged her, was all Amber could think. As if she belonged to the family. The casual, easy, genuine affection startled her. She wanted to somehow savor it, and at the same time, wanted to run for the hills. Hard and fast. “Uh…I’ve got to-”
“Eat,” Emily said smoothly, ignoring the panic that surely they all could see. “She’s got to eat. And drink, too.” She openly eyed Amber’s breasts. “You are breast-feeding that baby I hope.”
Heat raced over Amber’s cheeks, but before she could reply, Dax broke in. “Mom. You promised.”
“So I meddle,” she said, tossing her hands up. “I can’t help it, it’s my job.” Then she smiled so warmly, so openly that Amber never saw it coming. “You need some meat on those bones, girl. Never mind Thomas and Dax, I can’t trust them to feed you right. Come with me.”
At this, both Thomas and Dax grinned, and Amber couldn’t help but imagine her own father, and what his reaction to this little, bossy, demanding, nosy, wonderful woman would be.
One thing she’d always secretly admired about her father was his strength. But at that moment, he would have looked at both Dax and Thomas, at the way they allowed Emily to run their lives, and he’d have instantly labeled them as weak, spineless and insignificant.
And yet nothing could have been further from the truth.
Dax and Thomas were confident, strong-willed men. And she knew exactly how stubborn Dax could be. She suspected his father was the same.
Neither man was weak, not by any means. She was beginning to think maybe it took more fortitude than weakness to allow all members of a family to be equal.
Emily smiled innocently as she continued to railroad Amber with all the subtly of a bull in a china shop. “Are you drinking a full glass of water every hour?”
“Oh. Well, I-”
“Maybe you’re working too hard. Are you managing to get enough sleep? A baby can be so hard on a mother.”
“I told you she was nosy and bossy,” Dax said over his mother’s head.
“Hush you! I told you to scat.” Emily kissed Taylor and passed her back to Dax. “So scat!” Then she took Amber’s hand. “You come with me now, honey.”
Short of being rude, Amber couldn’t resist. She shot a helpless glance over her shoulder at Dax, who just grinned.
No help there.
Then he was swallowed up by the crowd and Amber was left with the petite powerhouse that was Dax’s mother.
AMBER WAS QUIET on the drive home, thinking about the glimpse she’d had into Dax’s world.
She’d seen him playful and teasing with his nieces and nephews. Tolerant and protective of his sisters. Loving and warm with his parents.
Then, without warning, he’d cornered her in the foyer against a wall and had kissed her senseless. By the time he’d lifted his head, smiled wickedly and backed away, she’d nearly melted to the floor.
Who was this man, the one who could go from sweet and nurturing, to shatteringly erotic in a nanosecond? It was a sharp reminder of how different they were, for Amber couldn’t imagine letting her emotions run her the way Dax did.
Inside her condo, Amber put a sleeping Taylor in her crib, then occupied herself starting a fire in the living room fireplace.
Dax waited until she had the flames flickering before he tugged her up, turning her around to face him. In an easy show of affection, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and smiled into her eyes. “Hey.”
She tried to move back from him because being in such proximity always made thinking difficult, but he held her in a gentle grip of steel. “Hey back,” she said, trying to look as if being held by such a gorgeous man was an everyday occurrence.
“Talk to me, Amber.”
The way he looked at her, the way he spoke…as if she were the most important person in his life… It took her breath away.
“You and your family,” she said inanely. “You’re very close.”
“Yes. Very.” He cocked his head and studied her. “Is that what’s bothering you? That my family gets along?”
“You laugh, you fight, you…”
“Love. Is that it?”
He understood, she could hear it in his voice. Fearing his pity, she couldn’t quite meet his gaze.
“I know your father isn’t quite the same as mine,” he said carefully.
“Nor was my mother the same as yours.”
“You’ve not said much about her,” he murmured, still close, still touching. Always touching.
“There’s not much to say. She left when I was born.” With long-practiced skill, she shrugged. It no longer mattered. It shouldn’t matter.
“She missed raising a pretty wonderful daughter.”
“I did fine without her.”
His eyes were soft and unusually dark. “Yeah. You did. But you shouldn’t have had to. You should have had her to talk to, to hold you. To love you.”
“Love wasn’t a huge priority in my household.”
“Another shame, but it’s not yours.” He lifted her face and studied her until she squirmed. “Are you listening, Amber? Really listening? I get the idea you somehow think it’s your fault your parents are jerks.”
“No, not jerks. My father never beat me, or forgot to feed me, or anything like that. He took care of me.”
“So he gave you the basics. Big deal. Parenthood is a lot harder than that, and you know it. He failed you. Your mother failed you. Your fiancé failed you, and in a way, I’ve failed you by not being there when you needed me, when you were having Taylor.”
“That was hardly your fault,” she reminded him.
“Still, I won’t fail you again.”
He was deadly serious and more than a little intimidating. “I don’t want to be a responsibility to you,” she said slowly. “I won’t have you come to resent me.”
“Trust me,” he murmured. “It’s much more than that.” His thumb brushed over her lower lip and when she shivered, his eyes darkened even more. “So you were alone for most of your life with a man who obviously hadn’t a clue how to show his emotions. Do you have any idea how amazing your passion is, in spite of all that?”
She laughed, then stopped short when he didn’t smile, just looked at her steadily. “I don’t think of myself as particularly…passionate.”
“No?” His gaze dropped, ran slowly over every inch of her, leaving a rising heat everywhere it touched. “You should.”
“I’d like to think I’m not run by such an emotion.”
“Ah, and I am.” His lips quirked. “Is that it?”
Dammit, she was amusing him. She pushed at his hand, which was still on her face, but he merely tipped up her chin, his long, warm fingers scorching her skin. “Your father told me what he thought of your mother. How he was always afraid you’d be like her.”
“I see. The two of you sat around and discussed me.”
“You came up a few times.”
When she took a step back, he followed, his big hands tender and gentle as he reached for her. “I’m on to you, you know.”
She slapped his hands away and stepped back again. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
“You’re not like her, Amber, you never could be.”
Determined to avoid this, she took one more step and hit the wall. “No I’m not, because I’m so careful.” Usually. “I’ve always been, but somehow, with you…” His hands caged her in, her breath backed up in her throat. “Somehow you make me forget to watch myself.”
“Really? That’s interesting.” One of his hands slid down her side now, and since her shirt came to the waistband of her skirt and wasn’t tucked in, his fingers slipped under and touched bare skin. “Always so in control.” His thumb slid over her belly and she drew in a shaky breath. “And yet not with me. Could you have feelings for me then? Deep ones?” That hand danced around now to her back, and his thumb made a lazy circle very low on her spine, causing a shiver.
The flare of desire in his eyes didn’t help. “Dax-”
Those magical fingers played lightly over her tingling flesh. She held her breath when he splayed his big, warm hand over her bottom, pressing her to him so that she could feel his erection.
“You don’t want to feel anything for me,” he said huskily. “But I feel something for you. Can you feel what I’m feeling, Amber?”
Oh yeah. He was huge, pulsing against her.
“I…yes.” Definitely yes.
“Today scared you.”
She stared at him, and he stared back, achingly patient, silently demanding her honesty.
“A little, maybe. All of you. All that passion, all that wild jubilance.”
“And all that unpredictability. You don’t know what to make of me, do you Amber? Or what to expect?”
“You hate that.”
“Yes.” But she looked at his mouth and a part of her burned for it to touch hers, fear be damned, all the while aware of how turned on he was. How turned on she was.
“What’s between us is a work in progress,” he said. “It can go as you want. You can be in control.” He nudged even closer. “Or not.”
“Is there really an ‘us’?”
“Yeah,” Dax whispered huskily, no longer surprised by that very fact. “There’s an us.” To show her, he took her mouth with his, the promise echoing in his head as he tasted her.
She kissed him back, but then put a shaking hand to his chest. “I’m not ready for this. For you.”
Neither was he, no matter what a certain body part was screaming. “No rush.”
“Okay. Good.” She licked her already wet lips in a self-conscious gesture he was certain she didn’t mean to make so damn sexy.
“We could just let this attraction sit in the driver’s seat,” he said. “And see where it takes us.”
“I feel as though I should pull over and ask for directions.”
He smiled. “Do we need a map then?”
“I do, yes. I need a plan.”
“You can’t always plan matters of the heart, I’m learning.” He set his forehead to hers. “You’re my case in point.”
Her dark eyes were liquid and full of unmistakable yearning. He wished, just once, that she would speak of that yearning, instead of fighting it.
Then she closed her eyes.
“No fair hiding.” He touched his lips to the corner of her mouth, hovering there, thrilling to her quick intake of breath. “Look at me.”
Both her eyes and her mouth opened slightly, and she leaned toward him, clearly wanting, expecting, needing a kiss. “Dax…”
“Tell me what you want, Amber.”
Instead, she shifted closer, dropped her gaze to his lips.
“With words.” He smiled wickedly. “It’s your plan, you’re the one in control, remember?”
“You want me to say it.”
She sounded so scandalized he nearly laughed. “Yeah.” Softly, in a barely there touch, he kissed the other side of her mouth.
She moaned, and the sound made him hot. “Tell me.”
Pleasure sighed out of her when he slid his fingers into her hair, but though she turned into him, pressed her body to his, she remained silent.
He drew back.
She let out an exploding sigh. “Okay! Kiss me, dammit!”
“If you insist,” he murmured demurely.
The connection was combustive, instantly sizzling, and there was no way to hold back his low growl of helpless arousal, no way he wanted to.
Already it wasn’t enough. The kiss wasn’t enough.
Threading his fingers through her silky soft hair, he angled her for a deeper, hotter, wetter kiss. Their bodies swayed together. He could feel her breasts against his chest, her belly flat to his, and when he rocked slowly, melding their hips into a perfect fit so that he could feel the heat between her thighs, he nearly died right there. “If you need a road map to my feelings here,” he murmured. “Let me assure you, I want more.”
Her breath wasn’t any more steady when she met his gaze warily. “How much more?”
He wanted it all. He wanted her to willingly shed that cool, calm control to give him the real Amber beneath. “You know how much I want. Now tell me what you want.”
She loosened a fist from his hair, then smoothed that hand over his chest, from one side to another, and just that light touch sent his head spinning.
“Words,” he said. “Tell me in words.”
“I want…” Helplessly, she lifted her head. “You. But I don’t know what to do.”
“Are we talking about a physical want?”
If it had been any other woman telling him they wanted him, it would have made Dax’s evening.
But this wasn’t any other woman, it was Amber, and he suddenly wanted far more than her physical want. Swallowing his disappointment, he let out a laugh. “I remember you knowing exactly what to do before.”
Her body was taut and quivering as he kissed her this time, telling him plainly what her mouth seemed to be struggling with, and heat roared through his veins. He caressed her slim back, up and down, slowly, fingers spread wide so he could touch as much of her as possible. She did the same, running her hands all over him. Then, slowly, he ended the kiss.
Her eyes were huge on his. “What?”
“I just wanted to make sure you’re still in the driver’s seat. I know how important that is to you.”
He’d been only teasing, but she frowned, seriously considering. “I’m okay. I think.” She looked at him. “More.”
“Mmm. Aggressive.” He stroked his hands down her hips, past her thighs, to the hem of her skirt, then skimmed them back up again, beneath the material now, to…ah, those legs. At the feel of lace, then soft, bare thighs, he groaned.
She squirmed and looked defensive. “They’re more comfortable then regular nylons.”
“Thank God for comfort.”
“And they don’t seem to snag like the others-”
“And thriftiness, too.”
“They’re very practical, you know.”
He laughed. “You can’t be thinking I don’t like them.”
“I do. Is it okay that they turn me on?” He had to laugh again when she considered.
“Why don’t you just enjoy the reaction you’re getting from me…?” He slid his hips to hers and lowered his lips to her ear. “Feel what you do to me.”
She gripped him tight and nodded.
“Yes, please,” she whispered politely, making him crack up again. He’d never in his life laughed while trying to get a woman naked. He liked it. And her. Very much.
“Still so in control…” He continued to stroke her, determined to shatter her restraint. “Touch me back,” he urged.
Her hands slipped beneath his shirt, streaking over his bare back. “Dax-” Her hips undulated against his. “Where’s my more?”
That needy, whispery voice nearly brought him to his knees. “Here.” His voice was rough. “Skin to skin this time, I want to feel you, all of you.”
Apparently in agreement, she tore off his shirt, then sucked in her breath. “You didn’t tell me how beautiful you are.” Her fingertips slid over his chest, her eyes wide with awe.
“Not like you.” He had his own ogling to do now as he undid the buttons on her blouse, then slid it down to her elbows. At the sight of her, he let out his own shaky breath, then bent to her. “Oh, baby, not like you.” Opening his mouth against her, he scattered hot little nips over her quivering skin. “Amber…you still okay?”
“What?” Dazed, she lifted her head, her arms still trapped by her blouse.
Through the white lace of her bra, her nipples were puckered and begging for attention, which he intended to give. “I asked if you were all right. You didn’t want to lose yourself, remember?” Cupping her breasts, he let his thumbs glance over the tips, back and forth as her eyes glazed over. “I don’t want to take this further than you want.”
“I…” She closed her eyes when he continued that movement with his thumbs, then slid her hands up around his neck, and squeezed him so he could scarcely breath. “I’m fine. Just don’t stop.”
He might have grinned, but he was having trouble with his breathing. The feel of her in his hands…
“Give me my more, Dax.”
Laughing softly he tugged her shirt completely off. Hunger and need pumped through him. It wasn’t comforting to realize that he would be only partially sated by making love with her tonight.
The fire was roaring, warm and enticing, and they sank to the thick rug in front of it. He expected some hesitation when he opened his arms, but she came right into them, fitting there as if she belonged forever.
What a thought. He’d never believed in forever, at least not for himself. “Still okay?” he asked, running a finger down her body.
She sucked in a breath when he slid off the rest of her clothes, then his. “Yes.”
“Just wanted to make sure.” He played with her belly button, her hipbone, then her inner thigh, which had her letting that air back out again, through her teeth. When he lingered there, she made that needy little whimper deep in her throat. “You’re still in control, right?”
He grinned, then leaned over her.
The kiss was long, wet, hot and left him aching for more. Levering himself up on his forearms, he cupped her face. “I want you, Amber. Want me back.”
She arched up. “Yes.”
He felt the wetness between her legs which she spread to accommodate his, but he needed the words. “Tell me.”
She licked her dry lips and writhed against him, encouraging him to sink inside her, still saying nothing.
“Tell me.” He stroked himself against her and her eyes went opaque.
“I want you, Dax.”
He had a second to wish she’d said she needed him, but his body was hard and pulsing, poised for entry and aroused beyond the point of no return. When she reared up and hugged him to her, his heart squeezed.
“I have a condom this time,” he said hoarsely, and when he finally managed to get it on, he drove them straight to paradise.
AMBER STIRRED first. Her body was a stranger to her, languid and lazy and newly tender in spots she’d almost forgotten about.
Oh, and she was wrapped in warm, solid arms.
It was still dark. Dax lay beside her, his breathing slow and deep and even.
For one weak moment, she let herself sink into him, into the heat and warmth and joy of his big body, enjoying the feeling of being secure and cared for.
In that moment she didn’t have to be strong, she didn’t have to be in charge, and she reveled in the letting go.
But she didn’t fool herself; it couldn’t last.
In the end, she had only herself to depend on. No matter how much Dax insisted he wanted to be there for her and Taylor, she could see fear lurking deep in his gaze.
A fear that matched hers.
He’d been so right, she thought, her heart hitching. There was no road map when it came to matters of the heart, no directions to follow.
And God help her, she was hopelessly lost.
WHEN DAX WOKE UP the next morning, he had an armful of warm, naked woman, a raging erection and a grin on his face.
“I could get used to this,” he murmured, turning, tucking Amber beneath him. They were in her bedroom, in her bed. He’d carried her there himself sometime during the middle of the most erotic night of his life.
As her eyes fluttered open, he made his move, swooping down to take her mouth before she could utter a word. A sensuous, sleepy murmur escaped her throat and she rubbed languidly against him, returning his kiss with such heat and passion he groaned.
At the sound, she went perfectly still.
Dax raised his head. “Hey there.”
She blinked slowly, looking confused, her usually perfect hair wild and willful.
Because he couldn’t help it, he went for that creamy skin at the base of her neck. “Do you have any idea how sexy you are?” he asked.
She lay sprawled and gorgeous, a feast for his eyes. While he nibbled at her neck, his fingers found a velvety nipple that quickly responded to his touch. “Mmmm. You taste better than breakfast.”
Her eyes closed again, her head fell back. Her breath came in little pants, quickening when he switched to her other breast. He took his time there, as well, and skimmed a hand down her belly and lower. Finding her deliciously hot, and so wet he moaned, he sank a finger into her. He played in and out of that slippery heat, his eyes crossing with lust when she clamped her legs around his hand, holding him to her.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he promised, kissing her lips, her jaw, her ear. He took the sensitive lobe into his mouth and bit gently as his fingers danced over her.
She arched up into his palm, whimpering every time he withdrew. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
“I’m right here, Amber. Always.”
Her eyes flew open again. “Dax?”
Hadn’t they already established that? “Still me.” He rose up on an elbow to study her. “Amber, are you awake?”
Again that slow blink. “I had this dream that we…” She licked her lips. “I guess it wasn’t a dream.”
She was adorable, he decided, slowly shaking his head. And most definitely not a morning person. “Not a dream.”
“I don’t feel comfortable with this type of a relationship.”
“You felt comfortable enough during the night,” he pointed out. “Three times, in fact.”
She blushed and looked away. “Five,” she muttered.
“Well then…” He grinned. “Why don’t we go for an even dozen?” But when he leaned close with wicked intent, she put a hand to his chest.
He sighed and sat up. She had the entire sheet-who knew what had happened to the rest of the bedding-which left him stark naked, but he didn’t care. “You still have a problem with us.”
She darted him a glance. “When you say ‘us’ like that, it makes me nervous.”
“Join the club.”
“You don’t look nervous, you look…” She paused, and in an unusually revealing gesture of vulnerability, she bit her lower lip. “You look hungry. As if you could eat me up for breakfast.”
“In one bite.”
“We’re very different,” she said softly. “I need time to think.”
“No, you need time to control your emotions. To distance yourself from me. It really scares me how easily you can do that.”
“And it scares me how much of me you see, how much you understand.”
“Yeah, I understand you. Maybe someday you’ll understand me back.”
Eyes stricken, she opened her mouth, but Taylor chose that moment to cry out.
“She’s my alarm clock,” Amber said with a shaky laugh. She still held the sheet to her chin, and somehow managed to get out of the bed and keep herself covered. “She’ll need to be changed and fed. I’m sorry, Dax.”
It was beyond him how she could look as ravaged and luscious as she did, yet so prim and proper at the same time. The heady combination threatened his sanity. “I’m sorry, too.”
AMBER SAT in the little café across the street from her office, contemplating her day. It could have been a better one.
Yesterday she’d lost a deal when a client had backed out of a sale at the last moment. Harried over that and the ensuing chaos, she’d forgotten to pick up her dry-cleaning, which had left her with nothing to wear but her now slightly too small red suit.
Despite the unseasonably warm weather, she’d been forced to keep the jacket on all day, which only emphasized her new cleavage. But at least it hid the indecently tight blouse and skirt.
The client she’d seen that morning had certainly appreciated her problem. It had taken most of their meeting to assure him she didn’t combine business and pleasure.
In hopes of improving her mood, she sat with a bowl of frozen yogurt. At least she was finally cooling off. The pleasant buzz of people around lulled her. She took a huge bite filled with delicious strawberries and leaned back with a sigh as it melted down her parched throat.
“The way you eat that looks positively sinful.”
Dax bent over her, his mouth close to her ear, so that the low, sexy timbre sent shivers racing down her spine. “Did you know you’ve got every male customer in this place hard as a rock, just from watching you enjoy that thing?”
“Where’s Taylor?” she asked, pleased her voice sounded so steady. She wasn’t about to let him know he’d made her bones dissolve.
“Mom’s spoiling her for us.”
Mom’s spoiling her for us. So intimate. As if Amber herself was also a part of his family.
Dax helped himself to the seat next to her, leaned back and made himself at home. Faded denim snugged his long, powerful legs, though she had no idea why she noticed. His T-shirt invited her to Fear Nothing. “I take it you’re off-duty.”
He grinned. “Yep. I’m going to take Taylor for a picnic. Want to come?”
“You’re taking a baby on a picnic? She’ll eat the ants and get itchy from the grass and-”
“Amber.” He laughed. “I want to take you on a picnic. I’m shamelessly using our daughter as an excuse.”
“Oh.” Another huge bite of frozen yogurt helped her stall, but she stopped when she realized Dax’s gaze was riveted to her mouth. His body seemed tense, his muscles tight beneath his shirt. And oh Lord, she’d have to be totally naive to miss the bulge behind the button fly of his Levi’s.
“Take some mercy on me, Amber,” he said with a groan. “Either stop eating that thing as though you were in the throes of an orgasm or toss it. You’re killing me.”
“Was that an apology?”
“I refuse to apologize because you can’t keep your mind out of your pants.” Gathering her briefcase, purse and yogurt-she wasn’t about to give that up for him!-she rose. “I’m going back to work.”
“Amber. Come on, wait up-”
When she kept going, she heard him swear behind her, heard the scrape of his chair as he came to his feet.
She moved faster.
They didn’t speak as she practically ran across the street and into her building, but when she entered her office and tried to shut the door behind her, she was stymied by a one-hundred-and-eighty pound block wall.
Half in, half out, with the door nearly cutting off his nose, he grinned down at her. “You’re nuts about me, I can tell.”
She groaned and backed away from the door. “I’m only letting you in because I can’t stand the sight of blood. That, and my secretary, Nancy, is watching.” She plopped into her chair and glared at him.
He shut the door behind him, then set a lean hip on the corner of her desk. “Let me see,” he said, reaching for her spoon. “If it’s as good as it looks…hmmm.” His tongue darted out to catch a drop. “Oh yeah. It is.”
So rattled by the sight of his wet tongue sliding over his own lips, Amber lost every thought in her head. Her hands loosened with the loss of blood flow to her brain, and the small bit of frozen yogurt still left in the cup spilled out…right down the front of her jacket.
Dax was there in a flash, laughing, slipping her jacket off her shoulders.
“No, don’t,” she gasped, gripping the edges of her jacket, pressing it to her too-tight blouse. “I want it on-”
“Hurry,” he urged, tugging the jacket from her shoulders, leaving her exposed in nothing but the blouse she didn’t want anyone to see. “Before it gets on your-” Abruptly, Dax stopped talking.
He couldn’t help himself, she was incredible. Yes, he’d already seen her, seen everything. He’d touched and licked and kissed every inch of her, but that didn’t stop his heart from constricting and certain other parts of his anatomy from standing at attention at the sight of her straining against the tight confines of her white silk blouse.
“I wanted that on,” she grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest.
He hardly heard her, could hardly think, but he had to touch.
Her face remained cool, impassive as he slid his fingers over her, but at the base of her neck, her pulse drummed wildly, giving her away.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, watching her nipples harden, pressing for freedom against the fabric. “But you’re so beautiful, you stun me.”
“We agreed we’re too different for this,” Amber said, not quite steadily, tightening her arms in front of her.
All it did was emphasize her glorious body, and the breasts she seemed embarrassed of. “No, you agreed.”
She gave him a hot look.
It was filled with such frustration, he had to smile. “Okay, we agreed that you think you need space in order to protect your emotions from me.”
“I don’t think it, I know it.”
And so did he. Dammit, so did he. “I shouldn’t have come.” He shoved his fingers through his hair and backed away.
“For which?” At the door, he spun around. “For driving me crazy, or for driving me crazy slowly?”
That comment had anger flashing in her eyes. “I’m sorry you’re upset that you’re not getting your way.”
“What’s my way? Do you even know?”
“You want to have a…a fling.”
That stopped him cold and he stalked back toward her. “Why don’t you just marry me, dammit, and settle once and for all what I really want.”
AMBER GAWKED at him and, in truth, Dax couldn’t blame her. He was shocked, too. After that first time when he’d so foolishly asked her to marry him, he’d vowed not to think about it again.
But he knew now how he felt about being a father to Taylor. He wanted to do it right. Part-time wasn’t right, not in his opinion.
He also knew how he felt about Amber, knew it was permanent, not some passing phase.
He knew this, just as he knew he’d been using her resistance to fuel his own, using it to mask his own fear of commitment.
But that was cowardly. The deep emotions he had for Amber were here to stay, and he would face them.
He had to convince her to do the same.
“Did you just…” She gazed at him helplessly, her head going back in forth in an automatic denial that had his jaw so tight he could barely breathe. “Did you…”
“Yes. For the second time. And I have to tell you, that frightened, trapped-doe look is not quite the response I was hoping for.”
The look disappeared instantly as she veiled her thoughts from him.
“I told you before,” she said slowly. “It’s unnecessary. Nothing’s changed.”
“That’s not an answer,” he said grimly. “An answer would be ‘yes, I’ll make your wildest fantasies come true,’ or ‘no, let me rip out your heart.”’
“You’re being impossible.”
“Yes,” he snapped. “We’ve already established that I’m wildly emotional, temperamental and overly sensitive. That I can’t control any of that. I’m also, apparently, impossible. But I want to marry you. I want to be a family. So answer the damn question.”
He couldn’t have handled this any worse, and he knew it. Thanks to his own stupidity, he’d backed her into a corner with no way out. But he wouldn’t withdraw the question, not when he’d put his pride on the line.
In control now, Amber didn’t even blink.
“It’s that tough, huh?”
“It’s not as though we’ve had the most conventional of relationships,” she told him in a tone that said she expected him to be reasonable.
He wasn’t in the mood for reasonable. “Of course this relationship hasn’t been normal, not from the very beginning! We met under extraordinary circumstances, for God’s sake, and we’ve been through things other people haven’t.” He lifted his hands helplessly. “Nothing’s been the same since that earthquake, and nothing’s been the same since I met you.” Dropping his hands, he shook his head. “I held you when I thought we were going to die, Amber, and yes, that was a long time ago, and yes, now everything’s different. I see things differently, I feel differently.” He reached for her, touched her pale face. “I have never regretted what happened. You have to know, you and Taylor are the best things that ever happened to me.”
She turned away and scrubbed at the yogurt stain with a napkin. Though the stain didn’t come off, she slipped the jacket back on anyway. Buttoning it, her back to him, she softly said, “You scare me.”
“Does it help to know you scare me, too?”
“Actually, ‘scare’ isn’t a strong enough word,” she clarified. “Terrify works better.”
He came up behind her, torturing himself with the feel of her spine and curved bottom against his chest and groin.
At the contact, her fingers fumbled on her buttons.
Reaching around her, he brushed her hands away and took over the task. “It’s not like you to be so fidgety.”
“I’m nervous. Marriage proposals do that to me.”
Surrounding her as he was, he could hear her every breath, could smell her sweet, sexy scent. Felt her small tremors. Wildly protective emotions rose in him, powerful and suddenly certain. “Amber…” His arms folded around her. His mouth found its way to her ear and was heading toward her jaw when she straightened.
“I’m having enough trouble keeping my thoughts together,” she said shakily, facing him, pressing her hands to her heart. “If I let you kiss me now, I don’t know what will happen.”
“Really?” That pleased him. “What could happen?”
“You know very well what.”
“I want to hear you say it.”
She rolled her eyes. “You know all you have to do is look at me and my thoughts scatter. I certainly can’t concentrate when you put your mouth on me. I can hardly breathe.”
His smile spread a bit. “Maybe you concentrate too much.”
“Yes, well, it’s a bad habit of mine.”
“Are you ever going to answer the question?”
She drew a deep breath. “I know it’s rude, but I need some air.”
“You need to think.”
Well-versed in this particular play, he followed her out, but she was stopped by Nancy at the front desk and handed a stack of messages that made her sigh.
Dax watched while she flipped through them with quick impatience. And saw her, really saw her-the weary eyes, the slight bruises beneath them, the tension in her body.
She was truly exhausted.
Nancy added a pile of files that needed immediate attention. On top of that, she placed a virtual mountain of correspondence, all of which required review and a signature.
It had to be at least a week’s worth of work.
Amber took everything stoically, she even managed a smile for her employee, but Dax saw right through her.
“Put it in your office and let’s go,” he said quietly.
Nancy held up a finger before Amber could move. “The Garrisons. They want to see that property again.”
“Terrific,” Amber muttered.
“They’ve seen it five times this week.”
“I know. But they want to see it again and they want to see it with you.”
Amber drew in a slow, purposeful breath, and Dax wondered how it was that only he saw her growing exhaustion. He knew how hard she worked, knew how much time Taylor demanded, and added it all up.
It equaled a breakdown for Amber.
“Call them then,” she said wearily. “Tell them I’ll pick them up at-”
“Tell them they can see the damn property by themselves,” Dax interjected. He took the stack of work from Amber’s arms. “You’ve done enough today. You’re taking off.”
Both Amber and Nancy stared at him.
“Ms. Riggs is leaving for the day,” he announced for anyone listening. “She won’t be back until morning.”
“I will most definitely be back today,” Amber said, her eyes on Dax. “I just need some air.”
“You’re going to get your air.” Dax smiled his most charming smile. “But you won’t be back today.” Taking her hand in a grip of steel, he tugged her from the office.
“Dax…would you stop!” Her heels clicked noisily as she raced along beside him. “I have important business to attend to.”
“You most certainly do,” he assured her, ruthlessly tugging her along. “We were in the middle of something.”
“I know, but I can’t just leave, not now-”
“Your air,” he reminded her. “You needed to get out so fast you couldn’t answer my question. Remember?”
Her lips tightened, but she remained silent until they exited the building.
It was a glorious Southern California day. The sky was a deep, brilliant blue and scattered across it were little puffs of white clouds.
A picture-perfect scene.
Now if only the woman next to him could slow down enough to enjoy it.
Instead, she spun on her heels away from him and started walking.
Dax spared a moment to admire her stride. “I’m coming with you,” he called.
“Like I could stop you.”
He moved to keep up with her. She was pale, but never faltered. The slight wind tossed her hair, played with the hem of her skirt. Dax avoided thinking by concentrating on traffic. He avoided touching Amber by keeping his hands in his pockets.
Three blocks later, they came to a park. All green and woodsy, it had a series of trails and welcoming benches. A perfect place to ask a woman-for the third time-to marry him.
A perfect place for his future to be decided.
They were hidden from the street by trees. The sounds of birds singing drowned out any traffic they might have heard. They were alone, isolated, surrounded by beauty.
“Well,” he said after a moment.
They stared at each other stupidly, and Dax wondered if she could possibly be as attracted, as confused, as totally, irreversibly in love as he was.
Then he saw the unmistakable signs-red-rimmed eyes and damp lashes.
“I’ve thought about…you know,” she said, her voice a bit ragged.
“You mean about spending the rest of your life with me?” he asked gently. “Is that why you’re crying?”
She looked away. “It’s been hard being a single parent. No family support, few friends. Both are my fault, but it’s fact.” Then she turned back to him. “Having you in my life, taking responsibility for helping with Taylor, it’s been a real gift.”
“But I can’t accept your offer. It’s generous, kind and almost overwhelmingly irresistible, but as I told you before, I can’t do it.”
“Mind if I ask why?”
“It’s obvious neither of us were meant for marriage.”
“I don’t believe that,” he said softly. “And I don’t believe you believe it. Don’t chicken out here, Amber. Don’t hide, not from me. Tell me the truth. I deserve that much.”
“You know the truth. I’m not marriage material, and you…you like women too much to give it all up just because we have a baby.”
“First of all, I stopped looking at other women the moment you came into my life.”
“Both,” he told her grimly.
“I understand getting married is a logical solution to the unexpected unit we’ve become.” She hugged herself. “We have a baby. We both love her with all our hearts. We’re willing to share her, but the truth is, neither of us really want to be separated from her. Getting married would solve that.”
“Yes,” he agreed, sliding closer. “It would also solve another, deeper problem.”
“I want you.”
“You-” She closed her eyes. “You just had me recently. A few times as a matter of fact.”
The memory, as well as her tone, made him smile. “I want more than sex,” he clarified. Because the admission was a new one for him, and scary, his humor vanished. “I’ve never said this before about anyone else, but sex with you isn’t enough. I want to spend nights together. I want to be together. I know we started out in a whirlwind, that we’ve done everything backward, but let’s fix it.”
“Marriage won’t do that, Dax.”
“Why are you so resistant?”
“Because…because, dammit, it’s not enough for me!” She blushed and closed her eyes. “I’m sorry. I know this sounds stupid, but to me a marriage should be about…about love. I’ve never thought of myself in those terms, but deep in my heart, if I’m going to do it, that’s what I want.”
“Well that’s convenient, since I happen to be madly in love with you.”
“What?” She flew to her feet and stared at him as if she’d just discovered he was an alien. “What did you just say?”
He stood, too, and when she would have turned away, he took her shoulders in his hands. She trembled. That made two of them. “I think you heard me just fine.”
“I’ve…I’ve never heard those words before.” Her voice was a mere whisper. She licked her lips. “I’d like to hear them again.”
His heart threatened to burst out of his chest. “I love you.”
“Why not? You’re perfectly lovable.”
Her mouth was open, her eyes wild. Her hand went to her chest. “Oh God. Now I can’t breathe.”
“Good. Neither can I.” He resisted the urge to laugh because he wasn’t kidding. He really couldn’t breathe. “I’ve never said those words to a woman before, Amber.”
They stared at each other.
“You’re mistaken,” she decided tremulously. “You have to be.”
“You have no idea. I don’t let people in, I’m not-”
“Amber.” It was so easy, so right to touch her, he thought, as his thumb gently stroked her jaw. His fingers slipped into her hair. “I’ve loved you from that very first day.”
“But I don’t know how to love you back.”
“You could practice.”
Moisture gathered in her beautiful eyes and she shook her head back and forth.
“Practice with me, Amber,” he whispered, his heart raw.
Her eyes were huge. “I’m not ready. I need time.”
“I don’t know!”
Because she was still shaking, he gathered her stiff body close. “I’m sorry,” she whispered against his chest, but her hands snaked around his neck and for a moment, she clung.
He stroked her back and tamped down any regrets. “Don’t worry. It so happens, time is in plentiful supply.”
And strange as it seemed, given she’d turned him down yet again, Dax felt an inkling of hope for their future.
THAT NIGHT, Dax lay in his bed staring at the ceiling wondering how long it would take for sleep to claim him when the phone rang.
Given how his heart picked up speed, he knew who it would be. “Hello?”
“Did you mean it?”
Amber. Unsure and unhappy. “I meant every one of those three little words,” he assured her grimly.
There was a long silence, and he knew she was very busy thinking.
“Have I broken one to you yet, Amber?”
“No,” she said slowly, but she sounded slightly reassured. “I have to go.”
His heart twisted, a feeling he was beginning to associate with her. “Good night, Amber,” he whispered.
DAX FOUND Amber at what he now knew to be her favorite lunch spot. He grinned at her bowl of strawberry yogurt. “Are you going to let me watch you eat that?”
She stopped licking her spoon and eyed him over the bowl with an interesting mix of pleasure and wariness. The wariness he expected because it had been four days since he’d sought her out.
The pleasure was a nice surprise.
“No,” she finally said.
Ignoring that, because whether she wanted to admit it or not, she was crazy about him, he swiveled a chair around and straddled it. Leaning forward, he took in her cool, sedate, navy blue suit. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to spill again so that you could lose the uptight clothes.”
Surprising him, she laughed. “Actually, I thought of you this morning when I put this on.”
“Yeah?” For some reason, that gave him ridiculous pleasure. So did the thought of her standing, fresh out of a shower, naked, thinking of him.
Her voice was low. “I thought of it as my armor.”
She played with the yogurt now. “Sometimes you give me a certain look and it makes me feel…funny.”
He gave her one of those looks now and the air sizzled between them.
“That’s the one,” she said a bit shakily, pointing at him with her spoon. “That’s it right there.”
“Do you feel funny now?”
“A little, yeah.”
“Me, too.” He heard the rough arousal in his voice and couldn’t stop himself. “And it has nothing to do with the clothes you wear.” He leaned close. “You could put on real armor and it wouldn’t matter one damn bit.”
Her eyes closed briefly, and he knew he didn’t mistake that quick flash of helpless desire on her face before she carefully masked it and rose. “I have work.”
He touched her arm, stilled her. “You can believe in me, Amber. Believe in yourself enough to see it.”
“I’m trying, Dax. Whatever you think of me, I want you to know that.”
He rose, too, and skimmed his fingers over her cheek. “I know you’ve had no one to trust with yourself before, but I promise you, I’m different.”
And then, because they were in the crowded café, and because neither of them were quite steady, he stepped back. “Think about it.”
AMBER WANTED to do nothing but think about it. As she entered her office, her mind whirled. She moved toward her desk and the mountain of work waiting for her.
Halfway there, the earth rumbled beneath her feet. For a second she allowed herself to believe it was her overly active imagination.
It wasn’t. The earthquake was short and quick, and absolutely terrifying.
There had been many this year, and she remembered each and every one of them because they’d brought on a heart-stopping panic she couldn’t control.
A normal reaction for someone who’d been through what she had, she assured herself, gripping her desk, prepared to dive under it if necessary.
“It’s okay,” she said out loud as she waited, tense and frozen. “Just an aftershock.” She knew they could occur for years after a main quake. The knowledge didn’t help. Many people in the area had been terrorized by the aftershocks, not just her. It was normal.
She told herself all of this, repeatedly, but she still forgot to breathe and her chest hurt. Her vision spotted.
And though it was over long before she even fully registered it, she remained there, rigid, heart drumming, palms damp, shaking like a leaf.
The door to her office opened and shut, and suddenly Dax was standing there, saying her name in that deep, wonderful voice.
“I came the second I felt it,” he said. “I was still on the street. I thought-I didn’t know how you would feel-Dammit, I hate those things!” he exclaimed, taking her arms in his strong, reassuring hands. “Are you all right?”
“Certainly.” But she clung to his big, welcoming body. Just for a moment, she told herself. She’d allow herself to lean on him for just a moment. “I’m fine.”
“Don’t.” With a gentleness that was so tender, so sweet it hurt, he curled a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Don’t fake being strong for me.”
“It was just an aftershock. Hardly even big enough to register on the scale.”
“It registered on my scale,” came his gruff reply, and for the first time she heard his breathlessness, felt the quiver in his own muscles, and realized he felt the fear, too.
She gave herself permission to hold him for another moment.
“It’s okay,” he whispered, gathering her tighter, absorbing her weight with ease. “We’re okay.”
“Taylor,” she said, lifting her head. Urgency overcame her. “I want to call-”
“We will. Soon as I can remember my mother’s phone number. We’ll go get her together, okay? Amber, just hold onto me for a second.”
We’ll go get her.
For some reason, the words softened her as nothing else could have and she let out a lungful of air, burying her face in the wonderful spot of his neck that seemed meant for her. “Don’t be afraid,” she told him. “I have a big, tough desk. It’ll hold.”
He laughed, as she had meant for him to, and somehow that softened her even more so that her arms wrapped even tighter around him.
“We’re both shaking like leaves,” he muttered, sinking with her to the floor. “I really hate earthquakes.”
“Just for the record here,” she wondered. “Who’s comforting who?”
“I’m not sure, just don’t let go.”
She didn’t. They sat huddled on the floor in each other’s arms like two little children. Her legs were entwined with his, her skirt high on her thighs. His hands were on her back, slowly running up and down in a reassuring gesture that hadn’t been anything but sincerely comforting, until his hands slipped beneath her jacket to the silk of her blouse.
The embrace shifted, became charged with erotic awareness, and Amber lifted her head to stare at him, into his warm eyes, then at his mouth, the one she suddenly wanted on hers. The shattering, shocking truth was, she wanted that more than she wanted her own next breath.
Dax groaned and closed his eyes. “Don’t look at me like that, it’s dangerous to my health.”
For the life of her, she couldn’t remember why she’d wanted to hold him at arm’s length, couldn’t remember why she was trying so hard to resist this magnetic pull she felt whenever she was with him.
Hell, she was starting to have that pull even when she wasn’t with him.
Her arms were already around his neck, it took little movement to have her fingers fisted in his hair so that she could tug him closer, then closer still so that their mouths were a fraction of an inch apart.
“Amber.” The sound of her name on his lips, spoken in that husky voice, made her heart tip on its side.
She closed the distance between them, let her eyes drift closed. Her lips parted and she felt his warm breath mingle with hers.
Her office door opened.
“Oh, excuse me,” came Nancy’s shocked voice.
Professionalism kept her from gawking, though Amber was certain she wanted to. After all, how often did she see her boss sprawled on the floor in a man’s arms?
“I’m sorry,” Nancy murmured.
Amber groaned when the door shut. She pushed away from Dax.
He let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m betting from the look on your face that what just happened is worse than the aftershock.”
“I’ve worked hard to make sure everyone here respects me and the work I do. And in a matter of seconds, I’ve just ruined that image.”
“Well that’s pure bull.”
Amber stared at him. “That’s easy for you to say. You’re a man, working in a man’s world. You’re not judged by your appearance, or who you sleep with.”
“Neither are you.”
“It’s different here. It’s highly competitive. One nasty rumor and I could be ruined.”
“I see. And being caught in my arms equals a nasty rumor. Flattering.”
She winced at his unusually chilly voice. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“That’s the hard part, because I know it.”
THAT NIGHT when Dax brought Taylor home to Amber, he made no attempt to draw her into conversation. He didn’t even come in, but stood at the doorway, silently and solemnly holding Taylor close for a long moment. Arms tight around the chubby little baby, he closed his eyes and hugged her tight.
Then he lifted her high, smiled at her squeal of delight and kissed her goodbye. “I love you, baby,” he whispered, and his smile was a heart-wrenching mixture of sweetness and sorrow.
All that emotion both shocked and humbled Amber to her toes. “Do you want to come in?”
He shook his head, and as if to prove his point, remained on the step as she took the diaper bag from him. He was careful not to touch her. Though she had no right to feel that way, it hurt.
She knew he was going to work. She’d seen the news. There was a fire raging in a downtown apartment building. It was filled with hundreds of trapped, terrified people, and though he rarely fought the actual fires these days, he would be on the scene. His job required it.
But she knew his distant attitude had nothing to do with that fire and everything to do with her. “Be careful tonight.”
“Always.” With one last, loving touch to Taylor’s chubby cheek, he turned away.
Slowly he turned, but she didn’t know what to say, how to reach him. How to make him understand.
How could she, when she didn’t understand herself? “Nothing,” she whispered, and then he was gone.
AMBER DID her best to keep her mind occupied for the rest of the long evening. She bathed Taylor, then read her stories, even though the baby was far more interested in chewing on the pages than listening to the words.
She even tried to do some of her own work. Nothing satisfied her and her mind drifted.
Desperate to distract herself, she flipped on the television, then stood riveted in horror. The downtown fire was live on all the local channels.
The flames weren’t contained. Even worse, there were still people trapped on the higher levels. The city had put out the desperate call for help to neighboring counties, and though that help was on the way, for many it would be too late.
She knew Dax would never stand on the sidelines. He’d be there, in the thick of that heat, fighting for those people’s lives.
Glued to the screen, she lost track of time, chewing on her nails as she hadn’t done since she was a child. When the roof of the building collapsed, she leaped to her feet, then kneeled before the television, her heart in her throat.
Three firefighters were reported missing.
She waited and waited, but they didn’t give any more information, not the identities of the men or their conditions, not even after the fire was contained and then, eventually, extinguished.
No longer able to stand the not knowing, Amber turned to the phone, just as it rang.
“Honey, it’s Emily McCall.”
“Oh, thank goodness. Do you think you could watch Taylor for me? I have to go down.”
“Oh, Amber, listen-”
“I have to go, I have to know-”
“I know, I know. But he’s okay. He’s not hurt. That’s why I’m calling.”
The relief was so overwhelming, Amber couldn’t breathe. “You’re sure?”
“Thomas drove down there when this mess first started, he just called me.”
Dax was okay.
Amber’s limbs started to shake in reaction and she collapsed onto the couch.
Emily’s voice was thick with tears. “I worry about him so much. I can hear in your voice you worried, too.”
“Yes. He-We-I…” She blew out a breath and tried again. “It was awful, the not knowing. I tried to imagine…Taylor needs him.”
“Of course she does. What about her mother?”
“I need him, too,” she said, meaning every word. “So much.”
“He’s my life,” Emily said simply. “And so is your daughter. I’m so thankful we’re all together.”
The guilt that stabbed at Amber wasn’t new. She felt as though she had stolen Taylor’s first three months from Dax and his family and now, only a few short weeks later, couldn’t imagine how she had done it.
Her reasons for wanting to be alone hadn’t made sense for hours now.
“Why don’t you bring me that sweet little baby?” Emily suggested. “Then you can decide what to do.”
Emily’s voice was hushed, as if she kept a huge secret. “Well, I shouldn’t say anything.” This spoken in the hopeful tone of someone who wanted to be pressed.
“Well, you know I pride myself on letting my children lead their own lives. I don’t mean to be nosy.”
If she hadn’t been in such shock, Amber might have laughed. It was common knowledge among Dax’s family exactly how wonderfully, purposely nosy Emily could be.
“But as long as you’re asking,” she said slyly. “I was hoping maybe you had something to tell me. That maybe you and Dax were going to…oh, I don’t know. Get married?”
Oh Lord. “Mrs. McCall-”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Emily interrupted with a laugh. “Let’s not go backward here. You called me Emily at the party.”
“Or you could just go ahead and get used to calling me Mom.”
Amber’s emotions were in such a tailspin, she had no control left with which to handle this situation. “I’m sorry,” she managed. “But as far as wedding bells, I don’t have anything to tell.”
“He hasn’t asked you to marry him?” Emily’s disappointment sang through the line. “That boy! I taught him better than that-”
“No, no, it’s not…” How to explain that she had screwed everything up? That there was every chance Dax no longer wanted her? “It’s not his fault.”
“You don’t want him?”
“This is very complicated. I can’t seem to think straight.”
“Of course you can’t! Where’s my head, pressing you to talk to me before you’re ready. Maybe you haven’t even decided if you like me-”
Now Amber did laugh. Emily McCall could wear down a saint. “I like you, very much,” she assured the older woman. “It’s just that-”
“That you don’t think of me as your family yet.” Emily sniffed, clearly insulted. “I understand.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“No, it’s okay, you don’t owe me anything.”
“Emily, please. I think you’re an amazing woman.”
“You do?” Pleasure quickly replaced hurt. “Really?”
“Yes.” It had never been easy for Amber to share herself, but for some reason, the words came now. “I think the way you love your family is beautiful.”
“It’s no more than any mother would do.”
Maybe it was the late hour or the emotions of the day, but suddenly it was easy for Amber to admit the truth. “Not any mother.”
Emily’s sympathy and pity didn’t frighten her as she thought it would. “Definitely not mine. But I used to dream about it, and if I could have drawn my mother the way I wanted her to be, she would have been just like you.”
“Oh darling, now you’re really going to make me cry.”
“Don’t you dare.” Amber laughed through her own impending tears. “You’ll get me started. And after what we’ve been through this evening, I may never stop.”
“Dax is careful, you know. He’s the best at what he does.”
He was the best at everything he set his mind to. His work. Fatherhood. She could only imagine what a husband he’d make. The warm glow that came from that thought no longer surprised her.
“I imagine you have a lot on your mind,” Emily said. “Especially with the thought of babies and marriage and all the like.”
“I thought you didn’t want to be nosy.”
“Oh, you.” But Emily had the good grace to laugh at herself. “You already have my number. Just like all my children.” Her voice went stern and demanding. “Now bring me Taylor. You go to my boy.”
IN THE END, Amber didn’t drop off Taylor, figuring Dax would want to see her. He seemed to thrive on any opportunity to do so.
Plus she needed Taylor to hold, needed to feel that small, warm bundle of life against her, reminding her that no matter what happened with Dax, she mattered to someone.
Dax had given her a key to his house, insisting he didn’t want her waiting for him outside if he was ever late when they were supposed to meet. Amber had felt uncomfortable with that, had assumed she would never use it, but it came in handy now.
Less than one minute after she arrived, Dax pulled into the driveway, setting her nerves to leaping. Head down, shoulders tense, he opened the front door and stepped inside. As if he sensed her, he stilled and slowly raised his head to reveal a weary, hollow face.
When he saw her his eyes warmed. So did Amber’s heart.
“HEY.” DAX acknowledged her, but he didn’t move into the room.
Amber’s nervousness tripled. Was he bothered by the fact that she’d let herself in? Was he sorry he’d given her his key?
Why didn’t he say something, anything? “I hope you don’t mind,” she found herself saying awkwardly.
With an audible sigh, he kicked off his shoes.
“I…used the key you gave me.”
He dropped his jacket where he stood and the leather hit the floor with a thud.
“Taylor’s here, too.” She felt stupid and intrusive, but a search of his expression told her nothing. A first. “Your mom offered to baby-sit, but I thought you’d want to see her.”
He rolled his head on his neck, winced and then sighed again.
“If you’re too tired, I’ll just…”
He spoke then, though the words were muffled by the sweatshirt he was pulling off over his head. “I’m never too tired for Taylor.” He tossed the sweatshirt aside, his words in direct opposition to the exhaustion on his face. “Or you, for that matter.”
“Because I could just scoop her up and leave…”
He leaned back against the wall, arms crossed. “Didn’t you just get here?”
His face was bleak, his eyes red-rimmed, and his big, tough body so weary she imagined he was standing on his feet by sheer force of will. “I saw everything on the news,” she said. She watched as he dumped out the contents of his pockets into a small bowl on the low table in the entry.
His silence was killing her.
“I couldn’t tear myself away from the television,” she added.
He nodded and rubbed his eyes, but still didn’t speak. Her heart was racing so fast she didn’t know what to do.
“When the roof collapsed-” she drew a shaky breath “-and those firefighters fell through the gaping hole…”
He flinched and her heart ached at the stark pain she saw so clearly in his eyes. “Oh, Dax.”
He hadn’t stepped toward her, hadn’t really looked at her, not once. He hadn’t made one move that told her how he felt about her being there. “Would you rather I go?”
“Actually, I’m hoping you’re going to tell me the real reason you’re here.”
“I…I thought…I just wanted to be.”
He came toward her, his face still bleak and grim, but now there was something new in his gaze. He stopped a mere foot away from her. “I’ve never known you to stutter.”
“I don’t. N-n-not-” Ruthlessly she bit her tongue. “Not usually anyway.” Frustrated, she reached up to shove back a loose strand of hair at the exact same moment his fingers came up to tuck it behind her ear. His hand slid over hers and he brought those joined hands to his chest. “You’ve been biting your nails. A new habit?”
“Another one that I’ve not had for years.”
“What’s the matter? I’ve never seen you so unsettled.”
“Unsettled. I guess that’s what you’d call worrying myself sick.” All her pent-up fear spewed out. “I went through hell tonight, watching the news.”
“It’s my job.”
“I know. I know! That’s not what I’m saying.”
“What are you saying?”
“That I worry, okay? I don’t want to, but I do.”
He let out a long breath and all the tension suddenly draining out of him, immediately replaced by a new, different sort of tension. “Yes,” he whispered, his eyes glittering with emotion. “Yes, that’s what I wanted to hear.”
“I suppose then, that you’d love to know I couldn’t even breathe, thinking that you’d be hurt. Or worse!”
His other hand slid up her spine, around to cup her face. His thumb brushed over her lower lip before his fingers sank into her hair, holding her head still. Closing that last gap between them, he nudged her up against his body. “Yeah. I would love to know that.”
She flattened her hands against his chest and had to tip her head back to look into his eyes. “Is that ego talking?”
“No. It’s not even remotely related to anything in my brain.” He smoothed his hand over hers, holding it close to his chest. “It’s right here, where pride has no place. And if you think you should be ashamed about worrying for me, think again. Not when I do nothing but think about you, worry about you, want you. It feels incredible to know you’re capable of doing the same.”
Had she been so selfish to keep that from him? “I care about you, Dax. So much it hurts.”
For the first time that night, his eyes heated, his mouth softened. He closed his eyes and with an aching tenderness, rubbed his jaw to hers, drawing her so tight to him she could feel his every breath.
Then he pulled her even closer, burying his face in her neck. “We lost twenty-two people tonight. Six of them children. One was a baby girl, the same age as Taylor.”
Shock reverberated through her and she hugged him as tight as she could. “I’m so sorry.”
“I had to tell her mother-” He swallowed hard. “I kept seeing Taylor, kept imagining how I’d feel if I had to face you, tell you that-God.”
Envisioning the scene, Amber felt his anguish as her own. “You did everything you could, all of you did everything you could to save them.”
He made a wordless sound of grief that tore at her. In her arms was the strongest, toughest, most heroic man she’d ever met, and she didn’t know what to do for him. She wanted to take his pain away, wanted to hold him close so that nothing could hurt him ever again. She had no idea how long they stood there, rocking slowly, absorbing each other’s heat and strength, when Taylor cried out.
“I’ll get her,” Dax said. “I…I need her.”
Amber followed him to the room he’d set up for Taylor. It had been his office before, so the crib was between a leather sofa and an oak desk. Both were now covered with stuffed animals, toys and freshly laundered baby clothes. The place was a comfortable, cozy mess.
Taylor had fallen asleep again, on her tummy as usual, her padded bottom sticking up in the air, her fist in her mouth.
Dax stood by the crib, his hand on Taylor’s back, a look of combined sorrow and joy on his face, so poignant it hurt to look at him. But that wasn’t a good enough reason to turn away.
For the first time in her life, Amber reached out and made the first move. It was difficult, but only until she touched him. At the contact with his warm, hard body it was the most natural thing in the world to slip her hands around his waist and hug him from behind. “She’s okay, Dax.”
He nodded and turned, gathering her close. The exhaustion was still there in his expression, but some of the bleak despair seemed to have lifted. That it was herself and Taylor doing that for him gave her a warm burst of something so thrilling, so breathtaking, so wild and fierce, it terrified her.
It was hope.
Was it real? Could it last?
Dax leaned past her, stroked a gentle hand down Taylor’s back and with an achingly tender expression, bent and kissed his baby, murmuring something Amber couldn’t hear.
Straightening, he looked deep into Amber’s eyes as a slow, unbearably sad smile crossed his mouth.
Then he left the room.
Confused, she followed him as he padded down the hallway to his own bedroom.
He didn’t turn on the light, but she made out his silhouette as he tugged off his shirt and let it fall. His shoulders slumped as he stood there in the middle of the room, still and silent.
“I’m fine,” he said, emotionlessly. “You don’t have to stay.”
The only light in the room came from the pale moon shining through the window, so she couldn’t see his expression. She didn’t have to in order to know he felt empty to the core. “You want me to go?”
A harsh laugh escaped him. “No. But I know you’re still afraid of all this, and I’m just vulnerable enough tonight to beg.”
“I can’t help the fear, Dax,” she said carefully. “It’s all a part of it for me. But I can tell you what I feel for you is different than anything I’ve ever felt before.”
She felt his surprise.
She closed her eyes for a moment and pressed her fingertips to them while she drew in a deep breath. “I won’t deny what’s between us, but I feel like I’m on an emotional roller coaster.”
“I understand that you like to keep your emotions in check. Hell, you’ve had to in order to survive, but Amber…” He lifted his broad shoulders helplessly. “I can’t do the same.”
In the dark his silhouette seemed larger than life, more vital, more full of passion and hope than she could ever be, and never had she felt the lack in herself so much as she did in that moment. “I know,” she whispered.
“I won’t ever hurt you,” he said quietly. “I’ve told you that. But I can’t temper myself, hide my emotions. No matter how much I want you, I can’t change. Not even for you.”
He was close enough now that she could see him more clearly. The contours of his bare chest were delineated by the faint moon’s glow. He was powerful, and he was beautiful.
And he could be hers.
All she had to do was believe it.
He turned away and sank down onto his huge bed. With a little groan, he flopped on his back and covered his face with one arm.
Exhaustion had clearly claimed him.
Was it too late to tell him? Could she find both the courage and the words? “Dax?”
He let out an answering grunt, but didn’t budge.
She moved close, until her knees bumped the mattress. She lifted one to the bed and bent over him, gently setting a hand on his bare chest.
At the unexpected heat of him, she nearly pulled back, but the sensation of skin to skin felt so good, she set her other hand on him as well. Then closed her eyes to savor it.
Suddenly his hands came up, tugged her down. Gasping in surprise, she fell over him.
“If you’re going to lean over me, staring as I sleep,” he muttered, “then at least get down here and keep me company while you’re doing it.”
Those were the last words he spoke. He drew her close, tucked himself around her, then immediately fell into a deep, exhausted slumber.
He was warm and safe and strong. There was no way to resist snuggling in even closer.
Then she, too, fell asleep.
SHE DREAMED they made love…she could feel him, all of him, skin to skin, burning her, healing her, making her body hum.
She dreamed of his hands skimming over her body, shedding her clothes. The picture was so vivid she could feel the calluses on his fingertips when he touched her bare flesh with such terrifying tenderness it made her weep and press closer.
She dreamed she touched him, too, and under her hands the muscles of his big, tough body quivered. In his eyes she saw need and ecstasy and anguish and oh…
This was no dream.
“You’re awake.” Indecision and sweet resignation swam in his eyes.
They’d already established she wasn’t a morning person, nothing had changed. Then she realized it wasn’t morning yet. She blinked in confusion because she was wrapped around him like a blanket.
“I woke up like this,” he murmured. “We must have gravitated toward each other in our dreams.”
He expected her to walk away. She could hear it in his voice. He thought she’d made a decision about him, about her life, and that decision didn’t involve him.
He thought wrong.
“Touch me, Dax.”
The strain on his face nearly broke her heart. “I am.”
“It won’t change anything,” he said tightly. “We’ll still be fundamentally at odds, wanting different things, and-”
She shifted closer to that intriguing, throbbing heat pressing between her legs. “Mmm.” She grabbed his hands from her hips and slid them over her body. To her waist, her ribs, her breasts.
“Amber.” He groaned. “You feel incredible, but-”
“You talk too much.” She kissed him softly, then not so softly, drawing him in deeper, and he let out a tortured sigh, deepening the kiss himself. As if he could read her mind, her dream, her need, he caressed her, worshipped her body and set her senses on fire.
“My clothes,” she managed as his mouth dipped and nipped over her collarbone, trailing to a breast. His tongue circled her bare nipple, and she arched closer. “Where did my clothes go?” She moaned when his hot, pulsing erection nudged at her wet center. “Where did yours go?”
“We must have shed them in the night.”
He rose above her, swirling that inventive, greedy tongue over her other breast, teasing the nipple until she nearly cried.
When she tried to lift up her legs and draw him inside her, he evaded her, slipping down her body. She felt his warm breath high on the inside of her thigh. Equal parts thrill and fear coursed through her. “Um…Dax?”
“Shh. You talk too much.” His tongue swirled over her. Then his teeth, and when he sucked her into his mouth, he made her wild, frantic. Shameless. And as the orgasm tore through her, he took her to heights she’d never even imagined.
Unbelievably, he would have rolled away then, but she managed to open her eyes and saw his vulnerability, and understood he appreciated hers.
He wouldn’t take advantage of her.
She felt the resolute, unmistakable connection of their hearts and souls, and knew he never could. She reversed their positions, holding him in place as she slowly and torturously experimented on his body with her mouth.
When he tossed back his head, his face tight in a mask of agonized pleasure, she lifted her mouth off of him and licked her lips.
“Am I doing all right?” she whispered.
“You’re doing better than all right,” he managed in a strangled voice. “And if you stop now, there’s every chance I’m going to die on the spot.”
Empowered, she gave him a wicked grin before resuming.
In less than two minutes, she had him clawing at the sheets, shaking, begging for release. The thrill of that was such a rush she nearly came from just watching him.
“Love me,” she whispered.
“I do.” His eyes squeezed shut, hiding himself from her. “Amber-”
She saw him hesitate, and desperate for the feel of him thick and throbbing inside her, she reared up and opened his nightstand herself.
He made a rough sound, reached past her and grabbed a foil packet. With a new boldness, she took it and attempted to put the thing on, but it wasn’t nearly as easy as it seemed it should be. “It’s not big enough,” she said, surprised when he let out a groaning laugh.
“Amber, stop. This isn’t-”
Before he could deny her, she drew his face down to hers, arching her hips as she kissed him, forcing his decision.
A low groan came from deep in his throat, and he barely managed to get the condom on before he thrust into her, hard and deep. “I’m sorry.” His voice was as rough and ragged as his breathing. But he held her hips and thrust again.
She wanted to tell him not to be sorry, that this was what she wanted, but all she could do was cry out with the pleasure of him inside her. She tossed back her head and gave him everything she had, and as she did, her heart opened, rejoiced, and in return, received.
When it was over, when she lay limp and exhausted in his arms, their bodies still connected and pulsing with the passion and love they’d shared, she smiled for the first time in too long as she drifted back off into sleep.
DAX HELD Amber in his arms long afterward, listening to her soft, deep breathing, watching her relaxed face. Though he relished the sight of her sprawled against him, though he soaked in each and every lush curve and all the feminine roundness that so turned him on, he almost wished she’d put on some clothes, because even the feel of her creamy, soft skin against his made him want her again.
He had the feeling he would always want her.
The yearning for her spread within him and he pulled her even closer, needing to take what he could before she woke all the way up this time, and remembered she wasn’t ready.
It took every bit of restraint he had to keep from kissing her awake, to keep from trying to convince her that what they shared was so incredibly right.
How could she not know?
Or maybe that was it. She did know, and the reality was too frightening.
Her body certainly hadn’t had any such reservations. She’d given all of herself, holding nothing back. The way she’d held him, stroked him, the way she’d looked at him, had spoken clearly of her heart’s desires.
His own heart raced in remembered response.
He’d never, in all his thirty-two years, been touched the way she’d touched him. She wasn’t experienced, no one with that much wonder and awe in her eyes at the simplest of his kisses could be experienced, but she had a surprisingly sensuous, earthy streak and was such a quick study that he got hard just remembering.
He enjoyed everything about her; the easy intelligence in her eyes, her sweet, warm laughter, the wonderful way she mothered Taylor.
Leaving her would be the hardest thing he’d ever had to do, but there was no choice. He was in love with her. Hopelessly, irrevocably in love. It was his first time, but he knew himself, knew that he’d do everything in his power to insure this went his way. He would seduce, cajole and convince her-whatever it took-that they belonged together.
He would probably eventually succeed.
But it would be no good unless Amber decided for herself that they belonged together. No good because he’d never know if it was the path she would have chosen for herself.
In her sleep, she frowned and whimpered, and the sound went through him like a knife. “Shh,” he whispered, soothing her with his hands and voice. “I’ve got you.”
Immediately she stilled. The frown faded. So did much of her tension. Her soft, warm breath tickled the skin of his neck. Her feet were snuggled against his, soaking up their warmth and her hands rested trustingly against his chest. Even their hearts beat in unison, he could feel the rhythm echoing through him.
He missed her already, and though he needed to get some sleep, he didn’t want to close his eyes, didn’t want to miss a minute of this.
God, it hurt, the letting go, but in the end, he could do little else.
AMBER AWOKE to the sound of Taylor’s cooing in the next room. It was a happy sound and she smiled.
Until she realized she was in Dax’s warm, welcoming bed. Alone. She stretched, looking for him, and at the sight of a note on his pillow, her heart stopped.
I had to get back to work.
I’ll be busy for several days, maybe more, before I can get another day off. Please, if you can, let my parents have my days with Taylor. They love her and will take care of her.
You can trust them, Amber.
You can trust them. He apparently thought she didn’t know that, and had to be told.
Her own fault, she admitted, closing her eyes. She’d done a good job of letting him think that she was incapable of trust, period.
With a soft groan, she lay back and listened to Taylor’s joyous babbling. It should have felt right to wake up in his bed, it would have felt right, if he’d been there.
She’d let him think what they shared was purely physical, let him assume the problems between them were insurmountable. She’d hurt him, and that knowledge was an anguish she’d have to face.
And somehow fix.
SHE WAS A COWARD. Not an easy admission, but Amber wouldn’t shy away from the truth.
Somewhere along the road, she’d accepted that Dax really did love her. It was a miracle, and it still made her marvel, but she accepted it.
She also accepted that she felt the same.
But she hadn’t told him, and that was inexcusable. The words had fairly screamed from her heart last night and she’d kept them to herself. Selfish and afraid, she’d held them near and dear, where they could do little good.
He deserved to know.
It wasn’t exactly complimentary that it had taken her so long to really get it, but she could face that, too. She’d been hiding. She’d kept herself from living her life to its fullest because she was afraid.
That was going to change.
Last night had been a turning point for her, and if she was being honest, she also had to admit her transformation hadn’t started last night. It had begun a year before in a dark, dirty basement where she’d faced her mortality.
She’d learned love didn’t have to hurt, that she could indeed trust someone other than herself. Dax needed to know that, too, and he needed to be thanked for teaching her that lesson, but before she could even begin to do that, she had to make him understand how much he meant to her.
But he wasn’t home, and if he was at work, he wasn’t returning her calls. It might have taken her too long, but she’d found the depth of her true feelings for him and she wouldn’t give up. She could do this, she could fight for what she wanted.
And what she wanted was Dax McCall in her life, in her home, in her heart.
SINCE DAX had made himself so thoroughly scarce and unavailable, Amber was forced to start with something else. Something she’d been wanting to do for awhile.
It required only a trip to the county recorder’s office.
She gave Taylor Dax’s last name.
They both deserved that, father and daughter, and she wanted Taylor to be a McCall. She thought Dax wanted that, too, and doing it felt right, very right.
There was something else she wanted to do, and while she waited to talk to Dax, she went for that as well. It was tough, and meant swallowing a lot of pride, but it was for Taylor.
Her father answered the phone in his usual gruff, booming voice, and when he heard Amber, he became all the more gruff. “What do you want?”
As she had all of her life, Amber went on the defensive, and strove to cover that with icy coolness. “You told Dax you wanted to see your granddaughter. Was that true?”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat, a sign of unease. But her father was never uneasy.
Could he be as nervous as she?
There was a time in Amber’s life when she would have been agonizing over this, wishing he would show just the slightest interest, give her one little word of encouragement.
Suddenly-or maybe not so suddenly at all-it didn’t matter. She ached for his presence in her life, solely for Taylor’s sake now.
Yes, she still wanted a father who approved of her and what she’d done with her life. But she’d learned she was fine without that approval. Better than fine. “Have you changed your mind?”
“Actually, it was more than that.”
“I don’t understand,” she said slowly.
His voice was harsh. Gruff as ever. Irritated. “Can’t a man see his only daughter, as well?”
“You hard of hearing, Amber?”
There was no softening in his tough attitude. There came no words of apology or any request for forgiveness. She understood she’d never get that, but it didn’t stop her sudden smile. “No, of course not.” Amazement gave way to a tentative peace. “You can see us whenever it suits you.”
“Well, it suits me.”
It suited her, too, and after he’d hung up, Amber reflected on her life, where it was going, and she smiled again.
DAX KNEELED in the destruction and ash of the burned-out apartment building, taking notes. His investigation was in full swing.
But he was no closer to finding the arsonist now then he had been four days ago. Swearing to himself, he stared down at his pad, but he couldn’t see a single word. He’d worked himself to near exhaustion.
He’d had to.
The arsonist, whoever he was, was now wanted for more than starting the fire. He would have to be accountable for all the destruction he’d caused, and for the waste of human life.
Finding him or her would depend on Dax and how good his investigation was. But damn, it was hard to keep his head straight when his heart hurt. He truly hadn’t expected to fall in love, it just hadn’t been part of his grand plan. But it was done, there was nothing he could do about it, except go on with his life.
He’d been at work so long his eyes were grainy. The fierce pounding in his head was probably due to lack of food; he couldn’t remember when he’d last had a meal. But if he slowed down enough to eat, then his brain would kick in again and he’d be back to ground zero, mooning pathetically over a woman he couldn’t have and missing the daughter he wanted to hug with all his heart.
Disgusted with himself, he lurched to his feet. He was doing no good here. He drove to his office, where he intended to read and reread all the reports until he could figure out what he was missing. Then he’d go to his mom’s and hold his daughter for awhile.
His office looked like a disaster zone, which was defeating. The desk was piled high with files and other reports, many of which had fallen to the floor, next to a bag of diapers.
For the first time in his career, he stood at the doorway, thinking about the job he loved with all his heart and felt…overwhelmed.
And hungry, damn hungry.
It wasn’t a stretch to use that hunger as an excuse to make his way to the kitchen.
There was always food in a fire station, wasn’t there? It felt good to be able to count on something, he thought in a rare moment of self-pity. But while there was food in the refrigerator, none of it was prepared.
He went into the connecting room, the “great room,” the men called it because of its size. There was a big screen television on its last legs, several couches-all of which had seen better days-a scarred but functional dining room set, and their pride and joy-a pool table.
“Hey!” he called out. “Who’s cooking lunch?”
The two on-duty men watching soap operas didn’t budge.
The two playing pool kept up their game. Through the open window he could plainly see two more men standing outside where they’d just finished washing their rigs.
No one answered, or so much as glanced his way.
Dax wasn’t insulted, he knew all too well why he was being ignored. They had a tacit agreement. It wasn’t necessarily a fair one, but it was simple.
He who got hungry first, cooked.
The last one to eat cleaned up.
Most people thought firefighters ate so fast because they were always trying to keep one step ahead of the fire bell. Not true.
They just didn’t want to do dishes.
“So nobody’s hungry,” he said dryly.
Of course not. If they answered in the affirmative, then they’d have to cook. If they said no, then they couldn’t eat whatever he cooked.
It was tricky, and if he’d been in a more generous mood, he’d have better appreciated the humor. But he had no humor left. “Damn,” he muttered and turned back to the kitchen. The laughter that broke out behind him made him swear even more colorfully.
But he cracked the refrigerator open again. He’d lost fair and square.
A nap might have better suited him than preparing spaghetti sauce for the entire gang, but he was stubborn as well as hungry. Cranking up the radio on the counter, he chopped up a green pepper and tried to stay in the moment.
Tried to stay out of his past.
Tried to stay out of the part of his brain that hurt.
The loud, hard, pulsing rock blaring from the radio helped. So did all the food he popped into his mouth instead of into the pot.
But he kept coming back to one thing…Amber had asked him for more time, for some space. It was all she’d ever asked of him.
And he hadn’t given it.
The selfishness of that, the pure greed of it, had him stopping in his tracks, a forgotten knife in one hand, a mushroom in the other.
When had he become so rigid, so unyielding?
Disgusted with himself, he chopped more vegetables with a vengeance, nearly slicing off a finger.
He would give her what she wanted, and while it was all fresh in his mind, he yanked the telephone off its hook and dialed her number to tell her so.
When he got her machine, he hung up, frustrated. Fine. She could have her damn time. But he wouldn’t let her go. Couldn’t let her go.
His ears played a cruel trick on him then. He thought he could hear her voice. To block it out, he cranked up the volume on the radio.
He could still hear her.
Another vicious crank of the dial helped, barely. His ears rang. The floor vibrated with the beat. The windows rattled.
In unison, he heard the guys bellow for him to lower the volume, but he ignored them and had to smile at the irony.
He could still hear her.
One last touch to the radio and he had the volume maxed out.
Ahh, he thought…peace. Finally. Maybe now he could get some damn food into his gnawing gut.
Satisfied, he grabbed a tomato and froze.
She was standing there, or at least he was dreaming that she was. Rubbing his eyes ruthlessly, he blinked the gritty exhaustion away and looked again.
She was still there in the doorway of the kitchen, hands braced on the jamb on either side of her as she looked at him with an unreadable expression on her face.
His heart stopped, then kicked in again with a painfully slow thudding. The clothes she wore were unlike her, softer, more feminine, and incredibly, unwittingly sexy. He couldn’t tear his gaze away. The long, flowing, flowery dress was tight in the bodice and flared gently at her hips before falling nearly to her ankles. There was a row of tiny, dainty buttons down the front, starting at the mouthwatering spot just between her full breasts.
She’d never looked so lovely.
God, he wished she was his.
DAX TOLD HIMSELF to cool it. She was probably here to go over something about Taylor, and he wondered how he would live through all the time he’d vowed to give her.
She sent him a tentative smile and raised her eyebrows at the music.
With a flick of his wrist, he turned off the radio. The silence was nearly as deafening as the music had been. “Taylor-?” he asked.
“She’s fine,” Amber said quickly. “She’s with your mom.”
He nodded, then said gruffly, “I miss her.”
She clasped her hands together, but other than that, remained perfectly still. “I know. I…wanted to talk to you.”
Great. How was he going to keep from grabbing her and holding on tight? He realized he still held the knife and a tomato, and he set them both down, wiping his hands on a towel because he had to keep them busy. “I’m making lunch.”
A smile flickered across her firm, unpainted mouth. Had he ever seen her without lipstick? Yes, he remembered with a violent reaction in his lower body. She’d been sleeping in his bed at the time, a satisfied, cat-in-cream smile on those naked lips.
“I didn’t realize you could cook,” she said. “Or that you’d…” She trailed off, her voice steady enough, but he could see the telltale sign of a blush creeping up her cheeks.
Interesting. She didn’t seem so in control now. “Or that I’d what?”
She lifted a shoulder. “Look so good doing it.”
Unfortunately, sweet as that admission was, it only made his ache more pronounced.
The awkward silence settled again and Amber took a step toward him. “I’m sorry to intrude, but I haven’t been able to reach you.”
“Yeah. About that…”
“Don’t be sorry,” she said quickly. “I know you’ve been busy.”
Which wasn’t exactly the reason he hadn’t called or gone by to see her. “Yes, I’ve been busy,” he said carefully, stepping around the counter to face her. “But I’ve also been a jerk. I should have gotten back to you, but frankly, I was too busy being selfish.”
“Selfish?” She laughed at that. “You? I doubt that, Dax.”
“I promised not to push, I promised to be patient, and I couldn’t do either. I can do better. I can give you your time and space.”
“But I can’t let you go. You should know that up front.”
“No, dammit, it’s not.”
“Let me finish. For the first time in my life I broke a promise and I’m sorry for that, so sorry.”
“Oh, Dax.” Misery crossed her face. “Don’t apologize, that’s not what I came here for. I wanted to tell you…” She looked at her feet for a long moment before lifting her head again. “I have come to a conclusion,” she said in a businesslike tone.
He swallowed. “That sounds bad.”
“No.” The sophistication fled. “It’s just so much harder to tell you than I imagined, and truthfully, I imagined it being pretty tough.”
His heart sank. “You can tell me anything, Amber. You know that.”
Clearly filled with pent-up energy, she slowly walked the room. “You’ve been in my head a long time now, Dax.”
“Uh…okay.” That was good, right?
Her back to him, she studied the wall, which was covered in pictures. The guys had been pinning up photos ever since the station first opened ten years before. There were families, girlfriends, boyfriends, kids…an entire ten years worth of living.
What did she see? he wondered. What did she feel? He wished he knew.
“I know it seems silly,” she said to the wall. “To tell you that I can’t stop thinking of you.”
“I understand perfectly.”
She turned to him then. “It’s really quite maddening.”
He nodded. Definitely maddening.
“You’re different, you know. Different from anyone I’ve ever known.”
“Is that different good, or different bad?”
She smiled a full-blown smile that took his breath. “I learned things from you. I learned I didn’t have to be strong all the time, that I could lean on someone else once in awhile. I can be independent, Dax, and still let someone in.”
She laughed. Laughed. “You, silly. I let you in.”
While he stood there with his mouth open, staring stupidly, she came toward him, smile still in place, her gaze tentative. “I learned to trust you. To let you trust me.” Her warm, loving eyes touched him first, then her hands when she stepped close enough to set them on his chest. “And I realized something else, and this is the biggie…” Those clever hands slid up his chest and cupped his face. “I was afraid. I knew and understood that. What I didn’t know, or understand, Dax, was your fear.”
She curled her fingers in his hair, holding him when he might have stepped back and denied her. “The truth is Daxton McCall, despite your bravado and tough words, you’re every bit as scared as I am.”
Behind them, the swinging door to the kitchen opened as two of the firefighters stuck their heads in.
“Not that we’re admitting anything,” one said. “But we’re looking for food-Oh. Excuse me.” He straightened with a new, more charming smile when he saw Amber. “I didn’t realize we had company.”
“You don’t,” Dax said, his eyes still on Amber. “Get out.”
“But how about lunch?” asked the other one, shoving his buddy aside and sniffing theatrically. “Something smells good.” He winked at Amber. “Or is that you?”
Dax growled at them, and they both quickly backed out.
Amber looked appalled. “Dax! That’s no way to treat-”
“Say it again,” he demanded, reaching for her, giving her a little shake. He didn’t know whether to allow this glimmer of hope within him, and the not knowing was killing him. “Say it!”
“That you obviously need some etiquette classes, or that you’re a chicken?”
He grated his teeth. “The chicken part.”
“Oh, I think you heard me.” Dropping her hands from him, she sashayed away to the counter, and picked up his knife. She hacked at a tomato. “You really changed things for me.” Her words were a tad uneven, but her hands were a blur as she demolished the tomato. “You taught me so much about how I could feel for people, about how people could feel for me…”
He came around behind her, sliding his hands along her expressive arms to hold them still. In the interest of both their fingers, he gently set down the knife. “I can’t dispute the chicken part,” he admitted. Wrapping his arms around her, he held her tight, buried his face in her neck. God, he loved her so much. He turned her to face him. “It’s true, I used your resistance to reinforce my own. I don’t know what I expected would happen between us, but it certainly wasn’t for me to fall so deep.”
Her eyes filled and she opened her mouth, but he softly set a finger to her lips. “Yes, the thought of a future with just one woman terrified me more than anything I’d ever faced, but I knew there was no other woman for me, anywhere, and there never would be again.”
“Oh, Dax.” A tear spilled over and he gently swiped it off with his thumb.
“I fell in love with you, Amber,” he said huskily. “And I fell good and hard. That was the easy part. The hard part came later, when I realized you didn’t feel the same way, and that you might never feel the same. I’m sorry I hurt you, I never meant to.”
Because he could, he pulled her close and wondered what was going to happen.
“I called my father,” she said. “I’m going to see him. For Taylor.” She lifted her head from his chest and stroked his jaw as she looked deep into his eyes. “I also changed Taylor’s last name, officially, to McCall. I thought that was important.”
His heart swelled, but before he could even attempt to tell her how much it meant to him, she dropped her hands from him. “That’s part of why I came here today. I wanted you to know what I had done.”
That was it? Hello. Let me drive you crazy. See ya?
Her smile wobbled and she carefully stepped back from him. “Well…” She whirled and walked quickly to the door while his heart died a thousand deaths.
Then, before she turned the handle, she hesitated.
“Aren’t you even going to try and stop me?” She whirled around to look at him. “You realize I have no idea what I’m doing! I could really use some help here.”
His heart leaped into his throat, but before he could say a word, she lifted a hand. “No, wait. Don’t help me. That’s not right. I’m the one who has to do this, not you.”
“Amber…” Had he missed something? “Honey, are you making any sense?”
She drew a deep breath. “Dammit, Dax, I love you, too.” Her smile shook badly. “How’s that for sense?”
Stunned, all he could do was nod. “It’s good.”
“I guess I’ll have to prove it to you.” She swung open the double doors of the kitchen and cleared her throat.
Six curious men turned their heads.
“Listen up everyone…” She looked at Dax over her shoulder. “I love Dax McCall.”
Wild cheers, lewd whistles and a chorus of catcalls greeted this announcement. Amber grinned. “Did everyone get that?”
She slammed the doors on them and turned back to Dax, who was still standing there, mouth open, heart pounding, love and shock singing through his veins.
“I meant it,” she said quietly, once again clasping her hands together. Her smile was still very shaky and her eyes suspiciously wet. “I really meant it. Now I dare you to be more trusting, to lay more on the line than that!”
Oh, he was up for the challenge, yes he was. With his own shaky smile, he stalked past her and yanked open the kitchen doors. “Okay another announcement…I’m forsaking bachelorhood-”
Loud groans greeted that announcement, which made him laugh. “I’m getting something better, trust me.”
Someone called out something about getting lucky every single night with the same woman and Dax grinned. “That, too, but more importantly, I’m going to marry Amber, and spend every single day of the rest of my life a very happy man.”
Next to him, Amber gasped. “Marry?”
He hauled her close. “Love conquers all, we know that. We belong together. Say you’ll marry me, Amber. Say you’ll give me forever.”
In tune to the renewed catcalls, laughter and cheers of congratulations, Amber laughed and went up on tiptoe to kiss him. In soft agreement, she said, “Yes, I’ll give you forever.”
The Firefighter’s Baby By Alison Roberts
‘IT’S OK, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be OK.’
For a split second, paramedic Laura Green envied the girl whose head she was holding. How crazy was that? She tightened her grip to ensure she was providing stability for the potential neck injury of the nineteen-year-old. The girl had been travelling home at the end of a night shift in a rest home. She had rounded a corner too quickly, run smack into the back of a heavy, slow-moving street sweeper and now lay trapped and terrified inside the wreckage of her car.
‘Keep very still, Courtney,’ Laura reminded her patient. ‘Don’t try and move your head.’
She could understand why the girl wanted to turn towards the owner of that voice. The words were so comforting, the tone completely sincere, and while the endearment was automatic it had the effect of creating an instant and powerful connection. And it was that connection that Laura envied.
She had never had anyone so totally focussed on her well-being. So committed to protecting and helping her. Not that she would want to experience it in a professional setting like this, of course. Courtney had a fractured right elbow and left femur and goodness only knew what condition her lower legs were in, trapped and hidden beneath the crushed front section of her small car.
A whimper escaped the injured girl as the car rocked slightly. The fireman now crouching beside the open driver’s door leaned in far enough to be seen without causing another attempt to move.
‘It’s OK,’ he repeated. His smile was reassuring. ‘The car’s moving a little because we’re putting some blocks in to stabilise things. Then we’re going to get you out of here.’
‘It hurts…my leg hurts.’
Laura twisted her own head to peer through the shattered glass of a back window. Her partner, Tim, was approaching with a cervical collar in his hand and she could see the other supplies he had set out on a blanket beside the wreck. Some of the tension evaporated as Laura took a deep breath. They could get moving now. Get their patient’s neck protected, get some oxygen on, an intravenous line in place and some pain relief on board.
‘And…and I’m scared!’
‘I know you are, sweetheart. But hang in there. You’re doing just fine.’
Tim leaned past the bulky figure of the fireman assigned to patient communication. Laura adjusted her grip to allow the collar room to slip behind the girl’s neck. The fireman straightened and stepped back to allow Tim more room to manoeuvre, but his action elicited a forlorn cry from the accident victim.
‘Don’t go. Oh, please, don’t go!’
‘I’m right here.’ A heavy glove was stripped off and Laura frowned as she saw the fireman catch the fingers of the hand stretched towards him.
‘I’m Jason,’ the fireman introduced himself. ‘What’s your name?’
The neck collar was secured. Tim slipped the elastic of an oxygen mask over the patient’s head and squeezed the metal band at the top of the mask to make it a snug fit over her nose.
‘Pleased to meet you, Courtney.’ Jason’s grin made his teeth gleam in the powerful artificial lights now set up to illuminate the rescue scene. ‘How’re you doing?’
‘N-not so good.’ The response was broken by a frightened sob.
Tim hung his stethoscope back around his neck. ‘Chest’s still clear,’ he told Laura. ‘Equal air entry.’
Laura nodded, but she was reaching into the pocket of her coat with one hand.
‘Put some gloves on, Jase.’ She passed them over the barrier the front seat created.
‘Sure.’ The fireman was smiling at Courtney again. ‘I’m in trouble now,’ he confided. ‘Laura’s going to tell me off later for forgetting my gloves.’
The sound that now came from the injured girl sounded like a cross between a groan and a giggle.
‘I’d rather not cannulate this arm.’
‘No.’ Laura agreed with Tim’s decision. ‘Not with that elbow injury.’ There was no way of knowing how well the blood vessels were still functioning below an injury like that.
‘Have we got access through the passenger door?’
‘Is that what you need?’ Jason’s quick shift of attention revealed that his focus wasn’t entirely on the girl he was comforting. A quick glance over his shoulder made him nod with satisfaction. ‘The gear’s all ready to go. We can start cutting wherever you need it.’
‘The car, sweetheart-not you.’ Jason seemed to fill most of the remaining space in the crushed car as he leaned even closer. ‘We’re getting you out of here, remember?’
Courtney clung to him with her uninjured hand. ‘It hurts,’ she sobbed. ‘Get me out now.’
‘I can reach the other arm,’ Laura told Tim. ‘Pass me the gear. You should be able to maintain alignment from where you are now that she’s in a collar.’
‘I can hold her neck,’ Jason offered.
‘That would be great. I’d like to get a blood pressure done.’
‘No!’ Courtney refused to release the hand she was holding.
‘Keep still, Courtney,’ Laura instructed. She squeezed the top half of her body through the gap between the front seats. This job would be so much easier if she were skinny. Even a few kilos off would help. The flash of annoyance increased a second later when she had to push her dislodged spectacles back into place. Small irritations that would normally not distract her at all from the job in hand. Was it simply her close proximity to Jason Halliday that was making her aware of them now?
‘Laura needs this hand, love,’ Jason was saying. ‘Once she gets a little needle in, she can give you something to help that pain.’
‘No! I hate needles. And my hand feels funny. Just get me out!’
‘What kind of funny?’ Laura queried.
‘It’s got pins and needles.’
Laura caught Tim’s glance. With a symptom that suggested an even stronger likelihood of a spinal injury, they were going to have to manage this extrication with particular care.
‘It might help if you keep holding her hand, Jase.’ Laura tightened the tourniquet and swabbed an area she could reach easily on Courtney’s left forearm. ‘This shouldn’t take long.’
Jason obliged. He also placed his other arm gently on Courtney’s shoulder, ready to stop any struggle if necessary. Then he tried to distract the terrified teenager.
‘You’re lucky you’ve got our Laura here,’ he told her. ‘Do you know, I’ve been working with her for six months now and I haven’t heard a single complaint from any of her patients?’
‘You haven’t met many of my patients,’ Laura muttered.
‘She’s a fireman?’ Courtney’s surprise indicated that the distraction was working.
‘Nah. She’s not tall enough to be a fire officer. Our station is a base for both fire and ambulance. Just one of each. We’re on the outskirts of town in Inglewood.’
‘That’s where I live.’
‘Cool. You’ll have to drop in and visit us. Mrs Mack makes the world’s best scones.’
‘All done,’ Laura announced. ‘I’m going to give you some morphine now, Courtney. You’re not allergic to any drugs that you know of, are you?’
‘No.’ The distraction Jason had been providing was still working a treat. ‘Who’s Mrs Mack?’
‘She looks after our station. It’s kind of a long story.’
‘I’m just giving you something to make sure the morphine doesn’t make you feel sick, Courtney.’ Laura injected the dose of metaclopramide.
‘Is she your wife?’
Jason chuckled and Laura found herself smiling wryly as she snapped off the top of a glass ampoule to add morphine to the saline another syringe already contained. Jason Halliday married? Tied down to single choice from amongst the model-like creatures that entered his social orbit? That would be the day!
‘Mrs Mack is at least sixty,’ Jason informed Courtney. ‘She’s Scottish and she’s as tough as an old boot. She lives next door to the station and kind of adopted us. We’re in an old house that got converted and…’
And Courtney didn’t appear to be listening any longer. Her eyelids fluttered shut as the morphine took effect and her distress was obviously diminishing despite the increase in noise and activity of the rescue workers outside the vehicle. Another helmeted figure appeared between Jason and Tim, who was still maintaining Courtney’s spinal alignment.
‘How do you want to get her out?’
‘Straight over the back would be great,’ Tim responded. ‘We’ll tilt the seat back and get a backboard in.’
‘Right. We’ll get the roof off as soon as we’ve dealt with these doors.’
Jason looked up at the tarpaulin a colleague was unfolding nearby. ‘Things are going to get a bit noisy and messy now, sweetheart,’ he told Courtney. ‘We’re going to cover you up so you don’t get hit by any bits of glass or anything.’
Her eyes snapped open. ‘Don’t leave me.’
‘I won’t. I’ll be right here with you under the covers.’ Jason winked. ‘My favourite spot when I’m with a gorgeous girl like you.’
‘That’d be right.’ The grin from his colleague acknowledged the kind of humour and encouragement that only Jason could get away with. Even Laura smiled. He’d be saying the same thing if the accident victim were a seventy-five-year-old grandmother of eight and it would probably have the same effect of keeping their patient comforted and calm.
‘We’ll need a dash roll as well,’ Tim told the fire chief. ‘We’ve got a leg trapped.’
‘No problem. You staying in there, Laura?’
‘May as well.’ She moved back to a position where she could support Courtney’s head and neck again. Only she knew that her comment referred to more than providing company for the victim. This was the only way Laura would ever get under any covers with Jason Halliday, but she wasn’t complaining. Any job where she got to work with this particular fire crew was a bonus, and being one on one with a patient and only Jason was the closest they had ever worked together.
The car rocked and shook as hydraulic cutting gear was used to open it up like a giant sardine can. Tiny shards of glass peppered the tarpaulin sheltering those still inside the vehicle, and Laura made sure she kept Courtney’s head immobile. A more violent rocking motion occurred as the roof was lifted clear of the car and Laura could hear the grin in Jason’s voice.
‘The earth sure moved for me. How’re you doing, Courtney?’
Amazingly, the injured girl did sound fine and Laura’s lips curved a little, unseen in the darkness of their covering. Jason’s somewhat unorthodox communication skills were a new experience and, surprisingly, she liked them. Six months ago she wouldn’t have believed it could be remotely possible to add humour or-heaven forbid-flirting to an accident scene with beneficial results, but it worked. The Green Watch fire crew of Inglewood station were a closely bonded team of intelligent and dedicated firemen and Jason, in particular, had a gift of lightening even the grimmest of atmospheres.
He had his work cut out for him in the next few minutes as the tarpaulin was removed and the rescue shifted into a higher gear. The car was now completely open to the elements with the windscreen, roof and doors removed. The pre-dawn chill was noticeable and scene time had already been nearly twenty minutes. Everyone wanted to move as quickly as possible now and get their patient to the medical care she needed.
The dash roll that lifted crushed metal from Courtney’s right leg revealed a nasty compound fracture of her tib-fib. She tried to move her leg as the weight was lifted but her foot was trapped beneath the brake pedal and she screamed as her pain level skyrocketed. The blood loss was also increasing. Laura opened the flow on the IV fluids she now had running.
‘Can you draw up another 10 milligrams of morphine, Tim?’
‘Got it here,’ her partner responded. ‘Ready for the backboard?’
‘Not yet. Her foot’s still trapped.’
‘I can deal with that.’ Jason still had a heavy protective glove on one hand. He reached carefully past the gaping wound on Courtney’s leg to ease his fingers between her foot and the top of the pedal. Only Laura noticed the way the lines deepened at the corners of his eyes. To anyone else he must have made bending the pedal upwards far enough to clear the trapped foot appear effortless.
‘Ah-h-h! It hurts!’
‘Almost there, love.’ Jason’s tone was calmly reassuring. ‘We’re going to tip your seat back now and slide a board underneath you.’
Too many figures were crowding in now and Courtney’s grip on Jason’s hand was lost as they finally lifted her clear of the wreck.
‘BP was 80 systolic five minutes ago,’ Laura told Tim. ‘We need to get another line in.’
‘Hare traction on that femur before we roll?’
Laura nodded. The low blood pressure could well be caused by the blood loss associated with the fractured bones Courtney had sustained. It was a two-person job to apply a traction splint so it wasn’t something that could be done en route. It would mean a delay of another few minutes before transporting, but effective splinting would help control further blood loss and was therefore a priority.
It wasn’t just the fire officers of Green Watch she was lucky to be working with, Laura decided as the ambulance rolled clear of the accident scene only three minutes later. Tim was one of the most competent paramedics she had ever had as a partner and they were perfectly matched to remain calm and efficient in virtually any circumstances. A few years over Laura’s twenty-nine, Tim had the added advantage of more experience and he also had the kind of laid-back personality that made him fit in seamlessly at Inglewood station despite being in a different emergency service. He was just one of the boys.
As was Laura now. The novelty of having a female officer on the watch had worn off rapidly. A shade too rapidly maybe, but who could blame them for losing any interest her gender might have sparked? And it didn’t matter. She was part of a great team and she’d be delighted to be considered an honorary bloke if only it wasn’t for-
‘How’s it going back there?’
‘Fine.’ Laura scribbled down the update of recordings she’d been making automatically as her mind wandered. ‘BP’s up-100 over 60. Oxygen saturation is 98 per cent on 15 litres. Sinus tachy at 110.’
‘We’ll be at the hospital in about eight minutes.’
‘OK. I’ll radio through in a minute.’ Laura turned back to her patient. ‘How’s the pain score out of ten now, Courtney?’
‘About four, I guess.’
‘That’s a lot better but I’ll give you a little bit more morphine. I’d like to get it down to at least two if I can.’
Caring for a multi-trauma patient en route gave little time to attend to paperwork so Laura completed the task using a spare patch of counter in the trauma room as the emergency department staff assessed the new arrival. By the time she was finished, X-rays had been completed and Courtney was being readied for Theatre where the orthopaedic surgeon would need to deal with the open lower leg fracture and the dislocation-fracture of her right elbow. Laura paused on her way out with the completed paperwork.
‘All the best, Courtney. You’re in good hands. You’ve got one of the best orthopaedic surgeons in town coming in to fix you up.’
‘I just want to get it over with,’ Courtney groaned. ‘But thanks…for everything.’
‘You’re very welcome.’
‘And can you thank that fireman for me? What was his name?’
‘Jase. Jason Halliday.’
‘Yeah, that’s him. He was fantastic.’
‘I’ll tell him.’ Laura had to suppress a wistful smile. It wasn’t something she could tell Jason herself, no matter how much she might agree with the sentiment.
‘How old is Jason?’
Perhaps Laura would also need to tell him that his techniques of distracting a patient had long-lasting effects. Courtney didn’t look as though she was thinking about her injuries or impending surgery at all right now.
‘Ancient.’ Laura smiled. ‘Pushing forty.’
‘Oh…he didn’t seem that old.’
Laura wasn’t really lying. Anything over thirty was on the way to forty, wasn’t it? And thirty-two was still far too old for a nineteen-year-old.
‘He’s really nice, isn’t he?’
‘Mmm. I’d better go now, Courtney. Looks like they’re nearly ready to move you.’
Tim appeared in the trauma room doorway. ‘We’re all cleaned up and ready to go,’ he told Laura. ‘And I can almost smell Mrs M.’s bacon and eggs. You ready?’
Laura was more than ready to head back and finish her shift but her most recent patient wasn’t quite ready to let her go.
‘I couldn’t really see what he looked like with that uniform and everything. Is he cute?’
‘Cute’ wasn’t the word Laura would have chosen. Jason Halliday could be used as a pin-up model for the fire service any day. Six feet two inches with a build to match his height. Sun-streaked, curly hair, dark blue eyes and a killer smile. There was only one word to describe Jason and that was…perfect.
‘Imagine your typical surfer and add ten years and a pot belly.’
‘Oh…He said he wasn’t married, though, didn’t he? Has he got a girlfriend?’
‘’Fraid so.’ Laura’s smile was not without sympathy but she escaped without offering any consolation in the face of Courtney’s obvious disappointment. She could have said that Maxine was only a newbie and might not last long but what was the point? She knew only too well the strength of attraction Jason Halliday could inspire and this teenager had as much hope of sparking a reciprocal interest as she herself had.
Well, maybe that was wishful thinking. Courtney was slim, probably several inches taller than Laura’s five feet two inches and her hair was an attractive russet rather than dead mouse, but even so she didn’t measure up to Jason’s usual standards in female companions. Better to be briefly disappointed now than to carry a torch and find the flame not only refused to get extinguished but simply burned a little brighter with every passing week.
‘Jase is going to kill you when he hears about that “pot belly” remark,’ Tim informed her a few minutes later.
‘Only if you tell him,’ Laura countered. She indicated a right turn and slowed the ambulance as she reached the main route back to their station. ‘And if you do, I’ll tell Mrs Mack who walked over her clean lino with those muddy boots last week.’
‘You wouldn’t!’ Tim’s expression feigned fear. Then he grinned. ‘OK, my lips are sealed.’ He tipped his head back and closed his eyes wearily. ‘Can’t say I blame you for trying to put her off. We get quite enough women turning up asking for our Jase as it is.’ His tone became thoughtful. ‘I wonder what it’s like to be so compellingly attractive to the opposite sex?’
‘Boring,’ Laura said firmly. ‘You can have too much of a good thing, you know.’
‘No.’ Tim sounded almost wistful now. ‘I wouldn’t know.’
Laura snorted softly. ‘Join the club, Tim. I think I’m the founding member.’
‘Oh, come on. I don’t believe that for a minute.’ Tim’s quiet voice was suddenly serious. ‘You’re great, Laura. Best partner I’ve ever had. You’re a brilliant paramedic, you’ve got a terrific sense of humour and…and your smile’s lovely.’
‘Thanks.’ Laura’s wry tone acknowledged the hesitation before Tim had found something physical to praise. ‘I’m also short, fat and I wear glasses.’
‘So men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.’
Tim’s snort was much more definite than Laura’s had been. He grinned again. ‘So take them off when you want someone to make a pass at you.’
Laura laughed. If only it was that easy. Even the wry amusement lifted her spirits, however. ‘Has anyone ever told you that you’re a nice person, Tim?’
‘Nah. The last woman that dumped me had a considerable command of adjectives that let me know precisely how boring I am.’
‘You’re not boring, Tim.’ Laura pulled the ambulance to a halt and then started backing into the garage. ‘You’re dependable. Safe.’
‘Ha! Safe is pretty close to boring if you ask me. Women want excitement, not safety.’
‘There’s a woman out there who’s going to find safe pretty exciting.’ Laura smiled at Tim. ‘Hey, you’re the best partner I’ve ever had. I love working with you.’ It was just such a shame it hadn’t been Tim she’d fallen in love with, but life was never that neat, was it?
‘We do have fun, don’t we?’
‘Sure do. I can’t believe I’ve been here for six months already. Seems like only last week I was wondering what it would be like to be stationed with a fire crew instead of just ambulance.’ Laura climbed out of the driver’s seat and walked around to join Tim at the back of the vehicle. ‘I still haven’t got over how funny they are, though.’
‘The boots.’ Laura pointed to where the crew’s heavy footwear was lined up, the tops of the boots protruding through the rolled-down legs of protective over-trousers. ‘It looks for all the world like a crew was standing around the truck and they all got vaporised by some alien force or something.’
‘Makes for a quick getaway.’
‘I know.’ Laura had seen Jason and his colleagues respond to a call. Feet slid into boots, over-trousers were yanked up and secured by elastic braces, and matching, heavy, mustard-yellow jackets with reflecting stripes were grabbed from the locker room along with helmets. The items of protective outer clothing were always left in precisely the same position on returning to the station, which left the officers wearing their uniforms of black trousers and navy blue T-shirts emblazoned with the red and white fire service logo.
As they were now. Laura and Tim had elected to wait until closer to the end of their shift before restocking and cleaning the ambulance. They had enough supplies if they got another call, and tempting fate by having a freshly prepared truck for the oncoming crew was not a good idea this close to their finishing time of seven a.m. A late call after a busy night such as they’d just had would not be welcome.
They entered the old house through the automatic side door that now joined it to the large, purpose-built garaging. The spacious lounge that ran nearly the whole width of the lower floor had become a common room, filled with comfortable furniture. The couches and chairs were being well patronised by weary men at the moment, half of whom had their feet resting on the coffee-tables. The other half had their footwear resting on the arms of the couches.
‘In the name of St Bride!’ Laura did her best to imitate the broad accent that fifty years of living in New Zealand hadn’t dampened in Mrs McKendry’s case. ‘How many times do I have to tell you boys to keep your dratted feet off that furniture?’
To her delight, the accent and surprise factor were enough to initiate a guilty leap into compliance. Her laughter caused more than one head to turn, and then the amusement was general.
‘Good one, Laura!’ Tim shook his head at the firemen. ‘You should have seen yourselves jump!’
‘Lucky I didn’t scream,’ Cliff complained. ‘She’s just as scary as Mrs M.’
‘Ah…but can she cook bacon and eggs?’
‘And polish the furniture?’
‘And get nasty stains out of any clothes?’
‘Even Mrs M. couldn’t get the stains out of your underwear, Stick.’
Laura shook her head and flopped into the nearest available armchair during the laughter that followed the last flippant remark. Maybe she was just too tired to feel amused. Or maybe the idea that she might measure up to the perfect housekeeper cut a little too close to the bone. She could do all those things but she wasn’t going to be some man’s housekeeper ever again. Not when that ended up being the main attraction she possessed.
Several pairs of eyes were fastened on the wall clock.
‘Mmm. That bacon will be in the pan any minute now.’
‘Why don’t you do it for yourselves for once?’
That wasn’t a suggestion one of the boys would have considered making. Laura found she had caused a brief but rather surprised silence. Jason looked positively bewildered.
‘What…and make Mrs M. feel like she’s not wanted?’
Laura’s sigh revealed that she didn’t have the energy to try and re-educate the men around her. Maybe it was an impossible task anyway. Was that why John had never lifted a finger in the kitchen? Or the bathroom, or anywhere else for that matter? Had he, in fact, been a kind and caring partner who had simply been trying to show her how much he’d needed her? Ha!
‘She would be upset.’ Tim’s glance was speculative and Laura knew she deserved the gentle reprimand. The men of Inglewood station might complain and joke about Jean McKendry when she wasn’t around, but she was part of the family if anyone else tried it. And the kitchen was strictly her domain during her ‘office’ hours.
‘We’ve never asked her to do any of the stuff she does for us, you know,’ Bruce added. ‘She’s just become an institution-ever since she popped over with a plate of scones the day this station opened five years ago.’
‘Yeah, it just grew.’ Cliff nodded. ‘By the end of the year she was here every day, all day, cleaning and cooking.’
‘And making sure we all had a clean hanky.’
‘At least she gets paid for it now,’ Bruce told Laura. ‘And we all put in to buy all the food she insists on cooking us.’
‘She loves us,’ Jason said. He still looked puzzled. ‘She wants to do it.’
‘I know.’ Laura smiled. ‘She’s wonderful and we’re the envy of any other peripheral city station. Sorry.’ She pushed her glasses up and rubbed the bridge of her nose. ‘I’m just tired, I guess, and from where I’m sitting it’s easy to take offence at the idea of a perfect woman’s attributes being how easy she can make life for others.’
The second brief silence had a contrite air to it.
‘Hey, we weren’t getting at you, Laura.’
‘No…we don’t think of you as a woman.’
‘Gee, thanks.’ Not only was she the only member of Green Watch not to have earned some kind of nickname, they didn’t even see her as being female.
‘That wasn’t helpful, Stick,’ Jason said firmly. He gave Laura one of his killer smiles. ‘What he meant was that you’re one of us.’
‘One of the boys,’ Bruce put in kindly.
‘No.’ Jason sounded even firmer. ‘Laura is most definitely not a boy. Heck, even I’m not that blind.’
Laura couldn’t help smiling. Or help the pathetic little glow that started somewhere inside at the thought that Jason had not only noticed her femininity, he was defending her. Then her smile faded. What had the comment really meant…that it was really so hard to see anything attractive about her?
‘We’re not really chauvinistic,’ Bruce said a little defensively. ‘But this job requires people with pretty assertive personalities. So does yours. You wouldn’t expect a firefighter who’s risked life and limb to pull someone from a burning house or cut open a wrecked vehicle to extricate the injured to go home and bake a cake or clean a toilet, would you?’
‘Why not? You’d expect me to,’ Laura told them. ‘I’ve just been squished inside a car wreck looking after the injured, but I bet you wouldn’t put up too much of a fight if I offered to go and make you all coffee or throw some bacon and eggs together.’
‘Mmm.’ The sound was a frustrated groan. ‘Bacon and eggs!’
‘Don’t worry, Laura,’ Tim said. ‘We all know you’re just as much of a hero as we are.’
‘Yeah.’ Cliff winked at her. ‘Maybe you need a wife as well.’
Laura gritted her teeth. She knew they were teasing her but it was easy to think that her protest had not made the slightest impression on any prejudice held by these men. And what did it matter, anyway? She couldn’t imagine being attracted to a man who was keen to bake cakes or clean toilets. She’d never wanted to find a sensitive New Age guy. She was just twisted and bitter because John had never really wanted her for herself. Apart from the freely available sex, he would probably have been happier being married to Jean McKendry.
Jason seemed to have picked up at least part of her thoughts by telepathy.
‘You should also know,’ he said seriously, ‘that we don’t consider Mrs M. to be the perfect woman.’
‘No.’ Stick grinned. ‘She’s about forty years past her use by date.’
‘And she’s grumpy as hell.’
‘Yeah.’ Jason rubbed his elbow reflectively. ‘She hit me with a wooden spoon the other day.’
‘Well, you were sticking your dirty, fat finger in her gravy.’
‘I was only tasting it.’
The mention of food provoked another general glance towards the clock and yet another short silence.
‘What was that?’ Laura frowned at the faint but noticeably unusual sound.
‘Just a cat.’
‘Gate squeaking?’ Cliff suggested hopefully. ‘Mrs M. arriving for breakfast?’
‘Jeez, we’d better not get another callout,’ Jason said unhappily. ‘I’m starving.’
‘You’re always starving, Jase.’
‘Can’t help it. I’m a growing lad.’
‘We’ve noticed.’ Stick leaned over the side of the chair and poked Jason’s midriff. ‘You’d better watch out, mate. Pot belly city!’
Laura’s lips twitched as she gave Tim a warning glance. He grinned and raised his eyebrows as though acknowledging that Laura might have already been provocative enough, especially for this time of day.
They were all startled at the sound made by the original back door of the house. Not that it wasn’t Mrs McKendry’s normal entranceway, but she didn’t usually open and shut it with quite such purpose. The room fell uncomfortably silent now. Mrs M. wasn’t happy. Someone had upset her and they were all likely to suffer the consequences. Laura was suddenly acutely aware of just how right her colleagues had been not to trespass on their housekeeper’s self-designated areas of responsibility.
Never mind the culinary and other benefits they all received-letting Jean McKendry think she was indispensable was actually an act of kindness. Looking after Inglewood station was her life and while she could be nosy, grumpy and always opinionated, she was never unfair. If she was this upset there would be a good reason for it.
The determined tap of sensible, low-heeled shoes got louder as Mrs McKendry traversed the kitchen’s linoleum floor. All eyes were drawn to the arched opening that joined the dining-room end of the lounge to the kitchen that ran along the other side of the house. Those same eyes swivelled in unison to the large cardboard box that Mrs M. deposited carefully on the table. Wiry arms were now folded in front of the small woman’s spare frame. And, in case her body language wasn’t enough to let them know that this time they were in serious trouble, her tone backed it up more than adequately.
‘I’m waiting,’ she snapped.
‘What for, Mackie?’ Jason’s smile was one of his most winning. It wasn’t even directed at Laura and it was enough to melt her bones. Using the affectionate nickname had to be overkill, surely? ‘What have we done?’
‘I know what one of you has done,’ Mrs M. enunciated with precision. ‘What I want to know is, who is responsible?’
‘Who is responsible for what?’
A sound rather similar to a cat’s mew or a gate squeaking was suddenly produced by the box on the table. Mrs McKendry’s lips almost disappeared into a straight, grim line.
‘Who is responsible for this puir wee bairn being left on the back doorstep of Inglewood station?’
A SPELL had been cast.
Laura experienced an odd sensation, as though a wand had actually been waved over the group of people sitting in the lounge of the Inglewood emergency response station. An electric tingle-a feeling she was unable to identify on the spectrum between elation and fear-ran through her entire body, and she knew without a shadow of doubt that the axis of her world was tilting.
Only an insignificant amount of time followed Mrs McKendry’s startling demand but it marked the transition between normal life and something totally unknown. One minute they had all been slumped in various positions of rest, filling in time and carefully not tempting fate by saying they were probably safe from the disruption of a late callout, and now they were suddenly involved in a disruption that was completely without precedent.
Laura wasn’t the only one to be stunned. Or to feel nervous in taking that first step of an unknown journey. The whole of Green Watch was moving. Slowly, silently, they approached the box on the table with as much caution as if it contained a live cobra.
Stick was the first to open his mouth. His nickname had been derived from affectionate ribbing that he’d been hit more than once by the ugly one. Right now, his pockmarked face had softened dramatically and his incredulous smile was almost as large as his nose.
‘It’s a baby!’
The murmur was probably intended to be a personal observation but the silence surrounding him was so profound the words might as well have been shouted.
‘Go to the top of the class, Stick.’ Bruce grinned.
‘Is it a girl or a boy?’ Tim queried.
‘It’s not colour-coded,’ Jason complained. ‘How are we supposed to know?’
‘Change its nappy,’ Cliff advised knowledgeably.
‘Not on your life!’ Jason held both hands up, palms outwards, and leaned back to emphasise the invisible barrier. ‘I don’t do babies.’
‘Someone did,’ Mrs McKendry snapped. Her arms were still folded and she was tapping one foot impatiently. ‘And I’d like to know who.’
‘Wasn’t me,’ Jason declared firmly.
‘Or me,’ Stick and Cliff said simultaneously.
‘Definitely wasn’t me.’ Tim raised an eyebrow at Laura and she smiled. Having a baby dumped on your doorstep certainly wasn’t a boring thing to happen.
‘I should be so lucky,’ Bruce sighed.
They all stared at the infant. Fluffy, dark blue polar fleece fabric with cute yellow ducks on it had been folded to form a mattress in the box. The baby had been wrapped in a blanket of the same fleece but tiny limbs had been active enough to loosen the covering and miniature hands could be seen poking from the armholes of a white stretch suit. A tiny fist threatened to clout its owner’s cheek but somehow it escaped causing pain and settled against a questing mouth instead. Surprisingly loud sucking noises filled the new silence and large dark blue eyes stared up fearlessly at the crowd of faces leaning over the box.
‘It’s hungry.’ As a father of three, Cliff was entitled to take the lead as far as experience in such matters went.
‘Could be hereditary.’ Stick gave one of his usual cheerful grins. ‘Who’s always hungry around here?’
‘Don’t look at me!’ Jason’s eyes widened in alarm. ‘I told you, I don’t do babies. I’m careful, man. Always have been.’
‘There’s always one that slips through the net.’
There was a ripple of laughter. ‘Especially when the catch is that big!’
‘It has got blond hair,’ Bruce observed. ‘Except I don’t suppose it means that much at this age.’
‘How old do you reckon it is?’
For some reason everyone looked at Laura. Was she supposed to know the answer due to some feminine intuition? Had she always been lumped in the ‘motherly type’ basket? Or had everybody simply noticed how quiet she’d been so far? Cliff wasn’t about to be outdone in the knowledge stakes, however.
‘It’s pretty newly hatched, I’d say. Two or three weeks?’
Laura caught her breath but her reaction had nothing to do with the thought of such a young baby being abandoned. She had just realised why the baby’s face was so fascinating.
The eyes weren’t really that dark. They were blue, certainly. A lovely sort of cornflower blue. They gave the initial appearance of darkness because of the edging to the iris, which was a shade deep enough to compete with the pupil. Why had nobody else noticed such an obvious genetic link to a potential parent in this group of men? There was only one person who had eyes like that.
And they were exactly like that.
Another frisson of an unidentifiable emotion caught Laura unexpectedly. Jealousy, perhaps? No. It was more like a feeling of connection to that baby. A longing to touch it. To pick it up. When the little fist was suddenly flung free of the sucking mouth and a tiny face crumpled and reddened she had no hesitation in reaching into the box.
Nobody else was going to do it, she told herself. The men were backing off in alarm at the deterioration in the baby’s mood. At her touch, the screwed-up face relaxed and the tiny fist unfurled to encompass her finger. Laura smiled into a carbon copy of Jason Halliday’s eyes.
‘Hello, there,’ she whispered.
Only a few short minutes had passed since Mrs McKendry had dropped this bombshell in their midst but it was very unusual that the older woman had not yet said more than she had. Nobody was surprised to hear her begin to issue some firm instructions.
‘Sit down at this table-every last one of you. I don’t care if half of Wellington burns to the ground. You’re no’ going anywhere till we get to the bottom of this.’
Amazingly, the whole group of burly, dedicated firefighters complied. They were all out of their depth right now and it clearly came as a relief for their self-appointed surrogate mother to take charge.
‘We should call the police,’ Bruce suggested mildly. ‘It’s a criminal offence to leave a baby unattended.’
The look he received questioned his level of intelligence rather eloquently. ‘Whoever left this bairn had reason to think it would be attended to.’
A dainty foot tapped on linoleum in the silence that followed.
‘And there can be only one explanation for that. One of you is this baby’s father.’
‘You’re lucky.’ Jason’s comment was directed at Laura, who, along with Mrs McKendry, was the only person now standing. ‘It can’t be yours. I think we would have noticed.’
The chuckle of appreciation at the attempt to lift the atmosphere was short-lived and it hadn’t even raised a smile as far as Laura was concerned. Carrying a full-term baby may well have made her large enough for Jason to notice. In fact, it was probably the only way he’d really notice her as a woman.
As though her resentment was contagious, the baby emitted a fractious cry and Laura did what she’d been wanting to do ever since she’d first seen what was in the box. She scooped the baby up and cradled it in her arms.
It was crying in earnest now and there was no doubt it was well overdue for a nappy change but Laura didn’t mind. The slight weight of the infant in her arms triggered an instinctive and remarkably fierce desire to protect and comfort it. She rocked her noisy, smelly bundle and directed soothing words towards its ear. The words she spoke were unimportant. So was what was being said around her for the next few moments.
The first Red Watch arrivals to take over the day shift started to form a secondary tier of astonished spectators. As far as these men were concerned they were not involved. The baby had been left during the night, therefore it had to be someone on Green Watch who was implicated as the father. Some even found the situation highly amusing.
‘No wonder someone left it on the doorstep. Noisy little bugger, isn’t it?’
‘Don’t get too close. It doesn’t smell great either.’
‘Let’s put it back where Mrs Mack found it.’ The speaker suddenly thought of an urgent job that needed attending to as he felt the heat of Jean McKendry’s glare.
‘I still think we should call the police,’ Bruce said heavily. ‘Or Social Welfare. We can’t sit here all day, Mrs M. We’ve had a busy night shift and what we need is some sleep.’
‘What she needs is feeding,’ Laura informed them. How she knew it was a girl was not questioned.
‘Bacon and eggs?’ Jason suggested hopefully. They all looked at Mrs McKendry but any prospect of a cooked breakfast evaporated instantly on reading her face.
‘I’ll make some toast,’ someone on Red Watch offered. ‘Have you guys cleaned the truck?’
‘We’re not allowed to move,’ Stick responded gloomily. ‘Not until one of us owns up to fathering this kid.’
‘Don’t worry.’ Red Watch members were backing away now. ‘We’ll do it.’
The new crew for the ambulance day shift was equally co-operative. Helpful, even.
‘We could go out and find some formula or something at the supermarket.’
The pager messages signalling a priority-one callout to a chest pain put an end to that scheme. Within another few minutes the hooter sounded to alert the fire crew.
‘Alarm sounding at a warehouse on the corner of George and Matton streets,’ the loudspeaker announced. ‘Smoke seen to be coming from the rear of the building.’
Green Watch members could see the departing vehicles through the dining-room’s window. They listened to the fading sirens with almost defeated expressions.
‘This isn’t getting us anywhere,’ Bruce declared finally. ‘Look, Mrs M. If one of us had any idea that we were related to this baby we would have said so by now.’
Raised eyebrows and pursed lips suggested that this was not necessarily an accurate assumption.
‘Half of us are married. We’ve got families of our own.’
‘Precisely. A good reason not to confess, wouldn’t you say?’
Laura was jiggling an increasingly unhappy infant now. No one knew how long this baby had been outside in the box. It might have been hours since its last feed. Her reluctance to cast the first stone was wearing thinner by the minute. If this carried on any longer she was going to open her mouth and point out the obvious. Why hadn’t anyone else noticed yet? She shifted the baby’s weight slightly and became aware that the patch of blanket under her arm was distinctly damp.
‘Stick, could you get that other blanket out of the box?’ Laura asked. ‘She’s leaking a bit and getting cold won’t make her any happier.’
‘Hope you’ve got gloves on.’ Jason blinked at the look he received from Laura. ‘Hey! What have I done?’
He found out soon enough. As Stick pulled the folded fleece from the box his eyes widened.
‘There’s stuff in here,’ he exclaimed. ‘A bottle and a tin of baby food. There’s nappies and-What the hell is this?’
The piece of paper said it all. Officially stamped by the authority vested in the registrar of births, deaths and marriages, it gave all the information Mrs McKendry had been waiting for. She peered at the certificate and then transferred a steely gaze to one of the men staring anxiously back.
‘Jason Halliday. What have you got to say for yourself now?’
The piece of paper was passed along the table and everyone had scanned it by the time Bruce handed it to Jason.
‘Here you go…Dad.’
Jason’s colour had faded to give his bewilderment a decidedly pale background. He stared at the birth certificate, with his name handwritten on the empty line for ‘Father’s Name’, for a seemingly interminable length of time. It became too long for his audience.
‘Megan’s a nice name,’ Cliff said hesitantly.
‘It’s her one-month birthday today,’ Bruce added.
‘She was born in England,’ Stick said kindly. ‘You can’t really be blamed for having missed the big event, Jase.’
Laura said nothing. She reached into the box and extracted a disposable nappy, some wipes and a clean stretchsuit. She could still see Jason when she moved towards one of the couches to find room to put the baby down. She could see growing consternation replacing shocked disbelief.
‘So.’ Mrs McKendry looked up from where she was reading the instructions on the tin of formula. ‘I take it you were no’ informed about this baby’s existence, Jason?’
‘No. Someone’s made a mistake.’ Jason rested his forehead on the palms of both hands. ‘A really big mistake.’
Bruce reached for the certificate again. ‘The mother’s name is Shelley. Shelley Bates.’
‘I don’t know any Shelleys,’ Jason said miserably. ‘Never have.’
‘It says here that her occupation is a model.’
Laura wasn’t the only one to see how well that fitted.
‘You’ve been out with plenty of models, Jase.’
‘I don’t sleep with them all,’ Jason said defensively. ‘In fact, I haven’t had a good s-’ He stopped abruptly, glanced up at Mrs McKendry who was still standing at the other end of the table, groaned and buried his face in his hands again. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he muttered.
Laura disagreed. She was very interested to hear that Jason didn’t have sex with every female that gave him the opportunity. She stuck down the tabs to hold the fresh nappy secure. She would also very much like to know how long it had been since he’d had a good…whatever crude noun he’d been tempted to use to describe the experience. It couldn’t have been more than ten months ago, that was for sure.
‘I guess we’re off the hook.’ Bruce yawned. ‘We could go home now, eh, Mrs Mack?’
‘No!’ Jason’s face appeared again. ‘I don’t know anyone called Shelley and I haven’t been in England for six years. This has to be a mistake.’
‘Why would someone make a mistake like that?’
‘Maybe it didn’t happen in England,’ Cliff said thoughtfully. ‘Maybe Shelley whoever she is was in New Zealand on holiday.’
‘A holiday with Halliday.’ Stick chuckled. His smile faded rapidly as he realised his quip was not appreciated.
‘I don’t care where Shelley was. Or who she was with. It wasn’t me.’
‘The bairn’s four weeks old.’ Mrs McKendry had moved to the kitchen bench and was spooning formula into the bottle. ‘That means she was conceived about nine to ten months ago.’
‘December,’ Stick said helpfully. ‘No…more like late January.’
‘Let’s say New Year, give or take a week or two.’
‘Can you remember that far back, Jase?’
‘You were going out with Britney,’ Cliff declared. ‘I remember her. Red hair and legs up to her-’
‘That was March. We broke up at Easter when we had an argument about chocolate bunnies.’
‘OK, what about Melissa? You know, the one with those Pamela Anderson-’
‘She was after Britney,’ Jason interrupted swiftly. ‘I think.’
‘No…I’m sure she was the one that came to that barbecue we had on the beach in February. Yellow bikini?’
Laura hadn’t forgotten that yellow bikini-or the assets it had supported. She glanced up from fastening the snaps on the stretchsuit, intending to direct a ‘you know you deserve everything that’s coming’ glance, but to her astonishment, the tips of Jason’s ears were bright pink. Good grief-the man was embarrassed!
He should be ashamed of himself if he couldn’t even remember the order or names of the string of women in his life. Maybe this was the first occasion he’d ever had to consider the repercussions of such an active social life. Or maybe he was disturbed by the wider picture he was currently having to confront. In any case, Laura liked the fact that he was embarrassed. She picked up the baby again and her lips curved into a smile against the soft wisps of blonde hair.
‘Daddy’s blushing,’ she whispered. ‘How about that?’
‘Daddy’ was still fielding a list of potential conquests that might have had confusing names.
‘What about Charlotte?’
‘Sounds a bit like Shelley.’
Despite the spotlight being so firmly on Jason, even Bruce, who was stifling frequent yawns, was not about to leave his fellow firefighter in the lurch and go home for some well-deserved rest. Stick shook his head sorrowfully.
‘This should be a lesson to us all. Anyone could just scribble in our names on some bloody birth certificate.’
‘Speak for yourself, mate. I’m happily married.’
‘DNA,’ Cliff said with relief. ‘You could get a test, Jase, and prove it’s not yours.’
‘That could take weeks! What the hell am I supposed to do with it in the meantime?’
‘Maybe the mother’s only gone shopping or something. She could be back any minute.’
‘Yeah, right. Like she’s come all the way from England for a spot of shopping and she leaves the baby on a doorstep in the middle of the night so she doesn’t have to bother finding a babysitter.’
Laura sat down at the table and Mrs McKendry silently handed her the bottle of formula. Tentatively, she poked the teat into the baby’s mouth and to her delight it was accepted enthusiastically.
‘Well, that’s a blessing,’ Mrs McKendry said. ‘At least she’s used to a bottle.’
Laura could feel the rhythmic tug of the sucking movements. The baby’s wide-eyed gaze fastened onto hers as though she was receiving the nourishment via some kind of visual connection. Laura found herself smiling.
‘Aye.’ Jean McKendry’s expression softened noticeably. Then she pushed her spectacles more firmly onto the bridge of her nose and leaned a little closer to peer at the baby’s face.
‘It was Sharon!’ Jason announced.
‘The woman who’s set me up. It has to be.’ Jason nodded to confirm his own statement. ‘A girl from England that I met when I had that summer holiday in the Coromandel.’
‘Sure it wasn’t Shelley?’
Jason frowned in concentration. ‘She had a sister and I remember that their names were alike enough to be confusing. It was a bit of a joke and they didn’t mind when I got it wrong.’ Jason nodded again, more slowly this time. ‘That must be where this has come from. Sharon’s sister has had a baby and they’ve decided to name me as the father.’
‘Maybe they want to emigrate or something,’ Cliff suggested.
‘Of course, that’s what it’ll be. It’s pretty hard to get into the country and having a New Zealand father for a child is probably a great start.’
‘Marrying the New Zealand father would have been a much safer plan,’ Laura said dryly. ‘I mean, writing in your name like that doesn’t make you the legal father. Why didn’t she turn up months ago?’
‘Dunno.’ Jason shrugged. ‘Maybe the sisters didn’t get together and come up with the plan until after the baby was born.’
‘How much alike did these sisters look, Jase?’
‘Identical. They were twins. Long blonde hair and cute accents. Young, though. I think they were only about nineteen.’ Jason rubbed the back of his neck as though something was hurting. ‘I suppose it could have been Shelley. Names didn’t actually seem that important at the time.’
The sniff that emanated from Mrs McKendry’s direction was an expression of frank disapproval.
‘It was only one night,’ Jason sighed. ‘There was this big beach party. Hey, I was on holiday. You’re supposed to have a good time on holiday!’
‘Not that good,’ Stick said enviously.
‘And not with twins!’ Tim sounded appalled.
‘It wasn’t with both of them. It was…I was…Oh, hell.’ Jason closed his eyes with apparent exhaustion. ‘It doesn’t matter. I can’t be the father.’ He stood up. ‘You were right, Bruce. Let’s hand this problem to the police. For all we know this baby’s been abducted and the birth certificate is some sort of nasty practical joke.’
‘It’s no joke.’ Mrs McKendry had simply been waiting for a gap in the rapid-fire conversation between the men. ‘And you might as well stop your havering, Jason Halliday. This bairn is yours.’
‘How can you say that?’ Jason’s astonishment at being betrayed by someone he trusted was directed at Mrs McKendry only briefly. Then it was transferred to Laura. ‘You think it’s mine, too, don’t you?’
Laura nodded. ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face, I’m afraid, Jase. Or should I say the eyes.’
‘What about them?’ Jason asked faintly.
‘Come and have a look.’
They all came and had a look. They stared at baby Megan and then at Jason. And one by one they all nodded slowly.
‘It doesn’t matter if it was Sharon or Shelley or bloody Madonna,’ Stick said sadly. ‘Yep. This kid’s yours, all right, Jase.’
Laura couldn’t help it. ‘The eyes have it,’ she murmured.
Jason wasn’t amused. ‘Lots of people have eyes with rings around them.’
‘No.’ Laura was careful to keep her tone perfectly neutral. ‘Your eyes are actually quite unusual, Jase. And Megan’s are a carbon copy.’
Jason sank into the chair opposite Laura. ‘What am I going to do?’
You had to feel sorry for him, Laura decided. For someone like Jason who played almost as hard as he worked and made no secret of intending to enjoy his bachelor status for as long as possible, this had to be his worst nightmare. He looked defeated right now. Lost. And Laura couldn’t help offering a sympathetic smile. Jason’s forlorn gaze locked onto hers as though encouraging her to say something that might make this whole mess go away.
But it was Mrs McKendry who spoke and she wasn’t going to let Jason off any hook. ‘You’re going to take responsibility for your child, that’s what you’re going to do,’ she said crisply. ‘Laura, hand the baby over to its father.’
‘No! I’ll drop it.’
‘Don’t be such a gowk,’ Mrs McKendry snapped. ‘Laura?’
She felt like an executioner but Mrs Mack was right. This was Jason’s baby. His problem. He was now in such a shocked state he simply accepted the bundle Laura placed carefully into his arms. Then he stared at the baby’s face with an even more forlorn expression.
For several seconds, father and daughter exchanged stares of equal intensity. Then Megan Bates Halliday opened her tiny rosebud mouth and bellowed her disapproval.
‘She doesn’t like you much, does she?’ Bruce observed unnecessarily.
‘The feeling’s probably mutual right now,’ Stick said sympathetically.
‘You lot…’ Mrs McKendry peered over the top of her half-moon spectacles ‘…can all go home. You’re no’ helping and you need some sleep.’
‘You’re not wrong there.’ Bruce rubbed his face and didn’t bother hiding a yawn. ‘I’m absolutely knackered.’
‘Me, too,’ Cliff sighed. ‘Sorry, mate, but I’m going to have to head home and hit the sack.’
Megan’s cries became louder and Tim stood up as well. ‘You coming, Laura?’
‘In a minute.’ Laura couldn’t abandon Jason. Not when he looked at her with that kind of mute appeal. He needed help.
Stick was clearly torn. He shared a house with Jason and another fireman, Mitch, from Red Watch. After an apologetic glance at Jason he turned to Mrs McKendry.
‘I s’pose Jase is going to have to take this baby home with him if he has to look after it, isn’t he?’
‘I can’t look after it. I don’t know the first damn thing about babies.’ Jason had to raise his voice over the increasing noise level. ‘And we’re not allowed pets, remember?’
‘Your daughter’s just been fed,’ Mrs McKendry informed Jason. ‘I expect she needs burping now.’ Clicking her tongue at Jason’s expression, she reached out. ‘Like this!’ She put the baby upright and rubbed her back. Megan obligingly belched loudly and sent a dribble of milk across the lacy collar of Mrs McKendry’s blouse.
Stick stared in horrified fascination but Jason looked impressed. ‘Hey, you know about babies, Mackie.’
‘Well, I may no’ have been blessed with any of my own but I’ve picked up the odd one or two in my time.’
‘You could look after her.’
‘No, Jason. This is your bairn.’
‘I’ll pay you.’ Jason sounded desperate. He obviously didn’t want to hold the baby again but he had no choice. It was simply pressed into his arms. ‘I’ll pay you anything you like!’
Mrs McKendry shook her head.
‘But anyone can see she hates me.’
Stick took a step backwards as Megan started crying again. ‘Look, mate. No offence but it’s going to be hard to sleep with that noise in the house. I might stay on station.’
‘I’ve got beds in my sleep-out if you want one of those,’ Cliff offered.
‘Sounds like a plan.’ Stick gave Jason an apologetic grin. ‘Sorry, mate…but…well, you know.’
‘Yeah…’ Jason sounded despondent. Then he looked beseechingly at Laura. ‘I guess you’re going to desert me, too. You probably think I deserve this.’
Laura held his gaze. ‘What I think, Jason Halliday, is that you’re in need of a friend right now.’
He still hadn’t looked away. His daughter stopped howling as though her father’s tentative smile had been enough to distract her. ‘You’ll help me, Laura?’
He could see her. For the first time he could really see her. As a person rather than a profession. A valuable person. OK, so maybe that valuable person was a babysitter but beggars couldn’t be choosers, could they?
‘Yeah.’ Laura smiled back. ‘I’ll help you, Jase.’
Jason was on his feet and somehow the baby was in her arms again, but Laura hardly registered the fact as Jason planted a kiss on her forehead.
‘Laura Green, I love you.’ His smile widened. ‘Be back in a tick. I’m desperate to go to the loo.’
Jean McKendry gave Laura a steady glance. ‘Och, hen, do you know what you’re doing here?’
‘I think I do.’
Laura was making herself indispensable, that was what she was doing. Jason was going to be very grateful but it wasn’t his appreciation Laura sought. This was the first opportunity she’d ever had to spend time alone with him. Well…almost alone. If they had even a few hours together Jason might realise there was more to her than appearances suggested. And if that was too much to hope for, she would at least be able to give herself a lesson in distinguishing fantasy from reality and then move on with her life. It wasn’t just the first opportunity. It was quite likely to be her only opportunity, and Laura had no intention of letting it slip through her fingers.
‘Yes,’ she said quietly. ‘I’m sure I know what I’m doing.’
Disconcertingly, Laura had the impression that Mrs McKendry knew precisely what she had been thinking but if that was the case, she was being granted permission to carry on.
‘If you run into real problems, call me,’ the older woman said. ‘And if the mother hasn’t come back by the time you’re both on duty again, I’ll help during work hours.’
Green Watch had just completed two days and two nights on duty. It would be four days before the next day shift. Was there really a chance that Laura could have that much time alone with Jason and his daughter?
‘Heavens, I’m sure the mother will be back long before then. Nobody could just leave their baby with a virtual stranger for that long.’ Laura blinked at Mrs McKendry. ‘Could they?’ Her jaw dropped a fraction. ‘You know something about this that you’re not saying, don’t you, Mrs Mack?’
‘Let’s just say that the bairn was no’ on the doorstep for as long as I made out.’
‘You saw her?’ Laura breathed. ‘You saw the mother leaving the box?’
‘Not precisely.’ Mrs McKendry lowered her voice. ‘I saw a man leaving the box. Then he got back in the car and kissed a woman with long, blonde hair. Rather more thoroughly than the occasion called for, in my opinion. They drove off, laughing.’ Her eyes narrowed in disgust. ‘She didn’t look back. No’ even once.’
‘Did you get the number of the car?’
Laura found it unlikely that such a detail would have escaped those sharp grey eyes but the implications were not escaping either of them. If the mother had callously abandoned her almost newborn baby and gone off with her lover, laughing, then it was highly unlikely they would be back in a hurry.
If at all.
A mix of emotion washed over Laura. Excitement. Hope. And a good dose of nervousness. This was her chance and she’d better be very careful not to screw it up.
‘Why didn’t you say something before?’
‘I think Jason will have more than enough to cope with, thinking he’s looking after his bairn on a very temporary basis. What do you think he would do if he thought there was any chance it was intended to be a more permanent arrangement?’
He’d run screaming into the middle distance, that was what. He’d call the police or Social Welfare and do whatever it took to sidestep the responsibility. Informing the authorities was actually quite likely to be exactly what they should be doing at this point and Mrs Mack knew that as well as Laura did. So why was she doing this? To teach Jason Halliday a life lesson, perhaps? Or could she also see it as the opportunity Laura might otherwise never have had?
Jean McKendry smiled at her and Laura had her answer. She dropped her gaze to the baby in her arms, suddenly embarrassed that anyone could have guessed what she thought had been an increasingly well-guarded secret.
‘Just remember, hen,’ the housekeeper said softly. ‘You’re helping, no’ taking over. You’re no’ this baby’s mother, you know.’ The pause seemed deliberate. ‘You’re no’ Jason Halliday’s mother either.’
‘I’ll remember,’ Laura promised.
‘If you turn yourself into a doormat you have only yourself to blame when people start wiping their feet all over you.’
Laura’s swift glance was startled. Mrs McKendry was a fine one to talk about not mothering people. It was precisely the relationship this widow had with a great many men. Laura swallowed. Maybe that was why she did know what she was talking about. Had Mrs McKendry’s marriage been as empty and unfulfilling as the relationship she herself would have had if she’d stayed with John?
The twinkle in Mrs McKendry’s eyes seemed to be wishing her luck. ‘Jason’s got very big feet, hasn’t he?’
Laura grinned. ‘I’ll make sure there’s a very big doormat…outside the house.’
‘You do that, hen.’
‘What’s Laura going to do?’ Jason must have been splashing water on his face. Damp tendrils of blond-streaked curls clung to his forehead. Had he been hoping to wake himself up from a bad dream, perhaps?
‘She’s going to make a list of what you need to buy on the way home,’ Mrs McKendry said brightly.
‘A large bottle of gin?’ But Jason’s attempt at humour was half-hearted.
‘Nappies,’ he was informed sternly. ‘And formula and some more clothes. And something for that bairn to sleep in.’
‘Can’t we just take the box home?’
Jason seemed to have aged ten years in the last hour but Laura could see through the faint edge of despair he was trying to cover with humour. He wasn’t about to run away, no matter how unwelcome this situation was. In the face of total unwillingness and ignorance he was prepared to do what he had to do, and Laura loved him even more for the courage he was unwittingly displaying.
‘Don’t worry.’ Laura stood up, holding a now sleeping infant. ‘There’s a baby’s car seat in the ambulance storeroom. We’ll borrow that for the day and Megan can sleep in it. There’s enough formula and nappies to last until tomorrow and who knows?’ Laura avoided looking at anyone but Jason. ‘Maybe Shelley will be back by then.’
A ray of hope shone from Jason’s smile. ‘Shall…shall I hold it, then, while you go and find the seat thing?’
Laura bit back a wry smile as she handed Jason his daughter. ‘She’s not an “it”, Jase. Her name is Megan.’
The bob of Jason’s Adam’s apple gave away his nervous swallow but, to his credit, he looked quite calm as he regarded the tiny peaceful face shrouded in blue polar fleece. He cleared his throat and spoke very softly.
‘Hi, Megan…I’m Jase.’ He cleared his throat again. ‘Your…um…dad, I guess.’
Laura hurried towards the storeroom, swallowing rather hard herself to clear the unexpected prickle of tears. She had been right to think that something fundamental in her life had changed the moment Mrs McKendry had demanded an explanation for the unprecedented delivery to the station. The axis of her world had tilted so sharply she was in free-fall right now.
It was scary because there was absolutely no way of knowing what condition she might be in when she found her feet again. But it was also exhilarating because what really mattered was that she wasn’t alone. Baby Megan and her father were both coming along for the ride, and Laura intended to make the most of every possible moment.
‘OH, WHAT a sweetie. How old is she?’
‘Look at those eyes!’ The sales assistant at Baby Warehouse glanced up and Laura could swear the eyelashes fluttered. ‘Just like Daddy’s.’
‘Yeah.’ Any flutter had been lost on Jason. With more than twenty-four hours’ practice, that trapped expression and tone was becoming almost normal.
‘So, how’s it going?’ The sales assistant smiled brightly at Jason and then glanced at Laura. Her tone oozed sympathy. ‘Incredibly tiring business, being new parents, isn’t it?’
Laura looked down at the small face peeping out from the blue polar fleece blanket. Of course, she looked enough of a wreck to induce sympathy. The short, snatched periods of sleep between the dauntingly unfamiliar and full-on occupation of caring for such a young baby would take it out of anybody. Add the stress of being with somebody who was struggling to contain the desire to bail out, a house that was a prime example of how horrible three males could make their living environment and absolutely no baby equipment to make the job any easier, and she was nearly ready to bail out herself.
It had been precisely that threat that had finally persuaded Jason to come to this large specialist retail establishment.
‘Either we get some gear or you’re on your own, Jason Halliday,’ she had said wearily that morning. Astonishingly, she had experienced only a muted tingle at the sight of Jason wearing nothing but a pair of ancient pyjama pants held loosely on his hips by a frayed cord. His bare, well-tanned chest had only a smattering of hair, the tips of which had been sunbleached to a pale gold. The shaft of desire had put up only a weak struggle against burgeoning resentment.
‘I am not going to bathe this baby in a kitchen sink with a dishcloth that looks like it needs a government health warning slapped on it,’ Laura had continued. ‘And where the hell did these dishes come from? We spent two hours last night getting this bench cleared.’ She’d known she’d sounded like a harpy or a nagging wife but she hadn’t cared. The enthusiasm to make herself totally indispensable and show Jason just what a wonderful personality she had was wearing off with alarming rapidity.
‘Just look at that!’ The plate in question held the remnants of a meal that must have been abandoned a very long time ago. ‘It’s got so much fur growing on it, it looks like road kill.’
Jason’s grin was very lopsided. ‘I found it under my bed,’ he admitted. ‘And I found the rest when I was clearing out Stick’s room so you had somewhere to sleep.’ He rubbed the back of his hand against an unshaven chin. ‘It’s OK. I’ll clean it all up.’
‘You sure will,’ Laura agreed. It was really quite easy to dismiss the faint rasping sound the chin rub had produced. The curiosity about what it would feel like to touch it herself was also fleeting enough to ignore. ‘And when you’ve finished, we’re going to find a baby shop. We need more formula, nappies, a bed, a bath and some toys.’
‘Toys? Whatever for? All it does is eat and sleep and yell. You don’t need toys for any of that. She’s probably got buckets of toys at home.’ Jason peered anxiously at Laura. ‘You can’t leave me. I wouldn’t last five minutes without you.’
‘You might if you actually learned how to change a nappy and hold a bottle instead of insisting that I do it.’
‘But you’re so good at it. You’re a born mother, Laura. Megan loves you already.’
‘Rubbish.’ But Laura couldn’t help the tiny glow of satisfaction seeping through the cracks of her exhaustion. She might have considered the term ‘a born mother’ a slur on her attractiveness before this, but even twenty-four hours had been enough to demonstrate the kind of qualities a mother needed. Confidence, compassion, patience, selflessness and a bucket of stamina. From now on she would consider the phrase a huge compliment.
‘Besides,’ Jason said persuasively, ‘it’s not going to be for much longer. If Shelley hasn’t turned up in another day or so, we’ll do something about it. Track her down and find out what’s going on.’
The reminder was enough. Another glance at Jason allowed desire a stronger foothold and this time it was mixed with something new. Sympathy. Not that she could afford to feel too sorry for Jason. An echo of Mrs McKendry’s warning sounded. Laura wasn’t going to be a doormat for anyone ever again. Not even Jason Halliday. If this opportunity was going to provide what she hoped, however, she needed it to last as long as possible, and in order for any of them to survive they needed the help that the proper gear could provide.
‘I don’t care if it is only for another day, Jase.’ Laura managed to sound pleasingly resolute. ‘We have to get supplies. You can always give them to Megan when she goes.’
Jason sighed. ‘Yeah. I guess I’m going to be in for paying some kind of child support. I suppose I could look on this like a down payment.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ Laura said dryly. ‘Don’t forget to keep the receipts.’
Jason’s face brightened. ‘There you go. I wouldn’t have thought of that. Thank goodness I’ve got you around to look out for me.’
‘Just do the dishes, Jase. I’ll see if Megan’s other suit is dry enough to wear yet.’
So, here they were. Standing in a shop that boasted aisles and aisles of brightly coloured baby supplies in an astonishing wealth of variety. Neither Jason nor Laura had known where to begin and their bemused scanning had made them an obvious target for a sales assistant. And who could blame the girl for assuming they were a family or even for pointing out how tired they looked?
She could blame the assistant for the fluttering eyelashes, though, Laura thought grimly. You couldn’t assume you were talking to the proud parents of a new baby and then justify flirting with the father.
‘So what is it you need today?’
‘Everything,’ Jason said glumly.
‘Sorry?’ The sales assistant blinked.
‘We only just got her,’ Jason explained. ‘Yesterday.’ He raised an eyebrow at Laura. ‘It was only yesterday, wasn’t it? Feels like for ever.’
She nodded, smiling. They had arrived at Jason’s house about eight a.m. Stick had already decamped, taking enough of his possessions to last a day or two. Laura had ducked home briefly later in the morning when Megan had been asleep to collect a few of her own necessities and then they had spent the rest of the day and the whole of a long night focussed on caring for the tiny person they had taken responsibility for.
Jason hadn’t left things entirely to Laura. He had learned to follow the instructions on the tin and mix up formula. He just backed off when it came to holding the bottle and the baby at the same time. Laura enjoyed the feeding more than anything, so she had to admit she hadn’t pushed the point. She didn’t enjoy the nappy changes much but Jason had a singular talent for being either justifiably asleep or mysteriously absent whenever that task became unavoidable. She had to give him credit for his attempt to help tidy, though. Venturing into Stick’s room to sleep would have been a far more memorable experience if Jason hadn’t ridden shotgun to change the sheets, collect dead laundry and kick some fairly questionable magazines further under the bed.
‘So she’s adopted?’ The sales assistant was not about to be thrown off her stride. ‘That’s so special! What have you called her?’
‘Her name’s Megan.’ Laura was amused by the glance she caught. Obviously it had to be her fault that she and her partner hadn’t been able to conceive a child of their own. One look at Jason had been enough to convince the assistant that there was nothing likely to be inadequate about his potency, or any method of delivery. Another approving glance provoked confusion, however.
‘But…how did you find a baby with eyes just like yours?’
‘We didn’t,’ Jason said shortly. ‘She found us. It’s a long story.’
‘Oh?’ The girl looked eager but then flushed at Jason’s hesitation. ‘Sorry. It’s none of my business, is it?’
‘No,’ Laura agreed blandly. ‘Let’s get on with this, shall we, Jase? I’d like to get home before Megan’s due for her next feed.’
The sales assistant was losing interest. Her glance told Laura that she was a nagging wife even if she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. ‘Let me know if I can help,’ she said professionally. ‘The cots, bassinets, prams and so forth are on the other side of the clothing section. Toys and accessories are over there. What would you like to look at first?’
‘Clothes,’ Laura said promptly.
‘Toys,’ Jason said at the same time.
Five minutes later, Laura found herself standing alone in front of a bewildering selection of clothing items. Jason was getting further away by the moment with a now animated salesgirl introducing him to the delights of baby toys. Laura saw his face split into a wide grin as a brightly coloured jester popped out of a velvety, soft-toy box. His laughter caused several heads to turn and prompted smiles from everyone. His companion’s giggle was also audible and Laura tried very hard but completely failed to suppress a stab of resentment. Jealousy, even.
Did that assistant love the sound of Jason’s laughter as much as she did? Did it start a delicious tingle that coalesced into something so much stronger as it knotted itself down low in her abdomen? Laura wanted to play as well. To elicit and share that laughter. So why was she holding onto an increasingly heavy baby who was starting to grizzle, trying to decide how few items of clothing it would be reasonable to purchase and whether to head for the bargain bins or the cute little outfits displayed on hangers or life-sized baby dolls like some boutique for midgets.
An older assistant appeared at her shoulder. ‘They get heavy, don’t they, dear? Even at this age.’ Megan stopped crying for a moment and stared at the new face. ‘Oh, what a poppet,’ the woman cooed. ‘She’s just gorgeous!’
Laura smiled, feeling absurdly as though the compliment had been personal.
‘Have you got a front pack? It’s an ideal way to carry baby without effort and still feel nice and close.’
‘No.’ Laura’s smile widened as a mental picture of Jason’s broad chest adorned with a canvas pouch that had tiny limbs protruding from it presented itself. A faint wash of colour heated her cheeks as she realised her imagination had conjured up a bare chest above pyjama pants that looked ready to disintegrate. She cleared her throat. ‘Sounds like a very good idea,’ she said hurriedly. ‘I need a few clothes first, though.’
‘Look at these.’ The woman pointed to a tiny stretchsuit, the yoke of which was adorned with hand-embroidered bumble bees. ‘Isn’t it darling? And it’s got all the matching accessories. Hat, matinée jacket, bootees.’
Laura heard another deep rumble of laughter that could only have come from Jason as she blinked at the price tag. Megan chose that moment to start a renewed protest and Laura could no longer ignore the odour wafting from folds of blue polar fleece. It wasn’t as if she was going to be paying for any of this, was it?
‘I’ll take the whole outfit,’ she said briskly. ‘Something in pink would be nice, too.’
‘I don’t believe this.’ Jason put down his last load of purchases and shook his head slowly.
Up until yesterday this living room had been a place of refuge. Sure, the empty beer bottles tended to accumulate on the coffee-table and an unwashed plate or two might mean a less than straight passageway to the couch, but it had never bothered the men who lived there. There had been a lot of good times in this room, chilling out with some good conversation and a game of cards or winding up into a fervour of support as they watched a rugby match on television. Those good times were unimaginable right now. The living room looked as though it had become a suburban outlet for the Baby Warehouse.
‘Look at all this stuff. We can’t possibly need it all.’
‘We certainly didn’t need a whole trolley load of toys,’ Laura agreed.
‘And have you any idea how much it all cost?’ Jason felt yet another echo of the shock wave the checkout girl’s request had evoked, but at least the pain was starting to fade just a little. ‘I had no idea babies could be so expensive. I’ve spent more on her clothes in one hour than I’ve spent on myself in the last year!’
Laura thought it might be advisable not to go into the cost of the clothing too closely. ‘The bassinet was a good choice. I love the little farm animals on the ruffle.’
Jason made a low growling sound. ‘She wanted me to buy a cot, would you believe? One with an adjustable mattress level that you keep putting down. Then it turns into a bed. I nearly told her we were only planning to keep the kid for a few days, not a few years.’ His gaze roved over the supplies of nappies, bottles, feed and sterilising materials and the bedding, plastic bath and containers of lotion and wipes. The toys. The clothing. And yet more toys.
‘I must have been mad,’ he said sadly.
‘Think of it as child support,’ Laura said helpfully.
Jason scowled at the faintly acerbic tone. ‘I’m paid up till she starts university in that case.’ He watched as Laura continued her journey around the perimeter of the room, jiggling the baby, who hadn’t stopped crying for more than thirty seconds at a time since they’d left the shop. The sound was really beginning to grate on raw nerve endings and Jason gritted his teeth.
No wonder Laura sounded less than sympathetic. She’d had the noise at close range while he’d spent the last half-hour unloading and arranging their purchases. She looked tired, too, and Jason experienced a moment of panic at the thought she might decide to throw in the towel and go home.
‘Here…let me have a go at shutting her up.’ The appreciative smile he received made the offer well worth while.
‘Thanks.’ Laura transferred Megan to his outstretched arms. ‘I could use a break.’
‘Put your feet up,’ Jason said generously. ‘Have a nap even.’
‘What I really need is a nice long shower. My hair feels like old string.’ The grimace that accompanied the tug on the ponytail made Jason look at Laura’s hair consciously for the first time, and she was right. It looked like old string. Her glasses had smears on them and the baggy T-shirt she wore had a lot more than just smears. All in all, it wasn’t an attractive package, but Jason couldn’t have cared less what his new housemate looked like. He needed her. Big time.
No way could he face this alone and his best mates hadn’t exactly lined up to assist, had they? Mitch had only stayed as long as it had taken to pack half his gear last night and Stick had dropped in with him to collect his CD player.
‘It’s a great sleep-out,’ he’d informed Jason unmercifully. ‘Quiet as. And Cliff’s quite happy to have us stay as long as we want. He’s been thinking of renting it out anyway.’
Fifteen minutes later, Jason’s appreciation of Laura’s efforts was waning. Just how long did it take to have a shower and wash hair? He was in trouble here. Megan’s face was bright red from the effort of yelling so loudly and nothing he did seemed to make any difference. He’d tried putting her in the brand-new bassinet but she hadn’t been impressed.
‘Have you any idea what this thing cost?’ Jason queried. ‘We paid extra for those cute little sheep and pigs. You’re supposed to like them. Here…look at this.’ He picked up the soft toy jack-in-the-box and squeezed the base. The maniacally happy-looking jester flew out at close range to Megan’s face. Incredibly, her howling notched up several more decibels.
Jason threw a guilty glance over his shoulder, half expecting Laura to appear and berate him for his total inadequacy in entertaining a baby. No…he was hoping she’d appear. He wouldn’t mind being berated if he got rescued at the same time. Awkwardly, he picked up the infant again, remembering to put his hand under its head for support. Good grief, it was so tiny. The little head fitted into the palm of his hand and felt no bigger than a grapefruit. And it was hot, he noticed. Hardly surprising, with all that energy being expended making noise. A waft of an odour he was unfortunately becoming all too familiar with caught Jason’s nostrils and he rocked the baby in his arms and stared miserably at the door.
‘Come on, Laura, for God’s sake,’ he muttered. ‘I need you, dammit.’
Jason looked almost as miserable as Megan sounded, Laura decided when she entered the room a few minutes later. Feeling clean and refreshed after her shower, her stress levels had declined enough for the sight to be almost amusing.
‘At least it’s only Megan that’s howling,’ she said.
‘That’s not funny.’ Jason scowled. ‘You’ve no idea how close I am. There’s something wrong with this kid. Unless it’s just because it hates me.’
‘Let’s try changing her nappy,’ Laura suggested. ‘That might help.’ Deftly twisting her damp hair into a ponytail and securing it with a scrunchy, she then spread a towel on the floor and reached for the packet of baby wipes. ‘You know, those change tables looked great. Much easier on the back to do this standing up.’
Jason deposited his shrieking bundle onto the towel with surprising gentleness. ‘Hardly something you could pack up and take back to England,’ he reminded her. ‘We had to draw the line somewhere.’
‘The bassinet isn’t exactly portable either.’
‘Yeah…well, I did suggest using the cardboard box if you remember.’
‘Oh, I remember.’ Laura chuckled as she eased Megan’s legs from the stretchsuit and pulled at the nappy’s plastic tags. ‘I’m sure that sales assistant won’t forget in a hurry either.’
Jason went a noticeable shade paler as Laura opened the nappy. ‘I’m sure you need a coffee,’ he said hurriedly. ‘And I’d better mix up another bottle, hadn’t I?’
‘Mmm.’ At least he’d stayed within six feet while the nappy had come off. Laura found herself smiling as she held Megan’s ankles with one hand and lifted her gently to start cleaning. It was a bit like taming a wild animal, really. A little closer each time and then…bingo! She’d have him changing a nappy all by himself. It was lucky she possessed a good degree of patience. Pushing the issue would only have him diving for cover. She was getting pretty good at accomplishing this task effectively now anyway.
‘There you go,’ she told the baby. ‘A nice clean bottom.’ She picked her up for a cuddle. ‘Is that better, darling? No wonder you were unhappy. I’d be unhappy if I had smelly pants, too.’
Jason cleared his throat meaningfully behind her. ‘Let’s not go there,’ he warned. ‘I’d appreciate it if you kept your smelly pants all to yourself. Here’s the bottle.’
‘Great.’ Laura was pleased to hear something like Jason’s usual good humour reappearing. She moved to the couch to sit down. ‘Is it the right temperature?’
‘I think so.’ Jason held the bottle and sprinkled a few drops of milk on the inside of his wrist. Then his teeth flashed as he grinned. ‘I’ve seen them do that on the telly.’
‘Does it feel hot or cold?’
‘I can’t feel anything.’ The grin was replaced with an anxious frown. ‘What’s it supposed to feel like?’
‘Nothing.’ Laura smiled reassuringly as she held out her hand. ‘If it’s body temperature, like it’s supposed to be, it won’t feel hot or cold.’ She tested it again. ‘Perfect,’ she pronounced.
Jason beamed. ‘Cool. I’ll see if I can get the coffee perfect as well.’
But Laura didn’t touch the coffee Jason brewed. Neither did he.
‘Why won’t she stop crying?’
‘I don’t know.’ Frustrated, Laura put the bottle down. ‘She won’t feed properly either.’ They couldn’t find a cure for the miserable, hiccuping sobs interspersed with some ear-splitting howls, and the continued failure made the tension the noise was creating escalate rapidly. ‘I think there might be something wrong.’
‘I told you that.’
‘I thought that changing and feeding her would help. They’re the first things you’re supposed to try.’
‘They didn’t work, though, did they?’ Jason said accusingly.
‘Obviously not,’ Laura snapped. ‘Thanks, Einstein.’
‘What do we do now, then?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What? You must have some ideas.’
‘Where are your ideas?’ Laura shot back. ‘This is your baby, Jason Halliday. It’s your problem. Why am I supposed to be an expert? I’ve never had a baby and, what’s more, I don’t intend to have one until I’m with someone who’s going to be of some help as a partner.’
‘I didn’t intend to have a baby!’ Jason’s voice rose to something very close to a shout and Megan raised her own volume to compete. ‘Jeez, Laura. I don’t need this. I don’t even want a bloody baby.’ He turned abruptly, as though intending to walk out. ‘This is a nightmare!’
Laura saw him stop after only a couple of steps, his fists clenched tightly by his sides, and she sighed heavily.
‘I could ring Mrs Mack,’ she offered more quietly. ‘She might have some ideas.’
Jason turned. ‘But then all the guys at the station will know what it’s like here. They’ll know I’m incompetent and I can’t even babysit my own kid for a couple of days. I’ll never hear the end of it.’
His look was beseeching enough to prompt another sigh from Laura. ‘Have you got a thermometer in the house?”
‘She feels hot. She might be running a bit of a temperature.’
Jason closed the space between them swiftly. ‘I thought that, too.’ He crouched down to peer at Megan. ‘She’s sick, isn’t she?’
‘I’m not sure. It’s not an obvious fever. She just feels a bit warmer than I would have expected.’
‘But you’re a medic. You know about this stuff.’
‘Babies are tricky. Usually, by the time we get called, either the baby is obviously sick or the parents have noticed enough to be worried, so even if the baby looks fine we still transport it to hospital.’
‘I’m a parent,’ Jason said. ‘And I’m worried. The kid’s all red. It’s crying all the time and it’s hot.’
‘It’s not a colicky cry, so it’s not likely to be tummy pain. She hasn’t been sick, she’s not coughing and she hasn’t got a runny nose. Any baby is going to go red and get hot when it’s crying this much.’
Laura laid her hand gently on Megan’s fontanelle where it was easy to feel a pulse. She was watching the tiny chest at the same time but it was difficult to count respirations due to the hiccuping sobs. The crying was mercifully softer now. Just an ongoing sound of tired misery.
‘Her breathing’s fine,’ Laura reported a minute later. ‘Her heart rate is a little fast but that could also be because she’s upset.’ She shook her head. ‘What bothers me is that this is the first time she hasn’t accepted her bottle and calmed down. Did you mix the formula the same as last time?’
‘Of course I did. This isn’t my fault.’
‘It’s not my fault either.’
They glared at each other and Laura winced at a fresh wail from Megan. This was turning to custard. So much for that little fantasy about revealing her attractive personality to Jason.
‘Let’s take her to a doctor,’ she suggested finally. ‘At least that way we can get her temperature checked accurately.’
They spoke very little to each other during the time it took to find the local GP clinic in the phone book, make an appointment and get ready. They exchanged only the bare necessities of communication as they sat in a crowded waiting room full of sniffling toddlers and fragile-looking older people who stared accusingly at anyone making too much noise. They glared in Megan’s direction on a consistent basis.
Conversation with the GP they finally saw was somewhat stilted due to the on-the-spot fabrication that Jason had agreed in advance to mind his daughter for a few days while his ex-partner had a holiday in New Zealand. It wasn’t until they were home again nearly three hours later that the tension finally evaporated.
‘I thought she was going to call the police and report a stolen child. I was getting sweaty palms, imagining myself being arrested.’
‘It’s just as well Megan is so unmistakably yours, thanks to those eyes.’
‘It was really embarrassing not to be able to answer any of those questions. How would I know if the pregnancy and birth were normal?’ Jason frowned. ‘I should know. Shelley should have told me.’
‘The doctor was great, giving her such a thorough checkup. She said she looks generally well cared for.’
‘If she’d been well cared for she wouldn’t have been left on a doorstep all night and she wouldn’t have an ear infection now.’
Laura said nothing. If she told Jason that Megan had only been left outside for a matter of minutes rather than hours, she would also have to confess that the mother had been seen driving off in the company of a man and hadn’t bothered with even a backward glance at her child. The implication that she wouldn’t be in a hurry to collect her daughter in the next few days, and the prospect of a longer time with a miserable infant, would surely be enough to ensure Jason found a rapid escape route from this situation. And Laura didn’t want that. It was too early to tell whether this could work out for any of them and she wasn’t going to give up. Not yet.
‘And why did the doctor say it was a shame she wasn’t being breast-fed?’
‘Breast-feeding gives a baby more protection against bugs. Some immunity gets passed on from the mother.’
‘There you go, then,’ Jason said triumphantly. ‘If Shelley was a halfway decent mother she would have been breast-feeding. And she certainly wouldn’t have just dumped her kid on a doorstep.’
‘No.’ Laura was quite happy to agree to that.
She looked down at the exhausted infant she was holding. The dose of paracetamol administered at the clinic had worked wonders and Megan was now too sleepy to finish her bottle. She had been dozing between short bursts of sucking but now felt like such a dead weight that Laura was sure she was sound asleep.
Hopefully, the GP was right and Megan would be in the fifty per cent of otitis media sufferers whose pain would settle in twenty-four hours without needing antibiotics. If it was any worse tomorrow they would have to take her back, otherwise her ears would be checked in a few days’ time.
‘Could you put her down in the bassinet, please, Jase?’
Jason hesitated. ‘She’ll wake up if I touch her. She’ll start screaming again and my ears are only just starting to recover.’
‘I don’t think she will,’ Laura said confidently. ‘She’s dead to the world. Come on, it’s time you learned how to put your daughter to bed.’
Jason looked as rebellious as a small boy about to have a dirty face wiped but then he gave that lopsided smile that touched something deep within Laura’s heart.
‘OK, I’ll give it a bash. But don’t blame me if she wakes up. She hates me.’
Gingerly, Jason picked up the floppy baby and carried her to the bassinet.
‘Put her on her side,’ Laura advised. ‘And then tuck the sheet over her firmly enough to make sure she doesn’t roll onto her tummy.’
Jason was arranging the baby as though handling an unexploded bomb. ‘Why can’t she sleep on her tummy?’ he asked. ‘I do it all the time.’
Laura pushed back the image of Jason in those pyjama pants, sprawled prone on a mattress, with tousled blond hair and a stubble-roughened chin turned to one side. ‘It’s thought to be a major factor in protection against SIDS.’
‘Sudden infant death syndrome. Used to be called cot death.’
Jason stared at the tiny face below him as he carefully tucked in the sheet. ‘She’s not going to die, is she?’
‘Of course not.’ The notion that Jason was starting to care about his child caused a wash of pleasure that was unfortunately short-lived.
‘Wouldn’t be a good look, would it? Handing it back to its mother if it had fallen off its perch.’ Jason grinned at Laura. ‘Be a bit hard to cover up my incompetence then, wouldn’t it?’
‘All new parents feel incompetent,’ Laura said quietly. ‘Babies don’t come with personalised instruction manuals. We’ve had a sharper learning curve than most, what with her unexpected arrival and her being unwell, but we’re doing OK.’
Jason simply nodded and Laura hugged the fact he hadn’t questioned their partnership as unexpected parents for Megan. It wasn’t a lot but it was enough to be going on with and the silence in the room seemed to herald a peacefulness that bordered on contentment. Almost.
‘I am so hungry,’ Laura had to confess. ‘Did you notice we missed lunch?’
‘Now that you mention it.’ Jason looked at his watch and his eyes widened. ‘We’ve almost missed dinner as well. I can’t believe I’ve gone so long without food. I hadn’t even been thinking about it.’
‘You had other things to think about.’
‘Yeah. Did you see all those old fogies giving us the death glare in that waiting room?’
Laura nodded, smiling.
‘You would have thought it was us making the noise, not our kid.’ Jason sounded affronted now.
Laura nodded her agreement and the glance they shared was one of understanding. The elderly patients had forgotten or never known what it was like to care for a new baby. Laura and Jason knew.
Our kid. Laura’s smile widened and Jason smiled right back at her.
‘I could kill for some of Mrs Mack’s bacon and eggs right now.’
‘And a beer.’ Jason raised an eyebrow. ‘I s’pose you’d rather have wine or something?’
‘No. I like beer.’
‘Really?’ Jason gave Laura an assessing glance and then his smile widened. ‘Cool. I’ve got some in the fridge.’
‘There’s some bacon and eggs there as well, I think. Unless Stick ate them when I wasn’t looking. Did you know I can cook?’
‘No. You seemed to know where all the take-away shops in the area were when you went out last night.’
Jason’s chin lifted at the challenge. ‘Stay right where you are,’ he ordered. ‘You’re in for a treat, babe.’
It was a treat. Crispy bacon, perfectly cooked eggs and thick slices of soft buttered bread all washed down with icy-cold lager. Megan slept on…and on. They did the dishes, sterilised bottles, made up the night feeds and sorted all the new baby purchases into tidied positions. And still Megan slept.
‘Do you think she’s all right?’ Jason peered into the bassinet. ‘I can’t tell if she’s even breathing.’
‘She’s fine,’ Laura told him. ‘She’s got a lot of sleep to catch up on.’
‘She’s not the only one.’ Jason flopped onto the couch beside Laura and yawned hugely. ‘Shall I put the bassinet in your room, then?’
Laura cleared her throat. ‘I was thinking it could go in your room.’
They eyed each other warily.
‘Maybe…’ Jason sounded hopeful. ‘We could leave it in here and take turns getting up?’
‘Megan’s not an “it”, Jason.’
‘I was talking about the bassinet.’
‘Oh…OK.’ Laura let that one pass. ‘All right. Sounds fair to me. Who’s going to get up first?’
‘Um.’ Jason seemed to have found something fascinating to look at on the ceiling. Laura tilted her head back as well.
‘Whose baby is this, Jason Halliday?’
‘She loves you.’
‘She’ll love you, too, if you give her half a chance. Feeding her will make a big difference.’
‘I don’t know how to feed her.’
‘You just hold the bottle. She’ll do the rest.’
Jason was silent.
‘How ’bout we do the first night feed together?’ Laura suggested generously. ‘You can feed her and I’ll change her nappy.’
‘Sounds like a plan.’
‘Then you can do the next one by yourself.’
‘But…’ Jason turned his head and caught Laura’s expression at close range. ‘Oh, all right. I’ll give it a bash.’
‘Good for you.’
Jason sighed heavily a moment later and Laura had to smile.
‘You’re finding this pretty rough, aren’t you?’
‘It’s a nightmare,’ Jason admitted.
‘So you never wanted a family, then?’
‘Of course I did. Do,’ Jason corrected himself. ‘I just planned on being in love with the mother of my kids. Planned on planning the kids for that matter.’ He sighed again. ‘Shelley Bates certainly wouldn’t have been on the list of potential candidates.’
‘You weren’t in love with her, then?’
‘I’ve never been in love.’
‘Oh, come on!’ Laura’s eyes snapped open. ‘You’re permanently in love. It’s just that the object of your affections gets updated at regular intervals.’
‘Of course it does. That’s because I’ve never found what I’m looking for. If I was really in love I wouldn’t have to keep looking, would I?’
Laura’s heart skipped a beat. ‘What are you looking for, Jase?’
‘I wish I knew.’
‘Maybe you’re using the wrong search engine.’
‘Don’t think so. I know what I like.’
‘Well, they have to be great-looking.’
Laura’s snort summed up what she thought of that criterion.
‘Hey, it’s not just the looks I go for. I’m not that shallow. I always test out intelligence with an in-depth discussion on current world politics.’
Laura thought of the yellow bikini-clad bimbo. ‘Really?’
‘No.’ Jason grinned and Laura shook her head even as she chuckled.
‘There you go. You are shallow.’
‘No, I’m not,’ Jason protested. ‘There’s more to my girlfriends than the way they look.’
‘They have to be fun to be with,’ Jason said seriously. ‘Adventurous. And at least reasonably intelligent. Maybe that’s why they never last,’ he added sadly. ‘Even the most promising ones get boring.’
‘What’s the longest relationship you’ve had, Jase?’
‘Twelve months. How ’bout you?’
‘I lived with someone for two years.’
‘Didn’t work out, then?’
‘Got boring, huh?’
‘You could say that. John just wanted someone to cook and clean and devote themselves to making him happy.’
Jason grinned. ‘Works for me.’
Laura aimed a punch at his upper arm. ‘I was joking,’ he protested, rubbing his arm.
‘It’s not funny,’ Laura told him primly. ‘And I’m never going to get trapped like that again. In my book, loving someone doesn’t mean you get to control or take advantage of them.’
Jason sat up. ‘Hey, I hope you don’t think I’m taking advantage of you. You did offer to help look after Megan, you know.’
‘I know,’ Laura confirmed.
‘Why did you?’ Jason rested his head on the back of the couch again. ‘All my other mates have done a very effective job of disappearing into the woodwork. I might just have a few words to them about that.’
‘Maybe I’m just a nice person,’ Laura said lightly. She yawned and closed her eyes. ‘Right now, I’m a very tired person. I haven’t had any sleep worth mentioning for rather a long time.’
Jason could sense the moment Laura fell asleep only minutes later. Very slowly, her head tipped sideways until it was resting on his shoulder. He turned his head, intending to suggest she wake up enough to go and lie down properly, but something stopped him.
Maybe it was the softness of her hair brushing his cheek or the fresh scent of some kind of flowery shampoo she had used. Or maybe it was just the good feeling it gave him that she trusted him enough to use his shoulder as a pillow. Or the fact that she had fallen asleep from exhaustion due to helping him with a task he’d have had no hope of managing on his own. He’d never done anything he could think of that might have inspired such a generous response on Laura’s part.
She had been telling the truth even if it had been intended as a joke. Laura Green was a nice person.
A very nice person indeed.
‘THREE-TEN Robbins Avenue. Three-one-zero.’
The elastic braces on Jason’s over-trousers were still dangling as he reached for his coat and helmet.
‘Smoke seen to be pouring from rear of house.’ The calm voice of the dispatch officer managed to override the insistent blare of the alarm sounding through the loudspeaker system of Inglewood station. ‘Multiple calls.’
Jason caught Stick’s gaze and grinned at the anticipation in his colleague’s face. Multiple calls to the emergency response control centre invariably meant that the job was genuine rather than a false alarm or prank call. He was feeling pretty excited himself. This was the first callout for Green Watch day shift and it had happened within minutes of arriving for work.
After four days of the nightmare his personal life had become, this felt like the clock was being wound back. This was his real life. He could forget about Megan and Laura and even the nebulous spectre of Shelley Bates and any upcoming confrontation.
Except that his Green Watch colleagues weren’t about to allow him any respite no matter how urgent the callout. Jason was on the back bench seat of the passenger compartment, sitting beside Stick. Cliff was navigating in the front passenger seat and Bruce was driving. Thirteen tons of fire appliance was soon gathering speed, siren on and beacons flashing. Jason pulled his braces into place and managed to shove his arms into his coat sleeves despite the limited space available to manoeuvre.
‘Put your safety belt on, Dad.’
‘Give it a rest, Stick.’ The ribbing had started well before the official shift change. Laura had taken it with good humour. In fact, Jason had the weird impression that she hadn’t even minded being addressed as ‘Mummy’. And Mrs McKendry might have pretended to be offended by Stick and Mitch deciding to call her ‘Granny M.’ but it had been quite obvious she couldn’t wait to whisk the bassinet into a quiet corner of ‘her’ kitchen.
Jason clicked his lap belt into place just in time to prevent ending up on Stick’s lap as Bruce negotiated a sharp corner.
‘Unit 962-are you responding?’
‘Affirmative.’ Cliff looked up from his map to check that the appropriate button on the radio console had been activated. The response button was still flashing, which indicated the signal hadn’t gone through, so he pushed it again.
‘Person thought to be trapped. Back-up has been dispatched from Central Station. Ambos are also on their way.’
‘Won’t be our guys,’ Bruce said. ‘They got sent out to someone who was unconscious or something.’
Jason looked ahead over Bruce’s shoulder as the air horn added considerably to the noise they were making. Drivers at the intersection they were entering hurriedly jammed on their brakes or pulled to the side of the road.
‘Take the next right and head up to the top of the hill,’ Cliff advised Bruce. ‘Then take a left into Kowhai Drive.’
‘I wonder who’s trapped.’ Stick said. ‘Hope it’s not another kid.’
Too many young lives had been lost in house fires around the country recently and it was an experience all fire officers dreaded having to deal with. Dwelling on the darker side of what the job entailed was never tolerated for long, however. Especially with this particular crew.
‘We’ll send Jase in to look after it, if it is.’ Cliff turned to grin over his shoulder. ‘He’s the expert now.’
‘Amazing that he’s lasted four days.’ Bruce had to shout to be heard as he leaned on the horn at another intersection. ‘Have you learned how to change a nappy yet, mate?’
‘He’s bloody lucky he’s got Laura there to help.’
‘Yeah. Good old Laura. You wouldn’t think it to look at her but she’s a bit of a star, isn’t she?’
‘She probably wouldn’t look half bad either if she lost a bit of weight.’
‘She’s not fat.’ Jason was stung out of trying to ignore the conversation.
‘She’s not exactly skinny,’ Stick declared.
Cliff was grinning again. ‘I like a few curves,’ he said. ‘Makes them a bit more cuddly, doesn’t it, Jase?’
‘I wouldn’t know.’
‘Pull the other one! You’ve had a female alone in the house with you for four days and you haven’t tried it on?’
‘Of course not.’ Jason was more than affronted this time. ‘This is Laura we’re talking about.’
The nods of the surrounding men signalled an end to that ridiculous line of discussion, and perversely Jason felt irritated at their ready agreement. He might not find her physically attractive himself but what was so wrong with Laura? She was a nice person. She deserved to be judged on something other than her appearance.
‘Babies have that effect on any relationship anyway,’ Cliff told his mates. ‘I remember it only too well. In fact, things were never the same in that department after the first one came along. Liz was always “too tired”.’
‘I’m not having a relationship with Laura.’ Jason felt obliged to spell it out. ‘She’s just helping me out, which is more than you lot have done.’
‘We don’t fancy you, mate.’ The shout of laughter Stick’s comment generated was loudly appreciative.
‘Neither does Laura, so give it a rest, for God’s sake. How close are we now, Cliff?’
Bruce had to slow the truck to take the turn into Kowhai Drive. Then he put his foot down for a long, straight stretch.
‘Have you heard from the kid’s mother yet?’
‘Nah.’ Jason shook his head. ‘Not a peep.’
‘Maybe she’s done a runner.’
‘She won’t get far. I rang a buddy in the police department and he made a few enquiries off the record. I’ll get notified if she’s trying to leave the country.’
‘Maybe she’s left already.’
Jason shook his head again. ‘We checked. She arrived in Auckland five days ago from London.’
‘The kid actually looked quite happy when you arrived this morning, Jase.’ Stick elbowed his colleague. ‘Have you got it on drugs or something?’
Bruce shot a quick glance into the back seat. ‘Maybe it knows Granny M. is going to be in charge of it today.’
Referring to a child as an ‘it’ was really quite annoying, Jason decided. But hadn’t he been doing that himself until rather recently?
‘Robbins Avenue is the next on the right,’ Cliff informed Bruce.
‘I can smell smoke,’ Stick called.
He and Jason both unclipped their safety belts and slipped their arms through the straps that would hold the tanks of air on their backs.
‘And thar she blows.’ They could all see the billowing cloud of smoke as they turned the next corner.
Jason put his breathing apparatus mask over his face, adjusted the straps and then pulled his helmet forward and lowered the visor. By the time he and Stick dismounted from the step on the side of the fire truck they were ready to unroll a hose and move towards whatever area their officer, Cliff, deemed the most effective place to start containing this house fire.
A small crowd of people had gathered on the footpath, many still wearing nightwear and dressing-gowns. A distraught-looking woman holding a baby, with an older child clinging to her legs and crying with terror, was the focus of attention. A man with a garden hose could be seen making a futile effort to control flames licking through the top of a bay window towards the iron roof of the old weatherboard house.
As driver and pump operator, Bruce was responsible for setting up the water connection. A standpipe was fitted into the nearby hydrant with the key and bar beside it. Feeder hoses connected the standpipe to the pump appliance and Jason and Stick took the delivery hose from the truck towards the house. Cliff was directing the operation, sizing up the scene and safety considerations, issuing instructions and gathering any available information from the witnesses.
‘One adult escaped and managed to get two kids out,’ he informed Stick and Jason. ‘There’s a three-year-old somewhere in the house.’
Jason swore under his breath. ‘Any idea where?’
‘No. She disappeared when the mother was carrying the baby and dragging the older one out.’
Another fire appliance was pulling up now and an ambulance wasn’t far behind, but Jason barely registered their arrival. He used his boot to kick open the front door of the house. He pulled the handle on the branch of the hose back to open the water flow enough to send a controlled spray, which he aimed towards the ceiling of the smoke-filled hallway.
The water vaporised instantly in the heat, and steam billowed downwards. Waiting only a second or two for the steam to dissipate, Jason and Stick walked into the house.
Another burst of water cooled the top layer of smoke and the firefighters threw themselves down to avoid the burning steam. Jason could feel the heat on his ears, which were the only unprotected areas of skin on his body.
A window exploded somewhere further away in the house and he could hear the faint shouts of another fire crew setting up a second high-pressure delivery system. The sound of his own rapid breathing inside his mask was louder.
Jason pushed himself to his feet and directed a new spray of water towards the ceiling. Cooling the top layer was intended to prevent the hot gas igniting and creating a dangerous flash over and transition from a localised fire to total involvement that could trap the firefighters. He wasn’t going to slow their progress any more than was absolutely necessary, however. Somewhere in here was a child and if she hadn’t already succumbed to the fire or smoke inhalation, he was going to find and rescue her.
One bedroom was virtually intact but there was no sign of a child through the drifts of smoke. Handing control of the hose nozzle to Stick, Jason wrenched open the wardrobe door and swept the beam from his high-powered torch under the bed. Nothing.
The smoke in the next bedroom was thick enough to kill anybody trying to breathe it, but the area below knee level was still relatively clear. The sight of scattered toys on the floor was an unnecessary reminder of how urgent this task was, and Jason clung onto the hope that the kid had crawled in any attempt to escape and would therefore have had a supply of oxygen for longer. He shook his head, giving Stick a thumbs-down signal before moving rapidly out of the second bedroom.
Another crew was now entering the house from the other side. Between bursts of water and avoiding injury from the steam, Jason veered away from the kitchen that was the most likely starting point of this fire as a charred beam snapped and sent a shower of debris into the area. A sitting room adjoined the kitchen, but that was closer to the back-up crew. Jason turned into another short hallway.
The bathroom was clear. So was another bedroom. That left only the laundry at the end of the hallway and there was no space for a child to hide there. A washing machine, a tumble dryer and a hamper full of dirty laundry filled all the available space. Jason turned again but then paused as he reoriented himself in the eerie darkness caused by the smoke and tried to clear extraneous messages bombarding his brain.
Logically, he should go and check the sitting room and kitchen with the new crew and then use them to help double-check the rest of the house, but as he shut his eyes for a second, Jason knew he wasn’t going to do that. He had been in this kind of space often enough to have learned to trust his instinct. That gut feeling that he had missed something closer to hand had been strong enough to make him pause and he couldn’t afford to ignore it.
Signalling to Stick, Jason turned back, passed the bathroom and third bedroom without a second glance and, after Stick had given the ceiling a good spray of water, stepped into the laundry again. He opened the door of the tumble dryer and smoke rushed in to dull the shine of the empty drum. He pulled up the lid of the wicker laundry basket again. This time he also pulled at the dirty linen it contained. Two towels, some baby stretchsuits and several bibs came flying out to land in the puddles of water accumulating on the floor.
He’d have to give Stick a hard time later about the amount of water he was using, Jason thought fleetingly. The aim of good firefighting was to use only as much as it took to make steam. That way, no water damage would be added to whatever could be saved from destruction by flames and smoke.
His gloved hand caught the corner of a sheet. It seemed to have become tangled with other linen. Jason pulled harder and then realised that no amount of dirty washing could weigh that much. He reached in more carefully, using his torch to illuminate the bottom of the large, square basket.
And there she was. A tiny child, curled into what looked like a foetal position, cushioned on more crumpled sheets and clothes. Jason hit the button on the alarm pack attached to his sleeve to summon urgent assistance. He dropped his torch and lifted the child into his arms. Fire officers responding to the loud beep of the alarm guided him through the quickest route out of the house, via the sitting room and a set of French doors leading to a verandah. An ambulance crew was waiting and Jason experienced a wave of relief at seeing the familiar faces of Tim and Laura.
‘Put her down on the blanket, mate.’ Tim couldn’t recognise Jason under his full protective gear. Jason put the little girl down as gently as he could. Did Laura have any idea who had delivered their patient? Or any idea how horrific he was finding this? The mother of the child obviously did. Jason could see her near the first ambulance that had arrived on scene. The blanket covering her thin nightdress was coming adrift, her oxygen mask had been ripped clear and the two ambulance officers caring for her and the other two children were both fully occupied, trying to restrain the woman from rushing into the resuscitation area that Tim and Laura had set up.
Jason could understand her anguish. The thought that he might have just carried a dead child in his arms was unbearable. He pulled off his respirator, turned off his breathing apparatus and then stayed, rooted to the spot, his eyes glued on the paramedics as they set to work on the child. Please, he found himself trying to tell Laura telepathically. Do something. Save this kid.
‘Respiratory arrest.’ Tim had his head very close to the child’s face and one hand was now resting on her neck. ‘No pulse.’
Laura was ripping open the child’s pyjama jacket. It was made of pale pink fabric and decorated with little yellow ducks, rather like the ones on Megan’s blanket. Jason found he had to swallow a painful lump in his throat. This kid had a father. How would he be feeling if he were standing here right now? He focussed on Laura’s actions. She clearly knew what she was doing, hooking up electrodes and pushing buttons on the life pack with deft, rapid movements. Jason sent another silent prayer in her direction. You can do it, Laura. Save her. Please.
A line appeared on the screen of the life pack. A wiggle that even Jason knew was a long way from normal, but Laura actually looked excited.
‘She’s in VF,’ she told Tim.
‘Really?’ Tim sounded amazed. ‘Great.’ He inflated the small lungs again carefully with the bag mask. ‘We might be in with a chance here, then.’
Jason caught the shred of hope and clung to it. A chance was good. A hell of a lot better than seeing the team shaking their heads sadly or packing up anyway.
‘Does anyone know how old she is?’ Laura was opening a side pocket on the life pack’s case, pulling out some paddles with small, silver discs on them.
‘She’s three.’ Jason didn’t recognise the strange hoarseness of his own voice.
‘Age times two plus eight,’ Tim said.
‘Yeah, but she’s tiny,’ Laura responded. ‘I’d put her weight at more like ten kilos.’ She turned a button on the life pack. ‘I’ll shock at twenty kilojoules initially.’
‘OK.’ Tim had inserted a plastic airway into the child’s mouth. The bag mask unit was connected to an oxygen cylinder. He reached for another pack and unrolled it. ‘I’ll get ready to intubate.’
‘We’ll need IV access as well.’ Laura slapped some orange pads onto the small chest. ‘Everyone clear,’ she advised as she positioned the paddles.
‘Clear,’ Tim responded.
The child didn’t give a dramatic jerk the way Jason had witnessed in some cardiac arrest situations. In fact, it didn’t look like those little paddles had done much at all. Maybe they should use bigger ones. There had to be some way of saving this kid. She was only three, for God’s sake. Would Megan still be this tiny when she was three? The thought hit Jason like a brick and the desire to protect his own child from anything like this was unexpectedly fierce. It was followed swiftly by an equally unexpected urge to get back to Inglewood station as quickly as possible and check that Megan was OK.
‘Still in VF,’ Laura announced. ‘Shocking again at twenty kilojoules.’
Jason shut his eyes. This wasn’t working and he didn’t want to see what was happening to the poor kid. He was going to make damned sure nothing like this ever happened to Megan.
‘Stand clear,’ Laura ordered.
‘Clear,’ Tim responded instantly.
Except he wasn’t going to be in any position to protect Megan, was he? Any day now he’d be handing the kid back to its mother, coming to some hopefully amicable financial arrangements, and then the baby would be whisked out of his life and back to the other side of the world. Which was exactly what he wanted.
‘We’ve got sinus rhythm.’ Laura sounded calm but Jason could feel the excitement in the air crank up several notches. Sinus rhythm was good. In fact, it was normal, wasn’t it?
‘Still not breathing,’ Tim said. He pressed the bag again gently and they all watched the tiny chest rise and fall.
‘Still in sinus rhythm.’ Laura seemed to be able to have one eye on the life-pack screen even as her hands were fully occupied ripping open packages and then inserting a needle into the child’s arm. Jason had never seen her working in such a tense situation before. This was life-and-death stuff and Laura looked completely in control. She was calm and clearly very, very competent. Jason suddenly felt rather proud to know this woman. Laura Green wasn’t just a very nice person. She was also very clever.
‘Spontaneous breath.’ Tim looked up at Laura and Jason could see the triumph in his glance. It was clouded by something still grim, however. ‘How long did that take?’
‘It’s less than a minute since we got a pulse,’ Laura responded. ‘But we don’t know how long she was in arrest for.’
‘Can’t have been long if she was still in VF,’ Tim said. ‘We might be lucky.’
‘We’ll soon find out.’ Laura nodded. ‘Respiratory rate is up to about sixteen now. Get the pulse oximeter on, Tim, and let’s see what her saturation levels are. We should get the mother over here, too, and fill her in with what’s happening.’
Activity around the paramedic crew had continued. Jason checked his watch, astonished to find that only minutes had passed. It seemed longer. The house fire was now well under control. There were no visible flames and the thick smell of smoke in the air was dissipating already. He could see fire officers inside, damping down hot spots, but others were beginning to clean up. Hoses were being rolled away and water connections closed off. Jason knew he should move off and start helping with the clean-up but he stayed where he was. Hell, a life had been saved here, and he was part of the team. He had to know what the outcome was. Just like the kid’s mother did.
‘Vicky! Oh, my God…is she going to be all right?’
‘She’s breathing on her own,’ Laura told the mother. ‘And her heart’s beating normally again.’ She put a comforting hand on the arm of the woman, who looked no older than herself. ‘What we don’t know at this stage is how long she was low on oxygen for. She’s still a very sick little girl.’
‘Oh, no…’ Vicky’s mother sagged against the other ambulance officer as she sobbed. ‘She’s still going to die, isn’t she?’
‘No-she’s not.’ Jason could see a look of alarm on Laura’s face as he made the confident statement but he had just seen something that filled him with elation. ‘Look!’
They all looked down. A small arm was moving, then the head. And the child was making a sound. A cough? A cry? Tim pulled the airway protection device from the child’s mouth just as the eyes opened. And then the miracle happened. The tiny girl looked at all the faces looming over her and saw her mother. Two small arms, one trailing an IV line, were held up with mute appeal.
‘She recognises Mum.’ Tim had a broad grin on his face.
‘Can I pick her up? Please?’
‘Of course.’ Laura crouched again to adjust wires and help lift the child. ‘You can hold her in the ambulance and we’ll take you into hospital together.’
‘She’s going to be all right, though, isn’t she?’ Tears were streaming down the young mother’s face as she gathered the child into her arms. ‘Not…brain damaged or anything?’
Laura seemed to be hesitating as she grabbed the IV line to prevent it tangling as Vicky wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck.
They all heard the child’s faint but unmistakable cry. Laura’s smile wobbled around the edges.
‘I think she’s going to be fine,’ she said. ‘But we still need to get her into hospital straight away.’
‘Wait!’ The mother turned as she was being ushered up the steps into the back of the ambulance. ‘Who was it who found her? Where was she?’
Jason stepped forward.
‘She was in the laundry basket,’ he told her. ‘Underneath the washing.’
Vicky’s mother was laughing and crying at the same time. ‘That’s one of her favourite places for hide and seek,’ she said brokenly, ‘but I would never have thought of looking there.’
‘It might have saved her,’ Jason said. ‘All the clothes would have protected her from the smoke.’
‘You saved her. I…I don’t know how to thank you.’
‘These guys did a lot more than I did,’ Jason waved his arm towards the ambulance crew, appalled to feel that painful lump back in this throat. This time it was made worse by an ominous prickling sensation in the corners of his eyes. ‘You go with them now,’ he added gruffly. ‘I’ve got work I should be doing.’
Any assistance with the clean-up operations had to wait another minute or two, however. Jason watched both ambulances leaving the scene as he pulled himself back together. This was ridiculous. OK, they had saved the kid’s life and that was a thrill, but he’d seen young victims of house fires before. Some of those had been lucky as well, but he’d never experienced such an emotional response to any job as he had this morning.
It wasn’t until he was back on station and everything was tidy enough to let the crew take time out for a well-deserved break that Jason started to feel settled again. And that was crazy. Who would have thought it would help, having a baby shoved into his arms, along with a bottle of milk and instructions to feed his daughter before he fed himself any of Mrs M.’s delicious double-chocolate muffins, still warm from the oven.
But help it did. She was warm and heavy and felt…alive. Stick’s eyebrows shot up as Jason tucked the baby into the crook of his arm and started feeding her without any drama. Jason tried to sound nonchalant.
‘It’s not as tough as it looks. You just hold the bottle and she does the rest.’
Stick watched the baby’s vigorous sucking, the big eyes that were fastened intently on her father’s face and the miniature hand that looked as though it was trying to help hold the bottle.
‘She’s actually kinda cute, isn’t she?’
‘You won’t say that when her nappy needs changing, believe me. You should have seen what I had to deal with last night.’
Stick’s grimace was sympathetic. ‘Gross, huh?’
‘Worse than gross, mate. It looked like-’
‘Do you mind?’ Bruce was reaching for a second muffin. ‘We’re trying to eat here.’
‘Save some for me, ‘ Jason warned. He looked down at Megan. ‘Hurry up,’ he urged. ‘It’s my turn.’
‘Bet you say that to all the girls.’ Stick grinned.
Jason had to join in the burst of laughter. Yes, he felt much better. He could still have a good time with his mates even if he was holding a baby and a bottle.
And couldn’t even reach the chocolate muffins.
THE surprise was enough to stop her in her tracks.
Fortunately, Laura recovered swiftly enough to prevent Tim bowling her over as he followed her into the commonroom. It wasn’t the first time she had seen Jason feeding his daughter after all. They had sorted that one out the night after the visit to the doctor. It was just the first time she’d seen him looking as though he was enjoying the duty. He was actually laughing.
‘What’s the joke?’ Laura reached for the cup of coffee Mrs McKendry miraculously had ready for her and smiled her thanks.
‘Don’t ask,’ Bruce advised.
‘How’s Vicky doing?’ Jason’s query was casual but Laura could see how important her answer was when she caught his gaze.
‘She’s going to be fine.’ It was Tim who answered, sitting down at the table and reaching for a muffin. ‘She’s one lucky kid.’
Laura eyed the muffins but decided against having one. ‘She sure is. I didn’t think we had a chance to start with.’ She turned to Tim. ‘As soon as you said there was no pulse, I thought that was it.’
‘I couldn’t believe it when you found she was in VF.’ Tim was grinning around the edges of his muffin. ‘Great job, huh?’
Laura found Jason was still staring as he listened intently. ‘When a child has a cardiac arrest, it usually follows a respiratory arrest,’ she explained. ‘And by then the damage from no oxygen is irreversible.’
Tim was nodding. ‘Last case like that I had, we managed to resuscitate this toddler after he’d choked on a button or something. We got him back but they had to turn the life support off two days later.’
‘Normally, they go straight into asystole instead of VF as well,’ Laura said. ‘So you can’t just shock them back into a normal rhythm. That’s why we got excited when we saw what we were dealing with.’
‘What’s VF?’ Stick queried.
‘Ventricular fibrillation,’ Laura explained. ‘The ventricles are the more important chambers of the heart. In a normal rhythm they’re contracting strongly and pumping the blood out to the rest of the body. Fibrillating means that there’s a very uncoordinated movement in the heart muscle and it’s ineffective for pumping.’
‘Whatever.’ Stick wasn’t interested in improving his anatomical knowledge.
‘How come you got there so fast?’ Bruce asked. ‘I thought you got sent out to some unconscious person.’
‘He was asleep.’ Tim grinned. ‘And rather drunk.’
‘That was lucky,’ Stick told them. ‘You guys were awesome at the fire from what we heard. Jase hasn’t stopped talking about it.’
‘It was just the first time I’ve hung around to watch.’ Jason’s ears had gone pink enough for Laura to realise he was embarrassed. ‘It was pretty impressive.’ He was avoiding Laura’s gaze and she dropped her own to her coffee-mug. Heavens, had he been impressed by her?
‘It was more than that,’ Bruce said. ‘You should have seen him, Laura. He was standing there, all misty-eyed, watching you drive the kid off to the hospital.’
‘I was not,’ Jason protested. Then he gazed down at Megan and adjusted the tilt of the bottle he was holding. ‘OK,’ he admitted. His ears were an even brighter shade of pink now. ‘It did get to me. Dunno why.’
‘It’s because it was a kid,’ Bruce suggested.
‘I’ve rescued kids before.’
‘It’s because you’re a dad now,’ Cliff stated. ‘It changes things.’
‘Nah. Why should it?’
‘It’s true.’ Laura nodded at Cliff. ‘I’ve seen the way friends change once they’ve had a baby. It changes your whole perspective.’
‘Sure does. You get a connection to other people that makes you more…human, I guess. Or less selfish or something.’
‘Less selfish is good.’ Jason was glaring at Bruce. ‘I hope you’re not really intending to eat that last muffin. You’ve had two already.’
‘What about the rest of the family?’ Cliff asked Laura. ‘Were they all OK?’
‘They all needed treatment for smoke inhalation and they’re keeping Vicky in for observation, but I imagine they’ll all be able to be discharged tomorrow.’
‘Did they say anything about what might have caused the fire?’ Bruce looked at the last muffin, looked at Jason and then sighed in defeat. ‘I didn’t get a chance to interview the mother.’
‘Apparently the older boy was trying to make breakfast. The toaster jammed and the curtains caught fire. His mother had taken the baby back to bed to feed him and she’d fallen asleep again. It was the neighbour who raised the alarm and woke her up.’
‘Where was the father?’
‘Who knows?’ Tim responded. ‘He walked out when the last baby was born ten months ago.’
There was a tiny silence after Jason’s expletive. Then Bruce raised an eyebrow. ‘So you wouldn’t walk out on your kid, then, Jase?’
‘No, I bloody wouldn’t.’
‘So are you going to go back to England with this Shelley, then?’ Stick sounded worried.
‘No. Of course not.’
‘Maybe she’ll want to stay here,’ Stick suggested morosely. ‘Maybe she’ll want to marry her kid’s father.’
‘Would you do that, Jase?’ Cliff gave his younger colleague a speculative glance.
‘Hey, I’m not going to marry someone I don’t love. I’m not that stupid. But I’m not going to desert my kid either.’
Laura wasn’t the only one to sense the internal conflict but she was quite sure she was more bothered than anyone else in the room. What if Mrs McKendry’s impressions had been wrong and this Shelley was intending to come back? Whatever intentions Megan’s mother had, she had laid a very solid base by leaving the baby in Jason’s care. It had been a clever move. Jason was a very decent bloke. He was starting to care about Megan, whether he realised it or not. His daughter could prove to be a very powerful bargaining tool if this Shelley Bates was planning to manipulate him into doing more than babysitting.
‘Maybe you should go for custody, then,’ Bruce advised.
Laura bit her lip. If Jason did that, he would need someone to help-full time. An even wilder thought occurred. If Jason married her, he would be safe from whatever manipulative plans Megan’s mother might have. She shook her head imperceptibly to chase the thought back to where it belonged, which was precisely nowhere. As if!
‘Yeah.’ Cliff was backing Bruce up. ‘She’s already proved herself to be an unfit mother by dumping the kid on a doorstep. You’d be in with a good chance of winning, mate.’
Jason was looking positively alarmed. ‘I didn’t say I wanted to keep it,’ he said hurriedly. ‘Her,’ he amended just as hastily.
They all heard the disapproving sniff that came from the kitchen.
‘I’ll pay maintenance,’ Jason said defensively. ‘And send her birthday presents and stuff. If she is living overseas, she can come and visit me for holidays when she’s a bit older.’
‘Like in ten years’ time?’ Stick offered.
Jason’s wide grin was relieved. ‘Works for me, mate.’
The sniff was at much closer range this time. ‘Has that bairn finished her bottle?’
Jason held it up. ‘Every drop, Mackie. See?’
‘Time you changed her nappy, then.’
Jason caught Laura’s eye at the same instant her pager sounded. She grinned. ‘Sorry, buddy. You’re on your own this time.’
Tempted to grab that last muffin on her way out the door, Laura was pleased when she managed to dismiss the urge. Whether it was the lack of sleep or the stress of caring for a baby that was doing it, her clothes felt slightly looser than they had four days ago. It wasn’t a huge difference but she rather liked the sensation of comfort it gave her.
The call was a priority one response to a ‘shortness of breath’ case.
‘What do you reckon?’ Tim queried as they cleared the garage. ‘Asthma, pneumonia or heart failure?’
Laura flicked the switch to start the beacons flashing. Her finger was poised over the control for the siren but the road was quiet enough for it not to be necessary yet. ‘Could be an acute myocardial infarction,’ she offered. ‘That can make you a bit short of breath.’
‘So can smoke inhalation.’ Tim pulled the map from the pocket between the gear shift and the dashboard. ‘We were lucky with that kid this morning, weren’t we?’
‘I’ll say.’ Laura smiled. A job like that always reminded her how much she loved this career. It more than made up for all the time and effort spent on less than genuine cases.
Like the one they were dispatched to as their final call for the day. The ‘traumatic injury’ turned out to be back pain that the grossly overweight, middle-aged woman had been suffering from for ten years.
‘Has it got any worse suddenly today?’ Laura asked.
‘No. And it hasn’t got any better either.’
‘Who called for the ambulance?’ A thin, tired-looking man had opened the door to them and Laura was assuming he was their patient’s husband.
‘I did,’ the woman said belligerently. ‘What am I supposed to have done? The doctor’s bloody useless. I rang him and he said to take some pills. I’m a bloody walking pharmacy as it is. I rattle when I walk. I’m fed up to the back teeth with taking bloody pills.’
‘What medications are you on?’ Laura was beginning to understand why the man was so quiet and weary. She’d only been in the room for two minutes and she was more than ready to escape. Tim was having trouble getting the Velcro on the extra-large size of blood-pressure cuff to meet around her upper arm. He was also carefully avoiding Laura’s eye and she suspected he was having difficulty keeping a straight face.
‘Ow!’ The oversized arm was moved enough to displace the disc of Tim’s stethoscope. ‘That hurts.’
‘It’ll only be tight for a few seconds,’ Tim responded patiently. ‘Try and keep still.’
Laura caught the gaze of the man. ‘Has your wife got a list of her medications anywhere?’
‘She’s not my wife, she’s my mother.’
‘Sorry.’ Maybe living with the woman had aged him rapidly. Laura was feeling older by the minute. If the squeeze of a blood-pressure cuff was enough to elicit such an agonised response, the back pain was probably no more than a mild ache. Her impression that they were wasting their time strengthened as she read the list of medications.
‘So you’re taking pills for your high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, airways disease, depression, weight control, constipation and pain-is that right?’
‘Isn’t that enough?’
Laura stepped over an overflowing dinner plate that was being used as an ashtray. ‘When was the last time you were in hospital, Mrs Pearce?’
‘Two weeks ago.’
‘And what was that for?’
‘Stomach pain. Something terrible it was. I was in bloody agony.’
‘What did they say at the hospital?’
‘They gave me six enemas. Six! If they knew what they were doing it should have only taken one. They’re all useless, the whole lot of them, and I told them so.’
‘Did they say anything else?’
Mrs Pearce’s son sighed heavily. ‘They told Mum to stop smoking, lose some weight and start getting some exercise.’
‘And I told them, if they could do what they’re supposed to be doing and fix me up then I might be able to start doing some bloody exercise. What do they expect? Some sort of miracle? I have enough trouble getting out of my chair and they seem to think I can go trotting around the block at the drop of a bloody hat.’
Tim had finished taking basic vital signs and filling in the paperwork. ‘There’s no real need for you to go to the hospital right now, Mrs Pearce. You’ll end up waiting for hours and then being sent home, probably with exactly the same advice you were given last time. Is that what you want?’
‘I want to get fixed up. I’m not going to get anywhere if I just sit at home and put up with it, am I?’ She glared at Tim. ‘It’s the squeaky door that gets the bloody oil.’
‘Fine.’ Laura wanted to get this job over with. ‘But you’ll need to walk out to the ambulance for us, Mrs Pearce.’
‘I can’t move. My back’s too sore.’
Laura caught Tim’s eye. Their patient weighed at least a hundred and forty kilograms. They would be lucky to fit Mrs Pearce onto a stretcher with both sides down, and a scoop stretcher would probably buckle under the strain.
‘We’ll need to get some help to move you, in that case,’ Tim said tactfully. ‘That might take a while.’
‘Are you saying I’m fat?’
Yes! Laura wanted to shout. You are grossly overweight and we’re not going to wreck our backs when you’re probably perfectly capable of walking. You’re wasting our time and we’re not going to be popular when we hand you over to emergency department staff who have far better things to do than spend time on someone who has no intention of taking responsibility for their own health. Instead, she smiled, albeit somewhat grimly.
‘You have a choice here, Mrs Pearce. You can stay home and ask your GP to make a house call, you can let us help you walk out to the ambulance or you can wait for us to get assistance to move you.’
‘Oh, get lost,’ Mrs Pearce snapped. ‘I’m not having a bunch of firemen tramping around my house and sniggering because you’re not capable of doing your job and carrying me. You’re just as bloody useless as anyone else, aren’t you?’
‘At least she signed the paperwork.’
‘Mmm.’ Laura was negotiating the rush-hour traffic through the central city. ‘Thank goodness we didn’t have to transport her.’
‘She’ll probably call another ambulance in the middle of the night.’
‘Won’t be our problem.’ Laura grinned. ‘If she keeps it up she’ll go on the blacklist.’
‘Doesn’t mean we don’t have to respond, though.’
‘No.’ Even people who abused the emergency services to the point that everyone knew them to be time-wasters had to be seen. They couldn’t afford to let a genuine incident go unattended. Laura let her breath out in a long sigh. ‘It’s been quite a day, hasn’t it? I’ll be glad to get home.’
‘You’re going home?’ Tim sounded surprised. ‘Have you decided to let Jase fend for himself, then?’
‘No.’ Laura felt the heat in her cheeks. ‘I meant home to Jason’s place.’ It hadn’t even occurred to her it wasn’t ‘home’. How could it feel like that when she’d only been in residence for four days?
‘Don’t let him get too dependent on you, Laura.’
‘I won’t. This is only temporary. And there’s no way he’d manage on his own.’
‘Exactly. Don’t let him use you.’
‘I’m enjoying it,’ Laura said sincerely. ‘Megan’s gorgeous.’
‘What about Jason?’ Tim seemed to be choosing his words carefully.
‘He’s gorgeous, too,’ Laura said lightly. Then she caught Tim’s glance and laughed. ‘I was joking, Tim.’ Good grief, had somebody other than Mrs McKendry guessed her motivation?
Happily, Tim joined her laughter and her confession was dismissed. ‘I meant, is he enjoying it? He was pretty horrified at the prospect of trying out fatherhood.’
‘I’m not sure about enjoying it exactly,’ Laura admitted. ‘But he’s getting used to it. He can change a nappy all by himself now and feed her.’ She thought about the laughter that had been provoked by teaching Jason how to bathe his daughter last night and smiled. ‘Actually, I suspect he is starting to enjoy it-he just doesn’t want to.’
‘It’s a complication in his life that he wasn’t expecting.’
‘Has he said anything about the mother?’
‘She was a one-night stand.’ Laura pulled away as the traffic light changed to green. ‘He had trouble remembering her name. What is there to say?’
‘I’ll bet his girlfriend has had plenty to say about it all.’
‘Maxine?’ Laura tried to sound offhand. ‘She’s rung a few times but I’m not sure if Jase has told her why he’s so busy.’
‘He’s not the only one who’s too busy. You’ll wear yourself out, Laura, if this goes on much longer.’
‘The next couple of days will be easier, with Mrs Mack helping.’
‘You’ve still got to take her home after work. It must be like having two full-time jobs.’
It was. Both Laura and Jason were tired at the end of the day shift. It would have been wonderful to sit down and have a beer or two and chill out. Jason was keen to talk about the job they had shared that morning and recapture the thrill of rescuing little Vicky. But little Megan needed feeding and changing and bathing.
Laura did the nappy change by herself. She gave Jason a dirty look when he returned. ‘You arranged the timing of that phone call to perfection, didn’t you?’
‘Not my fault.’ Jason smiled winningly. ‘Tell you what, I’ll do the next two nappy changes.’ He tried an effective head tilt and beseeching eyebrow lift. ‘Three nappy changes?”
Laura tried not to laugh. ‘What do you want, Jase?’
‘Well, now you mention it, I kind of told Maxine I might be able to meet her for a quick drink later this evening.’
‘But we’ve got an appointment to take Megan to the GP and have her ears checked.’
‘Oh, no! I completely forgot about that.’ Jason chewed the inside of his cheek. ‘Does she really need to go? She’s obviously better, so she doesn’t need antibiotics.’
Laura just looked at him. Maybe Megan wasn’t in need of a trip to the doctor but, dammit, she wasn’t going to babysit while Jason went off to spend time with his girlfriend. She wasn’t that much of a masochist.
‘Oh, damn,’ Jason muttered. ‘Maxine thinks I’m trying to dump her.’
‘Because I keep avoiding her and saying I’m busy.’
‘You mean you still haven’t told her why you’re busy?’
‘Hell, no. Maxine hates babies. One of the first things she said to me was that I’d better make sure I didn’t get her pregnant.’
‘Really?’ Laura’s tone was distinctly waspish. ‘Sounds like a wonderful beginning to a meaningful relationship.’
‘We don’t have a meaningful relationship. We have…’
‘Sex?’ The word was bitten out and Jason gave her a strange look. Laura tried to lighten up. ‘For heaven’s sake, Jase. If it’s that important to you, I’ll take Megan to the doctor by myself. You go out and have sex with Maxine.’
She received an even stranger look. ‘We were only planning on a drink, actually.’ He turned away. ‘Forget it. I’ll ring her back and say I can’t make it. We’ll both take Megan to the doctor.’
‘Maybe you should take her and I’ll go out with my boyfriend.’
Jason turned back with an astonished expression. ‘But you haven’t got a boyfriend.’
The easy assumption was galling. ‘What makes you so damned sure about that, Jason Halliday?’
He had the grace to look ashamed of himself. ‘It’s just-I mean…Have you got a boyfriend?’
‘No, actually. Not at the moment.’
‘Well, that’s all right, then.’ Jason blinked in consternation at the stare he was still receiving and ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Isn’t it?’
‘I suppose it is. In fact, I’m beginning to think that all women might be better off on their own.’
‘I didn’t mean that.’ Jason eyed the door as though planning a hasty exit. ‘I meant, it would be all right if you came to the doctor’s with me and Megan.’
‘Seeing as you’ve so kindly pointed out that I’ve got nothing better to do, I may as well.’ Laura’s tone was wry. ‘But don’t push it, Jase. I’m not going to look after your daughter while you go out and have a good time with some bimbo.’
The atmosphere was still strained by the time they had returned with a clean bill of health for Megan and a take-away dinner for themselves, which obviated any need to cook. Laura took a shower but found Jason still curiously quiet when she returned in time to give Megan a bedtime bottle at ten p.m.
‘Let’s hope she sleeps as well as she did last night. It was a bit of a treat only having to get up once, wasn’t it?’
‘Mmm.’ Jason was watching Laura settle herself on the couch with Megan in her arms. She knew her hair was hanging in damp waves like rats’ tails and the soft old T-shirt she intended sleeping in clung to her figure quite well enough to reveal how ample her curves were, but did he have to stare at her quite like that? Maybe she’d been less than pleasant about him wanting to go out on a date but she wasn’t trying to pass herself off as some kind of saint here. There was no point in getting Jason interested in her by pretending to be something she wasn’t. She wasn’t that desperate.
‘Something bothering you, Jase?’ Maybe it was time to make a joke out of it all. ‘Other than missing out on sex with Maxine, that is?’
Jason scowled. ‘Cut it out, Laura. I didn’t think you were the bitchy type.’
Laura hung her head, watching Megan suck. Maybe it hadn’t come out as lightly as she’d intended because it cut a little too close to the bone. She wasn’t the bitchy type, and she’d better start being more careful or Jason would realise why she might be the jealous type. She heard Jason sigh and looked up swiftly. ‘You’re right, I was being bitchy. Sorry. I guess I’m a bit tired…and…’
‘And I have trouble understanding why you find Maxine so attractive.’ If Jason needed a prime example of a bitchy type, he didn’t have to look far. Laura had only met Maxine once, when she’d come to meet Jason after work at the station. The frankly dismissive glance she’d received had been enough to know that appearances were all that mattered to Jason’s latest conquest.
‘She’s got great legs.’
‘Ah.’ Laura managed a smile. ‘That makes it all right, then.’
The look they shared acknowledged that Maxine wasn’t likely to make the grade long term. They both laughed but Laura’s amusement was forced. She was tired and she could feel a headache coming on. Adjusting her position to hold the bottle with the hand of the arm holding Megan, Laura removed her glasses with her other hand and gave the bridge of her nose a good rub. She left the glasses on the coffee-table to give her face a rest. Then she kept her gaze on the baby she held as she felt her mouth relax into a soft smile.
Megan was turned a little into her body and one hand was on her breast with its fingers splayed like a tiny starfish. It was pushing and squeezing rhythmically, as though she was being breast-fed and helping the supply along. Laura was astonished at the response it provoked in both her body and heart. She was staring down a bottomless well of emotion from which any amount of love for this infant could be drawn.
And that was disturbing. It hadn’t been part of the plan at all. She might end up being more upset by having to hand Megan back to her mother than finding out Jason would never be remotely attracted to her.
The thought prompted a gaze in Jason’s direction and Laura caught her breath. He had been watching Megan’s hand on her breast as well and his gaze flicked up to catch hers almost guiltily. He stood up, mumbling something about making coffee, but his gaze didn’t leave hers until he turned away and that had been quite long enough for Laura to see what she had thought impossible.
Had it simply been wishful thinking?
No. Her own body was on fire right now. She wanted Jason more than she had ever wanted anyone but the flashes of desire she was used to experiencing had been nothing like this. There was a totally new dimension to it now. Only one thing could have caused such an increase in intensity and that was the unmistakable glimpse of sexual awareness she had caught in Jason’s gaze.
It wasn’t desire exactly, but the knowledge that Jason had woken up to the fact she was a woman was enough.
INGLEWOOD station had acquired a new mascot.
By the end of her second day shift, Megan Bates Halliday had earned the nickname of ‘Peanut’, due to her small size, and had at least half a dozen macho specimens of manhood quite besotted with her. Not that they advertised the fact, of course.
‘I’ll have a hold, if you have something else you want to do, Jase.’
‘Hey, thanks, Cliff. I’m due to do a check on the breathing apparatus filters and valves. Shouldn’t take too long.’
‘We’ll be all right. Take as long as you like.’ Cliff adjusted his hold on the baby. ‘What do you reckon, Peanut? Shall we see what’s on the sports channel?’
When Jason came back, having completed the maintenance duty, he found Megan being held by Stick.
‘Wasn’t my idea,’ Stick said loftily.
‘Was so,’ Cliff contradicted. ‘I suggested a game of snooker to Bruce and you said, “Guess I’ll have to have a turn with Peanut, then.’”
‘You could have left her with Mrs Mack.’ Jason noticed that, although Stick was now looking somewhat sheepish, he wasn’t in any hurry to offload his burden.
‘She’s busy washing the floors.’
‘Is Laura still out on the road, then?’
‘Yeah. They’re having a really busy day. I don’t think they’ve even been back for a lunch-break.’
Snooker balls clicked and Cliff whistled appreciatively. ‘Nice shot, Bruce.’
‘Six points,’ Stick informed Megan. ‘Let’s put them on the board, shall we?’ Megan did appear to be watching as Stick moved the marker to a new score and the cooing noise could easily be read as approval. Stick grinned. ‘She’s catching on,’ he told Jason. ‘Pretty smart, isn’t she?’
‘I like a girl who likes watching snooker.’ Cliff was lining up his next shot. ‘I reckon she should be the station mascot.’
Stick’s nod was enthusiastic. ‘I’ll bet Mrs Mack could make her a junior-sized uniform. That’d be cute.’
Jason could just imagine Megan as a toddler with a custom-made fireman’s jacket and helmet. He could even see her holding his hand as she tottered along beside the life-sized version. Hell, it would be cute. He shoved the image aside and held out his arms.
‘She’s due for a feed,’ he said. ‘I’m surprised she’s not yelling her head off by now.’
‘She likes us,’ Cliff announced.
‘Don’t get too attached,’ Jason warned. ‘I’m not keeping her.’
‘Might not be that bad, you know.’ Stick’s gaze slid away from Jason’s raised eyebrows. ‘Well, she is kinda cute. For a baby, that is.’
Absurdly, Jason felt proud of the fact that Megan was his daughter as he carried her away from the games room-cum-gymnasium towards the kitchen. She could certainly turn on the charm at times. His colleagues had no idea what she was like when she wasn’t happy, though. They wouldn’t be anything like as smitten if they had to endure an hour or two of grizzling ill humour.
As he had to that night. There was no pleasure in having a beer while he cooked dinner listening to that incessant squalling. She quietened down so that Laura could eat in peace, he noticed, but he felt obliged to keep walking round and round the living room in the hope of getting her off to sleep.
‘Did you end up getting any lunch?’ he asked Laura.
‘No. This is great, though. What is it?’
‘Is it?’ Laura took another mouthful. ‘I can’t taste any paprika.’
‘The red stuff that looks like pepper and goes into goulash.’
‘Nah.’ Jason skirted the couch and began another circuit. ‘Goulash is just what you make when you chop up all the leftovers, throw in some veg and cook it.’
‘Whatever. It tastes fantastic.’
Jason eyed his own plate, cooling on the bench, and sighed. ‘So what kept you so busy?’
‘We kicked off with a hypoglycaemic coma, had a heart attack around nine a.m., a kid fell off a climbing frame at play centre for morning tea and then we got stuck with an MVA and entrapment out on the motorway.’
‘Who went out to that?’ Jason watched carefully to see if he could detect any disappointment on Laura’s part that he hadn’t arrived. Surely, if she did fancy him, as his mates had suggested, he could pick up a few clues here and there.
‘A crew from Central station.’ Laura didn’t seem at all disappointed.
‘They could have called us,’ Jason grumbled. ‘We spent half the morning putting in smoke alarms for old-age pensioners, had a false alarm at a factory warehouse and then nothing for the rest of the day. It was dead boring.’
‘Our afternoon was a bit dull. Non-stop calls but none of them were very exciting. Sore backs, sore hearts, sore legs. You name it, we saw it.’
‘How long did the extrication for the MVA take?’
‘What? We could have done it in less than half the time.’
‘So could they, but he wasn’t badly injured. We just didn’t want to do anything that might exacerbate his neck injury so we put on a neck brace and gave him oxygen and basically kept him amused while the fire boys cut up the car all around him.’
‘Still shouldn’t have taken two hours. What was it, an armoured truck?’
Laura laughed. ‘No, it was a Mini and he was a very large man. We ended up taking off the roof and lifting him out with a crane.’
‘That would have been embarrassing. Especially on the motorway.’
‘Quite a few people stopped to have a look,’ Laura said. ‘Maybe the embarrassment will motivate him to lose a bit of weight.’ She picked up another forkful of her meal and looked at it thoughtfully. ‘I’m a great one to talk, aren’t I? And here I am, stuffing myself.’
‘You’re not fat,’ Jason assured her.
‘I’m not exactly skinny either.’
‘Women who are naturally skinny are few and far between. The ones who are obsessed with being unnaturally skinny usually have a hell of a lot of other hang-ups as well. Believe me,’ Jason said firmly. ‘I’m speaking from experience here.’
‘So why do you always pick skinny girlfriends, then?’
‘Dunno.’ Jason tried to sound offhand. ‘Maybe I’ll go for curvy next time.’
Megan’s fractious cry distracted him from trying to assess whether Laura had responded to that fishing expedition. The quiet period was definitely over.
‘Maybe she’s got another ear infection.’
‘I think she’s just overtired,’ Laura said. ‘Maybe she should have been sleeping on station today, instead of being used for some pass-the-parcel game. Has it turned into some sort of competition to see who can spend the most time playing with the baby or something?’
‘If you ask me, we’re lucky that the guys are happy to have her around at all.’
‘It’s a night shift tomorrow. They won’t be so happy if their sleep gets interrupted.’ Laura stopped eating, her fork poised. ‘What will we do if we’re both called out at the same time?’
‘Mackie’s offered to sleep on station for two nights.’ Jason sighed heavily as Megan paused only long enough to take in a deep enough breath to raise her volume. ‘I’ve had about enough of this,’ he muttered. ‘It’s been a week, Peanut. Where the hell is your mother?’
‘Here, I’ll take her.’ Laura dropped her fork and her chair scraped as she pushed it back hurriedly. ‘That was really nice, thanks. You’d better have yours before it’s too cold.’
It was already too cold. Jason grimaced around his mouthful and eyed the microwave as he chewed, but he was too hungry to be bothered reheating his meal and the second mouthful didn’t taste so bad.
Megan grizzled on intermittently. Laura looked fed up but Jason stubbornly took his time to eat. Perversely, he welcomed the increase in tension because it made him forget any disturbing thoughts that Laura might be helping him because she wanted more than friendship from him. It also effectively blotted out any of the brief fantasies he’d been experiencing about still having the kid around when she was old enough to hold his hand and walk beside him. Or go off to school with a cute little backpack. Or smile when her front baby teeth had been purchased by the tooth fairy.
He didn’t offer to relieve Laura when he’d finished eating either. She couldn’t complain about him clearing the bench, could she? He knew he was pushing his luck when he popped the tab on a can of beer and turned the television set on, but what was the worst thing that could happen here? Laura would go home, he’d be left with a baby he couldn’t possibly manage on his own and he’d have to stop procrastinating and do something about finding Shelley Bates.
The scenario was unlikely, in any case. Laura seemed quite happy to do more than her share most of the time, and why not? She was female, wasn’t she? Didn’t they all get a bit clucky by the time they were pushing thirty? He was doing her a favour, really, by showing what that genetic programming could land you with.
Within a few minutes, however, it became apparent that a surprising hiccup could be occurring in Laura Green’s genetic programming.
‘What do you think you’re doing, Jase?’
‘Sorry. Did you want a beer?’
‘Come and watch this programme, then. This forensic pathologist is great at solving murder mysteries.’
‘There’ll be a murder around here soon and it won’t be at all mysterious.’
Jason grinned. ‘I know how you feel. She’s a bit of a pain when she won’t go to sleep, isn’t she?’
‘Right.’ Laura’s lips compressed into a grim line. ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough.’
Megan landed on Jason’s lap with enough speed to provoke an outraged wail. While a reprimand was undeniably justified, Jason was alarmed to see Laura heading for the back door of the house.
‘Where are you going?”
‘When will you be back?’ Jason was sorry he’d taken her assistance for granted now. Really sorry. The faint note of panic in his tone was quite genuine and he could feel himself go a shade paler when the only response he received from Laura was the slamming of the back door.
He’d done it now. He was up the creek without a paddle and he knew quite well he deserved it. Laura had turned her life upside down for the last week in order to help him and she’d done it with remarkably good humour and competence. She’d had a much busier day than he’d had today and yet he’d been enough of a bastard to expect her to keep going. Jason groaned. If he’d wanted to find a way of ensuring Laura didn’t want him for a friend, let alone anything more, he’d found it without any effort at all.
He’d just have to make up for it somehow. Find something nice to do that would let Laura know how much he appreciated her. But what? Jason’s idea of looking after a woman generally involved some quality physical contact, and that wasn’t an option with Laura.
Or was it?
Unbidden, the image of seeing Laura feeding Megan last night surfaced. The full, soft-looking outline of her breast had been made startlingly obvious by the movements of that tiny hand. Jason had never seen Laura without her spectacles on before either, and when she’d looked up at him he had been struck by eyes that had reminded him of melted chocolate. Recognising that Laura was actually a rather attractive woman had been a shock. Like that time his kid sister had brought her first boyfriend home.
But him and Laura? No way. She was so far removed from what he considered to be his type it was inconceivable. Not that she wouldn’t make someone a fantastic wife and mother, but it was precisely those qualities that put her into a friendship rather than relationship category. She was fun to have around. They could have a laugh, the way they did at work. Laura was one of the boys. Hell, she even liked beer! And when life wasn’t so much fun Laura was prepared to help and he knew by now that he could trust her not to jump ship when the going got tough.
At least, he had up until he’d pushed her to breaking point. He didn’t deserve a mate like Laura and he wouldn’t have her around much longer unless he found some way to apologise. Trying to come up with an idea was enough of a challenge to distract Jason throughout an entire nappy change so that it was no more than a vaguely unpleasant duty.
‘I’ve got it!’ he told Megan as he pushed her feet into the leg holes of a clean stretchsuit. ‘Mummy’s tired. And what do women like to do most when they’re tired?’
He needed three goes on some of those pesky, undersized stud buttons. ‘I’ve seen the ads,’ he explained. ‘They like a soak in a hot bath, with candles and nice smelly stuff and a glass of wine.’
The plan was excellent. Brilliant, even if he did say so himself, but it was a little harder to execute than he’d anticipated. The triumph of finding a single, well-used decorative candle in the depths of a kitchen cupboard was dimmed by the unavailability of any perfume or bubble bath.
‘A bit of dishwashing liquid would make some bubbles, wouldn’t it?’ He conferred with the baby he was carrying on one arm. ‘But what smells nice?’
Another one-handed fossick in the cupboards began, and Megan started to feel heavy. Jason briefly considered trying out that front pack contraption Laura had persuaded him to purchase on that expensive visit to Baby Warehouse but he dismissed the thought. There was something disturbingly permanent about attaching a baby to your body like that. Holding her tucked casually into the crook of one arm was a kind of insurance policy. She could be put down or passed on to someone else with no effort required at all. The way she was handed around at the station was becoming part of the routine. One of the guys was always hovering somewhere nearby, waiting for a turn and pretending not to be. Wouldn’t work at all if they had to deal with buckles and straps, and it would look ridiculous. Who wanted to look like a kangaroo with a pouch in dire need of mending?
At least this search was satisfyingly brief.
‘There you go,’ he told his daughter. ‘Perseverance pays off, kid. Cinnamon. And vanilla. They both smell nice.’ He eyed the tin of formula on the kitchen bench but Megan seemed happy enough for the moment to be ferried back and forth by a man on a mission.
‘Dammit,’ Jason exclaimed a short time later. ‘We’ve got a wineglass but no wine. Do you think juice might do instead?’ Changing arms to ease the ache of tired muscles, Jason’s eye caught the tin of formula again. ‘I’d better feed you in a minute, Peanut, hadn’t I?’ Big, blue eyes stared up at him. ‘Laura won’t enjoy her soak if she has to listen to you whingeing because I haven’t fed you.’
Megan wasn’t whingeing right now. She appeared to be listening intently to the deep, soft voice that had become much more familiar over the last hour. Her gaze was still fastened on Jason’s and he braced himself as her face crinkled and her lips moved. But no cry emerged from that rosebud mouth. The facial contortion continued and suddenly, totally unexpectedly, Jason found that the tiny person he was holding was smiling at him.
It was Megan’s first smile and it was for him.
She liked him.
A warm glow started somewhere deep within Jason and then grew and grew until it felt like something was about to burst. It was unlike anything he’d ever felt in his life.
Dammit! Why wasn’t Laura here to see this? Megan was smiling. The corners of her lips curled up even more and her lips parted to make her look as though she was silently and joyously laughing. Jason felt so ridiculously pleased and proud that he didn’t give a damn that his eyes were prickling. He wanted to cry. Or laugh. Or shout out the news. Instead, he did something that seemed far more appropriate.
He smiled back.
Laura walked swiftly, pushing herself despite the physical weariness that made her bones feel like lead. Her spiritual weariness was far more of a concern. This was never going to work. OK, she’d established a friendship with Jason. She’d seen evidence that he could find her attractive. She might even succeed in winning herself a place in his life, but where would that leave her? Precisely where she would have ended up with John, that’s where. Making all the effort and putting up with all the crap because she wanted the relationship to work so much more than he did.
Jason might only be having a beer and watching television because he felt like it now, but it would only be a matter of time before he was off to the pub with his mates or having an affair, like John, because that took his fancy, and if Laura wanted to keep him around she’d just have to deal with it.
Escaping the empty shell that her relationship with John had become had led to a vow that she would never again become involved with anyone who didn’t love her as much as she loved them. Yet here she was, trying to set herself up with an even more heartbreaking arrangement. Jason wouldn’t just expect his dinner on the table or a bit of company on the odd night he chose to stay at home. He’d want his child raised as well. A child who was rapidly claiming a large portion of the love Laura was only too ready to bestow.
Why can’t love be more equally distributed? Laura directed the silent question to the postbox at the end of Crighton Terrace as she finally neared the end of her long walk. She picked up her pace a little until she got past the empty and semi-derelict two-storied house on the corner. All that Laura wanted was to receive the same kind of love she was so capable of giving. Was that too much to ask?
Too much to ask of Jason Halliday, she decided bitterly as she opened the back door of his house. His idea of love was probably giving a girl a good time in bed. He didn’t have a committed bone in his body when it came to women, and he probably didn’t need to. With his looks and personality he wouldn’t face any problem finding someone prepared to do the running to make things work when he finally decided to settle down.
But it wouldn’t be her. No way. She wouldn’t marry Jason if he-
Her passage into the living room was abruptly halted by what she saw in front of her. Jason lay flat on his back on the couch. One arm and one leg were draped over the side and an almost empty baby’s bottle rested on the floor close to the dangling hand. He was deeply asleep, his lips slightly parted, his hair tousled and his features softened enough to make him look years younger. Vulnerable, almost.
Megan lay sprawled on top of her father, stomach to stomach, and she was also soundly asleep. There was no danger of her rolling off, though. Jason’s arm was almost completely encircling the infant and he had his thumb safely anchored in a belt loop of his jeans.
Laura sighed softly, overwhelmed by the wave of pure love the scene evoked in her. Any good intentions she had to extricate herself from giving more than she could ever hope to receive flew out the window. There was no way she could walk away from either of them. Not when she felt like this. Whatever happened, she was going to see this through as far as it went.
Quietly, Laura moved further into the room, planning to bypass the couch and head for the bathroom for a much-needed shower. But Jason’s eyelids flickered open.
‘Hey…you came back!’
‘Yeah.’ Laura spoke as softly as he had. ‘I’m a masochist.’
‘Megan smiled at me.’
‘Really?’ Laura saw the delight in Jason’s sleepy grin and that wash of emotion she had experienced on entering the room returned with renewed strength. ‘That’s so cool! I wish I’d seen it.’
‘You should have been here,’ Jason admonished. Then he seemed to wake up enough to remember why she hadn’t been there, and his expression held a mixture of apology and relief. ‘At least you’re back now.’
‘Mmm.’ Laura didn’t want to spoil the moment by discussing her walkout. ‘I need a shower. Are you OK with Megan for a bit longer?’
‘Take as long as you like.’ Jason closed his eyes and smiled. ‘Enjoy,’ he added rather smugly.
Laura had taken the tone to be self-congratulatory because he was minding the baby, but she changed her mind as she stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.
The bath was full, almost to the brim, and sparse blobs of bubbles like small clouds floated amongst faint tendrils of steam. It smelt vaguely like some sort of pudding her mother used to make and her awareness of the scent was heightened by the dim, flickering light emanating from the depths of a hollow, orange candle. Beside the candle was something that was her final undoing. A stemmed wineglass, filled with what looked suspiciously like beer.
It was no reason to cry. This was a present-an opportunity to relax and indulge herself-and here she was, standing on the tiled floor with tears streaming down her face. Laura scrubbed the tears away with her hand and managed a wobbly smile as she pulled off her clothes. Jason had done this for her, and he must have used virtually the whole time she’d been out to do it because it looked like he’d cleaned the bathroom before creating her treat. He must have been thinking about her the whole time, possibly coping simultaneously with a grizzly baby, and he had harnessed clearly limited resources to produce something that was purely for her benefit.
John would never have done something like this for her, not in a million years. Jason cared. He really cared, and that was far more meaningful than any sexual awareness she might be able to stir in him. Laura climbed into the tub and lay back, resting her head on the rim and allowing a few more tears to wash away the despair she had carried with her on her solitary walk. She had been wrong. It could work out between her and Jason. And even if it didn’t, she would never forget this bath for as long as she lived.
The call to an unconscious woman on the next night duty became the first strong reminder when Laura and Tim were led by a panicked husband into the bathroom of the patient’s house.
‘It’s my wife, Irene,’ he was explaining as he rushed ahead of them down a narrow hallway. ‘She was just having a soak in the bath and then I heard this almighty crash and came in to find her lying on the floor with blood everywhere. I thought she was dead!’
Irene Spelling wasn’t dead but she wasn’t feeling at all well. She was also highly embarrassed by the ineffective covering a towel was affording.
‘Do you know what happened?’ Laura asked.
‘I came over all funny when I stood up. Next thing I know I’m lying on the floor and my head hurts.’
A superficial scalp wound caused by grazing her head on the corner of the vanity unit had produced copious amounts of blood, but the facecloth Irene was pressing to the area had it under control for the moment. Laura was more concerned by potential causes for the faint.
‘How are you feeling now, Irene?’
‘Like I’m going to be sick. And there’s a funny ringing noise in my ears.’
‘Let’s lie you down,’ Laura directed. ‘And lift your legs a bit.’ Irene’s husband assisted by sitting on the toilet seat and holding her feet on his lap. ‘Can you get a blood pressure, please, Tim?’
Tim was fitting an oxygen mask on Irene’s face. He reached for the blood-pressure cuff as Laura started peeling the backs off the electrodes needed to get more information about what was happening in Irene’s cardiovascular system.
The bath had been a hot one-Laura could feel the steamy heat surrounding them. Just as well it didn’t smell like a pudding, Laura thought fleetingly, or she might have trouble concentrating on what she was supposed to be doing.
The heat of the water and surrounding air could have caused a level of vasodilation enough to interfere with the normal mechanisms that adjusted blood pressure to posture. The reduction in blood supply to the heart had a knock-on effect of reducing supply to the brain, and was a common enough cause for fainting, but Laura needed to rule out any more serious cause such an underlying cardiac condition or reaction to medications.
‘Your ECG looks fine,’ she reassured Irene and her husband a minute later. ‘You don’t have any heart problems that you know of, do you?’
‘Anything else you’re being treated for?’
‘No. Well…’ Irene looked embarrassed again. ‘I’m taking some of that new stuff that’s supposed to help you lose weight.’
‘BP’s 100 over 50,’ Tim reported.
‘That’s a bit on the low side,’ Laura explained. ‘But it’s only to be expected if you’ve had a fainting episode. Do you know what your blood pressure normally is?’
‘I think it’s a bit high. My doctor told me it was another reason I needed to lose weight. I am trying. I’ve hardly eaten anything today, have I, Colin?’
‘No,’ her husband confirmed. ‘Just rabbit food.’
‘That might have been a contributing factor to the faint,’ Laura said. ‘We’ll check your blood sugar and then I’ll have a look at where you hit your head.’ Irene had ‘come over all funny’ well before she’d come into contact with the vanity unit and she appeared quite alert now so a head injury was unlikely to have been responsible for the period of unconsciousness, but Laura intended to make a thorough check.
Fifteen minutes later, both she and Tim were satisfied that Irene was fine.
‘I’m feeling ever so much better,’ she informed them.
‘BP’s up to 130 over 90,’ Tim reported.
‘Blood sugar’s normal.’ Laura dropped the small finger-pricking device into the sharps container. ‘And everything else checks out. There’s really no need for us to take you into hospital, Irene, but if you or Colin need any more reassurance then we’re happy to do so.’
‘No, I’m fine,’ Irene insisted. ‘All I want to do is get dressed and have some supper.’
‘Good idea.’ Tim smiled. ‘We’re about due for some supper ourselves.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea before you go?’ Irene pushed her arms into the dressing-gown Laura was holding for her. ‘I’ve got a lovely banana cake that my daughter brought round this afternoon.’
‘That’s very kind of you but we’ll have to get back on station,’ Laura said with a smile.
Tim caught Laura’s eye as she coiled the lead wires and slotted them back into a pocket of the life pack. ‘With a bit of luck there might even be a muffin left for us.’
‘Oh, take the cake with you,’ Irene exclaimed. ‘I shouldn’t be eating it anyway and Colin hates banana cake.’
‘No, you deserve a treat after this,’ Laura said. ‘You enjoy it.’
‘But I’ll only eat one piece and the rest will be wasted. I’d really like you to take it.’
‘Please, do,’ Colin added. ‘By way of thanks. We’re very grateful for your help. I was scared stiff. I had no idea of what to do other than call for an ambulance.’
‘We’re happy to help. We shouldn’t accept cake.’
‘Wow-cake! You shouldn’t have!’
Jason, Stick, Cliff and Bruce eyed the offering that Laura carried into the commonroom.
‘Hey-you’ve already eaten some.’
They had left a segment with Irene by way of a compromise. The rest of the banana cake was clearly going to be appreciated immediately by everyone on Green Watch at Inglewood station. Or it would have been, if not for the arrival of an unexpected visitor.
‘Maxine!’ Jason put down the plate he was holding and stepped out of the cake queue. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Came to see you, of course.’ The willowy redhead sounded less than happy. ‘I want to know why you’re avoiding me, Jason Halliday.’
‘I’m not.’ Jason’s smile was one of his most winning and Laura’s heart fell. He’d smooth over the troubled waters and she could just see herself babysitting Megan while he went out to make things up with Maxine.
‘Here.’ Stick could see the banana cake disappearing with alarming rapidity. ‘You take Peanut.’ He shoved the bundle he held into Jason’s arms. ‘She’s your kid after all.’
Laura could swear that Stick flashed her the ghost of a wink. He must have known what effect his action and words would have. Laura gained a rather savage sense of satisfaction from the expression on Maxine’s face, but Stick didn’t seem to have finished stirring troubled waters. He grinned as Megan produced noisy evidence of the biological functions occurring in her small body.
‘Hey, Jase. She’s inherited your talent for burping and farting at the same time.’
The rest of Green Watch found Stick’s observation hilarious.
‘There goes the court case,’ Bruce commiserated. ‘That’s even more of a genetic link than the colour of her eyes, mate.’
Jason looked as though he was desperately hoping the ground would open beneath his feet. Megan was looking a lot happier than she had a moment ago and was beaming approval at her father.
‘Yeah?’ Jason’s smile looked glued on now but he was still bravely standing his ground.
‘Do you want to tell me what’s going on?’
The rest of Green Watch now seemed totally absorbed in their supper. ‘Great cake,’ Bruce announced. ‘Isn’t it, Stick?’
‘The best.’ Stick nodded. He glanced sideways at Jason and then caught Cliff’s eye and winked.
Stick wasn’t being quite as successful as the others in hiding his interest in the building confrontation but Laura projected what she hoped was a calm indifference.
‘I think I’ll have some cake, too,’ Laura murmured. ‘It does look nice.’
‘You need it,’ Stick told her a little too loudly. ‘You’re fading away, Laura. Being a mum is taking it out of you.’
‘I wish.’ Laura grinned. She could appreciate the efforts of these guys as they closed a protective rank around her and tried to let her know that they considered her to be just as good as the gorgeous redhead now taking centre stage in the commonroom. But Stick did have a point. Her clothes were definitely feeling a lot looser than they had a week or two ago. Her pleasure in someone else noticing was heightened by the glare she could feel coming from Maxine.
‘So, you’ve been “busy”, have you, Jason?’ Maxine used long, French-manicured nails to make the quotation marks in the air. ‘I’d say you were pretty busy nine months ago or so as well.’ She narrowed her eyes at Laura. ‘With her?’
‘No, of course not,’ Jason assured her. Then he blinked. What was so ‘of course’ about it, anyway?
Lightning-fast thoughts flashed through his brain. Yes, Laura wore glasses but now that he had noticed the colour of her eyes they seemed more like frames that accentuated rather than hid them. Yes, she was short and Jason had always avoided short women because they made him feel like a father figure, but Laura was anything but childish. She could be bossy but she was never bad-tempered without a jolly good reason and, what’s more, she was bloody good at her job. Yes, she was nothing like as skinny as Maxine, but he’d actually been serious when he’d told Laura he might try some curves next time. And on top of everything else, he simply liked Laura. Right now, it seemed that she had more going for her than Maxine did.
‘Laura’s a friend,’ he explained. ‘A very good friend. And she’s living with me right now to help look after Megan.’
‘My daughter.’ There was an unmistakable note of pride in Jason’s voice and his colleagues exchanged meaningful glances over their slices of cake. ‘Here, would you like to hold her?’