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Texas attorney Jake Hopkins was severely allergic to two things: peanuts and a sweet young army nurse named Madeline Bright. TravisWylie, Jake's law partner, took the peanut problem seriously because he'd once had to call 9-1-1 when Jake suffered a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction during dinner at an Austin restaurant. But while Travis readily acknowledged that certain women possessed a knack for turning a man every which way but loose, he steadfastly maintained that Jake couldn't be allergic to a member of his own species.
Jake knew better. There was nothing imaginary about the symptoms he suffered whenever he was in close proximity to Maddie. All he had to do was clap eyes on the chestnut-haired, blue-eyed beauty and his pulse raced, his throat closed up and his brain stalled out. Since that was pretty much what happened whenever Jake got too close to a peanut, he figured the evidence spoke for itself.
It had been four years since the sudden onset of his peanut allergy, and in that time he'd learned to give a wide berth to foods containing even a trace of the offending legumes. In the past month, he'd trained himself to be just as assiduous about avoiding Maddie.
"Madeline," he said aloud, correcting himself as he swung his black BMW convertible into the grocery-store parking lot. Using her nickname was flirting with emotional intimacy, and Jake wasn't that kind of man anymore.
Maybe he never really had been that kind of man. His wife had hinted at that more than a few times when she was alive. Or maybe he and Rita just hadn't been a good match to begin with. Jake had known she was dissatisfied, and sometimes he wondered if she would have gone so far as to divorce him if a freak boating accident on Lake Travis hadn't ended her life.
Poor Rita. For three years she'd clung to the stubborn belief that being married ought to temper Jake's passion for flying helicopters. She'd wanted him out of the army and out of the sky, but Jake was a second-generation West Point graduate, and a life without flying wasn't any kind of life at all.
He'd had to adjust his thinking on that after he'd awoken at a combat support hospital in the Middle East and learned he'd never walk again, let alone fly. He'd been transferred to the Army Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany for more surgery, and a week later they'd drugged him up and loaded him on a hospital plane headed for Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Noah Bright, his copilot-gunner and his best friend for fifteen years, had already been shipped home to Texas in a flag-draped casket.
Jake spent several weeks at Walter Reed. During that time, Rita visited twice. After she'd gone back to Texas, she drowned when a ski boat she was riding in capsized.
Jake had missed her funeral, too.
After numerous surgeries and skin grafts, Jake was finally sent home to Texas, where despite the gloomy predictions of his doctors, he learned to walk again. He wasn't terribly graceful about it, but with the help of a cane he could get around okay. Once he was, quite literally, back on his feet, his father had suggested law school.
It was a cruel irony that if Rita had lived and stuck it out with Jake, she would now have everything she'd wanted. She'd be living deep in the heart of Texas with a newly minted civilian attorney who had ruthlessly trained himself not to think about helicopters. Jake didn't even look up when one flew overhead, which was no small achievement, considering where he lived. Ensconced in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, the town of Prairie Springs hugged the east side of Fort Bonnell, the largest military installation in the United Statesand home to the cavalry brigade that had trained Jake and Noah to do air combat in Apache attack helicopters.
Impatient with himself for dwelling on the past, Jake shook his head and successfully flung those depressing memories out of it. But MaddieMadelineremained.
He hated that he was having so little success fighting his insane attraction to her. He was no good for Madeline Bright, and it wasn't only because of what he'd done to Rita.
"And at five minutes before six o'clock, it's still a sweltering 102 degrees in downtown Austin," a radio announcer boomed over the end of an old Trisha Yearwood song. "I don't have to point out that that's a little warm for the third day of September."
"Then don't point it out," Jake muttered, irritably punching the radio's Off button and wondering what the current temperature was here in Prairie Springs, thirty miles northwest of Austin. He loved his convertible, but when he'd left home a few minutes ago he'd been compelled to close the Beemer's roof and throttle up the air conditioner.
He zipped past the handicapped parking spaces and found a spot near the end of a row. His bum leg was giving him trouble today, but the more it hurt, the more determined Jake was to walk like it didn't. The leg would never be any stronger, but Jake was convinced that pushing himself through the pain would eventually teach his nerves to quit squawking about it.
He cut the ignition, opened his door and was assailed by a blast of dry heat that reminded him of his last tour of duty in the Middle East.
As if his left leg didn't remind him of that every single day.
His right leg had caught two bullets but healed nicely; his left was a different story. Bones had been shattered and a big chunk of muscle had been blown off his thighand what the army surgeons had salvaged was barely enough to walk on.
Jake reached behind his seat and grabbed a cane made from the root of a sumac tree. If you have to go, go in style, his father had always said, so Jake collected beautifully polished natural-wood walking sticks, which he changed to suit his mood.
Maybe he should be using the black one today.
He put his left foot on the ground and swung his right leg out before pushing himself to a standing position. Sucking in a sharp breath through clenched teeth, he accepted the first lightning bolt of pain and started walking.
He'd gone just a few yards when a canary-yellow Ford Escape peeled around the corner and slid into an empty parking space just ahead of him. The door was immediately flung open and a pair of trim, tanned female legs emerged.
Pretty. They reminded him of
His heart skipped a beat when he saw the rest of the woman. Sure enough, it was Madeline Bright. Jake froze, hoping she hadn't noticed him.
She hadn't. She closed her door and made for the store entrance with her usual energetic stride.
Lost in admiration, Jake followed her with his eyes. She was all armycapable and confident and strong as ironbut she was still every inch a lady. She was fine-boned and tenderhearted and vulnerable in the most appealing ways. From the subtly swinging curves of her dark, shoulder-length hair, which she wore pulled back and above her collar when in uniform, to her slim pink toes, which Jake had glimpsed when she wore sandals, she was lovely.
She was probably the only woman in the world who could make a bulky Army Combat Uniform look good, but Jake much preferred the way she was dressed today. She wore sand-colored cargo shorts, a white tank top that set off her tan, a yellow-patterned scarf in her hair and large sunglasses that made her look like someone the paparazzi ought to be chasing.
Forgetting for a moment that she was his number-two allergen, Jake imagined pulling her onto his good knee and kissing her breathless. Then reason returned and advised him to beat a retreat to his car before Maddie happened to glance over her shoulder.
It wasn't that she wouldn't be delighted to see him. Whenever they met, her blue eyes widened with pleasure and her bow-shaped mouth curved into a welcoming smile. As a kid, she'd had an obvious crush on Jake, her much older brother's best friend. It had been cute back then, but now she was an eminently desirable woman whom Jake had no business desiring, and that made her interest in him a very dangerous thing.
In the month since her arrival in Prairie Springs, Jake hadn't been able to go anywhere without running into her or hearing people talk about her, and he was beginning to resent it. The whole world was Madeline Bright's oyster; couldn't she leave this one little Texas town to him?
Behind him, a car horn blared, reminding him that he was standing in the middle of the traffic lane. Afraid that the noise would prompt Maddie to turn around, he impulsively made for a rusted-out pickup truck. His half-formed thought was to lurk behind the truck's cab until Maddie was safely inside the store. But his bum leg chose that instant to give out and he pitched forward. Letting go of his cane, he broke his fall with his hands.
Pain shot up his left leg as though a mad pianist was playing glissandos on his raw nerves. As the pavement seared his belly through his shirt, Jake closed his eyes and forced himself to draw slow, deep breaths. It was another second or two before he realized the deafening noise assaulting his ears was no pain-induced hallucination; he'd triggered the car alarm of the red Camry next to the truck.
Oh, this just kept getting better and better. But at least he was safe from Maddie.
At the sound of her voice, Jake groaned and squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. Better and better and better.
"Jake! Please tell me you're all right!"
He was aware that she crouched beside him, but he still flinched when she touched his shoulder. "Give me a minute," he growled.
"Everything's going to be all right," she promised, pitching her voice to be heard over the Camry's alarm. She stroked the back of Jake's head, multiplying his misery with her gentle touch. "Just tell me where it hurts."
His eyes popped open. If he didn't quickly convince her that he was perfectly fine, she'd be running her hands all over his body, checking for broken bones.
"Madeline." He rolled over and sat up smartly. He considered smiling, but with his teeth clenched against the pain, he figured he'd look maniacal, rather than reassuring. "What a surprise."
She was clearly in no mood for chitchat. "Where are you hurt?"
"Just jarred the leg, that's all." They were still shouting at each other. "Could you hand me my stick?"
She hesitated, sweeping him with a doubtful look, but then she went to retrieve his cane. While she was gone, Jake flattened one palm against the scalding door of the pickup and one against the blistering fender of the Camry and hauled himself up.
When Maddie returned, the grim set of her mouth communicated her displeasure that he'd risen without assistance. "Jake, you should have let me"
"I'm fine," he interrupted, reaching for the cane. "Thanks."