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As someone who'd recently vowed to find herself a man, Taylor McCabe should've been at least a smidgeon excited to discover a good-looking one on the back deck of her house.
But no. Excited wasn't the word she'd use as she drove her car past him and into her garage after a long day at work.
Dread. That was the word. It rose steadily in her gut as she sat summoning the courage to climb out of the front seat and face him.
Two facts held her back: A) She was Taylor McCabe. B) He was Alex Worththe target of an impossible, embarrassing schoolgirl crush that she'd kept secret all these years.
To avoid the humiliation of being caught hiding, she slipped the straps of her purse and leather laptop satchel over her shoulder and opened the door, muttering a pep talk as she forced herself out of the car.
Eyes glued to the crumbling driveway, she emerged from the safety of the garage and did her best not to focus on the rugged, virile army helicopter pilot who was most likely watching her every step and wondering why she was such a perpetual misfit.
As she neared the deck, she managed to raise her chin and peer at himor rather, just barely past himas he slowly stood.
"Look at you," he said with a hint of amusement in the low voice that always surprised her with its smoothness. "Nearly nine o'clock at night and you're just as laced-up and proper as you were when you went to work this morning, I'll bet." she glanced down at her white blouse with mother-of-pearl buttons, khaki pleated slacks and her latest nod to the shoe monster that raged inside her, dark-brown zebra-print slingbacks with three-and-a-half-inch heels. Acquired at a killer clearance, thank you.
When she looked back up at him, she noticed he, too, was staring at her shoes with distaste? Confusion?
Her cheeks warmed and no doubt reddened. She nudged her glasses up on her nose and couldn't think of a response to his comment. "When did you get back to town?"
"Yesterday. You missed the party." He frowned as he stared absently into the distance.
Drat. Had she forgotten something? "I'm sorry, Alex. I didn't know"
"Kidding, Scarlet." The nickname he and her brother had always used for her caused a sharp pain. No one had called her Scarlet since before the accident that had killed Quinn. And though she'd never liked the name, there'd been recent days when she would've given anything to hear her brother say it again. "Just my mom and sister trying to act like I belong here in Madison."
Something in his tone distracted her from the ache in her chest and she finally dared to really look at him. His dark hair hung over his forehead, making him less clean-cut all-American and more overgrown and shaggy, reminiscent of the devil-may-care attitude he'd projected in schooland yet it didn't quite ring true today. The gunmetal-gray cargo pants, black T-shirt and combat boots he wore were the off-duty dress of a soldier, but something was missing from his stance. Confidence, maybe. The spirit he'd always been full of.
A two-inch scar marred the side of his face, not far from his left ear, and though it had obviously been caused by the helicopter crash seven months ago, she wondered precisely what had sliced his skin.
Their eyes met and, though she was embarrassed to be caught examining him so closely, she was taken by his uncustomary weariness, the edginess deep in those steely gray orbs, so unlike the guy who'd been her brother's best friend since junior high.
"Are you back permanently?" She'd gotten a couple of updates on his condition right after the accident and knew his leg had been seriously injured. But she hadn't heard anything for months. She didn't know his family well enough that she felt comfortable checking in on how he was doing.
"That's what the army docs would have you believe." He shrugged one shoulder. "They'd be happy to turn me into a desk jockey."
"Don't take this wrong, but you don't seem like you'd enjoy a desk job." From what she knew, he lived to fly. Quinn had loved being in the military and, in fact, had convinced Alex to enlist originally, but once Alex had started learning to fly Blackhawks, Quinn had commented repeatedly that Alex had finally figured out where he belonged.
"That'd be an accurate assessment." There was quiet anger underlining his words. "I have every intention of flying again."
Taylor jerked her gaze away. "Why are you here? At my house?"
"Quinn would want me to check on you."
"True." Some girls had to worry about an overprotec-tive father, but ever since she was five and their dad had walked out on the family, her older brother had taken on the job. "He's not here to force the issue, though, and I'm fine. You're off the hook." She smiled, but immediately felt self-conscious.
"You know your deck needs some work?"
He gestured to the opposite side where the railing and bench that ran around the perimeter got the most direct hit from the weather. The bench was rotting in places, she suspected, but she wasn't sure because she tended to ignore the problem.
"Add it to the list," she muttered. "I'm not much of a home-improvement guru." She and Quinn had inherited the house when their mother died eight years ago, and Taylor had always been thankful for it. But with Quinn on active duty, the upkeep had fallen to heran area she didn't excel in.
Before he could respond, she ducked her head and slipped by him. She jogged up the two wooden steps and unlocked the back door. She turned to thank him for stopping by, knowing they would both be relieved when he left. What she saw, however, struck something inside her. It wasn't that he was following her up, though any other time that would've caused a minipanic attack. It was the wince that twisted his rugged features into a man she didn't recognize. It lasted only an instant. She turned away, somehow knowing he didn't want her or anyone else to see his pain.
"Come in for a drink if you want," she said awkwardly, half hoping he'd refuse.
He grabbed the screen door and held it for her as she removed her key from the lock and pushed the heavy wooden door open.
"Have a seat." Taylor indicated the scarred, round kitchen table that was almost as old as she was as she set her bags, keys and smart phone down on it. "What would you like?"
He, of course, didn't sit. She'd bet he ignored official orders as often as he could get away with it.
"I'll take a beer if you have one."
A beer. Naturally. As if she regularly stocked the stuff. She should probably break down and buy a six-pack just for times like this, but she felt certain she wouldn't choose the right kind anyway. And there was the small matter that she rarely had visitors and even rarer were they males. But if she was going to start dating She had lots of changes to make. Maybe stocking beer was one of the easier ones.
Alex was off his game in more ways than one.
Not only was he suddenly a man with his career in the shitter and enough self-blame to choke an entire platoon, but it'd been an eternity and a half since he'd been with a woman.
The evidence of this was never so clear as when Taylor bent over to search a lower shelf of the fridge. He caught himself checking out her backside and considering that beneath those no-frills, all-business clothes, she was hiding some intriguing curves.
Taylor McCabe. His best friend's little sister.
Quinn would track him down with an M16 if he knew. If he were alive.
"I do have a couple of Quinn's beers left in here," Taylor said, reaching to the back of the shelf and pulling out two bottles of his dead friend's brand. Just like that, he was thrown painfully back in time. "Will that work? I'm afraid it's all I've got."
"Works fine. Thanks." He took the bottle she held out, twisted off the top and swigged the cold beer past the lump in his throat, doing his damnedest to ignore the label.
Of course, Taylor hadn't bought her own brand. She wasn't a beer woman. She was about the furthest thing from it. Girls with IQs higher than God's didn't kill brain cells with hops and malt on a regular basis. As if to hammer that fact home, she took out a pitcher of sun-brewed tea, probably some mind-boosting formula, and poured herself a glass. Then she dug around in the bottom of the refrigerator againhe made a point of not looking closely at her body this timeand added a wedge of lemon. That was Taylor, wholesome and healthy. He and Quinn had often ribbed her for exactly that, but it didn't seem right now that his buddy was gone.
"Beer isn't the only thing I have of Quinn's," Taylor said hesitantly as she set her glass down. "I've given away his clothes and books, sorted through his sports trophies and personal things, but I'm down to the hard stuff. Guns, fishing gear, exercise equipment. All the testosterone gear. I need to go through it, decide what to sell and how."
"I know a thing or two about 'testosterone gear.' I can help if you need it."
Weekend of suck, anyone? Sitting here in the kitchen where Quinn had grown up, the only place he'd lived besides army bases and camps, was manageable thanks to some hard-core denial. Going through his belongings There'd be no ignoring reality, ugly and incriminating as it was.
"I suspect you know more than a thing or two. I'd appreciate that. Maybe this weekend?"
"Pretty full schedule of sitting around and feeling useless, actually. But I can try to pencil you in." He attempted something he hadn't done much in the past few monthsa smile.
Taylor returned another self-conscious grin, then looked away. She took a package of fig cookies down from the cabinet, opened it and began arranging the squares on a yellow-rimmed plate.
Alex eyed the chair she'd offered him as the ache in his leg again morphed into a stabbing pain. Son of a bitch. The trip from D.C. to Wisconsin was kicking his ass. He didn't want to take any more pills, but the hell if he was going to be the crippled man taking the chair in every room.
"Does it hurt a lot?" Taylor asked, and he jerked his head toward her, silently swearing at himself.
"Does what hurt?" His tone was curt. Unfriendly.
"I don't know. Your leg? Your head? That's twice since you've been here that it's happened."
"What's happened?" So what if he was avoiding her question?
She shook her head and looked down again, in some ways still so much like the unsure teenager he and Quinn had defended more than once against school bullies. And now here he was being the asshole.
His constant companion, guilt, was the only reason he took one of her healthy biscuits when she held out the plate to him.
"These aren't that bad," he said as he chewed.
"I could see on your face you were in pain, Alex." Her voice was quiet, but, for once, not unsure.
"It's nothing. Just a flash here and there. Bad day." The physical stuff was the least of it when you got down to it.
She studied him, as if doubting what he said. He shut out the ache in his leg and forced himself to the table, away from those prying green eyes. As he lowered himself to the ladderback chair, he avoided bending his left knee as much as possible.
"What exactly do the doctors say?" she pressed.
"That I'd be lucky ever to have enough muscle control to fly a helicopter again."
Maybe he snapped the words out at her. Tough. His medical file, three goddamn inches thick though it might be, was his business. Besides, what did it matter what the doctors said, anyway? He hadn't had any intention of accepting their opinions, not three months ago when they'd examined his progress and not today.
"Sorry to pry. I'm not stupid, though. That wasn't nothing." Taylor turned her back to him and adjusted the set of three canisters so they were perfectly lined up on the counter.
Oh, yeah, compulsive straightening meant she was pissed. Quinn used to needle her about it whenever she went on an OCD binge. The tendency had amused Alex in the past, but he didn't like being the cause of it.
"The trip wore me out is all."
She didn't respond, didn't turn to face him. Just kept straightening the stuff on the counter.
Alex again made a point of not looking too closely at Quinn's sister. Instead he checked out the kitchen as if he hadn't been here a million times before. Noticed details he hadn't in the past. The place needed some work.
"Why don't you let me do a little repair and upkeep for you. I see some of the trim around the floor is missing. Splintering outward over there." He pointed.
"That's not your responsibility. I'll hire someone one of these days."
He got up and walked to the spot. Without bending his leg too much, he inspected the damaged trim. "I know how to replace it. Why pay someone when I have loads of spare time?" He straightened and met her gaze.
She shook her head. "I know you're offering because you feel obligated. You're not."
"I'm not obligated, I'm bored, Scarlet. Come on, I'm sure there's other stuff besides the deck and the trim. Right?"
"It's a long list."
"I don't have a job. Only thing I have to do for months is physical therapy a few times a week."
She bit her lip and examined the trim herself. "I've been thinking about selling the house. Maybe moving on to something of my very own. The family home has so many ghosts."
"No-brainer for me to spruce it up, then. You can pay me if it makes you feel better."
Taylor went back to the counter, picked up a cookie and took a bite. She clicked her fingernails on the Formica as she chewed.
"If you'll take payment, the help would be appreciated," she finally said.
"Do you actually have a list of everything that needs to be done?" He headed back to the table and sat, thinking maybe one of the pain pills he'd been avoiding wouldn't be a bad idea tonight. Only tonight.
She shook her head. "But I'll make one. I've been in denial. Ignoring as much as possible. It's such a hassle."
"Not if you know what you're doing."
"Thank you. I know Quinn would appreciate it, too."