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He'd been hailed a hero on the streets of New York, on worldwide television, even at his old firehouse, Rescue Company One, but Nick Carlucci knew better. He was nothing more than a washed-up failure. A has-been who never was.
Some hero, he thought with a derisive snort, when something as simple as the sky could make the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
It wasn't the sky, exactly, he admitted. It was that there was so damn much of it here in the small Texas town of Tribute. He'd been in town more than two years now, and he still wasn't used to so much emptiness overhead. Or so much quiet. Or so much fresh air. Or so little traffic, so few people.
He was used to skyscrapers, traffic jams, exhaust fumes. Crowds of people. Subways. Elevators. Taxicabs.
He was used to home. New York.
In Tribute, Texas, there wasn't a single taxicab to be had, much less a subway, unless he counted the gopher tunnels that crisscrossed his aunt's backyard. Subway for rodents.
A traffic jam in Tribute was more than three cars backed up at the one and only traffic light on Main Street.
As for skyscrapers, the tallest man-made structure for thirty miles in any direction was the grain silo over by the railroad tracks.
How had he come to like it here? He shook his head. Who would have thought? He had wanted a way out of the mess his life had become, and he'd ended up here, halfway across the country, in Texas.
Not that Nick's ego was so big that he thought for a minute that his uncle Gil had died two years ago simply so Nick would be needed in Dallas to help Aunt Bev settle her husband's estate and move back to Tribute, where she'd lived years ago.
No, Nick wasn't taking the rap for that one. Gil had been on a first-name basis with leukemia for years. His death had nothing to do with Nick's needs.
What Nick needed now was a restored sex drive, and a woman to go with it.
He reached Main Street and paused on the curb while a car crawled by. The driver honked and waved. Not a typical New York one-finger wave, but a friendly wave for Bev Watson's nephew. The local high-school janitor.
Wasn't that a kick in the butt. From putting out fires, saving property and lives, to mopping floors. Some would call that a serious comedown. Nick didn't look at it that way. He was learning that there was something incredibly satisfying in turning a dull, dirty floor into a spotless, gleaming surface.
He nearly laughed out loud at the thought. He was becoming a 1950s housewife. Move over, June Cleaver.
Nick returned the driver's wave, not because he felt particularly friendly, but because that's what people did around here. Besides, he thought that might be the mayor's cousin, who was a friend of Aunt Bev's. No use being rude and having Bev catch the flack for it merely because Nick was feeling surly. Surly was nothing knew for him these days. It was more like his natural state. Besides, it was Monday.
With no more cars coming, Nick crossed the street, careful to step down from the curb with his good leg, in case his bad one decided to lock up on him and send him sprawling face-first to the ground.
Oh, yeah. The big, tough hero.
Three more blocks brought him to the high school, home of the Tribute Tigers. As he walked up the sidewalk to the main entrance, he unclipped the wad of keys from his belt and felt his surly mood slip away.
He liked this school. He liked the kids, the staff, his job. He felt useful here, like a productive member of society again.
It beat the hell out of drinking all day, and this way, he could look himself in the mirror without sneering.
Inside the quiet building, he took his usual walk down the length of the entire hall and back, listening to the sound of his steps echo in the emptiness.
It wouldn't be empty long. Soon hundreds of feet would join his on these floors. It was time to get to work.
Sitting in her rental car across the street from Tribute High, Shannon Malloy watched the man unlock the school door and felt her pulse leap. It was him. There was no mistake. Nicholas Giovanni Carlucci, in the flesh. And my, oh my, what flesh it was, she thought with a grin. The file photos from the newspapers and the video footage from television had not done the man justice, but those jeans he was wearing today certainly did.
He was tall, maybe an inch or two over six feet, with broad shoulders and lean hips. His hair was shiny black; his eyes, in the photos, were Italian dark, although she had yet to verify that.
If she hadn't known for a fact that he had suffered a broken back and crushed pelvis and thigh, she might not have noticed the slight limp as he had made his way across the street and up the sidewalk to the big double glass doors. After all, the doctors had said he would never walk again. Nick Carlucci was a living, breathing testament to a will of steel — every bit as hard and strong as the giant steel I beam that had nearly killed him.
Never walk again? He walked just fine. She'd spotted the slight hitch in his gait only because she had followed the line of his jeans down to his cowboy boots.
It was all Shannon could do to keep from leaping out of the car and rushing into the school to catch up with him.
The impulse startled her. Not that she wasn't impulsive by nature, because she'd been known to be. But she was also a professional journalist who knew when to push — or in this case, rush — and when to bide her time.
She'd been gnashing her teeth for weeks trying to get an interview with Carlucci, but he had refused to return her calls. She had finally tracked him down and followed him across the country. To hell with biding her time. She had him in her sights and wasn't about to let him slip away. Now, before anyone else showed up, was probably her best chance to talk to him.
Shannon made her move. She slipped from her car and hustled up the sidewalk and into the school.
She wasn't sure why her heart was pounding as she stood in the silent building that was empty save for her and her quarry. This was just another interview, and she had done so many that she couldn't count them all. But as she stood at the end of the hall and watched Nick Carlucci walk toward her, she somehow knew that this interview, this subject, this man, would be different.
Slight limp aside, it took no time at all for those long legs of his to eat up the distance between them. As he neared, he slowed and cocked his head. "May I help you?"
Shannon held out her hand. "Mr. Carlucci, I'm — " That was as far as she got because the instant his hand touched hers, every thought, every scrap of sense — including her own name — flew right out of her head. She couldn't speak, couldn't think. Could only feel as heated sensation zapped through her, shooting from head to toe, emanating from where his hand touched hers.
Palm to palm, flesh to flesh, they stared at each other, eyes — his and hers — wide with shock.
Tingling heat settled low and deep in her belly. A vivid picture of this man rising over her in bed made her gasp. With tremendous effort, she pulled her hand from his. The sharp, sexual sensation lessened, but did not completely abate.
"Wow." A slow, puzzled smile spread across Nick Carlucci's face. Those dark eyes told her he had felt the same startling charge of electricity that she had.
For a woman who made her living with words, Shannon found herself in the unusual position of having none. She was saved from stammering or babbling like a fool — or jumping his bones right there in the hall of the school — by the banging of a door somewhere down the hall.
Shannon blinked. She would have left just then — she was that shaken by her reaction to this man, but as she stepped back he managed to snare her arm.
"Hold on," he said. "I didn't catch your name." Through sheer effort Shannon managed to gather a few of her wits and remember what she was supposed to be doing here. "Shannon Malloy," she said.
The smile on his face slowly faded. "You're kidding."
"No." His voice turned grim; he released her arm.
"You wouldn't be, would you?"
"No." She shook her head.
He swore. "You followed me across half a damn country?"
It was difficult, considering lust still fogged her brain, but she managed a shrug. "You wouldn't return my calls."
"So you followed me?"
She shrugged again.
"Did it ever occur to you that I didn't return your calls because I didn't want to talk to you?"
She couldn't do this, Shannon thought. She couldn't push or cajole him into an interview when she was still so off balance from this unreasonably fierce attraction that still gripped her.
"Look," she said, struggling to keep her voice even.
"I know this is a bad time. I've caught you by surprise at your job." She took a step backward. "I'll be in touch later to set up a time that's more convenient for you."
And she fled. For the first time in her life, she fled from a man, from an interview subject. From herself.