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The blade nicked the skin, turning the shaving cream around it pink. Noah swore, rinsed the razor in the sink of hot water, angled his head and tried again.
He felt like a baby, learning everything again for the first time. Letting out a breath, he jutted his chin and swiped the blade over his jaw once more, this time the path even and smooth. It was a good thing. He had three other nicks to attest to the poor job he was doing.
He made faces, attempting to make the skin taut where he needed it to be. In the hospital, a pretty young nurse had always come around to shave him. She'd even cut his hair when he'd asked. All he'd had to do was hold the mirror. At the time he'd enjoyed the attention. But it had worn thin. He was a man used to doing things himself. The fact that a simple morning shave caused him to break out in a sweat made him angry. At himself. At the world in general.
He held the razor in midair as there was a knock on the door.
It had to be Andrew, he reasoned. No one else really knew he was back, and that was just the way he wanted it. He scraped more cream off his face, cleaning the blade in the water. Andrew, with the familiarity of being a younger brother, would let himself in. And Andrew wouldn't care about the mess around the place.
But then the knock came again and his stomach did a slow twist. What if it wasn't Andrew? He wrinkled his brow. It could be Andrew's fiancée, Jen. Jen had been with Andrew the day they'd picked him up at the airport. Noah was only slightly self-conscious around Jen.
A third time it sounded, and with a growl he put down the razor and grabbed a hand towel, stomping out of the bathroom. If people with two good arms couldn't open a door… or take a hint for that matter…
Holding the towel in his fingers, he reached out and turned the knob. "Keep your pants on," he commanded, and then froze.
Not Andrew. Not even Jen. Instead, the most beautiful woman he'd seen in forever stood on his doorstep. For a moment his gaze caught on her long, dark hair, clear skin, and finally a pair of brilliant blue eyes. Her eyebrows raised, making him feel like a child caught in a tantrum. And with a huffy sound, she brushed by him carrying a cardboard box.
Noah stared at the figure which was now heading toward his very small kitchen. What the hell? Wordlessly she put the box down and started unpacking it. In his kitchen. On his countertop.
He went to slam the door and realized he would have to forgo the satisfaction. At least he'd remembered to pin up his shirtsleeve this morning. He looked back at the kitchen. The woman had stopped her unpacking and was watching him now with undisguised interest. He felt color and heat infuse his cheeks. The last thing he wanted was morbid curiosity about his condition, or worse… pity.
He affected his best scowl. "Did you come to get a good look at the cripple?"
Lily saw Noah Laramie blush, saw him struggle and then heard the harsh words. Noah was a bad-tempered bear with a chip on his shoulder the size of a brick. So far he'd yelled at her at the door and then accused her of coming here to gawk. It was just too bad for him she was used to dealing with teenagers all day, and the way Noah was looking at her right now said belligerence covering insecurity. Not that she could blame him. She was a complete stranger. A smile quivered at the corner of her lips. "Are you trying to scare me away?"
His mouth dropped open for the smallest second, then he put his guard back up again and scowled. "Is it working?"
"No. You need to work on your big bad wolf impression."
"Where I come from people wait to be invited in."
Lily fired straight back, "Where I come from, people don't get yelled at, at the door."
She left the supplies on the counter and went out into the living room. She gave the pinned-up sleeve where his arm used to be no more than a glance, determined not to stare. Curiosity about how it had happened burned within her, but it would be the height of impoliteness to ask. Neither Jen nor Andrew had mentioned anything about it beyond that it had happened.
She caught her breath as they seemed to square off. His build was imposing despite the obvious. Taller than his brother, Andrew, she guessed him to be at least six-two, and even though there had to have been a distinct lack of physical activity since his injury, he was still lean and muscled. His short, dark hair was a rumpled mess, and his chin was still covered in shaving cream.
Her smile blossomed completely at the sight. "It's hard to be afraid of a man whose face resembles Santa Claus."
"Dammit," he mumbled, taking the towel and hastily wiping off the remnants of white foam. "Who are you?"
"I'm Lily Germaine." Without thinking, she held out her hand. Only to realize that Noah did not have a right hand to shake hers with. This time it was her cheeks that flushed and she dropped the hand back to her side.
"It's all right. I forget sometimes, too."
The quietly spoken response did more to elicit her sympathy than the sight of him had.
"I'm a friend of Jen and Andrew's. They asked me to stop by."
She took another step forward and looked up into his face. There were patches where he'd missed with the razor, the dark stubble shadowing a strong jaw. "Jen wanted me to deliver some groceries." She hesitated for a second. "She said you found shopping difficult and could use…"
Again she faltered. Ordinary sayings now suddenly took on new meaning. The last thing she wanted to do was insult him.
"Use a hand?"
His lips were a hard line, and the dark look in his eyes nearly sent her scuttling back to her car. But he couldn't ignore the obvious. He couldn't drive himself to the grocery store, and carting bags inside would be a definite chore. She lifted her chin. "In a manner of speaking."
He dropped the towel on the top of an armchair, putting his left hand in his jeans pocket. "Let's just get it out of the way. I'm Noah Laramie, and I've lost an arm. It is what it is. No need to dance around it. Or worry about what's going to come out of your mouth."
"It's not the appendage coming out of my mouth that's the problem at the moment. It's the one I keep putting in it." She tried a hopeful smile, relieved when the hard lines of his face relaxed. Goodness, he was handsome when he wasn't being so sharp and abrasive.
"Jen's a mother hen," he stated. "I'm fine. So no need to bring in whatever it is you've brought in."
Lily's smile faded. Jen hadn't said anything about the resistance Lily was suddenly facing. Oh, no. Jen had said what a teasing, easygoing guy Noah had been when they had all been growing up together—a time well before Lily had come to Larch Valley. Despite his earlier frankness in speaking, she got the feeling that trying to convince him of anything was about as effective as talking to a turnip and expecting a response. Once Noah Laramie made up his mind, she doubted anyone could budge it.
"I'm also supposed to give you a ride to Lazy L today."
"Andrew will come and get me."
"Andrew had to go to Pincher Creek."
"Jen has a bakery to open, and she asked if I'd drop these things over and give you a lift. You might as well get used to it, Laramie. I'm your chauffeur, like it or not."
After one hard, brittle glare, he stalked back down the hall toward the bathroom. "Fine. For today"
She heard him shutting doors—loudly—while she put away the groceries Jen had asked her to deliver. Oh, he was a tough one. She shook her head as she opened the fridge. Inside was half a brick of cheese, a bottle of ketchup, a jar of mustard and perhaps three tablespoons of milk left in a plastic jug. She sighed, then stocked the shelves with milk, fruit, fresh vegetables and several small packages of meat. What on earth was the man eating? Clearly he'd managed, because the sink was full of dirty dishes. The furniture needed a dusting, and she wondered if he'd managed to do any laundry.
There'd been no thought of turning down Jen's request, though. Jen was her best friend and she'd do anything for her.
Even if this was the first real day of summer vacation. She could have been sleeping in, drinking coffee on her patio, sunbathing in her backyard.
She sighed. It all seemed frivolous beside Noah's problems. Losing an arm in combat and then coming home after so many years away… She couldn't blame him if housework really wasn't on the top of his list of things to do. Right now his job was to get better. Maybe he could use some help keeping the house shipshape.
When he came back out, she'd managed to finish putting groceries away and tidied the living room. She was fluffing a cushion when his deep voice sounded behind her.
"Don't do that."
She straightened and turned. He'd finished shaving, his freshly bladed face clean and smooth, with only a few telltale blemishes where he'd nicked himself. His eyes were a deep blue, dark enough that the color was nearly indiscernible. As he stood at the gap between the hall and living room, she realized once more how imposing a figure he really was. He was a big man, a man who'd been a soldier since he'd turned nineteen. His raw masculinity did queer things to her insides, and she unconsciously took a step backward. Where had that flare of attraction come from? It certainly didn't make sense. And it was very unwelcome. She definitely couldn't be interested.
Besides, she didn't take well to the way he seemed to demand things. As if he were giving an order. She leveled her gaze. "Why not?"
"Because I can do it myself."
She made a wrinkle above her nose. "And you haven't been because?"
That seemed to make him pause. He stared at her and she was determined not to look away. She wasn't used to giving in to intimidation. She never would have lasted through three years of sixteen-year-olds otherwise! She hadn't really considered that teaching high school would be good preparation for dealing with garrulous ex-soldiers. Go figure.
"Because I haven't bothered."
She smiled frostily. "So now you needn't bother. I'm perfectly capable."
He came farther into the room. "Don't you have a job?"
She straightened a throw blanket along the back of the sofa, trying to slow the beating of her heart. Something had happened in the moment when he'd taken a step toward her. Something had passed between his eyes and hers and had set her pulse stammering.
"I'm a home economics teacher at the high school."
He snorted. "You're barely older than they are."
She smoothed a hand over the blanket and tilted her nose into the air. "I'm twenty-seven, thank you. I've been teaching there for three years."
"So this is how you spend your summer vacation. Charity?" He said it as if it was a dirty word.
"It's hardly charity, Noah." His name sounded foreign on her tongue, as though she shouldn't be using it. What was the other option? Mr. Laramie? Captain? That had been his rank. Neither name seemed to fit the enigmatic stranger before her.
"How much did Andrew pay you to come here today?" His gaze was sharp, pinning her and making a lie impossible.
"Nothing. I did Jen a favor, delivering some groceries and giving you a ride. Although from the looks of this place, it could stand some cleaning up. I could do that, too," she offered.
"What would you charge?"
Charge? Lily stared at him, trying to puzzle him out. The carefree, fun boy Jen had described was nothing like the Noah she was meeting. She wondered if combat had changed him. Or if it was just leaving a piece of himself on the battlefield that had done it. Either way, taking money for a few hours' worth of tidying just felt wrong.
"I wouldn't dream of charging you a penny."
He turned away. "That's charity. I won't have it." He paused, considering, and faced her again. His eyes flickered over the tidy living room and the chaotic kitchen beyond, assessing the mess. "If you were to stay, just for today, I'll write you a check. I am able."
Goodness, Lily knew that. Everyone in Larch Valley knew that Andrew had bought out Noah's half of the ranch. Plus, Noah had been a single officer without a family to support at home. But that was hardly the point.
"Friends help friends," she replied simply.
"Yes, but you are not my friend. You are Jen's friend, and that is different."
She absorbed the snub. It wasn't different, not really. Did he have no concept of doing a favor for a friend? By helping him she was also putting Jen's and Andrew's minds at ease.
And yet, she somehow knew that to say either of those things would cause him to protest further. His pride would demand it.
"If that's the way it must be, then fine." She simply wouldn't cash any check that he wrote. Besides, it was only this one time. It wasn't as though this would be an ongoing issue.
"Agreed." He gave a sharp nod. "Now, if you'll run me out to Lazy L, seeing as I have no other way of getting there today, that will be the end of it."
She watched with barely concealed curiosity as he went to the door and got his boots, then sat on a nearby stool to put them on. It took him a little longer than it normally would have, but he gripped the pullstrap with his left hand and shoved his foot inside. He did the same with the other foot, and then spent several moments trying to fit his pant leg over top.
She almost offered to help, but if he didn't want her to tidy a cushion, he certainly would take offense to her offer to straighten the hem of his jeans.
"If you're ready," she said quietly.
He stomped out the door without a backward glance. Lily shut the door behind her with a sigh.
She had made a promise to a friend. And she wouldn't go back on it, no matter how stubborn Noah might be.
After she'd dropped him off at Lazy L, Lily went back to the house. He hadn't bothered to lock the door—many people didn't in the small town—and so she went back inside to continue what she'd started while he'd been getting ready.