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Navy Lieutenant Brad Riddock stared at the red numbers counting down his last seconds on the explosive device in front of him. Constructed with deceptive simplicity, the bomb had only a handful of wires. A modest amount of firepower that would take out a building or two instead of a whole city block.
But looks were deceiving. The wires passed through a fragile glass casing flecked with white powder on the inside. Anthrax? Worse? Someone had gotten inventive to discourage tampering.
Brad knew how to disarm it. But with seconds ticking by
He didn't have enough time. Two
Sweat rolled down his back as he thought about all he would lose. One. Bang!
Brad jerked upright, gasping. His heart knocked the hell out of his chest; covers tangled around his bare legs like seaweed. The injury on his left calf stung from his sweat.
The soft sounds of a suburban weekend just outside of Virginia Beach greeted his ears. No explosions. No screams from the wounded or dying. Just a few bird calls and the occasional dog bark.
Taking deep breaths to dislodge the cold grip of panic at his throat, Brad wondered why the navy recruiters never warned you that time overseas would make you as jumpy as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
The second time the crash sounded, he could differentiate the sound from the explosion in his recurring dream. He was home in his own bed, strung out from lack of sleep but still in one piece. And, thankfully, he would remain that way for at least the next two weeks before he shipped out again. Explosions were unlikely in the backyard of a neighborhood so rural it bordered farm country.
"What the hell?" Gladly giving up on sleep after the replay of a nightmare he was already intimately familiar with, Brad reached for a T-shirt at the end of his bed and shrugged it on before grabbing a toothbrush.
Through the crack in his blinds, he could see an obnoxious amount of daylight filtering through as he rinsed and spat. He'd been sleeping so fitfully lately he didn't know if that meant it was past dawn or past noon.
Kicking over a stack of unread newspapers, Brad nearly stepped on a bristly haired stray mutt that had taken up residence with him since he'd been back in town. Scruffing the mutt's head before he pulled on his jeans, Brad strained to hear what was going on outside. A motor thrummed nearby. A road crew at work, maybe?
The thumping was loud and metallic and he ambled onto his lawn to check it out. His yard was quieta couple of bent camp chairs pulled up to a fire pit where he'd had a beer with one of his buddies the night before. A bowl he'd bought for the mutt even though he had no business feeding a stray since he wouldn't be around to take care of it next month.
But through the hedges, he could see activity in the neighbor's yard.
He'd heard the woman next dooran eccentric writer who was more wild and crazy at eighty-five than he'd ever beenhad died a couple of months ago while he was overseas. Which begged the question, who was the new resident?
Yanking a beer from the cooler that still rested near the fire pit, he took a quick drinkhair of the dog and all thatand then dunked his face in the half-melted ice. Hoo-yah.
Skin stinging, he left the beer on a flat rock and strode through the hedge line for a better look at what was going on at the neighbor's place. With two more weeks' mandatory leave, thanks to the navy's resident headshrinkers, Brad had nothing to do but play Good Samaritan anyhow. Dreaming more ways to blow himself up didn't hold much appeal.
The sleek brunette astride a bright red International Harvester tractor was well worth the trip. Brad leaned against the trunk of an old dogwood tree to survey the scene as the woman he didn't recognize steered the old model-A toward a dilapidated metal storage shed that appeared to be bent in half as if it was already begging for mercy. Lowering a plow that had no business playing demolition derby with a garden shed, the brunette kept her eye on the target as she rammed the big, silver attachment into the remnants of the structure. Bang!
The woman knocked it right off its foundation, a grin of triumph kicking up one side of her lips. On the patio behind her, a caged blue jay squawked noisily while a chipmunk behind another set of bars squeaked anxiously. Her idea of pets? Clearly, she was an unusual sort of woman.
Endlessly long legs showcased by denim cut-offs made him linger over the view for a moment more. He'd never seen a plain white tank top worn so well. A sheen of sweat trickled a path between her breasts, disappearing under the shirt. Olive skin hinted at Mediterranean or Hispanic ethnicity that didn't quite follow through in her moss green eyes. A bright turquoise bracelet on her wrist and yellow flip flops on her feet suggested she didn't operate heavy equipment often, although that observation was also supported by the fact that she was using a farm plow as a wrecking ball.
Andby the way she seemed to be picking up the dented buildinga forklift, as well.
He sauntered closer, determined to find out who she was and if a call to the cops was in order. But then, as she loaded the mangled shed into the plow bucket where it rattled precariously, he thought the better of it. After only a brief battle with the stick shift, she got the tractor into Reverse and stepped on the gas, narrowly missing a grass-munching rabbit. She squealed and braked hard, almost losing her cargo to avoid the furry beast who dove into the cover of trees. Clearly distressed, the woman took a minute to catch her breath before she let off on the brake and sped across the lawn toward an industrial-size Dumpster. She overshot the mark, flying past it with a muttered curse before inching backward, then depositing the twisted gray metal into the bin.
"Take that!" the woman shouted as the shriek of scraping metal echoed on the warm morning breeze. Wiping her hands together with a flourish, she jammed one foot on the clutch and the other on the brake before shutting off the ignition.
And turned surprised green eyes his way.
Her cheeks were flushed from her battle with the shed, but he could have sworn they gained a little more color as she spotted him.
"Can I help you?" Her chin lifted while the caged bird and chipmunk continued to chirp.
Interesting. She headed toward him with a hip-rolling, easy stride that kept his attention a bit longer than was polite.
It had been quite a while since he'd noticed a woman to this degree. Did that mean his enforced downtime was working since he could apparently think about something besides an IED-defusion gone wrong?
"Lieutenant Riddock," his shrink had told him, "you need to relinquish the obsession with one moment in time you can't ever change "
Or did this sudden interest in a stranger's walk mean he'd really fallen off the deep end since the female to capture his attention took an odd sort of glee in destroying things?
He cleared his throat as he yanked his gaze up from her thighs.
"I live next door." He nodded toward the only other house in a ten-acre radius. "Just thought I'd see who was playing demolition derby on a vacant residence."
"It's not vacant anymore." The yellow flip-flops quit their slap, slap, slap pace as she stopped a few feet away. Forgotten headphones dangled around her neck, the muted tunes classical sounding. "I inherited the house and I'm starting renovations today."
"You call that renovating?" Amused, he peered meaningfully at the exposed shed foundation. "Seems to me you're not going to have anything left by the time you're finished."
"A tacky metal shed circa 1970 was only junking up a turn-of-the-century farmhouse." She folded her arms. "I'm going to strip down some of the add-ons like the detached garage and that old chicken coop in back. I'm trying to have the place declared a historical site and to do that, it needs to be in a form that's closer to its original condition."
His brain was still stuck on the phrase I'm going to strip down even though that sentence hadn't taken the direction he had hoped. With an effort, he tried to recall what else she'd said.
"You're one of the relatives?" He recalled old Ms. Lis-sander had dismissed all her extended family as greedy vultures and wondered where the hot brunette fell in the spectrum. If she was greedy in a hedonistic way he could be totally on board with that. The day was looking up.
Then again, when you awakened to nightmares about blowing up all your friends, that left a lot of room for improvement.
"I'm a student of her writing, actually. I teach literature at Old Dominion University. Nicole Thornton." She extended her right hand, the silver and turquoise bracelet catching the sunlight. "You can call me Nikki."
"Brad Riddock." His palm enveloped her fingers. And no matter that the normal ritual of polite contact was observed according to standard procedure. That garden variety touch blasted his nerve endings faster than the ice cubes he'd dunked his face in. "And I remember Ms. Lissander penned some pretty racy stuff."
Red-hot erotica, in fact, long before the women's movement took hold. The thought of the lady professor studying that kind of thing was intriguing. He was vaguely aware that he hadn't released her hand yet.
Curious, he stroked the juncture between her thumb and her hand. He could have sworn a flicker of awareness darkened her eyes before she snatched her fingers back.
"Chloe Lissander channeled a great deal of passion into everything she did." Nikki nodded toward the white farmhouse behind her. "But by the time she moved back to her childhood home, she didn't have the energy to transform this place the way she wanted. She left it to me in the hope that I'd fulfill her vision."
Nikki stared at the sprawling farmhouse and lopsided deep porches while Brad considered the way she'd jumped when he touched her. As a man who knew a thing or two about sparks and charges, he guessed his hand wasn't the only one still humming with the aftershock.
This grew more interesting by the minute. He'd never been able to walk away from a situation that could turn explosive at any second. And the gathering heat between him and his new neighbor was a hell of a lot more compelling than the countdown to doomsday he kept seeing in his dreams.
At a time when he needed a distraction more than he needed his next breath, Brad quickly made Nikki Thornton his new number-one priority for the next two weeks until the shrink cleared him for deployment.
"A bit daunting when you look at it from this angle, isn't it?" he remarked, edging a half step closer while her back was turned.
"It's daunting from every angle." Straightening, she smoothed a twitchy hand over her glossy dark hair. "Guess I'd better get to work."
He tracked her movements, wondering how much time they had before this rogue spark combusted. For the first time in his life, he wished he could hasten the explosive process.
"Can I give you a hand?"
Sizing up her super stud neighbor as he sent her surprisingly lustful glances, Nikki could think of numerous uses for his hands, none of which involved hard manual labor. And, judging by the way he'd lingered over their touch, he'd be amenable to a few of them. But she hadn't moved out to the country to moon over a hot guy who only blew through town a couple of times a year between military stints around the world. In all the times Nikki had visited Chloe, she'd never caught a passing glimpse of him until the other night when she'd gotten far more than a peek.
The incident had played and replayed in her dreams ever since.
But even if she'd been in a position to explore her much neglected sensual side, Nikki knew herself well enough to recognize a high risk relationship. She appreciated stability. A sense of home. Community. She'd been shuttled off to strangers as a kid every time her scholarly parents had an opportunity to participate in far-flung archaeological digs or teach at exotic universities, so it was only natural she was drawn to put down her own roots at Chloe's home. Getting involved with a guy who circled the globe for his job would be foolish.
She just hoped her jumpy heartbeat and twitchy skin got the message soon.
Because, no doubt, he was even more incredible looking up close. Tall and lean, he had the easy grace of an athlete when he moved. A tattoo roped one arm, the design thick and intricate with a Celtic feel. The pattern was visible just below the sleeve of his dark blue T-shirt with some kind of navy emblem imprinted on the chest. Sleek muscles beneath the cotton gave the shirt an outline that a store mannequin would have envied, with ridges and rises in all the right places.
But even more than the killer bod, Brad Riddock's face was the sort a woman couldn't look away from. Aquamarine eyes were offset by the slash of straight, dark eyebrowsthe menace of the latter preventing the former from being overly beautiful. In the same way, a full, sensuous mouth rested below the sharp blade of his nose, the whole package starkly appealing.
"Not to knock your efforts," he prodded, "but at very least, I could finish up the tractor work without putting any wildlife at risk."
Recalling the incident with the rabbit, she winced.
"I didn't see him at first," she blurted, guilt pinching at the thought of what could have happened if she hadn't stopped in time. "Thank goodness he was so quick to get out of the way or"
She couldn't finish the thought. Maybe Brad had a point about her not belonging on the heavy equipment.
"I hope the tractor isn't to blame for the rest of the wounded." He pointed toward the two cages on the back patio currently inhabited by a chipmunk and a blue jay.
"Of course not. I pulled the bird from the jaws of a tomcat on the front law and the vet says he needs a few days for his wing to heal before I set him free. And the chipmunk" But did he really need to know all about the strays she took in, just the way Chloe always had? They had been one great big family of strays. A tradition she enjoyed carrying on in Chloe's absence. "Well, suffice it to say he was injured through no fault of my own."