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"Oh, hell." Josh might have stood a chance at avoiding the slim redhead on his front porch if he had seen her hand on the threshold before he slammed the heavy oak door on it.
But he doubted it.
At Miranda McTiernan's loud yelp of agony, cold sobriety cleared his mind and age-old reflexes sprang him back to the door. She stood there, cradling her hand and swearing for all she was worth. Though he would never admit it, he was impressed with the assortment of curses in her arsenal. It had grown since the last time she'd unleashed it on him.
"Lemme guess." She winced and stamped her foot, clamping her upper lip with her teeth. "Bad hangover?" Good old Randa. She could be hanging onto a severed limb and still not let an opportunity for sarcasm to slip by.
He scrubbed his hand over his unshaved jaw. "No."
She raised a brow.
"I wasn't done being drunk yet." He reached for her cradled palm, groaning inwardly when she wordlessly allowed him to take it. She had to be in pain. She did nothing without words. Lots and lots of words.
He should have expected her. Everyone else in town--even a place as nosy as Rancho del Cielo--knew to leave him alone in his grief. Not Miranda. She'd never heard of the word boundaries.
He pulled her inside, this time closing the door slow. She moved as if she were brittle. Or whole-body sore. Her color wasn't any good, either. She hadn't been at her best these last several months, the strain between them taking its toll, but that was nothing compared to now. Her skin looked papery, stretched tight over her cheekbones with stress. Her eyes were swollen, bloodshot, something he could see she'd tried to hide with eyeliner.The shadows under them looked like deep bruises beneath the pale white stuff she'd spread on to camouflage them.
Danny was her friend too, he reminded himself, the urge to pull her into his arms and let her cry so strong his hands actually lifted.
He was more than her friend, a darker part of himself interrupted. His hands fell to his sides. Grumbling, he led her toward the back of his home where the kitchen--and his first-aid kit--awaited. They sat at his dinette table, her hand between them.
The damage was worse than he expected. The top of her hand was scraped, leaving only the rolled-up strings of dead skin. It had a raw, angry look to it, spots of blood forming here and there. Guilt knifed in his gut, sharp and unforgiving. One more infraction to add to his long list of wrongs where she was concerned. He pressed gingerly on each finger, checking for any breaks. When he didn't find one, he began cleaning and salving. They remained silent while he worked. Except for a slight gasp here and there, Miranda didn't react to his ministrations.
When he finished, he looked into eyes that usually held challenge in them. Instead, he found concern.
It burned in his belly. "You shouldn't have come." To his own ears, his voice rumbled with anger.
She looked away. "I had to."
She would think that. If they had lost anyone else, he might have been grateful for the company. In ways he didn't like admitting, Miranda always knew how to make him feel better. Could draw him out and make the worst things seem incidental or at least not as bad as they'd seemed. But this was Danny. She was the last person who could bring him any comfort from this.
"I'm fine." He closed the kit, wanting to slam it, careful to click the lid into place in near silence. Her presence made the loss too real. He'd been drinking so he wouldn't have to think about Danny--the loss or the mess between all three of them. Things should be different, damn it. Now nothing could be made right, and looking at her only drove the point home.
She nodded too wearily to have believed him. And probably said nothing because she knew it would just lead to another argument that wasn't about the real issue. They were good at that.
He should have known better than to have tried to fool her. He also should have felt guilty, but he had enough on his plate already.
"There was something else I need to talk to you about. Something that can't wait."
What could possibly be so important that it broke her from her mourning? At first nothing struck him as likely. But then he remembered who he was dealing with. He didn't want to deal with this right now. He didn't want to deal with anything. He wanted to be selfish and just blank out until the pain went away.
That wasn't how this particular redhead did things, though. Few people in the world needed help quite like Miranda. The higher her stress, the more likely she'd call him. Oh, she claimed she did things for his own good when she could get away with it, but he could see the tension in the set of her jaw. Losing Danny was ripping her up--she probably just didn't want to be alone. Hello unnecessary visit.
What would it be this time? Had her idiot dog, Rusty, knocked up some unsuspecting thoroughbred again? Or was a wall falling down in her precious house again? With Miranda, he could never quite be sure. But hell if he was asking this time. He waited until she lifted her lashes, her bright green eyes a sudden punch to the gut he didn't need. Why did he have the feeling this wasn't going to be a typical Miranda request?
She pushed out a breath and spoke, but he couldn't make out the words.
He squinted. He should ask. He should, but he wouldn't. If he didn't hear her, he couldn't be held responsible for her actions.
Finally she scrunched her face, frustrated. "A baby, Josh. I'm here because I need you to give me a baby."
He stared blankly at her. "From where?" No one would be dumb enough to ask him to babysit. Least of all right now.
"Um..." Her cheeks flushed, that bright red shade she claimed made her look "swollen" instead of "up to something". Her gaze skittered to the side. "That's not how I meant."
Then what did she mean?
"I want your baby."
He'd have choked if he could manage to breathe. Any second now she was going to start laughing and tell him she'd been trying to shock a response out of him, so he wouldn't automatically say no to what she really wanted.
She didn't say anything.
Maybe she was waiting for him to turn her favorite tinge of purple? But the longer he stayed quiet, the more miserable she got.
Good God, she was serious.
"I need more liquor." He reached blindly toward his refrigerator, almost knocking his chair over in his haste. He'd stocked up specifically for this day, but looking at the fourteen brown bottles left on the top shelf, he wasn't sure he had enough. It would have to do. Within moments, he had a cold beer in his hands. One look at her mortified face, though, and he was unable to drink it. He put it back in the fridge and slammed the door.
He tried to fathom what could have been going through her head, but he'd learned years ago that it was impossible to understand her circuitous mind. He ran both hands through his hair, pulling a little so he wouldn't give into the need to leave the room and pretend she'd never come over. "Couldn't you have asked me this when I was still drunk?"
"Believe me, it crossed my mind." Her smile might be wry, but he knew her well enough to know she wasn't kidding. He was lucky he hadn't woken up from a drunken stupor with her already in his bed. "I know it's a lot to ask--"
"You're damn right it is." Too much, especially considering their history--God, considering the fact that her former fiancé wasn't even cold. "Why are you coming to me?"
His pounding head throbbed at the question that immediately came to mind next. What would he have done if she'd gone to anyone else?
It didn't bear thinking about.
She opened her mouth, her answer so ready there was no way it wasn't rehearsed to get under his skin.
"Never mind. Don't answer that. Isn't this something you should talk to Trisha or Penelope about? You know, girl stuff?" He felt a gush of relief just thinking about off-loading this problem onto his sister or their other best friend. Hell, Penelope was Miranda's doctor. She was supposed to deal with this.
"God, no, I couldn't talk to Trisha. I couldn't handle her pity."
Even with a rampaging headache on the rise, he couldn't miss that cue. This was no run-of-the-mill Miranda problem. He looked her up and down but nothing stood out other than the markers of her grief. No wrinkles on her black pantsuit. No tangles in her Shirley-Temple hair. No broken bones, burns, blood or signs of serious illness. "What's pity got to do with it?"
"I don't want your pity, either." She pointed with her good hand at him.
He put up his palms in a helpless gesture.
She sighed, dropping her head. He could only see the top of her mop of red curls. Curls he used to pull mercilessly when they were growing up. He still remembered how glossy they felt the other times he'd touched them. Around his fingers, against his lips...
"I'm sorry." Her voice thankfully yanked him away from unwelcome memories. "I ... this isn't easy for me."
"Just spit it out. We'll both feel better." Well, he would. Especially after she left. Without anything resembling a baby.
"Give me a second, okay?"
"Miranda." He forced himself to feign patience. If he didn't, she'd balk and he'd never find out what the hell she was up to. Which meant he'd never find a way to derail her. "Explain already. I promise I won't get mad."
Famous last words.
She lifted her head and if the flash of intuition that had served him well all his life hadn't spoken, he'd still have wished the words back. All he could do now was wait for her to stop thinking and start talking. And hope the impact wouldn't stagger him.
Miranda stood up and headed for the coffeemaker. Moving kept her from cracking under the pressure in Josh's bright blue eyes. She wasn't in his house as often as she'd been as a kid, but in the years since his mother and stepfather had relocated to Florida, Josh hadn't changed many of the basics. Wallpaper, carpets, cosmetic stuff, yes. Appliances? Not a chance in hell. As if he thought he wouldn't be able to figure out a machine built after the year two thousand. Soon enough, the ancient machine was bubbling and burping, giving a knock or two as it boiled. Eventually, something dark spewed into the pot and rather than ponder what else it likely was, she opted to accept it as coffee and filled two mugs she'd gathered while waiting.
If Josh weren't watching her nervous activity, she probably would have gathered all the dishes from the various places on the counters and loaded the dishwasher. But he knew all her cues and she forced herself only to clear enough of a spot to work. Even trying to outthink him was better than actually having the conversation she was planning.
You can always forget it, her conscience reminded her again, but like all the other times, it was a lie. She wouldn't forget. And more years would go to waste. Maybe all of her along with them.
She offered him one of the mugs and they sat in amiable silence while each drank. She purposely ignored the way he kept his gaze trained on her over the rim of his mug. Then she traced the scratches in the wooden table. Finally he took the decision out of her hands.
"What's wrong, Miranda?"
Now or never, Red. It's what Danny used to tell her every time she had to put up or shut up, especially when it came to Josh. Danny always figured out her plans pretty quick--he generally just liked to see if she had the stones to pull them off. He'd be laughing his ass off right about now. It seemed wrong that he wasn't here to do it. But if he were, would she have had the courage to come?
The answer cemented her decision. She set her cup down. When she met his gaze this time, all her self-doubt was gone. "I'm running out of time to have children."
He rolled his eyes. "For the love of God, you're thirty-one. You have plenty of time."
She suppressed the urge to smack him. "Oh? And who told you that? The fertility fairy?"
He blinked, his brows coming together in a crash as he realized what she was saying.
"Not everyone can afford to take biology for granted."
"I'm sorry, Rand." Sincerity, while he stared down at the depths of his mug. It lacked the sympathy anyone else would have given, but she didn't doubt him. She might not like what he said most of the time, but he never said anything he didn't mean.
"Yeah," she sighed. Part of her still wished he could express his emotions while looking her in the eye. But this was Josh. Expressing his emotions never went well in the first place. "I'm sorry, too."
He must have understood that her regrets meant more than her inability to have children. The intensity of his gaze was a stark reminder of all they'd never had. What he'd never allowed them to have.
"I have the money I need to do the procedures that are likely to work," she continued, "but I'm uncomfortable with the idea of sperm banks. I wouldn't know anything important about the father. Nothing real, anyway. My baby wouldn't have any history and that sounds horrible to me. I'm being selfish enough as it is, trying to have a baby alone. I want this child to have two parents, to know its family. The best one I could possibly give it." The only one. Her parents had died more than a decade ago. But Josh's mother, Billie, was already an incredible grandmother to Trisha's three kids. Trisha herself loved anything with dimples. They would be perfect.
"Much as I appreciate your affection for my family, you're forgetting a big detail," Josh reminded her, poking into her plans the way he always did.
She met his gaze, unperturbed. "What's that?"
Miranda frowned. "I don't think so. You're kind of integral to the plan."
His right eye squinted at the corner. "You'd be dealing with me, Randa. Not my mother. Not my sister. Me. And all we do is fight."
As if he didn't know why. "Don't exaggerate."
"I don't have to. Just ask anyone at Jimmy's Grocery."
Against her will, she blushed again. They'd made complete fools out of themselves by fighting in public. The clearest part of that argument was the end. When all was said and done, the aisle had been covered in spaghetti sauce, toilet paper, corn flakes, milk and Josh had a steak lying awkwardly on the top of his head. She could still hear the juicy splat in her head whenever she thought about it.
"We've both matured since then. Look at us right now."
He didn't budge. "We haven't grown up that much in the last six months." Thankfully, he didn't mention this was the longest calm conversation they'd had in the last six months, too. "You can't really think this is the kind of relationship to bring a child into."
Josh-rational-speak for "no".
In the face of that, she was going to have to club him with some reality. "You're all I have." She opted not to remind him exactly why. "What's the likelihood that I'll meet Mr. Perfect and convince him to have a baby with me before my time is up?"
His mouth curved into a smug grin. "Are you implying that I'm Mr. Perfect?"
Okay then, maybe she did have to remind him. "No, you're Mr. Overbearing-jerk-who-intimidates-any-man-who-comes-near-me. I'm in a time crunch."
She practically heard the clank of his smile dropping. "You aren't scoring any points, Ace."
"I'm trying to be honest and straightforward."
Ha! her conscience accused loudly. Miranda ignored it.
Josh stared at her for endless seconds. Then he shook his head, his dark hair catching the light. "Then there's the other thing."
She let the silence stretch between them. The other thing. The thing he never wanted to talk about but always somehow seemed to remember when it suited him. Her greatest moment of weakness. The one time she'd allowed hopelessness to swallow her, and while he never said a word directly about it, she knew he'd never quite forgiven her for it. And now he wanted to use it as an excuse. "What other thing?"
"You know." Yes, she'd been able to tell just by the disapproving downward cast to his lips, as usual. As if it left a bad taste in his mouth just to think about.
At least he didn't have to know the flavor of regret. "That was twelve years ago, Josh. I'm not the same person I was back then."
"When people go that far, it's a testament to the strength of their character."
"Now you're judging my character?" Her disbelief rang in her ears.
"No. And don't look at me that way. You know I think you're one of the funniest, best people in the world."
On any other day, she'd have been moved to hear him say something like that. However, the giant, dangling but kind of ruined the moment.
"But a child pushes people to their limits. Sometimes beyond their limits." He took another drink. Like she didn't know who he was talking about. She was hardly like his father, and the fact that he could calmly compare her to a man he couldn't even bring himself to name on most occasions did more than gall. He didn't even seem to realize how insulting he'd just been. It'd serve him right if she threw her half-full mug at his head. But no. He just sat there, content to leave the insult shadowed in thoughtful ambiguity.
She wasn't. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you just said it's for the best if I don't have children."
His blue eyes widened, stark with surprise. But he didn't say anything to take it back.