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By Diana Duncan
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2005 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarlier that morning.
Conall O'Rourke was psyched to take the biggest risk of his risk-filled life. Determination and adrenaline pumped in his system as he strode across the parking lot toward the diner. Tucked into one pocket of his jacket were two dozen gold-shield condoms. In the other was the best platinum-and-diamond engagement ring a public servant's salary could buy.
The ring might be premature. The condoms were way overdue.
Winter clouds loomed on the rainy Oregon horizon like smoke over a battlefield. Con flipped up the collar of his black leather jacket to stave off the dropping temperature. A winter storm was in the forecast. But no matter what the weather threw at him, it was gonna be a beautiful day. And night.
He paused outside the door in the chilly gloom to automatically scan the interior, and brushed his hand across his thick black hair. The habitual gesture was one of the reasons he went for a short spiky cut. Women had dubbed his hair "adorably tousled, stylishly edgy and just-went-a-wild-round-between-the-sheets sexy." To him, it was convenient. When you could be called out any time to bash down doors and eat bullets, there was no time to screw around with your hair.
He rolled his wrist and consulted his watch. Ten in the morning, right on time. His girl's idea of punctuality was arriving everywhere five minutes early. Through the window, he caught a glimpse of her and smiled. As dependable as the sunrise, Bailey was sitting in their booth at the back. The familiar cocktail of lust and tenderness kicked him in the chest - as it had the first time he'd seen her, and every time after that.
His woman. His soul mate. His future.
Some guys might consider proposing after only six months moving too fast. He didn't. The average SWAT assault-and-rescue, from door breach to secure status, lasted four to nine seconds. His life and the lives of his teammates depended on his ability to devise a plan and act. Make quick decisions. Good decisions. Waffle, and you die. Worse, your buddies die because of you.
Fast was relative.
Bailey's early phone call requesting a breakfast meeting had been unexpected. They already had plans to ring in the New Year tonight at the Montrose Hotel. She knew about dinner and dancing. His bended knee proposal and the resulting night of passion in the Ambassador Suite would be a surprise.
He couldn't wait to see her face when she saw the ring. He'd scoured jewelry shops, hating the ice-cold stones and sterile settings. Discouraged, he'd stopped for a coffee break and spotted the ring in the window of an antique store next door. A one-carat emerald-cut diamond flanked with smaller heart-shaped diamonds. Vintage 1930s. Like the woman he'd purchased it for, the ring was unique. Old-fashioned yet stylish. Classic, yet romantic. Sparkling with warmth and personality. Like their love, it was timeless, and would last forever.
As he stepped inside, the smell of crisp bacon and fresh biscuits in the steamy air heightened his anticipation. Working up the nerve to propose cranked up a guy's appetite. A clanging brass bell over the door announced his arrival, and Bailey's head jerked up.
Her amazing blue eyes connected with his and his blood heated. He couldn't believe his good fortune. One breakfast a day for the next sixty years equaled ... 21,900 chances to sit across the table from this fascinating, intelligent, sexy woman. The rest of his life. He fingered the velvet ring box in his pocket and fought the urge to jump the gun and propose now. Timing was everything. He, of all people, knew that.
He grinned and waved. Her posture tense, she didn't return his smile. Instead, her wary stare watched him approach the booth. He blinked away a discomfiting mental flash of a hawk swooping down on a defenseless robin.
What the hell? He replayed their date last night. Had he said or done something to upset her? Where had he slipped up? They'd watched a chick flick. He hadn't minded too much, as long as he was with her. They'd consumed popcorn and soda, and then made out on her sofa until his pager beeped. A lucky interruption, considering how tough it was to fight his desire to make love to her. He chafed under the growing need for her to belong to him in every way. For him to belong to her.
"Mornin', darlin'. Switch with me?"
"Sure." Her agreement was too quiet. Foreboding itched between his shoulder blades. During a siege, things often got too quiet right before all hell broke loose. She rose, her usual graceful movements awkward. "Sorry, I'm distracted this morning. I forgot you like to sit where you can see the door."
As she passed, he breathed in her scent. Rose petals and peppermint. Warmth curled through him. "No biggie." He slid into the seat across from her and brought her hand to his lips. Her deathly cold fingers quivered. Not passion. Distress. What was up with that? "What's got you so upset, sweetheart?"
Before she could reply, the stocky, gray-haired waitress moseyed over with coffee for him and requested their orders. Con looked at Bailey. She nodded, and he ordered their usual breakfasts.
The waitress sauntered toward the kitchen and Con turned back to Bailey. The silver hummingbird charm he'd bought her on their first date nestled in the hollow of her throat. Right above where her pulse throbbed a shade too fast. The charm dangled from a black ribbon she'd tied around her neck. She never took off the trinket.
The pink ruffled blouse she wore normally complemented her creamy complexion. Today, her face was a wan contrast to her shoulder-length strawberry-blond curls. A barely touched mug of peppermint tea sat on the tabletop. That wasn't like her at all; his girl loved her tea. Something was wrong.
She tugged her hand free, and his muscles tensed in apprehension. "Bailey, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. Exactly." She shifted. Scrubbed her palms on her gray wool slacks. Wouldn't meet his eyes. All the nervous tells he'd seen in suspects sweating out an interrogation. His own tungsten nerves were taking a beating. If she didn't get to the point soon, he was going to start twitching.
"No, everything's wrong." Her teeth bit into her bottom lip. Last night, his teeth had teased and tempted that lush bottom lip until they'd both been gasping for breath. "I've agonized for a long time, and finally made a decision."
He relaxed. She'd had problems with her job for weeks and struggled with the options. Bailey gave every decision careful consideration. Loyalty to her customers and co-workers warred with her desire to escape an obnoxious boss. "Finally decided to tell Mole Man to stuff it, and take that management position in the other store, huh?" He lifted his mug in a salute before gulping the hot, rich coffee. "Way to go."
"This isn't about work." She absently sipped her peppermint tea. "Things nearly got out of control between us last night."
He switched gears without effort. Ah. Like him, she'd reached her sexual frustration limit. Unlike him, she was shy talking about it. They'd have as much rapport in the bedroom as they did elsewhere. "Now, darlin', just because I scorched your sofa ..."
"If you hadn't been called up, we'd have ended up in bed."
He shook his head. "I was pretty far gone, but not out of control." Perilously close, he'd clung to the razor's edge. She'd want commitment first, because that's the woman she was. Her utter commitment was one of the qualities he admired about her. But asking him for it had her tied up in knots. She was probably afraid he'd run - the typical male response.
He'd never been typical. Falling in love with quiet, intense Bailey was a prime example. His previous women had been blatant extroverts. Good-time girls. Fun, but as shallow as a politician's promise. He hadn't known he was missing a soul-deep emotional connection until he'd met Bailey Chambers.
Con again brushed his fingers over the velvet ring box. Hoo boy, was she in for a surprise. "Baby, I wouldn't have taken you any farther than you wanted to go."
"That's the problem. I wanted to go farther -" She swallowed hard. "My decision is about us."
He grinned, deciding to end her misery. Give her the commitment she needed to take the next step. What the hell. In his line of work, he'd learned to improvise when things changed without warning. He'd propose now and they'd celebrate later.
"What a coincidence. I've also made a decision about us." In spite of himself, nerves jittered up his spine. Damn, this was more intimidating than eating bullets. His mom would call it a "life-defining moment" and caution him to remember it. He would. Every detail. Someday, he'd tell their children the story, and if he was very lucky, their grandchildren.
The atmosphere wasn't moonlight and roses like he'd planned, but at least he would go down on one knee and do that part right. Con slid toward the edge of the seat. "Bailey -"
Excerpted from Midnight Hero by Diana Duncan Copyright © 2005 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. . Excerpted by permission.
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