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Macey Locke didn't often wake up alone in a man's bed. She didn't often wake up in a man's bed period. But here she was, sprawled across Derek Severson's mattress, hogging the covers, hugging the pillow.
Fantastic. An awkward "morning after" and she hadn't even had the pleasure of spending the night with him.
Not that that would happen. Not now, not ever.
She sat up, cringing as she recalled the night before. She'd driven all day to get to Derek's bar on San Amaro Island, and though she'd tried to prepare herself for the state he was in, his less-than-enthusiastic reception had cut deep. She'd stupidly thought just the sight of an old friend—her—would dig through his layers of grief and sorrow and at least warrant a smile.
She'd thought wrong.
Macey helped herself to the connecting bathroom and splashed water on her face, then looked longingly at the tiny shower stall. Maybe later. She'd made herself at home enough already, barging in and stealing his bed while he closed up the bar. That she'd never intended to fall asleep didn't make it any more acceptable.
She ran a brush through her hair and pulled it up into a sloppy bun as she returned to the bedroom. Her flip-flops were next to the bed, where her feet had been hanging over the side; she must've kicked them off in her sleep. She slipped them on, and was about to go find Derek when she noticed the framed photo she'd left among the pile of blankets. Once again she was compelled to pick it up.
Julie. Derek's girlfriend who'd died.
She'd known Julie vaguely. Had watched as Derek fell in love with her. It was part of what had pushed Macey to do something as drastic as joining the Peace Corps two years ago.
But instead of the cutting jealousy she'd felt toward this woman, now sorrow made her throat burn and her eyes water anew.
Feeling even more like an intruder, she set the photo back on the nightstand and left the room, wiping tears away.
Had Derek even bothered to come home?
The soft drone of the television answered her question as she reached the open kitchen and living area. There he was. Crashed out on a worn, once overstuffed chair that looked too small for his long, muscled body to be anything close to comfortable. He was still asleep. She should give him privacy but…
He wore a pair of black boxers, nothing else. A large tattoo of the Texas Longhorn logo, with flames added behind it, emphasized the size of his biceps. His chest was sculpted with muscles and a sprinkling of light-colored hair trailing down the most ripped abs she'd ever seen. She'd thought six-pack abs were fictional, but they were totally alive and oh-so-well here. Her eyes tracked slowly, appreciatively downward and eventually landed on strong, solid thighs. She swallowed hard, knowing this little inspection of hers was a really bad idea for a girl who couldn't afford to be attracted to this man. She watched his chest rise and fall for a few breaths before her gaze traveled up to his face.
That was like having a bucket of cold water poured over her head. Derek looked exhausted, as if he hadn't slept for a month. The hair on his chin was more than a shadow, making him appear older, rougher than he was. His ash-blond hair was longer than she'd ever seen it; for Derek, normally with military-short hair, that meant maybe long enough for a woman to run her fingers through it. She clenched her hands into fists.
Macey recalled the emptiness in his eyes last night, and she ached to comfort him somehow. To touch him, to run her palms gently down his arms, to hold his hands in hers.
Derek would never tolerate her sympathy, though.
What he'd have to figure out was that she was no longer the shy, afraid-of-confrontation girl he'd known. The Peace Corps had changed her in so many ways, and she wasn't going to back down from him, tough firefighter or not, no matter how ugly he got with her.
Derek stirred in the chair, turned his head the other way, and she waited for him to discover her admiring him. But his eyes remained closed, and he exhaled deeply before slipping back into even breathing.
Macey stepped away silently, filled with so many emotions her head felt as if it would burst.
She belatedly noticed the view out the sliding-glass door and the mostly glass wall. Waves. Sand. Patches of sea grass. Lots of people. She unlatched the door, glancing toward Derek to make sure he was still asleep. She needed to get her head straight before round two with him, so she slid the door open without a sound and went out.
As soon as Macey was gone, Derek got up to deal with the kink in his neck, stomping his left foot to wake his leg. Feigning sleep had been nearly impossible because of his discomfort, but the last thing he could handle was a cheery morning greeting from Macey.
Damn woman. What was she doing here?
He checked out the door and spotted her light brown hair and short frame halfway between the patio and the waves. Last night at the bar, there'd been a moment when he'd been glad to see her. Had perked up when she'd appeared. He'd tamped that down right away, though. He didn't want to hurt Macey, but dammit, he'd come as far south as he could—while still being in Texas—to be by himself.
After throwing on clothes, he strode to the kitchen and turned on his cell phone. Ignoring the display that told him he had twelve messages, he punched in his mother's number.
"I don't need a babysitter, Mom. I'm twenty-eight years old."
"Derek, it's good to hear your voice. You've been ignoring my calls."
"Running a bar here. Tell Macey she can go back home. I don't want her around."
"I'm not going to tell Macey anything. I'm not—"
"Cut the crap, Mom. I know you put her up to it." He paced through the condo blindly. "Look, I know you're trying to help. What I need right now is to be alone."
"You can't mean that. Maybe Macey's exactly what you need. She won't push you—"
"Damn right, she won't, because she can't stay here."
"You'll have to take that up with her. She's planned a six-week vacation for herself down there. Well-deserved after spending two years in Thailand, wouldn't you say?"
Derek ground his teeth together. He loved his mom—he really did. But there was a reason he hadn't returned her calls. Hell, there was a reason he'd jumped at the chance to move away and run Gus's bar for him. This kind of call was that reason, clearly and emphatically.
"Gotta go, Mom. Goodbye." He ended the call and set the phone down hard on the counter.
At an unobtrusive knock on the glass door, he whipped around, ready to blow. Of course, it was Macey. He couldn't ignore her, as he would a stranger, and that just pissed him off more. He went to the door and slid it open, his frustration thinly veiled.
"I hope I didn't wake you," she said, eyeing him carefully.
"No. Look, Mace—"
"I just need to borrow your sink. Maybe a bandage if you have one."
He followed her gaze downward and noticed she wasn't putting any weight on her left foot. She lifted it to the side to reveal blood on the sand.
"What happened?" Grudgingly, he let her inside.
"Sliced it on a rock. I'm fine." She hopped to the kitchen and looked around. "Paper towels?"
"Don't have any. Here." He picked her up—she weighed next to nothing—and put her on the counter next to the sink.
"Let me look." He grasped her slender calf and she stiffened.
"I can take care of it," she said quietly but firmly. "All I need is some kind of…rag."
"I'll get you some toilet paper and a bandage if you sit still."
Their eyes met in a standoff. After several seconds, she nodded in acquiescence and he went to the hall bath.
"Let me make sure there's no sand rubbed into the cut." He didn't ask and he didn't make eye contact; he just went for her leg again, and this time she let him.
"Well?" she asked.
"There's sand. We'll run water over it to clean it."
Derek had changed, Macey thought as she watched him. Even more than she'd expected.
She wanted nothing more than to give him the space he craved, but that wasn't why she was here. And okay, it wasn't entirely the truth, either.
The truth was she'd do just about anything to help him stop hurting so much.
She studied the angry set of his jaw as he carefully, tenderly rinsed her foot in the sink. His mom had cautioned her he would be difficult. Macey had tried to prepare herself for it, had come down here of her own accord in spite of Mrs. Severson's warnings. She was beginning to understand now.
The man he'd been was still in there somewhere, though, buried deep. His insistence on seeing to her injury was all the proof she needed. Derek had always been one to watch out for her, to help anyone in need. Helping was his nature as much as hers was to bring order to things. The trick would be to get to that inner Derek, the one she'd known and loved for so many years. To pull him out.
"I'm sorry I stole your bed last night," she said.
"No big deal." He continued to scowl as he worked on her foot.
"I must have been exhausted to fall asleep like that."
"Long drive," he said shortly.
"Anyway, thanks for letting me stay there. I slept like the…like a baby."
"You can say 'dead.' Avoiding the word doesn't change that she is."
"I'm…sorry, Dare," Macey said quietly. "That she died. I never got to say that."
He met her gaze finally, just for an instant, and in that moment she saw so much pain she reached out to him. Touched his shoulder.
He stood abruptly. "Wound is cleaned and bandaged. I'm going on a run before work."
Before she could slide off the counter, he was gone.
When Macey walked up to The Shell Shack—Derek's thatch-roofed, open-air bar on the beach—a couple of hours later, she couldn't help but notice he was oblivious to the woman he was taking an order from. That was saying a lot, as she was endowed enough for two people and apparently took pride in showing off her good fortune with a teeny string bikini top. She wore a barely there sarong on the bottom that revealed to-die-for legs, and Macey instantly felt like the short, plain girl she'd always been. Her own thin-strapped tank and short denim skirt were about as daring and sexy as her wardrobe got.
Macey stood in line behind four or five people to order some lunch. The menu consisted of a few simple items like shrimp, nachos, burgers and hot dogs, she noted. And then she realized there were more people gathered all the way around the bar, waiting to order. Derek was by himself behind the counter, although she could see a woman in the small kitchen in back, zipping around, preparing food.
After fifteen minutes Macey had hardly advanced, and wasn't any closer to ordering. Derek still appeared to be calm, but he was starting to get impatient comments from people in line. The day was hot and humid already, and she could see sweat forming along his hairline.
He was never going to wait on everyone by himself.
Macey watched him for several more minutes before jumping into action. She slipped around the end of the counter and fumbled around until she found a pad of paper. She spotted a pen by the cash register, then went to the side opposite Derek and took an order.
As she reached into the beer cooler, Derek came up behind her.
"What are you doing?"
He sounded pissed off instead of grateful for her help.
"Saving your butt." Sweet butt that it was.
She took out three bottles and walked away, not looking back to gauge his reaction. She snatched one of the flimsy paper menus as a price guide and went to the cash register to ring up the order. Thankfully, the machine was old and straightforward.
The second group ordered Bloody Marys and shrimp, which presented a double problem. Macey went to the back room and quickly took in the sight of the slender girl in her mid-twenties pressing burgers on the grill.
"Who're you?" the leggy brunette asked.
"A friend of Derek's. He's getting slammed out there. Do I give you food orders?"
The girl took the piece of paper from Macey and set it on the counter in answer. Ooo-kay. She'd take that as a yes. Now she just needed to figure out how to make a Bloody Mary. She returned to the front.