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Alex dane didn't need a doctor to tell him his pulse-rate was dangerously high. He pressed two fingers to his wrist and counted, trying to slow his breathing and take hold of the situation.
His heart thudded like a jackhammer hitting Tarmac. If he didn't have such a strong sense of duty he'd just put the car in gear again. But he couldn't.
He checked the address on the crumpled scrap of paper before screwing it into a ball again. He knew it by heart, had committed it to memory the day it was passed to him by a dying friend, but still he carried it with him. After all these months it was time to get rid of the paper and fulfill his promise.
Alex dropped his feet out onto the gravel and reached back into the car for the package. His fingers connected with the soft brown paper bag and curled to grasp it. He felt his heart-rate rise again and cursed ever having promised to come here.
It was everything he had expected and yet it wasn't.
The smell of fresh airof trees, grass and all things countryhit him full force. Smells he had craved when he'd been traipsing across remote deserts in war zones. From where he stood he could only just make out the house, tucked slightly away from the drive, cream weatherboards peeking out from an umbrella of trees that waved above it. It was exactly as William Kennedy had described it.
Alex started to walk. Forced himself to mimic the soldier's beat he knew so well. He swallowed down a gulp of guiltthe same guilt that had plagued him on a daily basis ever since he'd set foot on American soil againand clenched his hand around the package.
All he had to do was introduce himself, hand over the items, smile, then leave. He just needed to keep that sequence in his head and stick to the plan. No going in for a cup of coffee. No feeling sorry for her. And no looking at the kid.
He found himself at the foot of the porch. Paint peeled off each step, not in a derelict type of way but in a well-loved, haven't quite gotten around to it yet way. A litter of outdoor toys was scattered across the porch, along with a roughed-up rug that he guessed was for a dog.
Alex looked at the door, then down at the bag. If he held it any tighter it might rip. He counted to four, sucked in as much air as his lungs could accommodate, then banged his knuckles in fast succession against the wooden plane of the door.
A scuttle of noise inside told him someone was home. The drum of footsteps fast approaching told him it was time to put the rehearsal into practice. And his mind told him to dump the bag and run like he'd never run before. A damp line of sweat traced along his forehead as he fought to keep his feet rooted to the spot.
He never should have come.
Lisa Kennedy unlocked the door and reached for the handle. She smoothed her other hand over her hair to check her ponytail and pulled the ties on her apron before swinging it open.
A man was standing at the foot of the porch, his back turned as if she'd just caught him walking away. It didn't take a genius to figure out he was a soldier. Not with the short US Army buzz-cut, and that straight, uniformed way he stood, even when he thought no one was watching.
"Can I help you?"
Was he a friend of her late husband's? She had received plenty of cards and phone calls from men who had been close to him. Was this another, come to pay his respects after all these months?
The man turned. A slow swivel on the spot before facing her front-on. Lisa played with the string of her apron, her interest piqued. The blond buzz-cut belonged to a man with the deepest brown eyes she'd ever seen, shoulders the breadth of a football player's, and the saddest smile a man could own. The woman in her wanted to hold him, to ask this soldier what he'd seen that had made him so sad. But the other part of her, the part that knew what it was to be a soldier's wife, knew that war was something he might not want to recall. Not with a face that haunted. Not when sadness was raining from his skin.
She almost dropped the apron then. Hearing her name from his lips made her feel out of breathwinded, almost. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"
He closed the gap between them, slowly walking up the two steps until he was standing only a few feet away.
"I was a friend of your husband's." His voice was strained.
She smiled. So that was why he'd been walking away. She knew how hard it was for soldiers to confront what another man had lost. She guessed this guy had been serving in the same unit as William and must have just been shipped home.
"It's kind of you to come by."
Lisa reached out to touch his arm, her fingers only just skimming his skin before he pulled away. He jumped like she'd touched him with a lick of fire. Recoiled like he'd never felt a woman's touch before.
She slowly took back her hand and folded her arms instead. He was hurting, and clearly not used to contact. Lisa decided to approach him as the stranger he was. A wave of uncertainty tickled her shoulders, but she shrugged it away. The man was nervous, but if he'd served with William she had to trust him.
Now that she'd had longer to study him, she realized how handsome he'd be if only he knew how to smile, to laugh. Unlike her husbandwho had had deep laugh lines etched into his skin, and a face so open that every thought he'd had was there for all to seethis man was a blank canvas. Strong cheekbones, thick cropped hair, and skin the color of a drizzle of gold, tanned from hours out in the open.
She put his quietness down to being shynervous, perhaps.
"Would you like to come in? I could do with an iced tea," she offered.
She watched as he searched to find the right words. It was sad. A man so handsome, so strong, and yet so clearly struggling to make a start again as a civilian.
"I Ah " he cleared his throat and shifted on the spot.
Lisa felt a tug at the leg of her jeans and instinctively reached for her daughter. Lilly hadn't spoken a word to anyone but Lisa since she'd been told that Daddy wouldn't be coming home, and clung on to her mother at times like she never wanted to let go.
The look on the man's face was transformed into something resembling fear, and Lisa had a feeling he wasn't used to children. Seeing Lilly had certainly unnerved him. Made him look even sadder, more tortured than before, if that were possible.
"Lilly, you go find Boston," she said, fluffing her daughter's long hair. "There's a bone in the fridge he might like. You can reach it."
Lisa looked over at the man again, who had clearly lost his tongue, and decided that if he was used to orders then that was what she'd give him. A firm instruction and a knowing look.
"Soldier, you sit there," she instructed, pointing toward the big old swinging chair on the porch. "I'm going to fix us something to drink and you can tell me exactly what you're doing here in Brownswood, Alaska."
Something flashed across his face, something she thought might be guilt, but she ignored it. He moved to the seat.
Lisa stifled a smile. When was it that you became your own mother? She was sounding more like hers every day.
This man meant her no harm, she was sure. He was probably suffering something like shell-shock, and nervous about turning up on her doorstep, but she could handle it.
Besides, it wasn't every day a handsome man turned up looking for her. Even if it was only sharing a glass of tea with a guy who didn't have a lot to say, she wouldn't mind the company.
And he'd obviously come with a purpose. Why else would she have found him on her doorstep?
Alex summoned every descriptive word for an idiot he could and internally yelled them. He had stood there like a fool, gaping at the poor woman, while she'd looked back and probably wondered what loony hospital he'd come from.
What had happened to the sequence? To the plan? He looked down at the paper bag on the seat beside him and cursed it. Just like he'd done when he'd first held it in his hands.
William had said a lot about his wife. About the type of person she was, about how he loved her, and about what a great mom she was. But he had sure never said how attractive she was.
He didn't know why, but it made the guilt crawl further, all over his skin. He'd had a certain profile of her in his mind. And it wasn't anything like the reality.
Maybe it was the long hair. The thick chestnut mane that curled gently into a ponytail. The deep hazel eyes framed by decadent black lashes. Or the way her jeans hugged her frame and the tank top showed more female skin than he'd seen in a long time. A very long time.
Then again, the fact that she was minus the pregnant belly he'd been expecting might have altered his mindset too. Would he have even noticed her figure if he hadn't been searching for the baby? Alex knew the answer to that question. Any man would. Lisa was beautiful, in a fresh-faced, innocent kind of way, and he'd have to be cold-blooded not to notice.
So had she lied to her husband about the baby she was expecting? Or had Alex lost track of time and the baby was already born?
Alex went through the plan in his mind and cursed ever coming here. He hadn't introduced himself. He hadn't smiled. And he hadn't passed her the bag or refused to stay.
His assessment? He was a complete dunce. And if the kid had any instincts whatsoever she'd probably be scared of him too. He'd looked at her as if she was an exotic animal destined to kill him.
When he'd been deployed it had been all about the plan. He had never strayed from it. Ever.
Here, one pretty woman and a cute kid had rendered him incapable of even uttering a single word.
Or perhaps it was glimpsing family life that had tied him in knots. The kind of life he'd done his best to avoid.
Alex looked up as he heard a soft thump of footfalls on the porch. He took a deep breath and made himself smile. It was something he was going to have to learn to do again. To just smile for the hell of it. Sounded easy, but for some reason he found it incredibly hard these days.
But he needn't have bothered. The only being watching him was of the four-legged variety, and he beat Alex in the smile stakes hands down. He found himself staring into the face of a waggy-tailed golden retriever, with a smile so big he could see every tooth the canine owned. He guessed this was Boston.
"Hey, bud," he said.
As he spoke he realized how stupid he must sound. He had been tongue-tied around Lisa, yet here he was talking to her dog.
Boston seemed to appreciate the conversation. He extended one paw and waved it, flapping it around in midair. Did he want Alex to shake it?
"Well, I'm pleased to meet you too, I guess."
A noise behind him made Alex stop, his hand less than an inch from taking Boston's paw. Lisa was walking out with a tray. He pretended not to notice the flicker of a smile she tried to hide. At least he was providing her with some afternoon entertainment.
She placed the pitcher of iced tea and a plate of cookies on the table in front of him.
If he'd felt like an idiot before, now he felt like the class clown.
"I see you've met Boston," she commented.
Alex nodded, a slow movement of his head. How long had she been standing there?
"He's well trained," he finally said.
Lisa laughed. It caught Alex by surprise. It seemed like forever since he'd heard the soft tinkle of a woman's happiness.
"Lilly likes to teach him tricks. You could say he's a very fast learner." She tossed the dog a broken piece of cookie. "Especially when there's food involved."
They sat there for a moment in silence. Alex fought for the words he wanted to say. The bag seemed to be staring at him. Pulsating as if it had a heart. He knew he could only make small talk for so long until he had to tell her. It had been eating away at him for months now. He had to get it out.
She pulled over a beaten-up-looking chair and sat down in it. He watched as she poured them each a glass of tea.
"I'm guessing you served with my husband?"
He had been expecting the question but still it hit him. Gave him an ache in his shoulders that was hard to shrug.
Alex allowed himself a moment to catch his words. Talking had never really been his thing.
"Lisa." He waited until she was sitting back in her chair, nursing the tea. "When your husband returned from leave, we were assigned to work together again."
He fought to keep his eyes on hers, but found it was easier to flit between the pitcher and her face. She was so beautiful, so heartbreakingly beautiful, in a soft, unassuming way, and it made it harder to tell her. He didn't want to see the kind features of her face crumple as he described the end. Didn't know if he could bear seeing this woman cry. Seeing those cracked hazelnut eyes fill with tears.
"We became very close during that tour, and he told me a lot about you. About Lilly too."
"Go on," she said, leaning forward.
"Lisa, I was there with him when he died." He said those words fast, racing to get them out. "He passed away very quickly, and I was there with him until the end." He eliminated the part about how the bullet should have been for him. How William had been so intent on warning Alex, on getting him out of harm's way, that he had been shot in the process. Always putting his men first. That was what the army had said about him. And it was a statement Alex knew first-hand to be true.