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Adam McPherson hovered in that murky place between awareness and sleep, clinging desperately to the dream. He didn't know why it was so important, why he so fiercely resisted the pull of consciousness. But he knew when he awoke he'd be thrust unwillingly back into a very real nightmare and the dream
Ah, the dream was so much nicer.
Soft womanly skin, greedy feminine muscles tightening around him, the delicious draw and drag between their joined bodies. Winnie's hot, lush mouth against his skin, sliding over his neck, her fingers in his hair. Her small foot moving up his right calf, eliciting a shiver as it brushed the sensitive skin behind his knee.
Adam gasped awake as the wonderful dream abruptly ended and the harsh unfair truth of his reality took its place. Though he knew his circumstances hadn't changed, he couldn't resist glancing down at his mangled leg just to confirm that part of it was truly missing.
In the time it took to process that fact, several other truths clicked into place, as well. First, his military careeror at least the high-octane kick-ass career he'd envisionedcould quite possibly be over. Second, despite the achingly perfect fantasy, Winnie Cuthbert could never be his. And third, the dream was a lie. Because he would never, ever be whole again.
Regret burned the back of his throat as he let the blanket fall once again into place. The panic he'd worked so hard to keep at bay suddenly reared up and threatened to pull him down again, back into that dismal place he'd found himself three and half months ago when he'd awoken from surgery and realized that something had gone terribly wrong.
While that godforsaken roadside bomb hadn't killed him, it had claimed a part of him he could never get back.
Though he knew he should be thankfulas far as the injury went, it could have been a helluva lot worseit was hard to be appreciative when all Adam wanted was his old life back.
His old dreams. His old plans. His old body.
Three months in rehaband counselling, of course, he thought darklyat the Center For The Intrepid, a state of the art clinic for amputees and burn victims in San Antonio, and a shiny new top-of-the-line prosthetic later, he still hadn't quite been able to come to terms with his new circumstances. Oh, he put on a good show, though admittedly it had been harder when his brother, Levi, had been home.
Home for the moment being Bethel Bay, South Carolina, a sleepy little backwater town nestled just north of Hilton Head. Adam was currently staying at his parents' bayside home until his new orders came down. Orders that would ultimately decide his fate one way or the other. He'd either go back and do what he'd been trained to do, or be reassigned in some other capacity, still military, but only a shadow of the career he'd wanted and worked so hard for.
With Natalie Rowland-McPherson, his best friend and new sister-in-law, it had been easier to pretend that he was fine. She might have seen through him, but she'd never said a word. He smiled. Easy company, his Nat. He owed her a debt he didn't know that he'd ever be able to repay. Their playing cards, watching movies and generally talking trash had gotten him through the roughest part of being back home.
Levi, on the other hand, could look at him and read every worry, fear and self-pitying thought that he'd had since the accident. It was as awful as it was liberating. Thankfully, his brother hadn't tried to push him toward his so-called "emotional recovery."
He'd been content to simply hang out before leaving for his new assignment in Germany.
They were gone nowhad been for two weeks and the darkness Adam had managed to keep at bay for their sakes had descended with a vengeance. He knew that if he didn't manage to shake it off soon, he was going to be in serious trouble.
But this road, as arduous as it was going to be, was one he had to travel alone.
A soft knock sounded at his door, then his mother poked her head around the frame. Her hopeful expression made him wince. His recent decline hadn't gone unnoticed and the havoc it was wreaking on his mom's peace of mind made him feel like a selfish bastard. "Winnie's here," she said, smiling.
Shit. Again? Adam thought as every muscle in his body tensed. Why couldn't she just stay away? Didn't she know what she was doing to him? How hard it was for him to keep pushing her away when all he wanted to do was touch her, feel that smooth skin against his own?
After months of walking on eggshells around him, Adam didn't know why Winnie had suddenly decided to pretend like everything was normalthat he was normaland started plaguing him to death as she always had. He gritted his teeth.
She was absolutely killing him.
Winnie Cuthbert had been right under his nose for the past ten years, a fellow athlete, partner in crime, peer and friend. And, though she'd always had a thing for him, he'd never been remotely attracted to her until she'd hugged him goodbye at his and Levi's going-away party. That simple, innocuous touch had sizzled through him like a blast from a lightning bolt. In that instant, as crazy as it sounded, Winnie had gone from simply being "a girl" to The Girl.
The one he had to have.
Even though he'd fantasized about her repeatedly while he was in Iraq, Adam had tried to tell himself that it was merely a fluke, that the almost indescribably potent attraction had to be a figment of his imagination.
Then he'd come homedamaged, shaken and unsure of everything else in his lifetaken one look at her and had gone rock hard.
Hard evidence, indeed.
Given everything else that had happened to him, there was a measure of relief that had come with his affirming reaction, but regret had been quickly on its heels.
He didn't have time to want Winnie, anymore than he had time for the wallowing pit of self-pity he'd fallen into.
Adam had to focus on getting his career back.
Furthermore, Winnie wasn't some acquaintance on the fringes of his life, someone he could simply walk away from later.
She was a hometown girl with until-death-do-you-part dreams. And though the attraction was more than anything he'd ever experienced before, Adam's dreams were still firmly the same. None of them involved settling down in Bethel Bay. He was married to his career. And nothingnot even losing part of his legwas going to change that.
Winnie was warm and funny, charming and loyal. She could bake like nobody's business, could shoot a basketball from half-court and catch only net. She had a wicked sense of humor and a pair of legs that made a man's mouth water at the thought of them wrapped around his waist. She could run a 5K barely winded and she was the only person who'd ever been able to get a hit off his slider. She enjoyed just about every sportincluding footballand looked even better when she sweat.
In short, she would have been perfect for him, before the accident. If he'd been looking for something permanent. But he wasn'tthen or now. All he could think about at the moment was getting back in the field, proving that it would take more than a roadside bomb to keep this soldier out of the game.
A niggle of something unpleasant, another protest he didn't want to contemplate, hovered in the back of his mind, but he determinedly batted it away.
He didn't have time. That was the reason he didn't need to pursue this unholy attraction. Nothing more.
Additionally, though Adam knew Winnie genuinely cared for him, he still occasionally caught a flash of pity behind those dark blue eyes. And that was intolerable. His jaw clenched.
He would not be pitied.
Not by her. Not by anybody.
A fragment of the dream he'd had this morning surfaced once again, sending a fresh shard of longing through him. He bit back a groan. His loins caught fire, an altogether unpleasant sensation when his mother was still standing in the doorway, dammit.
"Tell her I'm in bed," he finally said, then he rolled over and pretended not to see the dejected look on his mom's face. Although, he did have to get out of bed sooner or later, Adam thought. Merely thinking about getting his career back sure as hell wasn't getting him any closer to that goal.
"If that's what you want," she finally murmured, a soft sigh of disappointment in her voice.
Adam resisted an ironic laugh. No, it wasn't what he wanted. What he wanted was standing at the front door, probably wearing something cute and sporty, a clear sheen of gloss on those distractingly gorgeous lips, her black curly hair in delightful, sexy disarray.
How in the hell had he missed that? Adam wondered again for what felt like the hundredth time. How had he not seen her? And why in God's name did he have to see her now?
As for what he wanted
He wanted to reenact the dream he'd just had in the flesh, every single depraved scenario. And damn, how he wanted to kiss her, just feel the soft slide of those beautiful lips beneath his. Though he knew it wasn't entirely reasonable, he imagined that she'd taste like sugar, like one of those damned delectable cakes she'd continued to bring to him from her bakery. He didn't trust himself to look at her for any length of time without acting on this unrelenting need.
He couldn't. But damn how he wanted to.
He wanted to thread his fingers through hers and tug her to him, feel her lithe, warm body aligned with his. He wanted to breathe her in and eat her up. He wanted to slide in and out of her feminine heat until every unpleasant thought was banished permanently from his head. He wanted to take her until he died or his balls burst, whichever came first.
Adam chuckled darkly. Either scenario worked for him, so long as he could have her. He released a pent-up breath.
But he couldn't follow that road.
He'd sacrificed part of his leg for his career and he'd be damned before he let an injury take it away from him.
He was still a soldier, dammit.
"I'm sorry, dear," Mrs. McPherson said when she returned to the door. "He asked me to tell you that he's still in bed."
Winnie Cuthbert felt her eyes widen. "But it's ten o'clock." Panic hit. "Did he have a bad night? Is something wrong?" Had the nightmares returned? she wondered. She knew Adam had suffered night terrors for the first few months after the accident, but she'd thought they'd stopped.
Mrs. McPherson's eyes were kind and guarded. "Not that I know of."
"Oh." A little punch of pain landed in Winnie's gut. So, he just didn't want companyher company, specifically. Winnie chewed the inside of her cheek, struggling to keep her goal in focus. This wasn't about her and what she wanted. This was about Adam and what was best for him.
And what Adam wanted more than anything in the world was to return to his Special Forces position in the US Army. Unfortunately, while he had been assured he would be able to return to active duty, whether he'd be able to return to Iraq, in his previous capacity, was still in question. In two weeks he would go through some sort of physical and mental evaluation which would determine that outcome. But instead of taking advantage of every minute to train and prepare, the idiot was still laying in bed.
At ten o'clock.
It would not do.
Winnie smiled determinedly. "Mrs. McPherson, do you mind if I go try to rouse Adam?"
Seemingly pleased, she opened the door wider. "I think that's an excellent idea, Winnie."
Winnie nodded once, lifted her chin and started toward Adam's room. The nerve of the man, she thought, fuming. Here she was trying to be noble and self-sacrificingby helping Adam reclaim his dream she was essentially giving up hersand he had the nerve to throw her efforts back in her face? Didn't the moron realize she was trying to be helpful? To love him enough to let him go, instead of rejoicing in the fact that he was finally home in Bethel Bay?
Rather than knock, Winnie simply opened the door and stepped inside. The sight of Adam's prone form nestled partly under the covers, his scarred thigh and what remained of his leg on top, momentarily shook her resolve. She'd seen it, of course, and couldn't begin to imagine the pain, the agony of the injury. Emotion clogged her throat and her heart rate kicked up a notch.
"Mom, I told you to tell her"
"I'm not your mother. And if you're going to be rude, then you can damn well do it in person."
Adam jerked upright and immediately pulled his injured leg under the sheet. Her chest ached. As if she cared, Winnie thought. How could she look at him and not be grateful for the sacrifice he'd made? Did she mourn his leg? Regret that he'd lost it? Yes. But she was too thankful for his service, for his sacrifice to ever be anything other than humbled. Why couldn't he see that? Did he honestly think so little of her?
Ignoring his startled frown, she sidled forward and plopped lightly onto the side of his bed, forcing him to move over. His bare chest gleamed in the dim light, wreaking havoc with her senses and she caught a whiff of his cologne, something musky and warm. She swallowed a groan. This would be so much easier if she didn't ache for him so badly. If she hadn't dreamed of being in bed with Adam for more years than she was afraid to count.
It took every bit of strength Winnie possessed to ignore the fact that he was nearly naked and focus on the reason she was here. Adam had spiraled into a miserable funk since Natalie and Levi left two weeks ago.
It was time for him to snap out of it. And she had the difficult task of making that happen.
"Have I personally offended you?" she asked. "Done something to make you angry? Kicked your dog?"
He scowled at her, his wary eyes still heavy with sleep. "I don't have a dog."
"I didn't think so. So why are you avoiding me?"
Adam sighed and sank back against the headboard. A muscle worked in his angular jawthe man had the most amazing bone structure she'd ever seen. It was criminally unfair. "I'm not avoiding you, Winnie."
Even his sideburnsbronze and a little longer than what was currently fashionablewere incredibly sexy. He was art personified. Living beauty. Simply perfect. Or at least to her, anyway. He always had been, damn him.