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Ryan Itani set down the magazine that he hadn't really been reading and glanced around the waiting room of the veterinarian's office. He wondered for the hundredth time if he shouldn't have tried to call Faith Holmes before surprising her while she was at work. If he were honest with himself, he'd have to admit he was worried that if he had called, she would have made an excuse not to see him.
Not that he blamed her. After what had happened last Christmas Eve, he technically couldn't hold it against Faith if she avoided him like the plague for the rest of her life. It would have been one thing if he'd stuck to his original mission that night three months agodrive the twenty miles from Harbor Town to Faith's country house and pay his respects to his friend Jesse's widow. He'd been on three tours of duty with Jesse, both of them having served as pilots in the Air Force 28th Fighter Wing. He'd always respected Jesse's wife, Faith, always liked her openness and kind heart, appreciated her funny, warm letters to Jesse while they'd both been stationed in Afghanistan.
If he'd also thought Faith was one of the most stunning women he'd ever met, and that Jesse didn't deserve her, given his tendency for womanizing and infidelity, Ryan had kept that to himself.
Or at least he had until Christmas Eve.
Behind a partition, a dog barked loudly and a woman let out a shriek of alarm, bringing Ryan's straying thoughts back to the present moment. Another dog joined in the fracas. He heard a calm but authoritative woman's voice and went still. Faith had somehow passed him in the partitioned-off area of the waiting room where he sat. There must be another door leading from the exam rooms to the waiting area.
"Please put Knuckles's leash in the shortest, locked position, Mrs. Biddle." Faith's voice floated above the two dogs' loud barking. "You really shouldn't bring Sheba into the office without her container, Mr. Tanner. You can't blame Ivy and Knuckles for getting excited, seeing a cat unprotected like that. Jane, can you show Mr. Tanner and Sheba back to the examination room right away?"
"Sheba hates that container," a man grumbled. "Sheba, come back"
"Wait, Knuckles! Oh, dear!" a woman moaned.
Ryan heard a sound like omff and sprung up from his chair. Rushing around the partition wall, he saw a gray, short-haired cat zooming across the room toward him. He bent and scooped it up into his arms without thinking before it had a chance to tear behind the receptionist's desk. When he straightened, he saw Faith in profile wearing a white lab coat, a skirt and pumps, her long, curling, dark hair rippling around her shoulders as she tried to restrain a scrambling Dalmatian puppy.
"Oh, no, Faith!" a short, blond-haired woman cried as she raced around the receptionist's desk. "Put him down. You shouldn't be holding a big dog like that in your condition."
"It's okay, I'm fine," Faith managed to get out as she soothed the squirming puppy.
"Here, I have the leash. Stupid of me, I somehow disconnected him when I was trying to restrain him by the collar," a frazzled-sounding, gray-haired woman in her fifties said as she grabbed Knuckles's collar. She reaffixed the leash, and Faith bent to deposit Knuckles on the floor.
Someone tapped on his forearm and Ryan pulled his glued gaze off the vision of Faith. What had the receptionist meant when she'd said in your condition? Was Faith ill? he wondered anxiously. He handed Sheba-the-cat to a husky black man in his twenties, nodding once distractedly when the man offered his thanks.
Faith was giving the gray-haired woman a weary smile. "Just remembershortest, locked position for the leash for future office visits, Mrs. Biddle." She touched her belly as if to reassure herself.
It was a timeless gesture, and one Ryan immediately recognized.
Lightening-quick reflexes were an absolute must for a fighter pilot, and Ryan was known for being one of the fastest responders. In that moment, however, he uncharacteristically froze. An iron hand seemed to have clutched at his lungs, making breathing impossible. A thousand images and memories swept past his awareness as if he were a drowning man. One seemed to linger on the screen of his mind's eye: Faith answering the front door on Christmas Eve, her long, curling hair spilling around the snowy white robe she wore, her smile radiant, her large green eyes shining with emotion.
Ryan, I'm so happy you came.
Jesse would have wanted me to look in on you, make sure you were safe and sound.
He'd done more than just make sure Jesse's widow was safe and sound, though. A hell of a lot more.
Faith looked around and saw him standing in the waiting room. The stretched seconds collapsed.
"Ryan," she exclaimed in a shocked tone. The receptionist and all the patrons in the waiting room turned to gape at him. "What are you doing here?"
"I flew in for business," he said shortly, referring to the new charter airline business he'd begun after leaving the Air Force last December. His gaze flickered downward over Faith's belly before he met her stare again. He'd forgotten how vividly green her eyes were.
"I think we'd better talk," he said.
She bit at her lower lip anxiously and took a step toward him. All the color had left her cheeks.
"Yes. I think we'd better."
Faith took off her lab coat and hung it on the hook behind the door of her private office. She cast a nervous glance at herself in the mirror mounted on the wall.
She couldn't believe Ryan was here. And he knew. Somehow he'd guessed about the baby. She'd seen the stunned realization in his dark eyes as they'd stood there in the waiting room.
She tried to smooth her waving, curling tresseshopeless cause. She sufficed by pulling the mass up onto her head and clipping it in place. It was probably better to look a little more.. .professional for this meeting anyway, she told herself as she pulled a few coiling strands down to frame her face.
Ridiculous, the idea of being professional. Her relationship with Ryan might be described as "nearly nonexistent" or perhaps as "friendly acquaintances" or perhaps "odd" but hardly "professional." Not after Christmas Eve. Seeing him standing there, so tall, so commanding, so intenseit'd brought it all back. How he must be regretting that impulsive, inexplicable moment of blazing lust now.
Afterward he'd suggested they'd acted out of the emotional turmoil of their shared remembrance of Jesse's death in a chopper accident a year before. He'd also worried that their impulsive tryst had ruined the chances of him being there for her. As a friend.
A dull ache flared in her breast at the memory. It'd hurt, having Ryan say those things. Maybe it was true, that the incredible heat between them had been generated from an emotional backfire. She couldn't be sure what had happened on that night.
True, he'd been grieving the loss of her husband, in more than the obvious sense. She'd learned in a particularly painful way just months before his death that Jesse had been unfaithful. Yes, she'd been grieving his death, but not in the same way a woman would be if she'd been in a happy, trusting marriage.
Another thought had haunted her after she and Ryan had started to come back to their senses that night. Perhaps Ryan was like a lot of top guns, craving the next female conquest in the same way he might hunger for the jolt of adrenaline that comes from a faster jet?
Maybe Ryan was like Jesse.
She straightened her spine. None of that mattered now, she thought as she touched her stomach. She had more important things to considerlike the future of her unborn child.
Anxious but determined, Faith walked into the waiting room. The first thing she saw upon opening the door was Ryan. He sat facing her, his expression alert and stony. She met his gaze with effort.
His dark brown hair was short, but not military-short. It had started to grow out a bit since he'd become a civilian several months ago. His bangs fell onto his forehead, escaping the combed-back style. His lean jaw was dusted with whiskers. Although he looked entirely sober as he examined her, the lines that framed a firm, well-shaped mouth reminded her he was a man who liked to laugh.
When he wasn't still recovering from the shock of a lifetime, that is.
"Hi," Faith said shakily. She sensed an observant gaze and glanced behind the reception desk. Jane ducked her head and pretended to be utterly absorbed in the process of stuffing envelopes.
"We were able to clear about an hour and a half in my schedule, but I'm afraid we couldn't reach all of my patients' owners. I'm going to have to come back to work after we talk," she said nervously.
Ryan stood abruptly and came toward her. Funnyshe'd only just left him in the waiting room forty-five minutes ago, but his height, his strength, his presence struck her anew. She found herself searching his features, trying to find some indication of what he was thinking or feeling. But Ryan wasn't known for being ice under pressure while performing complicated, dangerous flight maneuvers for nothing. Magnetically attractive and elementally male he might be, but she was learning he could be very difficult to read.
"Are you all right?" he asked tensely.
She blinked at the sound of his quiet, restrained tone. Perhaps he wasn't as impassive as she'd assumed.
"I'm fine. I'll explain everything." She waved toward the front door. She felt awkward and anxious. How did one go about telling a man that he was about to be a father? Not that the words really mattered. It was pretty clear to Faith that Ryan already guessed the result of that impulsive, foolish unforgettable night.
"If we can just go somewhere private," Faith said.
He nodded once and touched her shoulder, encouraging her to go before him. Faith led him out the door. In a matter of days Holland, Michigan, would be blazing with color from its famous tulips and orchards, not to mention the brilliant sunsets over scenic Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa. This afternoon, however, was a watered-down promise of what was to come. Weak sunlight fell on the budding trees and sprouting daffodils edging Faith's office building. She still felt the chill of winter in the mild breeze that touched her cheek.
"We can take my car," Ryan said, nodding toward a dark blue sedan in the nearly empty parking lot of her practice.
Faith's throat was too constricted with anxiety to respond. She said nothing as he opened the passenger-side door for her, although the very air between them seemed charged and electric with tension. They remained quiet as Ryan drove for a few minutes down the rural highway, and then pulled down a gravel lane that Faith knew led to a scenic lookout at Holland State Park. A moment later he stopped the car.
Both of them stared at the pale blue, rippling expanse of Lake Michigan and in the distance, the towering sand dune of Mount Pisgah. Faith struggled to find the right words, but nothing came. Nothing.
"You're pregnant," he said succinctly, breaking the silence.
A muscle jumped in his cheek and his hands tightened around the wheel. "Were you planning on telling me?"
"Of course," Faith said emphatically. She blinked back the tears that suddenly burned in her eyes and met his stare. "I was planning on calling you and telling you next week."
He closed his eyes. "So it is mine," he said in a choked voice.
"Yes," Faith whispered. "There isn't there hasn't been anyone else."
"You told me on Christmas Eve that you were on the pill."
She swallowed convulsively. Here it washer lie exposed.
"Ryan, I didn't want you to worry. I knew that if I told you we had unprotected sex that night"
"That I wouldn't leave," he said abruptly. "And that was what you wanted the most, wasn't it, Faith? For me to vanish from your life?"
She closed her eyelids and a few tears spilled down her cheeks. "It was a mistake. All of it. You know that as well as I do."
His hands closed around the steering wheel in what looked like a death grip. "I don't know what the hell I thought it was," he said tensely. "I still hadn't gotten my bearings straight when you told me you didn't think we should see each other anymore."
"You told me you thought it'd been a sort of emotional backfire, that we'd acted so impulsively because of Jesse's death. You were Jesse's good friend, a comrade in arms. I was"
"His wife," he said.
"His widow," Faith corrected. If he'd lived, I would have been his divorced wife by Christmas, she added in her thoughts. Misery, anger and guilt swept through hera potent, poison mixture of emotions with which she'd become all too familiar.
She wasn't sure how much Ryan knew about Jesse's affairs. Did they talk about them, perhaps share stories of sexual conquests, compare notes? Had Jesse confessed to him about his affair with Captain Melanie Shane? Melanie was a member of their wing, after all. She'd been the pilot and only survivor of the helicopter crash that had killed Jesse. Ryan might know that Melanie had contacted Faith and revealed her affair with Jesse months before the accident. He might already know Faith had filed for divorce at the time of Jesse's death.
Then again, he might not.
Most importantly, if Ryan had known about Jesse's infidelities, how much did that figure into what had happened between them at Christmas?
"When I said that thing about what happened between us being an emotional backfire, I was grabbing at straws," Ryan said in a low, vibrating voice. "I was looking for anything to help me understand how I could have taken advantage of a vulnerable womansomeone I care about. I returned to Michigan on Christmas Eve to offer support to my friend's widow. You know I always liked you respected you, even if we'd only met a couple of times. What happened between us was the last thing I'd expected. I meant to make you feel better, but instead, I caused you harm," he said, wincing.
Her backbone stiffened. "You haven't harmed me. I'm thrilled about the baby, Ryan." He glanced at her, quick and wary, and she caught a glimpse beneath his stony, top-gun facade. For a brief second she saw the stark anxiety in his gaze. Her temporary irritation faded. She'd had three months to come to terms with the fact that her life was about to change forever. Ryan had had only an hour to absorb that mind-blowing reality.
"I don't expect you to be thrilled about itat least not right off the bat," she said quietly. "It's a shock. I know it's the last thing on earth you thought would happen."
Her hushed voice seemed to reverberate in the air between them.