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It wasn't every day a man had the chance to come back from the dead.
More to the point, Marine Captain Joe Morgan had come back from hell. He knew what it felt like to face off with a cold-eyed terrorist who hated his guts and was determined to kill him. He knew what he'd done to keep from being killed and that secret would go with him to his grave, where it belonged.
Now he had to face Kate Carpenter, although she probably hated his guts, too. She had good reason, but he still had to see her. And his baby boy. He had to explain.
And here he was on her doorstep.
He lifted a hand to knock, then curved his fingers into a fist. Maybe he should have called first, he thought, running his fingers through his hair. He wasn't one for putting things off. Mostly. Sooner or later they had to see each other. Although he'd been standing here for five minutes without knocking.
Glancing around the apartment complex, he didn't see anyone moving around.
The pathways through the rock-and-shrub landscaping were well-lit. He'd specifically timed this meeting for nineteen-thirty hours, seven-thirty at night, because it was early enough not to be too late, and late enough that he figured she'd be home. And with any luck not so late that she'd shut the door in his face.
But if he stood here much longer, anyone watching would wonder if he was up to no good. He probably was no good, enough to show up here anyway.
He ran a hand through his hair again, then pressed the doorbell, but he heard nothing and wondered if that was due to thick walls or a broken doorbell. Or was he broken? War was a noisy business; it took all kinds of tolls. Maybe his hearing had suffered.
But he'd passed his flight physical and could hardly wait to get back to the business of flying for his half of Southwestern Helicopter Service. The fact that his bastard of a brother owned the other half wasn't something he could think about now.
Inside the apartment a shadow passed the window and he heard light footsteps on the other side of the door. If Kate was as smart as he thought, she'd be peeking through the peephole. Assuming she could reach it. It had been fourteen months, but he hadn't forgotten how small and slender she was. He was six feet tall, yet she'd fitted perfectly against him, and the thought made him ache deep down inside.
Several moments passed and he realized his heart was racing. Between Afghanistan and Kate Carpenter, his ticker was getting a pretty good workout. But any second now the suspense would be over.
He waited, but nothing happened. Was she standing there? Did she see him? What if she didn't open the door? Could he really blame her?
He really should have called first.
"Kate?" He knocked lightly on the door. "It's Joe. Morgan," he added. In case she didn't remember him.
He didn't think that was likely. Not after the letter and what she'd said in it. But he knew from personal experience that women could turn the right memories off when they wanted to do wrong.
Inside, a chain scraped just before the dead bolt clicked and Kate opened the door. She didn't say anything, just stared up at him, eyes wide, full lips parted slightly in shock. That was something he recognized. Shock was protection for mind and bodya time-out until the two were strong enough to handle trauma. He'd never actually thought of himself as a trauma. Not consciously. But now he realized he hadn't called because he was afraid she would hang up on him. Refuse to see or talk to him.
Now that she was close enough for him to feel the warmth of her skin, he knew how badly he'd needed to see and talk to her. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Her eyes were huge and his memories hadn't done them justice. At first glance he'd call them brown. But a closer look showed flecks of gold, reminding him that when she looked into the sun her eyes turned almost green. She was still small, and with clothes on it was hard to tell, but he would swear she was curvier than the last time he'd held hermade love to her.
Brown hair hung in shiny layers to her shoulders, and was still the same as when he'd run his fingers through it and kissed her until her breath was a sigh of surrender. Then her eyes had turned green and the sun had had nothing to do with it. But she wasn't smiling now and he longed to see the dimples he knew would magically appear when the corners of her mouth turned up.
She gasped, as if his voice brought her out of shock. "Joe," she whispered. "II didn't think I'd ever see you again."
"Surprise." He shrugged, then hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his worn jeans and leaned against the doorjamb.
"What are you doing here?"
That wasn't what he'd expected, yet it provided his first clue that he'd had a script of this meeting. In his head there had been smiles, dimples, hugs andif he was really lucky maybe a tear or twofollowed by a heartfelt declaration of how glad she was that he'd come home.
"I wanted to see you."
He wanted to think this was shock talking, but he knew better. She'd been hurt when he'd abruptly told her they were over. She hadn't understood that it was for the best and he hadn't explained why he felt that way.
"I got the letter," he said.
"I wasn't sure." Her chin lifted. "You didn't write back."
"There's a reason for that"
"It doesn't matter." Her full lips pressed tightly together for a moment. "You made it clear that I was nothing more than a fling. We had fun. Just an affair."
A hot and steamy affair, he thought. Instant attraction that had burst into flame. They couldn't get enough of each other. But she was right. He had made it clear they were over, unfortunately, his memories were not. And one of his most vivid was of the last time he'd seen her, when she'd been wearing nothing more than a sheet and a pair of dimples. Then he'd dumped her and the dimples had disappeared.
"I remember what I said."
"Then you remember you told me not to bother waiting. That I shouldn't expect"
"About expecting " he said.
She looked down for a moment, then met his gaze. "II only wrote because I thought you had a right to know"
This is where the whole right and wrong thing tweaked his tail rotor. "How soon did you know?"
Something like guilt flickered in her eyes. "What is it you're asking?"
"Whether you were going to tell me at all."
"I did have some conflict about that," she admitted. "I"
"Can we discuss this inside?" He glanced at the apartment doors on either side of hers. "Let me go out on a limb here and point out that you probably don't want the neighbors eavesdropping on this conversation."
She caught her lip between her teeth and her expression told him she was seriously thinking about turning him down. Then she stepped back and pulled the door wide. "Okay. Come in."
Before she could change her mind, he walked inside. From where he stood he could see a kitchen and dining area with a French door that led to a small patio. The walls were painted light gold with white crown molding and six-paneled doors. Neutral beige carpet. But the painting of wine bottles and the decorative wrought-iron plate rack personified Kate. It was cute and charming and colorful.
He turned and looked down at her. In her snug jeans and a scoop-necked T-shirt that hugged every curve, she almost made him forget that he wanted to know why she'd waited so long to tell him she was pregnant. If he'd found out sooner, would it have changed things? That's something he would never know.
"About the letter," he said.
"We hardly knew each other, Joe. You made it clear you didn't want to be tied down. And why would you believe I wasn't trying to trap you?"
"Before I get blamed for something, shouldn't I get a chance to screw up first?"
"And didn't I have a right to know that you only wanted sex? Somehow I missed the signs." Her eyes flashed a color that was new to him. "For the record, I don't blame you. No one held a gun to my head."
That's for sure. She'd been warm and willing in his arms. And he'd wanted her more every time he saw her. Even after all this time, he still wanted her. "I was there. I'm back now." Maybe he was the one blaming her when she hadn't screwed up.
But he'd been fooled once and that was enough. Maybe the experience had fine-tuned his cheater meter, because he believed her. "He's my son, too."
In a split second, the expression on her face went from woman scorned to mother lion. "Since when? You made it clear that you didn't want to participate when you didn't write back."
He shook his head. "I didn't write back because I couldn't."
"Oh? Your arms were broken?" She sighed and shook her head. "That was a cheap shot. Look, Joe, the fact is I don't want or need anything from you. I felt obligated to let you know about the baby. You didn'tcouldn't write back. End of story."
"Not so fast. I'm here now." He'd have been here sooner if not for mission debriefing, medical clearance and military retirement paperwork. And this conversation wasn't one he'd wanted to have over the phone. Or in front of her neighbors. Or, apparently, sitting down on the sofa. He met her accusing gaze. "There is an explanation. And I'd like you to hear me out."
"Okay." She folded her arms over her breasts and stared him straight in the eye.
"The letter arrived just as I was getting ready for a mission and I was going to answer it when I got back."
"The thing isit took me some time to get back."
"What?" There was a wary look in her eyes. "Why?"
"My helicopter was shot down and the Taliban extended their hospitality for a while."
And that was all she needed to know, all he would tell her.
Her eyes went from dark brown back to warm cocoa as she put her hand on his arm. "Joe"
The touch of her fingers felt too good and he backed up a step.
"I got in a little while ago and came straight from McCarran."
That was important for her to know.
"I don't know what to say," she said.
"Tell me about my son."
A smile curved up the corners of her mouth. "He's perfect, the best thing I've ever done."
"What's hiswhat did you name him?" She walked over to the end table beside the sofa and picked up a framed photo, then handed it to him. "J.T."
As Joe stared at the chubby-faced infant in the picture something inside him went tight and his heart skipped. The baby's eyes were big, blue like his own, but he had his mother's dimples. "What does J.T. stand for?"
She hesitated a moment, then said, "Joseph Turnerthat was my grandfather's name."
He slid his gaze to hers and grinned. "Has a nice ring."
"I thought so." She shrugged.
"He's about four months old?" She nodded and his gaze lowered to Kate's now-flat abdomen.
He wondered what she'd looked like pregnant. "Can I see him?"
"He's asleep," she said quickly, protectively.
"I just want to see him."
She thought about that for too long and frowned while she was at it. Finally, she nodded. "This way."
He followed her into the baby's room. A night-light kept it from being too dark and he could see the crib, some kind of box overflowing with toys and a changing table. There were stuffed animals everywhere. Slowly, he walked over and stared down at the child, peacefully sleeping on his back. His small mouth pursed and worked in a sucking movement, then a little sigh escaped. His chest had felt tight many times before, but this was a sensation he'd never before experienced.
Joe reached out a finger and touched one tiny fist. He had to clear the lump in his throat before he could state the obvious, "He's so little."
A tender expression softened her face. "You should have seen him when he was born."
But he hadn't, although that wasn't her fault. For six months he hadn't even known there was going to be a baby and that was her fault. He hadn't been there while his child grew inside her, or when she went into labor and gave birth. She'd robbed him of the beginning and an enemy on the other side of the world had stolen the rest. What if an attack of conscience hadn't forced her to let him know? In his experience women kept a lot of things to themselves and none of it was in his best interest.
He met her gaze. "We need to talk."
"Agreed. But not here and not tonight. Call me tomorrow?"
Sounded like an evasive maneuver to him. To fly choppers in a war theater, Joe had trained to run and dive to stay alive. But good training went hand in hand with tactics. Surprise was the best strategy.
"All right," he said. "You'll hear from me tomorrow."
Near Mercy Medical's emergency entrance Kate Carpenter stood about twenty yards from the square concrete slab with the big red X in the center of a circle marked with a blue H. This was where the medical evacuation helicopters landed. One was on its way with a fifty-eight-year-old male. Possible heart attack. The patient was from Pahrump. Because her mother lived there, she knew it was an hour from Las Vegas on a winding two-lane road. Medical intervention would have taken too long if he'd been brought in by regular ambulance.
Mercy Medical Center E.R. nurses alternated meeting the medevac chopper and today was Kate's turn. The emergency-room doctor had already seen the EKG strip and was keeping in touch with the situation via radio and the readings from the heart monitor hooked up to the patient. This was a level-three trauma center, and it was where she'd met Joe Morgan for the first time. Talk about trauma.