Or was he? Joel had loved and lost, but he wasn't quite ready to give up on the possibility that he'd find love again. Because the walls time had built around his broken heart came dangerously close to collapsing whenever Nic was near .
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Nicole Sawyer didn't have to be psychic to know it wasn't good when Brad began the conversation with, "We have to talk." Painful experience let her predict his next words. "This isn't about you—it's me."
At twenty-seven, Nic had been down this road enough to know when she was being dumped.
A few awkward but stiffly cordial minutes later, she stood on the porch of her neat frame home and watched Brad's flashy red pickup disappear down the street of her quiet neighborhood. She was going to miss that truck, she thought wistfully. Its seats were comfortable, and the sound system was truly excellent. She had enjoyed riding around town in it, listening to the country music and classic rock they had both favored.
As for the driver...unfortunately their mutual tastes in music hadn't been enough to keep them together. They'd been trying for almost eight months, on and off, to make it work. Brad had finally admitted defeat the day after she had canceled yet another date for work reasons.
She didn't really need him, he had accused her regretfully.And it turned out that he needed to be needed.
Because she knew he was right, she hadn't bothered to argue with him. Though he had tried to be tactful, he hadn't been entirely accurate when he'd said it wasn't her but him. It was always about her, she thought in resignation.
A car door slammed in the driveway next door, and she glanced that way. Her neighbor, Dr. Joel Brannon, stood beside his practical, ecologically friendly little sedan, studying her curiously. He must be planning to go back out that evening, she thought, or he would have parked in his garage.
She wondered fleetingly if he had a date, and if so, with whom. Not that it was any of her business, of course.
"Nic? Everything okay?" he called out. Joel couldn't have been more opposite from the long, lean, black-haired cowboy who had just driven away. Not particularly tall, he stood perhaps five feet ten, and his build was more sturdy than lanky. His hair was a shade somewhere between light and medium brown, and he kept it cut short because it tended to curl when it grew out. His eyes were hazel and his nose just a little snubbed, but he had a strong chin and a very nice mouth bracketed by shallow dimples.
Nic had once commented to her best friend, Aislinn Flaherty, that Joel reminded her a little of Matt Damon. Aislinn hadn't seen the resemblance.
Because he was still waiting patiently for an answer, she prodded herself to smile and reply, "I'm fine, Joel. Thanks for asking."
Glancing in the direction in which the red truck had disappeared, he asked, "How's Cowboy Brad?"
"Cowboy Brad," she replied prosaically, "is history." He winced. "I'm sorry. Are you sure you're all right? Do you want to talk?"
Drawing a deep breath, she shook her head, feeling her loose dark blond ponytail brush her neck with the movement. "Thanks, but I'm on duty tonight. I think I'd rather just take a few minutes to myself before I have to change and head into work."
"Sure. But if you need anything at all, you know where to find me."
She nodded and turned toward her door, aware that Joel had meant the offer sincerely. He had become a true friend during the six months or so since he had moved next door to the house where she'd grown up.
It had always been easy for her to have male friends. It was trying to turn those friendships into anything more that seemed to be beyond her capabilities. * * *
Joel straightened the knot on his tie and studied the result in his bedroom mirror. He was making a speech that evening to a civic group that met once a month at the Western Sizzlin' Restaurant. A jacket and tie seemed to be the required uniform, though he preferred polo shirts and khakis.
Shrugging into his jacket, he looked at the silver-framed photograph on his dresser. "You always did like red ties," he said aloud to the smiling young woman in the picture.
He didn't feel foolish talking to a photo. He'd been doing it for so long it was simply habit now.
Turning away from the dresser, he headed for the doorway, glancing out the bedroom window on his way past. The lights were on next door, but Nic had probably left for work already. She usually left a few lights burning when she worked nights, both for security purposes and because she didn't like returning home to a dark house.
It was a shame about her breakup with the man Joel had nicknamed Cowboy Brad, though he couldn't honestly say it was a surprise. He had been predicting this outcome almost since the day he'd met his neighbor's on-again, off-again boyfriend.
Brad was a decent guy with the type of dark good looks and lazy smiles that seemed to appeal to most women, but he and Nic couldn't have been more mismatched. Though obviously attracted to her fresh-scrubbed sweetness and vibrant personality, Brad had been visibly frustrated with Nic's stubborn independence and deeply ingrained self-sufficiency. He probably wouldn't admit it, but Brad was a very traditional man who would be happiest with a woman who saw him as a protector and a hero.
Officer Nicole Sawyer wasn't that woman. Wandering into his living room, Joel picked up a small stack of note cards from the coffee table and slipped them into his inside jacket pocket. There was no need to go over his speech; it was a standard spiel about raising safe and healthy children. He had given it a dozen times before. A glance at his watch told him he still had about ten minutes before he needed to leave. Not long enough to do anything much except pace to kill time.
He found his thoughts turning to Nic again. He wondered how she felt about the breakup. As well as Joel thought he understood Brad, he couldn't quite say the same about Nic.
He liked her very much. She was bright, amusing, generous—almost the ideal neighbor. They had often sat on her front porch or his own, taking breaks from yard work and sipping iced tea, chatting with the ease of longtime acquaintances.
Yet those casual conversations had rarely turned personal. They'd shared general information about their families and childhoods but hadn't delved into old wounds. They talked mostly about local gossip and politics, about their jobs as a pediatrician and a police officer, about sports or television programs they both watched.
He knew she lived in the house where she'd grown up. And that she'd lived there alone since her widowed mother moved to Europe eighteen months earlier to live with Nic's older brother, who worked in an American embassy. Nic knew Joel had grown up in North Carolina and Alabama and had moved to Arkansas after a medical school classmate offered him a partnership in a fledgling pediatrics clinic.
He had told her he'd chosen to buy the house next door to her while driving around aimlessly looking for a neighborhood that felt "right" to him. She hadn't teased him about his method of home shopping; it seemed to have made sense to her when he said that he'd seen the For Sale sign in the yard of this house and had made an offer the next morning.
Nor had she asked, as quite a few others had, why he wasn't interested in living in a more upscale, moneyed area—say, on a golf course or in a gated lakeside lot. Nic seemed to understand that he'd been looking for a private retreat, not a showplace—and for now, that was here.
Joel still couldn't say whether Nic had been in love with her cowboy or had just considered him a pleasant diversion from the demands of her job. He suspected the latter, but since she wasn't one to share her deepest feelings, he couldn't say for sure.
He hoped she hadn't been badly hurt. Nic was too nice a person to have her heart broken. His doctoring skills didn't extend to repairing that particularly painful condition.
He hadn't even been able to fix his own. * * * "And then he had the nerve to offer me twenty dollars to tell him who's going to win the football game Monday night. Twenty dollars!"
With indulgent amusement, Nic watched her friend Aislinn Flaherty furiously pace the living room. Aislinn's near-black hair was escaping its neat up-twist, so that long, wispy curls bounced around her indignant face. The midcalf-length tiered brown skirt she wore with a belted camel-colored tunic top whipped around her shapely legs with each forceful turn.
Aislinn made a habit of dressing conservatively almost to the point of blandness, but her efforts were pretty much wasted. She was still striking enough to draw more attention to herself than she would have liked.
"What did you say to that offer?" Nic asked—as if she didn't already know.
"I told him that if I were psychic—which, of course, I am not—I would hardly sell my services so cheaply. And then I told him that if I had been psychic, I'd have known better than to agree to a blind date with him."
"So what you're saying is that your date didn't go very well," Nic drawled, smothering a grin.
Aislinn shot her a look of reproval. "This isn't funny, Nic. It was a miserable evening."
Relenting, Nic shook her head. "Sorry. I didn't mean to make light of it. But you have to admit both of us have had some pretty disastrous dates lately."
Actually, Nic had only been out twice since her breakup with Brad in July, three months ago. Neither outing had been successful enough for a second date with either guy. Since available singles were pretty hard to find in a town the size of Cabot, Arkansas, her social life wasn't looking too promising for the foreseeable future.
"Tell me about it." Plopping onto Nic's brown leather sofa, Aislinn crossed her arms over her shapely chest and pouted. "I should have known better than to let Pamela set me up. She thinks it's so funny to tell everyone I'm...well, different. But I thought I had convinced her to quit saying that."
"You know Pamela. She thinks it's cool to claim to know an honest-to-goodness psychic."
Aislinn sighed gustily. She had been trying for almost all her twenty-eight years to convince everyone that she had no supernatural abilities. She just had "feelings" sometimes, she always added earnestly. Feelings that had an uncanny record of coming true. Nothing more than somewhat-better-than-average intuition, she said.
Having known Aislinn since kindergarten, Nic thought the truth lay somewhere in the middle. She couldn't explain it any better than Aislinn—but she had learned to take her friend's "feelings" seriously.
Aislinn shook her head impatiently. "Enough about my lousy date. How are things going with you?"
Nic unbuckled her heavy utility belt and wearily set her weapon aside. She had gotten home less than twenty minutes earlier, arriving just in time to greet Aislinn, who had been invited for an evening of pizza and gossip. "Long day."
"The Castleberry break-in?" Aislinn asked sympathetically.
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