Marine Erik Storm intends to keep the promise he made to a dying mother. Protect her two young children, survivors of the bombing that left him barely able to walk. He moves into his grandparents' house in coastal Maine next door to a childhood friend.
Tessa Porter is no longer the shy little girl from his youth, but a life in foster care has left her leery of people. When his custody of the children is questioned she offers to enter into a marriage of convenience to boost his case.
They don't expect the sparks that fly or their growing desire. When their marriage becomes real they have to find ways to heal together or risk losing their perfectly imperfect family for good.
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Save my babies, please.
The words echoed through Captain Erik Storm's head like an eighty-mm mortar attack. Reaching for the crutches, he slid out of the minivan. The images of the bombed-out cellar, where he'd spent four days of misery, flashed through his mind like sniper fire.
Fuckin' hell. What had he been thinking? No way he was in any shape to take care of two young children. It didn't matter if they were arriving in four days or four months. He couldn't even walk on his own. And who the hell knew if he ever would? The doctors hadn't even been sure.
But he'd promised. Sure, only to reassure Matteen and Kinah's dying mom that they'd have a good life in the States versus whatever hell awaited them in a Kandahar orphanage. And with their grandfather having been British, their chances of surviving until adulthood were slim. He'd gotten to know them during the ordeal. Their silly games, their precious smiles, even their inability to stay quiet when he needed them to. When the mortar fire had exploded above them, he'd kept them occupied. Sacrificed his water and MREs to keep them somewhat hydrated and nourished. Held and rocked them when they were tired but too scared to sleep. Then comforted them when their mother had finally succumbed to her injuries.
He slammed the car door, which gave him only a momentary satisfaction, then shifted the crutches under his arms and hobbled to the back of the vehicle. Somehow he needed to get the food into the house. There was no grocery cart here to wheel it along.
The salty scent of coastal Maine assaulted his nostrils as he opened the back of the van. He'd loved coming here as a kid. His grandparents had decided not to sell the place after they'd moved back to New Hampshire, and for that he was grateful. It was perfect for what he needed to do. The next step in his life.
But now he needed to get everything inside. The groceries he could bring in a few bags at a time, but what about the other supplies? Like the baby crib and high chair? Maybe he should have taken his brothers up on their offer to help. But no, he had to be a stubborn marine and show he could do everything himself. Maybe he could leave the heavy stuff in there for a few days, eat some crow, and call Alex and Luke. They'd bust his balls, but what did that matter, it wasn't like he'd be using them anymore. His bashed in leg and hip had resulted in other damage. Stuff you couldn't see.
He gritted his teeth and pushed those thoughts back in the furthest part of his mind, then reached in for the grocery bags. His left crutch slipped as he grabbed a second bag, and he swore again as he bumped into the side of the van. Even after a month, the friggin' wounds were still tender. Maybe he could use just one crutch. The shattered knee and fractured pelvis were both on the left side. Switching the right crutch to his left arm, he slid his right hand through the handles of several plastic bags. See, manageable.
Until he took a few steps. At the pressure, pain sliced through his left leg, and he stumbled, dropping the bag the eggs were in.
"Shit, damn, fuck."
As he bent to pick up the bag, the brace holding his knee in place was too bulky and threw him off balance, tossing him on the ground. The driveway met his ass, sending his hip into spasms. Heat surged through him along with the pain, and he flung the crutch at the car. It smacked into the bumper and fell with a thud, a good five feet out of his reach.
"Nice going, dickhead. Now you need to crawl across the ground to get it."
Maybe he could sit here and wait for his knee and hip to heal enough so he could actually move. Right, 'cause that was sensible. At this moment he didn't feel like doing sensible. He felt like punching something. Hard.
He took a few deep breaths and called on the control the corps was so famous for. Before he could start the familiar army crawl, a soft voice floated over.
"Do you need some help?"
* * *
"Shit, damn, fuck."
The words drifted over to Tessa Porter as she opened the door to let her cat, Calico, into the house. Her gaze moved to the Storm's house next door where a light blue minivan sat in the driveway. It didn't belong to Hans or Ingrid, but they had three sons and ten grandkids. It could be any one of theirs.
More grumbled swears made their way over, and she took a few tentative steps down from her porch. Did someone need help? It wasn't obvious from her position, so she walked closer, waiting to check what the situation was. The Storms were all nice, but she wasn't the type to barge in where she wasn't needed.
A crutch bounced off the back fender, startling her. A crutch? Did the person swearing need it? Probably, if the cursing was anything to go by. She moved around the end of the vehicle and there, on the ground, sat Erik Storm, his face a mixture of pain and frustration.
Erik. Why did it have to be Erik? Of all the Storm cousins, he was the one she'd had the biggest crush on. And most likely he knew it. She'd avoided him like the plague and had barely been able to string two words together when he was near.
"Do you need some help?"
Stupid question. The huge brace on his knee, poking out from his cargo shorts, attested to some sort of injury, and the crutch only confirmed that. Actually there was another crutch sticking out from under the other side of the van. Had he been injured in the war? His grandparents had told her he was oversees. Obviously not anymore.
He gazed up at her, his expression thunderous. She took a step back. Maybe she should turn around and go home. Run home. Fast. He didn't look like he was in a good mood.
"Tessa." Her name came out softer than she would have imagined with the scowl still on his face. "I'm fine. Thanks."
Giving a quick nod, she backed away, but he swore under his breath and called her again.
"Tessa, sorry. No, I'm not okay. But I'm being stubborn. If I can swallow my pride for a minute, maybe you can give me a hand."
"Sure." Had she been loud enough to hear? She moved forward again but slowly.
A smile, a real one this time, formed on his lips. He held up his hand. "Could you get the crutches? Please."
The last word was like an afterthought. But Hans and Ingrid had hammered manners into all their grandkids. There was no way he could be rude.
Picking up the crutch closest to her, she handed it to him, then retrieved the other one. He struggled for a minute, folding his good leg under him, and attempted to push himself up with a crutch in each hand.
"Do you want help?" Why had she opened her mouth and asked? He'd probably just scowl at her again. Touching him wasn't in her plans either. Not good for her nerves.
He clenched his teeth and faked a smile. "If you don't mind."
She moved up behind him, put her hands under his arms, and lifted. The muscles hidden by his T-shirt strained as he pushed on the crutches, but soon he was standing. For a moment he balanced, then took a deep breath in. As soon as he seemed stable, she let go. Those few seconds had been far too long for her.
"Thanks. I'm not usually so clumsy, but well ..." He glanced at the metal and fabric wrapped around his leg. Look away from the muscular calves, or you'll be stammering like the idiot you usually are.
"No problem. Do you want help getting the groceries inside?"
Throwing her a wry grin, he nodded. "Sure, I've got no pride left anymore. What the hell."
"Is the door unlocked?"
He shook his head. "I just got here. Stopped at the store first. Didn't figure I'd have any problems. Dumb ass." The last words were muttered under his breath, and she pinched her lips together to keep from smiling. This self-deprecating Erik was kind of adorable.
When he grinned again, heat rose to her cheeks. God, why couldn't she be normal around him? Around any guy? It had been over ten years. She wanted to be normal.
"Why don't you unlock the door, and I'll bring in the bags." There weren't too many, and she could loop the handles around her hands and carry more of them.
He sighed, maneuvering his way up the few porch steps and into the house. Once she grabbed some bags, she followed him. Already he was setting a few bags on the counter. She walked through the large family room with the gorgeous ocean views and entered the airy kitchen.
She'd always loved this house. The windows on the ocean side were large and unobstructed, and it felt like you were practically standing in the waves. Usually the breeze blew through, and you could smell the salt air. Not today. The house had been closed up for a few weeks at least. That was the last time Hans and Ingrid had been here.
"Your grandparents were up a short while ago but didn't say anything about you coming here." She dropped the bags on the kitchen table.
"They didn't know. I only got back home last week."
"There're a few bags left. I'll get them while you put the food away." Erik wouldn't want to look like he couldn't handle a task, so she'd given him something to do. His crooked smile told her he appreciated it.
When she came back in, he was studying the contents of the egg carton. He held it up and smirked. "Want an omelet? A few of these are cracked, but I think I can still use them."
"Thank you but I'm —"
"It's the least I can do. Give me a little of my masculinity back by accepting my offer. I make a mean omelet."
"I know you do. I've had them at The Boat House." Years ago when she bussed tables and he cooked. And she'd dropped silverware every time he'd looked at her. God, how embarrassing.
"That's right," he chuckled. "You used to take any of the extra parts that didn't fit on the plate when I had an order."
Should she stay and let him make her an omelet? That meant she'd have to talk to him. It wasn't something she did all that well and especially not with Erik Storm. But his eyes were begging her, and she never could resist anything he asked of her. Luckily, he'd never asked too much.
"I don't want to put you out and eat all your eggs." One last chance to let him get out of it.
Erik limped to the counter and pulled out a bowl. "I need to use the broken ones now anyway. And there are ..." He looked in the egg carton, then back up. "Five of them. I like to eat, but I think five eggs is a bit much even for me. You'd be doing me a favor. And letting me pay you back for getting me up a few minutes ago."
"Okay, but let me help." At his tired look she added, "I always wanted to learn your secret for perfect omelets."
His lips twisted, and one eyebrow rose. "The secret's in the way you cook it, not the ingredients. Can you grab the frying pan in that cabinet?"
He pointed to the one she was standing near, and she bent over to retrieve it. Taking it from her, he placed it on the stove. After cracking open the already fractured eggs, he started whisking them with a fork.
"Is ham and cheese okay for today? Onions and peppers will take too long to chop up."
She nodded. For today? Did that mean he'd make her some another day? Did she want to sit with him and have conversation more than once? Although maybe when he realized she sucked at small talk, he wouldn't ask again. That's what most people did. Her extreme introversion made most people uncomfortable.
"I'll get a few plates." She bustled around the kitchen so she wouldn't have to chat, and he wouldn't need to find something to say. Although he'd always been outgoing. Conversations flowed freely around him. She sighed. Wouldn't it be nice if she could be that way? After so many years of trying, she wasn't sure it would ever happen.
When dishes, napkins, and silverware were on the table, she sat down and watched as Erik chopped the ham and finished creating his masterpiece. She took the opportunity to really study him. While he rested on his right leg, his left leg stayed slightly bent with the brace. What happened?
His blond military cut, she suspected, was a little longer than was traditional. When had he been injured? Wide shoulders filled out the T-shirt in ways she shouldn't be thinking about and then narrowed down to slim hips. She'd seen him before he was deployed, and he'd been much bulkier, more buff. Had he lost weight with his injury? Or being in a war zone? He still looked amazing to her, though. Always had.
Her gaze moved to the scar on his face running from his hairline and crossing through his right eyebrow. When he turned to grab the spatula, she saw another, deeper one, starting on his jaw line and ending at his left ear. It should have taken away from his good looks, but it simply made him look more human. He'd always been far too perfect.
"Can you grab these plates so I don't end up with egg all over my face, literally?"
Bouncing up, she took the plates he held out and returned to the table so he could shuffle over on his crutches without an audience. Being seen as weak would be something he'd hate since he'd always been so athletic and in shape. And would be again when this injury healed.
"Let me know if cracked eggs work as well as whole ones. I'm kind of curious."
She bit into her omelet but couldn't help notice Erik glanced down at his leg when he'd mentioned the cracked eggs. Did he wonder if he was still as good as someone whole?
She closed her eyes at the taste of the eggs, ham, cheese, and spices, all precisely blended together and cooked to perfection. Heaven. Just as she remembered.
"It's amazing, like you always made them."
"Thanks." The gratitude in his voice surprised her. He'd never been the timid type or in any way lacking self-esteem. Suddenly he was in need of praise?
She took her time eating the meal so she didn't have to come up with conversation. He didn't seem to mind the lull and paid attention to his own food. How long would he be here? A few days? A week or more? How could she avoid him if he was staying here? Their houses were fairly close, and their driveways were side by side. And she worked out of the house, so she was home every day. If at all possible, she steered clear of going out anywhere.
The weather this July had been beautiful and not too humid. Spending days outside and working with her computer from her back deck was typical. The thought of staying in all day so she didn't have to see him wasn't a pleasant one. And to get to the path leading to the ocean trail, she had to go past his house.
"So how've you been?" he finally asked, having eaten most of his omelet.
She swallowed what was in her mouth. Don't let me have anything stuck to my teeth. "Fine." Oh, great answer. Now ask him something back. But not how he's been since, duh, brace on his leg.
"How long are you staying here?" Lifting her fork, she finished her last bite. It was his turn to speak. She could risk it.
"Actually I'm moving in. I'm buying the place from my grandparents and planning on living here year round."
The fork dropped from her hand and clattered on the table.CHAPTER 2
The clink of the utensil hitting the polished wood startled Erik. Tessa's wide eyes stared at him as if he'd announced he was planning to swim from here to England. What had he said?
"Tessa? You okay?"
She immediately dropped her gaze and covered the fork with her hand. "Fine. Sorry, I ... I'm kind of clumsy."
Keeping her eyes lowered, she took a deep breath. Had he scared her? Since she'd always been skittish, most people pussyfooted around her to keep from alarming her. No one knew exactly what she'd gone through in her early years, but it had been something. When she'd come to live with the Millers, at around fourteen, she'd been wound tighter than a drum and usually preferred to stay as far away from people as possible.
Looking at her now, he could see she'd matured and blossomed into a beautiful woman. It wasn't surprising, though, since she'd always been a pretty girl, just extremely timid and reserved. His sister, Sara, and some of his cousins had managed to get her to actually hang out with them when they'd visited in the summers. He thought she'd finally accepted the Storms as people she could trust. Yet here she was still fumbling in his presence.
"Are you done with the food?" When he reached his hand out, she shrank back, her doe-like eyes filled with anxiety. No-Touch Tessa. That's what some of the kids had called her when she'd been younger. He wasn't sure if she'd ever heard, but she wasn't stupid. Since some of them weren't all that discreet, she must have known. And it looked like she still didn't like to be touched. What the hell had she gone through to be so scared of everybody? It kicked up the protective older brother in him and made him want to go bust a few heads.
"I'll clean up the plates and wash them. You cooked."
He allowed her to do this, but only because he figured he'd drop the damn dishes on his way, and then he'd need to clean up that mess too. With his injuries he'd end up on the floor again. It would be nice if she could relax in his presence.
"There should be some dishwashing soap under the sink as well as a sponge."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Elusive Dreams"
Copyright © 2019 Kari Lemor.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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