“It certainly looks like Christmas came early for you, Nora!” ninety-year old Miss Sadie said.
Nora Caldwell regarded the ladies gathered in the Laramie Gardens community room. All were grinning and merrily nudging each other. Not sure she wanted to know what was causing such hilarity, she slowly turned toward the portal. What she saw in the doorway was enough to stop her heart.
United States Army Lieutenant Zane Lockhart, the love—as well as the bane—of her life. And it wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet! Her knees went weak as she took him in.
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Nora noted that the Special Forces officer did not show any new battle scars.
Clad in desert camouflage shirt and pants, and utility boots, his six-foot-three-inch frame was as broad shouldered and solidly muscled as ever. His ruggedly handsome face bore the perpetual tan she knew so well, his sensual lips the same knowing slant. It didn’t appear he had done more than run a hand through the thick layers of his wheat-gold hair, but it didn’t matter, the cropped shiny-clean strands looked good no matter which way the wind tossed them.
Resisting the urge to throw herself into his arms, she deliberately met his gaze, while his dark silver eyes roamed her frame every bit as hungrily as she surveyed his. And still, neither of them moved. He was here. Alive. Safe. A feat that, as always, felt almost too good to be true, given the types of dangerous missions he went on.
“Oh my!” retired librarian Miss Mim fanned her face, her face turning as red as her auburn hair while Zane and Nora continued to silently size each other up. “Is it hot in here or what?”
It was definitely steamy, Nora thought. But then, wasn’t that always the case when she and Zane were in the vicinity of each other? Sparks flew, even as duty and honor and strong wills tore them apart.
“If this is the result of serving in the Army Nurse Corps, I wish I’d done a tour or two,” Miss Patricia teased.
Not, Nora thought, if your heart had been shattered as often and surely as hers had by this gorgeous hunk of a man.
Oblivious to the admiring glances of the three dozen women gathered in the community room, Zane asked, “Sorry to interrupt, ladies, but may I have a word with you, Nora?” His expression abruptly becoming inscrutable, he added, “Privately?”
Where was his usual, wide-as-all-Texas grin? The easy charm he managed to exhibit no matter what, Nora wondered, acutely aware he could be about to give her bad news about one of their fellow soldiers.
Oblivious to her worry, the ladies promised in unison, “Go ahead. We can handle the rest of the holiday planning session.”
Breaking eye contact with Zane, Nora drew a deep enervating breath and said to one and all, “I’ll be in my office if you need me.” Shoulders stiff with tension, she led the way down the hall to the door just off the formal entry.
Zane read the bronze plaque next to the door. “Are you just the director, or the director of the nursing staff?”
“Both.” Although she imagined he, like her brigadier-general mother, did not view her current position with the same high regard as her previous assignment in one of the premier military hospitals in the world.
He followed her inside.
Nora spun around to face him, still tingling all over. Zane shut the door behind him. Ignored the chair she offered.
She sat down behind her desk anyway.
“Why didn’t you tell me what was going on with you?” he said plainly.
He wanted to talk about their ill-fated, off-and-on-again, romance? Now? Over a year after it had finally ended? With an insouciance she couldn’t begin to feel, Nora waved an airy hand. “I didn’t think my resignation from the Army was relevant to you, given the way our relationship ended.”
Zane’s gaze narrowed all the more. “How about your private life?” His square jaw jutted out. “You didn’t think I had a right to know about any of that?”
Why was he acting so weird? Like a man on a mission? It wasn’t as if he hadn’t known she intended to return to the small West Texas town where she had grown up when she ended her career in the military service.
Laramie was home to her.
Laramie was comforting.
It had been to him, too, as a child, when he had left his wealthy life in Dallas and visited his much more rustic paternal grandfather’s Laramie County ranch, in the summers.
But now clearly he wasn’t thinking about their closeness back then.
Doggedly, he persisted, “You didn’t think you should at least write or call me and let me know of your plans?”
Feeling even more baffled, Nora shrugged. “Ah. Not really.”
His expression changed. Became almost rueful. He sat down and leaned forward, his muscular forearms on his spread knees. He speared her with his gaze. “Did I really disappoint you that badly?”
If he only knew. Hurt filled her heart. She swallowed and tried again to explain, “I told you…it wasn’t you. It was never you.” Zane had been clear about who and what he was from the very start. “It was me,” she admitted in a low, strangled voice. “I’m the one who couldn’t handle the intensity of our affair.” The fact that every time he left she had to contend with the fact she might never see him again.
He straightened, squaring his broad shoulders. “So you came here?”
It was the only thing in her life at that time that had made sense. Especially with everything else she’d had going on, familywise. “My sister, mother and I all still jointly own a home here, the one my grandparents left us.” The one she had grown up in.
Nora swallowed around the parched feeling in her throat. “After serving in field hospitals and military trauma centers—” helping the sometimes mortally wounded “—I needed something low-key.”
He squinted, displeased. “That doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell me about your future plans.”
Actually, Nora thought, it pretty much explained everything. Sharing in his obvious exasperation, she glared right back at him. “We weren’t in touch after we ended things.” And hadn’t been for the last year.
“Actually, Nora, you ended things,” he jumped in to correct. Sounding a little angry and resentful now.
Guilt flooded her. “Okay, yes, I did. And I told you then that it wasn’t your fault. You handled the dangerous aspects of your military service just fine. It was me who couldn’t take the not knowing where you were, or what you were doing, or if you were okay. It was me who couldn’t take you just showing up hurt, repeatedly, in the military hospital where I was assigned.”
It had gotten to the point where she couldn’t eat or sleep, or even smile when he was deployed, he was on her mind so much.
That was when he had begun to worry about her, too.
And being distracted like that, they both knew, could get him killed. So she had ended it, and a few months after that, exited the armed service honorably.
He rose and paced the office for several long moments. Stopping abruptly, he leaned against a wall, arms folded in front of him, and locked his steely gaze on her. “Okay, I get all that. What I can’t fathom is why you didn’t think I had a right to know!”
She huffed in frustration. Demanded finally, “Know what?”
“That you had our baby.”
ZANE HAD BRACED for a lot of different reactions from Nora Caldwell. Defiance, anger, resentment, even heartlessness. He wasn’t prepared for shock. And dismay.
Nora pushed back her chair and shot to her full five feet nine inches. Her hair, always a beautiful chestnut brown, now sported sunny golden highlights and fell past her shoulders in the kind of loose, sexy waves military regulations never would have permitted. Beneath her elegant cheekbones, her soft luscious lips clamped down on an O of surprise, while her sky blue eyes radiated a resentment that seemed soul-deep.
Still glaring at him furiously, she propped her hands on her hips. In a pair of black scrubs, with a long-sleeved light blue T-shirt underneath, she was as lithe and physically fit as ever.
Frowning, she demanded, “What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”
So. She was going to carry the ruse on to the end. Another disappointment. He’d thought she was better than that.
He met her glare equably. “Our son?”
Her delicate brow furrowed. “You and I don’t have a baby!”
“Your Facebook page says differently.”
“First of all, you and I aren’t Facebook friends.”
“And now I know why. Because you didn’t want me to know about the baby.”
She drew a deep breath and shoved a hand through her hair. “Obviously, you are referring to all the photos of Liam I’ve posted since I adopted him three months ago.”
Zane paused. “You didn’t say anything about that in any of the photos.”
“Maybe because I didn’t need to!” Flushing, she turned away. “Maybe all I need to know—all anyone needs to know—is that he is my son and I love him with all my heart, you dumb son of a gun!”
She was swearing at him again.
That meant she still had some feelings for him, right?
“Hey.” Still holding her gaze, he aimed a thumb at his chest. Not ready to give up on what he had assumed up to now to be true, he shot back, “The timing fits.” Too well for comfort, if you asked him. “We broke up a year ago. The kid was born three months ago.”
Looking as if it were taking every ounce of self-control she possessed not to slug him, Nora nodded. “So naturally he had to be yours. Right, soldier?”
She hadn’t slept with anyone else. Of that he was certain. She was as much a one-man woman, as he was a one-woman guy.
Hence, there had been only one conclusion to jump to. Still could be. Aware there was a very good reason—in her mind anyway—for him not to be named the little tyke’s daddy, he folded his arms across his chest. “Let’s just say that there was a definite probability.”
Just as there was a definite probability their on-again, off-again relationship was about to be right back on.
Her brow lifting in disdain, she huffed, “Which is the only reason you showed up here like this! So you could do your duty and honorably acknowledge paternity!”
He wanted to say it wasn’t true.
But he couldn’t.
The minute their mutual friend had showed him the social media pages, he had started making plans, arranged for long-overdue leave and hopped a flight back to the good old US of A. Figuring Christmas had come early for him, too.
Nora Caldwell, however, apparently had other ideas.
Ideas that apparently did not include a welcome home hug and kiss. Or anything else of a friendly nature.
She clamped her soft, kissable lips together tightly. Looked him up and down, finding nothing but fault. “I see.”
Because as far as he was concerned, adoption or no adoption, this was their big chance. Maybe their last chance. If they could go back a step and start this reunion over. Something that again did not appear to be in her game plan.
“Well. Nice seeing you again, Lieutenant.” She whipped her hands off her hips and shoved him none too gently toward the portal.
He dug in his heels. Once again, he had blown it with her, without meaning to. He lifted both hands in abject surrender. Not a usual acknowledgment on his part. “Nora…”
His heartfelt plea fell on deaf ears.
“Don’t let the door hit you on your way out!” She gave one final shove to the center of his chest, and then he was standing on the other side of the portal. Her office door slammed in his face.