At seven the next morning, AJ stood outside Darcy’s house in a freezing mist, leaning against his truck. He knew better than to rush a woman, but they really needed to get going to allow for any unplanned incidents on the road.
Although considering Darcy was one really big Unplanned Incident, it probably wouldn’t matter when they left.
He was in for a rough time today and he knew it. If there’d been any other way—any other way at all—he’d have taken it. But he needed her.
He’d been raised to show no weaknesses, and that usually worked for him. But when it came to anything having to do with one Darcy Stone, he instantly went off axis.
The front door of the Victorian opened and Darcy stepped out wearing a formfitting, thigh-length sweater, leggings, and boots. Zoe stood in the doorway looking worried.
“Let’s get this drama-free adventure over with, shall we?” Darcy asked.
“She hasn’t had caffeine yet,” Zoe warned.
AJ looked Darcy over. “You think caffeine’s going to help?”
Zoe laughed, blew him a kiss, laid one on Darcy’s cheek, and vanished back inside.
Darcy went on the move, walking with an uneven gait, signaling that she was tired, possibly to the point of exhaustion.
She still wasn’t sleeping. Why, if she was still taking pain pills, wasn’t she sleeping?
As she stepped off the porch it began to sleet in earnest, and she looked up at the sky, a slow smile crowding the exhaustion away from her face.
She loved the rain, always had.
Pushing off the truck, he strode forward to take the duffle bag from her. “You’re not supposed to carry anything over five pounds,” he reminded her.
Her sleepy gaze locked onto his and he felt both a stirring and a discomfort.
Yeah. He had a hell of a long day ahead of him.
“It’s been eleven months,” she said.
Eleven months and two weeks. He took a step closer, ordering himself not to breathe her in, but damn he loved the way she smelled. He shouldered her bag and held out his hand for the purse hanging off her other side.
She relinquished her purse without a word.
Another sign that something was wrong. He’d expected her to be pissy, but it wasn’t temper he saw.
“Hey,” he said, moving closer, bending to see into her face. “You okay?”
“Terrific, never better.” She hit the first step and her leg buckled.
It was instinct for him to reach for her, but at his movement her head whipped around like Carrie in the horror film and she gave him a back off or die look.
He lifted his hands.
She put earbuds into her ears and hit play on her iPod. Then she very carefully gripped the railing on the porch and took the second step.
Killing him. He looked at the time on his phone and eyed the distance to his truck, torn between keeping his big trap shut and mentioning that not only were they in a hurry, but a fall on the slippery steps would be bad. “I’ll carry you,” he said.
She pretended she couldn’t hear him over her music and made it to the third step, completely drenched now. Her hair loved this weather as much as she did, the curls rioting around her face.
Two more steps.
AJ watched, holding his breath, hands itching to help. Jesus. How did Wyatt and Zoe do this every single day?
When she nearly bought it on the last step, he had to shove his hands in his pockets to keep them off her.
She held still a moment, fighting for balance—which she won. And the cocky smile she sent him over her shoulder was worth every second of the torture.
“Did it,” she said, clearly proud of herself. “And this time I didn’t eat dirt.”
He’d been with her just about every step of the way since her doctor had approved PT. He’d seen her flat on the mats at his wellness center, writhing in agony as he dug into her scar tissue to loosen it up. He seen her fighting her way through the pain as she worked the weights and stretches he’d given her. He’d seen her stand up out of her wheelchair and take her first steps again.
All of it had moved him.
It was why he did what he did. He never got tired of being such an integral part of someone’s recovery.
But now, right this very minute, watching her do a triumphant dance, which included a very carefully orchestrated hip boogie and body shake that had his eyes going straight to her sweet ass, made his day.
“Nicely done,” he said.
She slid him a look, and he had no idea if it was the morning huskiness of his voice or something else, but she blinked in surprise at him.
And then turned left instead of heading to his truck. She walked to the middle of the grass in her yard and . . .
Lay down on her back. Despite the fact that the air was chilled and the ground even colder, she stared up at the sky and smiled as the rain hit her.
He stared down at his feet, blew out a breath, and tossed her bags into his truck. Then he joined her, sprawling out on his back on the—oh, perfect—wet grass next to her. Their arms touched and she reached for his hand, squeezing his fingers. “Perfect start to the day, right?”
The wet grass was seeping through his clothes as drops of rain splashed right in his eye. They had a long drive ahead of them, but all he could feel was her fingers in his, and then there was her smile.
Brighter than the sun that hadn’t come out in weeks.
The front door of the house across the street opened. An older woman in a thick bathrobe and curlers peered out. “What the hell are you crazy kids doing?” she yelled.
Darcy laughed her musical laugh. “Being crazy kids,” she yelled back.
The woman muttered something and slammed her door.
“She’ll call the cops,” Darcy said. “And poor Kel will have to come out and investigate.”
Kel was the local sheriff and a friend of AJ’s. “We’re not doing anything illegal,” he said. “Stupid, yes. Illegal, no.”
Darcy shrugged. “Mrs. Willingham likes to cover all her bases when it comes to me.” She blew out a sigh and sat up. “We’ve got eight point five minutes to get out of here.”
A few minutes later they were on the highway. “I’m not even going to mention how disturbing it is that you know the exact response time for the police to your house.”