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And she cooked for him.

Isabel Lawton, gorgeous mystery. One huge question mark. And a wounded woman.

Something bad had happened to her, something she never talked about. Of course, she didn’t talk about much of anything personal, but she particularly didn’t talk about whatever had happened to her.

Joe kept tabs on her. Because she was a wreck—weak and vulnerable. And because...well, because.

Joe’s house was surrounded by vidcams. As a former SEAL, he believed there could never be such a thing as too much security. And he lived by the specops maxim: one is none, two is one.

So he had 360-degree coverage that he could access at any time and was always on view on a monitor in the kitchen. He was sipping a cup of coffee leaning against the sink when he saw movement on the monitor.

Isabel. Dressed for a cold-weather walk. Carrying something almost too heavy for her. He had to clench his jaw and mentally nail his shoes to the linoleum floor to keep from opening his door and taking that heavy thing she was carrying from her.

She wouldn’t want that. And he didn’t want her to know he was keeping an eye on her.

So he watched as she slowly made her way up his walkway onto the porch and bent slowly and painfully to place something in front of his door, then slowly and painfully went down the steps and down his gravel path to the sidewalk.

When she was gone, Joe opened his door and saw a huge pot. It smelled like it had just been dropped from heaven. He picked it up and carried it into his bare-bones kitchen. It was still hot, she’d just cooked it.

He lifted the top and drew in a deep breath. Beef stew. Sort of. Not like the beef stew in a can that tasted like dog food mixed with dog shit that his dad had opened when he remembered to feed his young son. Which wasn’t often. Joe had learned early the fine art of can opening. No, this was perfect beef stew with some kind of special spices that nearly brought him to his knees.

She’d also cooked for an army, so his buddies would get to share, as usual. Maybe he’d call an extra poker night. After eating this, they’d let him win by default. Except maybe for his buddy Metal, nicest guy on earth except when playing poker, when a hidden mean streak always flared up.

Joe always won at poker, always. Drove Metal wild.

He wished he could share it with her, but Joe knew by experience that Isabel wouldn’t eat it with him. She was friendly but reserved. Not cold, but gun-shy. It wasn’t because of anything he’d done, that was for sure.

Joe was big and rough but he took care to control his voice and his movements around her. On his very best behavior. Any other time, he’d have made a play for Isabel, right from the first moment. Any red-blooded male would have, and his blood was redder than most. But he hadn’t. Not because he didn’t want to, but because he hadn’t had any moves in him when they’d first met. He’d been lucky to be alive and upright.

An IED on the last day of his last mission, a month from separation of service, had reduced him to rubble.

Taliban karma.

Two months in a coma, four operations and four months of unrelenting hell delivered daily by his best friend and sadist Metal, who oversaw his physical rehab. And now, here he was, almost as good as new.

Now. Now he could go after the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, a woman who intrigued him like no other. But the fact was, she was still in bad shape.

Isabel wasn’t as good as new. She was still as shaken and unsteady as the day she’d moved in next door to him three months ago.

She was looking particularly shaky as she made her slow way along the sidewalk. She’d turned left at the gate. Outside the gate there was left and there was right. Left was to a small park about five blocks down, right led eventually to the Green, a big meadow about a mile away where people played Frisbee and flirted in the summer and jocks ran in the winter, with a shopping mall on the other side. When Isabel was feeling better, she went right. If she went left it meant she didn’t trust herself to stay out for long.

It wasn’t his business, really, but the thought of her falling down on her walk was like acid on Joe’s brain. So after texting his buds Jacko and Metal—Neighbor lady brought food come for poker if you get back early, otherwise our regularly scheduled transfer of money to me tomorrow—he went looking for his ancient black watch cap and black running gear and suited up.

Once outside, he couldn’t run, he’d pass her in a minute and he wanted to stay behind her. So though he felt like a jerk, instead, when he was worried about her, he walked fast then stopped to do stretches. Luckily there wasn’t anyone around to look at him, because they’d think he was insane to stretch longer than he walked. He looked like a fool.

Which was cool, because that’s how he felt. Awkward and clumsy. Joe was usually pretty smooth with the ladies. He’d never had a big problem attracting them and he’d never wanted one he couldn’t have. It had all worked out really well until Isabel.

She tied him up in knots.

A month ago, Isabel had come home limping and he’d rushed out the door. It wasn’t a sprain, thank God, but she’d banged her knee badly. He’d patched her up the best he could and had Metal come over to be sure. Metal had been their team medic and what he didn’t know about injuries wasn’t worth knowing.

No one else had come to her, for her.

Isabel seemed to be alone in the world, which baffled him. She was so beautiful his jaw had dropped the first time he saw her, talking to the moving guys. Good thing she wasn’t looking his way otherwise he’d have scared her off. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

She’d been sick, that was easy to see. She’d clearly lost a lot of weight recently. Joe knew all about that. He’d dropped from his fighting weight of 210 to 150 by the time he was released from the hospital. When he’d walked with two crutches outside the rehab unit’s doors, the skin seemed to drop off him. If they’d put him in old smelly clothes with a hat and a guitar on a sidewalk people would have been lining up to drop coins in the hat out of sheer mercy.

He’d worked hard and was back to 180, and it was all muscle. He’d get all the way back to 210, most of it thanks to Isabel’s cooking.

That first day had started it. The moving guys had been total shitheads. They clearly’d had another delivery before the day’s end and had simply dumped her stuff as fast as they could and left. Some things they’d even left on her front lawn.

He’d never forget that sight of her, lost and lonely in the middle of boxes and a few pieces of good furniture shoved up against the wall. He’d knocked on her open front door and she’d turned to look at him and pow! He was lost.

“Hey,” he’d said gently, “I’m your next-door neighbor. Joe Harris. Need a hand?”

Bones, his orthopedic surgeon, had given him strict instructions to use the cane until the end of the month. Bones had also said that with anyone else, he’d order the use of two crutches for the next two months. But Bones knew Joe was a former SEAL and he knew it was pointless trying to stop Joe from pushing forward with his rehab.

However, Bones had been really strict on using at least the cane for the next four weeks and had given Joe a long, boring lecture on load-bearing coefficients and fusion time and yada yada. It had all made sense at the time and Joe had been following doctor’s orders like a good little patient.

But seeing that beautiful woman trying to tug a couch toward the wall...well, he couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t sit by and watch. He tossed the cane and spent the afternoon helping her unpack. His bones had ached that night, but what the hell. Though he was just back on his feet, he was still stronger than she was. So he’d carried in boxes from the lawn, set up some furniture, unpacked her books and when he saw that she couldn’t take it anymore, he’d gone back to his place and stared at the wall for an hour, seeing that face.

The next morning he found freshly baked cinnamon buns and a pan of banana bread outside his front door.