Her voice seemed to unlock something in the puppy. It scrambled up, tail wagging furiously, body language clear. It wanted to jump on her again.
“Down,” Joe said firmly again and Freddy plopped back down.
The young girl looked at Joe wide-eyed. “How’d you do that? Freddy doesn’t obey me at all. How’d you get him to sit?”
Isabel took pity on her. Being female, the girl was probably blaming herself for a ton of dog-training inadequacies.
“Joe here is a former navy SEAL,” she explained kindly and the girl’s face smoothed out. Clearly she wasn’t inadequate. No one could expect her to show a SEAL’s ability to command.
“Oh.” She looked up at Joe. “That true?”
He nodded seriously. Isabel looked carefully and saw that Joe was biting his lips not to smile.
“You’re not—you don’t...” The girl took a deep breath and blurted it out. “You’re not a dog trainer, are you? Because man, I would pay anything to get Freddy to obey me like that.”
“Sorry,” Joe said in his basso profundo voice and the girl slumped. “Not in that line of work.”
The girl sighed and bent down to clip the leash to Freddy’s collar. Freddy shook, hindquarters up, front paws extended. His hindquarters braced. The girl pulled at the leash but it was a big puppy and she had no hope of stopping another jump at Isabel.
And then Joe worked his magic, this time with one sharp movement of his big hand. Freddy subsided.
Isabel exchanged glances with the girl.
Yep. You had to be a SEAL to be able to do that.
With a smile, the girl walked off, an obedient Freddy trotting alongside her.
Isabel looked up at Joe. “Thanks,” she said again and he shrugged.
* * *
Fuck, that was close.
Joe had excellent balance, always had. Even after being injured, he’d never fallen, not once. He also had superb spatial awareness. When that rambunctious pup made a leap for Isabel, Joe had been able to see the consequences exactly as if it was a game of chess. Isabel was standing next to a steel post holding the wooden slats of the enclosure. She was in the exact right spot to ensure that she’d bash the back of her head against the steel post, drop and smash her head against the concrete piling. Maybe bounce off the wood, too, and get sharp splinters while she was at it.
He’d seen it, as inevitable as geometry. Which was why he broke land speed records getting to her and breaking her fall.
Joe knew how to make his face a mask. Nobody saw what he didn’t want them to see and he knew he wasn’t betraying the absolute panic he’d felt at the thought of Isabel cracking her head open. He’d watched one helmetless marine die when he fell and cracked his head on a rock.
Isabel, dead. Fuck. Not going to happen, not while he was around.
She was pale but she sketched a smile. “That puppy needs some manners.”
“She’d better hurry up and teach him some because Freddy’s going to grow up to be a big dog,” Joe said sternly.
He had no patience for those who acquired animals they couldn’t handle. That woman could have cost Isabel a bad concussion, or worse.
“So,” he said, holding her elbow. He’d rather put his arm around her waist, but one way or another, he was going to be touching her. Isabel looked pale and shocky. She was not going to fall. “Since I’m here, do you want to walk around the park or are you ready to go back?”
“Back,” Isabel said immediately. She peered up at him, frowning. “How did you happen to be here at exactly the right time? Are you Superman or The Flash?”
“I didn’t go for my run and I wanted some exercise. I like this park and I just happened to see you and see that dog come running at you,” Joe lied cheerfully.
Because the truth would have sounded too creepy. You looked unsteady on your feet so I followed you, and made sure you couldn’t see me.
“Well, you showed up just in time, like a superhero.” She smiled at him. Her smiles were rare and they lit up her face. Joe should have felt bad about lying to her, but he didn’t. She wouldn’t have been smiling at him if he’d told her the truth.
“Ma’am?” He stuck out his elbow at an exaggerated angle and she put her arm through his. “May ah have the honah of accompanyin’ you home?” He laid on a thick ole-timey Southern accent. Rhett Butler offering Scarlett his arm.
“Why, sir.” She batted her eyelashes extravagantly. “It would be mah pleasure.”
He was playacting but...whoa. It wasn’t hard to imagine her in some big ball gown, curtsying. She had such an old-fashioned beauty to her, made up of fine features, huge eyes with eyelashes that were like fans and perfect ivory skin. Those eyelashes of hers were so long they could create a breeze when she fluttered them.
She frowned, the playacting completely dropped. “Joe?”
Whoa. He’d been standing there staring at her like a total moron. The playacting had allowed him to study her face. He rarely looked at her for long because he didn’t want to come across as creepy because really? He knew he could stare at her for hours and wouldn’t that scare her away.
“Raht here, ma’am.” He nodded and tipped an imaginary top hat. “Okay, let’s go.”
They walked back slowly, because Isabel wasn’t a fast walker and because he wanted to stretch out their time together. And it was no hardship walking slowly. Not with Isabel by his side.
She was watching the ground. Yeah, he recognized that. He’d spent two months walking carefully, watching every step. But he knew exactly why he had to watch his feet for months after being able to finally get out of bed.
He’d been blown up. He’d died and come back. He’d been really messed up there.
Why was she watching the ground so assiduously? Why was her balance so off? Why did she have to walk so slowly?
What the hell happened to you?
The words were there, on the tip of his tongue. She’d been wounded, hurt in some way. That was clear. But how? He’d caught that one glimpse of a scar on her forearm and that was it. It was a nasty one but not life threatening. She always wore long-sleeved sweats in the house and outdoors she was dressed for cold weather so basically he had her face and hands to judge by and they were...perfect.
Maybe her bad wounds were covered up. He’d have to see her naked to know.
And bam, just like that, the image of a naked Isabel rose up before him and his dick stirred in his pants. His very first hard-on since almost dying.
Oh...shit. His dick had been dead meat between his legs since the IED. Nothing had stirred it to life. When he’d discreetly asked Metal, he’d gotten a hard stare. Dude, you nearly died. As a matter of fact you did die and they shocked you back to life. That’s major trauma and you’re lucky to be alive, you ungrateful fuck, Metal had said. And then Joe got a long lecture about how penile erection was one of the last functions to return and that he was an ungrateful shithead who by the merest chance wasn’t bones in the ground and...
Metal started getting heated up and Joe had held his hands up and never asked again. And truth was, there was no time for women in his life after the IED, there was just long, painful rehab.
And then Isabel showed up and she fascinated him and intrigued him and he was vastly attracted but his dick basically stayed down. There was the added factor that she was clearly a traumatized woman and he wasn’t going to come on to a woman who looked so vulnerable.
So it was like this balance they’d achieved. She didn’t flirt and he didn’t push because neither of them was in a position to do something about it.
Shit. It was just his luck that his dick surged to life at the wrongest possible moment. Before being blown up and dying, Joe would have said that an active dick was never a bad thing, but right now it was.
True, his parka reached midthigh and he had on heavy cold-weather camo pants from his navy days, but still. He had to work not to walk funny.