He couldn’t even think of something else, something to make it go down, not with Isabel right there, holding his arm. That was boner material, just her touching his arm through about a billion layers of clothing.
Christ, a dead man would get a boner with her around. The fact was that he hadn’t died that day. He’d lived and now his entire body was on the same page.
The top of her head reached his shoulder and, looking down, he saw absurdly long lashes, high cheekbones and an impossibly lush mouth. She was wearing a knit cap rimmed with pale mink fur, shiny mink-colored locks escaping from it.
Silvery gray eyes moved to look up at him and he shifted his gaze just in time. He didn’t want her to catch him staring at her.
“Are you having a poker night tonight?” she asked with a slight smile.
“Not tonight.” Shit. “Do we make too much noise? Sorry.”
She shook her head. “Oh no! Not at all. I don’t hear much, just the occasional shout or groan. I imagine they correspond to a win or a loss. Do you do much losing?”
“Nah.” He’d always earned extra money with poker. He could beat the pants off Satan himself. “But I’m sorry if we bother you.”
“It’s actually kind of...nice hearing you guys.” She bit her lips as if she’d already said too much. Her voice sounded wistful.
Was she lonely? Wow, that was a thought. And yet—she had to be. To Joe’s knowledge, he was the only person she saw. It seemed so outrageous to him that a woman as beautiful and as nice as Isabel could be lonely, but there it was.
Joe was really lucky. His company, Alpha Security International, was like a big, extended family. He’d been blown up at the end of his deployment in the military and ASI had carried him on its payroll since then, even when he’d been in a coma and had begun the series of operations that put him back together. ASI was mainly made up of his BUD/S buds who had shown their support in every way.
He had his teammates and soon would join them full-time in the job. They were like a family, tight and strong. Anything he needed, he got. And as soon as he was fully functioning, he’d be there for them, too—no question. He knew he was soaking up help, but that was the way families worked, wasn’t it? When you reached out for a helping hand, it was there.
His family hadn’t been like that, his old man would have been more liable to knock Joe down than extend a helping hand but Joe was no dummy. He’d seen how good families worked and it was like a little miracle.
Where was her family? Who cared for her? Why was she so isolated?
He burned with questions he wanted to ask her. Who are you? What happened to you? Where are your people?
“You can come over anytime you want,” he blurted. “Poker game or not. You play?”
She smiled and shook her head. “I’d lose every cent I had if I played poker. I don’t have much of a poker face and I can’t keep the cards straight in my head. Clearly, you can.”
Oh, yeah. After a day or two, he’d be kicked out of any casino in the country for card counting.
“You can sit beside me and be my good luck charm,” he said and she closed up. Bam. Just like that. Face as blank as that of a doll.
“I don’t bring anyone good luck,” she said softly.
Well, fuck. If a beautiful classy woman considered herself a jinx, what could he say?
They were back home. He walked her up to her front door. He opened his mouth to say something, anything—do you want to come over for the lunch you cooked for me? Do you want to go for a drive? Do you want to go to bed with me?—but before he could put his foot in it, she smiled at him, thanked him again and disappeared into her house.
Joe was left staring at the wooden door that was exactly like his until he snapped out of it and entered his own house. He had some paperwork to get through—he had to read through a contract ASI had signed with a local bank and which would be his first job for them at the first of the month—and he had some laundry to do.
What he did was head for the shower. He needed a long, cold one after his walk with the most beautiful woman in the world, Isabel Lawton.
But first, he had to check his email. There might be another contract for him to look at.
He shucked off his parka and sweater and boots and socks, standing barefoot in front of the keyboard.
There was an email from Jacko—We’re on for tomorrow! Metal’s bringing beer.
So—poker night tomorrow was confirmed.
And another email from an address he didn’t recognize. In the subject line: READ ME. It smelled of spam but if it had passed his spam filter, it was worth a look.
He clicked it open and felt his face tighten as he stared at the message.
* * *
Do you want to come over and watch while we play poker?
Oh, God yes. Isabel had had to bite her lips to keep from saying that. She’d lied a little. The guys did make a lot of noise but she just lapped it up. Sometimes she sat in a chair close to the living room window that faced his house and listened to the rumble of deep male voices, closing her eyes and imagining she was home again, with Jack teasing their father, the twins, Teddy and Rob, chiming in.
Joe and his friends swore like the sailors they were. She heard more four-letter words in one evening than she normally did in a year. They were profane and funny and something else. There was affection there as they called each other names. It was absolutely unmistakable. Affection and fraternity. The kind of affection and fraternity that had existed among the Delvauxes.
The men were all close friends, a tight and unbreakable union, like her family had been.
And just like that, it took her. The room swirled and her head went light and her knees wobbled. She sat down heavily, still in her coat and boots, and bent her head low between her knees. In the very beginning, when thoughts of her family made her dizzy, she’d have to head as fast as she could to the bathroom, where she’d vomit the contents of her stomach together with her misery into the toilet bowl.
Maybe it was a mark of progress that she no longer vomited, but just felt dizzy. She sat, head bowed low, trying to ease out her breathing until the room stopped spinning. No tears, though. At times she thought she’d cried out all the tears her body could possibly hold. It had been months since she’d cried. Not because she didn’t want to but because tears wouldn’t come. The tears had dried up inside her, just like all the other emotions. Now she felt as dry and shriveled as a husk of corn. Most days she was surprised the wind didn’t just carry her away, she felt so insubstantial.
She wasn’t here. She was a ghost. She had already died only her body hadn’t noticed yet.
The only thing that told her she wasn’t actually dead were those flashes of heat when she was near Joe Harris. He seemed such a nice man, but she didn’t dare tell him he reminded her that she wasn’t dead.
It sounded so weird, so incredibly neurotic. Yes, she’d lost her family. But he’d been blown up. In battle. Her own physical injuries paled next to his. Her spirit had broken, not her bones. His spirit hadn’t broken at all.
Who knew if Joe would or even could understand that? He seemed so...straightforward. So sane. He’d probably had a Putting Joe Harris Back Together Program going the instant he woke up after the explosion. Yeah, that sounded like him. He probably had some kind of timetable for recovery, and was moving ahead with it, step-by-step.
Get wounded, do rehab, get better.
Whereas she was still mired back at step one. Lose family. She’d never really gotten beyond that in any way. Every night when her nightmares woke her up, she felt the pain of their deaths every bit as keenly as when she’d woken up in the hospital and the nurse had given her the news. She relived that, night after night after night, in some hellish endless loop, but was never able to remember anything else in the morning, only grief and horror and terror.