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When the dizziness passed, Isabel stood, exhausted. She hung up her coat in the hallway and moved to the kitchen for a glass of water. Her feet were shuffling and she had to remember to pick them up, to walk normally. Every single thing she did had to be done like a child learning it all for the first time.

Except...except walking back home. That had been great. Arm in arm with Joe Harris she’d felt almost normal for the first time since the Massacre. He’d kept pace with her, moving as slowly as she did but making it seem perfectly normal. She had a feeling that if she’d crawled, he’d have crawled right alongside her.

Clearly, he could walk faster than that. Hell, he ran almost every morning. But coming back from the park, he’d kept step with her without making any kind of big deal about it. And it had felt just great. Arm linked with his, feeling him so big and warm and strong at her side, well...she’d felt strong too. Just a little. It wasn’t like the old days when she was fit and happy and energetic. Those days were over, maybe forever. These days she felt a hundred years old.

But she’d definitely felt better with him by her side. She didn’t need to watch her feet. He wouldn’t let her fall if she tripped. So for the first time in what felt like forever she’d walked with her head upright, seeing the street for the first time. Acutely aware of the big man by her side. Wishing they could walk together forever.

But that was crazy. He was just walking his nutso, next-door neighbor back home because she’d nearly been knocked over by a dog. Couldn’t even be trusted to take a short walk to a nearby park.

Oh, God she was so tired of this! So tired of being a pale shadow of herself, so tired of not sleeping, so tired of feeling guilty because she hadn’t died together with her parents and her brothers and her aunts and uncles and cousins.

Yes, she should have said. I’d love to come over. Sit by his side while he played cards, listen to the male banter, laugh at their corny jokes. They’d probably watch their language around her but she didn’t care. Teddy had passed through a stage where fuck was a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb and an exclamation. He’d been so funny.

Isabel sat down and ducked her head back between her legs as the dizziness came back, together with a pounding headache.

She missed her family. So. Fucking. Much.

Would the pain ever go away?

Would it have helped if she’d accepted Joe’s invitation? Could she shed this dry husk of sadness that enveloped her, just for one evening? Go back to her old self?

No dizziness, no sudden crippling bouts of sadness, just a sense of play among strong, confident men.

She liked guys. Growing up with three brothers had given her a sense of ease around men. In college, it had been a game the girls played—finding new and inventive ways to describe the dumbness of the guys. They were fine for fucking but none of her friends stuck to one guy for long. One of her friends, when asked why she’d dumped the date du jour after only a couple of nights, simply rolled her eyes and said, “The Y chromosome.” And everyone laughed and understood.

Not Isabel. Granted, guys could be clueless most of the time but they never took offense and she loved their take on things. Her best friends in college had been two jocks who were smart as whips but who were having big problems passing the obligatory English exams. English profs objected to jocks almost on principle. So she coached them through the exams and they kept her car running and everyone was happy.

Could she have that with Joe and his friends?

Maybe if she reached out. But she hadn’t been attracted to her two jock buddies, not at all. Sex hadn’t been any part of the equation. She was attracted to Joe, so maybe that wasn’t a good idea.

Joe was hot. In every sense of the term. She hadn’t really understood it completely when her friends said that a guy was hot. Usually it meant he had money, or tons of charm or dressed well. Mostly, though, in her circles, it meant he had money. Money left her cold. The fact that a guy was rich wasn’t in any way a factor in attraction as far as she was concerned. She’d moved among the wealthy all her life and if there was one thing she knew, right down to the ground, it was that money did not make a person a better human being.

Joe didn’t seem to be rich but he was definitely hot. And by hot she meant he made her hot. Or at least that icy crust around her heart melted a little when she was near him, or thought of him.

But if grieving, semi-crazy Isabel Lawton thought Joe Harris was hot, then lots of other women did, too, guaranteed. And he was a former navy SEAL. Ever since she discovered that, she also discovered that SEALs were considered rock stars. The hottest of the hot. Women lusted after them, they were babe magnets. There were calendars of bare-chested SEALs and they sold like crazy. SEAL seemed to be synonymous with sex.

She hadn’t seen women flocking to Joe’s door but then he was often gone. Who knows where? And with whom?

And she really had no business thinking these thoughts because she was barely human these days. She wasn’t good company for herself, let alone for someone else.

And sex. God. She’d enjoyed sex back in the day, but now? Now she shuddered if someone got too close to her. Claustrophobia clawed at her in an enclosed space with too many people. Her hands and feet turned to ice and her stomach churned and panic rose in her throat. Walking with Joe had been really nice but who knew how she’d react if it ever came to intimacy? She’d freeze, surely. Curl in on herself, incapable of reacting like a woman.

Isabel rested her head against the back of the couch. Sadness and weakness nearly overwhelmed her.

Was this going to be the rest of her life? Missing her family like crazy. Unable to stop grieving them. Nightmares every night. Despair and exhaustion her constant companions during the day.

These thoughts were toxic thoughts, just as surely as if she was taking poison, drop by drop. She couldn’t go on this way. She was dishonoring her family, who had loved life and lived it to the fullest. Though the dizziness and the nightmares were beyond her control, her thoughts weren’t. She could control her thoughts, or at least try to.

Doing something. That was usually a good antidote. But do what? The house was spotless. Her accounts were in order. She’d neglected her food blog for so long she had no more followers, so that was out.

Food.

Okay.

She’d cook something else for Joe, to thank him for saving her from the big bad slobbering puppy. Baked ziti. A hearty recipe a friend’s Sicilian grandmother had taught her. He could freeze the pan and share with his buddies over poker some other time.

The thought energized her enough to propel her from the couch and back into the kitchen. Her hands took over. When she cooked she rarely had to think. Her hands just did the work without much input from her. It was magic.

So she switched on her cook setting and went along for the ride.

There was something so magical about food. Food and sex, the eternal healers. In her heart of hearts, if someone put her feet to the fire to make her tell the truth, she thought food was better than sex. More reliable as a source of pleasure. Good food never let you down like people did.

Before the...before. Before, she’d been making a name for herself as a food blogger because all of it interested her. Foodways, her blog was called. Well, it had been called that when it was active. Now it was dormant, dead. She still got puzzled inquiries from fellow food enthusiasts who hadn’t put together that Isabel Delvaux of Foodways was one of the Delvauxes, the political and artsy family. The family that had died in the Washington Massacre.

The contacts were falling off fast and other food bloggers had picked up her readership. Foodways was dead. Last week she’d even canceled her personal Foodways email address.