Authors: Claire Ashgrove
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Holidays, #Military
If things had been different… If they hadn’t suffered such a devastating loss…
Kyle turned away before the memories could swamp him. He’d wanted to try again. To move forward and invest all that love in a second child. But he’d never had the courage to ask Aimee to go through that again. And she’d never indicated she shared the same desire.
Deliberately ignoring the sitting room he had once adored, he grabbed the banister and hefted himself down the stairs. Descending proved more difficult than up; his bad leg shook each time it had to bear his full weight. He willed his fingers not to slip.
One-by-one, little-by-little, he made his way to the living room at a snail’s pace. When he hit the solid floor, melancholy yielded to triumph, and Kyle gave in to a self-satisfied grin. He
do stairs. Now, a few more days of practice, then he could show off his skills and hopefully convince Aimee she didn’t need to stick around.
What would he do then? Here, in this house where every corner reminded him of her?
Find a hobby, he supposed. Something he could do left handed. Maybe paint.
Maybe he’d get a dog. He didn’t need two hands for fetch.
Making his way into the bathroom to bathe while Aimee was asleep, Kyle opened the hall closet for fresh towels. As reached for a folded square of fluffy white terry, the shelf above his head caught his eye. Stacked in one corner, colorful scrapbooks marked Aimee’s hideaway. Beside them, two lidless shoeboxes overflowed with photographs.
Man, how long had it been since he’d looked through these? Three years? Had to be, if not longer. Knowing Aimee, she’d done more work while he’d been gone.
He pushed the door open further and grabbed at the green scrapbook. Habit, however, humiliated him once more. He remembered too late his dysfunctional fingers, and as he tugged on the binding, his hand slipped. The book, its companions, and the boxes crashed down around his head.
Aimee jerked upright in bed. What the…
She kicked the sheets off and raced out of the room to look over the balcony on the loft. “Kyle?”
“I’m fine,” he called.
If he hadn’t been so bullheaded before, she might have believed that. As it was, the sight of his feet sticking out from behind the closet door made her doubt his claim. Taking the stairs two at a time, she hurried to investigate. If he’d fallen again, she intended to take his cane to his backside and ground him to a couch. It was the middle of the night—he should be asleep, not wandering around the house.
When she reached his side and saw the photographs scattered across the floor, she skidded to a stop. On his knees, Kyle hurried to gather the pictures back into their boxes. He looked up with an embarrassed flush. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
With a shake of her head, she dismissed the rude awakening and knelt at his side to help him pick up the mess. But as she reached for a stack of face down pictures near his knee, he slapped his hand on top of them, warding her off.
Aimee pulled her hand away. Okay. She got the message—but what was he hiding? Careful to give the tidy pile a wide berth, she collected the snapshots from their last summer vacation and dropped them in the box.
“What are you still doing up?”
Kyle shrugged. “Thought I’d clean up before I hit the sack.” He pushed the green scrapbook onto the tabletop near his shoulder, then the red.
“Oh. Well, I can get the rest of this.”
His frown was instantaneous and dark. “I’ll get it. I made the mess, I’ll clean it up.”
“Kyle,” Aimee sighed.
“What? You wouldn’t be here helping if I had two good legs. You’d yell something at me from the bedroom.” Frustration etched his handsome face into hard lines, accenting a scar on his forehead he hadn’t possessed when he’d last been home.
Aimee stuffed her hand against her flannel pajama pants to stop from tracing that thin white line. “Yeah, I would. I’d tell you to come to bed. But you don’t seem to be interested in sleeping.”
He expelled a harsh breath. His shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry.”
Reaching between them, she rested her hand on his. His gaze skittered down to where she touched him. “Go take your shower,” she encouraged in a low voice. “I’ll get this.”
“I can’t. I don’t have a bench.”
Bench… Aimee frowned, his meaning giving her pause. It came to her quickly, however, and she put his bad leg together with shower, realizing her error. He couldn’t handle the shower. He’d need to sit.
She squeezed his hand. “I’m a nurse, Kyle, and I’m certainly no stranger. Why won’t you let me help you?”
Kyle drew his hand back with a muffled hiss. “I don’t want help, Aimee.”
His pride rang loud and clear through the gruff response, and this time, Aimee refused to back down. She stood up, grabbed a towel from the closet. “Did you give your doctors such a hard time?” Stepping around him, she opened the bathroom door and flipped on the light. “I’m starting a bath. You can use the hot water, or you can let it sit overnight. I don’t care. But if you want to get in that tub, I’ll be waiting.”
Without further comment, she went inside and flipped on the taps, taking care to nudge the hot just this side of uncomfortable, the way Kyle preferred. While it ran, she set the towel on the towel heater and sat on the toilet seat, prepared to wait him out.
When the tub was full, she turned off the faucet. Her foot tapped an antsy rhythm on the heated tile floor while her fingers worked the washcloth into a tight twist. Seconds ticked by. Turned into silent minutes where she strained to hear a noise from beyond the partly open door. As far as she could tell, Kyle hadn’t moved from where she’d left him.
Floorboards creaked. Her heartbeat spiked as the door squeaked slowly open. Kyle stood on the other side, looking awkward and uncertain. In six years of marriage, and a full year before that, she’d never seen him so self-conscious.
Hesitantly, he stepped inside and nudged the door shut with the back of his heel. He rested his cane against the sink, turned to stare at the steamy water. Then with a soul-deep sigh of resignation, he pulled his bulky sweatshirt over his head.
The sight of Kyle’s broad shoulders, defined pecs, and sun-bronzed skin sent Aimee’s pulse into overdrive. She struggled for the ability to breathe. Countless times she had seen him naked, and every time he undressed, he cast a spell over her. Hard tight body, strong muscles, trim waist—Kyle Garland defined perfection.
He turned sideways, and the light caught the scar on his left shoulder where he’d been shot seven years ago. Aimee couldn’t contain a wistful smile. They’d met that way. Head held high, he’d walked into the MASH unit in Iraq, too proud to tell anyone he was in pain. He’d dug the bullet out on his own, attempted field stitches as well. But infection had set in, and she’d been tasked with reopening the gash and cleaning it out. For the next several months, Kyle Garland showed up regularly when combat wounded overloaded their resources. Those chance encounters—she always suspected they were more strategic than luck—led to six months of forbidden passion whenever they could get their hands on one another, and her eventual retirement so they didn’t have to worry about getting caught.
Her gaze dipped to his waist, where he fumbled with the button on his jeans. Aimee rose from her perch and pushed his hands away.
“Aimee, I can—”
“I know you can.” She popped the button with a twist of her wrist. “But I want to.”
Kyle sucked in a sharp breath. He stood absolutely still, his breath barely stirring her hair as she lowered the zipper and tucked her fingers into his waistband.
Holy Mary, Mother of God—Aimee was undressing him. Kyle couldn’t move. His insides felt so tight he feared he might snap in half at any moment. How many times in the last fourteen months had he dreamed of this? Imagined the way her hands would slide over his body. The light fall of her lips against his skin.
As those lips dusted over his shoulder, he closed his eyes and exhaled on a hiss.
Too many damn times to count. Fire arced through his body, his injuries forgotten for the first time since he’d come to in the middle of Saif’s destroyed hut. He slapped an open palm against the wall to brace his unsteady leg and to stop himself from gathering her into his arms. He yearned to, ached to feel that silky skin sliding over his. Hell, she’d barely touched him, and he was hard as a rock.
She bent at the knees, her light breath coming dangerously close to his flagging erection, and pushed his jeans to his ankles. It took all of Kyle’s willpower to find the ability to lift each foot without tangling his left hand into her hair and dragging her full mouth up to where he wanted it. Soft lips. Satin tongue.
A shudder worked its way from his shoulders to the base of his spine.
His half-hearted protest trailed away as she stepped back and took his good hand. With a gentle tug, she led him to the water. Kyle stared speechlessly while she shucked her cozy pants and dipped a foot into the water. “Use my knee. I can brace your weight that way.”
For the love of heaven, he wanted to whimper. He couldn’t touch her. Couldn’t lower himself into the tub with a bird’s-eye-view of what lay beneath those lacy white panties.
He swallowed hard.
Bathtub, not sex.
Setting his palm on her thigh, he put his good leg in first, then his right, and eased down into the steamy water. For a heartbeat, he found peace. Heat soaked into his aching knee, spread slowly up his spine to push the tension from his shoulders. He closed his eyes, exhaled long and deep.
When he opened them again, however, where he was and what he was doing crashed into him like a bucket of rocks dumped on his head. Aimee sat on the edge of the tub, both feet in the water, knees just barely touching. He nearly groaned at the sight of that tempting bare skin.
She dipped the washcloth into the water and squeezed it over his shoulders. “Relax, Kyle,” she murmured.
Relax. That was like asking him to forget his name. He could no more
than he could use a jump rope. The gentle touch of her fingertips against his shoulder, the way her hair brushed the surface of the water when she bent forward to rain water down his back again—this was hell. Absolute damnation.
All he could think about was dragging her off that porcelain ledge and into his lap. He didn’t care if her clothes stayed behind, or if she lost them in the tub. He wanted Aimee every bit as wet, every bit as willing, as he was…and he wanted her like he’d never imagined he might.
Fourteen months of pretending… Fourteen months of ignoring her.
Kyle squeezed his eyes against the torment of it all.
“Hey,” she whispered at his ear. Her hand trailed down his bicep to his elbow, then up to his shoulder again. “It’s me. Just me. And it’s okay to want me, and not want me, all at once.”
It was the strangest exchange he’d ever had with Aimee, but somehow her odd words made it easier to accept the way she lathered soap over his back. He sagged beneath the gentle caress of her hands, allowed the silence to span between them. The
of water, the warmth streaming over his skin, carried him to a pleasant place, where sitting in a bathtub with his ex wife bathing him and his cock so stiff he was uncomfortable, felt natural.
His thoughts drifted between fantasies of the way her breasts would bob as he thrust high inside her, and far less graphic realizations of just how soft her fingertips could be. He drifted between heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, and somehow, though he couldn’t begin to explain it, everything was right.