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Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz
January 1. A new year full of new resolutions, new possibilities, new opportunities.
I was lucky I'd lived to see it. A mere twelve hours ago I'd been tied to a carousel horse with explosives strapped to my chest. If not for bomb squad officer Seth Rutledge I'd be nothing more than a Hefty bag full of body parts right now. Seth had stayed on task right down to the wire, risking his own life to dismantle the bomb, finishing with a mere three seconds to spare.
What did it say that Seth had remained with me even as those final seconds ticked away, despite the fact that he'd dumped me without explanation only a few weeks before? Did he care so much about me that he'd risked his own life for mine? Was he simply dedicated to his duty as a bomb squad officer? Did he have a death wish?
"I suppose I'm about to find out," I thought aloud, earning me a questioning glance from my fluffy shepherd-mix partner who filled my passenger seat and then some.
I turned my metallic-blue Smart Car into the parking lot of the Ol' South Pancake House on University Drive, dragging a pair of truck nuts behind me. Why was my car sporting a pair of the ridiculous rubber testicles? Because I'd bested my fellow officer and former partner Derek "the Big Dick" Mackey by taking down the bomber. Derek had bet his nuts he'd beat me to it. He hadn't.
Suck on that, Derek.
I pulled into the spot next to Seth's '72 Nova, which sported bright orange flames down the sides and personalized license plates that read KABOOM. The car was basically an oversized Hot Wheels. Sometimes I thought it was goofy. Other times I thought it was badass. My feelings about the car generally mirrored my feelings about Seth. Those feelings had been quite volatile given his drive-by dating style and the aforementioned dumping.
"C'mon, Brigit!" I called, motioning for her to exit the car via the driver's door.
She hopped over and down, her nylon POLICE vest rustling with the movements, her toenails clicking on the asphalt. Forgoing my full uniform when I'd dressed this morning, I sported a Fort Worth PD sweatshirt, blue pants, sneakers, and my holster. Though I was off duty, I figured the restaurant staff was less likely to hassle me about bringing Brigit into the place if I wore some semblance of police attire and weaponry. Call me crazy, but I needed my K-9 partner for emotional support. Though the two of us had gotten off to a rocky start, the enormous beast had somehow become my best friend and confidante since we'd been paired together last summer. She was a good listener and always had my back. She was like a furry, four-footed wing woman.
A poster for the upcoming Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo was taped in the restaurant's front window. The annual event, which was scheduled to begin in a couple of weeks, would be held just a quarter mile north of the pancake house at the Will Rogers Memorial Complex. With its animal auctions, competitions, and carnival midway, the show brought in tourists, breeders, 4-H clubs, and livestock dealers from miles around. The beer stand and nightly country-western concerts also pulled in a fair share of rowdy shit-kickers intent on raising hell. Luckily, those hell-raising shit-kickers wouldn't be my problem. My beat, the Western 1 Division, sat just south of Interstate 30, a few blocks shy of the stock show grounds. Thank goodness for small favors, huh?
The aromas of fresh coffee, pancakes, and maple syrup greeted us as we stepped into the restaurant. Also greeting us were the bloodshot eyes, green-hued faces, and droopy expressions of customers who'd stayed out late bringing in the new year, only now making their way back home, and who had taken a detour into the pancake house for a quick breakfast before crashing in bed the rest of the day.
A man sitting alone at a table held up a copy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The front-page headline read "FWPD Nets the Tunabomber." An absurd name, one slapped on the bomber after the explosives he'd planted in a mall food court sent up a shower of pizza crusts, Chinese noodles, and tuna salad, some of which had ended up in my hair. Under the headline was a photo of the bomber apparently taken from a high school yearbook. Randy Dunham was definitely 2 crazy 2 be 4gotten! It was too soon to tell whether he'd have a great summer! But it was doubtful given that he'd be spending the season in the state penitentiary.
My eyes found Seth sitting at a booth in the back corner. Like me, he'd dressed casually, but in fire department attire-a long-sleeved tee embossed with the department's logo, along with a pair of cargo pants and black ankle boots. His bomb-sniffing Labrador, Blast, sat on the seat beside him. With their square jaws and short blond hair, the pair looked about as alike as two different species possibly could.
As Seth's green eyes met mine, my heart squirmed in my chest like a feral kitten afraid of being held. Every synapse in my brain misfired.
Damn, this guy makes me stupid.
I didn't like feeling stupid.
Forcing myself to appear nonchalant, I weaved my way through the tables, leading Brigit by her leash. Blast stood as we approached, his tail wagging vigorously, slapping the vinyl of the booth with a whap-whap-whap.
Seth stood, too, though his tail remained motionless. My gaze dropped from his eyes and ran down over his soft lips to the cleft in his chin. The odd urge to reach out and touch it struck me, just like it always did.
"Thanks for coming," he said softly.
His eyes played over my long dark hair. Though I often wore it up in a twist or ponytail, I'd left it down this morning. Not because I knew he liked it that way and wanted to torture him or anything like that ...
Okay. Maybe that was why.
"You saved my life last night," I reminded him. What kind of woman would refuse to meet with a man who'd rescued her, even if he'd once cruelly broken her heart?
A dark shadow played across his face. "Is that the only reason you came?"
No, I thought. I supposed I could lie to Seth, but I'd never been much good at that. Still, if he thought I was going to welcome him back with open arms, he had another think coming. Rather than answer, I gestured for Brigit to hop up onto the seat and slid in after her.
The waitress appeared with menus. "Coffee?"
"Please," I replied.
Seth merely nodded.
When the waitress left to retrieve mugs and a coffeepot, I opened my menu and pretended to peruse it, afraid to look directly at Seth lest my eyes betray me. I didn't want him to see how thrilled I was he'd asked to meet me, how bad I hoped he might want to resume our budding relationship and see where it might take us. With Seth, I'd felt a special spark I hadn't with the small handful of other guys I'd dated. Of course I was smart enough to know that not all sparks lead to fire. Some fizzle out quickly with little fanfare, like a cheap Chinese firework. But, given the right conditions, I suspected the spark between me and Seth could develop into a blaze big enough to cause Smokey the Bear significant concern.
"I got you something." Seth slid a small rectangle wrapped in poinsettia-print paper across the table. "I wanted to give it to you for Christmas, but..." His voice trailed off and he turned to stare out the window.
I watched him for a moment. He'd bought me a Christmas present? Even though he'd broken things off before Thanksgiving? Obviously that meant he'd been thinking of me, maybe planning on trying to work things out between us before the holiday.
But he hadn't.
I wondered what had stopped him. Given the sentence he'd left unfinished, Seth didn't seem inclined to provide an explanation. Maybe he couldn't. Men weren't exactly known for being in touch with their feelings. I'm not sure they knew why they did anything.
I reached out and slid the wrapped package toward me. There was no bow on it, but men weren't exactly known for their gift-wrapping skills, either. Besides, it was the thought that counts, right? Carefully sliding a finger under the tape at one end, I pulled the paper off.
I'd expected something typical, like perfume or a nice pair of gloves or jewelry. But instead there was a book inside. The latest offering from David Sedaris in hardback, an autographed copy no less.
No one, not even my parents, had ever bought me a more perfect gift.
How had he known?
My question must have been written on my face.
"I figured you must like his work," Seth said. "I noticed you had a few of his earlier books at your apartment."
Seth had noticed my books? Wow, that was pretty damn flattering. In my experience, guys tended only to notice things like exposed cleavage and neon beer signs.
"You don't have that book already, do you?" he asked. "I can exchange it."
"No, I don't have it." I'd been waiting for the cheaper paperback to come out next year. Rookie cops aren't exactly rolling in dough. "This was very n-nice of you, Seth."
Blurgh. My stutter was rearing its ugly head.
He made a motion with his hand. "There's a card inside."
I opened the book and removed a small white envelope containing a card with a cartoon poodle on the front. Inside Seth had scrawled I screwed the pooch.
Hmm. It was more of an acknowledgment than an outright apology, though I supposed the sentiment implied remorse. Still, as nice as it was for him to admit his mistake, I'd hoped for more. Was he simply trying to rid himself of guilt? Is that what this meeting and the book were about? I looked up at him, but he'd turned again to stare out the window. I wasn't sure what to say, so I said nothing.
When he finally spoke, he appeared to be addressing the pickup truck parked outside. "You think maybe we could pick up where we left off?"
I swallowed the lump of raw emotion that had formed in my throat. "We left off with you telling me it wasn't going to work out."
He hesitated a moment before offering a mirthless chuckle and turning back to look at me. "I meant before that. When we were having fun."
It was my turn to hesitate now, my turn to look out the window. As much as I'd wanted him to come crawling back to me, as much as I'd like to see where things between the two of us might lead, there'd be no sense in setting myself up for more heartache. I'd put up with more from Seth than I should have, having no expectations, making no demands, accepting attention when and if he decided to give it to me. In retrospect, that had been a mistake. A mistake I'd made because I'd sensed something bruised, or perhaps even broken, in him.
Seth had served as an army explosive ordnance disposal specialist in Afghanistan, returning with his skin scarred from metal shrapnel, his heart scarred from emotional shrapnel. Though he'd been back home for two years, he'd enlisted in the reserves and spent one weekend a month on duty. Clearly he was still working through things. Whatever he was suffering, I'd hoped to alleviate his pain through caring and compassion and patience.
Still, though I preferred to consider myself a martyr, it would be wrong to attribute my behavior totally to altruistic reasons. Part of why I'd accepted his sporadic attention was because I'd been desperately lonely, willing to take whatever time he'd give me. But, thanks to my K-9 partner, I wasn't nearly so lonely anymore. Brigit had proven herself to be a loyal friend, always there when I needed her. I no longer felt inclined to put up with a relationship that didn't give me what I needed, to settle for whatever scraps might be tossed my way.
I forced myself to turn back to Seth. He was still watching me. Though his posture was rigid and his expression stoic, his green eyes seemed to be pleading with me.
What should I do?
The fact that he'd stuck with me last night and carefully selected this book said he harbored some feelings for me, but obviously he stunk at relationships. Did I really want to date someone who blew hot and cold? Who didn't seem to know what he wanted? Who left me feeling confused and frustrated, and more alone and lonely than ever? On the other hand, if I couldn't show him some understanding, offer forgiveness and reconciliation, what kind of person would that make me? And did I even know what I wanted from him? Was I looking for a serious relationship? Or did I just want to have some fun?
Conflicted, I sighed inwardly. Why did relationships have to be so difficult?
"C'mon," he said, his mouth pleading now, too, along with his eyes. "I never got to see you twirl your fire batons."
He'd spotted the batons in my apartment but had yet to see me perform with them. My routine had been a big hit back on the high school football fields years ago.
Before I could respond, the waitress returned with our coffee, plunking two steaming mugs down in front of us. She pulled a pencil from behind her ear and a pad from the pocket of her apron. She looked to me. "Ready to order?"
"I'll have the German pancakes." Starting off the new year with so much sugar was probably not the most auspicious beginning, especially for a health-conscious person like me, but after nearly losing my life last night I deserved to live a little, right? I angled my head to indicate Brigit. "My partner will have a side of bacon and a side of sausage."
"Links or patties?"
Seth handed the woman his menu. "Same for us guys."
As soon as the waitress left, Seth picked the conversation back up. This time, he leaned forward across the table and looked straight into my eyes. "Look. I acted like an ass. I know that."
My mind went back to the day in question. When I'd pulled up to his house to see if he wanted to go to lunch, I'd witnessed a disturbing exchange between Seth and the grandfather he lived with, an exchange that concluded with his grandfather calling him a dumb bastard. Seth had clearly been hurt by the words. When I'd later tried to discuss the matter with him, hoping I could learn something about him and maybe soothe his hurt feelings, Seth had shut me down instantly, refusing to let me in, refusing to talk. Instead, he'd turned on me, telling me we were through. No good deed goes unpunished, huh?
Seth stretched a hand across the table as if reaching for me, but he pulled it back when I failed to respond. "I'm sorry, Megan. I should've just..."
Again he let his words trail off. But this time I filled in the blank for him.
"Talked to me? Opened up a little? T-trusted me?"
He wrapped both hands around his coffee mug and looked down into it. "Yeah," he said finally. "That's exactly what I should have done."
We were both quiet a moment. He cast furtive, almost desperate, glances at me between sips of steaming coffee. His eyes communicated what he couldn't bring his mouth to say. He'd missed me. He wanted me back in his life. I was the most intelligent, most gorgeous creature he'd ever seen. Okay, maybe I'd just wanted to flatter myself with that last part, but he could have been thinking it.
"Look, Seth," I said finally. "I'd be willing to give you a second chance."
His face brightened.
"But it'll have to be on my terms."
He cocked his head, his smile now wary. "Such as?"
"If I ask you questions, you have to give me answers."
It wasn't like I planned to extensively interrogate the guy. After all, he'd been very tight-lipped about his family so far and, other than asking about his grandfather, I hadn't pushed the issue. Having grown up with a stuttering problem, I wasn't much of a talker myself. But if we were going to have any kind of real relationship there would have to be at least a minimum of openness and honesty between us.
He stared at me for a long moment before looking down into his coffee mug again. "Okay."
"Here's question number one." I watched him closely as I tested these new waters. "What's up with your grandfather?"
Seth began to shrug, but slowly lowered his shoulders as if realizing a shrug was not an answer. At least not one I'd be satisfied with. "He's got ... problems."
"Problems," I repeated. "You mean health problems? Is that why he uses the oxygen tank?" I'd noticed the old man pulling one behind him that day at the house.
"Yes," Seth said. "He's got breathing problems, among other things." Evidently realizing that answer was vague, too, Seth added, "He's belligerent. Withdrawn. Paranoid, sometimes. My grandmother used to tell me that he hadn't always been that way, that he used to be a nice, happy person, but as long as I've known him he's been like this. It got worse after she died."
"Any idea what caused it?"
"Oh, I know exactly what caused it," Seth said.
"What was it?"
His gaze locked on mine, his eyes full of pain and grief and knowledge. A knowledge of things no one should ever have to learn. A knowledge of things, once learned, that can never be forgotten, no matter how hard someone might try to forget.
I realized that Seth's grandfather must be suffering from PTSD. Given the ease with which Seth recognized his grandfather's symptoms, Seth likely suffered from it, too. This revelation gave rise to so many more questions in my mind, but I could tell from the expression on Seth's face that he already felt too exposed. I wouldn't push him further now.
As much as my heart ached for Seth, as much as I wanted to be a source of comfort to him, I couldn't put all my eggs in one basket. At least not yet. Seth would have to earn back my trust before I could consider getting serious about him. Besides, before I got in too deep, I wanted to know exactly what I was getting myself into. As attracted as I might be to him, it was clear any relationship with him could be fraught with emotional landmines.
"Let's take things slow," I said. "See how it goes. No obligations, no commitments."
"Agreed," Seth said. But, really, why wouldn't he? A no-strings-attached relationship was every guy's fantasy, right?
I skewered him with a look. "You realize this means no sex, right?"
The two of us had yet to be intimate. Though I found Seth sexy as hell, there was no way I'd consider fooling around outside a meaningful, monogamous relationship.
"No sex?" He threw his head back and groaned. "Why not?"
"Because we're keeping it casual."
"Ever heard of 'casual sex'?" He eyed me, raising a hopeful brow. "It was invented specifically for this type of situation."
I shook my head. "Not my style."
"Not entirely, though that's probably part of it."
"I thought the new pope threw all the rules out the window."
"It's not quite that simple."
Another groan, followed by a roguish grin as he began to relax. "I think we should negotiate on this. Like maybe I can touch you over your clothes?"
I shook my head.
"Above the waist only?"
I shook my head again.
"What if I only use one hand? That's a fair compromise."
"What if you bend over to pick something up? Can I at least peek down your shirt?"
I shrugged. "Guess that's fair."
He proceeded to reach out and push my spoon off the table. It hit the floor with a resounding ping. A grin tugged at his lips. "Better get that."
I reached across the table and snatched his spoon instead. "Nah. I'm all set."
"Damn. I'd forgotten how smart you are."
Maybe I should've indulged the poor guy. After all, he was putting himself on the line here and, besides, he wouldn't get much of a glimpse given the sweatshirt I wore.
I sat back against the booth. "That's my offer," I said with more forced nonchalance. "Take it or leave it."
Seth sat back against his booth, too, and tilted his head first one way, then the other as he appeared to be considering. He nailed me with a look so sexy and sensuous I felt naked despite the sweatshirt and pants. "Do I still get to play with your hair?"
A warm flush rushed to my cheeks. "Sure."
He stretched his right hand across the table. "It's a deal."
Copyright © 2015 by Diane Kelly