Not to mention their weeks together, when clothes hadn’t been a part of what they’d got up to.
He parked his naked butt on the side of the bath and swung his good leg over into the water. So far so good. He lifted his injured leg. Rather, tried to lift it, and clenched his fists as pain whipped him.
Nurse Stephanie was instantly there, her hands on his calf, carefully raising his leg to slide over the edge.
‘Now you just have to lower your backside into the water without getting that wound wet.’
Clipped words, firm hands under his arm, pressed lips forcing all colour away.
Focusing entirely on getting into the bath and not swearing out loud, Michael finally managed to sit on the bottom and raise his injured leg to hang over the side.
‘Thanks, Nurse. I’ll manage now.’
* * *
Dismissed. Steph charged out of the bathroom, leaving the door open so she could hear if Michael called out.
It was tempting to head outside, take Zac for a walk—except it would be closer to a run before her anger calmed. She even picked up the lead from the bench.
Zac sat up, his tail wagging in anticipation.
‘Sorry, my boy.’ She dropped the lead and rubbed his ears. ‘We can’t leave him to get out of the bath on his own.’
How was she supposed to help him now? He needed his back and his arm washed. How to not notice everything about him? As in everything.
You’ve seen it all before.
Sure she had. She remembered his ‘all’. It was the hot memories of that ‘all’ she couldn’t deal with. This was the man she’d spent two years and thousands of kilometres trying to put behind her. Yet she’d reacted to his voice the first time he spoke to her at the beginning of the week.
Immediately she’d wanted to curl up against that expansive chest and feel as though she’d arrived at her destination. Her knees had melted when he’d kissed her—and, yes, she’d kissed him back.
But he didn’t want her. Though she was beginning to think he did want her in his bed for a rerun of last time.
But he didn’t want, want her. Not in his life, at his side, to be his partner, his wife. His wife? He’d reject her as sure as lightning came before thunder.
Again Steph snatched up the dog’s lead. To hell with him. She had to get some air. Enough to keep her lungs working while her heart shut down and dealt with the pain stabbing at it.
‘Stephanie? Can you wash my back?’
She froze. Totally. No heartbeat. No breathing. Dead but alive. Numb yet in pain.
Wife? That entailed love. Well, it did for her. This cramping sensation holding her, stuck, unable to move, was love. She’d screwed up big-time.
Play the friendship card, why don’t you?
She was all out of them.
The lead banged onto the floor, snapping her into action. Head up, lungs working, back straighter than a ruler, mind focused on the job. Wash his back, get him out of the bath without crashing to the floor, dry him off. No way. He could manage that part all by himself. He had to.
‘Then we’ll go for a walk,’ she said, and patted Zac. ‘After that I’ll go to work and leave you with him. Sorry, but he won’t upset you like he does me.’
Her resolve lasted until she reached the side of the bath. One glance at that muscular chest and she was lost. Her hand shook as she snatched the washcloth from him. The shaking became an earthquake as she sponged his back—right down to where his butt met the bottom of the bath.
How the hell was she supposed to get through the coming days?
She tried for an icy tone, instead got melted goo that made her sound like a drunk. ‘Right, let’s get you out of here.’
His skin was wet, and warm, and so tempting.
It’s an arm.
Her fingers dug deep.
Michael gripped the edge of the bath and shoved up, wobbling in circles as he strived for balance.
Being afraid he’d fall focused Steph on what she should have been concentrating on all along.
‘Put your arm over my shoulder and use me as a crutch.’
And hurry up before I give in and turn to lay my face against your chest, to kiss you.
‘Hey, Mike? You inside?’ The question was followed by the front door slamming.
‘Great timing,’ Michael muttered as he reached for a towel. ‘Chantelle?’
He raised his voice. ‘I’m getting out of the bath. Wait out there, will you?’
Steph fixed him with a look that said, Your sister’s probably seen it all before too, when you were kids.
‘You don’t want her thinking we’ve got something going on between us, do you?’ he asked.
‘I don’t give a damn.’
Yes, well. Brave words.
Judging by the cynicism on Michael’s face he didn’t believe her any more than she did herself.
‘I’m here as a nurse who also happens to be a friend.’ She winced over that one.
‘Did you find the casserole I made?’ Chantelle called from inside his bedroom.
‘You made it?’
Steph pulled a face at his scepticism. ‘Michael...’ she whispered. ‘Behave.’
He took the towel she held out and wrapped it around his waist. ‘Sorry. Stephanie found it. I figured—’
Steph put her hand over his mouth, shook her head at him, whispered, ‘Say thank you. Nicely.’ Then she removed her hand—but not before he’d breathed on her palm, sending her hormones into a riot of excitement.
‘Thanks, Chantelle. What kind of casserole is it?’ He raised an eyebrow at her, as if he was asking, How am I doing?
She smothered a smile and nodded.
‘Uncle Mike—there you are!’ A blur of arms and legs shot into the room.
Steph reacted instinctively to prevent the dynamo launching himself against his uncle’s injury. Grabbing Aaron, she swung him up into her arms.
‘Hi, Aaron. Remember me? Uncle Mike’s friend Steph.’
‘Friend? I thought you said she was a nurse,’ Chantelle said as she appeared around the door.
‘I want to hug Uncle Mike.’ Aaron wriggled to be put down.
‘You can when he’s got dressed, okay?’ Steph told him. ‘Uncle Mike’s hurt his leg, so you have to be very careful not to bump him.’
As if a three-year-old would take any notice.
Michael leaned towards his nephew, rubbed his head. ‘I’ll be with you in a minute, buddy, but you’ve got to go with Mum and Stephanie now.’
‘No. I want you.’
‘I’ll be real fast. Promise.’
That was a promise he’d have trouble keeping in his condition. And she wasn’t thinking about his sculpted chest or saucy butt. Well, she was, but not in terms of his promise.
‘I’ll put the kettle on.’
As if that was going to help—but it was what her grandmother had always done when she hadn’t known what to do about a situation. Besides, a cup of tea wouldn’t go astray. Her nerves needed help calming down.
‘You’re not going to help Michael finish drying off and get him dressed?’ Chantelle asked,
with a wicked glint in her eyes.
‘He’s quite capable.’ Though she would have helped if his sister hadn’t turned up. ‘I’ll just grab some clean clothes for him.’
Which meant going through his drawers. How personal was that? How soon could she leave for work?
ZAC GREETED STEPH with a wagging tail when she crawled out of her car at Michael’s place just after six-thirty the next morning. ‘Hey, my boy, good to see you too. Who let you out?’
The house was eerily quiet.
She tiptoed through to the kitchen on legs that must have done a thousand kilometres throughout her shift, her mind filled with images of a boy racer’s car wrapped around a power pole, its drunk occupants tossed across the bonnet oblivious to the sirens and people stemming bloodflow and buckling on neck braces. The ambulance crews had taken two of the boys to the ED, while a low black saloon had transported a third to the morgue.
Her stomach cramped in hunger. Eggs on toast would be heaven, and might make up for the couple of snatched mouthfuls of a cruddy dry sandwich in the crew kitchen hours ago, but pouring muesli out of a box was a lot quicker, with no thought processes required.
It was already too crowded in her skull, with images of those kids refusing to go away, vying with Michael for attention. He’d been there in her thoughts all night, only backing off when total concentration had been needed for her patients, returning the moment she was free. The man had a way of making her feel as though her feet were on ice, sending her in every direction but the one she’d intended going.
How to make him go away, leave her in peace, when she did not need him interfering with her life plans?
But he refused to go away.
He was such a distraction.
Like sitting naked in the bath while she washed his back and almost put a tooth through her bottom lip as she denied the need to wash more, touch more. Like talking to her as though this was normal—which it could be if they were in a real relationship. Like being so relaxed with her when she was tighter than a triple knot in comparison.
If ever there was a man she could envisage spending her life with he was... Michael.
She’d known it for a long time. Throughout all those hours, days months and years she’d spent running, trying to bury him in the back of her mind, he had still been under her skin, still heating her blood, still meaning everything to her. He still sent her heart into a whacky rhythm.