And he wanted the same. With her. If she was prepared to start over then he had to step up to the mark and be as courageous. Take a risk with his heart. Yes, well... That wouldn’t be easy. But after three days with her in his house he knew he had to try. Three days and he was ready to admit he wanted for ever. If she’d give him a third chance. It was a lot to ask—especially when he hadn’t done anything to show how much he meant it. He needed to take risks, stop hiding behind Chantelle and Aaron.
Yes, Steph, you’re right. I do use them to protect myself from letting anyone else close enough to hurt me. My sisters can cause me grief, but they’ll never leave me for ever.
‘Sorry, Zac, my boy, but you’re going to be tied up for the next few hours. There are things I have to do.’ For Steph, me, and the future.
Thump, thump of his tail on the tiles.
‘No, I’m not taking you for a walk. I’m going out. Alone.’
Not quite alone. He was having lunch with Chantelle and Aaron at a family-friendly restaurant where the wee guy could play amongst the bouncy balls. He was going to have a long overdue talk with his sister. It wouldn’t be easy, but it had to be done.
The taxi was in his drive. ‘That’s my cue, Zac.’
The dog followed him outside to the garden shed to be tied up.
‘See you soon. Cross your paws for me to get this sorted out right.’
At the restaurant Aaron charged him, but he was ready, his crutches put aside so he could swing the little guy up in his arms. ‘Hey, man! You going to eat chicken and chips for lunch?’
‘Yes, Uncle Mike. Lots and lots.’
Warmth filled Michael. He loved this kid to bits. And he loved the owner of those arms going round him now.
‘Choking up’s new for you.’ She gave him a kiss on the cheek. ‘Steph’s really got to you.’
‘Come on. You’re the only one in the dark over this. You and maybe Steph.’ She took Aaron from him. ‘Let’s put you in with those bouncy balls while Uncle Mike and I have a chat.’
‘Coffee?’ Might as well overdose and give his body the kick that it apparently needed. It seemed everyone except him knew what his heart was thinking. Did Steph know? She hadn’t backed off last night when he’d reached for her.
His heart lifted.
Or was she just following through on the physical with no thought for the future?
His heart dropped back to his gut.
‘Coffee’s the best I’m going to get to drink in here,’ his sister grinned. ‘You’d better order food while you’re at it. A certain boy isn’t going to last long before he wants to eat.’
With coffee in front of them, and the food order being processed, Michael found that he didn’t know where to start.
‘I’ll give you a clue,’ Chantelle said. ‘Patricia did you more damage than you’ve ever admitted to yourself.’
‘She did that,’ he agreed. ‘But I probably made it easy for her.’
‘Because of Dad and his divorces, your mum and ours and their break-ups. Mine came later, but it only proved you were right to think divorce was a given for Laings.’
‘You knew I thought that?’
He’d never talked about any of this with his sisters. Never talked about anything from back when they were growing up and dealing with their parents’ take on commitment.
‘You’re an open book to Carly and me.’
It wasn’t hard to laugh. Another surprise. ‘Thanks a lot.’
‘She accused me of hiding behind my responsibilities.’
‘You’ve always done that.’
He had to agree with both women. ‘It was how I coped.’
The divorce gene thing wasn’t really his problem—not a major one. It was the pain of the betrayal that had led to his divorce. The killing off of his dreams for family and love.
Steph would never do that. It was there in her demeanour, in the way she stood up to him when she thought he was wrong, the way she had moved in to help him when she already had enough on her plate.
The food order arrived.
‘Eat up. I’ve got things to do.’
He could only hope he wasn’t too late.
* * *
Driving away from the base at the end of shift, Steph struggled to find any energy. After a night full of activity and little sleep, her day at work had topped up her exhaustion levels. But it was the nagging feeling that she couldn’t face another night at Michael’s house without breaking down that really got to her.
As for stopping at the supermarket to get something to prepare for dinner, and then actually cooking it—forget it. Soup in a can sounded the perfect solution. And if Michael didn’t like soup, too bad. She’d heat and eat it, and go to sleep.
Zac. Damn. She had to take him for a walk. He’d be excited and leaping all over her when she stepped inside.
Her legs ached at the thought of doing anything other than curling up on the couch but her heart sighed. Bring it on. Zac’s your new life.
And she did love the dog—got all teary just thinking about how he seemed to have selected her for his future. As though he had an unerring sense of her need for a stability that matched his. So of course they’d go for a walk. It was their together time—all part of the deal she’d made with herself for her new life.
Anyway, it would get her away from sitting in the kitchen, facing Michael, eating soup in silence. At the moment she was beyond talking to him as if nothing hurt, nothing worried her. As if she was a woman who’d had a wonderful night and moved on.
The front door opened and Zac bounded out before she’d locked her car. ‘Hey, boy, how’s things?’ His ears were like silk against her palms.
‘He’s been for a walk,’ Michael called from the porch.
‘Not alone, I hope?’ she answered through her surprise that Michael was waiting for her and talking to her.
A sharp bark of laughter. ‘No. I took him.’
Her surprise deepened and she studied Michael as she hauled herself up the steps. ‘How did that go for you? You’re still upright and looking in reasonable working order.’
She guessed she couldn’t avoid talking to him, and Zac didn’t exactly stay to heel for his walks, preferring to leap about and wind the lead around her legs.
‘We managed. I am getting back up to speed.’ He held the door wide, then closed it behind her. ‘Dinner’s ordered for seven-thirty.’
Her grocery bag bumped her knee. ‘Anything would beat tomato soup.’
What was going on? He’d taken Zac for a walk and sorted dinner.
‘You must be feeling a lot better.’
Maybe sex had been the recharge he’d needed to start getting back on his feet. Pity it hadn’t worked like that for her.
She headed for the kitchen.
‘Steph, wait. About this morning. We need to talk.’
She shook her head at him. ‘Why? You were being honest. I don’t like that you want nothing to do with me after what I thought was a wonderful night, but at least you weren’t playing games.’
Since when did she do such transparent honesty? Lay her feelings out there for him to know?
Honesty deserved honesty.
Yeah, but her heart deserved protection too.
Shoving his hand through his hair made the thick curls stand up. ‘I didn’t want to push you away, which is why I did it.’
Steph grimaced. ‘You’re fighting me. Us.’
‘Yes. I was.’
He was watching her as if he couldn’t get enough of her—but that had to be wishful thinking on her part. He hadn’t wanted a bar of her that morning.
‘I’m going to take a shower. You want to put this in the pant
ry?’ She tried to hand him the supermarket bag.
He ignored it. ‘The days you’ve been staying here I’ve found I listen out for you coming home after work, after every walk you take with Zac. It’s strange, considering I’ve lived alone for twelve years. Not counting the time Chantelle and Aaron spend with me. That’s different.’
She wasn’t getting this. He’d made absolutely certain she knew there was no place for her in his life beyond the bedroom last night.
‘I’ll be blunt. I don’t understand.’
He took her hand, led her into the sitting room and gently pushed her in a chair. ‘Would you like a glass of wine?’
He wasn’t waiting for an answer, had glasses already standing on the sideboard. The snapping sound of the cap on a bottle of their favourite Pinot Gris was loud in the sudden silence.
‘Are you dodging my question that wasn’t a question?’
A full glass appeared in the line of her troubled vision.
‘I’m not sure I need that. I’m shattered and I intend eating and going to bed. Alone.’
That last word had sneaked out unintended. But now she’d put it there she felt some of her tension slip away. She was in control. Whatever Michael wanted she wasn’t interested—because it wouldn’t involve marriage and for ever.
Then she lifted her gaze and really looked at him. At the man who’d made love to her last night. It hadn’t been just sex—not from her position. Badly worded, but she knew her own meaning. This was the man who had held her tenderly when she was upset, who had watched her back even when she’d asked him not to, who had joined her in leaning against the wall in the ED when her heart was cracking without even knowing what it was all about.
A deep sadness and despair washed into her. Why did she have to fall for a man who didn’t do marriage? Of course she was interested—but not dumb enough to believe that would solve everything. Only staying ahead of him would do that.