The door was bolted—she’d never known it to be so in the middle of the day. Trapped! Wildly, she cast a glance at the closed door. Did she dare face what was on the other side, or the man chasing her
Raising her hands in surrender, she turned to her best friend, who barely breathed hard despite the pursuit. Dark eyes glinted in triumph, and she nudged just a little farther into the corner. “Seriously, Seth, you don’t want me on your team. I stink at football.”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition. And you lost the bet.” Seth caught her around the waist and flung her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. His muscular shoulder jabbed into her middle, knocking out her breath with an oof. Since shouting wasn’t an option, she pounded his back over the sound of her mother’s voice from the now- open kitchen door.
“Lauren! You get down from there! For God’s sake, you’re twenty-four years old!”
Disbelief, and her upside down position, had her choking.
“Sorry, Mrs. Stokes, Lauren has a bet to settle,” Seth Escamilla said, and Lauren could just imagine the grin that had every female in San Antonio melting at his feet. “Ooh, watch the feet there, Lauren.”
“Ugh! I’d rather cook than play football!” Lauren grunted as he carried her out the front door.
“Then you shouldn’t have bet you could beat me on the PlayStation. You should know I’m the champ.” He set her down and slapped her butt. “You’re on Rey’s team.”
Great. Bad enough she’d been chased through the house, been yelled at, then dragged out to play a sport she loathed, but he’d compounded it all by foisting her off on his brother’s team. Rey always lost. That knowledge didn’t stop her from making the claim, “We’ll win.”
He edged closer and squared his shoulders in some kind of macho swagger. Dark eyes sparked as he met the challenge. “What do you want to bet?”
She lifted her chin. “If my team wins, I get to go on a ride-along.”
“Geez, again? How many ride-alongs can you go on before it gets boring?”
“I don’t know. Are you bored yet?”
He stepped closer. The light sheen of sweat on his skin, the scent of him—like autumn leaves and woodsmoke—sent an unsettling tickle through her. She’d learned long ago to bottle such reactions to Seth Escamilla. The only way to stay friends was to pretend he wasn’t the best looking guy she’d ever seen. It worked. Most of the time.
“No, but see, I get to go in and fight the fires. You,” he poked her in the chest, “get to sit on the truck with the dog.”
The tickle mellowed to a, not-unpleasant buzz low in her belly. She knew that buzz, had felt it many times recently. Lately, just watching a Brad Pitt movie did it. So no surprise a look from Seth would too. He was male, after all.
But she moved away on the off chance he could hear that buzz, and talked over it. “Still, it’s what I want.”
“All right. If my team wins, you come to Sierra Cliffs next Friday night and sing with the band.”
She twisted her hair back and secured it with a plastic clip, using the action as an excuse to move away, regain her senses. “Oh, Seth, you really don’t want me up there with a microphone in front of all those nice people, do you? I could tell stories that would have your groupies scattering.”
“Then please lose,” he said with a grin.
She scowled and marched over to Rey’s defensive line. She crouched at the end, as far from the football as possible, then bared her teeth at Seth, who flashed a grin. He took the snap, running back and inspecting his team for an open man as Rey bore down. Lauren thought she could handle blocking Seth’s eight-year-old nephew Beto, but she was wrong. The little guy proved to be fast and slippery, and Lauren scrambled after him, her sneakers skidding in the grass.
A shout made her turn to see the ball hurtling toward her head. She threw her hands up and intercepted it, almost accidentally. She barely had a moment to exalt in triumph before someone plowed into her middle and tossed her on the damp ground, knocking her breath out and pinning her down. After her head cleared, she opened her eyes to Seth’s smirking face, and his full weight along the length of her body.
“You didn’t tell me it was tackle football,” she gasped, pushing at his chest. Damn, the man was solid and warm, not an ounce of fat. All that maleness pressed against some long denied parts of her body in an interesting way. Was that a flicker of something—realization she was a girl, maybe—in those eyes? The emotion disappeared fast and he took his sweet time getting up, sliding his body down her legs.
The buzz heightened for a minute, only to be drowned out by the pain coursing up from her knee, which was turned at an awkward angle beneath her. She dropped her head back, wincing as the hair clip pinched her scalp, and stared up at the bare branches waving against the sky. “I think I just got excused from dish duty.”
Seth cradled her against his chest, careful not to jostle her leg as he carried her back into the house. Her body, which had been so soft on the ground under him now tensed with pain.
Pain he had caused.
He chased everyone off the couch and gently lowered her, unhooking her hands from the back of his neck with some reluctance. He straightened her leg, then shouted for Beto to bring an ice pack and a pair of scissors.
She rose up on her elbow at his last request. “Scissors?”
“If it’s your knee, you don’t want me taking off your pants.” Horror flashed across her face so he added, “The pain. These jeans are a little snug.”
“No they aren’t!” She tugged at the waistband. “Plenty of room for turkey! It’s probably just a sprain. Just a sprain!” she said louder when Beto returned carrying scissors. She grabbed Seth’s wrist in protest, inadvertently pressing his hand down on her knee; her eyes rolled back in pain. But when she caught her breath, she reiterated her plea. “Not my jeans. Please, Seth, I just got these the way I like them.”
“I’ll buy you another pair,” he promised, and she closed her eyes as the scissors ripped through denim. The fabric fell apart to reveal her knee, approximately the size of a grapefruit and still swelling. “Wow.”
“Wow? What wow?” Lauren curled up to see, and everyone who’d gathered around the couch leaned forward before Seth waved them off. He eased her back with a hand to her chest and gingerly probed the smooth flesh around her knee. She sucked in a breath, and the sound went straight to his guilt. Dislocated, and he’d done it.
“Mom, bring me some Advil, or whatever’s the strongest. Maybe we’d better call an ambulance.” He said that last more to himself then looked to his father for a second opinion. His dad worked as an EMT at the same firehouse, and though Seth was EMT trained, he didn’t have the years of experience.
Lauren again propped up on her elbow, but Seth saw the beads of sweat on her forehead. “No way, Seth. I do not want to go to the ER on Thanksgiving. You broke it, you fix it.”
He hated to see her suffer, but knew his training wouldn’t be enough to help her. “I’m not a doctor, Lauren. There could be some ligament damage.”
“I don’t want to go to the hospital.” Her voice rose in desperation. “Fix it.”
He couldn’t blame her for wanting to skip the ER.And even though both his dad and hers, the fire captain, were better qualified to treat her, he was the best to bully her. He used that excuse to avoid giving over the responsibility. “Dad, get her foot. Mitch, hold her still.” Her father gave Seth a look of trepidation before pressing Lauren’s shoulders deep into the couch. Seth’s father took her feet. Seth looked from one man to the other. “Ready, on three. One...” And he popped her knee back in place.
She shrieked, arching back into the couch. “Three!” she gasped. “You said three!”
“You were already tensing up. It’d only hurt more.” He molded the ice in its Ziploc bag onto her knee and she cried out, jerking her leg away.
Seth sucked in a sympathetic breath. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Dad, can you—I’m pretty sure we have a few Ace bandages in the bathroom upstairs. Can you get me one?”
Seth hovered while he waited, rubbing his thumb over the smooth skin above her knee. Lauren hissed, but this time he didn’t think it had anything to do with pain. He snatched his hand back, not looking at her, afraid she might realize where his thoughts had strayed.
Oscar returned with the bandages and Seth removed the ice to gently wrap her knee, snugging the fabric enough to give it support, smoothing it over her instead of touching her skin.
“Okay, stay off it till the swelling goes down.” He dragged a hand through his hair as he double-checked his handiwork, then looked up at her. “Please let me take you to the ER.”
Her eyes were a little out of focus from the pain, and her indecision showed as she looked at her knee. “Can we eat first? I don’t want to ruin everyone’s dinner.” She looked up at her mother. “Sorry I won’t be able to help.”
Valerie turned back into the kitchen. “I knew nothing good would come of that fooling around.”
“Thanks for the sympathy,” Lauren muttered, and pushed into a sitting position.
“Whoa, whoa, where do you think you’re going?” Seth stopped her with one hand out.
She looked around at those who’d drifted away in disinterest now that her kneecap was back where it should be and wrapped out of sight. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she said, color returning to her face all at once.
Seth turned to his father, who’d settled back on the other couch. “Dad, do we still have those crutches?”
Oscar shrugged, his attention back on the game. “Somewhere.”
“Can you go look?” Seth asked with a touch of impatience.
“Um, Seth?” Lauren touched his arm. “I can’t wait.”
“All right, then.” He bent down, slipped one arm beneath her legs and the other behind her back. His thumb brushed the side of her breast and he quickly readjusted his touch before lifting her. He grunted when she settled against his chest, curving her arms around his neck, her hands soft and cool against his suddenly overheating skin. That was just the result of exerting himself in front of the fireplace his mother insisted on burning—not because of Lauren’s skin, or her breast. Damn, he couldn’t even think about the word breast in the same sentence with Lauren. “I’m not going to keep doing this after you eat three helpings of sweet potato casserole.”
“I can hop.”
“And fall down and hit your head.” He started down the hall and through his parents’ room to the master bath. He would only do so much penance; climbing the stairs with Lauren was not on the list. “Then I would have to take you to the ER and miss Thanksgiving dinner anyway.”
He started through the bathroom door, but she grabbed the doorjamb. “Oh, no you don’t. I can take it from here.”
“Are you sure?” He set her carefully on her good leg and got his hands off her. Quickly.
“So very sure.” She eased inside, bracing herself on the sink. “And don’t stand out here listening like you did in the sand dunes when we used to go camping.”
“I didn’t just listen,” he teased.
“Oh!” She slammed the door in his face.
God, her leg hurt, not only the knee, but even the toes and hip. She leaned on the sink and edged toward the toilet, trying to figure out how to do this.
“Lauren? You all right in there?”
She snapped her head toward the door. He sounded so close. “Give me a minute!”
“Honey, you’ve been in there nearly five.”
She swayed with the knowledge. “Minutes? Really?” “You want me to go get one of my sisters?”
Shame outweighed that temptation. “No! No, just wait there, okay?”
“Okay,” he said softly. “I’ll be right here.”
Now why did he go and say something like that? Why was he being nice? She could handle Seth the tease, and Seth the bully, but when he was nice—well, she didn’t have much resistance for that. And she prided herself on being the only woman in San Antonio who could resist Seth Escamilla. She’d had the most practice.
She was washing her hands when Seth came through the door. Good Lord, she hadn’t even locked it? She slapped a hand up against the wood. “God, Seth!”
“You need help?” His eyes were dark with concern, his brow furrowed. Oh, no. She needed the old light- hearted Seth back. She didn’t want to be carted around by this guy. He was too dangerous.
“Did your dad find the crutches yet?” She hooked her hand behind his neck. This close, she noticed how neatly he kept his hair trimmed, noticed the touches of red threaded among the black. Back, damn hormones, back. Back! She envisioned stuffing the girly-looking, fairy-type things back in a bottle and corking it shut for another ten years.
“He’s carving the turkey right now. He said he’d look after dinner.”
The rumble of his voice echoed in his chest and she resisted the alien urge to rest her head on his shoulder. Whoa, those drugs worked fast. Wait a minute. She hadn’t taken any yet. She turned her thoughts to something less disturbing, like the pain in her leg. At least that pain was fleeting. Lusting after a guy like Seth could scar her for life.
Seth set her on the couch. “I’ll bring you a plate. What do you want?”
“Turkey and cranberries,” she said, trying to get comfortable, not easy without moving her leg.
He looked skeptical. “That’s it?”
“Right.” She shoved an extra pillow behind her for support. “Pile it on. Everything but corn, okay?”
He disappeared into the kitchen and she dropped her head to the back of the couch. She listened to the buzz of conversation from the dining room table, hidden from view by the back of the couch. No one seemed to miss her.
Seth returned with two plates and dragged the coffee table closer to Lauren. She sat up with some effort. “Two plates? How hungry do I look?”
“One’s for me.”
“Oh, good.” She took the one he offered and pointed her fork at the other. “I don’t like my food all smashed together like that.”
“You can fit more stuff that way.” He put a pillow from the back of the couch on her lap beneath her plate. “I’ll get our drinks and be right back.”
“You don’t have to sit with me,” she said when he returned with two glasses of iced tea.
“Well, sure.” He made room for himself at her feet. “I don’t want you to eat your Thanksgiving dinner alone.”
“A guilty conscience is a terrible thing,” she teased, popping a piece of a roll in her mouth. Damn, he was being nice again.
“Turn off the TV,” his mother Sandra called.
Seth reached across the coffee table for the remote, clicking off right in the middle of a kick-off. The men groaned. Sandra shushed them and the two families offered grace.
“Isn’t it sweet the way Seth is looking after Lauren?” Sandra said, sotto voce. “Maybe this is the answer to my prayers.”
“We can hear you!” Lauren called. She couldn’t look at Seth. Their parents’ fondest wish was for the two of them to hook up romantically. It was not something either of them discussed.
Sandra lowered her voice. “He should take her to the ER so they can spend that time together.”
Oh yeah. In that haven of romance. Lauren wanted to roll her eyes, but respected Sandra too darn much.
“They’re together all the time anyway,” Valerie said. “I swear, if she didn’t have her friend Hilary, I’d worry she had no female influence at all. Lord knows she never listens to me.”
“Can still hear you,” Lauren reiterated.
“It would be wonderful if they’d only realize how perfect they are for each other,” Sandra went on. “It would keep our families connected and it would settle them down.”
Wordlessly, Seth clicked on the TV, drowning out the conversation. Their families didn’t need a connection. Their fathers had been best friends since high school, had joined the Marines together, fought in Vietnam together. They came home and married within a month of each other, and now worked at the same firehouse. While Lauren was an only child—thus the only hope for a marital connection—Seth had three sisters and a brother. Lauren had always preferred Seth’s adventures to those of his sisters. It was just always comfortable. She didn’t want that to change. And if she managed to keep control of herself, it wouldn’t.
“I don’t want to go to the emergency room,” Lauren said petulantly after Seth cleared their plates. She knew it was necessary, but was scared of what the doctors would find. She cast a pleading look at him as he waited, unflinching, her jacket folded over his arm.
“You might have torn something. I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
“I’m perfectly fine.” She swung her bad leg off the couch and struggled upright, all of her weight on her good leg. “See? No problem.”
He dropped his hands down in front of him, feet slightly apart in a challenge. “Put your foot down.”
“All right, I’m putting my foot down. I refuse to go to the emergency room.”
“All right, then. I can’t make you.” He placed her folded coat on the back of the couch. “I’ll tell Mom you’re ready to help with the dishes.”
“You play dirty.” Washing dishes for a crowd of twenty held less appeal than the ER. She staggered and touched her toe to the floor to regain her balance. Everything went white and Seth gripped her arms.
“Okay, here we go.” He picked her up once more. “We’re going!” he called to the rest and carried her out to
* * *
The emergency room was a madhouse, whimpers of pain underneath loud protests echoing off the tile walls. Lauren kept her eyes averted from the electric knife accident, and several other amateur football injuries. She sat beside a man who smelled like he had a digestive problem. Food poisoning victims were well represented, making Lauren oddly grateful for her knee. Seth was engrossed in the game on the tiny TV mounted in the corner, and Lauren dozed against his shoulder, sleepy from the turkey.
She woke with a start when a woman charged into the waiting area carrying a damp blanket and screaming for help. Seth was on his feet in an instant and took the bundle, calling for a gurney. “It’s okay,” he assured the stricken woman. “I’m an EMT. What happened?”
“I couldn’t find her,” the woman half gasped, half sobbed. “She got caught in the pool cover and I didn’t see her.”
Seth glanced up at the woman, then peeled back the blanket. He made a small noise Lauren recognized as horror, but kept his expression impassive. In a calm voice, he instructed the man from the admissions desk to get the trauma doctor immediately and the woman’s voice went shrill.
“Is she dead?”
Seth didn’t answer, only tilted the child’s head back gently, swept his finger in her mouth and bent his head to cover her mouth with his. The certainty of his movements was at odds with his hesitation with Lauren’s injury earlier. Ignoring her own pain, Lauren edged closer, fascinated.
Seth rose for a quick breath. “How old is she?”
Lauren closed her eyes and swallowed the overwhelming sadness.
“What’s her name?” How could Seth stay so calm when the little body was so still beneath his hands? Was this what he did every day? How could he bear it? She felt the urge to go to him, put her arms around him.
“Jackie,” the woman said.
Seth sent another puff of breath into the child’s lungs, then drew back, sitting on his heels as the child started coughing.
“Okay, Jackie, you’re going to be okay,” he said to the faceless bundle, his hands moving over her assessingly. “You’re at the hospital and the doctors are going to make you all better.” Lauren could tell by the brightness in his voice that he didn’t believe it.
When a trauma team finally rushed forward to take the child, Seth looked over at Lauren, silently asking permission to see this through. She nodded once, a lump in her throat, her chest tight, and he disappeared through the double doors.
Seth found Lauren after she’d been wheeled back to an exam room, while she waited for x-rays, ignoring the shouts of pain on the other side of the curtain.
“Hey.” He slid onto the rolling stool beside her and took her hand. He smiled, but tension pulled at the edges of his mouth. She looked from his soaked sweatshirt to his face but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“How is she?”
He shook his head. “It’s going to be tough going for awhile, but her mother got her here pretty quickly. That could make a difference.”
She squeezed his hand, unable to say anything. Just as well—anything that came out would probably sound stupid and insensitive. “That poor woman.”
He looked at her with something like surprise in his eyes.
She was taken aback at his reaction. “What, you don’t think I can be sympathetic?”
“Well, no, not that.” He sat back and waved his hand as if swatting the thought away.
“Then what?” she asked, straightening up on the exam table. Did he think she was so self-absorbed she couldn’t feel for someone else’s pain, that she was too involved in her own?
“Nice to know you think I’m shallow.”
“I don’t. I just—didn’t expect—I don’t usually see people at their best. I never thought about you seeing that part of my life.”
Ah. Not about her at all. He was uncomfortable with what she’d witnessed. She reached out. “You were great with her.”
He made a noncommittal noise through his nose, which meant he didn’t want to talk about it, but she had to know.
“So you—deal with that sort of thing a lot?”
“The pay’s good, lots of overtime. I only fill in when they need me. It’s intense. Little kids are the worst. I’d rather fight fires.” He pulled his hand away to support his bent head.
Lauren fluttered her touch above his shoulder, the back of his head. She’d never seen him so upset. They’d always been good friends, but most of their interaction was lighthearted. Even the tragedies they’d faced together—her bad break up, his dropping out of college— paled in comparison to this. She’d never seen him cope with anything so traumatic, never realized he could feel so deeply over someone else’s pain, and the way he’d gone straight to work, without even thinking about it stunned and impressed her. This competence, this compassion was beyond her experience, made him more of a man than the carefree boy she’d loved forever, and something inside tightened in response.
She dropped her hand lightly against the back of his head, stroked his hair soothingly, the knot of leather at the back of his neck that held his St. Florian medal, patron saint of firefighters. His hands fell to his lap, his broad shoulders drooped, and he closed his eyes, accepting her caress. After a few moments, after she’d appreciated the thick silkiness of his hair, the warmth of his skin, he turned just enough to look at her, not enough to dislodge her caress. Now there was something she hadn’t seen in his eyes before, a sort of speculation she’d only seen when they were out in public, and never directed at her. Her breath caught.
“Miss Stokes? We’ll take you to x-ray now,” an orderly announced, pushing aside the curtain of her cubicle.
Lauren snatched her hand away like she’d been lit on fire and Seth jumped up. Whoa. What had that been? Geez, she’d touched him before, playful smacks and brief commiserative touches, but she’d never caressed him like that. He’d never wanted her to stop touching him before.
Maybe he was overly sensitive after dealing with the little girl. He avoided the EMT assignment for this reason; it left him too open, too raw. He wanted to push the feelings back behind a wall, like his father had done, wanted to keep it impersonal, but today’s incident caught him off guard. The holiday and being with Lauren intensified his reaction. He didn’t want to show her that side of his life. He shook his head to chase the child’s image, and her mother’s, from his mind.
Maybe he had an overdeveloped sense of guilt for hurting Lauren, for dragging her into the game, for tackling her too hard. Yeah, he’d taken a little too much pleasure in taking her down. All he knew was, this was wild.
He gripped the handles of the wheelchair once the orderly settled her in. “Let’s see what’s going on here,” Seth said with forced cheerfulness and wheeled her out of the exam room toward x-ray. His step stuttered when he recognized the child’s mother standing in the hall, staring out a window, hugging herself and rocking on her heels.
He wanted to speed past, pretend he didn’t see her, didn’t know her sad story. He wanted to push her pain away. But he found himself slowing, releasing Lauren’s chair to approach her. This woman shouldn’t be alone— why was she alone at a time like this?
He touched her arm. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
She jumped in surprise. Once she recognized him, she gripped his bicep like a lifeline. She raised her face, ravaged by pain and guilt, and unable to help himself, Seth opened his arms. She pressed her face to his chest, her hands fisting in his sleeves, and let the sobs rip through her. Her tears soaked into his t-shirt, the tremors of her body shook his soul.
Through his own tears he looked over the woman’s head at Lauren, who wept silently watching them them. He wanted to go to her so they could cry together, share the woman’s sorrow, comfort each other, and that desire touched him someplace deep inside, a place he didn’t know he had, a place he was afraid to name.
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