An excuse.

He hadn’t met a woman in a long time who intrigued him as much as she did. Who saw right through his bullshit. And who could stand toe-to-toe with him when life sucked ass at the worst level possible.

He knocked on the door, his knuckles raw and scabbed over even after wearing protective gloves on the job this week. Maybe he should go back to his place and clean up first—and maybe he should leave her alone to sleep.

Just as he started to turn, the door opened. He recognized one of the other dog handlers from her task-force team, a guy wearing a T-shirt with a fire department logo.

Before Liam could speak, the guy had already turned around to yell, “Rachel, it’s your air force buddy.”

So he’d become that obvious hanging around here, had he?

The fire department dude backed out of sight, making way for Rachel. She hovered in the doorway, wearing a fresh pair of khakis and a white tank top that fit her so damn well. She had two hairpins in the corner of her mouth, as she was in the process of pinning her long dark hair into a loose bundle on top of her head.

“Wanna take a walk?” he asked, already caring too much about her answer. “I know this great little joint that’s giving away free orange juice in the half-pint cartons. It’s pretty exclusive. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m pretty sure I can get us in.”

She studied him through narrowed eyes, assessing and obviously picking up on how much the crappy day weighed on him, because she nodded.

“Sure.” She plucked the two bobby pins out of her mouth and stuck them into her gathered-up hair. “Disco needs to crash for a while before we can go back out in the field.”

Liam eased back as Rachel stepped alongside him. They couldn’t walk far safely, but the two-block area where they were staying had become fairly secure even if the wind still carried the mourning voices of survivors calling out for lost family members.


He cupped her elbow and steered her around a parked backhoe. “Have you had lunch yet?”

While her stride was long and confident, she took two steps for every one of his. Her personality packed such a punch, he hadn’t realized how short she was until now. Probably not more than five foot three.

“Is it lunchtime already? I’ve lost track of my days and nights.” She looked up at him with serious brown eyes. “I’m sorry that couple didn’t have more information about your friends. They seemed relieved to know the woman and baby were with a trained serviceman.”

But for them to disappear? Someone had to have taken them or mugged them or God only knew what else, and Liam’s gut churned at the endless possibilities—none of them good.

Even someone as highly trained as Hugh could only fight off so many people at once. To think they could have been killed for a canteen of fresh water? A pair of boots? He’d seen that and far worse, when individuals became desperate.

“If that couple wants to feel better because Hugh has some specialty skills, then I’m sure not going to burst their hopeful bubble. Life will do that soon enough.”

“Sadly, you’re all too correct.”

They walked together in a strange kind of companionable silence, given the world around them. The landscape had changed somewhat. Less dust. More volunteers erected temporary housing, hammers and saws echoing while dump trucks hauled away debris from fallen structures. Engineers worked on better water and sewage removal. Red Cross workers were everywhere.

The only thing that remained the same? The appalling scent of decaying bodies still drifting out of the remaining rubble.

What a strange feeling to hang out with a woman who actually understood his job, who had experienced a good bit of the same kinds of hell he’d seen. So, she would probably understand his need to leave it behind for a few minutes before they had to plunge themselves into the thick of it all over again.

“So, ready for our hot date?”

“Date? Is that what we’re doing here? I think not.”

“Didn’t anyone tell you that you want to sleep with me? I thought you already knew.”

She choked on a laugh. “Wow, that was corny. Really corny.”

“I thought you could use a smile.”

“You’re right, and thanks.”

“Happy to oblige, again and again.” He slid an arm around her shoulders. “So stop, drop, and roll, baby, because you’re so hot you’re on fire.”

The scent of her freshly washed hair as she walked beside him chased away the rest of the world.

She groaned, but still kept on chuckling. “You’re bad.”

“No way. I’m entering the priesthood tomorrow. Wanna join me for one last sin?”

Her laughter turned to giggles until she hiccupped. “Okay, okay, enough already.”

“I figure if I make you smile enough you’ll sleep with me.”

She swatted his stomach. “You’re so sensitive it’s a wonder all those women divorced you.”

Ouch. That one stung a little. But he liked the way she didn’t pull punches. And no, he wasn’t known for his sensitivity. But he was known for his ability to make a person smile in the middle of a crisis.

He stopped at the Red Cross supply station, holding up two fingers for the worker dispensing boxed lunches, complete with the little half-pint cartons of orange juice. Liam took the two stacked meals and looked at the crumbled street around them. The chaos of a few days ago had shifted into a steady grind of tackling a cleanup that would easily take years.

There weren’t exactly a lot of places to hang out by the beach and eat, so he steered her back toward their cottages. One of the porches would be as good a place as any to park it for now.

“Rachel, to be honest, I don’t get the vibe from you that you’re looking for sensitive.”

“Hmmm… True enough, I guess. Comes from the way I was brought up. Around my house there was lots of love but no coddling. My mother was an ACO—animal control officer. Like those shows you see on the animal channel.”

“Was? What does she do now?” He fell into the ease of their conversation much as they fell into sync walking side by side.

“Nothing. She’s dead now.” She looked at him quickly, then away. “She was breaking up a dog-fighting ring. The owner didn’t take kindly to having thousands of dollars’ worth of assets seized.”

Holy crap. “He didn’t turn his dogs on—”

“No! Heaven, no.” She sighed heavily, rubbing her bare arms. “The man was the killer animal—not the canines. The bastard came after my mother with an aluminum baseball bat and cracked her skull. She never regained consciousness.”

She went silent with the kind of thick quiet that couldn’t be broken with a smart-ass comment, the kind of pause that was best to wait out while she put her thoughts together on what she wanted to say next.

“I got my love of animals from my mom, but I can’t do what she did.” Rachel kicked a chunk of concrete ahead with the toe of her boot. “All of those people who hurt animals? I would go after them with a baseball bat myself.”

The fire in her voice made it clear she would have done just that, for the dogs and for her mother. Rachel Flores was the kind of woman who brought everything to the table in life. No wonder he’d missed the fact she was a foot shorter than him. Her personality, her force of will, was off the charts.

“God, woman, I think I love you.”

She snorted, rolled her eyes, and pretty much did everything to punt him in the ego except laugh at the size of his Johnson. “Okay, that line was your funniest one yet.”

“You don’t think I’m serious.” He looked forward to proving it.

“Not for a minute.” She shook her head and the topknot went a little loose and lopsided. “You can’t really be trying that high school move to get in my pants? ‘I love you, baby, really, I do.’”

“Who says I was trying to get into your pants? Okay, wait. I did say that. Getting you to sleep with me is way high up on my list of personal goals, but I can wait. Something tells me you’ll be more than worth the extra time and effort.”

She clapped a hand to her chest with the melodrama of a seasoned soap star. “You’re willing to wait to have sex with me? I’m devastated. I may never recover from the crushing disappointment that I won’t get to have you as my naked love slave tonight after work. Because heaven knows, there’s nothing more romantic than an earthquake zone.”

He stopped in front of the cottage where her team was staying. “You know you’re only making me love you more when you get all feisty like that. Oh, and in case you were wondering, when I fall in love, I most definitely want to have sex. Love? Big-time aphrodisiac in my book.”

He’d stunned her silent. She was watching him with those sexy smoky eyes of hers as if trying to figure out how much of his bullshit to believe.

“The love thing, though? You should probably take it with a grain of salt, since I’ve been married three times and I was just responding to your sparkling wit.” Liam sat on the steps, boxed meals resting on his knee as he patted the spot next to him for her to sit. “Would you like the rice and beans? Or the rice and beans?”

“Uh, guess I’ll have the beans and rice.” She sank slowly to sit beside him, taking the supper from his hand and flipping open the lid. “Seriously, I don’t want you to get any ideas about us as a couple.”

“Are we sitting on the same step?” He pinched open the carton of juice. “Because I thought we kissed the other day, and I distinctly remember there being tongue involved.”

“You’re right.” She grinned. “And you’re actually funny. I mean it. But I’m not in the market for a relationship. I already told you why. And yes, I do date. I’m not a nun, but I just got out of a really messy breakup—”

“Sweetheart, I’m the king of messy breakups. Just read my divorce decrees. All three of them.” He toyed with a loose strand of her hair, sliding it behind her ear. “You made it clear you’re not interested in more.”

“I’m afraid that’s the way it’s got to be,” she answered, her voice going a little husky.

“Fair enough. I can honor that.” He pulled his hand away, stroking her shoulder along the way. “You’re smart to know I’m a bad risk at the white-picket-fence gig.”

She swayed into his touch, only a little but enough, her tongue dampening her top lip. “Uh-huh.”

His fingers trailed down the length of her arm, but his eyes never left hers. “However, if you want a man who will try his damnedest to give you a mind-blowing orgasm, then I’m your guy.”

Blinking once, slowly, she swallowed hard and backed away, scooting over a couple of inches on the step. “How could I turn down such a romantic offer?”

Chuckling, he reached into the boxed meal for the wrapped plastic cutlery. “Now I’m the one who’s crushed.”

“Somehow I think you’ll survive. You’ve had quite a bit of practice after all,” she said dryly.

“Your sympathy for my heartbreak is overwhelming.”

“If you want warm and fuzzy consolation, go talk to someone like that grandmotherly looking lady over there.” She pointed to a woman with silvery blonde hair, a baby on her hip as she talked to one of the relief workers.

Liam tore open the prepacked beans and rice, dipping in his spork. Three bites later, he said, “Hey, thanks.”

She paused midbite. “For what?”

“For taking my mind off the shit going on around here.” He looked down into the mix of beans and rice, stirring slowly. “I needed that today.”

“You’re welcome.” She waited until he looked up and then she smiled, really smiled. No teasing. Just honest compassion. “There’s so much pain to go around here, it feels good to be able to help.”

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