Marc Blanchard took another swallow of his beer and wondered just how much it would cost to cab or Uber back to Slade’s ranch. He supposed he could call Teo, Slade’s foreman, but he hated to put someone out just because he had turned into the most antisocial person on the planet. Maybe he could just find a corner to hide in until the party started to break up. See if one of the guys could haul his ass back to the ranch.
Maybe not. It looked like everyone was into this party except him. Slade was all into an intense conversation with a hot woman and seemed oblivious to anything around him. Beau Williams, their Delta Force team’s sniper, was being his usual hot-guy self with some people near the bar. And Trey, well, Trey was surfing the crowd, not spending too much time with anyone.
Every square foot of space in the living room, family room and kitchen seemed to be taken up by people who didn’t look at all like they’d be moving any time soon.
He should have just been his usual douchebag self, dug in and told Slade he wasn’t going to the party unless ordered to. He knew Slade—all the team—was worried about him. Hell, he was worried about himself, too, but he didn’t know what to do about it. He’d crawled into a dark place to escape the destructive memories that he lived with and he couldn’t seem to free himself of it. The only place he could block them out was on a mission, but hell, they couldn’t do that three hundred and sixty-five days without a break.
He dumped his empty bottle in the trashcan next to the bar and plucked a full one from the big cooler by the patio door. He stood for a moment in the open doorway, scanned the patio and, seeing no one, headed for a bench in the far corner. He sat with his back to the house, blocking out light and sound and wrapping himself in the familiar cloak of misery.
He took a swallow of beer and stared at the thick trees in the back yard. Maybe he could hang himself from one of them.
Okay, asshole, enough with the self-pity.
Jesus. He was getting so he couldn’t even stand himself. If he could just bleach that picture of Ria, high on cocaine and tumbling naked in bed with their next-door neighbor, maybe he could find a way to get on with his life. But it seemed the image was burned into his brain.
Everyone had told him to back away from her. Slade Donovan, his team leader, was always right on the money. Too fucking bad he hadn’t listened to him. It certainly showed how bad his judgment sucked. As devastating as the marriage had been, the divorce hadn’t been any better. She had tracked him down between missions and caused scenes so outrageous and embarrassing he’d finally had to have her arrested. Thank the lord he had a tough attorney who had taken care of everything so he didn’t even have to go to court.
But since then he just hadn’t been able to pull himself out of that hole he crawled into between missions. Which again made him question why the hell he had allowed himself to be talked into coming to this party. Did his teammates think sticking him in a social situation would be some kind of miraculous cure? Or did they worry that if they left him alone he might think suicide wasn’t a bad choice?
He sighed and tried to figure out the best way to slide out of tonight’s situation without putting up with a whole raft of shit from his teammates. A strange noise coming out of the darkness pierced the edge of his consciousness. At first, he thought it was an animal, like maybe a cat, that had gotten itself up a tree or something. But then he realized it was the sound of someone crying. What the hell?
Setting his beer bottle on a nearby table, he stepped off the patio and headed into the little copse. He hadn’t gone five steps before he nearly tripped over a female sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree. And doing her best to contain the sobs that were shaking her body.
Oh, fucking swell. Just what he needed.
But all the misery he’d suffered hadn’t wiped away his sense of decency so, sighing, he crouched beside her.
“Is there something I can help you with?”
He tried to get a good look at her, but the lights didn’t reach this far and tonight there wasn’t a damned star in the sky. All he could make out was long blonde hair covering her head like a shroud because she was bent over, her face buried in her hands. For all he knew, she could be someone’s kid out here having a meltdown.
“Hello?” He touched her arm, just a brush of his fingertips. “Can I do anything for you?”
She just shook her head, her body continuing to shudder with her quiet sobbing.
Well, there was no damned way he was just walking off and leaving her.
Come on, asshole. Figure out what to do.
Being as gentle as possible, he pried her hands away from her face and brushed the smooth thickness of her hair back. When she raised her face to him, he felt like an elephant had kicked him in the stomach. Her eyes might have been swollen from crying and her cheek stained with rivers of tears, but this was no kid. This was a woman with such simple, classical beauty that it stunned him. It was hard to make out details, but he didn’t miss the thick lashes that sparkled with her tears, or the full, sensuous lips.
“Come on,” he urged. “Let’s get you off this ground. I think we can find a better place for you to sit.”
She resisted at first, then gave in to the pressure of his hands helping her to rise. When she was standing he realized she was taller than he’d thought, only a couple of inches shorter than he was, and slender. Something about her attitude gave her the appearance of being much smaller
“I don’t want to go back inside.” The words were little more than a whisper.
“Yeah? Well, guess what? Neither do I. But let’s go sit on that bench over there. We’ll be out of everyone’s glide path.”
What the hell am I doing? The last thing I need to do is to help a woman falling apart. I can hardly help myself.
Cursing himself under his breath, he guided her over to the bench and sat them both down so they faced away from the house. When she lifted her hands to her face again and started to lean forward, he brushed back the thick curtain of silken hair that obscured her face. Then he tucked the tip of a finger beneath her chin and tilted it upward.
Big mistake. Huge mistake.
There was enough ambient light that he could see the high cheekbones, full lips and slightly pointed chin. But what slayed him were the eyes, a stormy gray that were filled with so much misery that his cold, hardened heart turned over. The pain radiating from her was so visceral he could feel it.
He paused. “Um, not trying to stick my nose in your business, but maybe if you share what’s causing you so much misery, it will help.”
She looked at him as if he was crazy. Then she sighed, one that seemed to come from deep inside her.
Whatever this was, he’d figure out what to say to get her through the next few minutes. He’d bet his misery won over hers.
“I killed my fiancé.”
Her tone was soft, faint, but the words went through him like a rifle shot. How was that possible? She was so small, and nothing about her shrieked killer. He took a breath to gather his thoughts together and make sure whatever he said did not come out in an accusing voice.
“I hear you, but somehow I don’t think that’s right. I can’t see you deliberately taking someone’s life. So what really happened?”
Again she was silent and the moment stretched out. He wanted to repeat the question, even as a chaotic tumble of thoughts bounced around in his brain.
Then she sighed. “He was so sick and I couldn’t save him.”
Okay, it was official. She won the ‘lowest point in life’ contest. He felt like the biggest piece of shit. The pain edging her words was so sharp that for a moment he forgot to breathe.
Well, asshole, don’t just sit there.
He dug around in what was left of his brain for some kind of appropriate remark. Something that would not make him look any stupider that he felt.
“I’m sure you’ve had a lot of people tell you that’s probably not true.”
Teas rolled down her cheeks, more poignant because she made no sound at all, just shook her head.
“No, they didn’t? I can’t believe that.”
She grabbed his free hand and squeezed it so hard he was sure she left fingerprints on the skin.
“It doesn’t matter.” She said the words in a toneless voice. “Nothing matters.”
He had let himself become such a hot mess that he’d lost all his people skills. This was going to be a real challenge.
I’m not a human being anymore.
He wanted to shoot the words at her, but instead he pulled out his clean handkerchief and blotted her cheeks.
“I’m a totally neutral person, right? So how about telling me why you think it’s your fault? I’ll bet I can give you an objective opinion.” Assuming he even knew what that was any more.
She sat there for so long he began to wonder if she’d changed her mind and just clammed up.
“He came down with a terrible disease.” She recited the words without inflection. “I was his nurse, taking care of him. And he died.”
Okay, so he didn’t know what to say. He lifted the hand digging furrows in his and held it between two of his.
“I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than that. But you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t feel comfortable with.” He paused. “Except your name. How about that?”
“Nikki. Cynthia Nicole Alvarez, but everyone calls me Nikki.”
“A perfect name for you. Hi, Nikki Alvarez. I’m Marc Blanchard.”
She looked at him and a hint of a smile lifted up the corners of her mouth, “Hi, Marc Blanchard. I’ll bet you’re kicking yourself for coming to rescue me in my puddle of tears instead of partying inside.”
“No, not in the least.” He shook his head. “I’m not much of a party animal anymore.”
She lifted a delicate eyebrow. “Anymore? Is there a story there?”
Oh, yeah. There’s a big story. But I sure don’t want to talk about it tonight.
“A long one and not for tonight. So, are you friends of the people throwing this party?”
She shook her head. “Some of my friends threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t show up at least for a little while.”
He snorted. “We sure have that in common.”
She studied his face. “You, too?”
“Uh-huh. It was easier to come along with them than spend an hour arguing. Listen, I’d ask you to go get a cup of coffee with me except I don’t have any wheels.”
She frowned. “Then how did you get here?”
“Slade Donovan drove. He’s our team leader. We’re visiting him at his ranch for a few days. But he reconnected with someone at the party and I have no idea what the other two guys are doing.”
“Uh, yeah.” Shit. He wasn’t supposed to just broadcast his Delta Force situation to the world. “We’re in the Army together.”
Nikki drew in her eyebrows and nibbled on her lower lip. Marc had to clench his jaw because, for the first time since his life had gone down the toilet, he had the desire to kiss someone. He wanted to lick that plump little lip with his tongue.
For fuck’s sake.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said at last. “It was just an idea. You don’t know who the hell I am, anyway, so it’s probably a bad idea.”
More nibbles on the lip. Holy shit.
“Um, I have a car here. I came by myself because I didn’t know if I’d want to stay. Like I said, my friends bullied me into it.”
“Yeah?” He chuckled. And hell, how long was it since the last time he’d laughed? “Like I said, me, too.”
Again she almost smiled.
“Aren’t we just the big party animals.” She paused and did that thing with her lip again. “Um, I don’t usually do this, but, um, I feel like I can trust you. Weird, huh? Maybe it’s because you’re military and the military is such a big presence here in San Antonio. But if you’re serious about that cup of coffee, that sounds nice. And I could take you home afterward.”
“Nikki.” He chuffed a laugh. “It’s a forty-five-minute drive from here.”
She lifted her shoulders in a delicate shrug. “I have no place to go or to be.”
From somewhere he found a smile, so foreign to him he wondered if his lips would crack. He had to be crazy for doing this. This woman was carrying a huge emotional burden and he was so fucked-up he couldn’t handle his own feelings, forget about someone else’s.
But she looked so sad, so bruised, he couldn’t just get up and walk away from her. Besides, where the hell would he go? He was trapped at this party. If Trey and Beau hooked up with some females, Teo would have to haul ass to the city to fetch him.
She shifted a tiny bit so there was no contact between their bodies.
“It’s okay,” she assured him. “I tend to drive everyone away these days anyway. I didn’t mean to dump all this on you.”
Good going, asshole. Very smooth.
“It’s not that,” he began.
She waved a hand in the air. “No problem. And you don’t need to assure me it’s not me because I know it is. All is good.”
But that was a big fat lie and he knew it. Did he have the stones to pull his head out of his ass and think of someone else for a change? He reached for her hand, closing his fingers around it when she tried to pull it away.
“But coming from me it’s I promise it’s not a lie. You have no idea what a fucked-up mess I am.” And isn’t that just the truth.
“It’s okay,” she repeated. “Besides, there’s no way you could be a bigger hot mess than me.”
He laughed, a soft sound and so foreign to him at first he wasn’t sure what it was. “Maybe we should go get that coffee and compare.”
“As long as we don’t have to go through the house.”
“No problem.” He pulled out his cell phone and typed a text to Trey.
Getting a ride home. All is good.
He showed the text to Nikki. “If you’re still up for it?” he asked. He really ought to tell her to run as fast as she could in the other direction.
“Yes. I am.”
Marc’s phone dinged with the reply from Trey.
R U OK?
Yes. Don’t worry. Not suicidal.
Nikki stared at him. “Why did you write that?”
“Long story. One I don’t talk about.”
“Not even over coffee?” she asked.
“We’ll see.” But he knew he wasn’t about to dump his shit all over her. He didn’t want her to know just how much of an idiot he was.
His phone dinged again.
Call if you need me.
Nikki glanced up at him, a questioning look in her eyes. “They must really be worried about you.”
“Yeah. Stupid stuff on my part.” He shoved the phone back into his pocket. “I’m ready to leave if you are.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I am. Yes.” And strange to say, he was. He took her hand and pulled her to her feet. “Lead on to your chariot.”
They circled around the house through the back yard and out to the street. About three blocks from the house, she stopped beside a silver hatchback.
“It’s pretty plain vanilla.” Her voice held an apologetic tone.
“I like plain vanilla,” he assured her. “You always know what you’re getting.”
The words hit him like a punch to the solar plexus as he realized the truth of them. He did like plain vanilla. Ria, the fancy sundae with many flavors, had tempted him with her exotic makeup. But now he wondered if their marriage had lasted any longer, would he have gotten tired of her? A guy couldn’t depend on exotic, a lesson he learned the hard way. For the first time since that gut-wrenching day he’d discovered the truth about his wife, the bands around his chest loosened.
Oh, he wasn’t fooling himself that meeting an emotionally anguished Nikki Alvarez was a sudden cure. He had been broken for so long he wasn’t even sure he was fixable. But he told himself to pull his frayed edges together and think about somebody but himself for a change. After all, the worst thing he’d done was make a bad choice, a massive case of rampant stupidity. He was nowhere ready to take all that out into the light and give it a hard look. Maybe, though, he could put it aside for a couple of hours and help someone else. He had to admit, with great reluctance, that a person losing someone they loved to death and feeling they were to blame was a lot worse than feeling sorry for himself because he’d married a promiscuous drug-addicted tramp. At least for this moment, he was looking forward instead of backward.
He opened the door on the passenger side. “It’s your city, so you’d better drive. Is there some place not very fancy that you can get a real cup of coffee?”
“I know just the place.”
She hesitated a second before opening her door, and he wondered if she’d had a change of heart. Then she climbed in and motioned him to do the same. As he settled himself in the seat, he closed his eyes for a moment to gather his wits about him. This was just coffee. With someone who needed a person to talk to. And he sure knew that so much of the time a stranger was better than a friend.
He was just so out of practice. Hell, he hardly even talked to his teammates any more. Maybe this was a step forward for him, too.
Don’t fuck this up.