Just a Kiss
A Summer Harbor Romance
Paige Warren checked her watch, then peeked around Miss Trudy’s silver head for the dozenth time. Riley’s plane had landed, and the steady stream of passengers moving toward Bangor Airport’s baggage claim had begun to dwindle.
Beau and Zac Callahan, Riley’s black-haired brothers, stood just alike a few feet away, muscular arms crossed, broad stances, faces set as they scanned the unfamiliar faces.
“Shouldn’t he be here by now?” Paige fiddled with the ring around her neck.
“Stop your worrying,” Miss Trudy said. “He’ll be out soon.”
Stop her worrying? She’d done nothing but worry since the midnight call three weeks ago. Beau’s words had sent her heart into palpitations, and it hadn’t stopped racing since.
Miss Trudy grabbed Paige’s hand, stilling it. Only then did she realize she’d been frantically zinging the ring on her necklace back and forth.
“You’re about to drive me up the wall with your fidgeting.”
“I can’t help it. I won’t feel okay until I see he’s okay.”
“He’s coming home,” Miss Trudy said. “It’s going to be fine.”
“Don’t borrow trouble. Beau said he was in good spirits, and we should thank the good Lord he’s coming home at all.”
“I know. I know you’re right.”
Who would’ve thought when Riley left for Afghanistan fifteen months ago he’d be coming home in June? And like this? There’d been so many decisions and arrangements to make since the phone call, and Paige had taken on the lion’s share. It had soothed her to be doing something.
Riley was a strong man—always had been—but she couldn’t imagine anyone taking this in stride. There were big adjustments ahead, but she was determined to be there for her best friend every step of the way, just as he’d been there for her through every difficulty she’d faced since she was fourteen—especially the death of her father. Riley had spent many nights just listening as she tried to untangle the knots of unresolved anger.
“Where is he?” Beau wandered back over, in his shadow Zac, towering over them all.
“Y’all are starting to make me nervous with all your fidgeting and pacing,” Miss Trudy said.
Beau slipped his arm over his aunt’s shoulders. “Everyone’s out. He should be here.”
“Maybe he didn’t make the flight,” Paige said. The thought made her stomach sink like an anchor. The past few weeks of waiting had been torture on all of them. Beau had wanted to fly to Germany to be with his brother, but Riley insisted he stay.
“He’ll be here.” Zac ran a hand over his tightly-trimmed beard. He looked almost out of place without Lucy at his side. The two had been joined at the hip since their fall wedding.
Between Zac and Lucy’s recent nuptials and Beau and Eden’s engagement, Paige had been feeling a little fifth-wheelish lately. It’d be good to have her Riley back home. Nothing had felt quite right since he’d left. She had girlfriends, sure. But no one who knew and understood her like Riley.
It might be touch and go for a while, she reminded herself. She couldn’t expect the old Riley to come strutting around the corner. She’d done some research and, despite what Beau said about his brother’s spirits, she expected some fallout. It was time for her to be the strong one.
* * *
Riley Callahan gave the attractive brunette his most charming smile as she pushed an empty wheelchair down the Jetway toward him. She was tall, slender, about his age, and heck, the sight of any female was a treat these days. She reached the bottom of the Jetway where he waited in the onboard wheelchair.
“Mr. Callahan? I’m here to assist you.” Her professional tone matched her bland expression.
His lips drooped at her flat-eyed smile.
Reality check, idiot. Girls don’t dig guys in wheelchairs.
A month ago her response would’ve been different. She might’ve even flirted with him. Maybe tried to slip him her number. All that was different now. People saw the chair first and then him. And the him they saw was same him he saw in the mirror.
She wheeled the chair beside him and set the brake. “Need some help?”
“I got it.” Taking a deep breath, he made the awkward transition to the chair, his arm muscles tightening under his weight. He gritted his teeth against the pain as his body finally settled in place.
During the transfer his duffle fell, landing right beside his dignity. The bag he retrieved; the other was gone for good.
“You comfortable, sir?”
He’d slept two hours last night, his leg was aching like a son of a gun, and he was stuffed into a wheelchair like a freaking invalid. Not to mention a woman was tending to him. Everything about that seemed backwards.
She released the brakes on his chair and set it in motion, pushing it up the Jetway.
At least he was off the plane. The trip to the lavatory on the onboard wheelchair had been awkward and humiliating. In between, people thanked him for his service, for his sacrifice. He’d wanted to crawl under the seats.
As they reached the gate the cool whoosh of air conditioning brushed his skin. Good old US of A. He was home. Back in Maine. His family was waiting just down the way. His brothers. His aunt. Paige. For months he’d ached to see them—especially Paige.
But not like this.
His chest tightened, his breathing was as labored as if he’d just run a marathon. Ha. Wouldn’t be doing that anytime soon. He’d be lucky to reach hobbling status, and not even that without months of painful therapy. His eyes dropped to his legs.
The trouser leg on his right side drooped into the hollow space where his knee used to be. Now the leg ended in a grotesque stump that alternately ached and itched. The past three weeks had been a nightmare. The surgery, the painful recovery. The nightmares. His emotions teetered on edge, dark thoughts pushing him deeper into the shadows.
Just coming home was an act of courage. He didn’t want them to see him like this. Didn’t want Paige to see him like this. Who knew when he left that he’d return half a man?
He tightened his fingers on the metal armrests, swallowing against the hard lump in his throat. A sweat broke out on his back and forehead. The dark thoughts threatened to take him under, and he fought them with everything he had.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
The words had been beaten into him for fifteen months. Had gotten him through some pretty bad stuff. But they did little to help him now.
Come on, man. Buck up. You can’t let them see you like this.
His brothers had spent fifteen months worrying over him, all because he’d been stupid enough to enlist on the heels of their dad’s death. On the heels of—
No. He couldn’t think about that now. Suffice to say he’d left for all the wrong reasons. But that was his own doing. His family had already been through enough.
The wheelchair bumped over something, jostling his leg. He winced, his hand moving over the left pocket of his trousers where he kept her picture. His heart thudded at the realization that he was about to see her, and not on Skype. It seemed like an eternity since he’d looked into her sea-blue eyes. Since he’d heard the feminine lilt of her voice or breathed in her sweet, flowery smell.
If things had gone differently he’d be anticipating their reunion. He’d be strutting toward her on his own two legs, anxious to tell her the truth as he’d planned. But one IED had changed everything. Now his only plan revolved around figuring out how to put some space between them without hurting her feelings.
“Is that your family?” the woman pushing Riley’s chair asked.
His eyes darted toward the baggage claim entrance where his family clustered. He set his shoulders back, lifting his hand. Made his lips widen to a full-fledged smile, made sure his eyes crinkled at the corners like they were supposed to.
Beau waved back, his other arm curling tightly around Aunt Trudy. Zac grinned, a tall shadow behind them. Riley’s eyes slid to Paige, and his breath left his body.
Man, she was even more beautiful than he remembered. Her silky hair was blonder and longer, and he’d forgotten the way her subtle curves softened her athletic build. The sight of her tanned legs stirred up thoughts he had no business thinking.
She cupped her hand around her mouth, her eyes tearing up as he rolled closer.
When he was still a car’s length away she leaped forward, falling onto her knees. Her arms came around his neck, and the soft weight of her melted into him.
He held her close, his eyes falling shut. In an instant it was just the two of them. Old times. Kindred spirits. Callahan and Warren. Man, he’d missed her. He pulled in a deep breath of her. Flowers. Sunshine. Home. He buried his nose in her hair and soaked her in, remembering every night he’d lain in his rack staring at her picture, longing for a moment just like this.
His throat emitted a choking sound, and he disguised it with a hearty laugh. Forced energy into his voice. “Hey, now. What’s all this, Warren? You’re not crying, are you? You know you go straight to the ugly cry.”
Paige leaned back, swatting his shoulder as she surreptitiously wiped her eyes. “I missed you, you big lug. Are you in pain? Can I get your meds for you?”
Great, more fussing. “Naw, took some on the plane. I’m good. Wicked awesome.”
Beau reached in, edging out Paige. He grasped Riley’s hand in a bro-grip. “Good to have you home, brother. You had us awful worried there.”
“Good to be home. Man, is it ever.”
Zac ruffled his hand over Riley’s high and tight haircut. “Can’t even tousle your hair anymore. What fun is that?”
“Hey, Zac.” Riley smiled up at him. “Good to see your ugly mug. Gotta say though, you’re a freaking giant from down here.”
“All the more reason to get you back on your feet.”
“Hello . . . ?” Aunt Trudy said from the back. “I know I’m just the lowly aunt, but do I get a turn?”
Riley aimed a smile her way, reaching out. “Get over here, Aunt Trudy.”
She slipped between Paige and Beau and embraced him. She smelled like lemons and starch. Her narrow shoulders and thin arms felt frail, but her size was misleading. She could stop an army with a mere look.
“Lord have mercy, you’re wider than the chair. Did your muscles grow muscles?”
“Something like that,” he said as she pulled away.
“How was your flight?” Beau asked. “Get any rest?”
Riley glanced at Paige as she surreptitiously dabbed at the corner of her eyes. “Little bit.” He shot Aunt Trudy a look. “What I could really do with is one of your big ol’ roasts. Sooner the better.”
“Lucky for you, I’ve got one in the Crock-Pot at Paige’s house.”
“And corn bread, mashed potatoes, plus Paige’s pecan pie,” Zac added.
Riley palmed his stomach. “Oh, man, you’re killing me. Between the T-Rats, the hospital food, and the airline chow, it’s hard to say which was worse.”
“Did you check any bags?” Aunt Trudy asked, moving behind his chair and releasing the brakes.
“Just my chair. I gotta give this one back.” He clapped his hands once. “All right. Let’s get this show on the road. I can’t wait to get home, eat some good chow, and sleep in my own bed.” He rented a room at the back of the Roadhouse, Zac’s restaurant. It wasn’t much, but it was his.
Zac and Beau froze, trading glances. Paige shifted, and Aunt Trudy started rooting through her purse for something.
A cloud of unease bloomed in his gut. “What? What am I missing?”
“Um . . .” Zac didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Your old room isn’t exactly there anymore. I expanded the kitchen over the winter. Lucy and I were planning to let you have our guest room upstairs when you came home, but . . .” His eyes bounced off Riley’s leg.
Yeah. Not on one leg. Sure, he might be able to manage on his crutches, but moving was painful and awkward, and the last thing he needed was a nasty fall to set him back even further.
His stomach deflated like a week-old party balloon. So much for the privacy of his room. “Guess I’m staying at the farmhouse then. That’ll work just fine.”
Their aunt had broken her leg a while back, and they’d made the formal dining room into a bedroom. He tried not to let the thought of being fussed over 24/7 bleed into his expression.
“Um, yeah . . .” Zac rubbed the back of his neck. “The farmhouse is kind of under construction at the moment.” He gave Riley a look that made all kinds of red flags wave.
“We just started renovating,” Beau said. “Aunt Trudy’s wedding gift to Eden and me. The whole downstairs is a wreck at the moment.”
“It won’t be finished for a month at least,” Aunt Trudy said.
“No worries, though.” Paige patted his shoulder. “I told them from the beginning I wanted you at my place. I’ve got that nice master suite on the main floor. It’s perfect. The old doorframes are nice and wide, and your brothers have already built a ramp and put in handicap bars . . .”
Everything faded as his thoughts spun. He was staying with Paige? His eyes flew to Zac, who was sending him some kind of telepathic apology, then back to Paige, whose words died off—probably at the look on his face.
Her eyes clouded with confusion. “Is—is that not okay? You want to stay someplace else?” A flicker of hurt flashed in the blue depths, but she shut it down quickly, covering with a smile he’d known her too long to buy.
Dang it. He was trapped. He forced a smile, crinkle lines and all. “Yeah. I mean no. That’s great. Wicked awesome. But I can’t take your room. I’ll sleep on the couch or something.”
She straightened. “You will not. I’ve already moved my stuff upstairs. It’s a done deal.”
His eyes flickered off Zac before returning to Paige. He held the smile, not an easy feat with his jaw knotted as tight as a dock line on a cleat. “You’re a pal, Warren. Hey, why don’t you guys go get the car, and Zac can help me with the chair. We’ll meet you out front in a few.”
Moving behind him, Zac edged Aunt Trudy aside. “Sooner we get home, sooner we get a taste of that roast.”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Riley said.
The others headed toward the exit, and Zac set the chair in motion. Riley rubbed his mouth with the tips of his trembling fingers, trying to calm the rising storm. How was he going to spend the next however many weeks cooped up with Paige?
But what choice did he have? Wasn’t like he had a pile of cash in the bank for his own place. And even if he did, he was nowhere near ready for total independence—much as he’d like to deny it.
Just the thought of her fussing over him, helping him with clothes and all the other things he still needed help with . . .
God, are You trying to kill me here? Can’t I have just a little dignity? Would that be too much to ask?
So much for his plans to put space between them. He’d be trapped in the six hundred square feet of the bungalow’s main floor. With Paige.
This was all Zac’s fault. He squeezed the metal armrests until his hands ached. He worked to get himself under control as he watched his family exit the building. Then he turned to Zac.
“What the heck were you thinking? I’m staying with Paige? Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Whoa, now.” Zac stopped in front of the moving baggage carousel. “First of all, it was a group decision, so it’s not like—”
“But you’re the only one who knows. I thought you had my six, man.”
“It’s not like there were so many other options, Riley.”
“Any option is better than this!”
“All right, calm down. I get it, this isn’t what you were expecting.” Zac set the brakes. “But maybe you could look at it as an opportunity, you know?”
“An opportunity for what? To have Paige help me with my gory dressings, help me get in the shower, take care of me like a freaking invalid? Is that the kind of opportunity you had in mind? Because I’m pretty sure my pride’s already in the toilet, but maybe if we try a little harder, it can sink even lower.”
A curtain of guilt closed over Zac’s face. He grabbed the folded wheelchair from the moving carousel and set it up. “You’ve been through a lot, I get it. But she’s your friend, and she wants to help. Heck, actually being able to help feels a lot better than having you hurting thousands of miles away and not being able to do a thing. Maybe this could bring the two of you closer together. Maybe this is your chance.”
Riley gave a humorless laugh. “Yeah, just what she always wanted. A cripple.”
Something flickered in Zac’s eyes. “You’re the same person you’ve always been, Riley.”
Not even close. Not on the outside, and sure as heck not on the inside. He pressed his lips tight before it came spilling out. Nothing would ever be the same. Paige deserved the best, and that sure wasn’t him.
Zac’s gray eyes narrowed as he studied Riley. “What happened to the big smile, bro?”
Riley clenched his jaw, turning to watch the belt as it squeaked its way around an endless circle. “Move the chair over here.”
“Why am I getting the feeling you’re not half as ‘wicked awesome’ as you claim to be?”
Riley took a long second to compose himself. “I’m fine. I just—I was planning to put some space between me and Paige. Now I’m stuck.” He gave Zac a flinty look. “If I try and get out of it, it’s going to hurt her feelings. Or worse, she’ll know something’s up.”
The suspicion on Zac’s face cleared as he moved the chair and set the brakes. “Wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”
He was just going to have to suck it up. Work his butt off with exercises and therapy until he could get his prosthesis and manage on his own. Because the sooner he was independent the sooner he could get out of Paige’s life—out of Summer Harbor—for good.
Paige turned off the TV and crept toward Riley’s wheelchair. After a loud, celebratory supper the family had cleared out pretty quickly. Maybe they’d sensed Riley’s exhaustion, despite his valiant attempt at lively conversation.
The topics had centered around life here in Summer Harbor: Zac’s restaurant, the brothers’ quickly evolving love lives, the family Christmas tree farm. Paige had glossed over the recent financial difficulties at the shelter. He didn’t need to worry about Perfect Paws or her livelihood. He needed to focus on his recovery.
She stopped beside his chair, squatting down, taking in his handsome face, not quite relaxed, even in sleep. Twin burrows crouched between his brows, and his lips remained together. He’d changed in the fifteen months he’d been gone. She’d noticed the evolution on Skype, but it was more obvious in real life.
The planes of his face were more angled, his jaw more square. Harder. She supposed war had a way of changing a man, inside and out. His dark lashes fanned across his skin, the only thing even remotely soft or boyish about him.
She’d known him so long. Knew him so well. Maybe that was why she wasn’t quite buying the jubilant act. He’d avoided talking about everything he’d been through the past several weeks. His injury had been the elephant in the room tonight.
Her cat, Dasher, slinked by, rubbing against her, her gray tail swishing, her nose twitching toward Riley.
“It’s good to have him back home, isn’t it, baby?”
She studied Riley’s forearms; they looked hard as steel, leading down to strong, calloused hands and thick fingers. She’d always liked his hands. Manly hands. Lobstering had always kept him in good shape. He was happiest when he was out on the water, the wind in his hair, the waves rolling beneath the boat’s hull. That’s why she’d been so surprised when he’d enlisted.
Surprised and dismayed. And yes, she admitted to herself, angry. He’d dropped it on her like a hot brick, after the fact. He was leaving her, and she’d felt abandoned—an all too familiar feeling.
But now wasn’t the time to dwell on that. He was back, and he needed her.
The furrows deepened. His head rolled to the side.
She hated to wake him, but there was no other way to get him into bed, and his dressing needed to be changed. She’d already turned down his covers and made sure the path to his bed was clear. There was a glass of water on his nightstand beside his bottle of pills, and the crutches she’d picked up for him were within reach of his bed.
She set her hand on his arm, her fingers brushing lightly over the golden hairs. “Riley, it’s time for—”
The next second she was flying backward, airborne. She hit the wood floor, sliding. Her elbows flew back. Her head smacked the wall, and the heavy ring she wore on a chain thunked her in the chin.
She blinked, orienting herself, assessing. Burning elbows. Thudding head. Aching rump. Ouch.
“Paige!” Horror etched itself on Riley’s face. He unset his brakes and wheeled awkwardly toward her.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” She sat up, moving carefully to her knees, a little dizzy from the whack to the head. She fixed a smile to her face as he wheeled to a stop beside her. “Man, Callahan. You got stronger over there.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
She gave a huff of laughter. “I’m fine. Geez, I’m tougher than that.” She brushed the hair back from her face.
His eyes narrowed on her forearm. “You’re bleeding.”
She gave her arm a quick check. “Just a scratch. Little Band-Aid and it’s all good. Let’s get you—”
“You hit your head too.”
“Really?” She gave him a saucy grin. “It all happened so fast, I was thinking you had a new superpower. Like that Twilight guy.”
He pounded his fist on the chair’s arm. “Dang it! Stop making jokes. It isn’t funny. This isn’t going to work.”
Her lips fell as a weight settled in her midsection. “Don’t be silly. It was my fault. You’re just back from war—I knew better. I’ve done a lot of reading, and this kind of thing is common. I’ll be more careful next time.”
“You shouldn’t have to be ‘careful’ in your own home, and you shouldn’t have to take care of me.” His fingers tightened on the chair grips.
Releasing a breath, she set her knees down, put her hand over his. So many things swimming around in those green eyes. Regret, frustration, anger. There were probably a dozen other emotions that hadn’t even come to the surface yet. Maybe they were negative emotions, but at least they were authentic. She preferred them to the fake jovial thing he’d had going on since he got off the plane.
“Listen here, Callahan. I’m going to be here for you whether you want me to or not. That’s what friends do. That’s what you’d do for me, and you know it. Now, we’re going to get you into bed, and you’re going to get a good night’s rest because tomorrow’s your first appointment with your physical therapist. From what I’ve read, he’s going to be the new villain in your life.”
He clamped his lips closed, and his nostrils flared. Some emotion passed through his eyes before he turned away, his jaw as hard as the boulders at Lighthouse Pointe.
“It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this.” She gave his hand one last squeeze. Please, God. Let it be okay.
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