Trudging up the three flights to her apartment, Darlene Foxx was caught between animal metaphors: hungry as a horse and tired as a grizzly bear come winter.
Snow melted against the heat of her fingers when she removed a glove and carelessly combed through her hair. A part of her still expected to feel thick, flowing waves instead of short, silky layers. Hair--another thing she hadn't been able to afford. Not the salon-babied stuff she'd worn since she'd escaped her parents' house at eighteen.
She moved down the hall to her door, one of the few on the floor with a welcome mat still in front of it. If anyone in the building had held any illusions about New York City before, they'd dragged their welcome mats back behind triple locked doors after a rash of robberies had hit the neighborhood a month ago. Each burglary had followed the same pattern: Victims returned home from work to find their doors wide open and their lives scrubbed clean of valuables the way a kid's face got scrubbed clean of dirt by a fastidious mother.
Darlene wasn't worried. She'd been extravagant with money from the day she'd started making her own in New York City. The only humble part of her life had been her apartment, which was cheap and sparse on accommodations. But she'd always figured it was what you put into a place that made it interesting.
Letting herself into her apartment now, Darlene saw a shell of what had been her home. She'd beat any thief to pawning her valuables. Desperate times call for desperate measures, she'd told herself while accepting only a small portion of what her movie-theater-screen size TV, deluxe stereo, VCR and camcorder were worth. Luxurious furniture had been replaced with functional, second-hand pieces.
She pushed her door shut behind her wearily and locked both deadbolts. Eat or sleep? She dropped the mail, her gloves and knit hat on the table near the door. When she reached for the zipper of her coat, she realized didn't even have the energy to manage that task. Without switching on the living room lights to dispel the burgeoning shadows, she walked the couple feet around her couch, eased herself onto it and curled up on her side.
Her mind shut off on her long, deep sigh. Minutes or hours later, she was startled awake to darkness with her heart slamming against her chest. Someone was trying to get in! One deadbolt opened with a click. Scrambling to sit up, Darlene cursed herself for not pulling the chain lock. Lot of good it would have done! This guy must have a degree in lock-picking!
The phone was in her bedroom. She couldn't call 911. Frantically searching for a weapon, her gaze skidded over the thin book that lay on the coffee table in front of her. What are you going to do? Fend off a robber with Winnie the Pooh?
Left with no other recourse, she yanked off one of her pink, fur-lined boots. Just as the last lock sprung open, she hid in back of the door. Her heart was beating so hard, she could barely hear over it. All of her instincts kicked in. Protect...
A tall, dark shadow moved inside. Darlene raised the boot, causing her nylon coat to crinkle loudly. The figure simultaneously closed the door and dropped what looked like a duffel bag. He turned to glance at her, point blank, a second before she could lunge at him with her boot. "Darlene?"
Her entire body went rigid in mid-attack. She saw the keys in his hand, thought in stunned stupidity, How did a thief get the keys to my apartment?, then her mind supplied the answer. Only one other person had the keys to her apartment. "Jace? Dear God!"
He flipped on one of the light switches, which illuminated only the far corner of the room. "You planning to take me down with that or is your apartment infested with roaches?" His gaze followed the drip of melting snow from her "weapon".
Darlene could barely keep herself from laughing like a lunatic or bursting into tears at how worked up she'd been a second ago. She lowered the boot. "I thought you were a burglar. There've been some break-ins in the neighborhood."
"A stiletto-heeled boot might serve as a better weapon than a wet rubber boot. None of that fur to cushion the impact." Jace rubbed his head almost unconsciously, as if reliving a memory.
She didn't bother asking how he'd know what a stiletto heel to the head felt like. It was easy to imagine some dumb blond furious enough with him to get her digs in, literally.
Now that she knew she wouldn't have to fight off a burglar, she stared at her intruder in forced annoyance. "What are you doing here, Jace?" He still had the keys to her apartment, apparently, although it'd been over two years since the last time.
You're not alone anymore, she thought too quickly. Tears formed in that instant. But she couldn't allow herself the luxury of believing his presence might be permanent. She knew Jace too well. Unfortunately, she also knew herself too well. I can't take it again. Not this time.
"Am I late or something?" he teased, grinning as if nothing had changed.
Just friends, that grin said. A friend dropping in after two years without a word, without a single promise. Remember that--a friend, because you don't ever want to need promises from a vagabond like Jason Radcliffe again.
Darlene lowered her boot to the floor, careful not to step in the puddle it'd made. For a second, she considered avoiding Jace's eyes. They still stood in shadows. If she didn't look at him, maybe he wouldn't see the truth. She wouldn't give away what she hadn't admitted even to herself. That she'd prayed for a friend, a knight in shining armor. Someone to simply hold her hand. She'd never expected that prayer to come true, especially not with Jace on the white steed.
He stared at her speculatively for a long minute. "You cut your hair," he said finally.
Jace had always loved her long, thick hair, and yet he didn't sound disappointed. Maybe it didn't look as bad as she thought.
Facing him, even in the shadows, she couldn't control the emotions that crowded in on her. He was such a contradiction. So cute, so dangerously sexy. Teddy bear and bad boy all rolled into one. Healer and heartbreaker. And I always end up falling in love with someone who used to be my one and only best friend--how's that for a contradiction?
"Long hair no longer suited me," she said on a shrug. Her nonchalance stuck in her throat when he stepped forward to cup her face in one large hand.
"I don't know about that. You and long hair go together like long kisses and making love." His voice was soft, so intimate she somehow knew before he stepped closer that he planned to put his arms around her. All he'd need to do was hug her, and he'd know the truth. "I missed you so much, I think you'd look good to me if you were bald."
Damn you, Jace. Damn you. Darlene couldn't laugh or tease or think, not when he was bringing her closer to him, into his embrace. Not that she'd had any opportunity to hide in subterfuge, what with his unexpected arrival, but the jig was up anyway. There was no way he wouldn't notice.
Instead of sinking against him the way she wanted to, she focused steadfastly on his dark eyes in order to remind her of reality. He'd betrayed her, and she'd let him. She always knew what she was getting into with Jace Radcliffe. The only person she could blame--and withhold forgiveness from--was herself. But that didn't make the situation any more logical.
He glanced down, as if wondering about the obstacle between them. Her coat was huge, but there could be no mistaking the fact that she filled it out, flesh for fabric.
As if anything else had to be beyond his comprehension--and remained beyond her own--he teased, "What do you got under there? A basketball?"
Damn you, Jace, she thought again, this time feeling the anger she needed to keep him at a distance. How do you always manage to escape the real issue? Why you're here.
Darlene leaned around him to flip on all the room lights, then stood back to let him look his fill. "No basketball. A baby."
* * * *
Darlene Foxx, the original not-me, not-ever, no-way-am-I-ever-having-kids was pregnant? Jace stood staring as Darlene moved around the sofa and slowly removed her coat.
No basketball, definitely not. That full, rounded belly couldn't be mistaken for anything except a baby growing inside--and growing rapidly. The rest of her body was exactly the same.
"And no, I'm not going to give birth right this minute," she said wearily, as if she'd heard that particular exclamation one too many times to be amused.
When his sister had been pregnant, she'd heard the same remark often, too, especially when she only had a few weeks to go. Darlene wasn't that big yet. She still moved fairly easily, although much slower than before.
Jace realized he'd accepted her pregnancy for a few minutes and shook himself. Darlene pregnant still didn't make sense, even if it was real. He glanced past her, and then nothing made sense. This wasn't Darlene's luxury apartment in the slums. "Did you get robbed?" he asked in shock, stepping forward at the same time she sat down heavily.
"Where's your stereo? TV? The furniture? This isn't your couch."
Since Darlene had moved to New York City, everything she'd owned had been top of the line. This ragged couch with the crocheted blanket over it to hide its lack of appeal was definitely flea market stuff.
"I wasn't robbed. I just got tired of navigating around everything."
The exhaustion in her voice penetrated his shock. She sat with her head back, eyes closed. He let her obvious lie go by without calling her on it. It was the least he could do anyway. You got off scot-free, Jace told himself, not feeling any real victory. You're in instead of back out there in the cold. And she let you in without screaming any of the obscenities at you that you deserve. He should have been glad. He wasn't.
"So who's the lucky guy?" he asked quietly, nudging his duffel behind the sofa before moving to sit on the coffee table in front of Darlene.
She glanced at him mutely for a few seconds, as if trying to read his motive. Then she shook her head. "No one you know. No one you'll ever know."
That slight edge in her voice--this was the Darlene he knew. Pretending she didn't care even when she might be devastated.
"He bailed?" Jace guessed softly, unable to control the anger he felt at this unknown creep who'd not only walked away from a one-of-a-kind lady like Darlene, but from his own kid. Could've been you, he reminded himself, but it didn't make him any less protective.
"The very day he found out he was going to be a father." Darlene stood, keeping her gaze averted. "Let's not talk about it."
Jace nodded, turning his head to watch her wearily carry her coat to the closet. Not much to talk about--now that you're on the long list of guys who've walked out on her, he thought. He figured he had a lot to make up for. Before deciding to come back here, he'd discovered a contradictory side of himself. He wanted Darlene to welcome him back and--had to have been kicked in the head to feel that way but--he wanted her to scream at him for the way it'd gone down two years ago.
He couldn't say when he'd realized it, but he hated Darlene's silent, smiling acceptance of anything that came her way. Even more, he hated the thought that she took everything inside of herself like swallowing barbed wire. She'd never admit when something ripped her up inside, even if that thing was supposed to set her free. A thing like love.
Jace watched her, feeling his teeth clench against the emotion rising violently inside him. He'd never seen her look so guarded--and that was saying something. Her dark eyes, her posture, even her thin arms seemed ready to fly up to shield her at a moment's notice.
He sighed. Damn, he'd missed her. All he wanted to do was wrap her up in his arms and make her promises...promises he wouldn't keep because she wouldn't demand them and she wouldn't hold him to them if she did.
She appeared utterly fragile in that soft, fuzzy sweater she burrowed into like a life preserver. For the first time in her life, she couldn't hide that fragility from him, no matter how guarded she remained. And maybe for the first time, Darlene Foxx needed someone. Needed someone to take care of her.
He had no right to think it, but that had never stopped him before: Maybe he'd come just in the nick of time to be that someone.