Blake rolled back on his heels. His gut clenched as he digested Jessie’s words. He’d never heard her talk this way. Snarky? Check. Sassy? Double check. Sarcastic? Triple check. But defeated? That tone of voice had no place in her Richter scale of communication.
“What happened?” he asked. The sun’s hot rays on his exposed neck were a warm counterpoint to the chill creeping up his spine.
“The device shouldn’t have blown,” she said. “We all thought it was a routine dismantle. Just your everyday booby trap with a blasting cap, rubber, and some wires sticking out. Nothing bad was supposed to happen.”
She sounded small, scared, soulless. “But it did,” he said.
Her shoulders drooped. “The guys were ribbing my team leader—Rodriguez—about letting a woman do all the heavy lifting. He told them to cut the crap.” She smiled a little at the memory. “The cap teetered. I got it under control, but something was off. Before I could figure it out, Rodriguez shouted. I turned to see him run toward me. He slammed against me, and then boom. He went flying. I caught the tail end of the blast. Blood everywhere. Constanza screaming. Woodall mopping up the mess, radioing for medics, and carrying us one by one to the JERRV truck to shield us from potential enemy fire.”
His lungs pressed against his sternum. He’d only experienced acting through that kind of chaos. Jessie’s personal background of that type of carnage staggered him. “Where’s Rodriguez?”
“Not where he belongs. Not home. And not with his family,” she whispered, her voice clinging to the edge of a sharp point. “I want to remember what went wrong, but I’m terrified to face it. What if I screwed something up? What if Rodriguez is dead because of me, and I’m the one who should be six feet under? What if my mom’s the parent who should have a folded American flag in a shadow box? Not Rodriguez’s wife. Not his two little girls.” Her smoky eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t let them break through the dam.
Blake’s heart clenched. The weight she carried was too great a burden, the guilt unfairly shouldered. “Jessie.” He caressed her cheek. “You need to talk to someone. There are doctors…”
“I’m tired of doctors and hospitals and well-meaning, encouraging words. I don’t want to be treated like a specimen in a petri dish. I don’t want people poking and probing and prodding me anymore. I want…” She closed her eyes and two rebel tears traveled down her cheek, dampening his fingers.
The rustling of the trees, the heat of the sun on his back, and the mountains in the distance evaporated. There was only this time. This space. And this woman standing before him with the strength of a warrior, but with her heart vulnerable and exposed and anticipating.
“What do you want?” he asked.
She opened her beautiful gray-blue eyes and tears glistened on her black-as-night lashes. “I want someone to hold me,” she said. “Not because I’m wounded. Not because I’m alive. But because I’m me.”
Something shifted inside Blake. A fierce desire to protect Jessie, to offer her more than the comfort of his arms around her, rushed through him. He fought to suppress the force of his attraction and contain the forbidden, emerging emotions.
This proud, obstinate, and fiery woman deserved a worthy man. It wasn’t him.
With his life at a crossroads, he couldn’t offer her more than a brief escape. But damn it all to hell, he couldn’t deny her, or himself, any longer. Not when she’d flayed her soul.
His heart punched him in the solar plexus. She’d called him a hero. Though he was wrong for her, and he shouldn’t act on his attraction, Blake wanted to be the man who lived up to her expectations. At least for now.
He pulled her to him, wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “I’ve got you, Jessie.” Blake kissed the top of her head, inhaled her unique scent, felt the spasm of sorrow travel through her slender frame.
Her arms coiled around his waist. “Don’t let go.”
The sound of her soft keening, the desperation of her grip on him, undid him. “I won’t.” He tilted her face upward and swiped the tears from her cheeks. Her chin wobbled, and her breath misted the air between them.
Time slowed. He heard every rough beat of his heart, felt the fire building in his groin, and the desire he’d banked roared to life. “I couldn’t stop even if I tried.” He lowered his lips to touch hers and tasted the salt of her sorrow.
“You can’t possibly want me,” Jessie protested, but the tension knotting her shoulders unwound as Blake’s lips moved over hers.