Still, it hurt. Like a spiked wrecking ball to his gut.
He was a big boy, though, and he’d get over it. He hadn’t come all this way, physically and emotionally, to just go away quietly and give up on the idea of exploring a romantic relationship with her.
“So, yeah, I’ve been home for about a month.”
“Your brother and sister must be so thrilled.”
Did that mean that she wasn’t thrilled? “They are.”
A shadow crossed her face, telling him what was coming next. “Are you okay? I mean—physically?”
“Are you?” he asked.
He wasn’t normally the needy type, but then he wasn’t normally interested in a woman who knew if he was dead or alive only by reading the papers. Despite all his stern internal lectures about not getting his hopes up, he’d done exactly that, nursing all kinds of glorious reunion scenarios that ended with them tumbling into the nearest bed for a long and urgent interlude of getting-to-know-you.
That probably wasn’t going to happen.
Big surprise, right?
Worse, her growing polite coolness and his old familiar feeling of dread—he was always dreading something—had him in a stranglehold.
“Are you glad, I mean?” he continued.
Her unabashed vehemence made him lose his head a little, and he reached for her. “Talia.”
He heard the husky vulnerability in his voice, but nothing mattered except the feel of her beautiful face between his palms—Christ, her skin was soft—and the need to feel her mouth moving against his. Her melting little sigh made his heart ache. He ducked his head, drowning in lust and need, and tipped her chin up to—
“I can’t.” At the very last second, she stiffened and turned away.
He was beyond hearing, so he didn’t let her go.
Grabbing his wrists, she pulled free of his hands. “I can’t.”
Tony reined himself in, hard, even though he’d waited so long and moved heaven and earth to arrive at this moment, and even though the flashing turbulence in her eyes didn’t match her sharp tone.
It took him a good long time to wrestle his frustration into submission, and longer to get past the delicious sensation of touching her skin.
“You can’t?” he echoed dully.
“Because of Paul?”
Her brows contracted with bewilderment. “Paul?”
He reached for her left hand and pulled it out where he could examine it. She wore a silver butterfly ring, but no wedding band, so that was good. Great, actually.
Still, the idea of having lost her forever while the Taliban had kept him hostage and helpless turned his heart to stone.
“Did you marry him?” he demanded.
That was a small step in the right direction. “But you’re still together?”
“There’s someone else?”
He stared at her; she kept her head bowed.
Deep inside, he felt that snake’s nest of dread twist and writhe.
“Help me out, then. I don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing to understand.” She hesitated, shrugging. “You’re making assumptions. That’s the problem.”
He supposed he was. Hell. Wasn’t this whole trip down to the Village to see her all about one giant assumption?
She was into him, too. He knew it. He could feel it.
Straining his brain, he tried to think of the letter—the exact paragraph, sentence and words—where she’d admitted she had feelings for him. She had said it, hadn’t she? Why couldn’t he remember? Why had he taken her precious letters with him that last day, tucked inside his vest pocket for luck? Luck. Yeah. Funny. Luck hadn’t saved him from being captured, and it hadn’t saved his letters, which had probably been kindling for some insurgent’s fire.
Now he couldn’t reread them and find the proof he needed.
Oh, but it got worse.
In this cold light of a May day, months later, he had to admit that it was possible he’d imagined something between the lines of her letters—something that had never been there.