Talia’s mouth opened wider; her skin was beginning to pale.
“Talia,” he called sharply.
Dismay widened her eyes. She held up a finger in a wait a minute gesture, not looking happy to see him, but that was just too damn bad. The adrenaline rush made him sprint flat out, and he reached her side just as she doubled up, bending at the waist and bracing her hands on her knees.
Since he didn’t know what the hell else to do, he put a hand on her back to steady her and felt the straining heave of her rib cage. Panic tried to clamp down on him, but he shoved it away. Freaking out right now wouldn’t help Talia, and he’d surrender himself back to the Taliban before he let anything happen to this woman on his watch.
“I’m—okay,” she gasped. “Give me…a minute.”
Okay? Did okay now mean that your face was chalky from lack of oxygen? Had she lost her mind?
“You’re not okay. Sit down. Put your head between your knees.”
She straightened, fixing him with a glare even as the tendons in her neck strained with each breath. “You…are way too…bossy.”
“Damn straight. Here. Let’s get you to a chair.”
Keeping a firm hand around her waist, he steered her to one of the chairs where she sat, leaned back and closed her eyes. If he’d been a cat, he’d have lost eight and a half of his nine lives during the period that she breathed deep, in and out, slowly catching her breath, until it eventually returned to normal.
He waited, not wanting her to tire herself by answering any unnecessary questions, but then he couldn’t take it anymore.
One of her hands rested on the arm of the chair, and he took it, squeezing. She squeezed back, and he let himself be reassured, at least until she opened her eyes. Evidently, she’d caught herself, because she looked embarrassed and, worse, uncomfortable with the caress.
She pulled her hand away and flashed what she evidently thought was a soothing smile.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry? You serious right now?”
“Yeah, I’m serious. I just got a little overexcited and…lost my breath, and…it’s no big deal. Don’t you ever get overexcited sometimes? It’s not like you need to call out the coast guard or anything.”
Apparently they’d observed two different incidents, because that version of events didn’t jibe with what he’d just seen. “That was a whole lot more than you just being out of breath,” he said flatly. “Do you have asthma?”
“Pneumonia? A heart condition?”
“No. Just drop it, okay? I’m telling you…I’m fine.”
“Fine,” he snapped, running a hand over his nape and deciding to come at her from another angle. This woman gave stubborn a whole new meaning, and he was beginning to understand that trying to force her to do anything she didn’t want to do was the rough equivalent of trying to fly without the benefit of wings or an airplane. “I’m not trying to make a federal case out of this, but you might want to think about seeing a doctor.”
Uh-oh. Wrong tactic. So much for the calm and rational approach.
Reaching for her towel, she began drying her legs with the kind of jerky moves that told him she was pissed off, and royally so.
“I’m not an invalid. I don’t need to see a doctor. And I’d appreciate it if you’d back off, okay? Back. Off.”
“Don’t make me sic Chesley on you.”
The dog, who’d been watching anxiously, whining, fixed Tony with a warning look. “Don’t even think about it,” he told the dog.
A sound vibrated inside Chesley’s throat, and it sounded suspiciously like a growl. But then Tony snapped his fingers at her, she headed off toward the waves.
Stalemated, Tony and Talia glared at each other for a minute. It crossed his mind to just toss her over his shoulder and march her back up to the house, but he figured that would end badly for him.
Anyway, she was the one with the fearsome-looking dog.
He was overreacting, he supposed. If she said she was fine, then she was fine. God knew his instincts were all out of whack when it came to her.