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Second Chance Christmas
“Nice ride.” He spoke in a neutral tone.
“Thanks.” I shifted into gear and pulled away. The heated seats quickly warmed the chilly car. I wove my way through the city streets, heading toward I-395. With the hour so late, the highway would be free of heavy traffic and the fastest way to get to Colton’s condo in Shirlington, Virginia.
He broke the silence. “I’m not staying at my apartment.”
“It’s been rented.”
I pulled into a street parking space and came to a stop, my hands rested on the steering wheel. “Where have you been staying?” If he gave me an address in Maryland, I would reach across the console and strangle him. It was now a quarter past one in the morning. I had zero interest in schlepping him to some friend’s house in Rockville or Bethesda.
“Up until this morning? Walter Reed.”
I exhaled with a rush. Clearly, my assumption that his limp had something to do with the bar fight that caused his head injury was way off base. Walter Reed Medical Center, a prominent hospital located in Bethesda, Maryland, served the DC area’s population of wounded soldiers and veterans. I shifted my back against the door and faced his profile. “How long were you at Walter Reed?”
His jaw muscles contracted as he continued to gaze out the front window. “They flew me in from Ramstein Air Base about two weeks ago.”
I waited, but he didn’t elaborate. “What happened?”
“Caught some shrapnel from an IED.”
Wind whistled through my teeth. “Did you…that is, your leg…is it…?”
For the first time since we’d gotten in the car, he turned, and his sepia brown eyes met my gaze. “Did I lose it?”
I bit my lip and nodded.
“No, it’s still there.” He tapped his thigh. “They dug most of the shrapnel out in Germany before flying me to the States, but they missed a piece and had to cut me open again at Walter Reed. Some specialist worked on it. Caused muscle damage. I may never be able to walk right.”
“I see…I’m sorry to hear that.” I was sorry he’d been injured. “I’m glad you’re still alive.”
“Yes, of course!” His sarcasm cut me to the quick. Our relationship might have ended on an acrimonious note, but I certainly didn’t wish him pain. The tension in the car was so thick you could slice it with an X-Acto. Hurt, anger, and guilt that I thought I’d come to terms with two years ago welled up to form a choking lump in my throat.
Colton clamped his teeth and his jaw muscles flexed, whether from pain or hostility, I didn’t know. His ability to hide his emotions had been one of the strike points in our relationship. That’s what came from dating an Army intelligence officer. They were trained to suppress their true feelings. This wasn’t the first time I had no idea what he was thinking. However, considering our last parting shots at each other, I could surmise his thoughts weren’t pleasant.
I ceded the staring contest. My eyes shifted to gaze blankly out of the windshield at the white Camry in front of us. My chestnut curls fell forward to shield my face and emotions from him.
“So,” I croaked, and then cleared my throat to try again. “If you hate me so much, do you mind explaining why I’m still listed as in your phone as an emergency contact?”
“Why? Did I drag you away from a hot date?” he bit out.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” I shot back. “I was at the French Embassy enjoying a holiday concert. Thus, the fancy dress and accoutrements.”
“Please tell me you’re not dating a Frog.”
“He’s not a Frog. He’s French. He’s a security specialist at the Embassy,” I squawked defensively.
“Cripes! You’re dating a French spook.” He snorted with disdain. “A Frog in spook clothing.”
“Philippe is not a spook. And stop calling him a Frog.”
He mumbled something that sounded like, “worthless, cheese-eating Frenchies.”
I flipped off the engine. The heat vents went silent and the dashboard turned dark. “What?”
“How old is he?”
“I don’t know. Mid to late thirties, I suppose. What does it matter?”
“He’s a spook.”
His attack on my dating life churned in my gut and sparked off long, suppressed anger. My temper flared and I fired back. “What does it matter who I date? You no longer have a say in my life. You made that clear two years ago when you called me a selfish bitch, along with some other choice words, and accused me of putting my career ahead of yours.”
“Eight hundred and eighty-four days.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s been eight hundred and eighty-four days, since we split. Two years, one hundred fifty-four days.”