Will drove into town. He felt like a live wire, ragged and fraying around the edges, ready to snap. He hadn’t slept. Again.
He was running on adrenaline now—every sense heightened, every thought twisted and fragmented.
It wouldn’t be the first time. He recognized the feeling. He’d experienced it on enough overseas ops. It had fueled him through Hell Week ten years ago when he’d first joined the SEALs. One of the reasons the instructors pushed them so hard in BUD/S was to see if they could carry out a mission in an exhausted haze.
He knew how to function in this state.
It was all mental.
He just had to get control of his mind.
Marshes and soybean fields gave way to the playing fields of the Heron Island Elementary School. Faded orange soccer nets flanked the flat stretch of grass, and he slowed when he spotted a woman with long red hair sitting alone on the bleachers.
Wasn’t that the woman he’d met last night?
What was she doing at the elementary school?
Shit. Did she have a kid?
That would explain why she hadn’t wanted him to come in last night, why she’d kept looking back toward the stairs leading up to the apartment. He tapped his fingers over the steering wheel. Kids complicated things. He didn’t do complicated.
But he wanted to see her.
He’d thought of little else while he’d lain awake last night, staring at the ceiling.
Turning the wheel at the last minute, he steered the SUV into the parking lot. He pulled into a parking spot facing the playing fields and cut the engine. Screw it. He had six weeks to figure out how to un-complicate things.
He climbed out of the driver’s seat and walked across the grass to where she sat. When she lifted her gaze, he expected her to say something sarcastic about the chicken tenders she’d given him last night. He wasn’t prepared for the pale face and haunted eyes that stared back at him.
There was nothing uncomplicated about that. “Is everything all right?”
Her hands were wrapped around the bench on either side of her, curled into a death grip. “You don’t look fine.”
“No,” Will said, backpedaling. “I mean, you look like you could use someone to talk to.”
“Actually, I’d really like to be alone right now.”
Will paused a few yards away from her. He hadn’t risen to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy without recognizing that most of the time, when one of his men said they wanted to be alone, what they really needed was someone to talk to. He wouldn’t let one of his men off that easily, and he sure as hell wasn’t leaving Annie alone in the middle of a panic attack. Not until she told him what was wrong.
“Look,” she said after several moments of silence when he made no move to leave. “I just dropped my daughter off for her first day at a new school, and I’m worried about her. I want to stay close by in case she needs me.”
“How old is your daughter?”
Eight? Will’s gaze combed over Annie’s face. She didn’t look old enough to have an eight-year-old daughter. He’d pinned her as twenty-six, twenty-seven at the most. She must have been pretty young when she’d gotten pregnant.
He took a moment to study her. She was wearing a stretchy black top and dark jeans again. She wore her hair long and loose, spilling in red waves over her shoulders. The wind whipped a touch of color back into her cheeks, but her eyes still held a hint of fear.
What was she afraid of?
“You’re not wearing a ring,” Will said, “so I’m guessing the father’s not part of the picture.”
“No.” Annie brushed her hair out of her eyes. “He’s not part of the picture.”
Will wondered if he’d ever been part of the picture. Or if he could have something to do with what she was afraid of. “If your daughter’s eight, shouldn’t you be used to leaving her at school by now?”
“It’s a new school. She doesn’t know anyone here.”
Still, he thought. She seemed pretty shaken up for someone who was just dropping her kid off at school. “What grade is your daughter in?”
“Who’s her teacher?”
Becca? No kidding? “I didn’t know Becca was a teacher.”
“I thought you said you grew up here?”
“I did.” Will rocked back on his heels. “I haven’t been back in a while.”
Annie glanced back up at him, shading her eyes from the sun. “How long is a while?”
“Listen,” Will said, changing the subject, “you look like you could use something to eat, and I bet your daughter doesn’t want you hanging around when she comes out for recess. Let me take you to breakfast.”
Annie shook her head. “I need to stay here.”
“For how long?”
“Until I’m ready.”
“You can’t say no to a fried egg sandwich from The Tackle Box. I’ll even throw in a bottle of orange juice.” He smiled down at her, trying to put her at ease. “We can call it a date.”
“I told you last night. I’m not dating you.”
“Why not?” Will feigned a hurt expression. “Don’t I look dateable?”
“Yes,” she said. “You look perfectly dateable. For someone else.”
“But not you?”
“No. Not me.”
Annie’s gaze drifted to the brightly colored playground and row of swings near the school. “Because I don’t date.”
Will walked to the bleachers, lowering himself to the bench beside her. “Ever?”
“That seems closed-minded.”
“It’s not closed-minded. It’s just easier.”
Will’s eyes widened in mock horror. “What’s easy about not dating?”
“Well, for starters,” she answered, “not having to explain to my daughter where I’m going and who I’m going with.”
“Your daughter’s busy with school right now, so you don’t have to explain anything.”
“But I’d have to tell her later. We don’t keep secrets from each other.”
Will studied her for several moments. “You tell your daughter everything?”
Will leaned in and brushed his lips over hers. Before she could react, before she could do anything, he eased back and winked. “Let me know what she has to say about that.”