Home At Last

      J.D. didn't seem to be feeling any of the same longing that had tugged at her all day...and she wasn't even going to think about that! No, Kirsten vowed, she was going to knock on the door between their motel rooms, wait for him to open the one on his side, then deliver her apology without ever crossing the threshold.

      All right, then.

      A simple twist of the lock would open the door into her and Lindsay's room, and even though she'd have to knock softly with her daughter asleep, it would be loud enough for him to hear and open his own door. Kirsten squared her shoulders, yanked open the first door and stopped short.

      There was no other door.

      Instead of looking at a wood-grained surface, she was looking into a lighted room. And barely a few feet away from her, J.D. Ryder had just stripped off his shirt.

      He turned toward her with the same swift, reflexive grace that had probably saved his life a dozen times, and her mouth went dry. The man was so perfectly sculpted—the powerful shoulders, the corded muscles, the swirl of dark hair across his chest— She had never looked at him in the light before, and the vision assaulted her senses.

      Leaving her breathless.

      Leaving her weak.

      "I—" she stammered as she caught sight of his St. Christopher medal sliding back into place on its chain, and J.D. dropped the shirt, lifting his hands in a gesture of warning.

      "Kirsten," he said raggedly, "don't do this."

      Don't stare at him? Don't come any closer? Even if her body were capable of moving right now, she couldn't cross this threshold. "But—"

      "Look, I'm having a hard enough time staying away from you, all right?" He wasn't moving, either, which made it hard to understand why the very air between them seemed so hot, so electrically charged. "I'm gonna do it, don't worry, but you showing up here like this isn't—"

      He was feeling it, too? Oh, he had to be...this kind of throbbing awareness couldn't happen to just one person. But surely he didn't think she expected a replay of last night. "That's not why I came."

      His muscles seemed to suddenly tighten, as if he'd just absorbed a blow. Yet his voice was flat, almost distant. "I know."

      All right, then, she needed to make her statement and get out as fast as she could. Before her heightened senses could make her forget about Lindsay sleeping so close behind her, she had to deliver her message. "J.D., I'm sorry. That's why I came, all right? I just wanted to apologize for not telling you about—"

      "Forget it," he growled.

      "But—"

      He lifted his hands again, yet this time the gesture looked more like a plea than a warning. "Kirs, leave it alone. All right? You don't owe me any apologies."

      She wished she could believe that, but she'd seen the flash of pain in his eyes this morning. "I think I do."

      Without coming any closer, and still without breaking the hot, pulsing current between them, he shook his head. "Then write a letter," he muttered. "But don't make it any harder to stay on my side of the door."

      "All right," she murmured. This had been a bad idea, reminding them both of what they could never share. Kirsten managed to take one step back before realizing that she'd made things even worse for him by showing up in the first place. "I'm sorry," she said awkwardly. He didn't deserve this kind of frustration, either...and considering how intensely it crackled between them, how on earth could she expect him to help her keep searching for the twins? "J.D., listen, if this is too— I mean, if you'd rather I got some other detective—"

      That idea must have already occurred to him, because he cut her off before she could finish. "I'd rather," he said, moving close enough to give her a look that combined entreaty with stark command, "you took Lindsay back home and let me do this myself."

      That was what he'd wanted back in Tucson, when she'd first insisted on coming with him, and her reasons for refusing still hadn't changed. "The thing is, I can't let my kids—"

      "I know," he interrupted, halting suddenly as if realizing how little space was left between them. "Whoever finds 'em, you want to be there."

      She couldn't think with J.D. this close to her, with the ridged muscles and solid planes of his chest almost within touching distance, but neither could she forget about her children. About what they needed, what they deserved. "I have to be there."

      He lifted his gaze from hers for a moment, as if wishing himself anywhere else, then faced her again. "I know," he repeated bleakly. "Kirsten, look. I'll finish this. But just--" He hesitated, then let out a sharp breath that sounded as frustrated as she felt. "This'd be a lot easier if we'd never--"

      "I know," she interrupted, but he didn't even seem to hear. He was too absorbed in his own regrets, too grimly intent on keeping the margin of distance between them, to recognize the same regret in anyone else.

      "I mean," he continued darkly, "if we hadn't—"

      "You think I don't know that?" she burst out. J.D. wasn't the only one wishing for more touch, more warmth, more of the soaring, arching passion that had bound them together last night. "You think I haven't spent the whole day wanting—" It wasn't until she saw his expression, a mixture of anguished yearning and gritty resolve, that she realized this confession wasn't helping matters any. "Oh. Never mind."

      He stared at her for a long, intense moment, and when he finally spoke there was gravel in his voice. "Kirsten. I think you should close the door now."

      Close the door. Break the current. End this heated silence, this dizzying anticipation, this torturing emptiness. "Yes," she managed to whisper.

      But she couldn't move.

      She couldn't lift her gaze from his, couldn't still the throbbing ache inside her, couldn't even find the edge of the door.

      And he wasn't helping any. He was staying on his side of the threshold, but she could feel the heat radiating between them, see the longing in his eyes and the tension of his body, almost taste the surface of his skin.

      She couldn't close the door.

      She couldn't even breathe.

      "Now, Kirsten," he growled, and with a sudden burst of desperation she flung herself at the door, slammed it into place and twisted the lock home.

      Then she pressed herself against its smooth, barren surface and waited for the hot, pulsing ache deep within her to subside.