Finding Home
© 2007 Sara Dennis

Chapter Three

The truck pulled into the hotel parking lot behind her. She thought it was Tucker's truck, at least. She just didn't know for certain whether she wanted it to be.

She couldn't deny his appeal. Okay, so she wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crackers. She might even feed him a couple to keep him there a while, but that wasn't the point. She'd come here to visit her father, not hook up with a stranger, no matter his looks. But if hooking up was an option, she could have done worse.

She could still feel his arms around her as she climbed out of her car. It had stopped raining, so she lingered by the door, waiting for him to climb out of the truck. His door creaked so loudly everyone in the hotel must have heard. Heat flooded her cheeks, and she mentally kicked herself. What did she have to be embarrassed about? He'd followed her!

Nora hugged herself and leaned against her car while he came around the truck. "You're not lost, are you?" she called playfully. She could see his smile as he approached. He slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "I thought you were just going to get me to the highway."

"Yeah, well." He looked around the parking lot. "I figured I'd tail you just to make sure you made it okay. Things around here look different when it gets dark. If you don't know them, all the landmarks look the same by starlight."

Nora glanced up. Plenty of that. Plenty of stars and a fat disk of a moon in the clear night sky. The storm had passed just like it'd never been, save for the lick of moisture in the air and the puddles in the pitted asphalt. "I guess it doesn't matter so much once you know your way ar—" She stopped mid-word when she noticed that Tucker wasn't star-gazing. He stared at her instead. "Around," she finished. She cleared her throat and peered back at him. "Did I say something really stupid?"

"No. No," he repeated. "I'm just trying to figure you out. What makes a woman with a job and an apartment and everything pick up to come see a man she's never met? You saw the house. You know it's not a mansion. But when we hit the freeway and you could have taken off, you didn't. So what's making you stay?"

Nora shifted her weight a little self-consciously. She shrugged a shoulder and summoned up a grin. "I left my cat in the hotel room. I can't leave without him."

Tucker turned his head to consider the closed doors to other rooms. Nora got a good look at his profile, at the cheekbones and the jaw line and the whole shebang. Her heartbeat skipped into double-time. Her mouth actually went dry. Oh, this could get dangerous.

She wet her lips and looked at his knees instead. They weren't nearly as tempting. She concentrated on trying to find the spots where his jeans frayed. "He's my father." She shrugged again, but didn't look up. "I never had one, really. My mother's boyfriends never counted. I mean, some of them were great, but they didn't want to play dad. So when I got that letter, it answered a lot of questions. Started to, at least. I love my mom, but she's only responsible for half of me. You know?"

She dared a glance at him now. He was studying her intently again and she laughed in response. "Yeah, I know that sounded corny, like some kind of movie-of-the-week plot. I meant it, though. I really just want to meet my dad."

To his credit, and to her surprise, Tucker smiled. It wasn't the wry, crooked thing from the hallway in the broken-down house. It was warm, sincere. And there was not enough moisture in her mouth for even half a swallow. "I believe you," he said, leaning closer.

She smelled sawdust and something herbal. Maybe shampoo. Don't look at his mouth. Stop looking at his mouth! Was he really going to kiss her? Did she want him to stop? She hitched in a quick breath and blurted, "I have to feed my cat."

Tucker stopped leaning. He didn't move away, but the distance between their mouths stayed the same. She had a close-up view of that slow grin again. "You really have a cat."

"Uh-huh. Sully. He's probably going crazy. I could introduce you." Nora summoned up a smile of her own.

His grin widened. "In your hotel room?"

Oh, hell. "I didn't mean it like that. I mean, yes, in my room, but there really is a cat and I wasn't trying—"

She got no further in her protest. Tucker planted a hand beside her on the car. He ducked his head and before she could think, she'd tipped her chin up and met his mouth with hers. She swore he'd be able to feel her pulse in her lips. After a moment, she wasn't sure she cared.

She'd gone crazy. Absolutely crazy. There was something wrong with unfolding her arms, working her hands from in between them so she could get a handful of his hair. She had no reason to let the touch of his tongue against the crease of her lips prompt her to open them. She knew better than to make that wanton sound when he licked his way into her mouth. And she surely shouldn't suck on his tongue while her hips were pressed against him and she could feel him hardening.

What was she doing? Nora flattened a hand against his chest abruptly. She pushed, mumbling his name, until their mouths moved apart and she could breathe. "Wait, wait."

Thankfully, he didn't press for another kiss. He backed off, looking almost as startled as she felt. He shoved a hand through his hair and backed off a few steps. He opened his mouth, closed it, then turned his back and kicked at a chunk of broken pavement.

"Tucker..."

His shoulders squared but he didn't turn back. "I'm gonna go." He started toward his truck. "Visiting hours start at ten. It's General. You can get directions at the desk."

Nora's mind raced. The insanity didn't end. She took a step forward. "You don't have to leave. We didn't do anything—it wasn't exactly wrong."

He hesitated by the driver's side door. "No," he allowed. "Not exactly. Look, ten in the morning at General. I'll meet you in the lobby." He wrenched the door open. "Sleep well, Nora." He climbed in and started the truck.

Nora watched. She watched him back out of his space, returned his wave half-heartedly as he pulled onto the highway, and stood by her car in the parking lot until his taillights faded away.

Then she groaned and went to her room. She let herself in and thunked her head against the inside of the door. Sully wound around her ankle, purring loudly. When she picked him up, he licked her chin and rubbed his head against her cheek. "Yeah, everybody loves me tonight. Come on, let's get you fed."

* * * * *

Tucker pulled to the side of the road for the second time on his way home. His hands were shaking almost as hard as his heart thundered in his chest. He was not turning around, damn it. He wouldn't go back. He'd talked himself out of it once, he could do it again.

"What the hell is wrong with you," he asked himself out loud. He pulled the keys out of the ignition, tossed them into the other seat and out of easy reach. He sat back, hands sliding off the steering wheel. He closed his eyes. What was he thinking? More to the point, when had he thought at all?

He'd acted without listening to the little voice that usually kept his impulses in check. He'd kissed that woman—Nora—and he hardly knew her. Hell, he wasn't even sure he liked her. He had no business putting his hands on her or his tongue in her mouth, and she had no business kissing him back. But she had. There'd been that awkward moment of surprise when she'd been board stiff, unmoving as his lips brushed across hers. She warmed up fast, though. She had her hands in his hair and the way she sucked on his tongue made him think she'd have given him more if he'd asked. If he wanted.

Oh, he wanted. He was still half-hard, his pulse pounding fast enough that the tab on his zipper should have rattled, but it wasn't going to happen. If he wanted short-term and unattached he didn't need to go to a townie. No, worse. A woman from out of state. She'd come to see her old man and that was it. Strictly hands-off.

It was Shiloh's fault he'd even thought about it, Tucker told himself. If it hadn't been for the way the old man joked about this mystery daughter showing up to sweep him off his feet, Tucker wouldn't have let his interest spark into anything real.

"She might be cute," Shiloh said as he peeled wallpaper off the living room wall. "I take it back. She's mine. She's knockdown gorgeous."

"Yeah, well, someone had to get the looks," Tucker'd fired back. The radio'd been playing something melancholy. He couldn't remember what, now, except that it didn't fit the mood.

"She might be rich." Shiloh wasn't giving up.

Tucker laughed. "Yeah, sure she is. That's why she wants to come up here and get her hands on your piece of shit house, because she's loaded. Dream on."

Shiloh's shoulders squared defensively. "Keeps the wind out, don't it?"

"Yeah," Tucker agreed. "But not the rain. And we know which one of us is going to have to drag his ass up there to fix it."

It only made sense that he got Tucker to do most of the work. Shiloh had looked healthy then, but his body was on the fast track to shutting down and they both knew it. Better to let him rest in the little time he'd have left.

They'd changed the topic, talked about Alvin Tudesco and the fact that he'd picked yet another fight at the bar. Everyone called him Grandpa and at eighty-three, he deserved it, but he still threw a mean right hook. Alvin would go out fighting, when he went.

Tucker'd been in the process of picking up the wallpaper they'd stripped when Shiloh brought his daughter up again. "She might be single."

He'd groaned then too. "Look, old man—"

"No. No." Shiloh held up a hand. He looked serious. "You listen to me. Don't live like this." He gestured around the torn-apart room. "Locked up by yourself, inside a box, like me. This was my life, my choice, my mistakes, daga'." He used the old word for friend, something he only did in his most serious moments. "You go out and do what I couldn't. You go live for me."

Live for me. It was too much. A responsibility and burden he didn't need. He didn't want to be set up or matched up. He liked his life the way it had played out so far.

Lonely. Empty. Your best friend is a dying old man. With a gorgeous daughter.

He grabbed for his keys and started the truck. He could get at least half the carpet pulled up before he crashed for the night if he got moving. Sitting here, dwelling on his hormones, didn't fix anything. The sooner the house got finished, the sooner she'd said her goodbyes to Shiloh, the quicker she'd be on her way and out of his mind.

* * * * *

Nora woke up at 7:00 AM. Try as she might to roll over and go back to sleep, she couldn't find a comfortable position. Nothing settled her nerves or calmed her mind. She was going to meet her father for the first time. The man who'd given her half of her genes, but hadn't taught her any life lessons. A man who was apparently dying in a hospital bed.

She didn't know for sure how she was supposed to feel. Giddy at the chance to know him? Sorrowful because they wouldn't have much time? How did she make up for a lifetime in a few days? If she left to go home and ask for an extension of her time off, would he still be here by the time she got back? What if they didn't get along? If he really was the irresponsible, unconcerned man her mother had made him out to be, what then? Did she stay out of respect for the dying? Did she leave and say good riddance to a man who'd never made the effort?

She made a disgusted sound and rolled out of bed to stagger to the bathroom. She left Sully buried in a pile of blankets. Not that he noticed. He never did. The cat slept like the dead when he wasn't demanding attention, shredding his toys or gobbling down food.

By the time she'd rinsed the shampoo out of her hair, Nora's stomach was rumbling. She'd have more than enough time to grab something to eat. She could by-pass the complimentary stale pastry and bagel bar in the lobby and find a restaurant with a view. She wanted to sit by a window and watch the sun paint the landscape. She wanted to see something beautiful before she got sucked into grim atmosphere of the hospital.

She dressed and haphazardly made the bed. She scratched Sully under the chin and messed up his fur. He gave her a baleful look and heaved a sigh as he settled in for a bath to smooth his coat down again. She laughed out loud. "You should thank me," she told him. "I gave you something to do."

She had something to do as well. She climbed into her car, pointed it eastward and drove until she found an open restaurant.

* * * * *

The Hilltop Diner, as the sign outside proclaimed, made a claim that wasn't quite true. The little rise in the land it perched on hardly counted as a bump. Still, it boasted a fantastic view.

The place wasn’t busy, that was for certain. There were only a couple of men seated at a table. Nora assumed they were locals. They were older, faces lined and darkened by the sun. They didn't look up as she passed. They were busy playing a slow-moving game of checkers. Seeing them made her smile.

She had the same effect on the busboy perched on the counter. Maybe not exactly the same, but his expression brightened when she caught his eye. He slid off the counter, straightened up and shoved a hand through his hair. Nora bit back a laugh and asked, "Does it matter where I sit?"

"Nah," he answered eagerly. "You want water or coffee?"

"Could I have both?" She chose a booth by the window that looked out over the small slope that melted into the sprawling plains. It went on as far as she could see. A person could get lost out there, she thought. She could find a place to sit, away from everything else, and get her whirling mind to slow down. She could try to make sense of everything she felt.

"Here you go." The busboy set down a glass of water and filled her coffee cup. "Nice morning, isn't it? Are you staying in town long? You want a tour guide or anything? I'd be glad to show you around."

Nora couldn't help but grin. "I'll keep that in mind if I'm looking for something to do."

"You'll want something to do. Trust me. Nothing ever happens around here."

"Daniel." The waitress wandering out from behind the counter said his name affectionately. "Some things happen. Like jobs. Don't you have something to do?"

"No." He paused and his brow furrowed. "Dishes. Again." He heaved a sigh. "Going." But not before he flashed another quick grin at Nora. Dark eyes danced beneath his fringe of too-long bangs. "Best tour guide in town, don't forget." That said he scuffed off toward the kitchen.

"Don't mind him." The waitress said as she pulled a menu out from under her arm. "We don't get a lot of visitors and he's all about impressing them, especially if they're pretty." She pulled an order pad out of her apron and a pencil from behind her ear. "If it's not on the menu, we can probably fake it." She smiled. "What'll it be?"

Nora liked her, and not only because she suddenly felt like nothing she asked for was the wrong choice. She ordered a simple breakfast, eggs with toast, potatoes, and bacon. Then, she settled in to enjoy a little peace before the day really began.

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