WORTH THE WAIT - Claudia Connor

WORTH THE WAIT


WORTH THE WAIT

From NYT Bestselling author, Claudia Connor, comes a brand new heart wrenching second chance romance.

He broke her heart. When he finds out just how badly, it will break his too.

Nick Walker found the love of his life when he was just nineteen.

Found her.
Loved her.
Lost her.

It’s been ten years since Nick watched the only women he ever loved walk out of his life. Now this FBI Special Agent will do anything to win her back.

But it won’t be easy…

Mia’s heart was shattered by Nick. They’ll have to face their painful past if they want a future, including Mia’s own secret about that day it all fell apart.

READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS NOW…

Chapter 1

Present day…

Nick Walker leaned his shoulder against the weathered wall inside the barn. Sturdy and solid, a good place for his sister. A safe place. Through the open back end of the barn, he could see a patch of dry grass blowing in the wind. Farther in the distance, a dark line of green pines met a hazy blue sky.

Hannah’s hair hung in a long braid down her back, the exact color of the blowing grass, and he watched her carefully as she stabbed the pitchfork into the hay bedding then dumped horse manure into the wheelbarrow parked next to his feet. As she went back for more, he continued to lay out all the pitfalls of dating, all the reasons to be careful, every precaution an overprotective FBI agent could think of. For all the good it did.

He should be glad his sister was spreading her wings, but thinking about her with McKinney only amplified that sick feeling in his gut. Part of him said that fear was irrational. A bigger part knew it wasn’t. He hadn’t protected her before. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

He sighed, noting she was going about her work without comment. “Are you even listening to me?”

“Are you even saying anything worth listening to?” she countered sweetly.

“Stubborn.”

His baby sister, who admittedly wasn’t a baby, shook off the extra straw then swung around for another dump in the wheelbarrow beside him. He’d hung around after bringing Hannah lunch, his excuse for checking in on her more than she’d like. But she was his little sister; that was his job. The fact she was dating had his threat level dialed up to the highest setting. DEFCON one on the big brother scale.

It didn’t help that he still saw her as a two-year-old with corn-silk, barely-there pigtails and eyes too big for her face. “The guy is trouble.”

“The guy has a name. He even has a family and everything.”

“Yeah.” Stephen McKinney. As an FBI agent, Nick had run the guy through the system and found things in his past that might or might not be legitimate cause for worry. The fact that he was a millionaire playboy was enough. That his photo was recently on the cover of a magazine as Norfolk’s most eligible bachelor would have made Nick roll his eyes in any case. But McKinney was sniffing around his sister. Definite cause for a lot more than eye rolling. Hannah was not a player, and she sure as hell was not going to be played with.

Tall and lean, she had an inner strength, but she was also fragile. Breakable. Even with the heat thick enough to swim in, she wore jeans, which made sense for riding. But not the long sleeves she wore, as she always did, to cover the scars of her past. The marks left by a man Nick hadn’t protected her from. Faded after twelve years, but he still saw them, still heard her crying in his nightmares.

That was the bitch of regret. It kept the past in the present, right on top of you, so you couldn’t forget, so it could keep eating at you until there was nothing left. Until the woman that was holding all your pieces together walked right out the door.

“Nick, you know I love you,” Hannah was saying, “even if you are a pain, but I’m twenty-six years old. I can make some decisions for myself.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t.”

“You didn’t have to.” She sent him a meaningful look before turning back to her task. “You know, if you have time to watch me work, you have time to help me work.”

“And get yelled at? I don’t think so. You’ve told me more than once to stay out of your way.”

“Hmm.” She leaned the pitchfork against the wall. “Well, you’re in my way now, so move you and your fancy self back.”

Dressed in his standard khakis and button-down, he stepped back into the barn aisle not to save his scuffed brown boots but because he didn’t put it past his sister to dump horse shit on them.

Hannah lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow and marched it out to her dumping pile. A breath of summer air blew through the breezeway, sweeping tiny bits of hay to the sides of the aisle, offering a little relief from the Virginia heat.

Freedom Farm was a physical therapy riding facility for children with various special needs, from amputations and paralysis to severe burns and visual impairments. Even five years ago, he couldn’t have imagined it, and seeing her happy was like a balm to his soul. And McKinney was ruining that, he thought with a scowl.

“Where’s Luke?” he asked as Hannah walked back, pulling off her work gloves. “I saw his truck.”

“I don’t know. He went for a walk, I think. We talked, then he left.”

He wondered what they’d talked about. His younger brother wasn’t much of a talker. A Special Forces officer, Luke still hadn’t said why he was home. That worried him. He worried, about all of them, had since the day they’d stood like soldiers in the front row of the church, struggling to keep their gut-wrenching shit together.

Luke, a sullen seventeen, the twins, Zach and Dallas, just fourteen and forced to take the sudden death of their parents like men. And then two-year-old Hannah in his arms, quiet, observant, confused. Not yet twenty, he hadn’t been ready for the responsibility of his siblings. It hadn’t mattered.

The service ended; a pause between music pieces followed as the organist flipped pages in her book. The air was sticky with the scent of too many lilies. The only sound came from the squeaking wheels as two identical caskets were rolled to the back of the church. You could have heard a pin drop until Hannah’s scream split the reverent silence in two.

It pierced every ear, so high and sorrowful it rattled the organ pipes. She lunged toward the aisle with a desperate cry for Mommy that tore through all of them. Again and again until her voice gave out. She understood more than he’d thought. Solemn music played over her while women around him wept. Luke and Dallas watched the scene in horror. Zach slumped to the pew and buried his face in his hands.

Since that moment, she’d been his.

He’d like to think he’d done a decent job. He knew he hadn’t. The screams that had come years later were far worse than those in that church twenty-four years ago.

“Don’t you have any real detective work to do?” Hannah bent to scatter the pile of fresh hay she’d set inside the doorway. “Someone else to bother?”

“It’s more fun to bother you,” he said lightly, even if he didn’t feel it. He did have two hot cases going, both related to drugs and possibly to each other. He checked his watch. He’d only meant to come for lunch. “I do need to go, I just—”

“Wanted to hover? Typical.” She blew out an exasperated sigh. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you should think about settling down. If you can’t find that special someone who’ll take you, God bless her, at least get a dog.” She added that last bit with a smile as she turned.

Then her expression grew serious, her probing eyes studying him until he wanted to squirm. But he was a federal agent. It was his job to make other people squirm.

“In all seriousness, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about—”

“Right.” He kissed her cheek, tapped a finger lightly on her furrowed brow. “I’ll catch up with you later.” He knew better than to get into this with his sister. If she was getting it into her head that he needed to settle down, she’d be like a dog with a bone.

A dark cloud of rain was blowing in fast. He almost turned around to see if Hannah needed help but resisted the urge. All the horses were in, and her assistant, Lexi, was in the office. If she needed help, she had it.

As he drove his standard black Suburban up the rise and away from the barn, the first giant drops hit his windshield. He paused at the end of the gravel drive then took a left for the Norfolk field office. On the long stretch of empty country road, Hannah’s words about settling reverberated painfully through his chest.

He couldn’t settle, not like his sister had in mind, probably not ever. Because he’d found that special one. The only woman who’d ever owned him.

Found her. Lost her.

 

Chapter 2

Twenty-four years ago…

Nick pressed two fingers into the headache pounding in his temple and tried to concentrate on professor Jenkins’s explanation of ideal gas law. He circled a line of notes, ignoring the knock on the auditorium door until he heard the familiar cry: Hannah, who he’d left in the university daycare two hours before.

The high-pitched wail wasn’t his two-year-old sister’s hurt cry. It was her scared cry, with a touch of pissed off. In the six weeks since their parents’ death, he’d learned to tell the difference. He’d learned a lot of things. If he didn’t take her to the bathroom, she’d wait too long and have an accident. Green beans made her throw up, but she’d eat them if he told her to. And she would never, ever, go to sleep without the song.

He was up, out of his seat, and halfway down the auditorium stairs before his professor laid his pen down. Nick’s eyes narrowed on the young blonde in an oversized sweatshirt with silk Greek letters sewn on the front. She held a sobbing Hannah dressed in the white sundress with little pink flowers he’d picked out that morning. She hadn’t been crying when he’d left her. Now her eyes were red, and snot mixed with tears dripped into her mouth. She lunged for him, and he caught her against his chest. His heart squeezed like it always did when she held on to him, but especially when she cried.

“I stay you,” Hannah said, each word tumbling out of her with a jerk of her tiny shoulders.

He eyed the coed coolly. “What happened to her?”

“Nothing happened to her. She hasn’t stopped screaming for the past hour, and she bit three other kids. We can’t keep her like that.”

Several responses came to mind.

She’s just a baby.

She missed her nap.

And the loudest of all, It was my fault for leaving her.

Hannah raised her head to look at him, giant tears hanging from golden lashes. “I bite.”

“Well, at least she’s honest.” Professor Jenkins turned his questioning eyes to Nick. “She yours?”

He hesitated for only a second. “My sister. But yes, she’s mine.” And at that moment, she became even more his, which seemed to be the case every day. Every day, a little more his.

Understanding dawned, and the man’s hard features softened a bit as Hannah shuddered and quieted in Nick’s arms. He figured Professor Jenkins, like most of the professors at the University of Virginia, was aware of his parents’ recent passing over the summer.

Hannah sniffed and wiped at her running nose. “I st… stay you,” she said again, and her little chest jerked with a hiccupped breath. “I stay, Nicky.” Her small, damp hand gripped the back of his neck, and he held her tighter.

What the hell was he going to do if he couldn’t leave Hannah in daycare? He’d run circles and dived through hoops, proving he was her legal guardian in order to use the university’s free student training daycare. It was a good program, and most importantly, she’d be close.

“We’ll give it a try. One.” Professor Jenkins held up a finger. “One chance. And she has to be quiet.”

It took a second for Nick to realize what he was offering.

“One sound, and you’re both out.”

“I understand.”

Hannah raised her tear-streaked face. “I be quiet.”

Poor Professor Jenkins didn’t stand a chance against that angelic face and golden-brown eyes filled with heavy tears threatening to spill over.

“I be quiet,” she said again then ducked her face into Nick’s neck.

He took his seat, grateful Hannah kept up her end. It was the second week of classes, and he’d missed too much already.

His parents’ friends had offered help. He declined most of it, afraid they would see how absolutely inept he was. The fear of having her taken and placed with strangers weighed on his shoulders day and night. Besides, the times he’d tried leaving her hadn’t gone over well. For all her good-naturedness, Hannah did not like to be left.

Class ended, and with Hannah in his arms, he weaved through the spill of students. A guy carrying a two-year-old in pigtails on a college campus was about as magnetic as a dude walking a puppy.

It never failed—girls stopped him in the halls. They talked in that same high voice they would use to talk to a dog. Even as he thought it, he heard them coming up beside him.

“Oh my God! Is she yours?” the shorter one asked.

“Yes.” He always said yes, let them believe she was his daughter. Denying her felt wrong. It hadn’t felt wrong before his parents died, when they’d all come by the fraternity house on game days, but he was all she had now. Plus, he didn’t care enough to give these girls an explanation.

“Look at these shoes!” the other exclaimed, reaching for Hannah’s miniature red Keds.

His mother had loved dressing her only girl, and the thought washed over him with a wave of sadness.

Hannah pulled her feet back and hid her face in his neck. Not long ago, he would have thought how this armful of adorable could help him make a move. Now all he thought was he was pretty sure he’d put said tiny shoes on the wrong feet. Again.

As the girls walked away, Hannah reached back over his shoulder. “Kitty!”

Nick looked behind him to see the ragged stuffed kitten on the floor. Bending to reach for it, he proceeded to dump out half the contents of his unzipped backpack.

Damn it. Pens, crayons, and a sippy cup scattered. He went for the cup, and a bag of crackers fell out, which of course Hannah reached for, swiping her hands over the floor. Shit. Her fingers would be in her mouth in less than a second. He caught her hand, twisted behind him for the cup. When he turned back, his view of the floor was blocked by a sleek black waterfall of hair.

A small hand rescued the kitten, and as if it were happening in slow-mo, the face turned. Wide, round eyes so dark they might have been black met his. Her beautiful mouth smiled softly, possibly laughing.

“We’re um… having issues.”

“I can see that,” she said, her smile growing as they stood together.

She was tiny, the top of her head well below his shoulder. And all that silky hair—

“Here you go.” She held out the kitten for Hannah.

He had to concentrate to swallow. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Seconds passed. Her face was like porcelain, fair and smooth. The light skin a contrast to her dark hair and eyes. There was something different about her, beautifully and slightly exotically different, like a special doll high on Hannah’s shelf. It was impossible to look away.

“Oh, here.” She took the cup and pens from his hand, stuffed them into his outer backpack pocket, and zipped it up. “There.” She gave the bag a pat. “Now you won’t lose your stuff.”

Even her voice was different, but he only got another second to take her in, because with one more quick smile, she turned and walked away.

He remained rooted to the spot, barely noticing the hallway jam he was causing, wishing he’d said more. Not so long ago, he would have been all over that, would have gone for any girl that interested him. He had a million lines and a playful charm when he chose to use it. But now? Still reeling from his parents’ death and becoming more father than brother overnight, he didn’t exactly have the same game.

What was he going to say? “Hey, want to color? Want to come over later and watch Sesame Street while I try to study chemistry, do laundry, and make sure my seventeen-year-old brother isn’t out getting arrested and the twins have a ride home from football practice?” He shook his head and started walking. Nick Walker, the antiparty.

Two days later, he caught sight of that dark hair up ahead. Unmistakable, it hung long and straight down her back, not in a ponytail or messy bun. She wasn’t dressed like the typical college coed, either, somewhere between pajamas and gym clothes. In khakis and a short-sleeved blouse, she looked more like a teacher’s assistant than a student, though he wouldn’t have put her a day over eighteen. She stopped to fill her water bottle at a fountain, allowing him to catch up.

“Hey.”

She turned those dark eyes on him in surprise. “Hey.” Then she smiled easily at his sister. “Hi, there. What’s your name?”

He waited a beat then answered. “Her name’s Hannah.”

“Hi, Hannah.”

His sister stared silently, interested in this new person. So was he.

“She’s precious.”

“Thank you.” He knew she assumed Hannah was his daughter, but since she didn’t outright ask, it felt wrong to say it. Like denying Jesus three times or something.

She started walking and he fell in step beside her. When they reached the double glass doors, he held one open and followed her out into the sunshine. They took a few more steps then paused awkwardly like people do when they’re not sure where the other person is going but knowing wherever it is, they want to go there too. “We’re headed outside.”

“We’re actually already there,” she said, then eased his idiocy with a quick smile bright enough to scramble his brain.

“Outside,” Hannah repeated.

“I’m Mia.”

“Nick.” He held out his hand, happy to take her small fingers in his even if shaking hands wasn’t the typical college meet and greet.

Hannah shocked him by leaning away, arms out. “Mia.”

“Oh, you are sweet,” Mia said, taking her, situating Hannah on her hip.

With his hands free, he stuffed them in his pockets and watched the two of them study each other. Hannah lifted a few strands of Mia’s hair, let it slide over the back of her hand, then did it again.

“I usually sit out here between classes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and have lunch. We do. Sit here. If you want to sit with us.”

“Sure,” Mia said easily, as if they did this every day, while he could barely string a sentence together and his heart hammered in his chest.

This was ridiculous. Yeah, he’d been on social hiatus for a while, but he’d had no idea he could lose all skill.

They walked to the Knoll, a grassy hill that ran the length of a wide, brick-paved walkway. The sun was hot and bright in early September, and he pulled his shades up from the lanyard that hung around his neck. Two girls and a guy tossed a Frisbee. Small tables with club sign-ups attracted groups of milling students.

They reached the hill, and he made the three-foot step up to the brick wall. Turning, he offered her a hand up and wrapped his other around her slender upper arm. And there was that smile again.

He sat, and she lowered herself to the ground, sitting cross-legged beside him.

“I like your dress,” she told Hannah.

“It’s wewo.”

“Yes, it is. And I love yellow. It’s bright and happy like the sun, huh?” Mia settled Hannah in her lap and began untying her tennis shoes.

Hannah nodded, and he could only stare as she deftly switched the shoes to the right feet. “Damn. I can’t get that right.”

“It can be hard to tell,” she said, not looking at him.

“Yeah.” He stared at her dainty female fingers tying the little strings. All Hannah’s things were so damn small. He’d never felt so uncoordinated. “I do okay with the buckle shoes. I mean, I finally got it that the buckles go on the outside, but the lace-up ones…”

“Do you have a pen? I only have pencils.”

“Yeah.” He pulled a blue ink pen from his backpack.

Mia took it then wrote a large R on the bottom of one shoe and an L on the bottom of the other. “There you go.” She handed the pen back.

“Thanks. Don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”

She looked at him then, her eyes soft and kind. “I guess you have a lot of other things to think about.”

Her gaze held his with so much understanding of all the things he had to think about even if she didn’t know what they were. “Yeah. I do.” Hannah. School. His brothers. The twins, who needed him. Luke, who hated him.

Uncertain what to do with his hands, he dug into his backpack for Hannah’s lunch. “I have juice boxes.”

“Really?” Her tone was teasing, but she didn’t look up, still straightening the lacy fold of Hannah’s sock.

Idiot. He’d gone from “My fraternity’s having a party” to “Do you want a juice box?” But then Mia turned that brilliant, understanding smile on him, and just like a lightning rod in a storm, he was struck.

“I love juice boxes.” She took one, poked in the straw, and handed it to Hannah, who drank like she’d been lost in the Sahara. “I think it’s awesome that you bring your daughter to class, though I’m surprised the university allows that.”

“I hadn’t planned to bring her. She didn’t give me much choice, did you, Han?”

“I bite.”

“Oh. Well,” Mia said, fighting a smile.

“And I skeamed.”

“It’s kind of a new thing. She’s…my sister,” he added after a moment because, though he couldn’t say why, he cared what Mia thought. He hadn’t gotten a girl pregnant. He wasn’t a father who couldn’t tell the difference between left and right shoes. “My parents…our parents…” He looked at his backpack, zipped up one pocket, unzipped another, because his grief was still fresh. It was still hard to say. “They were killed this past summer. Car accident.”

“I’m sorry.”

He nodded, acknowledging her words, but he couldn’t make himself say it was okay. It was so not okay. It helped that she didn’t seem to be waiting for it. “We’re still working out the kinks. Hannah’s not big on staying with strangers. She’s not really big on me leaving her at all.”

“I can’t blame her,” Mia stated, not flirting, just being honest.

“No, neither can I. It was a shock, to all of us, but it’s hard for her to understand.” And every night when she asked for Mama, it broke his heart. He rocked and sang every song he could think of, but still she asked. Not crying. Just a question. Where Mama?

“Snack,” Hannah said.

He dug in his backpack, and Hannah sat patiently, waiting for whatever he put in front of her. She was such a good kid—a really, really good little kid—which made him feel worse for being so tragically inadequate.

Mia turned to face him, Hannah still in her lap. “You’re doing a good job.”

His hands stilled. “How do you know?” And how did she know he needed to hear that?

“I just do.” Her dark, intelligent eyes stared into his with unwavering certainty.

He wanted it to be true so badly. His eyes stayed locked with hers for a long moment, just breathing, letting her words sink in, letting himself sink farther into this girl who made his heart beat faster.

“Nicky, snack.” Hannah broke the spell.

“So what do you have in there?” Mia asked.

“Let’s see. I have Vanilla Wafers with peanut butter.”

“Always makes a hearty meal.”

“Two cheese sticks, a cut-up apple, and… a slightly mushed Snickers.”

“A feast.”

He held out the candy bar, but she shook her head. “I’m not taking your Snickers.”

“Sure you are.”

“No, I’m not. If I want something, I can go to the dining hall.”

He wasn’t going to sit here and eat in front of her, and he really didn’t want her to leave. “We can share it.”

“Sare it, Nicky,” Hannah parroted as she often did, using the name she’d had for him since she started talking.

Nick opened the candy bar and held it out again, eyebrows raised, until Mia took it and broke off a piece.

Nicky?” Mia’s eyebrows shot up, and her quick grin brought a sharp tug to his gut. Something of his old nineteen-year-old self simmered. It felt good.

And so he sat, with a juice box and half a Snickers, next to the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

 

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