Authors: Sally Clements
Tags: #Romance, #Single Authors, #playboy, #Short Stories, #Series, #fling, #cindi madsen, #small town romance, #Marina Adair, #Contemporary, #sweet romance, #boss, #opposites attract, #julia london, #mechanic, #Catherine Bybee, #Single Author, #novella, #reformed, #Literature & Fiction
“What the hell are you doing?” Her eyes blazed green fire but he ignored it.
“Me?” A nerve twitched in his jaw. “What are
doing? I thought you flinched when a guy put his hands on you? Or did I cure you of that? That guy’s hands were
She tried to pull out of his arms, but he wasn’t having any of it. “His hands were on my back,” she hissed. “And yes, you did cure me of my nerves around men. That was our deal, remember?”
“So you screwed me last night and moved on. Classy.” Somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind he knew he was acting crazy. He was acting like Cindy had—like they were supposed to be together forever and she was not to look at anyone else.
“I don’t believe this.” She was staring at him, shaking her head in disbelief. “You’re acting like a Neanderthal. I don’t belong to you, Heath. I’m allowed to dance with someone if I want to.”
No, you’re not!
“I came here to tell you I’ve got the contract, I wanted to celebrate…”
“You know what—I’m delighted for you.” Her tone was ball-shriveling sarcastic. “Now you can go and explore the world and there’s nothing to stop you
not stopping you.” With a final jerk, she pulled out of his arms. “I don’t want to see you again, Heath.”
She swirled and stalked away. Betty, standing next to their table, saw her leave, picked up her jacket from the back of the chair, and dashed out of the bar after her.
Heath caught up with them outside the building, waiting for a cab.
Betty stood between them, looking at each of them in turn.
“Mel, you and I need to talk. I was out of order in there, but…” He’d screwed up. He’d screwed up, big-time. He needed her to listen, needed to explain why he’d been so angry. Had to try, even if he didn’t understand it fully himself.
Mel turned to Betty. “You go ahead and catch a cab. I’m going to talk to Heath for a while.”
Heath pointed. “We can talk in the truck.”
She followed him across the road, climbed into the pickup, and jerked the door closed.
“I have to leave Meadowsweet earlier than I’d planned,” Heath said. “Chris has sold the idea of the assignment to
and I need to join her in Washington at their offices next week. Then we’ll be on assignment in the Amazon for a month.”
“A month?” Twin shocks thundered through Mel like the aftermath of an earthquake. “Chris is a she?” She couldn’t breathe. He’d talked about the writer, but he hadn’t…
“I told you she’s a girl. We talked about it.” He frowned. “You’re not jealous, are you?”
“You’ve just thrown the biggest jealous hissy fit I’ve ever seen, and you’re accusing
of being jealous?” The thought of Heath alone in the rain forest with a gorgeous writer for a whole month did send arrows of insecurity through her, but she accepted that as her problem, not his.
“I wasn’t jealous,” Heath said. “I was just surprised you felt able to move on so quickly.” He covered her hand with his, and the bolt of electricity that flashed through her was yet another huge shock to her system.
Cole had touched her. He’d held on to her hand, touched her back as they danced, heck, she’d even rested her palms on his shoulders. And she’d felt precisely nothing. Whereas the simple touch of Heath’s hand on hers filled her with awareness. Made her long to be his. And just when she was struggling to understand this…thing between them, he was talking about leaving.
“What happened between us last night was special,” Heath said. “I knew that the minute I left your bed. I don’t want to be with anyone else. I want you. I have to go, but I’ll be back—”
She couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t deal with the emotions rocketing through her and shredding her insides. She pulled her hand away and rubbed it. “No. This was never supposed to be more than you helping me overcome my fears of intimacy. I don’t want more. I don’t want you.”
She got out of the truck as quickly as she could, hailed a passing cab, and escaped.
He’d been gone for a week. And Mel still felt twisted inside. Tangled. Angry. She’d gone about her ordinary tasks like a robot, struggling to keep her feelings from bleeding out, but half an hour ago, a courier delivered a large envelope with his handwriting on the front. When she’d opened it…
She dumped coffee grounds into the office coffee machine, poured water in the top, and turned it on. Hot coffee started to pour in a rapid stream onto the hot plate, splashing onto the floor.
“Shit!” She grabbed the glass jug and shoved it under the steaming torrent, ran to the sink, and snatched up a wet cloth to clean up the mess as the liquid on the plate bubbled like burning toffee.
“What the hell happened?” The door clattered at Betty’s entrance. She grabbed paper towels and tore off sheets.
“I forgot to put the jug under.” Mel’s eyes itched. She tossed the sodden mess into the sink and sank down onto the nearest chair. “I made a mess of it.” She’d made a mess of everything. Her eyes closed and she pinched her nose, smoothing her finger and thumb the length of her damp eyelashes. Pressing her lips together, she breathed deeply. The moment would pass. The moment had to pass.
The warmth of Betty’s palm on the back of her neck almost pushed her over the edge.
“What happened between you and Heath? You need to tell me.”
Mel shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
Betty pulled a chair up close, sat knee to knee. “You’ve acted like a woman possessed since that night in the bar. The old Mel would never forget to stick the jug under the coffee before turning it on. And yesterday I spent half the day searching for the O’Donoghue paperwork. You filed it in the fridge.”
Mel’s eyes shot open.
“Yep. You shoved the file onto the top shelf. I only found it because I gave up the search and decided to raid the doughnut box.” She grinned.
Laughter bubbled up and escaped, even as tears wetted her cheeks. “I’m a goddamned mess,” she managed between laughs. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.”
“That’s easy. You’re going.” Betty stood and picked up Mel’s bag from the floor. “It’s lunchtime. We’re going out.”
It was a relief that no one else had witnessed her descent into madness. Mel sat in the car as Betty strode into the deli in search of takeout sandwiches. The pressure cooker of emotions had just blown the top straight off, leaving her exposed and raw.
Moments later, Betty emerged from the deli clutching a brown paper sack in one hand, and balancing a cardboard cutout holding two large lattes in the other.
Mel leaned over and popped the door open, taking the things from Betty’s hands so she could climb in.
“I thought we could drive to the make-out spot. No one will be there this time of day.”
There was no way to avoid letting the whole story out now. No way to squash the genie back into the bottle. Leaning back, Mel surrendered to the overwhelming feeling of relief.
Betty concentrated on the road ahead, deftly navigating to the secluded spot on the outskirts of town. “So you going to tell me, or what?” She darted a glance Mel’s direction.
“You remember that weekend I went up to the cabin? Well, I didn’t go alone. Heath came with me.”
“We didn’t tell anyone because he was keeping the whole
thing secret. He didn’t want Alice to know—he thought she’d have trouble keeping it from the rest of the family. I know the mountains—I was acting as a guide.”
They’d reached the outcropping of rock that overlooked the forest. Betty parked and turned the engine off. “There’s a hell of a lot more to it than that.”
“Well, yeah. I asked him to help me get used to being with men. You know I had a problem— ”
“You asked him to sleep with you?” Betty’s voice was so shrill it was closer to a shriek than anything. “I don’t believe you asked him…”
“He turned me down.” The relief of confiding was quickly morphing into mortification. Explaining all this was torture. “And then the night before Mike’s…”
“You had sex.”
“Yes. We did,” Mel said. “We certainly did.”
“So all that fighting at Mike’s was the Ladyslayer being
” Betty said.
He’d admitted as much later, in the pickup. Had agreed that he’d been totally irrational in his reaction to seeing her with Cole.
“He’s a man passing through. A guy who never sticks around, never commits.” There was an ache in Mel’s chest as she spoke the words. He’d been ready to leave before she’d given him his marching orders. He’d acted horribly…
As had she. Sneering at the news that he’d won the contract he so desperately wanted hadn’t been her finest hour either.
“Being jealous like that doesn’t seem to fit a commitment-phobe,” Betty said. “Tell me about what happened after I left. Did he apologize? Maybe you could talk it out.”
“There’s no talking it out.” Mel’s voice was flat. “It’s over.”
“He’s not a bad guy,” Betty insisted. “You like him, I know you do.”
The knot in Mel’s stomach tightened another notch. “It’s not just that one thing.” She was woman enough to work through one fight. Their problems had been deeper, insurmountable. “He has gone home to resign from the family business, and after that he’s off to Washington to meet the editor at the magazine. The writer he’s working with is female—they’re going to be spending a month isolated in the Amazon…”
“Do you think he’s going to cheat?”
He’d assured her he wouldn’t. Had told her how despite his previous intentions, he wanted a relationship with her. Mel knew he wasn’t the type of guy to cheat. “No. I thought we’d be over before he went. I thought I could just have sex with him and not care. I was wrong.” She stared out over the forest and kept talking. “He freaked out because I was dancing. Me. The Ice Queen. He, on the other hand, has a reputation for slaying women left, right, and center, and was off into the jungle with a gorgeous woman. If anyone was going to be jealous, it should have been me.”
“Are you jealous?”
Mel avoided answering. She didn’t know how she felt about his admission—she only knew that she hadn’t felt anything when Cole held her, had been totally unaffected when she gazed into his eyes. But the moment Heath touched her, she’d melted. “No. I’m not. I wasn’t. I just couldn’t believe he couldn’t see the hypocrisy of his reaction.” She pulled in a shaky breath.
“Well, jealousy is like that—there’s no logic to it,” Betty said.
Mel ground her teeth together. “He had no damn right to be jealous. We had sex. That was all there was to it. He didn’t want more, and I didn’t either. I told him that. I told him it was over, and he took the first plane out the next morning.”
Pain sliced through her. She was lying to her friend, and lying to herself. She’d known the truth deep inside, but it had taken today’s delivery to hammer the point home. To show her that it was finally, irrevocably over. He’d sent her all the photographs he’d ever taken of her, with a terse note that had shattered the barricades around her heart into dust.
“These belong to you.”
Heath had gone straight back to the apartment and packed a bag. He couldn’t leave without explaining at least something to Alice and Mark, so he’d gone in and spilled his guts. At least his sister had the grace to not point out that he’d behaved just like Cindy had.
The next day, he’d flown home, broken the news to his family, and asked for the most difficult grunt work to keep him busy for the week he had to kill before joining Chris in Washington. Now, Heath wrestled with a jammed lug nut holding the smashed tire in place. His muscles ached, and it didn’t move. With a curse, he tossed the lug wrench onto the floor and kicked the tire. Damn her anyway. He’d reviewed the pictures he’d taken in the mountains last night, had forced himself to stop obsessing over Mel and focus on his project instead. He’d been making progress up until the moment he found the picture. She sat on that rock with a dreamy look on her face, and like a sap he’d spent the next hour gazing at the photograph while he relived every moment of their time together.
If that wasn’t pathetic enough, he’d printed it out and brought it upstairs when he went to bed. Propped it up on the lamp on his bedside table, angling it just right so he could look at it as he fell asleep. As though she was with him. A place she sure didn’t want to be.
Every day that passed was worse than the one before it. Pretending she meant nothing, their time together meant nothing, made his bad mood worse. He’d even called Alice to find out how Mel was.
Puffing out a breath, he stooped.
He slid the end of the lug wrench into a pipe for more leverage, and attacked the wheel again. She did mean more. But her words in the pickup had been clear. She’d had what she wanted from him. She wanted his body, his touch, so she could move on and find someone to spend a life with. She didn’t want him. She trusted him with her body, but not with her heart. Not enough to believe that he wanted a relationship. He groaned. Tonight when he got home he’d rip that stupid photo to shreds and dump it in the trash.
Mel sat in the back of a taxi, on her way to Alice’s apartment. After the day’s meltdown, the last thing she’d felt like was having dinner with a couple in love, but the alternative meant more angsting about her relationship, or lack of one, and she was totally fed up with the mental gymnastics involved with that, so when Alice’s text had come that afternoon, she’d immediately agreed.
Maybe a night without thoughts of Heath would be just what the doctor ordered. Driving home meant not drinking, so she’d called a cab. She needed distraction. Sometime she’d have to go over and find out what her mother was up to, but not tonight. Tonight was all about chilling out with friends and avoiding responsibilities.
Alice had gotten maneuvering around with her crutch down to an art form. She hobbled in with a tray with glasses on it and a bottle of red wine while Mel followed, carrying a tray of appetizers.
“I thought Mark would be here tonight.”
“He’s been out of town for a couple of days. I got sick of being alone.” Alice expertly swiveled herself onto the sofa and placed the appetizers on the coffee table. “Being at home is doing my head in. I’m so bored. The good news is that the cast is coming off tomorrow. They say I should stay at home for another week or so, to make sure everything’s okay, but after that I’ll be cleared to come back to work. He said I just have to be patient, but you know me. I don’t do patient.”
“That’s great! Things are going well at the garage. We’re totally up to date with all the repairs so I’m catching up on the paperwork.”
The doorbell rang. “That’ll be Betty. Let her in, would you?”
Betty stood on the doorstep, clutching two bottles of wine.
“What’s this about?” she whispered to Mel. “Alice was sorta weird and secretive on the phone. “
Mel shrugged. “Beats me. I’m just glad you don’t have any idea either because I was sort of half expecting the talk.”
“The, you-bitch-you-broke-my-brother’s-heart talk?” Betty pulled a face. “Might still happen.”
“What are you muttering about?” Alice called from the sitting room. “Come on in here!”
“Bossy as ever, then,” Betty said.
“Yeah.” They walked back in and settled on the sofas. “So, where’s Mark?” Betty asked.
Alice’s face flushed pink. “He’s gone to New York.”
Something about Alice’s tone was off. If it were a business trip she’d be much less casual… Mel’s gaze dropped to Alice’s hands. They were clenched in her lap and she twisted her fingers over one another as though she were Lady Macbeth washing imaginary blood from her hands. On one finger, a diamond glittered.
“He’s gone to see Mom and Dad,” Alice said in a rush. She lifted her left hand, turned its back out, to show the secret she’d been hiding. “Mark’s asked me to marry him. He’s gone to get Dad’s blessing.”
She should feel happy for her friend, but Mel’s instant response was a clenching of her gut at Alice’s news. Bone-deep despair that she’d sent Heath away.
Luckily, Betty was asking enough questions to make the delay in her congratulations less obvious. “Dad called me an hour ago. All good. They’re delighted.”
Mel found her voice. “How could they not be? Mark’s lovely, and you’re made for each other.” She topped up Alice’s glass and handed it over to her friend. “I’m so happy for you!”
Alice bubbled like a saucepan of hot milk. “I know it seems too soon, but Mark says once you’ve found the one you want to spend your life with, why wait?”
Betty lifted her glass. “Here’s to a beautiful future, filled with laughter, filled with love.”
Mel held hers up, too. “I’ll drink to that.”
Later, when the pot roast had been eaten, and two of the three bottles of wine had been drunk, Betty stacked wood in the large fireplace and made a fire.
“I want to talk to you about something,” Alice confided. “I’m probably too late, but I wanted to ask how the search for a buyer has been going.”
Mel rubbed her temple. Her fuzzy brain wasn’t working right. The last thing she felt able to do was to talk about the only people who had shown interest in her home, the people who were so bloody unsuited, so undeserving of the house she’d poured her heart and soul into she wished she could tell them to take a hike. She tossed a cork into the flames.
“I have one couple who is interested.”
“You’re wrong.” Alice leaned close. “You have two couples who are interested. Mark and I would like to put in an offer, too.” Her forehead creased. “Would that be weird? I know you love that house. We both love it, too. If you’d prefer us not to—”
Joy welled up, but tears filled Mel’s eyes.
“Oh, I’ve upset you!” Alice tried to get off the chair, but dropped her crutch. “I didn’t mean—if you don’t want to—”
“Happy tears,” Mel forced out. “I can’t think of anyone I’d like to live in my house more than both of you. Living there has been great, but I have to sell, and I hated the thought of someone paving over my garden.” Mel’s sudden glare made Alice smile. “You’re not thinking…”
“I’d never pave over your garden. I love your garden. We’ll match your asking price; it’s within our budget…”