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
Mel’s heart thumped hard. Growing up, she’d spent all of her spare time in the mountain’s foothills. She’d hiked the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail more times than she could count. She knew the variety of every tree in the majestic forests, could identify the calls of a wide variety of birds in the leafy branches overhead. Caves hung with stalactites and stalagmites, their cool dripping water, and hidden secrets had fascinated her all her life.
“There’s an abandoned shack up there where a hermit woman lived fifty or sixty years ago,” she breathed. “I remember my uncle showing me when I was a kid. She painted these amazing scenes of animals and birds on the walls. I don’t think it’s ever been photographed.”
Heath’s eyes widened. “Can he show me?”
Mel shook her head. Things had been easier when her mother’s brother lived in Meadowsweet. She missed him. “He and his family moved away.”
Heath frowned. “Could you find it?”
She thought for a moment. “I think so. Mark’s family has a cabin deep in the forest. It’s in the hills up behind there. It’s been years, but…yes, I think I can.”
Heath said, “I was going to hike out tomorrow and reconnoiter. Maybe you could come with me?”
Mel shook her head. “I can’t. I’m working tomorrow.”
“So you’re meeting Betty in the garage at nine tomorrow morning. I thought maybe you were meeting up for breakfast or something.”
When she’d walked out today, there had been five cars requiring attention; they’d have to work solidly to reach their goal. “Breakfast will be doughnuts and coffee in the garage.” She smiled. “I know it’s Sunday, but we figure if we throw another day at it, we’ll be caught up.”
“You should have asked me.”
Mel shook her head. “You’ve already pulled an all-nighter. You need a day off. Anyway, you have a plan for tomorrow, one I don’t intend to scuttle.” She took a sip of her drink. “Alice and Mark could—”
Heath shook his head. “I want to keep the project private. If Alice knows, she’ll feel pressure to tell the rest of our family, and I’m not ready for that yet.”
Mel rubbed her temples. “You won’t find the cabin without help. It’s pretty remote, and the track isn’t marked on GPS.”
“So I need you to come with me.”
Mel’s mouth dried. “I can’t. I told you, I’m working.”
His gaze bored through her. “How about if I abandon my plans for tomorrow and come to work instead. With three of us, we’ll get the work finished faster.”
“I couldn’t ask you to…”
“You’re not asking. I’m offering.”
Her heart flip-flopped as he leaned closer.
“You pay me back by taking me to the cabin next weekend, and show me where the shack is.”
Her gaze darted away from him. “I don’t know…I…”
“You don’t need to worry about anything happening between us. I’m not asking you to come away with me for the weekend because I want to get you into bed. I really need your help to find that shack.” His expression was earnest. “There’s more than one bedroom in the cabin, isn’t there?”
She wished he’d move farther away. He was too close, too male, too everything. Once she’d turned back to look at him, she’d become fascinated by the contrast his light-blue eyes made against his dark hair. “There are two,” she croaked.
“So you’ll come?” His eyes seemed to darken in the dim bar.
She pushed her hair behind her ear. “Just as friends, right?”
He nodded. “Just one friend helping another out.”
“Well, okay. Yes. I’ll come.”
Excitement quickened in Heath’s veins. He had to find that shack and see those paintings—in all his research about the area he hadn’t come across any reference to it, and adding pictures of something unusual to his portfolio would definitely help make his plan of becoming a
photographer a reality.
She’d lived in Meadowsweet all her life. In the shadow of the mountains. Having her as his guide was more than perfect, it was essential.
Country music picked up in intensity and couples stepped onto the floor and started to dance.
Heath turned to Mel. “Want to dance?”
She hesitated. Then, “I don’t dance.”
She’d been casting glances at the dancing couples. Had tapped her feet along to the music. Now she chewed on her bottom lip with indecision in her eyes.
He should just leave it. If she didn’t want to dance, she didn’t want to dance. But everything about her gave lie to her words and Heath couldn’t resist finding out why. “Oh, I get it. You’re a foot stomper.”
That earned a tiny smile. “I’m sort of awkward on the dance floor.” She glanced at the dancers again, and he was sure he detected a hint of envy in her gaze.
“Because of the whole man-woman-attraction thing?”
She nodded and avoided his eyes.
“You said you needed to learn to fake it.”
That got her attention. Mel’s widened green eyes looked directly into his. She swiped her tongue across her bottom lip in a way that betrayed her nerves. “I guess…I did,” she admitted in a deep, husky voice.
“Why not practice on me?” His motives were far from pure. He wanted to hold her in his arms, feel her body against his. Wanted her to acknowledge the attraction that shimmered in the air every time they were together.
“I couldn’t do that. It would be using you. I couldn’t just…”
“Why not?” Heath smiled, and saw a flare of interest in her eyes. “You wouldn’t hurt my feelings—I know you’re not attracted to me.” He leaned forward and trailed a hand over her cheek.
She jumped back.
“See?” He laid his hand on the table. “You’re too jumpy. Acting like that is going to give a potential boyfriend the feeling that you don’t want him to touch you.”
She grimaced. “I just can’t help it. It’s instinct. Even when I try to suppress it, I—”
“Let’s try again.” He covered her hand with his.
Her hand twitched under his, but she didn’t pull away. “That’s good. Now, relax. Breathe.”
Her shoulders dropped, as she did as he asked, taking long, slow breaths.
“Smile at me,” Heath demanded. “As if you’re enjoying my company.”
She gave a wobbly smile. “This is ridiculous.”
Heath looked out over the dance floor. The music had switched to a slower song, and couples drifted across the floor held close in each other’s arms. “See how relaxed they look? How they’re just going with the flow? You can do that.”
Her gaze followed his. Then her hand clenched, and she hissed in a breath and turned away.
Heath leaned forward. “What is it?”
Heath glanced back to where she’d been looking. A tall skinny guy with a receding hairline swayed to the music with a redhead in his arms. Her torso was pressed tight against his, and her arms were looped around his neck—her fingers probing his hair. She was plastered to him so close it reminded Heath of a nature documentary of octopuses mating.
“Stop looking,” Mel hissed.
“You and that guy?” She could do better. So much better.
“His name is Michael.” She pulled her hand away and looked into his eyes.
“He ran at the fourth date?”
She looked so damn miserable, he almost felt like stalking over there and punching the guy out on her behalf.
“I thought we were well-matched. He’s intelligent, and we got on well. It’s just when it came to the physical…” She looked over at Michael again. “Well, I never could have danced like that with him, that’s for sure.”
Michael held Octopus Girl’s hips as she ground against him in a move that was more bedroom than ballroom. He looked as though all his birthdays had come at once.
“Hey.” Heath touched her face, and this time she didn’t flinch. “Forget him.” He stared into her eyes. “If he wasn’t man enough to wait for you to be ready, he’s not worth it.”
“I don’t think I ever would have been ready,” she said in a low voice. “I just didn’t think the sex thing would matter so much to him.”
The sex thing mattered to
, but he wasn’t going to add to her distress by pointing that out.
“You’re overthinking this whole thing,” Heath said. “You just need to relax, and enjoy the moment. Get used to casual contact without jumping out of your skin.”
“The problem is I destroy every budding relationship by flinching or pulling away.” Her mouth twisted in a wry smile. “I’m never going to lose my Ice Queen tag.”
“So you practice. On me. There’ll be no relationship with me to break. No consequences. You call the shots. You’re helping me by taking me to the mountains to show me all the secret places that need to be photographed and to find the hermit’s shack. I can help you with this. We both win.”
She glanced out at the dance floor again, straightened her shoulders. “I’ll try.”
And when he asked her to dance this time, she agreed.
Despite her insistence that she never felt attraction, Mel’s body language whispered a totally different story. The moment they started to dance, the whisper became a shout he’d have to be deaf not to hear.
She threw off the serious mask that fit her so closely, and laughed as her tight skirt wrapped around her thighs, constricting movement. At one stage, she hitched it up a bit, but it didn’t really help.
He wasn’t the only man in the place glancing at her knees, but he was the only one she noticed. Time stilled for a moment, then spun out again as he clutched her hand and swung her away, then pulled her back in close against his body.
She was laughing. So in the moment she forgot to stiffen up in his arms. She watched his mouth. With another woman, it would be the perfect, natural moment to kiss. But Mel wasn’t any other woman. She didn’t seem to know her body’s wants, and there was no way that guiding her to recognize them was his job.
All he had to do was get her used to a man’s touch. Then she could find someone who ticked all her boxes for a relationship. His hands skimmed over the gray silk on her back, feeling her body’s warmth through the fabric, and he breathed in her scent, wishing he was as immune to her as he pretended. He’d said he knew she wasn’t attracted to him, but she was. Maybe she didn’t know it—more likely she did, but wouldn’t acknowledge it, but he’d known enough women to read the signs.
So, as her head rested on his shoulder, he stilled his hands and resisted the urge to pull her closer. And at the end of the song, it was he who suggested they call it a night.
He wanted to kiss her in the car outside his apartment. She wanted it, too; her lips parted and her eyes shone when he said good night. As he stepped out of the car, a little crease above her eyes appeared moments before he turned and strode away.
Something about her tangled his insides, made him want, even as he knew there was no possibility of a relationship with her. Even if by some miracle Mel realized she wasn’t as cold as she imagined, the last thing she needed was a quick fling, and with a new career on the horizon, there was no way Heath had more to offer her than that.
Meadowsweet was silent this early in the morning. Mel picked up a box of Danish pastries and drove to the garage. She whistled as she unlocked the door. Last night was fun. For the first time ever she’d danced with a man without the pressure of sex getting in the way. Every time she went out with one of her girlfriends, they were approached by men on the prowl.
Being with Heath kept the dogs away. What dog would even try to move into a wolf’s territory? She grinned as she filled the coffee machine and flicked it on.
“Good morning!” Betty pushed the door open, and stripped off her coat. “How did your date go last night?”
“You know very well it wasn’t a date. Although we did go to Mike’s for dancing and drinks after.”
“Whose idea was that?” Betty asked.
“It was his idea. But it was a good one. We cleared the air.”
“Spill.” Betty poured herself a cup of coffee. “I want to hear all the gory details.”
There weren’t really any to share, but Betty’s eyes twinkled with interest—so Mel would have to come up with something. “Well, we danced. And we talked. He’s a nice guy.”
Betty grinned. “Rethinking your hands-off policy?”
“You know I’m useless when it comes to men. We had a good time. He’s coming in to help out this morning.”
Betty frowned. “That’s beyond the call of duty. He must be exhausted after the week he’s put in. How did you persuade him?”
“I didn’t. Once he discovered you and I were working, he offered. He’s a pretty considerate guy; I think we can be friends.”
“Men and women can’t be friends.” Betty’s eyes clouded. “Not when there’s attraction thrown into the mix. Don’t kid yourself, honey.”
“We can be friends. I’m not attracted to Heath, and I’m certainly not looking for a relationship with him. He’s only here for a couple of months and he…” She clamped her mouth shut. He’d told her about his photography project in confidence—she couldn’t reveal his dreams. “Uh, anyway, he’s not interested in me that way.”
“A man doesn’t get the nickname Ladyslayer without being darned good at talking women into bed, Mel.” She leaned close. “I think you’re wrong. I think he’s very interested. If you really don’t want to be another notch on his belt, be careful.”
The door creaked open. “Morning.” Heath stood in the doorway, a half smile on his mouth. Mel’s heart jumped. An errant thought intruded that she never felt hot and tingly with her heart pounding like a jackhammer with any of her other friends. She shoved the thought out of her mind and slammed the door on it.
“Ah, breakfast.” He strode in, helped himself from the box on the table, and sat.
“Thanks for coming in to help out,” Betty said. “We really appreciate it.”
“No problem. I’m taking next weekend off, though. I think I’m going to go hiking.”
To Mel’s everlasting relief, Betty got up and poured coffee into mugs. She fanned out the papers on the desk in front of her. “Let’s divvy up the work and get started. The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll get finished.”
The only way to keep focused was to keep his gaze off Mel. She’d dressed in dungarees that should have made her look frumpy. Unfortunately for him, the woman couldn’t look frumpy if she tried. A hot-pink T-shirt clung to her curves under the overalls, dipping low to showcase a hint of creamy cleavage. She’d tied her hair up in a ponytail, shoved her feet into sneakers. For the first time, he saw the point of their “ladies only” policy—a man would have to be dead to resist flirting with her.
He’d replaced a car’s front and back struts and done a realignment, after which he drained the oil, replaced the oil filter, and refilled the oil tank. He was under the car retrieving the oil pan when Mel called him. “Are you ready for lunch?” He glanced sideways to see a pair of battered pink sneakers.
“Give me a couple of minutes, I’m almost finished.”
Heath’s hands felt gritty and itched with a coating of motor oil that seemed to have worked its way right into the grooves of his fingertips. At this rate, they’d be able to throw another half day at it and be caught up.
He pushed the pan to the side and slid the backboard out from under the car.
Mel’s eyes stared into his. She grinned. “Here, take my hand. I’m practicing.” She stuck out her hand to help him up.
“I’m covered in oil.” He ignored her hand and stood.
“I enjoyed last night.” Her gaze dipped to his mouth.
“Me too.” Heath took a step back. She didn’t seem to realize that she was giving him the “kiss me” look, and damned if his body was getting the message, loud and clear.
“I’ve been thinking about…” She went pink. “About your offer. I think it really could work. If I get used to touching, get used to being touched, I think I really can learn to fake it.” She reached out and touched his chest with the palm of her hand.
Her gaze tangled with his.
Being on the other end of a seduction onslaught was unsettling. So focused was her attention she resembled a cat stalking her prey.
Her hand slid over his neck, into his hair. Then she went up on tiptoe and pressed her mouth against his.
It was no more than a brush of her mouth against his, but Heath had to muster all his strength to resist turning it into more.
She doesn’t know what she’s doing, doesn’t have any idea that she’s playing with fire…
The memory of the last time he’d messed with a woman who didn’t know the rules doused the fire smoldering in Heath instantly. At least with Cindy, he’d thought she wanted the same thing he did—an uncomplicated, strings-free relationship. With Mel, he knew damn well that wasn’t on the agenda.
He edged his face away from hers, just as the sound of the garage door shattered the silence.
Mel jumped back.
Heath’s neck turned so quickly to the noise, he almost gave himself whiplash.
Betty stood in the doorway, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly agape.
“I need to…uh, get something.” Mel dashed across the room, escaping through the swinging door before he had a chance to react.
“Sorry to interrupt.” Betty walked over. “And I did interrupt something, didn’t I?”
“We just…uh…” He could make up some bullshit story about Mel having something in her eye and him examining it but there was no way in hell Betty would swallow it, so he shrugged instead.
“Be careful with her.” Betty crossed her arms, eyes challenging him. “Don’t hurt her.”
“You’re making assumptions. And they’re wrong.” There was no point in fighting with Betty; she was just a woman standing up for her friend. It was tempting to tell her the truth, that Mel had kissed
, not the other way around. “I like Mel. She likes me. I’m not interested in a quick lay.”