The Rebel Series
The Redemption Series
Blackbird Firefly Nightshade
The Thatch Series
Letting Go To The Stars Show Me How
The Sharing You Series
Capturing Peace (novella) Sharing You
The Forgiving Lies Series
Forgiving Lies Deceiving Lies Changing Everything (novella)
The From Ashes Series
From Ashes Needing Her (novella)
The Taking Chances Series
Taking Chances Stealing Harper (novella) Trusting Liam
I See You
Brewed Novels Still to Come Whiskey Black
Copyright © 2019 Molly McAdams Published by Jester Creations, LLC.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior permission of the publisher.
Please protect this art form by not pirating.
Cover Design by RBA Designs
Photo by © Samantha Weaver Photography
Illustrations by © Oleksandr Babich
Editing by Shannon Andrew
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Names, characters, places, and plots are a product of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Print ISBN: 9781950048915
eBook ISBN: 9781950048908
About the Author
I moved through the bedroom on the balls of my feet, collecting my discarded clothes and shoes from the night before on the way to t; he dresser drawers. Peeking over my shoulder at where he lay unaware, I pulled on the top drawer, my face scrunching when it made too much noise in the otherwise silent room. When he rolled over in the large bed, I held my breath, dread filling me as I waited to see if he would wake.
Five seconds passed . . .
I have to go.
Ten . . .
I know you don’t understand.
Thirty . . .
I let out a slow, relieved breath, then turned to the top drawer where I kept some clothes for the nights I stayed over. With one sweep, I had every article of clothing out of the drawer, and then I was racing toward the bathroom to grab my extra set of toiletries.
Once my hands were overflowing, I tiptoed soundlessly to the living room and shoved everything into my large purse . . . only pausing to pull on some clothes and throw my long hair haphazardly into a bun.
My gaze caught on the foreign object on my finger as I lowered my hands. On the diamond that was equally beautiful and horrific.
On the ring that made my stomach drop and my breaths turn shallow.
I wondered how I had let it get that far as I crept to the bedroom and up to his nightstand. I wondered if the sight of a ring on that finger would always leave me lightheaded and restless.
I hadn’t even said yes . . .
Yet, somehow, with dread filling me and shock silencing me, that ring had made it onto my hand the night before.
He’d kissed me as if I’d screamed my acceptance, brought me back to his place, and revered me as though I’d given him the greatest gift. All the while, lifelong insecurities had nearly suffocated me until I had the overwhelming urge to do what I did best.
It was what I’d done for as long as I could remember.
Run from relationships. Run from commitment. Run from those three seemingly innocent words that made me cringe . . .
I usually had a better sense of when the relationship had progressed too far. I usually disappeared long before the guy ever got it in his mind to buy a ring—let alone propose—but I’d let myself get distracted.
I vowed to never let it happen again as I studied his face one last time, unbelievably handsome even in sleep.
“I told you not to fall in love with me,” I whispered, the ache in my voice nearly sounding like an accusation as I slipped the ring from my finger and placed it on the nightstand.
Then I ran.
I kept my head slightly lowered and fingers flying across the keys of my laptop, letting only my gaze move from person to person in the café. Sitting alone, sitting in pairs or groups, mingling by the counter . . . it didn’t matter, they were all studying me the way I was them. Only difference: I wasn’t so shameless in my study.
I, at least, had the decency to pretend I wasn’t staring like a horde of creepy bots who’d just noticed an anomaly in their town.
The sight of their unwavering gazes bordered on unnerving, and I wondered—as I so often had over the last two hours—if I was dreaming all of this. If someone had kidnapped and stashed me in the trunk of their car and at any second, I would wake up in their basement, bound to a chair.
That last gas station I stopped at around two this morning that had been in the middle of nowhere? The one in that ghost town with the squeaky windmills with the sinister-looking old man? Yeah, that one . . .
If, in fact, I was kidnapped, I bet that’s where I was taken from.
I mumbled a curse when I realized I’d actually typed that last line into my manuscript and deleted it.
Note to self: Sleep-deprivation and overactive imaginations don’t mix . . . like, at all.
Then again, having over a dozen people stare silently and brazenly for well over an hour might prompt any person to have outlandish and horrific scenes play out in their minds.
I sat back in the chair and stifled a yawn as I rubbed at my eyes behind my glasses.
“Can I get you anything else?”
I dropped my hands and looked over to see the brunette who’d taken my order earlier standing near my table.
Curiosity churned in her hazel eyes, betraying her polite expression and tone, and the way she was so clearly avoiding asking what every patron seemed to be wondering: What was I doing there?
“Uh . . .” I glanced at the empty coffee mug and shook my head slowly, then more resolutely. “No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“All right. Well, let me know if you change your mind.”
“Actually, is there a hotel around here? I didn’t see one when I came in this morning.” Then again, I’d barely been able to keep my eyes open. And I was still pretty damn positive I was going to wake up in the disturbing man’s basement.
“If you’re just passing through, Amber isn’t really the town to stop in,” the girl said as she grabbed my mug. “There’s a bigger town about a half-hour west. Their motel’s a lot cheaper than the bed and breakfast here. But, you get what you pay for.”
“I’m not.” When her eyebrows lifted in question, I hurried to add, “Just passing through.”
She didn’t bother to hide her surprise while she studied me. “Do you have family here?”
My brow furrowed. “No.”
“Then what brings you?”
I hesitated when multiple answers danced on my tongue, fighting for their chance to be voiced. I pushed them away and lifted a shoulder in the barest hint of a shrug.
“Interested in small-town life.” My gaze left her long enough to confirm I was still being looked at by every single person in the café before I said, “My first encounter is already so surreal, I haven’t decided if I’m actually dreaming.”
She didn’t look behind her. She already knew I was being gawked at.
Though I wasn’t sure why some of the attention wasn’t on her.
Her ultra-short shorts and vintage concert t-shirt that was knotted just below her chest, leaving her stomach bare, seemed to fit her so entirely. Anywhere else, I wouldn’t have thought twice about her outfit. But it wasn’t hard to figure her sexy grunge look stood out in this little country town.
“You’re new,” she explained unapologetically. “We don’t get a lot of new people here. If there’s someone we don’t know, then they’re related to someone from here or they got lost and they’re just passing through. If you plan on hanging around for a while, be prepared for more of this.”
“Lovely,” I mumbled and sent the people in the café a wide smile and a wave any Miss America contestant would be proud of.
Jesus, I needed sleep.
I was imagining a kidnapping and turning into a beauty pageant contestant on top of it.
The girl beside me laughed, the sound so carefree now that she was done interrogating me for everyone. “You’ll get used to us, but if you ever need someone who isn’t staring at you and whispering behind your back, you can usually find me here at Brewed. Come in whenever. The café is always open, but we serve food and beer in the afternoons and evenings just through those doors,” she said, jerking her head in the direction of the large barn doors at the back of the café. “I’m Emberly.”
My body went still as I replayed her last words again and again and again. “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
Her eyes rolled and a soft smile pulled at her mouth as if she’d been expecting my question.
“Emberly.” She held a hand up as if to stop anything I might say. “I know, it, uh . . . isn’t exactly common.”
And I couldn’t seem to do anything more than stare at her. Study her.
This girl whose name was Emberly . . . fucking Emberly.
The color of her hair and eyes. The shape of her lips and eyes and nose.
Oh my God.
I cleared my throat and hurried to save my manuscript before slipping my laptop into my purse. “So, this bed and breakfast . . .”
“Blossom B&B.” She gestured out the window behind me. “Two blocks down First Street, there’s no way to miss it. Massive plantation house. The Dixons run it. You’ll love them . . . Savannah is really sweet.”
A short laugh burst from my chest before I could stop it. Because, once again, this all felt too dreamlike.
A place where everyone knew everyone. Where residents whispered to one another about the intruder in their town. A town that—with the little glimpse I saw as I drove in while the sun was rising—looked like it belonged on a movie set it was so perfect . . .
I was sitting in the middle of a real-life Mayberry.
I couldn’t understand what would possess a person to live in a town like this, much less, why someone would choose to come here.
Then again, I’d just driven over nineteen hours to get here.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been up for about twenty-four hours now, I must finally be crashing. I should probably call to see if they have room at that place so I don’t have to sleep in my car—actually, I’m just going to go there. I’m sure I’ll see you around. Thank you for the coffee and the weird warning,” I rambled as I pushed to my feet.
Without another glance at her or the dozens of eyes I could feel on me, I hurried out of the café.
The door hadn’t even closed behind me before I heard the customers of the café all start talking at once.
I could deal with this.
I could deal with stares and whispers—those weren’t the kinds of things that bothered me.
After a much-needed shower, a beautiful sleep session that assured me I was, in fact, here and not in a basement, and all the coffee in the world, I would be ready to face the residents of Amber, Texas.
I would be ready to push away all I had run from and finally confront my past.
“I hate you.”
“I know, I know,” Savannah said dismissively as she rushed around the entryway, not even bothering to look up at me.
“I hate you,” I repeated, my scowl deepening as my frustrations turned into a physical ache.
Savannah finally stopped moving long enough to loose a sigh, no doubt drawing it out for my benefit, and let her annoyed glare rest on me. “It’s eight in the morning, Sawyer. Stop acting like I woke you up before the sun.”
She rubbed her swollen stomach and released another sigh, this one holding a hint of determination. As soon as it ended, the tiny little whirlwind was moving again.
She never stopped moving.
It’s why the bed and breakfast was perfect for her, because there was always something to do. Always something to clean, always something to bake or someone to cook for, always something to fix. Though . . . she called me for the latter.
My oldest brother’s wife was beautiful, kind-hearted, and tough-skinned—which, she needed to be coming into this family. Mom always said she was the ideal daughter-in-law, setting a high standard for anyone the rest of us might find in the future.
Then again, it might be a good thing Savannah was so perfect, seeing as she might be the only girl to ever marry into the Dixon family. My other two brothers didn’t have plans to settle down anytime soon, and I had no intention of settling down.
I rubbed my hands over my face and groaned into them. “You called me screaming and then hung up before I could figure out what was happening. I thought one of the kids was dying or the house was on fire.”
Instead, I found Blossom flame-free and the kids playing in the entryway while Savannah rushed around. The second I set foot inside, she’d started rattling off a list of everything she needed fixed or looked at. Just another morning.
“I figured it was the only way to wake you up and get you here this early,” she said shamelessly. “I have to go and things need fixin’ while I’m gone.”
My brows dropped low over my eyes and I lowered my voice so my niece and nephew wouldn’t hear me. “I was awake. I was buried deep inside someone when you called.”
Savannah wasn’t fazed by my words. I doubted much would shock her after having grown up around us.
She simply rolled her eyes and grabbed her bag, calling for the kids to head to the car. When she reached the door, she stopped and gave me a challenging look. “If she was there so early this morning, that means she was there last night. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Tell that to my dick,” I grumbled.
“No one ever said you had to answer your phone, Sawyer. So, why did you?” One of her eyebrows ticked up when I didn’t respond. “You’re welcome for giving you a reason to say goodbye to a clinger.”
Damn her for being right.
Not that I’d tell her that.
I pulled out my phone and shot off a message to my brother, my eyes rolling at his response that sounded eerily similar to Savannah’s.
Me: Your wife cock-blocked me to fix shit even you could’ve done.
Beau: It’s 8am. That means you had a good night. You’ll be fine. Quit bitching and get to work.
Beau: Fan stopped working in Room 4
Me: Since when?
Beau: Since I forgot to tell Savannah. Fix it. Gotta get back to work.
“Asshole,” I murmured.
With a frustrated groan, I forced myself to ignore the aching need for a release and grabbed my earbuds. Once they were in, I turned the music up loud and started working—tackling the hardest project first and leaving the fan for last since I was positive it worked just fine. It wouldn’t be the first time Beau added random shit to Savannah’s fix-it list that didn’t actually need fixing.
You think he’d be nicer to the only brother who still talked to him.
You think Savannah would tell him to.
Then again, she probably knew pushing him to do anything that involved any of his brothers would only drive him to do the opposite.
Savannah knew us all better than we knew ourselves.
She’d been in my life for as long as I could remember. She and Beau had been together almost as long. Only God knew how an uncontrollable bastard like Beau ended up with sweet, gentle Savannah.
Her house had been our only neighbor for miles, our families had spent most holidays together, and at some point in their early teens, my hardened, aggressive brother set his sights on Savannah. They were opposites in every way, but they were never apart after that.
Even when he got suspended from school over and over again for fighting.
Even when he got arrested for not being able to keep his rage in check when someone mouthed off to him or said or did something inappropriate to Savannah.
She stood by his side in public and sighed in disappointment in private. And he’d drop to his knees, begging her to forgive him.
Beau never apologized to our parents for his anger. He just always tried to better himself for Savannah.
That probably should’ve been a massive red fucking flag for how everything would go down years later. But no one was looking at flags back then. My parents were just happy Savannah could get through to him when nothing else had.
She made him want to be better.
Made him be better.
Then they got married and had Quinn and Wyatt. Those damn cute kids with the Dixon dimples.
And scary-as-shit Beau turned into a teddy bear.
Now he fought differently. Silently. Fists lowered and eyes hardened.
We all did.
I sighed when I stopped in front of the door to room four, staring at it for a few moments as I wondered if it was even worth it to check out the fan.
Grabbing my set of keys, I found the master and slid it into the lock to push my way inside.
After a quick glance at the immobile ceiling fan, I flicked the switch on the wall. Then flicked it again and again when there was no movement.
Not that that meant anything.
Moving deeper into the room, I stepped beneath the fan to try the chain before checking the wiring and noticed something that shouldn’t be in the room.
A couple of large suitcases peeked out from behind the other side of the bed, and a smaller one sat wide open on the chair tucked into the far corner of the room.
I tried to remember if Savannah had mentioned this room was occupied . . . but she hadn’t. Because there hadn’t been a job in this room.
I turned in time to catch the clock flying at my face.
I ran the towel over my hair one last time, then combed my hand through the wet tangles, my movements pausing when a noise came from the bedroom behind me.
My heart sounded absurdly loud to my own ears while I waited for any other noises, but when none came, I slowly resumed finger-combing my hair as my mind raced with crazy, outlandish possibilities.
That unnerving old man is coming for me in his basement.
I’m finally about to wake up from this Mayberry nightmare.
There are ghosts in the stunning Blossom Bed and Breakfast. I mean . . . it is an old, restored plantation house after all.
My grandma always said my imagination would take me places . . . not that her words had held any merit. They’d been meant as an insult. Still, it hadn’t stopped me from hoping she might be right, even though I’d never dreamed it would lead me here.
Not here—in Small Town, USA. Looking for answers.
Not here—in this gorgeous bed and breakfast . . . that more than likely wasn’t haunted.
But . . . here. Making a living by telling stories. Giving people an escape from reality. Making them fall in love with love . . . when I ran in the opposite direction of it.
When just the thought of being told those three words terrified me.
I started untying the towel wrapped around my body as I turned to leave the bathroom, craving the comfort of my pajamas and the massive bed waiting for me.
A strangled scream lodged in my throat and I gripped the loosened towel close to my body when I found a tall, broad-shouldered man standing in the middle of my room, facing away from me.
I stumbled, slamming against the doorframe I’d just stepped through as terror flooded me.
I knew that old, creepy bastard was coming back for me.
This is where I die.
Am I already dead? Am I dreaming?
Jesus, Rae. Fight. You know how to defend yourself.
How is this real life?
I shakily searched the top of the chest of drawers I was standing next to, my hand clenching around a rustic clock at the same moment the man tensed and rocked back on his heels.
I launched the clock as he turned, and then I did what I do best . . . ran.
I sucked in a breath to scream for help when I made it into the hallway but was grabbed and turned, my back crashing into the wall as we tripped over each other in our attempts to go opposite ways.
“Let me ex—”
I shoved my knee into his groin.
A harsh breath rushed from him and mixed with his agonized groan.
But the scream I’d been prepared for died when I got a look at his face. My fear of him and my worry briefly disappeared because the old sinister man was no longer sinister . . . or old.
I knew right then I had to be dreaming.
Because eyes couldn’t be that shade of blue. Hair never had that perfect, just-fucked look. Men didn’t look like him.
Except in my stories.
But one was gripping my bare shoulders. In Small Town, USA. In the maybe-haunted Blossom.
It was then I noticed the earbuds hanging from around his neck, music blaring from them . . .
And then he opened his mouth.
“Fucking shit,” he said on another groan before slanting a glare at me. “Let me explain.”
Not a dream.
“Get the hell off me,” I yelled and struggled against his firm hold.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said quickly when I lifted my knee again.
“Talk fast and get your hands off me.”
“Are you gonna run away screaming?”
“Depends on the next words out of your mouth,” I shot back, but thankfully, he reluctantly released my shoulders.
“I didn’t think anyone would be there. You weren’t supposed to be there.”
“In my room?”
“Yeah, in—no. That room wasn’t supposed to be occupied. No one told me it was.” He fell back against the wall opposite me and released a long, drawn-out sigh.
“So, you have a habit of going into rooms you think are vacant?” That’s when I remembered . . . “I locked that door.”
At least, I thought I had.
It had been a long morning. A long twenty-four-ish hours.
“How did you get in?” I demanded.
“My key,” he ground out, his staggering eyes still set in a glare, like he was mad at me for being in the room I’d paid for. “My brother owns this place. I fix things . . . he told me to look at the fan in your room. Didn’t say you would be there.”
Some of the tension left my body now that I knew he wasn’t going to kidnap or kill me. But my tone still held a defensive edge when I said, “Well, I clearly was. If you would’ve knocked, I would’ve let you in.”
“I’m told when the rooms are occupied. There wasn’t a reason to knock on your door.”
A breath of a laugh tumbled from my lips. “I’d say walking out of the bathroom to find you there when I’m mostly naked is a reason to knock.” He opened his mouth, but I continued over him. “As of about thirty minutes ago, that room is mine for the indefinite future. Now someone’s told you it’s occupied, so knock next time. And considering the state you found me in today . . . wait for me to let you in.”
A low, unamused laugh scraped up his throat and shock covered his face. His gaze trailed over my body, slow and torturous, and I fought the instinct to check to make sure the towel was covering everything.
I wasn’t ashamed of my body, and it was his fault we were meeting like this in the first place.
“Where the hell were you gonna go in a towel?” he asked when his stare met mine again.
“Wherever it took to get away from you.”
The corners of his mouth curled as he fought a smile.
He had dimples.
“Did you want me to check on the fan, or not?”
I pushed from the wall and shook my head, partly in response, partly trying to rid the gorgeous illusion my subconscious had created. “Not. I’ve been awake for over a day. I’m fairly certain I’m dreaming you. And if I’m going to have dreams of a random guy breaking into my room, I’d rather have them from a bed.”
His only response was a huff as I passed him to enter my room.
I shut the door softly, even though I wanted to slam it on his beautiful face. And before I moved away from it, I locked it. Twice.
His muffled laugh was low and sexy and infuriating, and followed me into sleep.
Emberly’s head fell back that evening, a laugh pouring free from her.
“Let me get this right.” She set her hands on the bar and tried to keep a straight face when she looked at me again. “You were in a room with a girl in a towel . . . and instead of ending up between her legs, she kneed you between yours?”
I leveled her with a glare.
“I don’t believe it,” she said matter-of-factly.
“She isn’t exactly my type,” I said before taking another sip of my beer.
Her chest heaved with a muted laugh. “Since when isn’t ‘mostly naked’ your type?”
A flash of that girl tore through my mind, assaulting me before I could force it away. “Since she looked like that.”
Emberly’s expression went blank, and then, after a few seconds, screwed up in a mixture of hesitation and confusion. “Uh . . . we are talking about the same girl, right? New to town. Just went to Blossom to get a room.”
I nodded absentmindedly. Emberly had already told me she’d been the one to send Towel Girl to the B&B.
“What was wrong with the way she looked?”
I focused on the girl who’d been my best friend since childhood. “Em, you know my type and you saw her. She’s . . .” Everything I swore I would never go near again. Everything I’ve looked the other way from—avoided—for years. Until now . . . I tilted my head and said, “Well, she’s not exactly thin.”
Emberly reached over the bar and punched my shoulder. “That’s what women look like, you jackass.”
I tipped my beer at Emberly. “Are you saying you’re not a woman?”
She glanced at herself for a half-second before her shocked gaze was back on me. “I have a different body type than her. Women have those. Men have those.”
“Never said they didn’t. I just said her thighs touch.” I should’ve seen that next punch coming. “Jesus, Em, I didn’t say yours did. I could just tell that, beneath the towel, she had a lot of curves.”
Emberly stared at me for a few seconds, eyes and mouth wide before she struck my shoulder again.
Fuck, why had I ever taught her how to throw a punch?
“You know who had a body like hers? Marilyn Monroe. I would kill for a body like that.”
I barely caught her fist in my hand when she went for another hit.
Her lips curled in a sneer. “Just because you only screw women who are rail thin without a curve in sight doesn’t mean women who do have curves are overweight.”
Something in my soul wrenched.
My teeth gnashed in a vain attempt to force the echoing memories and pain away.
“Never said that. Never said she was,” I bit out.
“You strongly implied it.” Sadness lingered behind the frustration in her eyes. “You say a lot of stupid shit. You do even more. But until today, you’ve never said something hateful toward another person. You’ve never said something that actually made me ashamed to be your best friend. And after what happened with—”
“Don’t,” I said in warning.
We sat there for long moments before she tugged her hand from my grasp and straightened. “I love you, Sawyer Dixon, but you’ve spiraled these last years. In a way, I understood. I swear I did. But after those comments . . . I feel like I don’t know you. Your never-ending line of bimbos has changed you, and it’s disgusting.”
If only she knew they hadn’t.
If only she knew the thought of anyone other than those bimbos, as she called them, fucking terrified me.
This was the only way I knew how to protect myself.
Because that guilt ate at me still . . . almost a decade later.
Emberly’s stare slid past me. “Was that all you saw? That she wasn’t stick thin, and that was it? Did you even look at her face?”
I started to respond but forced back the words gathering in my throat.
It’d been impossible not to see her.
Impossible not to take in and memorize every part of that girl while telling myself to look away. Bright hazel eyes and the way pieces of her damp hair had clung to her lips. Lips so damn full I’d wanted to reach out and watch them part beneath my thumb.
But those curves . . .
Curves that begged to be worshipped and promised my ruin . . .
They’d been a bucket of ice-cold water. They’d been a stark reminder of a harrowing past I refused to repeat.
“Of course you didn’t,” Emberly said with a huff. She rested her hands on the bar again and jerked her head at something behind me. “You’re the only one. The whole town is looking at that girl who isn’t your type. For more reasons than her being new.”
I turned on the barstool to see a woman walking down the sidewalk.
Standing tall, even though she’d barely reached my shoulders, curves that begged for my hands, dark hair falling in waves to her waist, walking like she knew the town was watching her and she didn’t give one, single fuck.
Just as Emberly had said, everyone in the bar section of Brewed had stopped talking to put their attention on her. The few people she passed on the street turned to continue watching her.
Not that I was surprised.
She was new. New didn’t happen in Amber. Accidental drop-ins who left as soon as they arrived happened in Amber.
And she radiated confidence that was almost as sexy as the girl herself.
It wasn’t until I leaned over to see her enter the doors to the café side of Brewed that I realized I was watching her too, and Emberly was watching me.
I turned around to face my friend and forced a shrug. “Stand by my earlier assessment.”
She studied me for a moment. “I really never thought I would be so disappointed in you.”
I drained my beer and set the bottle on the bar. “Sorry to disappoint.”
Just as I was about to stand, Emberly’s eyes widened and a smile lit her face. “Well, hey there, new girl.”
I gripped my empty bottle like it might save me from whatever Emberly was about to do to me and narrowed my eyes at her.
“Hey.” That word was at once hesitant and somehow familiar.
“Did you get the sleep you needed?” Emberly asked as she placed a napkin on the bar, beckoning the girl to take the seat beside me.
“Not exactly,” the girl said as she stepped forward and placed her purse on the stool. “I kept thinking an intruder was going to come into my room.”
I caught myself when I started looking her way at the obvious accusation and kept my focus directly on Emberly.
Emberly, who was currently sliding me a challenging look and making an exaggerated humming sound. “Can’t imagine who would break into the new girl’s room,” she said dryly.
Fuck you, I mouthed.
The girl beside me sighed, and God damn if I didn’t have the perfect mental image of those lips falling into even more of a pout. “I’m positive parts of this morning didn’t actually happen. Did I hallucinate you telling me there was food on this side?”
“No ma’am you did not. We also have some great beer selections.”
“Oh no. No, I’m fine with coffee or water,” the girl said, stopping Emberly from explaining about their brew.
“Well, we have plenty of that too, as you know.” Emberly snatched a menu out from beneath my elbow and slid it to the side. “Here’s a menu for you.”
“Thank God, I’m starving,” she mumbled. “I can’t remember the last time I ate.”
At that, my head did snap to the side. To her. Looking at her and taking her in when I swore after this morning I wouldn’t. When I’d done everything to scrub our hallway encounter from my mind after leaving Blossom.
“Why?” The word came out sharp and low. More a demand than a simple question any stranger might be able to ask, but I hadn’t been able to keep it back.
Her movements were slow as she reached out to grab the menu. After a hesitant look my way, she glanced at the list of offered foods, one brow raised. “Fail to see how that is your business.”
There were so many damn reasons it wasn’t, just as there was one that would always make it my business.
“Knowing when you last ate shouldn’t be a question,” I said, my tone still a little too sharp for normal conversation.
Emberly grabbed my arm and hissed, “Stop.”
I leaned closer to where the girl was standing despite Emberly trying to pull me toward her, over the bar. “Considering the price of the room you’re paying for indefinitely, I’m gonna take a wild guess that you not knowing isn’t because you can’t afford food.”
“Jesus, Sawyer,” Emberly snapped, and then softer, “Please forgive him. He was tackled one too many times back in the day and it took away his common decency filter.”
The girl’s eyes widened a fraction in response, and then she placed the menu back on the bar and ordered one of the burgers and water.
“Of course, we’ll get right on that,” Emberly said tightly, still gripping me. “If you need anything, just holler for me. Again, my name’s Emberly.”
“Oh, so that actually happened . . .” the girl murmured to herself.
I managed to block Emberly’s next swing and said, “Add it to my tab.”
Emberly shot me a look that promised so much pain if I said anything else to the girl next to me and then turned to put the order in.
“Right, I don’t need you to buy me dinner.”
When I looked at the girl again, she was digging through her purse, pulling things out at random.
“Think of it as an apology for this morning.” I stood, but before I turned to leave, I let myself take her in one last time. “Knowing when you last ate shouldn’t be a question,” I repeated, this time softer even though everything in me wanted to yell the words.
“Jesus,” she muttered, the corners of her mouth tipping up in a frustrated smile. She finally looked at me and lifted a hand before letting it fall. “It’s been a day.”
I forced my hands to relax when they curled into fists in response. “A day since you’ve eaten?”
“No, a day, as in, a hell of a day. As was yesterday, since I spent the entire thing traveling here and literally only stopping for gas and caffeine. As was part of the day before.” Her stare darted over me before a huff fell from her lips. “Sometimes, food isn’t important, it isn’t even a factor. However, right now isn’t one of those times. Right now, I want to stuff my face with that burger and then maybe grab a coffee or two to get me through a few hours of work. Any other invasive questions?”
She had willingly gone days without eating.
My jaw clenched as memories rushed to the surface. I forced my head in a slow shake when I knew I couldn’t respond rationally.
I glanced down at the cash she was holding out and stepped away from it. “I don’t want it.”
“Well, I don’t want you to pay for my dinner.”
“If it means you’ll eat it, I’ll pay for every goddamn meal.”
Her brows lifted in surprise and confusion. After a moment, a soft, stunned laugh burst from her. “Trust me, I plan on eating it regardless of who pays.”
“Then as I said earlier, think of it as an apology.”
“Look, considering what I did in return, we can call this morning even. I really don’t—”
“Then consider it a welcome to Amber.” Grabbing her outstretched hand, I curled her fingers around the cash and pushed her fist toward her. “I want to do this.”
Needed to do this.
“Strangest welcome ever,” she whispered as she pulled her hand from mine and grabbed for her wallet.
She had no fucking clue. If she knew half the war that was waging in my mind at that exact moment, she would avoid me the way I needed to avoid her.
“Well, thank you for dinner, but please know this is a one-time-only thing,” she said with an arch of her brow as if to drive home her point.
She looked too damn adorable to do that.
I shrugged and responded honestly, “Don’t skip meals and we won’t revisit this.”
Another stunned laugh. Her hazel eyes danced across my face before she turned away with a shake of her head, already reaching for her glasses case.
Once her thick-framed glasses were on and she was on the barstool, she moved her hair over one shoulder and looked back at me, the question in her eyes clear. “You nearly gave me a heart attack this morning and then you practically Hulked-out on me because of my abnormal eating schedule. Now you’ve gotten your way and are paying for the food . . . I’m afraid to ask what else you could want.”
I want to know your name.
I want to know why you’re in my damn town.
I want to know why you started fucking with my head with one interaction, and why I can’t seem to walk away from you when I know I need to.
“Why are you in Amber?” I finally asked.
“Needed to get a feel for small-town life for work,” she replied immediately as if she’d been expecting my question.
I glanced at the laptop her fingers were resting on, and asked, “And how long will that have you here?”
“However long it takes.”
Her being here was already too long.
Her attention snapped to where Emberly was walking toward us with her water. She offered Em a smile and a soft thanks, but everything about it seemed weighed down. After a moment, she said, “Sawyer, I need you to do me a favor.”
I didn’t want to do a damn thing for her when I was already struggling to remember every reason why I couldn’t want her. Why I’d avoided girls like her. Why I’d been saying those things about her to Emberly and why I’d tried to make myself believe them . . .
When she realized I wasn’t going to respond, she gave me a fleeting glance and said, “Don’t fall in love with me.”
It was my turn to laugh—the sound filled with my confusion and surprise at her boldness.
Not only was she not the kind of girl I fell in and out of bed with, but I also didn’t believe in love. I laughed at people who did.
And this girl who I had just met and still didn’t have a name for, was telling me not to fall in love with her as though she was so sure I would and was worried about it.
I grabbed my phone off the bar and tried to bite back the next laugh. “Yeah, there isn’t a chance in hell of that happening, sweetheart.”
Without another look at her, I walked out of the bar and headed home. Images of a hazel-eyed, curved goddess dancing through my mind and torturing me well into sleep.
I let my bag holding my gear and uniform fall to the ground and ran up to where my girl was standing with our friends, head tilted back and a laugh pouring into the night air.
Without slowing, I scooped her into my arms and barked out a laugh of my own at the shocked cry that ripped from her.
“Sawyer Dixon!” she yelled, swatting at my chest even when her protests got lost in our kiss.
When I pulled away, she gave me a look that was half reprimand, half excitement. “Put me down, I’m gonna break you.”
“Only thing you could ever break is my heart.”
She scoffed and wiggled a little in my hands. “Put me down.”
“I think I like you right where you are.” The corner of my mouth pulled into a grin when her vivid green eyes narrowed. “Besides, I wanna know what you thought.”
I asked after every game.
I always had.
Leighton’s expression shifted . . . softened. “The game?” When I just stared at her, she said, “Sawyer, you already know you were incredible. The entire stadium was screaming your name throughout it.”
“They aren’t who I care about.”
She sighed, but an adoring smile threatened at the corner of her lips. “Every game, I wonder if I’ll stop being so amazed by you, if I’ll get used to that feeling when the crowd goes wild and screams your name,” she said softly, her words laced with pride. “Then the next game comes and the next, and you take my heart out on that field and prove to me all over again that I won’t.” Her fingers played along the back of my neck for a moment before she continued. “I’ve known for years that you had something special out there. I’ve known it was gonna lead to a career on the field. This game mattered . . . and you made it count. I’m so proud of you.”
Jesus Christ, this girl.
I pressed a slow kiss to her lips and whispered, “I fucking cherish you.”
She smiled against the kiss, her head shaking slowly. “That mouth.”
“You like my mouth.”
“I do.” She tilted her head to give me another swift kiss, then said, “Now, please put me down before you drop me.”
I feigned offense, even though she should’ve known I would never drop her, and set her on her feet.
Once she was settled, she sighed in relief, and that smile that always tugged at my chest crossed her face.
But just when she was about to say something, her attention caught on something behind me and everything about her deflated.
I reached for her just as someone called out, “Great game, Sawyer.”
I glanced over my shoulder in time to see a few of our cheerleaders passing by. I nodded in their direction and started looking back at my girl again when the one in the middle stepped toward me.
“You’re coming tonight, right?”
I glanced from the girls to Leighton and back again. My girl looked fucking wrecked, and the three beside me looked like they were enjoying every second of it. “Party’s at your place this week?”
Hailey smirked. “Like you didn’t know.”
An uneasy laugh climbed up my throat when her eyes narrowed on Leighton and slowly took her in. As if Hailey didn’t know her, as if we weren’t all from the same microscopic town, as if we hadn’t all gone to school together since we were five.
Curling an arm around Leighton, I pulled her close to my side and began leading her away. “Hadn’t, actually,” I said casually. “And I think we have other plans.”
I called out a goodbye to our group of friends and snatched my bag as we walked, tossing it into the bed of my truck once we got there. Leighton hadn’t said a word and was holding herself so damn stiff.
Leading her around to the passenger side, I opened the door but stopped with my back to it and turned to face her. “All right, I need you to tell me what the hell just happened.”
Her brows pulled tight, but the action was slow as if she were somewhere else entirely. “Nothing,” she said numbly.
“Bullshit.” I cradled my hands against her cheeks and forced her to look at me. “Babe, you were fine before they walked up, and now you aren’t. What happened . . . have they said something to you?”
“No.” She tried to move from my grasp, but I held tight. “They haven’t.”
“Then talk to me,” I nearly begged. “Because the girl I found in the parking lot is not the same one I’m looking at right now.”
She sighed and tried simultaneously pulling my hands away and backing up.
“It’s them,” she whispered, the words full of so much pain and shame and holding so much weight they had the same impact as if she’d screamed. “It’s them and the girls at school. It’s always someone, Sawyer.”
I floundered for a second as I tried to follow her train of thought. “What do you mean?”
“And it will always be someone,” she continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “When you go to college, it will be a hundred times worse. When you go pro?”
My heart wrenched when her eyes filled with tears that quickly spilled over.
“How am I supposed to compete with that when I can’t even compete with the girls here?” she asked, the words broken and thick with emotion.
“Are you fucking kid—compete—what?” I stared at her as shock and confusion pulsed through me. “You think you’re competing?” I released her and let myself fall back against the open door, scrubbing my hands over my face as I did. “There will always be other girls in the world, Leighton, but none of them are you.”
“But I don’t look like them,” she cried out.
Everything in me stilled when her words and the way she was slightly hunched and curling her arms around herself—hiding herself—finally registered.
Anger bled from me and coated my words when I said, “This better be a sick fucking joke.”
Her eyes met mine and pled with me to understand.
“Do not compare yourself to another girl.” The demand was nothing more than a rumble in my chest as I pushed from the door. Gripping her hands in mine, I forced them away from her body and up, pinning them to my truck so she was arched back and exposed. “Don’t ever believe I want someone who isn’t you. And don’t you ever trick yourself into thinking that everything about you isn’t every goddamn thing I want.”
Her body that molded perfectly against mine.
Her long, ruby-red hair that was so damn curly and uncontrollable and made her eyes that much brighter.
The freckles splashed across her cheeks that I counted when she didn’t realize I was watching her.
And that mouth that was made to be kissed by me.
Gathering both of her wrists together, I let my free hand move down her body, teasing and gripping her, filling my fingers with curves I knew like the back of my hand before pulling her closer so she could feel exactly how much I wanted her.
She let out a shuddering breath, a hint of alarm filling her shining eyes. “Sawyer, there are people.”
“I don’t give a fuck. I need to know you hear me.”
Her head fell to my chest. “That mouth . . .”
“I hear you,” she whispered.
I released my grip on her so I could tilt her head back. Searching her shattered stare, I begged, “Believe me.”
After a moment of hesitation, she nodded.
She might as well have just said no.
But there was no competition with Leighton. There never had been.
How could she not see that?
I was positive I’d just had the best sleep of my life.
The after-dinner coffee had only been able to keep me going so long. The moment my head hit the pillow, the exhaustion from the past couple of days had consumed me, pulling me into a deep sleep. Then again, this oddly perfect bed might’ve had something to do with it.
Not so comfy I felt like I was sinking, and not so firm I felt like I was dying. They’d literally found a Goldilocks bed and put it in my room.
I never wanted to leave it.
I was already contemplating how to take it with me when I left this Mayberry of a town. Because, you know, theft was so much easier than just asking the owners where they’d bought the mattress.
Then again . . . strapping a mattress down to my car every time I moved still didn’t seem like my idea of fun, Goldilocks or not.
I trailed my hand along the bed and whispered, “Guess I’ll enjoy you while I can.”
An intoxicating mixture of savory and sweet teased my nose, promising something delicious and just as comforting as the bed I was lying in. It was one of the only things that could have pulled me from my haven.
Then my phone chimed.
All thoughts of a home-cooked meal fled my mind as I let my eyes close on a mumbled curse.
I ran a hand over my face, rubbing at one of my eyes as I did.
Now that I wasn’t an unhealthy mixture of exhausted and wired from no sleep and too much caffeine, I knew I needed to go over everything. I needed to come to terms with what I had done, what I was doing, and what I had been smacked in the face with.
The longer I put it all off, the longer it would continue to torment me.
And that wasn’t me, I didn’t allow things to haunt me and control my life. I dealt with them, said goodbye to them, and that was the end of it.
Well, except one thing . . . but she had never controlled me.
All I wanted was for her to look me in the eyes as she gave me one answer. Once I had it, I would deal, say goodbye, and be done with it.
After waiting for that moment for so long, it was finally within my grasp. As overwhelming as that knowledge was, I couldn’t be sure if I wanted to draw it out or just get it over with.
The knife lodged in my back in the form of a name begged me to draw it out. The kick to the stomach that shock had been made me want to leave without going through it at all.
My phone chimed again and I let out a pained breath.
With each call and text that I’d let go unanswered the past two days, the ache in my chest had only continued to grow. Not for me, never for me, but for him.
I hated that he was going through this. I hated that he’d gotten so deep that I’d hurt him this badly, and I hated that I hadn’t put an end to us long before.
I reached toward the bedside table and grabbed my phone.
Once I had it in my grasp, I pushed myself up to sitting and brushed my wild hair out of my face as I opened the messages from this morning.
Jack: Rae, talk to me.
Jack: I scared you. I see that now. Come back and we’ll slow things down.
Jack: God, Rae, please. Don’t do this.
“I told you not to fall in love with me,” I whispered to the phone as I cleared his messages.
Just before I closed out the screen, his name stole across it as my phone began ringing.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumbled as I silenced the ring. Then I watched, waiting until the voicemail picked up.
Once it had, I went to his contact and scrolled down to block his number.
After, I went through my mental list, as if on autopilot: Checking to ensure my location services were disabled, even though I was sure I had turned it off on my phone and computer the day before; then going through all social media and blocking him on there as well.
It was callous.
I knew that . . .
But running was what I did. Tearing myself from people who grew too attached until they were forced to let me go and forget me was all I knew.
It was in my blood. It was the only way I knew how to respond to love.
It was probably why I wrote stories of women who stayed with the men who fell in love with them. Who had the capability of loving, too.
Because I couldn’t, and I didn’t.
Once I was done, I let my phone fall to the bed and loosed a weighted breath. “Goodbye, Jack.”
Just as quickly, I scooped my phone up again and hurried to open one of the social media apps. I hadn’t posted anything yesterday or the day before, and I knew my readers would probably start wondering what had happened to me if I didn’t soon.
I was sure their minds wouldn’t go the creepy-old-man-basement route, but, still . . .
I made myself readily available to them, just as I made the life I wanted them to see available to them.
They hadn’t known about Jack, just as they hadn’t known about any guy before him. There wasn’t a need, the men were never supposed to reach a serious level. So, there was no reason for them to think today was anything other than a normal day.
I loaded the picture I’d taken and edited the day before of the pretty latte I’d bought at Brewed, then hurried to type a caption and posted it everywhere.
A certain character is being super demanding this morning, but first . . . coffee.
I glanced over at where I’d left my laptop charging the night before and grimaced. There were characters talking, begging to get their words out . . . that was nothing new.
But my hero had somehow turned into a dark-haired, glacial-blue-eyed man with a drawl after my embarrassing encounter with Sawyer yesterday, and it irritated me to no end that I only saw him that way anymore.
I wanted my hero to go back to how he’d been.
I didn’t want Sawyer’s dimples and his infuriating moods clouding up my mind and changing my characters and fueling the dreams of the best sleep of my life.
A breath rushed from my lungs as the memory of his hands gripping my shoulders sent a flash of heat through me.
Stupid. Stupid memory, stupid boy with dimples, stupid all the things.
A frustrated groan slipped free as I finally climbed off the bed.
I definitely needed coffee first.
Savannah’s gaze darted my way when I entered the kitchen again, an amused grin tugging at her mouth as I dragged Wyatt from my leg while Quinn clung to my neck. When I stopped near one of the large islands, despite the protests of my niece and nephew, the grin faded and she cut me a look. One of those looks that said she could take me down even though she was over a foot shorter than me.
“As much as I love having you here, eating all my food, I’m sure you have better things to do.”
I shrugged. “Afraid I don’t.”
Her whiskey-colored eyes narrowed from where she’d been checking on the food—the food I had yet to touch. “You mean to tell me not one person in this town needs something fixed?”
“It’s still early, give them time to have something break.” I started walking backward when the kids’ pleas for another trek around the house only grew louder. “But the message from Beau was clear that I had a job to finish here first, and I’d rather keep the appendage he threatened.” I smirked when her eyes rolled, and turned to zombie-drag my niece and nephew all over the house again, only to stop cold.
I’d known. I’d known when Beau texted me first thing this morning that the chances of seeing her again were high. Too high considering the reason Beau was pissed was that the fan in her room still wasn’t working
But I’d come up with about a half dozen things to convince myself it would be okay.
Like she would already be out of the house. Or, if she wasn’t, I would see her again and realize whatever the hell happened yesterday had been nothing more than a product of her being new.
But as she stood in the large archway to the kitchen, bright eyes locked on me like I might be a hallucination, and looking better than I’d allowed myself to remember, I knew I was in trouble.
She was wearing thin, stretchy pants that perfectly displayed every one of her soft curves. The shoulder that was bared from her shirt had my fingers itching to touch her there—to reveal even more of her skin. Her hair was a disaster in a way that made me want to take her to bed so I could mess it up some more . . . and I needed to look away.
I needed to put an end to every thought burning images in my mind.
I needed to remember what I’d been telling myself all yesterday and this morning.
She was nothing. I wasn’t attracted to her. She wasn’t my type.
She couldn’t be.
“Zombie, Uncle Saw,” Wyatt cried out from where he was waiting on the floor, effectively grounding me in the present.
At that same moment, Savannah saw the girl. “Oh, you’re up,” she said excitedly. “I was about to put breakfast away, so you’re just in time.”
The girl lifted a hand as she stepped deeper into the kitchen. “Oh no, don’t . . . you don’t have to do that for me. Continue with what you were doing, I’m fine. I was really just on the hunt for coffee.”
“And food,” I said, my voice soft but no less firm. When she looked at me questioningly, I nodded toward the food. “Eat.”
The girl blew out a huff, her head shaking as she did. “Goodness, you and food. I do know how to feed myself, you know.”
“Could’ve fooled me.”
Despite the frustration leaking through my tone, her mouth slowly lifted in a grin. “I’ve worked hard for these thighs, sweetheart,” she began, sneering the last word. “Trust me, I eat just fine.”
It took every ounce of willpower not to look down at those thighs. “Just eat.”
“Sawyer,” Savannah hissed, her tone at once disapproving and pleading.
When I was finally able to tear my attention from the girl, Savannah was shaking her head and mouthing for me to stop, but her eyes were filled with a long-past pain that I felt in my soul.
“You don’t have to eat,” Savannah said to the girl, but her stare remained on me, silently daring me to go against her. I forced myself to leave before I could say anything else, niece and nephew still hanging on or from me, Savannah’s voice following me as I did. “But as I told you when you checked in, I make breakfast for the guests every morning. I just wasn’t sure if you’d be down, and it’s getting about that time where I usually start putting it away. However, I have homemade biscuits and sausage gravy. I also have some fresh fruit. And, of course, we have plenty of coffee.”
After making a couple zombie laps with the kids, I disentangled myself from them and headed back toward the kitchen. But when I got there, Savannah was gone and the girl was sitting at the large kitchen table, staring out the bay windows with a cup of coffee in hand . . .
And a plate in front of her.
Just as I rocked back to go search for Savannah, the girl said, “It’s a little intense.” After a second, she shifted her head to look at me. “The way you’ve demanded a stranger eat food.”
My jaw clenched as so many things that needed to remain buried tried rising to the surface.
“Are you like this with everyone?”
There wasn’t a way to answer without making this worse or revealing a past that wasn’t her business. “Food is important,” I finally said.
From the way her eyebrows rose and surprise stole across her face, she heard the depth in my words . . . the way I was struggling to take a goddamn breath. “I’m aware it is,” she said softly. A moment passed before the corner of her mouth twitched in a wry grin. “As I said, I’ve worked hard for these thighs.”
I couldn’t stop myself that time.
From taking her in.
From letting my stare move over her like a man starved . . .
“But you don’t know me from Eve,” she continued, and my gaze snapped to hers. “You don’t exactly have a say over my life—including when or if I eat.”
My hands curled into fists and then relaxed, over and over again as I choked back every thought that rushed to my tongue. Crossing my arms over my chest when her attention caught on my hands, I tried to keep my tone even and disinterested when I said, “You’re right . . . I don’t.”
A crease formed between her brows, suspicion bleeding from her as she studied me. She shifted in her seat to face me, uncrossing her legs as she did like she was preparing to stand. “So, if I were to walk away from this table right now . . .”
I glanced at her uneaten food and ground my jaw to keep from begging her not to.
“So intense,” she murmured, crossing her legs again.
She was testing me . . . gently pushing me. But she had no damn clue what kind of pain she was inflicting . . . what kind of old wounds she was slicing open.
“Why would you choose not to eat?” The question was out before I could stop it, but the plea and the pain were thankfully absent.
A soft laugh climbed up her throat. “Are you this invasive with everyone you meet?”
“It’s just a question.”
“Asking for my name is a normal question,” she countered, but the laughter in her eyes offset the chastise.
“I wanna know that, too,” I said honestly, even though my mind was still demanding that I needed to walk away before I forgot why I should.
She watched me for a while before saying, “I told you yesterday, sometimes food isn’t important when your focus is wholly caught up in other things. I had a lot I needed to sort through, and I’ve done that now.” She took a sip of her coffee, then tilted her head at me. “So, you can stop pushing food on me every time you see me.”
“Eat, and I won’t have to.”
“So intense,” she murmured with her mug to her lips again, but she stilled before she could take another drink. Her movements were slow as she set the mug on the table and looked at me, all hints of teasing gone. “Is that why you’re here?”
One of my eyebrows lifted in question, and my mouth parted to remind her that she was in my town, shaking up my life, opening wounds and resurfacing painful memories when I’d successfully kept them at bay for years.
“This morning . . . here,” she said slowly. “Were you waiting for me to wake up so you could try to force me to eat?”
A startled laugh pushed from my chest. “You might be new, and we might’ve gotten off to a weird start, but I promise you aren’t so interesting that I’d be waiting around for you like a damn dog.”
Instead of any of the responses I might’ve expected from her, she pressed those full lips into a firm line, as if she were biting back a laugh.
I gestured toward the hall that led to the stairs. “Your fan, the one you didn’t want me looking at?” When her brow furrowed with confusion, I said, “My brother’s pissed that I didn’t fix it. I’m not supposed to leave here until it’s done.”
“Then fix it so you can leave and I can stop worrying that you’ll yell at me for something else—like my sleeping patterns.” She scooped up her mug as she turned to the table and huffed. “You said weird start like you didn’t break into my room and attack me and then become the most invasive person all within twenty-four hours.”
My eyes narrowed at the dry sarcasm coating her words and I rocked back a step. “I’m gonna go fix your fan.”
“Have fun,” she said against the rim of her mug, a smile shaping her lips. “Don’t be that weird person who goes through my stuff.”
Part of me knew I deserved every bit of her teasing. Knew it was a miracle she was laughing everything off rather than running away after what I’d done and said the few times we’d seen each other.
Even though running would’ve been a godsend since I didn’t have enough common sense to do what I needed when it came to her.
Look away . . .
Walk away . . .
Stop thinking about the way she looked and the way she would feel against me.
And then the sexiest damn giggle came from behind me as I walked from the kitchen. Soft, low, raspy, as if she couldn’t help herself.
It took every ounce of willpower to continue walking away when all I wanted was to look back at her, to see the expression that went with that sound.
But while I worked in her room, surrounded by her sweet scent, I kept hearing that sound on repeat.
Seeing those lips and those eyes. Thinking about what they would look like when she was moaning my name, when she was shattering beneath me . . .
I stopped screwing the fan back to the base and let my head drop as I tried to force the images from my mind, as I tried to remember who I was and who I needed to be.
What I refused to ever go near again.
I was nearly finished securing the fan, the constant chant in my mind finally having drowned out everything else, when she stepped into the doorway.
She isn’t my type. She isn’t attractive. I want nothing to do with her. She isn’t my type. She isn’t—fuck.
“Almost done,” I ground out, my tone coming out harsher than I intended.
Once again, it seemed to amuse her. Her head listed, gesturing down the hall. “I ate every bite. Even contemplated eating the plate.”
My jaw flexed at the simple joke that unintentionally packed the punch of a sledgehammer, but I still shot back, “I went through your shit.”
A hum sounded in her throat. “All of it?”
I echoed the noise she’d just made, but didn’t respond otherwise.
“So, you found my toys?”
My hands stilled and my stare slowly shifted to her. I didn’t have to ask what kind, the tone and raised eyebrow said it all.
But then her mouth twisted into a smirk before her chest shook with her silent laughter.
“Not that you would have found anything had you actually gone through my stuff, but I wouldn’t have thought anything to do with pleasure would shock someone like you.”
I hadn’t been shocked.
I’d been trying to block out the image of her touching herself before it could fully form.
And, Jesus Christ, she was fucking bold.
“Someone like me,” I began. “And here I thought we didn’t know each other.”
“Oh, we don’t,” she agreed, though her expression said the opposite. “But I know your type.” She let her eyes roam over me as I stepped off the short ladder, her gaze assessing and still holding a hint of amusement. “You’re a player, Sawyer Dixon. You hop from one bed to another and think you’re God’s gift to women. Everything about you screams it.”
I resisted the urge to look down at myself and held her challenging stare as my chest started rising and falling faster.
Because she wasn’t wrong.
I did fall in and out of beds. I gave women the best sex of their lives before walking away from them because I didn’t want a connection. I didn’t want a relationship. I didn’t want to be consumed by a woman once we left each other’s beds.
But there was a reason for that.
A punishment and a reminder.
“Or,” she continued, drawing out the word as she rested against the doorjamb, “maybe it’s that the people in your town gossip a lot. Especially after someone, say, walks out of a bar . . .”
“That all you heard?” I asked when I was sure I could speak calmly. When she looked at me questioningly, I clarified, “When I left last night, did you hear anything else about me?”
“Is there something else you expected me to hear?”
Considering everyone in this town had known me for most of my life, there was so much she could’ve heard, but from the confusion that had briefly crossed her face, I knew she hadn’t.
I gave a subtle shake and said, “No.” Before she could say anything else, I nodded toward the switch by her. “Fan should be working.”
She glanced to the wall and flipped the switch that was still down. When nothing happened, a flash of disappointment tore through her eyes. “Does this mean you aren’t leaving?”
I reached up and tugged on the chain hanging from the fan, letting the slow rotation of the blades answer for me.
I grabbed the tools and ladder and started for the door, not saying a word as I set them in the hall only to turn and catch the door she was shutting.
Her eyes widened in surprise and question, and her lips parted to speak, but I spoke first.
“And what exactly did you plan on doing with what you found out about me?”
The question in her eyes deepened. “Excuse me?”
“Player? Yeah . . . I’ll own that. Bed-hopping? That too.” I stepped closer until her head was tilted back to hold my stare. “You know who I am. You clearly wanted me to know. So, now, what is it you want? To see if I really am God’s gift to women?”
A near-silent laugh fell from her lips. “Well, you’re something all right, but, no. If anything, it makes me want your arrogant, demanding self even farther from me than before.”
She made that same hum from earlier, and now that I was so close, I was dying to place my fingers against her throat to feel it vibrate with the sound.
I curled them against the doorjamb and door so I wouldn’t move.
“You see, Sawyer, when men fall into my bed, they tend to stay.”
I didn’t have to wonder why. If I had a night with her, I already knew I would find a reason to make it last until the morning, only to find a reason to make it continue on and on and on.
Swallowing back the thoughts and urge to once again take in what was so readily in front of me, I forced a smirk and said, “Then I guess it’s a good thing you aren’t my type.”
That damn amusement was back, dancing in her eyes and tugging at her mouth that was sure to be the death of me, as if she already knew every thought and want I was battling.
As if she knew exactly what she was doing to me.
But just when I thought I had her figured out, she turned everything on me again. “On second thought, this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
I was so caught off guard by this girl that she was able to nearly shut the door before I stopped it again.
She gave me a wide-eyed stare and began peeling my fingers away from the door as she spoke. “I’ve been assured you aren’t a psycho from your friend and sister-in-law, but if you insist on keeping me from a shower and my job, I’ll revoke our friendship before it can begin.”
“You never gave me your name,” I said, removing my hands from the door and the frame for her—anything so long as she would stop touching me.
The false regret that dashed across her face contradicted her playful words. “You never actually asked.”
And then the door was shutting in my face, and that soft, husky giggle was sounding from the other side, fading as she walked away.
I stood there, staring blankly at the door, trying to figure out what the hell had happened. Not with her shutting the door on me, but our entire conversation since she’d entered the room—shit, since she’d walked into the kitchen that morning.
I’d been aggressive and invasive.
I’d lost my mind and just about begged her to let me take her to bed.
I’d insulted her.
And, yet, every response and reaction had surprised me.
The girl was unexpected in every way, and damn if that didn’t make her more appealing.
When I finally walked away, I was smiling.
I stepped inside Brewed, automatically breathing in a deep lungful of the rich aroma that I could always count on to comfort and soothe me. After ordering a drink, I found a table near the corner of the shop, smiling at the few people cluttering the other tables as I made my way over there.
As they had my first day in Amber, they were all staring.
Guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I’d still left Blossom with the vain hope that today would be different. Then again, I hadn’t exactly given them a chance to get used to me—the stranger in their small, perfect town.
Other than making a trip to the store after getting directions from Savannah, I hadn’t left Blossom in the three days since Sawyer had fixed my fan.
I’d worked. I’d tried to mentally prepare myself for what I was about to do. I’d worked some more to procrastinate in a way only I knew how to. And I’d cursed Sawyer Dixon about a dozen times a day.
My readers expected certain books filled with a certain type of hero from me. Rock star romances filled with sexy, brooding alphas. And, yet, my hero didn’t just resemble Sawyer anymore, he was him, and my entire manuscript had turned into a Mayberry nightmare.
It didn’t matter that I was here under the guise of getting a feel for small-town life for my next series, I’d had no intention of actually writing anything that had to do with this trip.
I blamed the infuriating man who had starred in my dreams every night since I’d met him. With those damn dimples and messy, dark hair and fuck-me smirk.
I stilled in my seat when Emberly set my coffee down and dropped into the large, upholstered chair opposite me.
This. This right here was one of those things I’d been preparing for and putting off in the days I’d been holed up in that beautiful house.
But in hiding away, I’d come to the realization that not only could I not hide from Emberly when I had a purpose here, but she also had no fault in this. She didn’t deserve the bitter resentment that had been quick to fill my chest those first couple of days.
After all, she probably didn’t even know.
I took a steadying breath, reminding myself of that and forcing away lingering remnants of anger, and returned her smile. “Hey yourself.”
“Heard you haven’t left Blossom . . .” Her lips twisted into a wry smirk. “Did we scare you off that fast?”
Surprise pulsed through me. “You heard?”
“Small town,” she said as if to remind me, then angled her head. “Plus, I have Sawyer, and he sort of knows the owners.” From her amused expression, she already knew I was well aware that Sawyer was related to the owners of Blossom.
But that wasn’t what I was stuck on.
I kept hearing the three words she’d said flippantly, and trying to connect the little I had seen and heard, and failing. “So, you and Sawyer . . .”
Emberly’s expression looked as if she’d eaten something sour. “Oh God, no.” A shiver ran through her body before she continued. “He’s like the brother I never wanted, but wouldn’t give up for the world.”
I wanted to tell her there were countless, written stories about relationships that had started out as friendships like hers and Sawyer’s, but from the genuine disgust that had crossed her face when she’d realized what I was assuming, I decided against it.
“Got it, sorry.” I reached for the hot mug and curled my hands around it, savoring the warmth that had always been a solace. “To answer your question . . . no. Your town didn’t scare me off, I’ve just been busy. There’s a lot I’d neglected and needed to take care of.”
She narrowed her gaze, studying me for a moment before saying, “Right, we scared you. Was it Sawyer? I heard about the morning after you arrived, and I know he came across as a little much.”
A laugh that was a mixture of frustration and defeat left her. “A lot,” she conceded and then hesitated for a moment. “But it’s from a good place. He isn’t . . . he isn’t usually so abrasive and in-your-face. He’s very much the good-time friend. He’s the best.”
I didn’t need a mirror to know my doubt was written all over my face.
“He just . . .” She wavered, seeming to war with herself over dropping it or trying to argue Sawyer’s case. “Well, there are some things we’re never meant to get over. For Sawyer, what he was saying to you, that’s it.”
“Eating,” I said softly, trying to clarify. Because Sawyer had said many things the other morning.
But Emberly didn’t respond, she just worried her bottom lip and looked away, as if she’d said more than she was supposed to.
If I hadn’t been so wrapped up in wondering what could’ve happened in Sawyer’s life to make him demand that a stranger eat, I might have been more fascinated by that nervous tick of hers.
Because I had the same one.
But Savannah had said and done something similar the other morning as I’d made my plate, and it made my unwelcome curiosity in Sawyer Dixon grow.
“Don’t mind Sawyer,” Savannah had said uneasily. “If you don’t wanna eat you don’t have to . . . really. He just—he went through—he has good intentions, I promise.” Her mouth had formed a thin line, her jaw flexing when she’d looked away from me as if she’d been forcing herself not to say anything more and already regretted what little she had said.
A strangled laugh left Emberly as she returned her focus to me. “Here I am talking about the town scaring you off, and I went and got all deep with you as soon as you resurfaced. Good job, Em,” she murmured and then shifted in the chair, readying to stand. “Let me know if I can get you anything.”
“Are you always here?” I asked before she could get to her feet. “Wait, that sounded rude. I just meant that you’ve been here every time I’ve come, and I’ve shown up at very different times.”
She shrugged and a smile pulled at her plum-painted mouth as she glanced around the café. “This is my baby.” When she noticed my confusion, she hurried to say, “Sorry, I’m not used to people not knowing everything. I own Brewed with my mom.”
That flare of bitterness was unstoppable, but I tried so damn hard to suppress it. Even still, my voice was just a breath when I said, “Do you?”
She tilted her head back a bit, gesturing to the barn doors leading to the bar area. “I grew up in that bar. My mom managed it and then bought it from the owners when they didn’t want it anymore. When I was in high school, this space opened, and I told my mom we should buy it and turn it into a coffee shop since the only place to get coffee within a half-hour was the diner.” She shuddered and leaned closer. “And, trust me, no one ever drinks the coffee at the diner.”
My nose scrunched. “Noted.”
“Their food is insanely good though,” she said quickly, offering their redemption before continuing. “Anyway, my mom wasn’t into the idea of running two businesses, so I came up with the idea of the combined shop. A month later, renovations began, and we spent every weekend for months out of town, learning everything about coffee and the coffee industry.” Pride lit her face as her gaze darted to the long counter that separated the coffee bar area. “I love the place as a whole, but this side will always be my baby.”
“Well, it’s great,” I said, my voice thick as I gestured to the shop that had a soothing, industrial vibe. “You two have made an incredible place.”
“I think so, too,” she said affectionately. “She focuses on the owner-type things now, whereas I like to actually work behind the bars, but she’s here as much as I am so you would’ve seen her by now if she hadn’t left.”
A jumble of emotions surged through me, but I kept my outward appearance neutral. “Left?”
“Yeah, she goes on this European trip every year with her closest friends—somewhere new each time.”
Those emotions were choking me. Suffocating me. Drowning me.
“That sounds amazing,” I managed to say.
She smiled as her gaze trailed to my laptop. “So, what is it you do?”
I move from place to place, never truly settling down.
I run from relationships.
I struggle to protect myself in a way you’ll never understand.
But I knew that wasn’t what she was asking.
I cleared my throat and started to speak, but someone else beat me to it.
I glanced up to find Sawyer walking toward us, and started when I realized those accusing two words had been directed at me. “Um . . .”
Without missing a beat or even looking behind her, Emberly reached back, grabbed Sawyer’s shirt, and pulled him down into the chair with her. “Let’s put a stop to that conversation before it begins, yeah?”
Sawyer leaned forward, resting his toned, tanned forearms on the table and lowered his voice. “Three days.”
Emberly smacked the back of his head. “I said stop.”
A bubble of tension formed around our table as Sawyer shifted his eyes toward her before letting them dart back to me, his jaw flexing as he studied me.
What in the actual fuck.
I glanced between the two before settling on the man and whispered, “So intense.”
Emberly twisted in the chair so she could hiss at him, “And you wonder why. Jesus, Sawyer.” She tried shoving him from the chair, but he stayed firm.
“Is there something you want to say?” I finally asked when it looked like he was barely able to contain it any longer.
“Three days,” he repeated.
“Jesus Christ,” Emberly murmured, standing to leave. “I can’t with you.”
Once she walked away, I focused on taking the rest of my things out of my purse as I said, “These run-ins with you are really starting to border on—”
The word creepy died on my tongue as confusion swam through me. I set my notebook on the table and finally met his stare again, surprised to see that there was pain behind his frustration.
“All Savannah cooks for her guests is breakfast, and you were in that house for three days.”
This is about food.
Despite being annoyed and slightly disturbed by these talks, I was more curious than ever about what could’ve happened to make him act this way.
I leaned over the table, matching him. “Why is it you knew I hadn’t left that house?”
“Other than Savannah laying into me for what I’d said to you, and then Beau doing the same every day you didn’t leave, claiming I was ruining guests’ experiences, this entire town has been waiting to see the new girl again and wondering why she’s here. I would know if you had.”
“Right. Then I don’t understand why we’re having a conversation about food and my leaving Blossom—or lack thereof—since you should know I went to the store for food about a half-hour after you left the other morning,” I said expectantly. “With the way your town talks, there’s no way they didn’t talk about me running to the store in my comfiest clothes with wet hair and no makeup.”
For the first time since I’d looked up to see him walking toward me, his frustration faded and he seemed unsure of himself.
“Listen, I don’t know what it is that has you so obsessed with people’s eating habits, but you do not know me, you can’t get angry and demanding every time you see me. It’s—” A sharp breath forced from my lungs as I struggled for a more polite way to phrase my words, but there was none. “It’s weird. It’s beginning to get creepy, but I have a feeling I won’t be able to avoid you while I’m in this town because you keep popping up. And it’s really fucking dumb that I feel like I have to justify my non-eating to you, especially when it isn’t an issue and I can remember numerous times when I’ve been told by random people that I should probably skip a meal or two.”
At that last part, his eyelids slowly closed and his head tilted as if he wished he hadn’t heard my words.
I sat back and narrowed my eyes in equal parts frustration and confusion. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out Sawyer Dixon. If it weren’t for the people closest to him and the way they all clearly adored him, I would’ve run screaming for help when he’d entered Brewed.
Hell, if it weren’t for the gossip that followed him, I probably would’ve run.
Because the guy people spoke about, one of the most sought-after men in Amber and the one they all whispered couldn’t be tied down, didn’t match the person who angrily obsessed over when a stranger ate.
His stunted laugh broke the silence that had fallen between us. “First time in my life I’ve been called creepy.”
I lifted my brows as I took a sip of the mocha that had long since cooled. “You’re welcome.”
Another laugh left him, this one fuller . . . but that pain I’d seen a glimpse of earlier was now so evident that it made my chest ache for this weird, frustratingly-gorgeous person I didn’t know.
“There are some things we’re never meant to get over. For Sawyer, what he was saying to you, that’s it.” Emberly’s words replayed in my head as my mind went wild with what could have happened.
I’d been too stunned to know what to think that first night.
I’d teased him over it at Blossom to ease the awkwardness.
But I’d known when Emberly spoke, expanding on the little piece Savannah had given me, that it was something big, so much bigger than I’d ever considered. With his pain so exposed, I wondered if I even had a clue.
“The idea of someone not eating really is painful for you,” I said softly, and watched as his agony vanished into nothing. “What happened?”
“Little intrusive for strangers, don’t you think?” Before I had the chance to fully absorb what he was saying, he was pushing from the chair and stalking out of the café.
I watched him go, staring blankly, unable to grasp what had just happened between us—again.
What was worse, I struggled to understand why I so badly wanted to run after him and beg him to talk to me.
Even if he hadn’t been one of the oddest and most exasperating men I’d ever met, I didn’t chase men. I didn’t beg them to talk to me. I didn’t beg for anything from them at all. I’d never even had the urge to before then.
But with each encounter that was stranger than the one before it, I had a sinking feeling that if I ever came face-to-face with the real Sawyer Dixon, he’d have me begging for all kinds of things.
To go easy on my heart . . .
The smile that stole across my face when I caught a mess of wild, red hair weaving through the diner couldn’t be contained.
It’d been a long two weeks without my girl.
I blocked out whatever Emberly was excitedly explaining to the group, and pulled Leighton into the booth, wrapping her in my arms and kissing her the way I’d been thinking of every day since she’d left.
“Fucking missed you,” I whispered against her lips before placing another soft kiss there.
I felt her smile in return before she said, “That mouth.”
“You didn’t miss me?” I teased.
“You know I did.” She curled deeper into my embrace and released a sigh filled with exhaustion. “I made it through two weeks of them pretending we like each other or even know each other. Not that they didn’t still work most of the time.”
I tipped her head up so I could search her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
She lifted a shoulder. “Oh well. Finished talking to them until next Christmas.”
She did this every year . . . played it off as if it didn’t bother her that her parents were absent fifty weeks out of the year, even during the few hours a day they made it home from their jobs.
I knew better.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated.
“You made it better,” she said soft enough that her voice wouldn’t carry. “You always do.”
“Get a room,” one of our friends called out just before a fry hit my face.
I barely glanced in that direction as I launched the fry back to the other side of the booth, then grabbed a couple from my basket.
After snagging one for myself, I held the other up for Leighton.
Confusion filled me when she leaned away from the fry and shook her head. Tossing it back in the basket, I asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I just don’t want any.”
Fries were Leighton’s weakness.
They were what she wanted to celebrate anything.
They were what she wanted when she was craving anything that wasn’t me.
I was also pretty damn sure I’d never once in our lives seen her turn them down.
“Did you already eat?” I asked, the question slow and hesitant.
Her lips curved into a quick, forced grin as she gave me a nearly imperceptible nod. Before I could say anything else, she asked, “Hey, can we get out of here?”
My stare darted to my uneaten food and our friends, the ones we’d planned on going out with after this. “I thought we—”
“I really missed you,” she said in a tone that instantly had me on board.
And then I was practically pushing her out of the booth, tossing a ten on the table, and calling out a dismissive bye to our friends as I towed Leighton to my truck.
“Your parents?” I asked against her neck as I opened her door.
Her groan of frustration rumbled against my lips. “Home.”
I didn’t say anything else, just helped her into the passenger seat and hurried to get in the driver’s.
I kept her tucked close to my side as I drove us to the secluded spot we’d been coming to since our first kiss years before.
Once we’d made it there, everything had escalated so damn fast. We hadn’t even moved to the bed of my truck.
Again . . . it had been a long two weeks without her.
I’d pulled her back to me as she’d grabbed a condom out of the glove compartment, and then my mouth had been on hers as I’d reached for the button on her jeans.
I’d barely gotten them down her thighs before she’d had my length in her hand and had been rolling the condom on me.
My head had dropped back to the seat and a growl had climbed up my throat. “Fuck.”
“That mouth,” she’d chastised as she straddled me, her jeans still up to her calves and restricting our movements.
But then she was on me and nothing else mattered except her and that moment.
It wasn’t until I was dropping her off late that night that I realized everything had been wrong.
She hadn’t laughed as we’d left the diner in that excited and sexy way she usually did when we were dashing off to be together. She hadn’t let me undress her until nothing separated us, the way we normally did. And those soft curves of hers that I loved and had memorized over the years had felt so damn different in my hands.
I bit out a curse when my brother’s name displayed across my truck’s dashboard as I pulled up to the same spot I’d been coming to since Leighton and I had first started trying to hide from the town’s watchful stare.
I should’ve known this was coming.
He’d called me every Thursday for the past nine years since he abandoned our family and found a new life working on an offshore Texas oil rig.
But the last thing I needed after having stormed out of Brewed and away from that girl was to talk to someone—especially one of my brothers.
“Cayson,” I said in way of answering.
“Whoa.” He drew out the word, almost making it sound like a question. “Bad time?”
“No, I just—no.” I blew out a harsh breath and tapped my palm on the steering wheel once my truck was parked. “What’s going on? What’s new down there?”
“Uh . . . apparently nothing nearly as interesting as up there,” he said, tone all mocking because he knew nothing ever happened here. “Tell me.”
“Nothing, just this girl driving me insane.”
At that, a loud laugh poured through the speakers of my truck. “No shit?”
“Not really something I’ve been finding amusing.”
“I am,” he countered. “From your tone, I know exactly what kind of insane you mean, so tell me what happened.”
I thought through the encounters with the new girl, my head shaking as I did. “Nothing.”
“Seriously, nothing. I still don’t even know her name.”
A few seconds passed before he let out a low whistle. “Damn, man. That bad, huh?”
I wanted to continue denying it, but I didn’t know how anymore. That girl had gotten under my skin with a look, and as much as I wanted her out of my life, I wanted her.
I wanted her name.
I wanted that goddamn giggle.
I wanted the way everything seemed to amuse her and the secretive smiles that tugged at those lips that had been haunting me.
“Cays . . . I don’t know how—I hate that she’s here. I hate that it took one look for me to want her in a way I can’t remember wanting—” I choked on the name and hung my head, reeling under my warring needs.
“Leighton,” he finished for me. “She remind you of her? Is that why you want her?”
“No . . . no, she doesn’t.” I swallowed back the overwhelming memories and rubbed at my neck as I sat back. “But there are things she says that bring up memories of Leighton, and it all kind of comes rushing back until I take it out on her.” A pathetic laugh crept up my throat when Cayson remained meaningfully silent.
He didn’t need to say anything for me to know that I’d been an asshole.
I’d known every time I opened my mouth around her.
“I don’t think the time of year has helped that,” I admitted. “With this weekend and then what follows after.”
Cayson made a confirming grunt, and I knew I wouldn’t get much more than that.
He never acknowledged this time of year.
“As long as you let Leighton remain the focus of your thoughts, she’s gonna control your life, Sawyer,” he finally said and hurried to continue before I could attempt to deny it. “As for this girl? Fuck, I don’t know what you’ve said, but I’d avoid the hell out of you if you took Leighton-related shit out on me. So, if she even lets you near her again, then talk to her. And maybe, I don’t know, try to get her name.”
A self-deprecating laugh left me. “Yeah . . . yeah, maybe.” I settled deeper in the seat and changed direction in the conversation. “Tell me what’s new on the rig and with that girl of yours.”
After wrapping up my weekly call with Cayson, I’d stayed out at the spot for nearly half an hour, but hadn’t been able to leave my truck.
I’d been going over my encounters with the girl and what Cayson had said on repeat until I’d torn away from the spot, heading toward downtown with anxious energy coursing through me.
All I had wanted was to get away from her earlier, but at that moment, I couldn’t get to her quick enough.
After checking Brewed, I headed to Blossom and hurried inside when I found her SUV parked in the driveway.
“What are you doing?” Beau demanded from where he was coming out of one of the halls, but I just side-stepped him when he tried to grab me and ran up to her room, quickly knocking once I reached the door.
“The fuck is wrong with you?” Beau hissed, gripping my arm and pulling me away. “You’ve said enough. Leave.”
I shoved at him with my free hand and growled, “Give me a damn minute and then I’ll go,” just as the door opened.
I registered her surprise and worry as her stare darted between us, but didn’t let myself take her in the way I wanted to. I couldn’t.
“You asked if I do this with everyone . . . I don’t,” I said firmly, then slanted a glare at Beau until he released me and stepped away. “I don’t know if no one else has given me a reason to, or if it’s because you triggered bad memories with what you said that first night, and now I can’t stop connecting those with you.” I gripped the frame tight and admitted, “And, yeah, it fucking hurts.”
Her shoulders dropped and the corners of her eyes creased with concern.
“I’ll stop.” My hand flexed and my jaw clenched. “I’ll try. Just—damn it . . .”
“Sawyer, listen,” she began softly, placatingly. “When I first met you, that was not normal for me, okay? That isn’t something I usually do. Do I miss meals sometimes? Yes, if I’m incredibly absorbed in work. But I eat. These past three days, I have been eating . . . here.” She gestured to the room behind her. “Whatever happened to you, I’m sorry—clearly, it was horrible. But you can’t do this to me, and you can’t do this to you.”
I nodded, the movements quick and sharp.
“I mean, what if I had come into this town and angrily demanded you drink coffee every time I saw you?” At the harsh laugh that left me, she gave me a knowing look. “You would think I was insane.”
The corner of my mouth twitched up. “So, I went from creepy to insane?”
She made a face like she was considering it for a moment before shooting me a playful smirk. “Lucky for you, you have a saving grace in the form of people who obviously adore you and know a side of you I wasn’t seeing.”
That I did.
Not that it mattered. This girl would be gone any day, and she still needed to mean nothing to me.
“I’m done talking about this with you. And, honestly, I think you want to be done talking about this.” I knew from the look in her eyes that she was trying to understand something I didn’t want her to, but her voice remained firm when she said, “So, let it be enough for whatever is hurting and haunting you that I like to eat. I like food. I do eat, and I know how to keep myself fed.”
“Right . . .” I nodded and pushed away from the doorframe. “Well, I hope you find something here during the rest of your stay that can redeem the first part.”
She worried the corner of her bottom lip, torturing it in a way that had me straining to stay in place so I wouldn’t grab her so I could taste her.
Torture that fucking lip for her.
“I’m actually sticking around for longer than I expected—a week or two . . . maybe more, I’m not entirely sure.”
The anticipation and need that immediately filled me with those words only fueled my dread. Before I could stop myself, I stepped back into the doorway. “Then I want to know your name.”
“And I don’t want you to fall in love with me,” she said without hesitation.
Her confidence and worry, the same as it had been that first night, threw me off as much as that damn word did. “Told you . . . there isn’t a chance in hell of that happening.”
“Guess my name doesn’t matter then,” she said easily and began shutting the door, even with me still in the way.
I staggered back so I wouldn’t get hit by the door, but caught it with my hand before it could close. “What’s your name?”
She released a slow exhale. “You couldn’t just look at the checkin book or ask your sister-in-law?”
“Yeah, I’m not actually a creep.”
She studied me for a few seconds before putting a hand on the door, preparing to close it again. Just before she did, she lifted a shoulder and said, “Rae.”
“Then I want to know your name.”
Those demanding, pleading words refused to leave my mind even still, the next day. Playing over and over again like a torturous record until they were tripping up my fingers, confusing what my characters were telling me with the man I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about.
I sucked in an embarrassingly stuttered breath when the man in question dropped into the chair opposite me and mumbled, “Rae.”
I lowered my laptop and met his studying gaze. “Sawyer.”
“You know, you said you were here to get a feel for small-town life, but you haven’t really gone anywhere outside Blossom and here.”
“Is there a question there, or are you about to get demanding again?”
His eyes narrowed at the tease in my tone. “Just wondering how you’re really gonna get a feel for it if you don’t go anywhere.”
I pulled my bottom lip into my mouth as I thought, letting my stare dart around to the few people watching us. The rest were minding their own business. “Guess I haven’t been ready to get out yet. Besides, it’s easier to work here. I like to people-watch and it gives me a reason to put on something other than yoga pants. Also, I’m in a highly committed relationship with coffee, one I don’t think your sister-in-law could’ve ever been prepared for, and there happens to be a lot of it here.”
The corner of his mouth lifted in response to my smile. “What is it you do?” he asked, glancing at my laptop.
“I’m a writer,” I answered, watching his reaction carefully. Not that his mattered, people’s reactions just amused me.
I already knew what his next question would be, but the following responses always varied, and they said everything about the person.
His brows lifted in surprise and intrigue. “Yeah? What kind of writing exactly?”
The slow curl of his mouth was amused and so damn sexy. “That right? We talking Fabio or Fifty or somewhere in between?”
A startled laugh crawled up my throat. “Sort of between. I write Contemporary Romance, but I’m definitely curious how you even threw those out there.”
He gestured to the side with his head, toward the storefront windows. “Savannah’s really into reading. She’d probably die if she knew about you.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” I said with only a hint of sarcasm. “Admit it, you’re a closet Romance reader.”
His eyes locked onto mine. “Might be soon.”
I sat there, trapped in his gaze, wondering what we were talking about and if it would really be so bad to let myself explore the way he made my heart race and my stomach swirl with heat before I was able to snap out of it.
Sawyer looked away before I could and pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Do you have any books out?”
“A few.” The words were barely a breath as I tried to catch mine. I cleared my throat and mumbled, “Rae Jacobs . . . that’s my name.”
His bright eyes flashed my way again before focusing on his phone as he tapped on it. After a few seconds, he let out a little huff. “A few.”
I watched him scroll through his phone, suddenly feeling uncomfortable for the first time in my career.
My twentieth book had just been published a couple months before, not that that was something I boasted about, but it was odd watching Sawyer browse them. Almost like I was nervous. And being nervous over this man was most unsettling of all.
“Shit, you’re a New York Times bestselling author?” he asked softly, then glanced at me with a look of surprise and admiration, his expression falling when he noticed mine. “That’s exciting. You should be proud of that.”
“I am,” I said. “No, of course, I am. Those were . . . probably some of the best days of my life.” Honesty dripped from my shamed confession, and my tongue darted out to wet my lips before I continued. “I just don’t really talk about it.”
“Because I write to escape life and to create worlds for other people to escape to for a little while as well. I don’t write for a list.”
Sawyer nodded after a moment and set his attention on his phone again, but his words were for me. “I like that.” A couple minutes of scrolling later, his face lit up. “Hey, Rae’s social media.”
He offered me a devastating smirk and settled deeper in his chair. “Let’s see what kind of pictures you post.”
I closed my laptop the rest of the way and grabbed my coffee, nervously playing with the cup as I watched him get a peek into my life. I wasn’t sure if it was better to witness every moment of it or wonder about it when he eventually stumbled onto it in private.
But the faint smiles paired with the crease between his eyebrows were driving me crazy as I waited.
I’d never worried what others would think of me.
I’d never cared.
But it had also never been this infuriating man who forced himself into my thoughts and offered too much of an opinion on my life.
After what seemed like an eternity, he set his phone on the table, stare miles away. When his eyes finally met mine, he said, “Those pictures and videos don’t seem like you.”
One of my brows lifted. “Did we pass strangers without me realizing?”
His chest pitched with a silent laugh. “You’re just . . . I don’t know. You seem very lighthearted and free on there,” he said, looking pointedly at the phone, but didn’t continue.
He didn’t need to.
“Yeah, well, as soon as I got into this town, I met you and it all went downhill from there.” The lie was all a gentle tease, but he just continued to watch me, silently prompting me for the truth. “Maybe I only give my readers a side of me I want them to see.”
“We might be somewhere between strangers and friends, but I have a feeling from your reaction that isn’t true.”
“You’re so invasive,” I whispered.
“You look away when you’re lying,” he shot back just as gently.
My lips parted to deny it, but the words wouldn’t come as I wondered if he was right. I narrowed my stare curiously and watched as amusement tugged at his mouth.
He really is too handsome for his own good and my sanity.
I blinked away the thought and looked down at my laptop. I lightly traced patterns across the top of it with the tips of my fingers as I admitted, “Maybe it’s because the girl you were looking at was free. I’ve always lived in the moment, without plans or a care in the world, and this . . . this was forced on me, in a way, I guess.” I swallowed thickly and clenched my jaw so I wouldn’t confess more than I already had.
“What was forced on you?” Sawyer asked. “Being in Amber?”
I glanced at him and gave him a forced smile.
“Should I be worried?” Discomfort bled through his attempt at a joke. “Should we be hiding you?”
A startled laugh escaped me. “No. No, nothing like that. I just . . .” I shrugged as I tried to think of what to say when I’d already said too much. “I’m used to living in big cities and, as I said, I’m used to living in the moment. If I woke up one morning and decided to move cross-country, I’d find a place that day, pack my things, and move. Amber has been something I’ve needed to check off a list, but have been putting off because it felt like a weight dragging me down long before I started making my way here. Then I arrived and it felt suffocating.”
He watched me for a few moments, studying me as if he were seeing me for the first time. “Well, shit.” He laughed uneasily. “Yeah, I guess a small town would be hard for anyone who was used to big cities. Especially one where everyone was watching your every move—”
“No,” I said quickly, stopping that train of thought before he could continue. “I mean, yes, it is different being in a town that only has one traffic light. But that has nothing to do with it. I just never thought I would be here and, honestly, I’m not sure I ever wanted to. And I hate feeling like I’m trapped somewhere.”
“You’re the one who said you were staying,” he said, reminding me of our conversation from the day before.
“I know. I have to.”
I caught myself just as I was about to do what he’d pointed out earlier, and made myself hold his stare. “Work.”
“Work,” he said dully, and then clarified, “Writing? That’s why you’re here?”
“A new series,” I said, uttering the lie I’d told myself so many times.
“Why do it if you’ll be miserable?” One of his hands barely lifted from the table in a silent plea for me not to answer. “Why do you even need to be here for it?”
“I like to know what I’m writing about,” I said vaguely, hoping he wouldn’t keep digging and wondering why I had said any of the things I had.
It wasn’t until I looked at him again and noticed his meaningful expression that I realized what I’d just done.
That tell he’d pointed out and was looking for.
Thankfully, instead of calling me on it, he just nodded and