Authors: Carla Susan Smith
And I could see the color of his eyes as clearly as if he were right in front of me. Dark blue, a brilliant, mesmerizing shade of cobalt framed by thick lashes. They held on to me, making my stomach clench and roll like I was on a fairground tilt-a-whirl ride. And then he moved his mouth, lifting the corners in a lazy, sensual smile that almost had me stroking out. My chest became a vise, slowly expelling all the air from my lungs and forcing my heart to beat faster. I saw the brilliant gleam of his teeth as his lips parted, and as if asphyxia wasn't going to be enough to deal with, I was suddenly flooded with the oddest sense of dÃ©jÃ vu.
Intuitively I knew that if he widened his smile by just a few millimeters, it would reveal a dimple hidden in his left cheek. Right on cue, as if wanting to prove me right, he did just that, and . . . there it was. What could so easily be considered a flaw I thought was the sexiest come-on I'd ever seen. It was crazy, I know, but his expression seemed familiar. As if I'd seen him smile at me like that before. Which was completely impossible, of course. And then the final, totally insane thing happened.
You know who I am.
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
I am indebted to the following people for helping me achieve my dream:
To my husband, Jack, for never losing faith in me, and who stopped me from pressing the delete key on more than one occasion.
To my son, Joe, for being a constant source of surprise and wonder regarding all things supernatural.
To my BFF Sharon, for daring me to write in the first place.
To Lynne Harter, for doing my first edits and for being a sounding board and friend.
To my boss, Suzanne, for letting me bring my laptop to work!
To Annette and Donna, for putting up with my craziness for longer than any sane people should!
And last, but not least, to Alicia Condon at Kensington, for taking one hell of a chance on me. Thank you.
was folding laundry and watching an old CSI rerun on TV when Laycee called.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I told her.
“And where are you tonightâNew York, Miami, or Vegas?”
There was only one place where the plucky female investigator would consider going dumpster diving wearing heels and white pants. “Miami,” I told Laycee.
“You do realize this makes you certifiably pathetic, right?”
I wasn't sure if it was the laundry or my viewing choice that warranted the certifiable part. Tucking the phone between my ear and shoulder, I continued folding.
“I prefer to think of it as a useful way to amuse myself while I wait for Brad Pitt to call,” I told her.
Laycee sighedâan exasperated, you're-beyond-all-help sound that I caught before it was swallowed up by background noise. From the hum of voices and clinking glassware I guessed she was in a bar. Confirmation came with the sound of a female voice crooning sorrowfully about men and bad choices. The tone was more jukebox quality than live band, and I felt my eyebrows pull together, wondering if the song was Laycee's choice or just bad luck. Either way, it seemed kind of prophetic. Why else would my best friend be calling me on a Friday night when she was supposed to be out on a date?
“Where are you?” I asked her.
“Out at Rosie's.”
The song began to fade. I'd never heard of the place. “Where?”
Being involved with a man who is separated from his wife but not yet divorced means contending with a few “difficulties.” Difficulties that become a lot more complicated when he's also the town sheriff. The need to meet in places where no one recognizes either of you is just the tip of the iceberg. And why my best friend wanted to put herself through all this drama was something I was still trying to figure out.
“Rowan, I need a ride. Can you come get me?”
There was a catch in her voice, one I was certain she didn't know was there, but I heard it as clear as a bell. Perhaps I was expecting to.
“Where's Jake?” I asked cautiously.
“Had to leave.”
Her tone changed, becoming more pissed-off than poor-me, which was a relief in a way. Having witnessed both, I much preferred dealing with an angry Laycee than a tearful one.
My best friend isn't generally stupid, but like any woman, she is guilty of making foolish decisions at times. It's still too early to tell if her involvement with Jake will fall into this category. Tonight it would seem so. Having your so-called boyfriend go AWOL in the middle of a date is not only rude, it's embarrassing. But he must be doing something right because Laycee lights up like the proverbial Christmas tree whenever he's around. I guess you don't always get a say in what your heart wants, and following it doesn't always guarantee a happy ever after.
“So, you gonna come rescue me?”
Like she had to ask. “You realize this means I'm going to have to stand Brad up, right?”
She laughed, another good sign. “Yeah, well, I'm sure you can find a way to make it up to him.” I grinned as she began arguing her case. “C'mon, Rowan, it's Friday night. Stop watching damn reruns and get your ass out here! Seriouslyâwhat else have you got to do?”
Absolutely nothing, and no one knew that better than Laycee. “Okay, okay,” I told her. “Stop twisting my arm!” It was pathetic how much of a fight I didn't put up.
She gave me directions and broke the connection before I could say good-bye. Or change my mind.
Rosie's was an almost thirty-minute drive across the county line, and I nearly missed the turnoff. Laycee had mentioned something about a neon sign, only I guess she forgot to mention most of the bulbs had burned out. I was just grateful no one was behind me when I slammed on the brakes.
Miraculously there was an open space beneath the lone working light in the gravel-strewn parking lot. I made sure all the doors were locked before making my way toward the brick building I'd passed on the way in. Checking the other parked vehicles gave me a pretty good indication of Rosie's clientele. I could count on one hand the number of vehicles that weren't either a truck or some sort of SUV. And that was including my car.
Climbing the three steps leading up to the porch, I pulled open one half of the double doors and was immediately greeted by a fair number of good ol' boys, all wearing the standard uniform of jeans, boots, and shirts with no sleeves. What is it about country boys and the need to expose armpit hair? I have no idea, but I think there's a certain security in having a visual reminder of passing puberty. Stepping to one side, I tried to be unobtrusive as I searched for Laycee while getting my bearings.
There was an aged, shabby look to the bar. It had probably first opened a couple of decades before I was born, and whatever profit it made wasn't being wasted on updating the dÃ©cor. I suspected the obligatory deer-head trophy on the wall had witnessed the first beer ever served, and anything electrical could probably use a serious upgrade. A fresh coat of paint would do wonders, along with a good airing. There was a definite odor that lingeredâa faint mix of old beer, stale cigarettes, and pine floor cleaner. On the plus side, the bar looked well-stocked and the glasses all seemed clean. Lord knows, I'd been in a lot worse places.
It didn't take much reconnoitering before I found my girl. All I had to do was look for the nearest group of guys standing about with their tongues hanging out, metaphorically speaking. In this case the group was draped over their pool cues, appreciating Laycee's rear end. I came up on the opposite side of the table and waited until she took her shot. A chorus of good-natured groans rippled around the periphery as she sank her ball. Men, I have observed, will always accept being beaten by a girl if she's pretty enough. And Laycee fit that bill.
With her hair pulled back in a high ponytail and wearing a hot pink T-shirt, jeans, and red heels that made my arches ache just looking at them, she positively screamed trailer trash. Nevertheless, I adored her for knowing exactly who she was, and not giving a shit what anyone else thought.
We were complete opposites, at least as far as looks went. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, Laycee was a doll, providing that doll was Trailer Park Barbie. I was more a reflection of Cabbage Patch Colleen with chestnut hair, green eyes, and freckles confirming my Irish heritage. Also Laycee managed to keep around a hundred pounds on her five foot five inch frame with very little effort, while I weighed . . . more. But being four inches taller has to count for something. If she wasn't my best friend and I didn't love her so much, it would be easy to hate her.
“Popular place,” I commented as a waitress stopped by the booth we'd chosen to take our order. She returned almost immediately with a pitcher and two frosty glasses, and I put a mental check mark in the plus column.
For the next half hour or so Laycee and I made small talk, covering all the important things. Sex and men, sex and clothes, sex and makeup. I didn't inquire about Jake's absence and Laycee didn't offer to tell me, which was okay. I figured I'd get the scoop on the ride home.
Returning from the restroom, I noticed my BFF checking out the bar area. Not that unusual, all things considered, but the look on her face was definitely out of place. My first thought was Laycee had seen someone she recognized, so I also looked. Growing up in a town as small as ours, we knew the same people. Not seeing a familiar face, I couldn't imagine what was keeping her attention so fixed.
“What is it?” I asked. “See someone you know?”
She snapped back into focus and reached for my glass, refilling it from the pitcher and making sure it had the perfect head of foam. “
have an admirer.”
Guys rarely look at me when I'm with Laycee. I mean they look at me, but not like they look at her. And not in the way she was implying.
“Yeah, you do.” My skepticism caused her to raise a penciled eyebrow. “I wasn't sure at first, but I am now.”
I remained doubtful. “What makes you think he's looking at me?”
It wasn't an unreasonable question. Laycee turns a lot of men's heads. Women's, too, but that's for an entirely different reason.
A sly smile curled the corners of her mouth. “Because he just tracked you going to the restroom,” she declared triumphantly.
This, as any woman knows, is the only universally accepted way to measure a guy's interest. If he watches you cross the room and doesn't get distracted or lose focus, then he definitely wants to get to know you better. Unfortunately, I wasn't as enthusiastic about the prospect as my best friend was.
Laycee and I had very different ideas about the opposite sex and the role we expected them to play in our lives. I also wasn't sure that, good intentions aside, she was the best person to give me romantic advice. Laycee always seemed to attract guys who came with complications of one sort or another. Like a wife. Still, I'm the last person to pass judgment on any relationship. Best friends are hard to come by, and I wasn't going to make Laycee feel bad about her choices or her morals. Besides, my limited romantic experience had shown me that while you may think you have a situation sized up, most of us don't have a clue what's really going on between two people.
“Okay, so where's the father of my unborn children?” I suspected it was one of the guys Laycee had been shooting pool with earlier, and wondered if I was being looked at as a consolation prize. If so, it was a bad idea, and one I intended to squash right away.
“The blond at the end of the bar,” Laycee said pointing a surreptitious finger in the right direction. “I think he might be the bouncer. He's certainly built for it.”
The idea that a bar like this would require a bouncer in the first place might seem absurd, but I've seen good ol' boys fight. When they're drunk, a difference of opinion can turn ugly real fast. And while a physical altercation every now and then is perfectly acceptable, expected even, on a regular basis it's bad for business.
Twisting around in my seat and looking over my shoulder would be a little too obvious, so I got up and parked myself next to Laycee. Casually I let my gaze wander over the bar area. He wasn't hard to miss.
Tall, blond, and very well put togetherâI could absolutely see how Laycee would think he was a bouncer, but she couldn't have been more wrong. I couldn't say what he was, but I knew he didn't belong in a place like this. And it wasn't just because his T-shirt had sleeves. Still, the bar was pretty crowded and the lighting not that great, two elements that could easily contribute to a mistake in judgment. And Laycee, God love her, sometimes saw things a little skewy where I was concerned.
If the guy had been looking at me before, and I'm not saying he hadn't, he certainly wasn't now. Distracted by the bartender, he seemed fascinated at how the words on her T-shirt were being stretched across her chest.
My immediate assessment said the bartender had no idea the kind of man she was flirting with, or how to do it with any degree of success. Unable to discern the difference between real interest and being polite, Miss Juicy couldn't tell he wasn't the type to be impressed by the obvious, no matter how it came wrapped. If she expected him to respond to her, then she was going to need a more subtle approach. A wayward curl escaping from an elegant up-do, the slip of a spaghetti strap down a bare shoulder, a hint of shimmer dusted over cleavage . . .
I started, taken aback by whatever tangent my brain was trying to pursue. Why on earth would I think such thingsâand why assume they were applicable to him? I had no idea, but deep down I knew they were true. Kind of like the way I just knew the black jeans and T-shirt he wore hadn't come off the rack at Men's Wearhouse.
This was the type of man who was noticed the moment he stepped into a room. I could only imagine the ripple he'd caused coming into Rosie's and was sorry to have missed it. Even as far apart as we wereâand there had to be at least twenty-five feet between our table and the barâI could see the confidence he exuded. Used to having people look at him, he simply accepted it, even if it was made up of both female adoration and male jealousy. Miss Juicy leaned over the bar in his direction. I watched him pull back, subtly maintaining the distance between them.
Either she didn't notice, or else she just didn't get it. Or him.
My gaze flickered over the people around him, curious to see their reaction to his presence. From the way heads were turned and chins tucked, it seemed all the guys were doing their best to avoid any type of eye contact with him, which struck me as typical pack behavior. A show of deference in the presence of a more dominant male.
But the women had no qualms about making contact, with their eyes or other body parts. And the bartender wasn't the only one who was clueless. Every female in the place, present company excluded, seemed to be hitting the restroom with an alarming frequency. Only they were taking the scenic route to get there. I know my own single trip to the bathroom hadn't required me to make any detours.
Also aware of the apparent estrogen explosion, Laycee poked me in the side with her finger, and we both watched a Jessica Simpson look-alike make her way across the floor toward his end of the bar. Unfortunately, she was so busy trying to catch his eye that she failed to check for obstacles in her path and hit the squared-off corner of a table with her leg. Wincing, I pictured the bruise that was going to color her thigh in the morning. But from the look on Jessica's face, it was all worth it.
Stumbling had redirected his attention away from the bartender, and Jessica greedily caught hold of the steadying hand he offered. Saving herself from complete humiliation by not going base over apex, the blonde gushed at him. The invitation she offered was more than blatant. It glowed like a neon sign. And it was one he declined.