Authors: Rainey Anne
To my awesome family. Without your love, support, and endless supply of hugs I would’ve thrown in the towel ages ago. Thanks for always being in my corner!
Shayla stood on the porch of Vance’s home, shaking with nerves. She hadn’t seen him for twelve years. Each day away from him had caused her heart to ache. Stomach in knots, Shayla thought again about how much time she’d wasted, and all because of one man’s hatred. Her father had done everything in his power to keep her away from Vance Jennings, but those days were over, and Shayla aimed to set things right. If Vance slammed the door in her face, so be it, but at least she had to try.
She took a deep breath and rang the bell. After a few seconds, the door swung wide. A shiver ran the length of her spine at the sight of Vance standing in front of her in a heather-gray T-shirt and well-worn jeans. She’d always had that reaction to seeing him. Why should the years apart change anything? Vance Jennings had the looks of a charmer, only with a rougher edge, as if he’d had more than his fair share of hard knocks and had come away with more than a scratch or two. She took a moment and looked him over, all but breathing in the perfection of him.
His hair was as dark as the night itself, shiny and thick and long enough to be irresistible, even if it did need a good comb-through. The glow from the light behind him cast iridescent colors throughout the thick mass. Her gaze traveled over the angles of his face, noting every taut plane, the stubble covering his chin, and especially the generous line of his mouth. God, not even an artist could draw a mouth as soft and inviting as Vance’s. The man was just so damn kissable. Always had been. Shayla sighed as she realized how much harder this meeting was going to be than she’d originally thought.
She noticed the way he watched her. Like an angry panther, his eyes were always so intense, and they seemed to see right into her soul. When he looked her over from head to toe, Shayla stiffened. Sure, the years had been kind to Vance, but what would he think of her after all this time? She’d filled out, pretty much all over. Gone was the skinny young girl with stars in her eyes.
Enough, she chastised herself. She wasn’t here to visually devour the man. She was supposed to explain why she’d dumped him like so much garbage and walked out of his life over a decade ago. Should be a ton of fun.
“Shayla,” Vance gritted out. He blinked a few times, and Shayla wondered if he was as baffled as she was by her presence. And the way he said her name, as if it left a bad taste in his mouth, didn’t give Shayla much confidence either.
“Hi,” she said, smiling in an effort to hide her anxiety.
Vance frowned. “It’s been a long time, Shay.”
Don’t I know it?
A gust of cold January wind hit her in the face, and Shayla stiffened. “May I come in?”
He hesitated, but Shayla couldn’t blame him. After what she’d done to him, he had every right to slam the door in her face. When he stepped back and let her into the foyer, Shayla counted it as a small victory. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting,” she said, then cringed at the sound of her own voice. She was talking to him as if he were a perfect stranger. As if they hadn’t once been in love.
Vance shut the door and tucked his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “Nope.”
“Oh, well, that’s good,” she said as she looked down at the floor and hitched her purse up her arm. Where was she supposed to begin? Even though she’d rehearsed this a million times, Shayla was suddenly at a loss for words.
“You might as well get to it.”
At the sound of Vance’s deep voice, Shayla looked up. Their gazes connected, and she opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Her throat closed up and her heart rate sped. When her face felt as if it were on fire, Shayla groaned.
Oh please, not now.
She simply could not have a panic attack now. When her lips began to tingle and her eyes felt as if they were bulging out of her head, Shayla knew that was exactly what was happening.
Vance stepped forward and took hold of her shoulders, his expression filled with concern. “Hey, you okay?”
Shayla couldn’t get her mouth to work properly, so she shook her head instead. Her hand went to the front of her turtleneck sweater and yanked in an attempt to get air into her starving lungs. It didn’t help; nothing would. She felt Vance tugging her coat off, and within seconds, he had her sitting on the couch.
Vance crouched in front of her. “Easy now,” he murmured. “Just relax and take a few deep breaths.”
She did as he instructed, and when her face started to cool down, she knew the anxiety was beginning to pass. A large palm pressed to the back of her neck and rubbed. For a moment, Shayla let herself sink into the warmth of having Vance’s gentle palm against her skin. After so many years without his touch, she wanted to soak in every second. Too soon, he was moving away. He sat in the chair across from her, his expression unreadable.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m not sure what happened there.”
He cleared his throat and sat back. “Now that you can breathe, care to explain why you’ve decided to show up on my doorstep after all this time?”
Here goes nothing.
“I wanted to clear the air,” she blurted out.
Vance’s gaze shot wide. “Are you for real?”
Oh yeah, there’s that Vance Jennings temper.
“I know I don’t deserve it,” she said, “but please listen to me.”
Vance shrugged. “Why would you think I’d even care? It’s been twelve years, Shay. A lot of time has passed.”
She held up her hands, palms out. “You’re right, there’s no reason you should give a fig, but aren’t you a little bit curious? Didn’t you wonder why I wrote that letter telling you we needed some time apart?”
“No,” he bit out, “because I already knew why.”
Her own temper flared. He was so sure he had all the answers, but Shayla knew better this time. “Oh really?”
Vance leaned forward, so close she could smell his intoxicating male scent. “You were Daddy’s good little girl, and you got tired of playing with the bad boy of Blackwater.” He looked her over, lingering for a heart-pounding few seconds on her chest before meeting her gaze again. “I was good enough to fuck but not good enough to keep.”
Shayla paled. Was that what he’d thought? That she hadn’t loved him? That he hadn’t been her whole world? Good Lord, Vance hadn’t just been her first boyfriend; he’d been the first guy she’d ever let get to second base. And on one warm summer evening, Shayla had even given him her virginity. It’d been a magical night for her, despite the fact that they’d made love in the front seat of his truck. Afterward, they hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other. She’d loved him with her whole heart. Although he didn’t know it, to this day Vance still held the distinct honor of being the only guy who had ever managed to send her to the moon with a single touch, and yet he thought she’d only been in it for the kicks? “You cannot be serious.”
“Don’t look so dumbfounded, honey.” His cold grin sent a shiver down Shayla’s spine. “I knew then that I had no business coming within a hundred feet of you. Trust me, when you dumped me, you did us both a favor.”
Confused, Shayla asked, “How’s that?”
He leaned back in his seat and crossed one ankle over the other. “It made me realize that some little rich girl could never satisfy me for the long haul.”
Her ears were playing tricks on her; that had to be it. Shayla counted to ten in an attempt to regain control. It didn’t work for crap. “Is that how you saw me? Like some bubble-headed daddy’s girl?”
Vance stood as if to end the conversation. “Like I said, we dated for two years a long time ago. None of it matters now.”
Shayla stood too, but not to leave. Oh no, he was going to listen to her if it was the last thing she did. “Look, I came here to clear the air, and that’s what I’m going to do.” Vance started to argue, but she barreled right on, consequences be damned. “Sit down, shut up and let me talk, Vance Jennings.”
A muscle in his jaw jumped, giving away just how much anger he was holding in check. “Look, I—” The phone interrupted him, and Shayla felt as if she’d been given a reprieve. When it rang again, Vance cursed. “Stay put, damn it.”
As he strode from the room, Shayla let out a long breath. Well, she’d accomplished the first step in her plan, at least. Keep Vance from kicking her to the curb, which was nothing short of a miracle. The question was, could she get him to listen? The really bigger question, the one she hadn’t let herself think too long on, was could she get him to give her another chance? Because in addition to clearing the air, Shayla desperately wanted one more shot at a relationship with Vance.
The man had haunted her dreams. She’d tried to forget him, but even dating other men hadn’t helped. Shayla always ended up comparing them to Vance. No man could hold a candle to him.
It was a nightmare, nothing more. Sure as shit he’d wake up from it any time now, because no way in hell was Shayla Riggs—high school sweetheart and the woman who’d torn out his heart—really sitting in his living room. As the house phone rang a third time, Vance grabbed it off the counter and hit Send.
“Hi, sweetie, did I wake you?”
His mom’s cheerful voice on the other end of the line was pretty much the only thing that could bring his temper down to a low roar. “No, Mom, I’m awake. What’s up?”
“I was curious if you were coming into the diner today. You mentioned some changes to the plans you drew up for the remodel.”
Damn, with Shayla sitting in the other room, he’d be late to the diner. When he and his brothers had decided to remodel the family restaurant and turn it into a bar and grill, Vance had volunteered his construction company for the job. The diner had been struggling, and in order to keep from seeing it go under, they’d all decided to pitch in and help out. Vance would do anything for his family, and he’d especially do anything for his mom. She and his adoptive father had taken him and his four brothers from foster care and given them something they’d never had before: love. Two years ago, a massive stroke had taken his dad away, and Vance still missed hearing his deep voice and feeling his rib-crushing hugs.
“I’ll be there,” he said, then thought of the woman sitting on his couch. “It’ll be later, though. I have something to take care of first.” Like getting rid of a ghost from his past.
“That’s fine, dear. Julie and I are going to go to the mall to do some shopping anyway. Call me when you get there, okay? I want to see the changes you’ve worked on.”
At the mention of his brother’s new girlfriend, Vance smiled. “I’m surprised Sammy’s letting Julie leave his bed on a Sunday morning to go shopping. How’d you manage that?”
Instead of sounding scandalized, his mom laughed. “That son of mine does have a hard time sharing, but I have ways of getting around him.”
Vance chuckled. “I’ll just bet you do.” No one knew better than he did how sneaky his mom could be. When Wanda Jennings wanted something, she moved heaven and earth to get it. As Vance realized what his mom had said about going shopping, he frowned.
“Wait, shouldn’t you be staying home and resting?” he asked, worried that she was overdoing it. “After all, it was less than two months ago when you were laid up in the hospital.”
A heavy sigh filled his ear. “It was a mild heart attack, not a triple bypass, Vance. Besides, Julie has me taking yoga classes with her now and eating healthier too.” She tsked. “I swear she’s worse than you boys when it comes to my health.”
“And we’re all plenty grateful,” Vance said, meaning it, “but the doctor ordered you to take it easy, remember?”
“And that’s what I’m doing,” she replied, speaking more slowly, as if he were an idiot, “taking it easy and going shopping.” Vance shook his head at the woman’s screwed-up logic, but before he could get a word in edgewise, she plowed right on. “Oh, and before I forget, I got a phone call today from Shayla Riggs. Do you remember her?”
Vance stiffened and peeked around the corner and saw the woman in question sitting on his couch chewing at her lower lip. “Uh, yeah.”
“Well, she called asking about you.”
Vance was beginning to smell a rat. His mom was notorious for playing matchmaker, and he suddenly felt as if she’d set her sights on him. It would make sense, considering Sammy was all but headed to the altar with Julie. Vance would be the next in line, to his mom’s way of thinking. “And what’d you tell her?” he asked, already knowing the answer.