Authors: Cari Quinn
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
© 2012 Cari Quinn
Cover Design: LateNite Designs
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Second e-book edition: March 2016
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in love with him before she ever saw his face…
Rory Fowler has taken Sam Miller’s billboard orders for years, and the poetic words he wrote intrigued her long before she heard his raspy voice. Or accidentally bumped into his classic car, during a lunch meeting neither ever expected.
She also didn’t expect a six-foot-plus bald guy with enough muscles to bench press a semi would have the sweetest heart—and say some of the dirtiest words—she’s ever known.
Sam definitely didn’t plan on asking Rory to follow him home after their fender bender…or that she’d end up on her knees. She’s a revelation to him in every way after grieving for his dead wife and mourning the relationship they’d lost even before she passed.
But Rory is like the rainbow after the storm. A reason for him to keep going when he’d thought he’d lost that forever.
Physically, their chemistry is off the charts. But putting his heart on the line is a different story, unless he takes the wildest, most seductive risk he’s ever imagined...
ou hold my heart
. Even when you didn’t want it anymore. I waited for you since the beginning of time and no separation will ever keep us apart.
R.I. P. Dani Miller 3/2/87-3/28/15
ory Fowler stared
at the billboard outside the highway entrance, her foot hovering over the gas. She usually only made it past Sam’s billboard once during its run and the month was almost over.
How could Dani be dead? What the hell had happened?
He always reserved a quarter ahead and nothing had been unusual when she’d taken Sam’s June order in March. She’d missed his email to reserve September’s billboard because of her wild vacation at the end of June. She’d jetted off for two weeks and the new part-timer had served as his contact. Otherwise she would’ve known about Dani’s death sooner.
How had she died? A freak accident? An illness? He’d reserved December’s billboard last week and hadn’t said anything. He’d still mentioned sports—they shared a love of the Patriots and the 76ers—and questioned if she thought his latest message seemed too hokey. The last email he’d sent he’d even commented on a new sitcom and something he’d seen in the news.
They’d gotten chatty over the past two years he’d been reserving billboards, though they always kept their messages brief and centered mostly around his order. She didn’t necessarily consider him a friend, but they were certainly friendly.
Damn. Dani had been so young. Barely twenty-eight. Sam must be devastated.
Rory hardly ever drove by Sam’s preferred billboard on Schulyer Road because she rarely took this route to work. Always running late, she skipped the highway at rush hour because it would put her even more behind. Instead she took her chances on the less populated side streets.
She’d missed Sam’s words for three and a half weeks.
It had been time for her to check it out anyway. Though she didn’t drive by the billboard often, she had to see each one at least once. Some might call it quality control for her aunt’s small business, JD Signage, but it was much more than that. For some reason she needed to read his poetry stationed near the sky. It was her thing. Her stupid, sentimental thing that she’d never tell anyone about as long as she lived.
God, the last billboard had been so different.
She glanced down at the pile of stuff on her passenger seat, rifling around until she found the spiral notebook where she wrote down each of Sam’s signs. Her gaze jumped to the verbiage from March.
I never expected to find someone like you. Loving you has changed me, Dani, made me a better man. I treasure you.
And then December’s below that.
Another year is about to begin, Dani, and you’re still the center of my world. You’re the most precious gift I’ve ever been given.
There were more passages. She recorded them all, either at work when the paperwork came in or when she “happened” past the billboard. In the past year or so, the messages had become shorter. Maybe their marriage had settled into a lull after the natural honeymoon phase.
Were they still newly married, had they been college sweethearts? She had no idea. As many times as she’d wanted to ask, she hadn’t. He was a client and her curiosity had seemed invasive, even to her. Whatever the reason for his shortened love letters, his affection had still been evident.
He paid for this spot quarterly, always reserving way in advance. A billboard in such a prime location near I-90 didn’t come cheap but money didn’t appear to be an object. Not for Sam Miller and his beautiful, perfect—Rory didn’t know she was beautiful, had never met her to ascertain her perfection, but she must be, mustn’t she, to earn such devotion?—young wife, Dani.
His now dead young wife, Dani.
Rory rubbed the chunky sand dollar she wore on a cord around her neck. Her airway tightened, clogged with the breaths trapped in her throat. She needed to… What? What was she supposed to do now?
She didn’t really know him. Had never laid eyes on him, or even heard his voice on the phone. Theirs was a three-part-form and email friendship. There had never been any reason for her to contact Sam outside of work. Did this qualify?
Horns sounded behind her and she suddenly realized she’d stopped dead on the highway entrance ramp. With an apologetic wave, she hit the gas.
JD Signage was only a couple miles away. Not nearly long enough for her to begin to get over her jolt. Her head hurt and her eyes stung. Even her chest ached.
She slunk into her office and hoped Pamela, her mother’s youngest sister, didn’t notice she’d cut it way too close yet again. The company consisted of only six people so everyone pretty much knew where everyone else was—or wasn’t. At least today she’d sort of had a reason for her lateness. Even after she’d entered the highway she’d stayed in the slow lane. She just couldn’t concentrate. Only one thing now occupied her head.
Dani. And Sam.
For the most part, she figured she had normal emotional responses. She occasionally misted up at human interest stories on the news, cooed over baskets of puppies, always made sure to donate money to the red kettles at Christmas. But she’d never been moved to this state of…inertia by the passing of a stranger before.
For the entire time she’d been in contact with Sam Miller, she’d wondered at the sort of man who created such a loving tribute. As fascinated as she was about his marriage, the man himself drew much more of her focus. Who did stuff like that? Sure, guys occasionally proposed at baseball games, but that was a one-time thing. Sam’s billboards were another altogether. He hadn’t wavered in his devotion over the course of two years.
She didn’t know much about him. All she knew was he liked sports, enjoyed a good comedy, hated snow with a passion and had an incredibly romantic soul. He also had a very lucky wife, or at least she had been.
Her first impulse was to pick up the phone. It was now the fourth week of September, so it had been six months since Dani’s death. Enough time for the shock to fade? She didn’t know. She’d never lost anyone close to her other than a couple of childhood pets. Though she’d cried buckets over them, that didn’t begin to compare to losing a spouse.
She grabbed her cell and started to enter the number she found on Sam’s sign reservation form. Then she stopped. What she said usually made people feel worse, not better. She tried, God knows, but she didn’t want to fuck things up worse for him. If that was even possible.
Going with impulse, she tapped the digits and waited through six rings. Must not be home. Maybe it was for the best.
He had a deep, masculine voice. That probably wasn’t too far off what she’d expected. And in one word, she picked up more bone-weary exhaustion than she might’ve with twenty words from someone else.
“S-Sam?” Why was her voice shaking? Much like the jittery knee she couldn’t keep still under her desk. There were many traits she lacked, but ordinarily confidence didn’t number among them.
“Yes, this is Sam.”
No question as to who she was. No greeting. Just more fatigue. Would he even remember her? In the scheme of things, how far down would she fall in the hierarchy of service people in his life? Under the mailman, above the paperboy?
“Hi. I’m Rory Fowler.”
She twisted her necklace around her fingers, her anxiety climbing in direct proportion to the ticking seconds.
Identify yourself, idiot!
“I work at JD Signage. We’ve corresponded a few times.”
Probably at least fifteen, including the occasional glitch with his order and their casual banter. Not that she was counting.
Not that he had his own folder in her email program.
“Yes, I remember you.” His long pause encouraged her knee to jitter more. “I thought you were a man, Rory.”
“Why? Because I like sports?”
“No. Of course not. Well, maybe,” he admitted. “You know so much about them.”
“Yeah, I do. Women enjoy sports. Newsflash—some even play them.” She hoped she sounded as if she were teasing rather than irritated. She wasn’t mad. More than anything she was a little amazed. She couldn’t believe they were finally having an actual conversation.
Some women idolized rock singers or movie stars. Other than her long-held and unavoidable crush on Tom Brady, the only man she’d ever crushed on from afar was Sam Miller.
Another woman’s husband. Or he had been. He still was, she supposed. And always would be. Death didn’t erase what had come before and she had no doubt that he’d been completely, irrevocably in love.
“I know that. But the kind of shows you watch—”
“You mean the ones with potty humor?” She shrugged, knowing he couldn’t see her. “What can I say? I have a juvenile outlook on the world.”
“Thanks a lot.”
The amusement in his tone bolstered her self-assurance. “Maybe you didn’t think I was female because I don’t put smiley faces at the end of all my sentences?”
She most certainly was not a smiley face girl. Actually she’d be more likely to use emoticons if they indicated less politically correct gestures. The occasional well-placed graphical middle finger, for example. Not that she’d ever do that with customers, but some of her interfering relatives like her boss? A definite possibility.
“No, because of your name. Rory isn’t usually feminine.”
“Neither am I.” She pursed her lips. “Personality-wise anyway.” Her clothes were another matter altogether.
He didn’t respond to her joke, but she supposed he was entitled to not keep the conversation going. Still, wasn’t he the master of eloquence? Not that his billboard poetry would earn any Pulitzers, but he obviously felt comfortable with words. Unlike her at this moment.
“Is there a problem with this month’s billboard?”
All at once her buoyant mood disappeared. For a moment she’d forgotten who he was and how they knew each other. And why she’d placed this call in the first place.
God, in the midst of everything, he still cared about his billboard. Like clockwork, he placed his order every three months to reserve March, June, September and December. That would change now, right?
Everything had changed, at least for him.
“No, everything’s fine. In fact.” She scrambled for some way to make this call about work, rather than a pathetically ineffectual sympathy call. “JD Signage would like to offer you a small token for your loss. Of your wife,” she added, feeling stupid.
“You’re welcome. Uh, we will be picking up the cost of the billboard for the last week of September. Look for a statement credit on your credit card bill.”
She glanced down, calculated his savings and winced a little at the hit to her pocketbook. But she could afford it. The guy had suffered a major blow. She could skip a few margaritas and baskets of wings at Loki’s the next few Saturday nights, for pity’s sake.
“Thank you. That’s not necessary, but I appreciate it. How about you just use it for the first week of the next billboard?”
When Rory didn’t reply, he continued. “I’m glad you called actually. Saves me an email. You do have me down for December? I emailed last week but then my net went down and I never received your final confirmation.”
“D-December?” What was up with the stutter? She
stuttered. “You still want to go through with the billboard order?”
“Yes. Why wouldn’t I? I placed it last week. You got the email, didn’t you?”
Because she’s dead.
Her lips trembled and firmed seconds before the words tumbled out. Was this guy for real? Most men she knew couldn’t be bothered to call unless they were horny or hungry or bored but this one intended to continue putting up love poems for his late wife? At sizeable expense?
Her heart skipped, annoying her. She was
one of those mushy types. Normally she didn’t even like poetry. So what was the deal with Sam? Why did he make her question herself and her reactions?
“Why wouldn’t you?” she agreed softly, pressing so hard on the point of her pencil that it broke. “I can take down your order now, if you would prefer. If it would make things easier.”
“No, I’ll submit it via email as usual, if that’s all right. I haven’t figured out what I’d like to say yet.” His short, dry laugh caught her off-guard. “It takes time, you know?”
No, she didn’t know. Nor had she ever known a man like him, even if she didn’t really know him at all. “Sure. Take your time. You know where to reach me, Sam.”
Jesus, she’d almost stuttered again. Why did his name feel so intimate? As if she were whispering it in a cathedral.
Or a bed…
? Her face heated. Now she was sort of fantasizing about a man who’d suffered a serious loss and hadn’t proven himself to be particularly eloquent when speaking. Not that she blamed him. Who would be, after enduring what he had?
So much for skipping Loki’s. She’d be visiting the sports bar as usual on Saturday, and she had a feeling she wouldn’t be particularly choosy when one of the regulars showed her some attention. Clearly she’d gone too long without sex. Ibiza and the crazy fling she’d had there seemed like a lifetime ago, especially right now.
“Yes, I do, Rory.”
Her name in his husky, brittle voice made her even worse off. Was he a smoker? Did he have allergies? That rasp did wicked things to her body, and it shouldn’t have. Bottom line, she had no morals and no sense. What had she become? Some sort of ambulance chaser, except she went after widows who wrote billboard sonnets?
“Well, ahh, I’ll just let you go then. I really am sorry. She was a lucky woman, your wife.”
He didn’t thank her for calling. In fact, he didn’t make any sound at all for a long, disturbing moment. “What time do you take your lunch break?” he asked finally.
“Lunch? I haven’t even eaten breakfast yet.” She flung a glance at the bruised apple on the corner of her desk she’d rescued after a collision in the break room yesterday. Connor Clydesdale—Aunt Pamela’s ex-husband no less—had touched her boob but he’d pretended he only wanted to grab her apple. She hadn’t been fooled.