Authors: Dinah McLeod
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“She’s not here?” Colton echoed, his brow wrinkling in confusion.
“No, like I told you, she called in sick,” the waitress, whose nametag read ‘Maisy’ told him, smacking her gum as she looked up at him with bored eyes. “You could call her, I reckon.”
“Yeah, thanks.” He smiled weakly and reached into his pocket for a five-dollar bill, which he slid toward the waitress. Her eyes lit up as she saw it, and she was considerably friendlier as she offered him a table. “No, thanks. I’ve got somewhere to be.”
“Suit yourself,” she shrugged, but she offered a little wave as he turned to depart.
Colton forgot all about her the moment the door closed behind him. The only one on his mind was Scarlett, and concern for her. She’d seemed perfectly fine last night and he couldn’t imagine her coming down with something and not telling him about it. He’d texted her just this morning and nothing had seemed amiss.
The minute he got to his truck, he dialed her number, tapping his palm on the steering wheel as he waited for her to answer. When she didn’t pick up, his anxiety increased. Suddenly, a thought hit him. What if she wasn’t sick at all, just ashamed of what had taken place between them the night before? She’d said she was fine, she’d seemed to enjoy the new clothes and his attention, but what if it was all moving too quickly for her? What if she’d lied and she didn’t like it at all? He’d hoped that she’d be the kind of woman who could come clean about something like that, but maybe she was afraid to tell him.
That thought made him frown, but he wouldn’t get anywhere speculating. The only thing he could do was go straight to the source. Normally, he was a stickler for speed limits, but today his anxiety was heavy on the gas today, so he got to Scarlett’s apartment in record time. It didn’t occur to him that she might mind him showing up unannounced until he was walking down the hall.
Well, she should have picked up the phone then,
he told himself. Instead of making him feel better, though, it just made him more jittery than before.
“Hey! Hey, you there! Stop right now.”
Colton halted in his tracks when he heard the high-pitched, angry voice, feeling as though he should raise his arms in the air, too, to show that he was unarmed.
“What are you doing here?”
When the lady he’d met from last night stepped in front of him, glaring angry daggers, he was both confused and concerned. Had Scarlett said something? Damn it, if she hadn’t been happy with how things had gone between them, he wished she would have just said something.
“Oh, it’s you.” When the hardened lines of her face slipped just a little, he felt himself relax.
“Yeah, it’s me. How are you this mornin’, Mrs. Fettermen?”
“Well, I’d be a sight better if I hadn’t had to deal with all that ruckus last night.”
“Scarlett was crying for hours, poor thing.”
His stomach began to churn even as his own ire began to rise to the surface. “I’m sorry, I’m not followin’. Is she okay?”
“She didn’t call you?” Her eyes narrowed, looking suspicious once more. “It’s just as well, I suppose. The poor girl needed her sleep.”
“Did something happen last night, Mrs. Fettermen? Did Scarlett… did she talk to you?” He glanced at her closed apartment door, his apprehension mounting.
“Oh, yes. We talked for a long time. She was pretty shaken up after.”
“I… I didn’t know.” He swallowed hard, feeling like the worst kind of ass. Of course, it would have been nice if she’d told him that she didn’t enjoy their play, but he should have seen it. If she was uncomfortable, he should have known.
“I didn’t figure you did, since you said she didn’t call. But anyone would have been a mess after that fellow that showed up makin’ such a fuss.”
His ears perked up. “‘Scuse me, ma’am? What fellow?”
“Oh, some guy Scarlett used to date.” She waved her hand as though something smelled in front of her nose at just the thought of him.
“He stopped by last night?”
“Yes, banging on the door like to shake it off its hinges! And she let him in, poor girl.” She clucked her tongue. “Well, he was none too happy, I can tell you that. Scared her real good.”
A picture was beginning to form in Colton’s head, but it wasn’t one he liked. Not one bit. “Thanks for telling me, Mrs. Fettermen. I think I’ll go see how she is.”
She nodded sharply. “You do that. And see that she doesn’t open the door for that sleaze next time, won’t you? I might not be able to chase him off again.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll see to it.”
Mrs. Fettermen smiled for the first time since their conversation had begun and patted him on the arm. “You’re a good boy.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Once she’d waved him off, he covered the short distance to Scarlett’s door.
Once there, though, he hesitated. He’d only seen the guy once, for a few minutes, but if it was the same one he was thinking of, then he was nothing but bad news. The idea of that guy in Scarlett’s apartment… it made him so angry that he literally saw red. He couldn’t show that to her, though, not if she was even half as bad off as Mrs. Fettermen had led him to believe. Bearing that in mind, he took the time he needed to get his emotions in check before he knocked on the door.
“Who… who is it?”
The catch in her normally sweet, musical voice made him clench his teeth. “It’s Colton,” he said, trying to sound normal, and not like he was engaged in a vivid mental picture of ripping Wade’s head off—which he was.
It was several long moments before the door opened, and when it did, it was only a tiny crack. He made out one blue eye peering through the slit, as though she was trying to be certain that it really was him. Once she’d gotten a good, long look, she opened the door a bit wider. It would have been impossible to miss the dark circles under her eyes that were also bloodshot. It was all he could do not to pull her into a bear hug and refuse to let her go until she agreed to never, ever go anywhere near that monster. At the same time, he wanted to scold her for opening the door for him in the first place, while spanking that cute, smackable ass, while demanding to know exactly what had happened.
“I went by the diner,” is what he settled for in the end.
Scarlett’s eyes widened. “You… you did?”
“I was hoping to surprise you. The girl on shift, Maisy? She said you called in sick.”
“Oh, um… yes, that’s right.”
look like you’re feeling under the weather. Was it something you ate?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Maybe. Like, bad shellfish or something?”
“We had Chinese,” he reminded her.
“Oh, I know that, but wasn’t there fish in that rice?”
“Chicken.” When she’d first opened the door and he’d gotten a glimpse of how fragile and shaken she looked, he’d felt nothing but sympathy, but hearing her lie to him now frustrated and disappointed him, though he tried not to show it.
“Well, maybe that was it.”
“Hmm. Is it alright with you if I come in?”
“Oh, uh… I guess food poisoning isn’t contagious, huh?”
He bit the inside of his cheek before giving a short shake of his head.
“Well… okay then.” She stood to the side to let him pass, but it was clear that she was reluctant to do so.
“You been to the doctor?”
“What?” she asked as she locked the door.
“Did you call your doctor?”
“Um…” Scarlett hugged herself and looked nervously at the wall. He wasn’t sure what she was more afraid of—the possibility of seeing her ex again, or being caught in a lie.
“Tell you what, I’ll take your temp and see if you’re runnin’ a fever.”
“Do people run fever with food poisoning?”
“It’s possible,” he shrugged. “Where’s your thermometer?”
“Um…” She worked her bottom lip with her teeth for a solid minute and he was certain that she was going to come clean. “I’ll go get it,” she said at last.
Once she’d disappeared, he shook his head, sighing to himself. He’d hoped she would end the charade and open up to him. Since she’d decided to continue in a lie, he only had two choices: he could end their relationship, something he was loath to do, or he could punish her for her misdeeds. He certainly didn’t want to say goodbye, especially after what she’d just gone through. He had a feeling that she needed him more than ever.
When Scarlett came back into the room, she waved the thermometer at him before turning it on and sticking it under her tongue. Colton walked over to her and gently took it from her lips.
“What are you doing?” he queried.
“I… I thought you wanted to see if I have a fever.”
“Of course, but we’re not going to take it that way.”
Scarlett’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”
“Everybody knows that the best way to get an accurate temp is to take it here.” He gave her bottom a little pat and hid his smile when she blanched.
“Why don’t you go ahead and lie down on the couch there?”
“Colton… I don’t know about this.”
“Don’t worry.” He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “I just want to take care of you.”
She looked at him long and hard before she finally gave a feeble nod.
“Good girl.” Even the praise didn’t take the apprehension from her face, and for a second, Colton faltered. She’d been through quite an ordeal, or so he’d heard—maybe this was pushing her too far. But then he reminded himself that she could choose to tell the truth any time. When she did that, he would stop, so really, it was up to her.
Scarlett made her way to the couch with teeny, tiny steps, as though she was heading to her own execution. Probably she thought so. Once she’d made it, she looked back at him with wide, uncertain eyes.
“Lie down on your belly,” he instructed. “Oh, and pull down your panties.” He stood behind her and watched, resisting the urge to yank down her shorts for her. He was getting quite the itchy palm waiting for her to admit her lie.
“L-like this?” Scarlett asked, even though there was only one way to pull down your underwear.
“Yes, baby. Now, lift your hips. Yep, just like that. Hey, you don’t have any petroleum jelly, do you?”
“In the b-bathroom,” she stammered.
“Okay. I’ll be right back. You stay just like that.”
Colton made quick work of finding what he needed and he brought the small plastic jar with him. He was pleased to see that Scarlett had remained as he’d instructed. She turned her head when she heard him come in the room and watched him with trepidation. Not one to disappoint, he made sure to give her a show, his movements slow and exaggerated as he popped the lid off the petroleum jelly and coated the plastic arm of the thermometer.
going to use that thing, are you?” she squeaked.
“I told you that I was. When have you known me to say one thing, and do another?”
“But I don’t feel that bad. Really.”
He nodded, waiting patiently for her to spill the truth. When she said nothing more, he set the jar down on the coffee table and moved toward her.
“No! You can’t do this!” Scarlett yelped, and in the blink of an eye she’d leapt up and sat right down on her pretty bottom, hiding it away from him.
“I can’t, huh? Give me one good reason why not.”
Scarlett had a million reasons why not, but seeing him stand in front of her, carrying that thermometer like a sword, all of them fled in the wake of her fear.
“Scarlett?” he prompted, in a tone that told her he was beginning to lose patience.
“Be-because I’m too old for this!”
With a sigh, Colton walked toward her. She scooted back as far as she could, pressing herself into the fabric of the couch. Sadly, it did not open up and swallow her as she’d hoped. When he sat down beside her, she scooted to the other end, putting as much space between them as she could while he pretended not to notice.
“Are you scared?” he asked, his voice gentle.
“Y-yes,” she admitted, refusing to look at him. She didn’t dare, because if she saw that once-innocent looking thermometer, she thought she might do something really stupid, like try to run. That, or tell him the truth. She thought she might come out ahead if she ran—she didn’t even want to think of what would happen if he found out that she’d lied to him.
Talk about stupid. Sitting here now, she couldn’t quite remember why it had seemed like such a good idea to lie in the first place. When she’d met him at the door, she could have just explained that she hadn’t felt up to going to work today and left it at that. But no, she had to tell him she was sick, and one lie had led to another, and another, until she didn’t think she knew how to stop.
“I understand bein’ afraid, but all I’m tryin’ to do is make sure you’re alright.”
Oh, if that wasn’t a knife to the heart, she didn’t know what was. Scarlett squirmed uncomfortably and tried to think of some way to get out of this. God, it was just like him to be concerned about her being sick. She couldn’t believe he’d gone to surprise her at work—that alone made her wish she’d gone in, after all. Not to mention that if she had, she wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. Of course, if she hadn’t lied…
But it was just so hard to tell him the truth, and she was embarrassed that she’d let herself get into the situation with Wade in the first place. If she’d checked the peephole first, if she’d just asked who was there. Hell, if she’d just been a little faster and closed the door, she wouldn’t be sitting here still shaken from what had happened.
“I know, but—”
“No buts,” he told her firmly. “Well, unless we’re talking about getting your cute one up in the air. Come on, right now.” When she didn’t answer him or move to comply, Colton scooted closer and took her chin in his hands, gently guiding her until she met his eyes. “Did you hear me?”
“Yes, but you c-can’t use that t-thing on me.”
“I think I can.” He pinned her down with his stern gaze, daring her to contradict him.
Scarlett squirmed, but even when she dropped her eyes, she could still his penetrating stare. “That’s for babies.”