“Of all the sneaky, ratty things to do, this ranks as the worst, Nick Coleman,” Abby Snyder said, exhaling slowly as she made the announcement in front of the mirror. Running the brush through her dark hair, she caught the angry flush on her cheeks and took a breath.
She didn’t normally have a problem keeping her temper under control. Calmness had been her goal ever since she’d heard the news, but so far she hadn’t been able to achieve it. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle tough news or rough situations. She’d had more than her fair share of hard knocks.
Starting with the car accident that had claimed the lives of both of her parents when she was seventeen, followed by her short-lived, awful marriage, she’d learned that life didn’t play fair. That heartache was an equal opportunity emotion.
It had fallen on her shoulders to keep the family going. She hadn’t always known how to handle things after having such a big responsibility thrust on her, but she’d always tried to do right by those in her life. For her younger sisters, her biggest desire had been protecting them from anything that might cause them more pain.
When her sisters were teenagers, she’d warned them not to fall for any lines boys might give them. Over and again, she’d told them not to get tangled up thinking a boy with a reputation would everchange.
Yet here she was, her life turned upside down by a boy with a reputation. Except this wasn’t high school and Nick wasn’t a boy anymore.
At thirty-two, she definitely wasn’t that teenage girl she’d once been, either. But had she heeded the lecture she’d given her sisters, she wouldn’t have ended up having a one-night stand with the last man she’d ever pictured herself kissing much less doing the birthday suit tango with.
“And what a suit he had,” Abby muttered out loud.
Images of him whispered through her mind with breath-catching attention, and Abby shivered again. His dark hair and dark eyes. That easy smile. That rock-hard body he still kept in Marine-ready condition. She hadn’t really spent time around him when he was in the service, but she could picture him with his dog tags hanging around his neck as he pushed his body to the limit and beyond.
Abby shivered. He had a way of leaning close, intently gazing at her as if she were the only woman he’d ever seen in his life. That night, his lips had curved with a promise he’d more than delivered.
In high school, she’d catch his eye, and the intensity she’d seen in the depths of his had caused her to entertain thoughts that took her pulse from zero to a hundred. She’d suspected getting close to him would shake her much-too-fragile life back then, that he could be the kind of guy to make her forget she had to be strong, so she’d avoided him.
Until that night three months ago.
Him pressing her against the wall had given new meaning to the phrase “between a rock and a hard place.” He’d touched the side of her neck, making her pulse zip along like an Amtrak at full throttle, but there was no way she would board that train. Again.
She could still recall the taste of the salt from the ocean breeze on his skin. Music had wafted in from somewhere across the sands, the melody so beautifully haunting it had made her heart swell.
If she closed her eyes and pictured the scene, she could almost smell the scented candles flickering by the bed, the vanilla tangled with cinnamon. Sweet and spice, a reminder of it all. His whispered, “Look at me, Abby,” as his need had collided with hers reverberated in her mind.
Breathing hard, Abby turned away from the mirror and fanned herself with her hand, not wanting to see the emotion clearly displayed on her face. The fear and the longing.
Nick was tough enough to fight through the walls she’d erected to keep her heart safe, and she’d promised herself she’d never go down that road ever again. Never be vulnerable. Ever.
Tossing the brush onto the neatly made bed, she scooped her hair into a short ponytail. Though her life no longer felt as fragile as it once had, she’d been right in believing Nick would shake it up.
She held herself just as responsible for that night as Nick. No matter how much he’d blown her preconceived notions about sex all to hell, she shouldn’t have lowered her guard. But she had and he’d stabbed her in the back. Damn him and those images of his flexed muscles that wanted to stay on instant replay in her mind.
Nerve endings tingling with the mental awareness, Abby avoided making eye contact with the mirror. Picking up the brush, she put it neatly on the antique dresser that once belonged to her grandmother and left her bedroom. She walked down the stairs she’d been meaning to refinish to search for her constantly misplaced car keys.
To get this situation over with, more than anything, she wanted to call Nick and let him have an earful, but that would be too easy for him. He’d try to weasel out of what he’d done, and she wasn’t going to have that. Sex was one thing. Her business was another. How could Nick even think of standing in the way of her diner expansion by trying to take the building she needed?
Over my dead body.
She wasn’t about to give an inch in this matter. She wanted to see him face-to-face when she confronted him. He was going to look her in the eye and explain why he’d screwed her over.
Her new summer sandals sounded out quick, sharp bursts from the low heels as she made her way across the hardwood flooring and outside onto the front porch. She locked the door and paused for a moment to take a deep breath. The sweet aroma of the flowers in several hanging baskets surrounded her.
Growing things always helped her to de-stress. She liked the simplicity and order that came with gardening. Right now, she had anything but that. Her gaze drifted across the yard.
She’d completed the mowing and edging yesterday right before a cleansing summer rain had fallen. The lawn looked good except for a stubborn group of weeds that sprouted up near the rosebushes she’d planted in memory of her parents. Those weeds needed to be uprooted and tossed, just like the memory of Nick.
But there wasn’t a container of weed killer big enough to erase what had happened that night. Damn him—and damn her for falling for his lies.
Angry with herself that her thoughts kept returning to him, Abby marched decisively from the porch and across the red brick pavers to her aging station wagon.
When one of her next-door neighbors called her name, Abby responded with, “I haven’t forgotten about giving you the cake recipe. I’ll email it to you while I’m at the diner.”
Her neighbor grinned and waved as Abby slid into the driver’s seat, avoiding the broken spring. She grimaced when she touched the steering wheel. The end of June in South Carolina wasn’t the time to forget to put up the sunshade, and she wouldn’t have forgotten had she not been so distracted. Steering with her palms, she backed the car out of the driveway of the home she shared with her grandfather, Noah.
She hadn’t told anyone in her family about Nick’s ploy because she’d been afraid what had happened in Florida might accidentally slip out. That could not happen.
While she loved her grandfather and sisters deeply, they would want to know things Abby wasn’t ready to examine.
Plus, she felt a little embarrassed after all the plans she’d made for the expansion, at how sure she’d been that everything was finally going to fall into place for her. She’d told everyone as much. Had already toasted to her future success.
Didn’t look like that was going to happen now and she looked and felt like a fool.
Damn Nick all over again. What right did he have to think he could swoop in and change everything? Well, she’d just change it right back. That building was as good as hers, and she wasn’t letting it go without a fight.
Since it was Saturday, Nick wouldn’t be at the office where he ran a business renovating homes. He’d rented a tiny space beside the post office for the last three years. Before Florida, every time she’d looked at the swinging black iron sign above his door, she’d wondered what she might have missed out on by ignoring him in high school. By cutting him off every time he flirted with her.
Now, seeing the sign made her think about Nick, and thinking about him was ten times worse. Because now she knew what she’d missed out on all these years. No wonder his business was successful. She could testify to how good he was with his hands.
Thinking about his hands made Abby recall the rest of him. How fit his body was, with taut six-pack abs and biceps that had easily lifted her. She’d experienced a momentary stab of fear when he closed his arms around her, but she’d quickly learned that he was in no way the bully her ex had been.
Guiding the car onto the street leading to Sweet Creek’s only auto repair shop, where she knew Nick would be hanging out with his cousin, Abby mentally wished for the car to go faster. She couldn’t wait to tell Nick exactly what she thought of him and his underhanded way of trying to steal what was supposed to be hers.
But no matter how hard she pressed on the gas, the car simply didn’t have any get-up-and-go left in it. It was one more thing on her take-care-of list. She couldn’t buy a new car until she found a building she could use to expand the diner. She wouldn’t know how much money she’d have left over until then. If she had to buy a more expensive building, the expansion was off. There was no way she’d get that kind of financing. All the buildings she’d looked at were way outside her budget.
Except for the one next to her diner. That one, she could afford a down payment on. The exact one Nick was trying to take.
He’d approached the owner to tell the guy he wanted to buy it. The same day she had. They’d missed each other by fifteen minutes.
Because Oscar, the elderly owner, had known both of them since, in his words, “Y’all were knee-high to grasshoppers,” he wouldn’t sell to either of them unless they could work something out amicably between themselves.
Abby reached over and pushed the button for the air conditioning. With a sputter, hot air halfheartedly spewed from the vents, making the heat inside the car worse. Giving up, she shut it off and rolled the windows farther down. The sweet scent of freshly made cinnamon rolls assailed her as she passed the bakery, but her nerves were stretched too tight to think about stopping to get one.
A knot of desperation curled in her stomach. Something had to work out in her favor. She needed a car. She needed that building. She needed a one-night stand do-over so she could erase the fact that it had happened.
Since she couldn’t have the latter, Nick would have to back off the building. Once he did that, Oscar would be willing to sell to her, and she’d be on track. She’d move on with her life and that night would become a distant memory and—
Her thoughts abruptly screeched to a halt when she rounded the curve in the road and spotted Nick.
She sucked in a breath. Holy ooh rah.
Nick was bent slightly forward at the waist, one hand on the raised hood of an old Dodge Charger while he looked at the engine. His faded blue jeans hugged him as if he were a lifeguard that had just rescued an exhausted swimmer from a riptide. His dark T-shirt pulled across his chest, paying homage to the muscles visibly defined beneath it.
Abby gulped. She eased through the four-way and slowed the car until it coasted to a stop.
The sun touched the skin on the back of his neck above the T-shirt collar, and she remembered the light sunburn he’d had the night they’d spent together. How warm his skin had felt beneath her fingertips as she’d rubbed soothing lotion on him.
If she wasn’t careful, between the anger at Nick and the unwelcome desire she felt at seeing him, she was going to spontaneously combust.
After shoving the gearshift into Park, Abby opened the door. She stepped out and straightened her shoulders. Mustn’t drool over the enemy or I’ll short-circuit my brain.
She recalled the last time she’d felt this cheated, and once again, a man had been involved then, too.
Whatever Nick said, however he tried to defend himself, he had no excuses. He’d undermined her. Still, she wouldn’t let him or his sneaky, underhanded behavior impact her life a second longer. She’d become accustomed to going around obstacles when her family needed her. Buying that building was her chance to finally do something for herself, and she wasn’t about to let Nick Coleman stand in her way.
When he heard footsteps approaching, Nick looked over his shoulder and saw Abby. The day came abruptly, sharply into focus and all of it on her, the one woman he’d never been able to get out of his mind.
He liked the way her hips swayed oh-so-gently as she moved, but he especially liked the way the hot sunlight streamed through her skirt, outlining a figure he knew too damned well. The sight put his body on high alert, and he shifted, his heart beating like he’d just out-skied an avalanche.Down, boy.
He’d seen her a few times since the night they’d spent together in Florida, but she’d brushed him off each time. There was a definite challenge in her eyes when she stopped in front of him. His gaze roamed her face.
She had girl-next-door beauty combined with a down-to-earth personality that had caused more than one guy to chase after her. As far as he knew, she’d refused them all.
When he continued to observe her, she crossed her arms defensively. He couldn’t help but think of the balcony where she’d rested her head against his bare chest. She hadn’t been defensive then. Hadn’t kept him at arm’s length. He’d covered the both of them with a sheet from the bed, positive that he’d rocked her world as much as she’d rocked his.
The next morning, he’d planned to tell her that he wanted to keep seeing her, but the bed had been empty, her tantalizing perfume lingering like a sad, regretful sigh on the empty pillow beside him.
So much for rocking her world.
He tensed at her current expression. She certainly didn’t look welcoming, and there was only so much rejection a man could take.
Looking past her at the car that he knew had to be held together by hope and not much else, he said, “Are you here to have the station wagon looked at?”
Abby followed his gaze to her car and took a deep breath, the action causing the thin fabric of her shirt to pull against her breasts.
Nick swallowed hard and forced his eyes upward from the sight. She had an eyebrow lifted, and he knew he’d been caught thinking with a part south of his belt buckle. “Don’t expect me to apologize for looking—or remembering,” he said. Boy, did he ever remember. Often at the most inopportune times he recalled the silkiness of her skin, how soft she’d felt under his hands.
To distract the direction his thoughts were going, and keep southern things from going north, he moved around the car and leaned his back against the driver’s side door. “I’m surprised to see you here. You usually run the other direction any time you see me coming.”
She looked like she’d taken a mouthful of bitter lemonade and needed to spew it out.
He held out a hand when she opened her mouth, his pride still feeling the sting of her prior rejections. “Let me guess. You realized how good we were together, and you want to give it another shot. I might be agreeable, but just so you know, after cold shouldering me as long as you have, it’s going to take more than an apology.”
She looked even madder now. He could practically see the anger simmering off her. Maybe she’d gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. He knew what would relax her, hell, relax the both of them, but he had a feeling it wasn’t the time to mention that.
“I always knew you were arrogant,” she said, curling her fingers into fists.
“Really? You seemed to like me well enough when we were together.”
“Nick, you are so full of—”
“Confidence? Yeah, I know.”
“I’m not here to tell you I want another shot at whatever it was we had.”
No way could he let that go. “Whatever? Let me spell it out for you. We had mind-blowing sex. Best you ever had, you said.”
Abby took a breath, let go of it slowly, and then said sharply, “I believe what I said was the steak dinner we shared was the best I ever had.”
“Ah, come on. If you’re going to keep giving me the cold shoulder the way you have, the least you can do is admit the truth. Denial is an ugly place to live.” He caught the flush on her face and grinned. “I believe you said you felt like you’d found the fountain of ecstasy.”
“I was referring to the wine. It was delicious,” she said.
Nick frowned. A warning bell started chiming in his head. He hadn’t done or said anything to make her this mad. He hadn’t even talked to her much since that night. Yet, she looked ready to do bodily harm, and his was the only body in the vicinity.
Abby said, with a dismissive wave of her hand, “I’m not here to talk about sex, especially not with you.”
“Pity,” Nick said. He waited for her to go on, and when she didn’t, he prompted, “Then why are you here?”
“You’ve really got some nerve. You can’t even stand there and be a man about this. You cheat, lie, and steal from me, and then you play innocent?”
Nick felt his own temper start to rise. He wasn’t a liar or a cheat, and he’d never wronged Abby. “Hang on a damn minute. I sure as hell didn’t cheat or lie to you. And there’s no way for me to steal what you so freely and willingly gave, darling.”
“Willing? I didn’t even know you’d done it!”
Nick blinked. “Abby, what the hell are you talking about? You were conscious and very active as I recall, all three times.”
Her flush darkened. “That building is mine.”
How the hell women thought men were the ones that were incapable of making sense was… Understanding hit him. “This is not about Florida.”
“Can you please pay attention?” Abby shook her head. “Of course it’s not about Florida. It’s about right here in Sweet Creek, South Carolina. You stole my building.”
Crossing his arms, Nick said, “The one next to your diner? How can I steal something that’s not yours?”
“You talked to Oscar about selling it to you.”
“That’s not a crime.”
“You knew I wanted it.”
“How could I know you wanted that building?”
“I mentioned it when we were at dinner.”
Nick couldn’t help the smile that slid across his face as he remembered that dinner. “I had other things on my mind then. I wasn’t paying any attention to—” He tried to shut up before the words slipped out but couldn’t.
“You weren’t listening to me. Figures. What, I wasn’t worth listening to?”
“Abby, I was so damned focused on being with you nothing else mattered.”
“That is such an excuse. You can’t think straight when you want to have sex? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah. Kind of.” By the look on her face, Nick could tell he was digging himself in deeper. And he didn’t want to do that, not when he desperately needed her help. For the sake of his business, he needed to prove he’d changed and was no longer the guy he’d once been. The idea of how to do that had started the night he’d spent with Abby three months ago. She represented stability. Her family had roots in the town that probably went back to the Mayflower.
If people saw them together, word would travel quickly—the way it always did in their small town—that Abby trusted him enough to date him. Everyone knew that she didn’t trust just anyone. Being with her meant he’d be on his way back into the good graces of the town. They would trust him, trust his business. If he couldn’t do that, he wouldn’t be able to close the biggest deal of his life. He’d lose the opportunity to renovate historic, million-dollar homes in Charleston to his competitor. The guy had a squeaky clean reputation, a wife, a herd of kids, and he drove a minivan for crying out loud.
“Oscar said for us to work something out between the two of us. I want you to go to him right now and tell him that you don’t want the building.” Abby put her hands on her hips and it pulled her shirt even tighter.
Nick knew better than to sneak a look. That would really piss her off. And he needed Abby to think of him as dateable material so the potential client would choose him over Mr. Family Man. “I can’t do that.”
“Because it would be a lie. The very thing you accused me of doing.” He smiled smugly. “Tell you what, why don’t you have dinner with me tonight and we can talk about this?”
“That’s how it started last time.”
“I don’t remember dragging you off kicking and screaming to my cave. In fact, you started it. We didn’t even get out of the elevator before you were all over me. I felt quite used.” He winked at her. Teasing her probably wasn’t his best idea, but he enjoyed the fire it put in her eyes.
Her flush deepened. “You’re impossible. I don’t know why I thought I could reason with you.” With an exasperated huff of breath, she turned around.
“You’re leaving in the middle of our chat? I thought things were going so well.”
“I’m going to get that building, Nick, come hell or high water,” she said over her shoulder with a glare.
“You wanna bet?” he called after her retreating back.