by Carol Burnside
Contemporary Romance, Sensual
Release date: 2.19.2014
Novel length, e-book
This book is the second in the Sweetwater Springs series of stand-alone books by this author.
Former bad boy, Travis Baxter, has a reputation to live down, a job to do fast, and one woman he can’t seem to avoid. He’s starting a 24/7 renovation flip on Claire’s beauty salon when a surprise appears at his door . . . a three-year-old son. Immediate custody brings Travis a major problem. He needs a nanny.
Claire Larkin glimpsed a rare and appealing side of Travis during one ill-fated date, but her personal policy is no involvement, no strings. Not even a pet until she’s pronounced cancer free. With free time until her salon is done, Claire pitches in to help the grieving little boy and stunned father. Despite her best efforts to resist, she and Travis succumb to their attraction.
When it appears Claire’s cancer has returned, she pulls away and Travis is faced with a seemingly impossible decision. Protect his son from another loss or support the woman he’s come to love?
Fans of Marie Ferrarella, Tanya Michaels, Leanne Banks and Susan Mallery will enjoy this series, which contains sensual romance against a backdrop of family and community.
Book 1: A Suitable Wife (Rosie and Sam), January, 2014
Book 3: His Small Town Princess (J.T. and Cass), March 2014
Other titles are planned for this series.
“You just keep your secret, Claire Larkin.” Marge Heller lifted a determined chin, intensifying the odor of permanent wave solution inside the small salon. “In a small town like Sweetwater Springs, the truth will come out.”
Not this time. “What would you and Miss Lilah talk about then? The weather? It’s barely May and already there’s talk of the summer being a scorcher. Hot and humid covers that subject.” Claire smiled indulgently at both customers via the beauty station mirror while avoiding her own ultra-short cut.
“I’ll bet she drives into Little Rock to visit a wild rocker boyfriend with tattoos and a blue Mohawk. Come on, Claire honey, fess up.” LouAnne Lebowitz, owner of the Curl Up & Dye, leaned over the L-shaped reception counter, bracing on plump forearms.
Claire flicked an annoyed glance at her boss. She’d shared her medical past with LouAnne of necessity, but that didn’t mean an over-the-top cover up was called for. “You’re all way off base. I’m not even looking for a man, but you could find my boss one. She deserves someone special.”
LouAnne’s sputtered protest sparked a round of good-natured teasing.
Claire removed curlers from Lilah Bradshaw’s frizzy, grayish-brown hair, pretending to concentrate on a task as second nature to her as walking. Both Marge and Lilah were bread-and-butter customers, keeping weekly shampoo, set and style appointments with the occasional cut or perm.
The phone rang. LouAnne answered, and the lines marring her forehead softened. She flicked a look over the trio and turned her back to them, her voice lowered.
Well, well. Maybe she didn’t need anyone to find her a man.
“She could be leading a double life,” Marge mused from a nearby styling chair, in her deep Arkansas drawl.
“Who? LouAnne?” Lilah’s brow wrinkled.
“No. Claire.” Marge shook her head. “Get with the program, honey. We’re talking about Claire’s mysterious appointments.”
Claire suppressed a groan. While there were advantages in moving to a place where a quarter still bought you a half-hour on the parking meter, there could be drawbacks too. As much as she loved living here and being semi-adopted by her customers, she wasn’t entirely comfortable being treated like folks’ cousin twice removed. She’d never had those kind of family connections back in Texas. Even in foster homes, no one had encouraged more familiarity than was necessary.
“Oh, yes. Come on, Claire. Tell us the truth. You have a love slave stashed in Little Rock, don’t you?” Lilah winked at Claire in the beauty station mirror and tittered with Marge over the delicious prospect.
“Love slave? Good gravy, Miss Lilah. Your imagination is working overtime this morning.” Her trips into the city to give cancer patients free beauty services was private. But her salon customers enjoyed the mystery and remained ever hopeful she’d cough up a clue.
“Think so? My Herman always said I had a vivid imagination. God rest his soul.”
“Y’all spread your wild ideas around and I’ll never get another date.” Claire began teasing Lilah’s frizz.
“Another? You hardly date at all.” Marge waved a dismissive hand. “What if we spread the word you’re looking for a husband?”
“Don’t you dare. Remember, your hair is frequently at my mercy.” Claire adopted a stern look and continued backcombing.
Marge remained unfazed. “Travis needs to find someone and settle down. He’s the last holdout of those Baxter kids, now that his sister is married.”
Claire’s pulse stuttered over Marge’s unexpected statement. The Baxter-Moreland wedding for his sister, Rosie and her fiancé, Sam, was the first time she’d seen Travis in formal wear. He’d stood tall and self-assured in a tux that clung to his body like white on rice, his dark blond hair bleach-streaked by the sun.
Too bad her one and only date with him had turned sour. Something solid and steady about the man caused a tug-of-war inside her chest every time she saw him.
A few months later he’d sported a navy suit, his face etched in sadness over his sister-in-law’s sudden passing. The service, one more confirmation of life’s uncertainty, had been a jolting reminder that she should keep her distance.
“He’ll have to look in another direction.” Claire said softly, sadness tempering her frustration.
Even if he was in the market, Travis would never consider her a prospect. Not after the way their date had ended, and that was fine with her.
Her date with the man was a shining example of how her logic could fail, and she’d reacted like an idiot. The memory made her cringe.
“You sure?” Marge winked. “It wasn’t too long ago I remember his mama mentioning you two makin’ eyes at each other during a family get-together.”
“Temporary insanity. I think she spiked the iced tea.”
Marge lifted a skeptical brow.
With his semi-playboy past, Travis had appeared a safe bet for a going-nowhere date, much like the user-loser men her mom had paraded through the squalid little single-wide trailer they’d lived in. Okay, so he wasn’t that bad, but he had enough of a player rep that she wouldn’t be tempted to form a relationship. No way he’d want one either, right? He’d be the perfect casual fling.
How could she have ignored the fact that Travis came from the most normal, decent family she’d ever encountered? Some of his upbringing had to have stuck.
“Didn’t you and Travis date for awhile?” LouAnne’s voice all but dripped honey. “Was he a terrible womanizer, hon? That boy earned quite the reputation back in high school. Got suspended for peeking in the girl’s locker room while the cheerleaders were changing.”
“Wasn’t the only time, either.” Marge added. “He and Lisa Harper got caught in a kiss and grope session. In the janitor’s closet, no less.”
LouAnne’s lips twitched. “Practically had to beat the gals off with a stick.”
Marge and Lilah nodded in unison, all eyes trained on Claire in the mirrors.
What kind of game was her boss playing? She kept her expression neutral. “Actually, no. He was nice enough. We just . . . didn’t work.”
She expected a freak bolt of lightning to strike her for that one, especially when Marge shook her head and Lilah made sympathetic clicking noises. LouAnne stared through the large front window at the cars parked diagonally to the curb, with a lost-in-thought squint.
In reality, the heady Cinderella-at-the-ball feeling during Claire’s date with Travis had lowered her defenses. His kisses had drowned everything but sensation—until he’d pulled away—proving how easily she could fall under his spell.
Travis couldn’t have known how seductive his behavior would be to someone with her pathetic past. When she’d moved here two years ago, his sister Rosie had bulldozed Claire into a friendship of sorts, but so far she’d avoided divulging details of her life in Texas.
A shuddering groan emanated from inside the walls of the old building. Both her customers gazed at each other, with “uh-oh” expressions on their faces.
Claire glanced at their reflections in the mirrored wall and fought the urge to laugh. Lilah, so tiny her head barely cleared the stylist’s chair, had teased tufts all over her head, while Marge, nearly six feet and gaunt, sported dozens of colored permanent wave rods. “Y’all relax. It’s only the water pipes groaning again.”
“They’re getting worse,” Marge grumbled.
“I’ve got a guy coming by to give me an estimate on repairs today. We left the appointment time loose, but I need to run an errand and meet someone for lunch.” LouAnne grabbed her purse from a shelf under the register and headed for the front door. “If the construction guy arrives before I get back, you can answer his questions, Claire.”
“Me? But I don’t . . .” Too late. The door swept closed with LouAnne already on her way.
Picking and shaping the tangled mess Lilah believed to be her crowning glory, Claire concentrated on her work, and the ladies’ chatter faded into the background. How anyone lived with a ratted, lacquered helmet on their head was beyond her. Did the woman sleep on her face?
“Lilah, why don’t you try a new style next week? Maybe a few highlights around your face.” The stylist in Claire couldn’t help but offer to relieve the woman of her 1960’s look, even as she smoothed the bowl-like mass.
The older clients usually took one look at her own hair and stuck with LouAnne for their appointments. Until they saw Claire in action. Word of her own unique style had spread, resulting in the influx of a younger crowd and delighting LouAnne.
For now, the funky ultra-short look suited her and didn’t exactly elicit envious looks from the oncology patients she attended to during her off hours. That in itself was priceless, worth any sacrifice.
“I’ll make a deal with you, dear. You grow your hair out with its natural color, and I’ll give you carte blanche to change my style.” Lilah challenged her with raised brows.
For a second Claire’s breath caught in her throat. Had Lilah guessed her secret? Her gaze swept over the older woman’s face for signs of pity, searching steady blue-gray eyes.
No. Lilah was sweetly clueless, as usual. Claire released the air from her lungs and forced a smile. “You heard that, didn’t you, Marge?”
“You betcha, kiddo. A promise if I ever heard one.”
“I hope to take you up on that some day, Miss Lilah.” No one knew how deeply Claire meant that.
“I won’t hold my breath.”
“Speaking of changes, Claire, what do you call your new color?” Marge asked.
“It’s Plum Pudding. Would you like to try it sometime? I bet Emmett would be surprised.” Claire kept her face carefully composed as Marge sputtered her refusal and Lilah smothered a giggle.
Claire glanced at the large clock in the waiting area. Right on schedule. Her next client wouldn’t arrive seeking highlights for at least another fifteen minutes. She began to fog Lilah’s helmet with extra-hold hair spray, smoothing here and there. “All right. You’re good to go. See you next week.”
“Thanks, Claire. I’ll hang around and wait for Marge.”
Claire checked the progress of Marge’s perm while Lilah dropped her check by the front desk. “About five more minutes on this, Marge. I’ll be right back.”
That left her time to take a bathroom break and start a load of towels washing. Or did it? She cocked her head to one side, trying to remember if LouAnne had said when the construction estimator would arrive.
* * *
Travis eased his truck to the curb and exited the vehicle, dreading the estimate his business partner had insisted needed to be done today.
The site didn’t bother him. Hell, it was simply another place of business in Sweetwater Springs’s vintage version of downtown. The problem wasn’t with the clientele, either. He’d always had a soft spot where females were concerned, and they seemed to return the sentiment with . . . well, with enthusiasm.
All except one, and she worked here, so he’d look the place over, make some notes and get out. Obviously, this was a courtesy thing. Massey & Co. did major construction, not messy remodels.
Taking a deep, fortifying breath, he strode across the curb and inside what most men in this neck of the woods would consider No Man’s Land—the dreaded beauty salon.
All chatter between two women inside the Curl Up & Dye came to an abrupt halt. Both their gazes focused on him while his lungs tried to adjust to the chemical-laden air.
“Good morning.” He addressed the tiny woman standing beside one with colored rods in her hair. “I’m looking for—”
“Speak of the devil,” said the woman seated. “Look who’s here, Lilah.”
Travis took another look at the woman in the chair. “Miz Heller?”
“That would be me.”
“Miz Bradshaw.” He nodded at the woman standing. “I have an appointment with LouAnne.”
“Here?” Lilah asked, grasping Marge’s hand, her eyes wide with surprise.
“This is her salon, isn’t it?” Travis frowned. “Something wrong?”
“Well, no, but we don’t see many men customers in here.”
He hitched his chin as understanding dawned. While Little Rock might have its share of unisex salons, the manly men of Sweetwater Springs hadn’t evolved—yet. “Not that kind of appointment. She—”
“You’re in construction, aren’t you, Travis?” Marge’s soft smile turned sly.
“I’ll have to hand it to her, that LouAnne’s a crafty one.” She rotated her chair toward the back of the shop and called out, “Your estimator fella is here.”
“Be right there.”
Damn. He knew that voice, and it wasn’t LouAnne’s. Travis steeled himself not to react and turned, facing the direction the voice had come from.
Holy smokes. Purple hair this time.
Seeing Claire again struck him like a hard fist in his gut. Her head was all he could see protruding from a narrow doorway into a short hall. Her hair defied gravity, sticking out every which way on her head. Except for the often-altered hair color, she hadn’t changed one glorious iota.
“LouAnne had to step out,” Claire informed him, still mimicking a curious turtle.
He glanced at the rapt gazes. Oh, man. Face time with her was guaranteed to be awkward, but he’d be damned if he’d entertain an audience. “Could I speak to you a moment? In private.”
Two heads swiveled between him and Claire, blatantly eavesdropping, and he cursed silently. The story would be all over town tomorrow, curiously picked at by the Busy Biddies Brigade like hens over a mound of feed. Lord only knew what spin they’d put on it.
“Uh . . . sure. Come on back.” From the expression on her face, Claire didn’t look forward to this any more than he did.
“Ladies.” He acknowledged the customers in a manner befitting his Southern upbringing and joined Claire in the small room, not much bigger than a closet.
She shut the door.
Immediately, the miniscule place grew warmer. He feigned indifference to her nearness by checking out the tiny area. Shallow shelving lined one wall, overflowing with bottles and tubes. The opposite wall held a small counter and cabinets, a double sink and more shelves.
“What are you doing here, Travis? I thought we agreed not to see each other again.” She whispered the words through lips tight with tension.
He counted to ten. They hadn’t agreed on anything. She’d ended things between them without giving him a real chance. “Don’t flatter yourself. I’m here to work up an estimate on remodeling the shop.”
“I thought you were a big shot. Why not send a flunky?” she muttered. Turning to the small counter, she poured white liquid into a small bowl of powder and stirred. A noxious odor assailed his nostrils.
“Augh! That’s nasty.” He stepped away from the goopy concoction turning reddish-brown, and backed into overstocked shelves. Beauty products rained all around him.
Grabbing wildly, he grazed Claire’s thigh while catching a bottle. He offered it to her, trying to ignore memories of the last time they’d been this close. And alone.
Eight months ago. The night of their first and only date.
One thing he remembered quite well. Claire had worn a soft, two-piece dress with a flirty lace skirt that fell into points, allowing him tantalizing glimpses of surprisingly shapely legs, considering her slender figure. Today’s outfit, a black and white geometric-patterned mini dress with fishnet stockings, was far from that. And her hair had been a soft pink.
All the signals she’d exuded told him she was amenable to the idea of taking their date to a more intimate level. To this day he couldn’t say what made him step away from her kisses to suggest a couple more dates the next week, but she’d been furious. Acted like he’d insulted her.
The woman was a nut job. Since when was getting to know your date better a crime? Maybe she’d had second thoughts about dating someone with his reputation.
He’d sort of fallen into the rebellious teen thing due to raging hormones and a healthy curiosity. His reward had been the so-called good girls. It seemed the bad boy element turned them on enough they’d risk parental wrath with everything from intentionally seeking detention to sneaking out at night to “go parking.” Over a decade later those hellion days still surfaced occasionally to haunt him.
Claire hadn’t struck him as the type to care about such things.
“You’re a bull in a beauty shop,” she said with a shake of her head. Large lacy-looking earrings swung wildly about a neck just as delectable now as then.
He started to correct her, but promptly forgot how the adage went when she reached past him, her face mere inches from his own. The aroma of hair products reached him first, followed by a delicate underlying scent. Damn. He remembered that too.
Not likely he’d forget Claire quickly applying lotion to her hands and arms before they went to dinner, how soft her hand felt when he’d helped her from the car, or how the fragrance had lingered on his skin.
He remained perfectly still, fighting his definitely not-listening body’s response.
She replaced the bottle on the shelf without meeting his gaze and stilled. Inches apart, he swore he could feel the heat from their bodies comingling in the air between them. Claire exhaled and stepped back.
A balloon-like pop sounded, and darkness descended. Startled shrieks emanated from the front of the shop, followed by excited jabbering.
Travis reached for the doorknob, his hand closing over Claire’s. He pulled back, hearing her slight intake of breath before she swore.
“Stay put.” Her aggravated voice halted him. “Your expertise isn’t needed. The breaker box and I frequently meet in the dark.”
What had he done to irritate her so? “Maybe that’s your problem, Claire. You don’t need anybody.”
She froze in the now open doorway, light from the front windows allowing him a glimpse of her face. For a split second he thought she flinched, but the look she shot him as she left contained venom.
If anyone should have attitude here, it would be him. He was the one she’d rebuffed and it had stung, more than he wanted to remember. The fragile, waiflike look of her heart-shaped face once brought out his protective side, but he’d learned there was a barrier of steel beneath the surface—cold, hard and unyielding where he was concerned.
Who needed that? It certainly didn’t factor into his idea of the perfect woman. She would be . . . normal, loving and kind as well as sexy, someone willing to commit to building a long-term relationship and raising a family. She’d recognize he’d left his less-than-ideal past behind.
Yet he stood here wanting Claire, his perfect woman’s polar opposite. What was wrong with him?
Toward the back of the shop, a rusty creak and a snap jolted him. The lights flickered back on, and he managed to retrieve four fallen bottles before Claire appeared once again in the doorway.
“Did you pick that hair color from a Crayola box or the produce section, darlin’?” He intentionally drawled the words to annoy her. Her daring do was never the same hue for longer than a few weeks, not that it bothered him. She managed to carry off the look quite well. But for someone so bold, she hated comments on her look.
Her back straightened. “Put those on the shelf and leave the rest. LouAnne said you were here to give her an estimate.”
“Do you know the scope of the remodel?”
“I think we’ve got air in the pipes and the electrical system’s overloaded, but I wouldn’t call it a remodel.” Claire returned to the task of stirring reddish-brown goop, her flushed skin clashing with her hair.
He gave her a slow once-over, deliberately letting the silence stretch until she glanced back over her shoulder at him.
Regardless of her off-beat style, she remained one of the prettiest women he’d ever seen, with her pert nose and pouty lips. He figured his hands would easily span her waist and knew her belly button had a tiny wanded fairy dangling from it.
The memory made his hands itch to feel her soft skin again. Too bad she wouldn’t welcome his touch. Concentrate, man. “You’re right. This place doesn’t need a remodel. It needs a complete overhaul.”
Claire snorted. “A little TLC and regular maintenance is all. Why’d she call you?”
“Because she’s a woman who knows a good thing when she sees it. LouAnne wants someone she can trust.”
Claire’s mouth opened, then closed into a firm line. “And she got you instead. Since she’s obviously not here, why don’t you have a look around and call her later?”
And leave me alone.
The unspoken words shimmered between them. For one wild moment, Travis considered crowding Claire and giving her a refresher course on how fast their kisses had caught fire.
Unfortunately, such a move would put him much closer to the awful-smelling mixture she’d concocted, and the foul mess would likely end up dumped on his head. The woman’s behavior was unpredictable, and he didn’t need the aggravation.
“Pretend I’m not here. I’ll take a few measurements, check a few things and get back to LouAnne with an estimate.”
Claire shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
He should leave her boss a note on his business card, but right now he needed a little distance and a lot of answers. Maybe he’d start with a look at the roof.
A half hour later, he stood on the sidewalk and took a deep breath to clear his lungs and dispel lingering frustration. Man, was he glad to leave there. Next time he’d be better prepared.
Personal reasons aside, Massey & Co. Construction would be crazy to take on such a small project when they had much bigger fish to fry. Maybe it was the gruff way Zeb had requested he leave their biggest project to date and hightail it to Sweetwater Springs, but something about the scenario made Travis jumpy.
At the same time, he acknowledged the salon needed expert help and fast. Travis was surprised the fire marshal hadn’t already shut them down because of the ancient wiring. The thought of LouAnne and Claire working in that place made him shudder, not to mention the clientele. Hell, his mama was a regular here, Rosie too.
A local company wouldn’t have Massey’s resources. They’d probably drag out the job for months. Travis found it unlikely either woman could stand for their income to be curtailed for weeks, let alone months.
Not liking the direction of his thoughts, he paused on the sidewalk to absorb the warmth of spring and scrutinized the area. Most of the buildings in this section of town had been built in another era. Some of them, like the salon and Rosie’s Posies next door, had been well cared for. Good thing, too. The architecture had character in spades and lent the small downtown area a certain charm.
Despite the idyllic setting, itchy dissatisfaction and lingering need hummed in his veins, making the prospect of sitting behind his desk for several hours unattractive. Since he was within shouting distance of his sister’s shop, Travis walked under a floral sign and through the door. An old-fashioned bell announced his arrival.
“Travis. What a surprise! I’d practically forgotten what you look like,” Rosie teased.
“Hey. How’s business?” The potpourri of delicate floral fragrances drifted over him like mist.
“Can’t complain. What are you doing here this time of day? I thought you were on a sunup-to-sundown work schedule.”
“Estimating a project next door. Thought I’d stop by and see if you’d like to take an early lunch.” The best excuse he could come up, considering he felt a sudden, uncharacteristic urge to grill his sister for information.
“Oh, shoot. I can’t. I’m holding down the fort today.”
As Claire’s friend, Rosie might be able to shed some light on Claire’s past behavior, so he could move on. “How about I park my truck behind the building so I’m not taking a customer spot and come back with some sandwiches?”
“Sounds good. I’ve got cold drinks here.”
A customer entered the shop, the bell jingling. Travis lifted a hand in farewell and let Rosie get back to work.
* * *
As it turned out, Travis had to cool his heels for another half hour after returning to Rosie’s Posies due to a steady stream of customers. Good thing he’d opted for cold cut subs and chips, though he was about ready to rip that infernal bell out of the wall.
“Sorry about that.” Rosie dropped into her desk chair with a sigh and popped the tab on her soda. “Seems like half the town woke up today and decided to put in their orders for Mother’s Day. Not that I’m complaining.”
“Hey, this will be your first one, won’t it? Let me hazard a guess that you won’t be getting flowers?”
“I have no idea what to expect.”
“How are my new brother-in-law and niece?” He hadn’t seen much of Rosie’s instant family over the winter. Indoor projects had kept construction work flowing and the newlyweds had found plenty of excuses to be alone. Except for that week in January, when the shock of Sara’s death had brought them all together.
“They’re fine. Lorelei’s growing like a weed, and Sam’s mired in a new manuscript.” She smiled and focused a dreamy look at the spot where her fingers traced a heart on the desk’s smooth surface.
Travis breathed in deeply as a pang struck him mid-chest. “That’s great. What about J.T. and the boys? He won’t return my calls.”
She opened the wrapped sub he deposited in front of her. “They’re . . .” She shook her head and sighed. “I keep falling back on that stupid phrase ‘as well as can be expected’ but the truth is, our brother is taking a page from your book and burying himself in work. The boys are okay. Mama’s watching them after school because J.T. fired another housekeeper. She and Daddy are talking about taking them on vacation.”
“That doesn’t explain why he’s not answering my calls.” He dug into his sub, hungry now.
Rosie pulled a face in response to his question. “Avoidance. I don’t think he can face the grief. Nothing we can do except give him time. He knows we’re here for him when he’s ready.”
“Let’s hope so.”
“Are you taking on the salon? That place needs help.”
Travis hesitated. “Just an estimate. We’ll see.”
“What about the huge project you’ve been involved in for ages?”
“Wrapped it up.” Rosie’s references to his work were starting to chafe. Is that what he’d done? Buried himself in work? If so, it hadn’t been all that difficult while away from Claire. But today, having time on his hands and face to face with her again, the past refused to rest.
The few times he’d seen Claire since their date had been from a distance, except at Rosie’s wedding. Back then, he’d still been angry enough to ignore her, even while escorting her down the aisle. She’d made it easy when most women wouldn’t have been happy until they’d gotten some reaction out of him.
Rosie leaned forward, her gaze searching. “What about you and Claire?”
His heart performed a somersault. Who was grilling who here? “There is no ‘me and Claire.’ Why? Did she say something?”
“About the date that remains a closed topic? No.”
He forced a chuckle at Rosie’s annoyed tone. “You sure about that? I thought most women told their best friends everything.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, Claire’s different.”
Yeah, he’d noticed. That fact hit home every time he saw her. At least Claire was keeping their personal business private.
Damn. He didn’t need something about her to admire, didn’t want to think about this, had avoided it successfully for months. There, he admitted it. He smashed the last few bites of his sandwich inside the paper wrapper and tossed it into the bag, his appetite gone.
“In all honesty, she might have said something if I’d pushed, but it’s a little awkward, seeing as it’s my brother and my best friend. I guess I figured since you didn’t pursue her, I’d stay out of it.”
“Except for the occasional inquisition over lunch.”
“Hey, I didn’t say I wasn’t curious. One date doesn’t make sense. You both flirted like crazy before that. The way I see it, something big must’ve happened to make you both avoid each other like the plague. I’ve never known you give up on a woman so easily.”
Silence assaulted his ears. Rosie had a valid point. He’d practically made females his course of study after junior high. He knew them, knew the subtle ways they telegraphed their interest to a man.
Claire had shown a lot of interest.
Where had he gone wrong with her? Whatever his blunder, she’d skittered away like a water strider on a rain puddle. She was . . . unique and very closed-mouthed about herself. He’d probably never know what made her tick or why his retreat had ticked her off. No. Not his retreat. All the signs pointed toward go until he’d . . .
Damn. So that’s where he’d gone wrong. How could he have seen the come-on and not the caution, the wariness? He stood, crushing his empty soda can.
“Okay, okay.” Rosie held up both palms in surrender. “No need for the silent treatment. I’ll just say one more thing and then I’ll shut up.”
Though he’d actually been lost in thought, Travis let her think what she would. “Promise?”
“Wise ass. Look, I know very little about Claire’s background but what I do know isn’t pretty. Whatever you do, tread lightly, okay? It may sound crazy, but Claire strikes me as both innocent and world-weary. I get the distinct impression her heart is untried, and she could easily be hurt.”
“You think I should try with her again.”
Rosie opened her mouth, then shut it, miming a zipping motion.
“You think I should leave her alone.”
She stared at the ceiling, lips now clamped between her teeth.
Oh, right. She’d promised. The bell over the front door jangled again.
“Be right there,” Rosie called, then to him, “Don’t be such a stranger. Come by the house later. Lorelei would love a bedtime story from her Uncle Travis.”
“I’ve got dinner plans tonight. We’ll see.”
“No need to rush out. It’s just me.” Claire’s voice preceded her entrance. “I came to bum a bottled water from . . . oh.”
Travis held her gaze, the same heat he’d experienced earlier drawing him forward like a magnet. He had to get out of here. Somewhere away from those toned legs, pert breasts and big green eyes. Then he could think rationally again.
Claire remained rooted in the doorway, her mouth parted in surprise. He fitted his hands around her waist. She stiffened and gasped. Lifting her slight form, he pivoted, reversed their positions and released her before she found her voice.
“Ladies.” Travis exited into the sunny alley and climbed into his truck, whistling. Yeah, he’d screwed up, but there was still a chance for Claire and him to get each other out of their systems. A chance he intended to pursue with charm and finesse. Who knows? Maybe they’d end up friends.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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