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Authors: Susan Mallery

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

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BOOK: A Dad for Billie
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He hadn’t shaved. Stubble darkened his jaw and outlined the firm line of his mouth. A smattering of hair, damp and matted from the run, arrowed toward his waist. Her breathing grew ragged. Not from exertion, but from apprehension. She had initiated this meeting, it was up to her to tell him what she wanted. But her tight throat wouldn’t allow speech.

Adam closed the refrigerator and set the bottle on the counter.
After grabbing his T-shirt off the chair, he wiped his face and chest.

“What do you want?”

He stood with his hands on his hips. The elastic of his shorts dipped scandalously low; he looked every inch a dangerous man. Billie had the same way of standing, of looking defiant and angry. But Billie was only eight, still a child. Adam was—Adam was the girl’s father.

“I ordered a replacement for the window,” she blurted out.

His mouth twisted with irritation, but he didn’t speak.

“I wanted you to know. It should be here Monday. They’ll install it and everything.”

“Fine.”

He stood there, perhaps sensing there was more, or waiting for her to leave. Those eyes, she thought, at last letting her gaze meet his. Those damn eyes. He still made her feel young and foolish. At seventeen, the six years difference in their ages had loomed between them like an uncrossable bridge. He’d been forced into adulthood by the death of his parents and the responsibility of his siblings. She’d been forced into adulthood by her own actions.

“I’m sorry,” she said at last.

“Did Billie break something else?”

“No. I’m sorry for—” She clasped her hands together to stop their trembling. “Dammit, Adam, say something.”

“Such as?”

“Why are you so calm about this? I waltz in here after being gone almost nine years and it’s like nothing happened.”

He shook his head impatiently. “I don’t have time for reminiscing. I’m not interested in the past. It’s done with. Let it go. I have.”

“You’re lying.”

“And you’re beating a dead horse.”

He moved to walk past her. She touched his arm to stop him. Her fingers brushed against hot, damp skin. A current leapt between them and she jerked back, half expecting to see smoke. He froze in mid-stride, caught between her and the counter.

“What do you want?” he asked, shifting until one hip braced against the cupboard. The T-shirt hung over one shoulder.

She stared at the hem of the garment, studying the tiny stitches as if the answer lay hidden in the weave or the design.

“I’m moving in next door.”

“So?”

“There’s no way to avoid—”

“The hell there isn’t. I don’t want to be friends. I don’t, as a rule, socialize with my neighbors. So your living there doesn’t matter to me.”

She told herself his disinterest came from pain, but a part of her wondered if she was wrong. Was Charlene speaking the truth? Had Adam recovered from what had happened? Did she not matter anymore?

“Billie likes you.”

“And I like her. I’ll be friends with the kid. I don’t need to deal with you for that.”

If only it were that simple.

“So the past means nothing?” she asked. She knew she was really asking if
she
meant nothing.

He shifted. Again she risked raising her gaze to his. The brown irises had darkened to black. The lines bracketing his mouth deepened.

“What do you want from me, Jane? You want me to tell you I still think about you? I can’t, because I don’t. It’s over. I’ve moved on.”

“I’m not asking if you think about—” this was harder than she’d thought “—me. I understand that we’ve both moved on. But I won’t believe you’ve forgotten what happened. How it made you feel. Or what I did.”

He looked away then, staring past her to something she couldn’t see. The curse he mumbled made her flinch.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t care.”

“I don’t believe that.”

He shrugged. “Believe what you want.”

What was the old saying? In for a penny, in for a pound. “You once asked me to marry you.”

He laughed harshly, the sound carrying more irritation than humor. “Hell of a coincidence. You once said yes.” His arms folded over his chest. “Don’t push me. I still don’t understand
what you’re looking for, but I’m the wrong man. You don’t want to get me angry, and that’s about five seconds from happening.”

“At last,” she said, stepping closer, feeling her own temper rise. “The fine, upstanding Adam Barrington. Banker, model citizen. You mean there’s someone inside? Someone real, with feelings? Is that a crack in the old wall there? I’m not completely at fault, you know. You let me go, damn you. Why? Why didn’t you come after me?”

Jane covered her mouth. That wasn’t what she’d planned to say at all. But it was too late.

“Let you go?” He spoke quietly, with a barely controlled rage. The muscles in his arms bulged with the effort of his restraint. His eyes burned with a hot fire that had nothing to do with passion and everything to do with rage. “You walked out on me. Not a word or a note. Just a church full of people and a bride who didn’t bother to show up.”

Chapter Four

A
dam straightened his arms at his sides and balled his hands into fists. His muscles trembled at the effort to restrain himself. His angry words, so filled with frustration and hurt, hung between them, echoing silently against the kitchen walls.

Damn her for forcing him to give it all away. Control, he told himself. Get control. But it was useless. Hot emotion tumbled through his body, swept on by heated blood. It bubbled and rolled within him, building with speed and pressure until the explosion became inevitable.

“It wasn’t like that,” she said, speaking so softly he had to strain to hear her. “I never meant it to happen that way. I thought—”

He swore loudly, the vulgar word cutting off her apology. “You thought?” he asked sarcastically, his rage burning the last of his civility. “What did you think? That no one would notice? That I’d get over being publicly humiliated? That your running away wouldn’t be the topic of conversation around town for months?”

She lowered her head. She’d pulled her long hair back in a
loose braid. Bangs hung down her forehead, but her neck and ears were exposed. A dull red flush climbed from the neck of her T-shirt to her hairline.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Sorry? Is that the best you can do? There was nothing, Jane. Not one damn word. I’d seen you drive up with your mother. You were in the church. Then you disappeared. What the hell happened?”

She opened her mouth to answer. He cut her off. “Don’t bother.” He turned away and faced the cupboards. If he continued to look at her, he wasn’t sure what might happen. “We all waited for almost an hour. I heard the people talking. I told myself there was a problem with the dress, or that you’d broken a heel.”

He didn’t have to try to remember that afternoon. The sounds and smells enveloped him like the clammy mist of summer fog. She’d insisted that the church be filled with roses. White roses. That scent had haunted his sleep for months.

He pressed his palms against the counter, as if the tile could cool his heated blood. He’d thought he’d forgotten it all, but the past broke through the wall of his control, swept across his emotions, unleashing the potential for destruction. Again his fingers curled toward his palms as if he could squeeze out the memories. Or the person who had caused them.

“Adam, I’m sorry,” she said, interrupting his struggle to maintain a semblance of composure. “So very sorry. It was never about you. You’ve got to believe that. It was about me.”

“You’ve got that right.” He spun to face her. “You ran away. It was a childish thing to do. I’m the one who had to deal with the aftermath of your behavior and make up some story about what had happened when I didn’t have a clue. I’m the one who sent the notes of apology, returned the gifts and paid the bill for a reception that didn’t happen.”

She raised her head. Unshed tears glistened in her hazel eyes. She blinked frantically, but it didn’t help. A single drop rolled down her cheek. At one time her distress would have moved him. He would have gathered her in his arms and murmured words of comfort. Not anymore.

“Typical,” he said, shaking his head. “The going gets tough and you cry. You haven’t grown up at all.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Don’t talk to me about fair. What do you know about it? Did you ever give any thought to what you left behind? You squawk about my not coming after you. Lady, even if I’d wanted to, I didn’t have the time. Someone had to handle damage control. I know all you were interested in was seeing how easily you could wrap me around your little finger, but I had—and, no thanks to you—still have a position to think of in this community. I do business with most of the town. I was putting my sister and brother through college. Did you ever stop to think that the fine people of Orchard might not want to trust their money to a bank president who’d been stood up at the altar? That they might begin to wonder if there was some flaw only you knew about?”

Despite the embarrassment staining her cheeks, she paled. “They wouldn’t have.”

“Think again.”

She raised her arm as if offering an apology. “I didn’t know.”

He glared at her and she dropped her arm to her side. “You didn’t bother to find out,” he said. “All you could think of was yourself.”

“It wasn’t like that. I tried to tell you—”

“When? I was standing there in the front of the church. Like a fool. When I figured out something was wrong, I was pretty much a captive audience. If you were trying to get my attention, you got it. But you didn’t have the guts to stay and talk. That’s what gets me the most. Not one word of warning.”

“I did try to talk to you. Before the wedding. You wouldn’t listen.”

He reached for the T-shirt hanging over his shoulder and pulled it down. She jerked her head at the movement, as if she’d suspected he would hit her. Her reaction inflamed him. Despite her actions, he’d never given her reason to fear him.

“I listened but all we talked about was the wedding,” he said, his jaw tight with suppressed emotion. “Do you want pale pink or blush for the napkins?” He raised his voice mockingly. “Wild rice or steamed potatoes?”

“If you disliked my conversation so much, why did you want to marry me?”

He folded his arms over his chest. “Everybody’s entitled to one mistake.”

She closed her eyes and swallowed. Another tear rolled down her cheek. “And I’m yours?”

“You said it, lady, not me.”

She looked at him. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”

“Is that supposed to make it better? That you acted out of ignorance?”

She shook her head. “Of course not. I’m just saying that I was very young.”

“I guess that works as well as any excuse.” He fingered the shirt in his hands. “It’s my fault, I suppose. I’m the one who tried to make you more than you could be.”

She flinched as if he’d slapped her. “I knew you’d be angry, but I never really expected you’d hate me so much.”

“You’re not worth hating.” He looked over her head. “I don’t care anymore.”

She reached out her hand again and this time touched his bare forearm. The physical side of him—that masculine self that had never been able to get enough of her—reacted to the slight touch. Awareness quivered as the imprint of each finger burned into his skin. It wouldn’t take much, he acknowledged, despising the weakness inside and her for causing it.

With a slow gesture, too deliberate to be ignored, he pulled away from the contact. Jane bit her lower lip and stepped back. It wasn’t even close to a draw, he thought. He’d hurt her, but nothing like what she’d done to him, all those years ago.

“If you could just let me explain,” she said, twisting her fingers together. “I never meant to—”

“I don’t give a damn about your explanations. Or you.”

Her hazel eyes studied him. Tears threatened again, but she brushed them away impatiently. “You’re too angry to not care, Adam. Your temper gives you away.”

One point for her, he thought grimly. “All right. I care enough not to want you in my life. How’s that?”

She turned and walked toward the hallway. When she reached
the door, she looked back over her shoulder. “Be careful what you throw away, Adam. You may find you need it after all.” After she fled into the quiet morning, he stood alone in the kitchen, drawing deep breaths into his body. Once lost, the control was difficult to recapture. Random thoughts raced through his mind. Memories from the past—lost dreams, half-forgotten moments. He’d offered her all he had and she’d turned him down flat. Publicly. Now she expected exoneration for her behavior. Hell would freeze over before he’d ever—

“Was that a discussion you’d want her daughter to hear?”

“What?” He spun toward the back door.

Charlene stood in the pantry. “I could hear you clear outside. Now I’ve sent the child off to find the berry patch. If you two are going to quarrel, please find a more suitable location.”

“We weren’t arguing.”

“It sounded like an argument.” Interest sparkled in her blue eyes. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” he said curtly, then instantly regretted his sharp tone. “It doesn’t matter, Charlene. Jane just wanted me to get in touch with my feelings, and I did.”

*

Stupid, Jane thought as she pulled the brush through her long hair. Just plain stupid. She’d been stupid to think about coming back to Orchard, stupid to think she and Adam might be able to resolve anything by discussing the past, and stupid to plan to let him know about his daughter.

“Not my finest hour,” she muttered, as she dropped the brush, then reached back and began braiding her hair. Her fingers moved efficiently, weaving the long strands into a French braid. The mirror over the dresser reflected her image. She averted her eyes, not wanting to see the guilty flush on her own face. Morning light filtered through the lace curtains and onto the carpeted floor. Like the room Billie slept in, this guest room had been decorated with warm colors and cozy prints. A handmade quilt covered the bed she sat on. The bright yellows and peaches blended in a star-shaped pattern. It should have been soothing. Despite the room, the cool shower and the stern talking-to she’d given herself, her heart still thundered in her chest. Her hands shook from the recent
exchange with her former fiancé, and a strand of hair slipped out of her grasp, causing her to release the half-finished braid.

BOOK: A Dad for Billie
11.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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