Copyright © 2013 Virginia Nelson
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
July 7, 2005
I’m sitting in a diner in the desert. The sun peeking over the mountain lights up everything in these reds so bright they almost hurt the eyes. You’ve never felt a hot like this, all dry, nothing like the days that we went swimming over at Watkin’s pond…
I don’t really know why I’m writing you. I don’t have answers and right now you probably want them. I just know I couldn’t do it.
I miss you though.
Knuckles white, Abigail put her beat-up Ford Focus in Park, and glanced at her best friend. “I can’t do this.”
“Wimp.” Applying a coat of lipstick to her lush red lips in the mirror, Carnie shot her a glance. “You can do this. It isn’t like you’re about to face a firing squad. It’s just a bonfire.”
Shoving her hand through her short, pixie-cut brown hair, Abigail blew out a frustrated breath. “I would rather face a firing squad. If you ditch me to go running off with the new boyfriend…”
Carnie gave her a dirty look, tucking her red hair behind her shoulder. “I would never do that. I know how bent out of shape you get every time we go anywhere that Braxton might be. Really, though, it will be fine. The crap happened a thousand years ago. You’re adults now.”
Abigail didn’t feel like an adult. She felt like the rejected teenager even thinking of Braxton Dean.
It didn’t help that he’d become sexier with age. Heartbreakingly handsome, Braxton made her thighs clench with just a glance. She needed to remember the pain and humiliation rather than how it felt to be pushed into a bed by him. Better to remember the chest-constricting, blinding terror when he’d ditched her and vanished rather than remember his face a mask of unleashed passion and his green eyes wild with need. The former would keep her knees together.
The terror of that time—it wasn’t something she shared with anyone, not even Carnie.
Remembering gave her the strength she needed to peel her fingers from the wheel. “You’re right, of course. I can do this. No big deal. We’re both more mature now. He probably won’t even say a word to me.” The last came out a bit hopeful, even to her own ears.
“Yeah, at his birthday bonfire, he isn’t going to say a word to the woman he dated for years and ditched at the altar like a loaf of stale bread. Really, Abs, you need to get pissed off rather than feeling pissed on. You’re totally the injured party here.”
“He had his reasons. I’m sure he did.” Why was she defending his dumb ass?
“What reason could be good enough for that grand act of douchebaggery?” Carnie raised one well-plucked brow at her. “Besides, these are our friends. You need to remember why we’re here. He took off. He stayed gone. This is our town. You’re going to walk in there and show him what he is missing. Rub in his face what he can’t have.”
“I don’t know. He really wasn’t a jerk…not most of the time.”
“Let’s just go find Mike and the crew, and have a good time. All of our friends from high school are here and it’ll be good to catch up with them.”
Nodding, stomach still a bit of a knot, Abigail opened her door and stepped out into the muggy Ohio night. Stars hung like tiny lanterns above the recently mowed field and the sound of laughter carried on the breeze. The bonfire, a huge conflagration, was surrounded by what looked like hundreds of folding chairs, coolers and other party miscellany that beckoned Abigail onwards. Who knew? Maybe she would meet someone new and end up being really happy she wasted the extra five minutes to make sure everything was shaved and neat?
Carnie strode with her usual impulsive bravery into the melee. Abigail stuffed her hands in her jeans and resisted casting her head down to avoid any stares that might be coming her way. Instead she held her head high, but refused to meet anyone’s eyes. In small-town Ohio, everyone knew she hadn’t seen Braxton since that fateful day when he left her standing, flowers in hand, waiting for a runaway groom. Everyone knew that instead of marrying her, Braxton—golden boy and football hero—ran off to parts unknown, and she’d neither heard from him nor caught a glimpse of him when he’d come to town until a few weeks ago. He only returned home now to help his father with his tool store after his father’s stroke made it hard for the old man to get around like he used to.
Everyone watched to see how she’d handle it.
She wouldn’t give them a show to chew over for the next decade. She’d act like it was ancient history, like she hadn’t spent years wondering how a man could go from saying he loves her to leaving her to stand alone against a whole swarm of gossips with nothing better to do than tear her to shreds for being moronic enough to think he would stay.
She concentrated so hard on what she wouldn’t do, she slammed to an abrupt halt against a firm chest. His firm chest. Braxton. He smelled the same, damn him.
Even over the scent of wood burning, the ripeness of summer and the bitter tang of someone’s spilled beer, she inhaled his soap, familiar cologne and under it all, simply Braxton.
Her stomach clenched. Part of her wanted to smack him and demand answers. Part of her wanted to run away. Part of her wanted to pull his face down and kiss him because she’d missed him so much.
Instead she hid behind an armor of polite civility and gave a short, sharp nod. “Braxton.”
“Abby.” The word came out almost a plea. His eyes held a sad look she quickly identified. He pitied her.
Double damn him. “Happy birthday.”
And even though she promised herself she wasn’t going to give everyone a show, promised herself she wouldn’t feed the rumor mills...
The sound of her slap rang out across the field. Even in the flickering light from the bonfire, her handprint marked his strong jaw and she couldn’t ignore the pleasure it gave her. Silence seemed to spread across the night as he touched his cheek. Her mouth hung open, shock rippling through her as his gaze locked on hers.
“I deserved that.” The timbre of his voice seemed to stroke across her skin, stirring up a potent cocktail of emotions—lust, love, fury and pain. The worst part was disgust at herself for feeling anything.
“You deserve worse.”
Instead of arguing with her, which almost would have made her feel better, like it meant something to him, he simply nodded. “Wanna go somewhere to talk?”