Married 'til Monday
A Chapel Springs Romance
Releasing June 2015
From Thomas Nelson
The antique ring had been sitting forlornly on Ryan McKinley’s kitchen counter for five months. It was an ordinary tale of lost and found, but the customary happy ending stretched just out of his reach.
He left the room, more to escape the ring than anything, and stopped by the grandfather clock on his way to the stairs. He turned the key in the slot and wound the weight to the top, thinking of Abby again. It had been her job, winding the clock. Keeping the thing going was almost a compulsion with her.
Not with him. The hands of the clock had been poised precisely at twelve past seven for almost a week. He set the pendulum in motion and shut the antique door, twisting the key as the familiar ticking filled the big, empty house. He needed to go for his run. Stretch his legs and let the thumping of his feet on the pavement beat the thoughts of her out of his head.
He couldn’t get his mind off her lately. The clock, the ring . . . the house.He’d already called himself a million kinds of fool. Buying his ex-wife’s dream house had been a mistake, just as PJ had warned.
A knock sounded at the door, and he sighed in relief at the distraction.
PJ’s wide smile greeted him as he swung the door open. Speaking of his sister. “Is it a good time?”
His eyes fell to the covered dish in her hands. “It’s always a good time for food.”
PJ breezed past on her way to the kitchen. “It’s not meat and potatoes, sorry. Cole doesn’t like crepes, so you’re my guinea pig.”
“It’s a chore, but somebody has to do it.”
In the kitchen PJ lifted the lid, and the sweet smell of chocolate drifted his way. Since dinner had come in a Stouffer’s box, Ryan’s stomach growled in appreciation.
PJ had started the Wishing House Grill in Chapel Springs right after culinary school. It had come complete with a free house and the man of her dreams. His baby sister had always led a charmed life.
He grabbed two forks from the dishwasher and handed one to PJ.
She eyed it skeptically. “Clean?”
He gave her a sour look as he dug into the dessert. The warm confection practically melted on his tongue. “Mmmm. Not bad.”
PJ took a dainty bite. “Just enough hazelnut, I think. Maybe a little more vanilla?”
“I give it a 9.5. The details are yours to figure out.”
As they finished the crepes PJ caught him up on the family, which from her perspective consisted mostly of their siblings’ love lives. The love bug had bitten hard in the McKinley tribe the last few years. First Madison, then Jade, and now PJ. Two of them were married, with PJ not far behind, he suspected. And he, the oldest, still batching it. Or rather, batching it again.
When they’d had their fill of crepes, they placed their forks in the farm sink.
“I better run. Need to get to Hanover before the store closes.” PJ grabbed her purse while Ryan put the lid on the leftovers.
“Oooh, pretty.” She extended her arm, waggling her fingers.
His gaze fell to PJ’s finger, where Abby’s ring lay glistening.
“Who’s this beauty for?” she asked. “Are you holding out on me?”
Ryan shoved the Tupperware lid down hard, making it click with a loud snap. “Take it off.”
“Geez, okay.” She pulled the ring, grimacing as it stuck there through a few more twists and pulls.
“Seriously?” he said.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get it.” She turned on the water and soaped up her hand. “It looks old.”
“It is old. It was Abby’s grandma’s.”
PJ gave another tug, and the ring came off. She rinsed it, along with her hands.
Ryan eyed the drain. “Careful!”
“I’m not an idiot.”
When she finished, Ryan snatched the ring from her.
“What are you doing with it?” she asked.
He put it back by his cell charger. “I found it when I moved.”
Abby had been so distraught the week she’d noticed it missing. They’d turned the house on Orchard upside down looking for it. She’d never been close to her parents, but her grandmother had meant everything to her. Her passing had been hard on Abby. It was the closest she’d come to crying in the years Ryan had known her.
“Are you going to give it back?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have to. It was her grandmother’s. Just stick it in the mail. I think I can get her address if you need it.”
“I can’t stick an heirloom in the mail.”
“So you’re going to take it to her?”
“I don’t know, PJ. Why do you think it’s been sitting there for five months?”
“Soor-ry.” PJ hitched her purse on her shoulder and left the kitchen.
Ryan followed, rubbing his forehead with his index finger. The dang ring had been stressing him out. He’d been praying about it, but he couldn’t seem to find any peace. He really should just stick it in the mail and forget about it. One less piece of Abby in his life.
At the door he gave PJ an apologetic smile. “Sorry I snapped.”
“It’s okay. Let me know if you need the address—or if you just need to talk.”
The phone rang, and PJ looked over his shoulder. “You kept your landline?”
“Better get it then.”
They said good-bye, and he crossed the living room. He knew the landline was redundant, a needless cost. But it was the only way Abby would know to reach him if she wanted to.
But then he seemed to have a heavy dose of stupid when it came to Abby.
He grabbed the phone from the cradle, but he didn’t recognize the number on the screen. “Hello?”
The pause nearly prompted a repeat.
“Ryan? Hello, de-ah. It’s Lillian. I didn’t expect to catch you home.”
The familiar Maine accent of Abby’s mom stunned him. Why was she calling? “Lillian. What a surprise.”
A terrible feeling swelled inside. What if something had happened to Abby? Before he could ask, she spoke again.
“How are you? We haven’t spoken in so long.”
“I’m fine. You know Chapel Springs. Nothing much changes around here. How are you and Bud?”
He pressed his finger between his brows. He’d hardly spoken to Lillian when he and Abby had been married. How bizarre that she’d call now, over three years after their divorce.
“Oh, we’re just fine. You know, getting ready for the party. I don’t suppose Abby’s there.”
He frowned. “Ah, no . . .”
“I didn’t think so. But I’ve been trying to reach her on her cell, and you know Abby. She hardly answers the thing. Maybe it’s best that I reached you anyway.”
This was all too weird. Surely the woman wasn’t suffering from dementia. She had to be still in her fifties.
“Well, Abby told me you can’t come to the anniversary party, of course, but I was so hoping you’d change your mind. Work will always be there, and it’s been years since the two of you visited.”
His brain stalled. His mouth worked.
“I don’t like the idea of Abby driving all that way alone.” She lowered her voice. “And you know her relationship with her dad is . . . difficult. I’d feel so much better if she had your support.”
“My support . . .”
“I know we haven’t been close, but I’d really like to change that. I miss my only child. And maybe the time away would be good for you both. A little vacation.”
He scratched his head. “I’m, ah . . . I’m a little confused, Lillian.”
He heard a muffled conversation, as if she’d covered the mouthpiece. A moment later she was back.
“Bud wants to talk to you, de-ah. Here he is.”
“So I hear you can’t take a few days away from your busy schedule to celebrate our anniversary.”
Ryan had forgotten how Bud could deliver a teasing remark with just enough raw edge to make you squirm.
“Congratulations, Bud. Sounds like you have a nice party planned.”
“Well, it would be if I could get my son-in-law to drive our daughter over. Lillian has her heart set on it.”
Son-in-law? Why did they both—it was as if— He knew Abby wasn’t close to them. Was it possible she hadn’t told them about the divorce? None of this made sense.
“Cat got your tongue, son?”
“No, sir. When was Abby planning to arrive? I, ah, don’t have the schedule handy.”
Bud repeated the question to Lillian while Ryan’s mind turned. Maybe this was the opportunity he’d prayed for. His chance to see Abby again. To return the ring.
Yeah, McKinley. That’s all you really want.
“Day before the party.” Bud was back on the line. “Next week, the twenty-fourth. Now are you gonna bring her home or what?”
Lillian scolded him in the background, then she was back on. “We would so love to have you both.”
Next week. His mind spun. His coaching staff could get along without him for a few days. The thought of seeing Abby again made his heart pound in his chest. Dried up his throat. Made some part of him he hadn’t realized was dead and buried come alive again.
He pictured her in his mind’s eye. Not the way she’d looked when he’d met her, when he’d courted her. But the way she’d looked after. When she’d come to love him. The planes of her face softened, her green eyes no longer wary and distant, but open. Hopeful. Her red curls wild around her creamy-skinned face, her cute freckles peeking out on her nose.
“Ryan, are you there?”
“Yeah.” Everything was coming up Abby lately. Maybe God was trying to tell him something. He felt that urging in his spirit.
Is that You, God? Is this what You want?
His heart settled as peace washed over him. Everything seemed to be pointing the same direction. The ring, the phone call . . .
Maybe he was just crazy, but he was going to do it.
“All right,” he said, squeezing the phone tight. “I’ll be there.”
It was past eight, the sun just sinking below the Indianapolis skyline, when Abby McKinley pushed through the heavy glass doors of Wainwright Investigative Services. She was more tired than she wanted to admit, and it was only Monday.
As she entered the office the air conditioning hit her, a relief after sitting in her hot car with nothing but a stiff, hot breeze and her camera for company.
Her boss sat behind his desk, frowning at his computer screen, his salt-and-pepper hair ruffled as if he’d just run his fingers through it.
She walked straight to Frank’s cluttered desk and dropped the Owens file next to an empty bag of Doritos.
“Already?” he asked.
She shrugged, taking a seat at her own desk and opening her e-mail while Frank flipped through the file. “Nice pics. So it wasn’t the pool boy?”
“Too obvious. It was an old boyfriend. Reunited on Facebook and hooked up two months ago.”
“You’re a genius.”
It wasn’t that hard. A little surveillance, a little garbology, a little IT on the home computer. People left a trail whether they wanted to or not.
“I have a VIP case for you,” he said. “Right up your alley. Wife suspects affair. High-profile, gated community. I need my best girl on it.”
“I’m your only girl. What’s the TAT?”
“Next weekend. I know that’s quick but— What?”
Abby was shaking her head. Normally she could turn a case so quickly, but . . . “I’m leaving on Wednesday, remember? Road trip.”
“Take a plane. I’ll pay for it. Heck, I’ll fly you first-class for what this lady’s paying.”
It wasn’t the money that stopped her from flying. And she hated saying no when she was so close to that promotion. Lewis was going to ride this for all it was worth. But she’d had this trip on the schedule for weeks, and she didn’t want to disappoint her mom.
“Sorry, but I can’t. You’ll have to put Lewis on it.”
It really blew, handing the case over to her competition. She closed her e-mails and stood to leave.
Frank grimaced, running his hand over his thick mustache. She could’ve sworn Dorito crumbs went flying. “Abby, I need you on this one.”
She grabbed her purse off the floor. “Except I won’t be here.”
“Flight plus a bonus. My final offer.”
“Believe me, I wish I could, Frank.”
“You really want Lewis to take this?” The subtext was clear. How badly do you want the agency in St. Paul?
“I can’t get out of this. I’m sorry.” She opened the door. “See you in the morning, Frank.”
“You’re killing me, kid,” he called just before the door swung shut behind her.
The drive home was quick and painless. She pulled into her assigned carport and walked up her sidewalk. Boo’s face peeked out the curtains, her tiny paws on the low windowsill, the pink bow crooked on top of her head. Inside the building Abby drew in the savory smells of oregano and garlic. Someone was having a nice supper.
She collected her mail, then unlocked her door. The Yorkie danced around her feet. “Hey, little Boo. Mommy’s home.” Abby picked up the dog and accepted the kisses from her squirmy friend, smiling at her exuberance. “Sorry I’m late, little girl. Let’s go potty.”
Abby kissed the dog between her large pointy ears, then leashed her and took her outside. “Go potty, Boo.”
Feeling guilty, she walked the dog around the apartment complex until the daylight was gone, then went back inside, thinking about the insurance fraud case she almost had wrapped up. As she heated up a slice of yesterday’s pizza her mind drifted to the upcoming weekend, the party, her parents.
She’d dug her wedding set from her jewelry box last night. She hadn’t looked at the rings since the day she took them off, and seeing them had dredged up all the feelings. How gutted and raw and ruined she’d felt that day. It had taken so long to stop hurting. Even now the thought of Ryan opened a hollow spot deep in her chest.
Stop it, Abby.
She didn’t know what was wrong with her lately. Thoughts of Ryan were so close to the surface. This weekend was going to be even worse, with everyone asking about him. With those rings encircling her finger again. Bad enough she’d had to keep the last name.
You wouldn’t have had to if you’d told them the truth.
She’d tried. She really had. But imagining her dad’s reaction had always stopped her. He’d expected the marriage to fail. Had expected her to fail. She couldn’t stand the thought of proving him right.
Besides, it wasn’t as if she and her parents even had a real relationship. A Christmas card, a voicemail a few times a year. Her mom had put him on the phone when she’d called to talk Abby into coming. He’d harassed her about Ryan, questioning her, that suspicious tone in his voice.
If there could be anything worse than admitting her divorce to her dad, it would be admitting she’d been lying about it for three years. Lying to her dad carried a heavy penalty.
He can’t hurt you anymore, Abby.
She shouldn’t have let them talk her into this weekend. Now Lewis was going to have a chance to shine. She was jeopardizing her shot at her own agency. But she couldn’t cancel now. Her mom was counting on seeing her, and Lillian Gifford had suffered enough disappointment over the years.
It would be the first time Abby had gone home since college. Summer Harbor, Maine didn’t hold the same nostalgic feelings for her that most people’s hometowns did. She couldn’t deny the beauty of the rugged coastline or the bustling wharf with its handful of charming shops. But most of her memories centered around her unstable household, which only evoked feelings of fear and uncertainty.
She shoved it all from her mind. She wouldn’t think about any of it until she had to.
After eating dinner she settled on the sofa, catching a mystery that was just getting started. Boo curled in her lap, quietly snoring, her little body rising and falling with each breath.
Twenty minutes later she was about to give up on the show when a knock sounded at her door. Boo was upright in an instant, diving off the sofa and charging toward the door with her sharp little yaps.
Probably Mrs. McCauley from next door. The mail carrier was always mixing up their mail. Maybe Abby would invite her in for tea. She could use the company. The distraction. And the woman always seemed lonesome despite her husband and the teenaged granddaughter who’d come to live with them a year ago.
“Shhhh. It’s okay, Boo.”
The dog barely glanced at Abby, her brown eyes trained on the door, her yaps coming closer together.
Abby reached for the handle and pulled the door, a smile on her lips.
Her heart stuttered. Her breath filled her lungs and stuck there, unable to find release. Her smile fell away.
His face was as familiar as her own. She knew every curve. Every angle. Every golden fleck in his chocolate brown eyes. Three years had done nothing to erase these details.
“Hello, Abby,” Ryan said.
If there was one thing she’d blocked about Ryan McKinley it was his size. The breadth of his shoulders, his height. A good pair of heels put her eye level with most men, but Ryan’s stature insured she was always looking up at him.
And now he towered over her in her stocking feet. She stepped back, putting space between them, the walls of her chest closing in.
“Ryan.” Somehow it came out without a hint of the chaos inside.
“It’s been a long time, Abby.”
“What are you doing here?”
The corner of his lip turned up. “Always right down to business.” His gaze flickered down to Boo, who had ceased barking and was sniffing the toe of his shoe.
Abby drew a shaky breath while he was distracted, making her face a careful mask of indifference. Her eyes fell on the cracked-open door across the hall. Mrs. Doherty’s shadowed face peeked out.
“Can I come in?”
She quickly reviewed her options, focusing primarily on the short-term discomfort of being alone with him versus the long-term consequences of Mrs. Doherty’s big mouth.
Darn it all.
She opened the door all the way, giving him a wide berth. The smell of him assaulted her anyway, making all the red flags wave. The familiar woodsy scent mixed with musk and leather would hang around long after he left. Before she could stop herself she drew in a deep breath, the smell instantly taking her back to their dating days. Wonderful, beautiful, frightening days.
She closed the door. Boo was quivering now, and Abby picked her up before she could tinkle on the floor. She cradled the dog in her arms, stroking her smooth head.
It’s okay, baby.
Ryan scanned her apartment. “Nice place.”
“How’d you find me?”
He hiked a brow. “You mean after you told me you were moving to Wisconsin?”
She looked down at Boo. She had considered moving there. And maybe she hadn’t wanted Ryan to know she was only an hour and half away. It was hard enough knowing it herself.
He made himself comfortable, leaning against the sofa back, his thick fingers curling around the plush leather. He was still too darn handsome for his own good. Thick, dark hair. Chiseled jaw. Warm brown eyes.
She probably had sofa head, and her makeup had surely clocked out hours ago, leaving her nose freckles on display.
Normally she’d offer a chair, a drink, but she didn’t want Ryan lingering. Just seeing him again was disastrous enough to her well-being. She couldn’t think of a single good reason for him to disrupt her life like this. But then, he’d been disrupting her life since the moment he’d stepped into it.
“Why are you here?” she asked again. There was a sharp edge to her tone. He seemed to bring that out in her.
He looked at her for a long second before reaching into his jeans pocket. He withdrew his hand and opened it.
Her lips parted, emitting a gasp. “Nana’s ring!” Their fingers brushed as she took it, and she tried to ignore the jolt it gave her. “Where’d you find it?”
“Under your nightstand drawer.”
She placed the ring on her hand and curled her fingers to hold the precious heirloom in place. She’d thought it was gone forever.
“Found it when I was moving.”
So he hadn’t stayed in their old place on Orchard. She didn’t know why that thought made her stomach sink. She always pictured him in their cozy little bungalow. They’d been happy there for a while. Until everything had unraveled.
“I can’t believe you found it. Where’d you move?” And why was she asking?
Something flickered in his eyes. He shifted, crossed his arms, his biceps plumping at the motion. “Closer to town.”
He’d always felt claustrophobic on Orchard Street, having grown up on a farm. But it was all they could afford. She thought of their beautiful dream house on Main Street and felt a pang of sadness.
She wondered suddenly if he’d remarried. Maybe that’s why he’d moved. She glanced at his left hand, the one she’d brushed. Relief flooded her at the sight of his bare finger. She chided herself for the reaction.
He’s a piece of your past, Abby. That’s all.
A piece that had caused a lot of heartache and misery. She’d never have married him if she’d known what a heart breaking in two felt like.
But then, she hadn’t had much choice.
Boo had calmed and was squirming for release. Abby set her down and stood, twisting the ring on her finger. The antique setting glittered under the light.
“Your mom’ll be relieved to see it this weekend.”
Her eyes shot to his. How did he know she was seeing her mom this weekend?
“She called last week.”
Her breath froze in her lungs. Did he know Abby hadn’t told them about the divorce? Did Ryan tell them the truth? Please, no. She tried to find the answer in his eyes, his posture, but he wasn’t giving anything away.
Maybe Ryan didn’t even know her parents still thought them married. Maybe her mom hadn’t given anything away. Maybe she’d only left a harmless voicemail.
“You never told them, Abby?”
Her face warmed under his perusal. He wouldn’t understand. How could he, when he’d been raised by the freaking Waltons?
“I haven’t gotten around to it.”
“In three years?”
“Has it been that long?”
He tilted his head, studying her the way he did in those early days when he was trying so hard to figure her out. Good luck with that.
“I didn’t correct them,” he said.
A load lifted off her, though she kept her expression neutral as she lifted her chin. “Why not?”
“Figured you had your reasons.”
None that she was telling him about. He knew more than enough about her. More than anyone else. She set Boo down, and the dog crept over to Ryan, timidly sniffing his shoes again.
“So when are we leaving?”
Her eyes darted to him. “What?”
“Your parents invited me to the party.” Ryan squatted down, holding his hand out for Boo to sniff.
She watched him. So nonchalant. So laid back. It had driven her crazy when they were married. “You can’t go to my parents’ house.”
“Sure I can.”
“They don’t know that.” He wasn’t even looking at her. He was too busy stroking her traitorous dog on her belly.
Why was he doing this? Just showing up at her door . . . inviting himself on her road trip. It was ridiculous.
“Why would you even want to go?”
“I haven’t seen Beau in years. He’ll be there, right?”
“Of course he will. That’s not the point.”
“I can get the time off, and I thought, why not?”
Why not? Why not? She could think of about a million reasons, starting with their contentious marriage and ending with her parents.
“It’s a six-day trip.” And it would feel like six hundred days if Ryan went along.
“I’ve got the time. Or maybe you have a boyfriend who might object?”
“No, I don’t— You’re not riding with me, Ryan.”
He stood, leaning on the sofa again, crossing his ankles. “Well, your parents are going to think it’s awfully strange when we arrive in separate cars.”
She opened her mouth. Closed it again.
She didn’t know which would be worse. All that time alone in the car with Ryan or faking marital bliss for two solid days.
She wished for her furry, quivering shield back. “Why are you doing this?”
“It was too late to get a flight.”
“You don’t want to go. You don’t even like my parents.”
“I hardly know them.”
“I promised them I’d be there. And I want to be there for Beau.”
“The way he was there for you?”
Ryan studied her until she felt like a bug under a microscope. “I understood. He’s your cousin. He loves you. We’re past that now.”
She hadn’t known they were back in touch, apparently bosom buddies. She was going to kill Beau. He’d been keeping her secret from her parents, from everyone, but she hadn’t known he had secrets of his own.
“His dad’s death really threw him for a curve. He’s having a rough time.”
This was not good. Not good at all. Their marriage ended for a reason. “We’d be bickering before we reached the Ohio state line.”
“I think it’s safe to assume we’ve both grown up a little.”
“We’re already bickering.”
“Only because you’re being unreasonable.”
She let out a growl, turning from the sight of him.
He raised all her hackles. Always had. Somehow he’d still found his way into her heart—and then stomped all over it.
“So are we leaving tomorrow? Or Wednesday? We can meet here at your place or you can swing down for me on the way, whichever you want.”
She twisted the ring around her finger, already reverting to her old habit. Think. She had to think. She could not take a road trip with her ex-husband.
But they couldn’t show up separately either.
“We can take my truck if you want,” he said.
“You can’t go, Ryan. This is crazy.”
“It makes all the sense in the world. I’m going to Summer Harbor. You’re going to Summer Harbor. Why wouldn’t we save on gas and wear and tear? Plus, like I said, your parents will expect us to arrive together.”
Arrive together. Eat together. Room together. Sleep together.
She cleared the emotion from her face and turned around. Did he even understand the implications of this trip?
“I’m staying with my parents.”
“So, we’ll be expected to share a room.”
“I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“You have an answer for everything, don’t you? This is a disaster in the making.”
“You’re overthinking it. It’s two days with your folks. They’ll be busy with party stuff. We’ll blend into the chaos and head back home. Simple.”
Simple? There was nothing simple about her and Ryan. Never had been. He was her opposite in every way. He was an optimist, she was a cynic. He was a saver, she was a spender. He was easygoing, she was deliberate.
“I have my route planned out. Places I want to stop on the way.” Was she really considering this?
“Fine by me.”
“You’d have to get your own hotel rooms.”
This was all a big, huge mistake. She crossed her arms over her chest, narrowed her eyes, studying him. Initially she hadn’t thought he’d changed. But upon closer observation she saw a fine network of lines fanning from his eyes. And his square jaw, which had too often been covered with stubble, was freshly shaven.
“Look, Abby,” he said, using the quiet, tender voice that always broke her. “I know there’s a lot of water under the bridge . . . But we were kids. We got ourselves into a mess and things went sideways. We’ve grown up. We’ve moved on. We can be friends, or at the very least, casual acquaintances who are capable of sharing a ride.”
He always did that. Made her feel like she was overreacting. Maybe she was overreacting.
“We’d have to pretend we’re married,” she said.
“Just for a couple days.”
Beau had been going through a rough time since losing his dad. He was trying to juggle his job as deputy sheriff and his dad’s Christmas tree farm, and Abby suspected he wasn’t allowing himself time to grieve. Spending time with Ryan would do him a world of good. Her ex might frustrate her to death, but he was the best listener she’d ever known.
And this could put a rest to her dad’s suspicions that all was not well between them. Maybe things would be different with her dad now. She was grown up. He wouldn’t resent her so much. There was no reason for him hate her anymore.
But there was that whole pretending-to-be-married thing. “Just till Sunday?”
“I’ll drive if you want, or at least split the time with you. So you won’t get headaches.”
There was that.
Boo appeared at her feet. She swept the dog into her arms, cradling her to her stomach, the wiggly shield not big or solid enough. Not even close.
Ryan straightened, pulling his cell phone from his pocket. “What time tomorrow?”
“I’m leaving Wednesday.”
“Seven in the morning.”
“I’ll pick you up at seven then.”
She was not giving him control of this trip. “No, I’ll pick you up.”
“Fine. What’s your phone number?”
Flustered, she rattled it off as he tapped it into his phone.
“I’ll send you my address, then you’ll have my number too.” He opened the door. “I’ll see you about eight thirty on Wednesday then. Good night.” And then the door was closed and he was gone.
This was happening. It was really happening. How was it that he’d come back into her life and whipped it upside down all over again?
Abby was in her second year at Boston College when she met Ryan. After a difficult high school relationship and two years of college guys, she’d sworn off men until graduation.
She’d taken a job at Dunkin’ Donuts right off campus. The early hours meant missing church on Sunday and early weekend nights—the latter a fact her roommate and friend Chelsea wasn’t happy about. But Abby didn’t miss being dragged to parties or the slick guys who hit on her, relentless in their search for a convenient bedmate.
Finals week of first semester found her in the busy library, sharing a rectangular table with Chelsea and several other students. They were supposed to be studying for English 201, but Chelsea was more interested in comparing schedules for next term.
Abby’s course load was heavy—eighteen credit hours—and with her weekend hours at the doughnut shop, she wouldn’t have time for much else.
“Oh my gosh,” Chelsea said in her too-loud whisper. “You’re going to be a total drudge next semester.” Her friend pouted, a look that got her anything she wanted from the male species.
“I need to get out of here in three years.” Unlike Chelsea, Abby didn’t have a rich daddy or a limitless credit card.
“Drop one class. Just one. You can take courses over the summer.”
“I already am.”
“Go with me to the Sigma party on Friday,” Chelsea said, changing the subject on a dime.
“You know I have to work Saturday.”
“Shhhh!” A girl at their table glared at them over her Harry Potter glasses.
“Sorry,” Abby said, then lowered her voice. “I’m done with those stupid parties. I don’t know why you want to see a bunch of frat boys get drunk and make fools of themselves.”
Chelsea brushed her long brown hair over her slim shoulder. “Hottie alert, twelve o’clock. Oh my gosh, he is totally checking you out.”
Abby’s eyes bounced up of their own volition. The guy was cute. Dark hair, broad shoulders. And he was staring straight at her from his table across the room. Face warming, she dropped her eyes to her notes.
Chelsea nudged her. “Let’s go say hi.”
“No.” Abby pushed her schedule aside. “We’re here to study.”
“But he’s so hot.”
“Then you go say hi.”
Amusement twinkled in Chelsea’s eyes. “I’m not the one he’s staring at.”
Abby’s traitorous eyes did a quick check, and she instantly regretted it. The guy was still staring.
Abby shuffled the flash cards and pulled Chelsea back to studying by quizzing her in a whisper. Twenty minutes later, her roommate’s eyes flickered up from her notes for the hundredth time.
“Good, maybe now you can focus.”
Harry Potter girl slammed her book shut and left the table. A second later her chair was taken by a girl who resembled a young Drew Barrymore.
“He’s coming this way,” Chelsea said.
“Well, the exit is behind us.”
“You can’t let him get away. Oh my gosh, he’s coming over here. He is totally coming over—”
“Hi,” a deep voice said behind her.
Chelsea stared up over Abby’s head, wide-eyed. “Hey.”
Abby took a quick glance, just long enough to note olive skin, a sharply cut jaw, and a pair of brown eyes that somehow warmed the whole package.
“Hi.” Abby shuffled through her index cards, not even seeing the terms.
“I’m Ryan.” His voice was low and gentle, a contrast to his rugged face and muscular frame.
“Chelsea. This is my friend Abby.”
“Nice to meet you.”
For some reason her heart was racing and her mouth had dried out. It was the way she felt at those stupid parties.
“Need some help studying? I’m a whiz with flash cards.”
Chelsea suddenly popped to her feet, gathering her things. “Can’t. I have to meet someone. But Abby could use some help.”
“I have class.”
“No you don’t, remember? Final’s in two hours . . . chop, chop.”
Abby sent her friend a death glare, which Chelsea completely ignored, stuffing her things into her book bag in record time.
“See you in English.” Once past Ryan, Chelsea turned and gave her the thumbs-up. Abby was going to kill her.
Ryan touched the chair beside her. “May I?”
Abby shrugged, shuffling up her cards and trying to focus on them as he pulled out the chair and sank into it. His masculine smell filled her nose.
“I wasn’t kidding about helping you. I’m pretty good at English.”
She shot him a look. “I’m a journalism major. I hardly think I need help with a basic English class.”
“Journalism, huh? What do you want to write about?”
She barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes. “Look, I’m not interested. Why don’t you go hit on someone else? There’s a pretty girl right over there.” She flicked her hand toward the Drew Barrymore lookalike.
He didn’t even glance away. “Who says I’m hitting on you? Maybe I work here and I’m just trying to do my job.”
Her face flamed. Stupid Irish skin. She didn’t have to look to know he was staring at her. She felt his gaze like a focused laser beam. It made her squirm in her seat.
“You’re a library aide?”
“No, but I could be.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Go for coffee with me tonight.”
“So you are hitting on me.”
“I’m trying to get to know you.”
Sure he was. “And like I said. Not interested. And I really need to study.” She gave him a look. “Alone.”
He held up his hands, his lips turning up in a whimper-worthy smile. “All right, all right. I’ll leave you alone.” His eyes flickered over her scattered papers. “For now. It was nice to met you, Abby.”
Finals passed, then Christmas break. Abby had all but forgotten about him—or at least convinced herself she had—when he turned up in her drawing elective the next term. He sat beside her in the first class and every class thereafter, no matter how much she tried to arrange it otherwise.
It didn’t take him long to ask her out again. It also didn’t take her long to realize he was a bad artist. Really bad. She later learned he’d seen her schedule in the library that day and had substituted drawing for his final elective credit.
He asked her out at least once a week. One day, a couple months into the term, she saw him in the dining hall with her cousin Beau. It turned out they were good friends. Beau assured her Ryan was a good guy. He was from Indiana, at the university on a swimming scholarship. That explained his lean, broad-shouldered build.
Still she resisted. She didn’t have time for guys, and she knew better than most that a “good guy” could have all kinds of secrets.
Finally one day midsemester, upon his hundredth request, Abby put down her charcoal and gave him her full attention.
“Look. I’m sure you’re a nice guy—God knows you’re persistent—but you don’t want to go out with me. I’m cynical, I’m complicated, and I’m saving myself for marriage, so why don’t you just move on to an easier target.”
He tilted his head, regarding her. He had a swipe of charcoal on his cheek, and her fingers itched to smudge it away. Those warm brown eyes locked onto hers until she was in danger of melting on the spot.
She forced her eyes away, and they fell on his drawing. It was supposed to be a fruit basket, but it looked like a boat filled with bowling balls.
“I find your cynicism strangely charming,” he said quietly. “A nice balance to my delusional optimism. Complicated means lots of layers that’ll take years to peel back. And purity is a virtue, not a flaw.”
Her breath tumbled out. Not what she expected. Then again, Ryan was full of surprises.
“Come on, Abby. It’s just a date. Just one date.”
“Then you’ll leave me alone?”
He pressed his lips together. “If you still want me to.”
“I will. When and where?”
His eyes flickered. “I’ll pick you up Saturday morning.”
“I work until three.”
“Four o’clock then. Does that give you enough time?”
“Fine. Where we going?”
“It’s a surprise.”
After work Saturday Abby showered off the bakery smell, dried her hair, and pulled it back into a messy ponytail. She scrubbed the makeup from her face, exposing the freckles on her nose, and threw on a pair of jeans with her Eagles T-shirt, hating the way her hands trembled. It was just one date. Then he’d leave her alone.
When he arrived—five minutes early—she opened the door. He wore a collared shirt and a pair of khakis. Her chin notched up.
His gaze fell over her sloppy attire, and the corner of his lips twitched. “Ready?”
“I hope you’re hungry.”
He wouldn’t tell her where they were going, but they hit the expressway going south, making small talk. His hand was draped casually over the steering wheel as he told her about his family back home and asked about hers. She kept it brief and vague, itching to twist Nana’s ring in endless circles, but she forced her hands to lie still in her lap.
When the car stopped over an hour later, they were at a quaint shack of a restaurant on Cape Cod. Since Abby didn’t like seafood, they feasted on chicken wings and potato salad and cornbread with molasses butter, then they took a walk on the deserted beach. When she shivered against the cold February wind he draped his jacket around her shoulders. She collected shells, letting the roaring surf and the cry of seagulls soothe her tattered nerves.
Soon they were on the road again, and tension mounted in Abby when he turned into the campus.
“Thank you for today,” she said as they walked toward her hall’s main entrance. “I had a good time.”
It was true, she realized. The hours had passed quickly. Ryan was easy to talk to, and he’d even made her laugh a time or two.
He turned to her at the door. The exterior lights cast a soft golden glow over his face. He was ruggedly beautiful, and she wondered what he saw in her with her unruly red hair and too-pale skin.
His eyes caught hers, their warm depths holding her ransom. “Go out with me next weekend.”
The timbre of his voice set off an earthquake inside her. What was wrong with him? Didn’t he see how crappy she looked? The hideous freckles on her nose?
She wavered. She knew by now that Ryan wasn’t like the other college guys she’d met. He was polite and thoughtful and didn’t seem interested in parties or getting drunk or bedding as many girls as he could.
She did like him. Maybe too much. She had a feeling Ryan McKinley was capable of doing some major damage.
“I don’t know, Ryan.”
He made her heart pound just by looking at her. It was good and bad all at once. What would it be like if he touched her? Kissed her? The thought stirred a panic she hadn’t felt since she’d been home over winter break.
“You said you had a good time.”
“I did, but—look, I’m really busy this quarter with school and work. I don’t think this is a good idea.”
He leaned a shoulder against the brick wall. “Just go to the basketball game with me Saturday. You were going anyway, right?”
“I guess.” But it would be a date, and then he’d ask for another, and after what Kyle had put her through in high school, she didn’t know if she was ready for a relationship.
He slid his index finger between her brows as he straightened. “You’re thinking too hard. I’ll meet you there, we’ll hang out. Bring your roommate if you want, and I’ll bring Beau.”
The thought of her cousin and Chelsea being there put her at ease. It was just four friends hanging out. What was the worst that could happen?
She sighed. “All right.”
Smiling, he opened the door for her. “See you in drawing class.”
When she reached her room she let down her hair and emptied the shells from her pocket. Three weeks later she would carefully wash them, drying each one with her ratty bath towel, and place them in a clear glass on her dresser.
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