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Tossing one's cookies on gorgeous Italian leather shoes had a funny way of ruining a girl's day.
Shelby Brookes gasped for air and glared at the offending footwear, glad she knew better than to spend her hard-earned cash on overpriced shoes that wore the same as the regular-priced ones. But Luke Tulane had been raised with the best of everything and he obviously didn't realize no woman liked seeing a man wearing better shoes than she owned herself. "Sorry."
The word came out as a gasp. A choked oh, please, not again groan of undisguised misery as her stomach muscles flip-flopped like circus clowns on a trampoline. This could not be happening.
Her head whirled, and the ground jiggled in strange, wavy patterns, but the anger in his tone registered. The why-didn't-you-just-pick-up-the-freaking-phone-and-return-my-messages-the-five-times-I-called-you snap of a bruised male ego.
Can you blame him?
Shelby swallowed and tried to hold on to what was left of her lunch. Luke had flown home to Beauty, Tennessee, to attend the first family wedding back in June when his older brother, Garret, married Darcy Rhodes. Now it was nearing the end of August and Luke was home again, this time because his twin brother, Nick, had found love with Jennifer Rose.
But instead of avoiding Shelby like any normal person would do in such an awkward situation, Luke had repeatedly sought her outbecause of what had taken place between them behind the scenes after Garret and Darcy's rehearsal dinner.
You brought this on yourself, you know. You kissed him, not the other way around. You weren't complaining then.
Maybe not, but she stillregretted it. Didn't that count for something?
She'd tried to do the right thing by keeping her distance. It was after the fact, sure, but she'd tried. Yet here Luke stood toe-to-knee, and there was no ducking him now.
I puked on your shoes. Your shoes! Haven't you had enough?
"Last night catch up to you?"
Oh, of all the Even though she'd felt like she could've used the fortification, she hadn't had a single drink last night, knowing her twelve-hour shift would be hard enough to handle given the huge possibility she'd run into Luke. Besides, she rarely drank, having seen how alcohol influenced her mother's behavior. Following in Pat Taylor-Brooke's footsteps wasn't Shelby's idea of a good time. It was bad enough her mother gave the town gossips so much fodder, Shelby wasn't about to add to it.
You mean like now?
She didn't raise her head, not when the slightest movement made the waves of nausea buffeting her that much worse.
How much worse could it be? You're on your hands and knees at the man's feet!
Yeah, well, if embarrassment killed, she would've been dead a long time ago. Growing up with a mother who played the drama queen to the hilt at every opportunity would have seen to that.
"Come on, I'll help you inside."
Inside? To gossip central? No, thank you. "G-go away."
"Shelby, I can't leave you here like this."
He had to. She didn't want him laughing at her misery because he was angry with her. And why wouldn't he be when she was so upset with herself? How could she have been so stupid? Shagging her best friend's brother? That ranked right up there withwithwell, she didn't quite know what but it was huge! "Contagious."
She had no idea if she was contagious or not, but she'd tell Luke she had the bubonic plague before she'd allow him to drag her anywhere, much less into the wedding reception. The wind created by the gossips' mouths flapping would blow the roof off the building.
Shelby inhaled and got a noseful of roses and wild onions from the woods nearby. Oh, help me. The smell had her stomach rolling again and she struggled to hold back a moan.
A white silk handkerchief appeared before her eyes. "Here. Take it."
When she didn't, Luke released a long-suffering sigh, a noise she'd heard him issue many, many times over the years. Usually it was in respect to his sister and her best friend, Alex, though. Not her.
"Quit being so stubborn. Take it."
Since cleaning up boiled down to using either the handkerchief, her shirt or the country club's crested employee jacket, she let go of her death grip on the manicured lawn and accepted the pristine material, finding perverse pleasure at wiping her mouth on the length.
Cheese curls and silkwhat a combination.
Another wave of nausea flooded her at the thought of her favorite snack and Shelby clamped her mouth shut, afraid she'd embarrass herself even more than she already had.
"I'll go get Ethan."
"No." She so didn't need his doctor brother witnessing this, prayed to disappear. Where was a sinkhole when a girl needed one? "I'm f-fine."
Oh, what a whopper that was. Her arms hurt from holding herself up, she felt weak and battered, yet all she could see in her mind was how hot geeky-sexy Luke Tulane had looked naked.
You are so screwed up.
"Somehow I don't believe you."
Shelby scrambled for a comeback and called herself lame when nothing came to mind. "Something's been going around. A twenty-four-hour thing."
"I'll be fine. Don't make a fuss. Mr. Long is watching me like a hawk." Or a buzzard. Which one had the long beak of a nose? Focus. "It took me three interviews" oh, those onions smelled awful! "to get this job."
And she knew why she'd succeeded. Luke's parents and grandmother had gone to bat for her. There was no other explanation.
And you repaid them how?
She ignored the snippy voice in her head shaming her for jumping Luke's bones, and concentrated on feeling better. "I can't lose it." Mr. Long was a fountain of restaurant managerial experience, something she needed to soak in like a sponge. Getting fired was not an option.
Luke squatted beside her, well out of range, and placed his hand on her back. "What can I do? Would you like something to drink?"
She nodded, willing to agree to just about anything to get him away from her. That night in June she'd considered Luke the perfect person to distract her from her horrendous day. But now what she needed was someone who'd distract him. "A soda."
"You shouldn't drink that stuff. It's not healthy."
Shelby rolled her eyes and regretted the movement because of the pain it caused in her pounding head. He'd told her that more than once but she happened to like caffeine and sugar. "It settles my stomach."
The air from his gusty sigh cooled the sweat on her neck. "I hate leaving you here. The least I can do is help you to a"
"Don't touch me!" Weren't his shoes enough? "Luke, just go." She sounded desperate, close to pleading. What woman wanted to do this in front of
An amazing one-night stand?
Uncomfortable, I-can't-believe-we-did-that memories filled her head, but thankfully her order to leave had worked, because Luke's footsteps faded. Feeling better now that she was alone, Shelby lifted her head and watched as Luke disappeared around a statue. When he was out of sight, she slowly pushed herself upright and sat back on her heels.
The boxwood hedges provided a nice shield from prying eyes, but how long would it be before someone came for a stroll? The gazebo in the center of the garden had been a trysting place for more than a few couples over the years.
Rumor even had it Luke's grandmother, Rosetta Tulane, had conceived one of her children there.
Imagining a younger version of Luke's spunky grandmother getting it on in a public place brought a smile to Shelby's lips. Seconds passed, and little by little she felt more human. Until she spied her uniform pants. "No! Oh, no. Oh, crap!"
They were ruined! Why on earth would anyone choose white linen as the required uniform for the working class?
Because hugging the grass and hurling isn't in your job description?
Shelby groaned and ignored the quivering inside her body. She grabbed her purse and shoved herself onto her wobbly legs, moving like a hundred-twenty-eight-year-old woman instead of a twenty-eight-year-old one, which gave her plenty of time to take in the bright green stains decorating both knees. "Fifty bucks down the drain."
Maybe she could have the pants altered and convince Mr. Long to let her wear them as elegant summer shorts. Hearing his clipped, British refusal in her head, she brushed the grass blades sticking so stubbornly to her clothing and waited for the world to stop spinning. She couldn't worry about her pants now. She had to get out of here before Luke came back and things got sticky.
They were hot and sticky that night and you didn't seem to mind.
She'd walked that embarrassingly painful mental path every day since they'd slept together, asked herself why. Why hadn't she gone home and worked out her upset and frustration by baking? Why hadn't she done something constructive that would have helped her meet her goal? Why had she made such a horrendous mistake with her best friend's brother? Why, why, why?
Because you liked it, her mind taunted. You really liked it.
Her entire body flushed with heat. Yeah, she'd liked it until it was over and the consequences of her actions had walloped her a good one upside the head. Alex would be beside herself if she found out. She was most protective of Luke, closer to him because of the divide that had developed between Luke and Nick growing up. But while Luke might have updated his geeky glasses to the kind worn by business studs photographed for magazine ads and lost the boring shirts his mother had always bought for him, Luke was still Alex's favorite brother because Alex claimed he was more sensitive than the rest, more caring and astute than the siblings Alex sometimes referred to as blockheads.
Shelby stumbled across the rear grounds of the club, trying ineffectively to shove the memory of doing Alex's favorite brother from her mind. It was over. Done. A mistake that would not be repeated. It was past time to stop worrying about something she couldn't change and put the incident behind her. She couldn't let what happened cloud her thinkingor make her so nervous she got sick. As soon as she got home she'd call Luke and apologize? Swear him to secrecy? Beg him to keep his distance?
All of the above?
Shelby made her way to a pea-gravel path, her heels sinking with every step. It would have been a lot quicker to walk through the country club, but with that route she chanced running into Luke or Alex or, worse yet, Mr. Long. Throwing up at home was bad enough, but in public wearing full makeup?
Her foundation was probably gone, her eyes raccooned. Plus her stomach was still rolling like a fun-park coaster.
"Just keep moving." The thought of Luke behind her, closing in and demanding to talk to her now made her put one foot in front of the other. She didn't want a scene, couldn't risk someone overhearing Luke demanding answers for her behavior or her having to tell him she'd do anything to take it all back. The night had been wonderful. Perfect. But the fact that she'd done it all with Luke bit the big one.
Shelby rounded the corner of the club and continued downhill to the employee parking lot. She'd almost made it to her car when her three-inch heel skidded on a rock. "Ow! Oh, ow." Just what she needed. What else was going to happen?
She hobbled the rest of the way and fell inside the vehicle, absurdly thankful that the pain helped clear her head. Hurry. She had to hurry. She'd practically lived with the Tulanes growing up. If they found out she'd kissed Luke in places his mama hadn't seen for nearly thirty years, nothing would ever be the same.
Shelby fastened her seat belt and took the exit farthest from the clubhouse, checking her rearview mirror for any sight of Luke's tall form and rubbing at the mascara smeared down her cheek.
All she wanted to do was go home, get out of her icky clothes, take a quick shower andstrangely enougheat more cheese curls.
Luke shook his head with a tight smile as another person tried to halt his progress from the bar. Every second he was away from Shelby, his impatience ratchetted up another notch. It wasn't every day the four-time winner of Beauty's Mountain Queen Pageant was so accessible. Or vulnerable. And given her avoidance of him, he wasn't above taking advantage of it. Especially when coming home always made him feel like an unwelcome relation who had to be tolerated because he was family.
He shouldn't have left Shelby. What if she felt worse? Passed out? Escaped? Luke muttered under his breath. Knowing Shelby, anything was possible, but he'd be ticked if she slipped away again.
Plastic bottle in hand, he forced a smile to his lips and kept going when Mrs. Bumgarner attempted to waylay him. Normally he would have stopped to chat as manners dictated, but time was against him. The moment Shelby was able to yank herself up by her bootstraps, she'd be back to her old selfaloof and unapproachable, spine stiff and attitude in place.
Luke avoided eye contact and wove his way through the crowded ballroom, the tables gleaming with the decorations of yet another Tulane wedding reception. Memories of the first trip home to Beauty bombarded him and his sudden scowl had Mrs. Daughtry raising her eyebrows. The old bat would run straight to his mother and make something of it, so Luke smoothed his features and flashed her a tight smile as he passed.
Luke glanced over his shoulder to see Nick sneaking a kiss from his bride and prayed to God the rumor was true. Maybe Jenn really had found a way to help Nick. Given the look of happiness on Nick's face, it had to be true.
Luke paused a moment to watch the couple celebrate their wedded bliss, happy for them. But what about him and Nick? Would anything repair the damage? He was welcome here, sure, but there was still a mountain of anger between them.
Shaking his head, Luke hurried toward the rose garden via one of the French doors lining the dining room. All afternoon he'd watched for Shelby, but she'd stood in the back of the crowd during the service, avoided his gaze even if it meant staring at her pointy-toed shoes, then disappeared into the throng of guests whenever he took a step in her direction. Quite a change from the woman who'd ripped the buttons from his shirt when she'd stripped it off him.
They'd had sex. Mind-boggling, can't-feel-your-legs sex. Shelby had been wild. Uninhibited. Everything he'd always secretly fantasized she'd be. But when he'd opened his eyes the next morning, she was gone.
So get the hint and leave her alone.
"You left? Shel, come on! I thought you were going to stick around and hang out with me."
Luke bit back a curse and paused, searching the greenery for the whereabouts of his sister's voice. He found Alexandra on a bench tucked into a private corner of the garden.