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"Bobby's coming into town for the wedding."
Jennifer Jones's frothy, ruby-red daiquiri froze an inch from her lips, as she blinked at the bartender, her best friend, Marcie Allen, the red-haired, feisty bride-to-be herself. An onslaught of nerves assaulted her stomach as that name "Bobby" sliced through the air of the Tavernthe Austin, Texas, bar Marcie's fiancé owned. The painful taunt had her heart drumming like a rock concert in her ears and a lock of blond hair floated across her face, appropriately mimicking the disarray that Bobby had left her heart in seven years ago.
He'd enlisted in the Army and shipped off without so much as a word of real explanation. Left her with nothing but a Dr. Jen letter. Oh, good grief. Dear Jen. "Joining Army. Better this way. Be happy." Nothing else. Not even an "I love you." Just thinking about the man scrambled her brain cells. Even her parents had been devastated over the loss of Bobby. They'd loved him like a son. Jennifer had loved him. Had, she reminded herself.
Jennifer set the drink down on the marble-slabbed bar that separated her from Marcie, but not without a loud clunk that slopped the icy concoction over the sides. "What did you say?" she managed in a froglike croak, sickly and pathetic.
Marcie simply stood there, looking pale and kind of pathetically like Jennifer's croak moments before. Willie Nelson filled in for her, singing some sad Texas song that added insult to injury after the bad joke. Right. Bad joke! Nervous laughter bubbled from Jennifer's throat, and she picked up her drink again.
Marcie was a great many things. A true friend, proven from the day they'd met at age eleven, twenty years ago on the school bus. Jennifer had tripped and busted her lip in front of the hottest guy at Burnet Junior High. The hottie had bubbled over with loud laughter, and the crowd had joined in. Marcie to the rescue, she'd smack-talked the jerk into shame, and turned the joke on him. Yes. Marcie was a friend. What Marcie was not was funny. She'd never had that comedic timing thing so many people had.
"Bad joke, Marcie," she said, so relieved she couldn't even be angry. She'd kill Marcie after she finished her rare, but much-needed, alcoholic beverage. She sipped delicately before adding, "And this is not the way to get me into that lime-green dress you want me to wear."
Marcie's hazel eyes glistened with trepidation. Recognizing the source of that trepidation as having nothing to do with her comment about the dress, and everything to do with Bobby, dread twisted in Jennifer's stomach.
"Please," Jennifer said, her hand shaking as she set the drink down again. "Tell me you're joking. Tell me Bobby is not coming to the wedding." Just his name seemed to vibrate through every one of her five foot five inches.
"I wouldn't joke about Bobby," Marcie said, suddenly not only finding her voice, but her feisty redheaded attitude. "And the dress isn't lime. It's yellow-green, the color of communicative healing in meditation, which is how I want my relationship to be and why I'm happy Bobby is coming. You need to heal. To deal with Bobby once and for all."
Emotions assailed Jennifer, a whirlwind of memories wrapped in prickly thorn-covered roses. "I do not need to heal!" She'd moved on seven years ago when Bobby had. She'd followed her dream, gone to vet school, and opened a small Hill Country office, albeit settling for a condo, not the cottage by Lake Travis she and Bobby had wanted. Instead her parents had sold their pet shop franchise and bought a lake house. Which she visited. Which was enough. She liked her condo. She liked her life.
"You don't even date," Marcie said.
"I date!" Okay. Not recently. But a girl could only take so many Nightmare on Elm Street, bad nights out. She pursed her lips, allowing anger and indignation to wipe away the Bobby memories blasting through her brain. "I can't believe he has the nerve to show up here after being gone for all this time." She paused for a heartbeat, and made an irritated sound. "Like he gives a damn or something."
"He does care," Marcie said. "I need you to know I've been communicating with him."
Marcie might as well have dropped a sledgehammer on the bar because that admission shook Jennifer so deeply it darn near rattled her teeth. "You've been communicating with Bobby and didn't tell me." It wasn't even a question. It was stunned disbelief.
The "feist" in Marcie's feisty faded. "Yes," she said softly.
"Several years now," Marcie said, dropping her bombshell.
Had her heart stopped beating? Had the room gone utterly silent? "For several years?"
"He does care," Marcie repeated. And then, softening her voice, she added, "He worries about you."
Jennifer stared at her. Then she looked away, arms folding in front of her, memories refusing to be shoved away. Even after all these years, she could remember their first kiss as if it was yesterday. Bobby had moved from San Antonio, and like herself, was attending the University of Texas in Austin, or they might never have met. They'd met on the university campusJennifer walking her golden retriever, Bobby walking his German shepherd. The dogs had become fast friends; she and Bobby had become fast lovers. Her fingers raised to her mouth, remembering their first kiss, then dropped with that bittersweet memory.
The sound of snapping pulled her out of her reverie. "Hello?" Marcie said, fingers in front of her face.
Shaking herself mentally, Jennifer refocused on Marcie. Bobby had become like a big brother to Marcie; they were close. Of course they talked. Jennifer didn't want to be selfishthat Marcie felt she had to hide her relationship with Bobby said she had been.
"I'm sorry," Jennifer said, meaning it. "This is your wedding and if you want him here, you deserve to have him here. And I'll wear the yellow-green dress with a smile." Just don't press me to deal with Bobby, she pleaded silently.
Marcie seemed to read between the lines, a look of understanding sliding across her face. "Thank you, Jen," she murmured.
Reaching across the bar, Jen squeezed Marcie's arm and plastered on a bright smile that didn't quite make it to her eyes. "Two short weeks and you'll be a married woman."
Marcie all but glowed as she glanced across the crowded room to where Mark Snyder, her fiancé, chatted with a table of customers. Mark and Marcie, the two M's, often joked about. The two lovers. "Yeah," Marcie said in the midst of a dreamy sigh.
Mark looked up as if he felt Marcie's eyes on him and then motioned for her to join him. Obediently, Marcie darted from behind the bar. Jennifer sighed in relief, happy to have a few minutes alone.
Grabbing her purse, she decided she'd go freshen up. A little mascara, a dab of powder, and she would have a new mind-set. Her plan intact, she swiveled around on the bar stool and started to slide off.
The minute her feet hit the wood floor, she was stopped dead in her tracks as she crashed into a rock-hard chest. She stood stunned for a long moment as strong hands, familiar and warm, settled on her arms and sent an electric charge pinging around inside her, awareness instant, hot. Her body knew what her mind desperately burned to reject. Bobby Evans was standing in front of her. Touching her. The scent of him, rawly male, intensely masculine, and so damn arousing, insinuated into her senses. Seeped through to her bones.
Slowly, her eyes traveled upward, taking in his towering six-foot-three framefirst sliding over denim-clad hips, then a soft black tee, a broad defined chest and finally his longish, fair hair that framed intense blue eyes. Those eyes now connected with hers. The impact was nothing shy of a head-on, steam-engine collision. Hot and hard. Just like his body and their sex life.
He was older now, a man fully developed and now thirty. Time had served him well; he was bigger, broader and even more appealing than beforetanned with fine lines around his eyes that spoke of experience, depth. And a life she hadn't been a part of.
"Hey, Jen." His voice was a deep baritone; his tone, intimate. Familiar. The same tone he'd used when he'd whispered naughty things in her ear during lovemaking.
She swallowed a sudden tickle in her throat. The things she had done with Bobby were, well beyond pleasure. They were downright delicious. The man had a way of stripping away inhibitions and leaving nothing but the two of them, alone in the world. But that was then, and this was now.
"Bobby?" she asked, as if she were surprised. Well, she was, actuallysurprised, that was. Which was something she'd be taking up with Marcie, wedding or not.
"You look good, Jen," he said, in an embarrassing reminder that she had on her softest, most worn Levi's and a pink T-shirt that said I love my cat, and that was about it. No jewelry. Not even fancy shoes.
It was that kind of day. A Thursday she wouldn't soon forget. She'd put down a dog that morning, one she'd treated for years, and watched the owner bawl like a baby. Exactly why she'd been anticipating this daiquiri
and some laughs. But she'd made it through that, and she would make it through seeing Bobby again.
Marcie was right. She needed to heal. She needed to put Bobby behind her, once and for all. New beginnings were upon them. Jennifer straightened.
"You do, too," she said, managing a cool edge to her tone despite the tiny quaver, not quite suppressed. His hands still rested on her arms, making her skin tingle. She would have stepped away from him, but the bar stool was behind her and, besides, she wasn't going to run. Or hide. Or let him believe she couldn't deal with him being around her. She was an adult. She could deal. Casually, she added, "I'm surprised you're here so soon. I thought you would arrive closer to the wedding." The big day was a full two weeks away.
"Better early than late," he said, his hands dropping from her arms, leaving goose bumps in their wake. He offered nothing more in his answer, and she asked nothing more in return. They just stood there. Staring at one another. Close. Too close.
What did he see when he stared at her? Was she what he remembered? More? Less? She told herself that what he saw mattered about as much as the peanuts on the counter. A lie she swore to make truth. But his gaze slipped to her lips, and she knew he was thinking about kissing her. She was thinking about kissing him, too, and hated herself for that weakness. It would be so easy to lean in close to him, to lift to her toes, to see if their kiss still tasted of wildfire and passion. The temptation rippled through her with such demand, she wanted to scream. And yesrun.
That was not what a grown, respectable, confident woman did. Not obviously, at least. Since running wasn't an immediate option
Delicately, she cleared her throat. "How long will you be here?" Inwardly, she cringed. Why had she asked him that? And why was she searching his expression for a hint of his reaction to both her question, and to seeing her again?
And she found what she was looking for. There was a familiar intimacy in his gaze that touched her heart and her body. There was warmth to their nearness, a subtle sizzle, forcefully demanding her acceptance.
His brow inched up slowly. "Were you asking because you want to know how long until I leave, Jen?" He paused a split second. "Or because you want to know how long I'm staying?"
She knew what he was asking. Was she glad to see him? Yes. No. She didn't want to be, but she was. She didn't want to feel like that. Her life was fine without him. She'd spent far too long asking why he'd left. Now she simply wanted him to go away. Again.
Marcie's scream saved Jennifer from responding. "Bobby!" she yelled as she launched herself at him. Within seconds, she was giving him a bear hug.
Jennifer knew opportunity when she saw it. She ran. Darted toward the restroom. The one stall was thankfully vacant, and Jennifer quickly dashed inside, shut the door and slid the lock into place with a firm twist of her wrist.
Bobby had never been one to allow a girl her privacy. When he wanted to fight, he wanted to fight. When he wanted to talk, he wanted to talk. Even when she didn't. Well, they just made love until she did.
That thought sent a rush of heat spreading through
her limbs, and her hands shifted to her arms where he'd touched her, branded her. After all these years, she still wanted him. She wasn't sure whom she was more angry with. Marcie for giving her all of three minutes of warning that Bobby was about to show up or Bobby for making her all hot and bothered after leaving her heartbroken.
"Neither," she whispered into the wood-paneled restroom. She was ticked at herself for allowing Bobby to be such a big deal. He'd done her wrong, and she deserved better than him. It didn't matter that he was long, strong and packed with sex appeal. It didn't matter that old feelings had rushed over her upon hearing he would be attending the wedding. What mattered was what he had done to her and what she would not allow him to do againhurt her. Right.
She was going back out there to show him she was not affected one way or the other by his presence, and darn it, it was going to be true. Okay. Maybe not true tonight, but at some point in the very near future it would be. For now, she'd settle for pretending.
Jennifer turned to exit and hesitated. Maybe she'd dab on a bit of makeup. Not because she wanted to impress him, but darn it, looking good was revenge in itself. Having him show up when she was looking beaten, broken and makeup-less was not helping with the confident, I-am-so-over-you attitude she hoped to convey.
She stepped to the mirror and tried not to cringe at the sight she'd made for Bobby. Hair in disarray, face and lips pale. She reached for her purse and then realized that if she returned to the bar with even one peep more of color, he'd decide it was on his behalf. And it would be.