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"I'm so stupid," Jamie Warren wailed, tossing the crumpled tissue over her shoulder. Rich Manning, who was sitting across the kitchen table from her, held out a fresh one. "I trusted Tony, and he's nothing more than a jerk."
She yanked the tissue from Rich's hand and ingloriously blew her nose. That tissue took the same path as the previous one. "I feel like the biggest fool who ever lived."
"It's Tony who's the fool."
"Oh, right. Then why am I the one sitting here crying my eyes out?" Jamie really didn't expect him to answer. Calling Rich at an ungodly hour, sobbing out her tale of woe, wasn't the most considerate thing she'd ever done, but she had to talk to someone and he was the first person who'd come to mind.
He was the kind of friend she felt comfortable calling in the middle of the night. The kind of friend who'd immediately drive over if she needed sympathy or consolation. They'd been close ever since they'd worked together on their yearbook in high school. Although they didn't see each other often, Jamie had always felt their relationship was special.
"At least crying's better than getting drunk, which is what I did when I found out Pamela was cheating on me," Rich admitted with a wry twist of his mouth. He got up and poured them each another cup of coffee.
"You haven't seen her since, have you?"
"Sure, I have. I wouldn't want her to think I was jealous."
Despite everything, Jamie laughed. "You're still dating her? Even after you learned she was seeing another guy behind your back?"
Rich shrugged carelessly, as though the entire situation was of little consequence, something Jamie knew not to be the case. Although he'd been devastated, he'd worn a nonchalant facade. He might've fooled everyone else, but not Jamie. His flippant attitude couldn't camouflage the pain.
"I took her to a movie a couple of times," Rich continued. "I played it cool. But as far as I'm concerned, it was over the minute I heard about that other guy."
"It's over with me and Tony, too," Jamie murmured. Just saying the words produced a painful tightening in her chest. She was truly in love with Tony and had been for nearly a year. They'd often talked about getting married and raising a family together. Jamie wanted children so badly. The weekend before, they'd gone shopping for engagement rings. Her mother, who was crazy about him, had been thrilled. Since Jamie was over thirty her mom tended to worry about her marriage prospects, but even she said that waiting for a man like Tony Sanchez had been time well spent. Sharing the bad news with her widowed mother had been almost as upsetting as learning about the betrayal itself.
"You're sure the other woman's baby is his?" Rich asked, reaching for her hand. "She could be stirring up trouble."
"He didn't bother to deny it." In the beginning, Jamie had hoped the woman was lying. She'd searched Tony's face, praying it was all some malicious joke. His beautiful dark eyes had turned defensive, but gradually the regret, the doubt, had shown, and he'd slid his gaze away from hers. It had been a mistake, he'd told her, a momentary slip in judgment. A one-night fling that meant nothing. He felt terrible about it and promised nothing like this would ever happen again.
Tony was cheating on her before they were even married, and Jamie didn't need a crystal ball to know that pattern would almost certainly continue.
"This isn't the first time," she admitted, biting her lower lip to control the trembling. "Margie, in New Accounts, mentioned seeing Tony with a blonde a month or so ago. He'd told me he was out of town and I I was sure it was just a case of mistaken identity. I should've known then."
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Rich said, bending to brush a wisp of dark brown hair from her temple. "There were plenty of signs that Pamela was playing me for a fool, too, but I was so taken with her"
"Bust line. Which was always your primary interest."
"That's probably why I never dated you," he countered, grinning.
Jamie smiled. The joke was an old one between them. When they'd first been assigned to work together on the yearbook, Rich had been a popular football player and she'd been a nondescript bookworm. They'd clashed constantly. One day, after a particularly nasty confrontation, she'd shouted that if she had a bigger bust, he might actually listen to her. Rich had gone speechless, then he'd started to laugh. The laughter had broken the ice between them and they'd been friends ever since. The best of friends.
"I hear there's help in the form of surgery," he teased, leveling his gaze at her chest.
"Oh, honestly." Her breasts weren't that small, but it was comfortable and easy to fall into their old banter. Focusing on something other than what a mistake Tony had turned out to be provided her with a goodif mo-mentarydistraction. She'd wasted an entire year of her life on him. An entire year!
Rich reached for his coffee, then leaned back in the chair and sighed. "I'm beginning to wonder if anyone's faithful anymore."
"I'm the last person you should be asking that," she said, taking a sip of her coffee. She didn't blame Rich for having doubts. Relationships all around her seemed to be failing. Friends, whose marriages had appeared strong and secure, were divorcing. At work affairs were rampant. Casual sex. Jamie was sick of it all.
"When Mark Brooks cheated on my sister Taylor, she took that teaching position in another state," Rich went on to say. "You know, I never much liked Mark. From the first I felt there was something off about him. I wish I'd spoken to Taylor about it."
"I felt so bad for her."
"The whole family was worried. Then she moved to the backwoods of Montana and a few months later, she married Russ Palmer. Everyone was sure she'd made a terrible mistake, marrying a cowpoke on the rebound, but I've never seen her happier. And now Christy's married to Cody Franklin."
"Christy's married to whom?"
"The Custer County sheriff. She's living in Montana, too."
"But I thought she was engaged to James Wilkens! Good grief, I was at her engagement party just a few months ago."
"It's a long story, but James is out of the picture."
"Christy dumped James?" It was hard to believe. Jamie had assumed they were perfect for each other. They'd acted like the ideal couple at the engagement party, sipping champagne and discussing wedding dates with their families.
Rich chuckled. "If you're surprised by that, wait until you hear this. While Christy was still engaged to James, she was married to Cody."
Jamie was shocked. She didn't know Rich's youngest sister well, but she would never have imagined Christy doing anything so underhanded. "I am surprised."
"There were mitigating circumstances and it's not as bad as it sounds, but Christy is yet another example of how fickle women can be."
"Women?" Jamie protested. "Men are notoriously untrustworthythey always have been."
It looked as though Rich wanted to argue. He straightened and opened his mouth, then shook his head. Sighing, he drank the last of his coffee. "I've begun to think commitment means nothing these days."
"I hate to be so cynical, but I agree."
Standing, Rich carried his mug to the kitchen sink. "Are you going to be able to sleep now?"
Jamie nodded, although she wasn't convinced. However, she'd taken enough of Rich's time for one night and didn't want to keep him any longer.
"Liar," he whispered softly.
Jamie smiled and got up, too. He slipped his arms around her and she laid her cheek against his shoulder. It felt good to be held. Rich's comfort was that of a loving friend, someone who truly cared about her without the complications of romance or male-female dynamics.
"You're going to get through this."
"I know," she whispered. But she hadn't been confident of that until she'd talked to Rich. How fortunate she was to have him as her friend. "We both will," she added.
A sigh rumbled through Rich's chest. "Don't you wish life could be as simple now as it was in high school?"
That remark gave Jamie pause. "No," she finally said, then laughed. "I was so shy back then."
"Shy?" Rich argued, releasing her enough to cast her a challenging look. "You were a lot of things, Jamie Warren, but shy wasn't one of them."
"Maybe not with you."
"I wish you had been, then you might've done things my way without so much arguing."
"You're still upset that I didn't use your picture on the sports page, aren't you? We've been out of high school for thirteen years and you haven't forgiven me for using that shot of Josh McGinnes instead."
Rich chuckled. "I could be upset, but I'm willing to let bygones be bygones."
"I'm glad to hear it." She led him to the door of her condo. "Seriously, though, I really am grateful you came."
"Call if you need me?"
She nodded. The worst of it was over. She would pick up the pieces of her life and start again, a little less trusting and a whole lot more wary.
Two months later, Rich was sitting in his office at Boeing when the image of Jamie Warren's tear-streaked face drifted into his mind. It was as if their conversation had taken place just the night beforeeven though he'd talked to her two or three times over the holidays, and she'd sounded good. Cheerful, in fact. Certainly in better spirits than he'd been himself.
She hadn't made any attempt to fool him. Tony had hurt her badly. From what she'd said, he'd made several attempts to resume their engagement, but she'd rejected the idea in no uncertain terms. It was plain to Rich that Tony Sanchez didn't really know Jamie Warren. The woman was stubborn enough to impress a mule. Once she made up her mind, that was it. Oh, she appeared docile and easygoing, but Rich had collided with that stubborn streak of hers a time or two and come away battered and bruised.
It bothered Rich that Jamie had never married. She'd always loved children, and he'd fully expected her to have a passel of kids by now.
Most men, he realized, passed Jamie over without a second glance. That bothered him even more.
The problem, not that he'd call it a problem, was that she didn't possess the looks of a beauty queen. She wasn't plain, nor was she unappealing. She was just he hated to admit itordinary. Generally, there was one thing or other that stood out in a woman. A flawless face. Cascades of shining hair, blond or gold or black Jamie's wasn't blond and it wasn't brunette but somewhere in between. And it wasn't long, but it wasn't short either. Some women had eyes that could pierce a man's soul. Jamie had brown eyes. Regular brown eyes. Not dark or seductive or anything else, just brown eyes. Nice, but average.
She was about five-five, and a little on the thin side. Giving the matter some consideration, Rich noted that there didn't seem to be any distinguishing curves on her. Not her hips, and certainly not her breasts. He could be mistaken of course, since he hadn't really looked at her that way. To be honest, he'd never looked at her in any way other than as a friend.
She didn't have a body that would stop traffic. The thing was, a woman could have an ordinary face, but if she had curves, men fell all over themselves. Rich hated to admit something so derogatory about his fellow man, but he felt it was true.
What few took the time to see was Jamie's warm heart and generous spirit. He'd never known a more giving woman. What she'd said about being shy was true, even though he'd denied it. Yet she had spunk and she had spirit. Enough to stand up to him, which was no easy thing.
Pushing against the edge of his desk, Rich rolled back his chair and stood up. He headed down the hallway with determination.
"Bill," he said, striding purposefully into his friend's office. "Got a minute?"
Rich had never played the role of matchmaker before, and he wasn't sure where to start. "There's someone I want you to meet."
"Oh." Bill didn't look too enthusiastic.
"A friend of mine."
"Widowed or divorced?"
Bill's brows arched toward his receding hairline. "You mean a leftover girl."
Rich wasn't comfortable thinking of Jamie as leftover, but this wasn't the time to argue. "We went to high school together."
"High school? Exactly how old is she?"
"Thirty-one." Her birthday wasn't until April. Their birthdays were both in April, and Jamie loved to point out that she was a whole week older.