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Crackly leaves darted out of the old pickup's way as Eli Garrett effortlessly navigated the mountain road, one hand resting lightly on the steering wheel, the other thrumming the dashboard in time to Willie Nelson. Behind him, like backup, ladders and tools and whatnot rattled and rumbled in the truck's bed.
Good times, Eli thought as he approached the final, dusk-cloaked curve to his house. He had a check from a thrilled client in his pocket, 007 waiting in his mailbox, and Evange-lista Ortega's chicken enchiladas tucked up all nice and cozy in the aluminum tray on the seat beside him. So the late fall evening stretched before him, gloriously free, nothin' to do except hang with Mr. Bond and chow down on the best enchiladas this side of Santa Fe. Maybe in all of New Mexico, he mused, cresting the hill
"What the hell!"
He swerved to avoid the small, ghostlike figure who'd popped up out of nowhere, jogging on the wrong damn side of the road. The figure shrieked, then toppled over into a thicket of brush and chamisa, cussing in a mixture of Spanish and English loud enough to blow poor Willie right off the map.
All the junk in the truck bed crashed mightily as Eli jerked up short on the shoulder ahead and jumped out. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you!" he yelled, striding toward the figure, already getting to her feet. "You okay?" In the glow from his taillights, she spun around, glaring, and what was left of Eli's good mood evaporated like smoke in a high wind.
He froze, unsure of his next move. Recognizing him, Teresa Moraleswrong, Montoyastiffened, too, a moment before a dry, caustic laugh sprang from her mouth. Eli relaxed. Some.
"Holyhell, Tessyou trying to give me a heart attack?"
Swiping dirt, dead leaves and chamisa gunk off her butt, Tess shot him The Look of Death. "Yeah, well," she said, "you didn't exactly do my cardiovascular system any favors, either. Crap." Shoving a headband off her short, wavy hair, she plunked back down in the dirt, inspecting an ugly-ass dark slash on her shin. "Am I bleeding? I can't see a damn thing in this light."
"If I look, you promise not to go after me with a blunt object?"
Her eyes flashed to his, then back to the cut. "It's your lucky dayI'm unarmed."
"You sure? That headband looks kinda dangerous"
"Geez, Elijust look at my leg, okay?"
Eli squatted beside her, trying not to react to her scent, the same one that used to make his eyes cross as a horny seventeen-year-old. That threatened to short out his brain now. Especially when he yanked up her leg to get a better look and came into contact with all that cool, smooth skin
"Sorry," he mumbled. Rubbing the underside of her calf, a little. Noticing she'd recently shaved. Or waxed. Or something. Stubble, the curse of the dark-haired, she'd said. "Yeah, you're bleeding all right. Must've been a branch or something stickin' out, scratched you up pretty good. What in tarnation were you doing runnin' this time of night? And why on earth were you way out here?"
"It was still daylight when I started," she muttered, digging a tissue out of her body-hugging, light-colored jacket. "And I didn't mean to run this faror even run at all, I'd just gone for a walkbut it sorta got away from me." He noticed her hand trembling as she dabbed at the blood, like most of the fight had gone out of her.
Like a woman still stinging from her recent divorce, maybe?
Eli sighed. "Hold on, I've got paper towels and water in the truck."
Amazingly, she was still there when he returned, her forehead propped on her arms, folded across her knees. Knowing Tess, he'd half expected to see her hobbling down the road, muttering, "Don'tneedno stinkin' help fromno stinkin', stupid ex-boyfriends." He handed her a soaked towel. "Here."
She jerked her head up like she'd forgotten about him, then took the damp towel and pressed it to the wound, clearly holding back a wince. A single tear dribbled down her cheek, looking like blood itself in the red glow. She shouldered it away.
"I'm fine," she snapped, then released a breath, her mouth set. "Really," she said, more softly, and it was everything he could do not to call her on the obvious lie.
Eli sat back on his haunches, trying to reconcile what he saw in front of him with both the carefree sixteen-year-old girl his hormone-crazed younger self had been crazy in love with and the sharp, confident businesswoman she'd become over the past few years. Or so he'd heard, since they'd barely exchanged ten words since Eli's Big Screwup.
Even so, in a town like Tierra Rosa you could go for years without talking to somebody and still know every detail of their lives. Either you'd overhear something, or some kind soul would fill you in, or you'd notice things with your own two eyes. Things you kept to yourself, no matter how much they might be killing you inside.
"Where's the kids?" he asked, exchanging the bloodied towel for a clean one.
"In Albuquerque. With their father," Tess said through a grimace. She glanced at him, just long enough for him to catch the anger-tinged shadows in her eyes, then back at her leg, pressing the towel to the wound. "Yesterday would have been our ninth anniversary."
She shrugged. Lifted the towel. "You think it's stopped?"
"Can't really tell in the dark. Can you walk?"
"Of course I can walk," she said, rising and putting her weight on her foot. Doing the stoic thing.
"Come on, I'll take you back to my place and get you patched up."
Clearly gritting her teeth, Tess took another step. Swore under her breath. "How about you take me home instead?"
"Because something tells me you shouldn't be alone right now."
Even in the dark, he felt the full force of her glare. Caught the pain behind it, too. And not just because of her leg. "And I don't recall asking for your input. If you don't want to give me a lift, I'll get back on my own steam."
"Before next Sunday?"
The glare intensified. Eli almost laughed. "Tell you what how about we go back to my place and get the dirt cleaned out of that scratch, then I'll take you home?" When she still hesitated, he said, "Might even rustle up a slug of whiskey from somewhere."
"Why? In case you need to amputate?"
"Never hurts to be prepared."
Muttering something about "damn Boy Scouts," Tess started for the truck. Eli tried to put his arm around her waist, got his hand smacked for the trouble. Of course, she then limped the ten feet to the passenger-side door, leaning against the extended cab for dear life while Eli shifted the enchiladas so she'd have some place to sit. Once settled in her seat, however, she emitted a sound that was half sigh, half moan.
"Those Eva's enchiladas?" she asked.
"They are." Huh. "When's the last time you ate?"
Tess erased the frown beforeshe thoughtEli noticed it. "A while ago."
Thinking, Women, sheesh, Eli slammed shut her door and walked around the truck's hood. Got in. "I got no problem sharing."
"That's okay, I'm fine."
Shaking his head, he pulled back out onto the road. "Your stomach might take issue with you on that."
Tess crossed her arms over her loudly rumbling middle. "There's food at home."
Eli decided to quit while he still had all his crucial body parts.
It didn't take but a couple of minutes to get to his place, a nondescript pseudo-adobe number he'd bought some time ago, close to a much larger building that housed the family woodworking and cabinetry business, which in turn was maybe fifty yards away from his parents' house. Award-worthy? God, no. Affordable and convenient? You bet.
Tess slid out of the truck on her own steambig surprise, theretaking a second to either get her bearings or scrutinize the house. Maybe both.
"Hard to get the full effect in the dark," he said, carting the enchiladas past her, figuring she'd hobble behind when she was ready.
"I'm sure," she muttered. Hobbling along behind.
Eventually she made it inside the house. "Huh," she said, although to the open spacethe result of his knocking out a bunch of non-load-bearing walls after he'd first bought the placeor the lack of Clueless Bachelor clutter, he couldn't say.
"Yeah, good thing the maid came today," he said, carting the enchiladas to the kitchen.
After putting the tray on the counter, Eli shrugged out of his denim jacket. "No, Tess, no maid. Not that I'm suggesting you eat off the floor, but I do know how to wash a dish and take out the garbage."
"Oh, I " She blew out a sigh, then pointed to her wound. "Triage?"
"Right straight through, on your right. First-aid kit's under the sink. I take it you don't need my help?"
"No," she said, hobbling off. Ten seconds later, he heard a shriek. Eli hotfooted it to the bathroom to find Tess gawking at her reflection in the medicine chest mirror. "How come you didn't tell me I have half the national forest in my hair?" she asked, plucking at twigs and chamisa fluff and stuff, and in the light he could see that twelve years and a couple of kids had added a few not-unwelcome pounds here and there.
"It was dark," he said. "Couldn't tell." He leaned one palm against the doorjamb, appreciating the view. "Don't think I've ever seen you with short hair."
Her eyes cut to his for barely a second before veering back to the mirror. "Got tired of taking care of it long," she said softly, bitterly, finger-combing most of the chamisa gunk out of it, sending the yellow bits floating all over his bathroom.
Don't get sucked in, don't get
"Looks good," he said, then walked away and left her to it.
Tess braced herself against his sinkfar cleaner than she would have expected, nothing on it except a cup and a razor willing her heart to settle down.
What on earth had she been thinking, not turning back long before she'd gotten so far from her own house? She supposed that had been the whole point, that she'd wanted to run away. From everything. Not forever, just for a little while. But to end up in Eli Garrett's bathroom?
If they'd seen each other a half dozen times since their breakup, she'd be surprised. It wasn't anything deliberate, exactly, even if their parting had been, well, pretty bad. In retrospect, chasing him down Main Street with a sponge mop had probably been a bit over the top. Not that she would have inflicted any lasting damageshe didn't thinkeven if there'd been the slightest chance of catching up with those long legs of his. But for heaven's sake, it wasn't like she still had any feelings for the guy. Not after a dozen years and a couple of kids and a marriage blowing up in her face
Sighing, Tess hauled out the first-aid kit, getting her first good look at her boo-boo. Eww. She'd hardly be crippled for life, but miniskirts had just been crossed off the list for the near future.
She banged down the toilet seat and sank onto it, dampening a gauze pad with antiseptic before tentatively touching it to the wound. She hissed, then swore, as hot tears bit at her eyesfrom the pain, yes, but more from a sudden surge of anger and frustration, topped with a leftover jalapeño or two of grief. All that time, petrified of losing Ricky to something she didn't even fully understand, only to discover she'd lost him anyway.
Yeah, there was some sick irony for you.
The grief, Tess could handle. Had handled, for the most part. People change, marriages die, let's move on. The anger, however this was new. The anger was what had propelled her out the door two hours ago, fueled a run that had lasted far longer than it should have, made her take risks she would have never normally taken.
The anger frightened her because she didn't know its limits. What it would do. What it would make her do.
She glopped on some antibiotic ointment, then bandaged the scrape. Already, the shock of the fall was wearing off. When she stood this time, her leg seemed more inclined to do its job. The kit shoved back underneath Eli's sink, she made her way to the front room, a living/dining combo all rustic and woodsyand surprisingly homeywith its wooden floor and paneling, the dark beams running the length of the white ceiling. The decorating style was strictly Early Parental Cast Offsshe thought she recognized the old beige corduroy sofabut mercifully devoid of ancient pizza boxes and beer cans.
One might not even think a bachelor lived here at all, had it not been for the two solid shelves of video game cases and the corresponding jumble of consoles under, beside and around the boxy, '90s-issue TV squatting in the entertainment center like a bloated rhinoceros.
"So what's the prognosis?" Eli called from the dining nook, which is when she noticed not only that he'd set the table for two, but the man who'd set that table.
Taller. More solid. Curly, light brown hair still too long, the Henley T-shirt still too loose, the jeans still ragged. The person wearing them still too damn sure of himself for his own good. Andmuch as it pained her to admit itfor hers.
Her hands stuffed in her jacket front pocket, Tess shrugged, reminding herself the sexually predatory divorcée was such a cliché. "No worries on that amputation thing. Um what's this?"
"Dinner," he said, flashing her the dimpled grin that had been her undoing so long ago. Ducking the not-half-bad wrought-iron chandelier over the table, he set down a plate of enchiladas, then another, like Enrique used to once upon a time, when they were first married and the future beckoned, unblemished and secure.
The anger flared. "I thought I said"
"I know what you said," Eli said mildly, although there was nothing mild about the way he was looking at her. Don't do that! she wanted to yell, even as longinghot and thick and syrupy welled inside her to mix with the anger. Since, you know, he looked at pretty much every female in the county like that
"I've also been working my butt off all day," he continued, still watching her, and her eyes latched onto his mouth, and another memory flashed, of what good a kisser he'd been, and she realized she was an inch away from pity party status, which only made her madder
"And you live clear on the other side of town. So I'm gonna eat before I take you home, if it's all the same to you. And since my mama taught me it's rude to eat in front of people without offering to share
" He gestured toward the plate on the far side of the table. "You may as well join me."