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Lainey Morgan clutched the paper bag, avoiding the corner already stained with grease. "Please," she whispered. "I need this food."
Yanking the sack across the Formica counter, the waitress wagged a finger in Lainey's face. Small sunbursts glinted on the tips of her acrylic nails. "I don't know how it's done where you're from, sweetheart, but around these parts people pay for what they eat."
"I don't have the cash. If you'd let me pay with a credit card"
When bells above the diner's door jingled, Lainey glanced over her shoulder. At the sight of the man gesturing wildly to a teenage busboy, she inched toward the far wall feeling like she'd been sucker punched. The last thing she needed was to see a familiar face, let alone her ex-fiance. She knew it had been a mistake to return to her hometown, and just five minutes here proved it.
If possible, ten years had heightened Ethan Daniels's raw appeal. The boy was gone, replaced with a man more suited to the stark desert plains of New Mexico she now called home than this sleepy North Carolina town.
He pointed to the front window and her gaze followed. "No animal should be left in this heat"
The rush of blood in Lainey's head drowned out his voice.
She needed to get out of the diner. Now.
"You okay, hon?" The waitress had followed her to the end of the counter. "We don't accept plastic for such a small amount. But I guess I can make an exception this once. You look like you could use a decent meal."
She darted a glance at the woman's name tag. "Thank you, Shelly." Adjusting the baseball cap lower, she pushed away the camera around her neck and slid her credit card toward the waitress.
Shelly's voice rang out over the din of the restaurant. "Hey, Doc, what's got you so bothered on a Sunday morning?"
Lainey swallowed hard against the awareness that pricked at her body. Today's agenda did not include puking in front of the weekend rush at Carl's.
"Some fool left their dog roasting in the sun." Heat and frustration rolled off him. "Can I get a cup of water, Shelly? I swear people think two legs and half a brain gives them the right to treat an animal any way they want."
Even angry, Ethan's voice flowed through Lainey like music. The fact he could still affect her after all this time irritated the hell out of her.
"Whose is it?" Shelly asked.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lainey saw a tanned hand settle on the counter. She swallowed hard, praying the floor would swallow her whole.
That prayer, like countless others, went unanswered.
"Can't say." He blew out a breath. "Every canine within fifty miles has been through the clinic, but I've never seen that mutt."
Lainey scribbled the total plus a hefty tip on the receipt and reached for the bag. The waitress held it tight.
"You know anything about an abandoned dog?"
"She's not abandoned," Lainey muttered. Not yet, she added silently. She gave the bag a hard yank and stumbled when Shelly let go. As an arm reached out to steady her, Lainey looked up into Ethan's dark eyes. Recognition dawned, and with it his gaze filled with anger. Maybe she deserved it, she thought. The way she'd left town ten years ago, why would he show her any kindness now?
"Good lord," he said.
"Nope." Lainey hitched her chin a notch, with the tiny bit of pride she had left. "Just me."
"What are you doing here?"
"I know about Vera." He ran a hand through thick hair that curled against the collar of his faded Duke T-shirt. "I didn't think you'd come."
"She had a stroke. Of course I came."
"Hold the phone, people." Shelly's heavily lined eyes blinked several times. "Are you " Glancing at the card before handing it back to Lainey, she said aloud, "Melanie Morgan."
A hush fell over the diner.
Shelly's gaze shifted to Ethan. "She's the Lainey Morgan. Your Lainey."
A muscle ticked in his jaw. "Not mine," he said. "Just Vera's daughter." A subtle patchwork of lines etched the bronzed skin around his eyes, highlighting their deep chocolate color.
A blush rose to Lainey's cheeks. This was so not the way she'd pictured her morning. "I have to get out of here," she said to no one in particular.
"Not so fast, girlie." Shelly leaned across the counter, her twang thicker with every syllable. "Your mama is in a delicate state. She don't need anyone upsetting her."
"I'm here to help," Lainey said through clenched teeth, hating how defensive she sounded.
"Vera Morgan is a saint, I tell you." This from an elderly woman two stools down.
Lainey glanced around the crowded diner. If looks could kill, she'd be a goner a hundred times over. Those angry stares were what had kept her away for so long. And the reason she already regretted returning. Cradling the bag of food against her belly, she raced for the door. To know why people loathed the sight of her didn't make it any easier to stomach.
When the door to Carl's slammed, Ethan blew out a breath. "I need the water to go." He forced an even tone and raised his eyebrows, willing Shelly to remain silent.
She didn't speak. The entire diner was eerily quiet, but the pity in her smile made him grit his teeth. He'd tolerated enough pity for two lifetimes. He'd gone from the town's golden boy to a humiliated laughingstock because of Lainey Morgan and had no intention of repeating that mistake.
He stalked outside where the dog lay under the iron bench. Water sloshed over the side of the cup and dripped down his fingers as she lapped up greedy gulps.
"What are you doing?" Lainey asked behind him. She held a small bowl of water in one hand, balancing the takeout bag in the other arm.
In an instant, her scent surrounded him, different than beforestill sweet but with a hint of something he couldn't name. "Shouldn't you be halfway to the county line by now?"
"Not that it matters, but my mother called me. Or had Julia call me. I'm not running away."
"We'll see how long that lasts."
"She needs help"
"I've worked with Vera a long time. I know what she needs." He paused then said, "It's been tough, between the stroke and rehabilitation. She's not used to doing what other people tell her."
"That may be the understatement of the century." She sighed, a small, sad sound.
He pushed his fingers into the thick fur around the dog's neck then looked at Lainey. "No collar," he muttered. "What idiot "
She crossed and uncrossed her arms over her chest, avoiding his gaze. Finally she reached out and smoothed the hair on top of the animal's head. "I'm the idiot."
Her voice was so quiet he wasn't sure he'd heard right.
"This is my dog. Sort of. Not really." A wave of pink stained her cheeks.
"Your dog?" He looked back and forth between the two. The dog pushed against Lainey's hand as she halfheartedly scratched behind its ears.
"Her name's Pita. For now."
"And you left her in the sun?" He grabbed the blue rope tied to the bench's armrest and worked his fingers against the knot. "Didn't you learn anything from your dad?"
She took a step back as if he'd struck her. Regret flashed through her eyes before they turned steely cold. "I was getting a hamburger for the dog at the diner and her water dish from my car. I'd have been here ten minutes ago if the waitress hadn't insisted I pay cash."
Ethan glanced at the paper bag Lainey still held. "Plus you're feeding her greasy table food. Nice."
Her finger stabbed into his chest. "Excuse me, Dr. Doo-little, but I ran out of dog food and there was nothing off the backwoods highway on my way in this morning." She rolled her eyes. "In case you weren't aware, Piggly Wiggly doesn't open for another hour, and I need to get to the hospital."
She whirled away. Tugging hard on the dog's leash, she stomped toward an ancient Land Cruiser parked near the curb. He touched her arm but she shrugged him off. "Lainey, wait."
She spun back around and shook her finger in his face.
"One more thing before you send the Humane Society after me. I said this dog was sort of mine. She's been hanging around my house for a couple weeks. I posted reward signs all over the neighborhood but strays are pretty much the official dog of New Mexico."
She continued wagging the finger and moving toward him until he was flattened against the diner's brick exterior. "She stowed away in the back of my trucknot a peep until the Oklahoma state line. Too late to turn around."
Pausing for a breath, she bit down on her lower lip. Ethan's heart skipped a beat.
Her voice softened and she looked at the dog. "Believe me, Ethan, I am well aware I can't even be a decent dog mom."
He didn't understand the sorrow that clouded her gaze. He'd bet the farm it had nothing to do with Pita, who gazed at her with the sort of unabashed adoration only dogs and teenage boys could manage. "I didn't say"
She flicked her hand. "I've been driving two solid days. I'm going to the hospital and taking the dog with me. If you think I'm that bad, find a good home for her. For now, I'm all she's got."
She stared at him with a mix of defiance and wariness, as if she expected him to challenge her right to the dog.
A breeze kicked up, and she pushed away a curl that escaped her ball cap. Even her face had changed. The soft roundness of youth had given way to high, defined cheekbones and an angled jaw that made her beautiful but not at all the girl he once knew. Her eyes were the same. A color green that turned stormy gray when she was riled up. The same impossibly long lashes.
Memories flooded his mind, almost drowning him with their intensity.
Maybe he'd overreacted about the dog. So what? She wasn't going to make him feel like a jerk. He wasn't the jerk here.
Despite his mistakes, he'd tried to do the right thing. He'd stepped up to marry her, to give her the family he knew she'd wanted. She was the one who'd left him standing at the altar in front of God and most of the damned county. He'd learned his lesson about putting himself out there. About caring too much. Whatever homecoming Lainey got in Brevia, she deserved.
"Good luck, then." He tipped his head and walked past, not trusting himself to speak again. He had to get a hold of himself fast, or this was going to be one long summer.
Lainey didn't watch him go. She didn't need another view of the way the faded jeans he wore hugged his perfect butt. Seeing him bend over the dog had seared that particular image into her mind.
Not that she'd ever truly forgotten.
She bent forward and fiddled with Pita's rope for several beats before glancing over her shoulder. An older couple walked toward her along the sidewalk; otherwise, the street was empty.
Balancing the bag of food on one hip, she opened the back hatch of her SUV. Pita jumped up and plopped onto the navy canvas dog bed Lainey had bought at a pet store outside Memphis.
The dog whined as Lainey opened the paper sack and pulled out two hamburgers, breaking them into pieces over a plastic food dish.
"Look at the mess you've gotten me into." Lainey's fingers trembled as she unscrewed a bottle cap and poured water into another bowl.
When Pita finished the food and water, Lainey piled the two dishes into a corner of the cargo space and closed the hatch. By the time she climbed behind the steering wheel, the dog waited for her, perched on the passenger seat.
"I hope that was worth the trouble." Lainey turned the key and hot air blew from the dash. She sank back against the leather and drew in a ragged breath.
Pita nudged the crook of Lainey's arm.
"Slobber isn't helping." But she reached for the dog, letting the rhythmic petting soothe them both. "Give me a minute to pull it together. I didn't expect "
What? For the man who broke her heart to be the first person she ran into in Brevia? For the "could have been" chorus to drown out the "for the best" refrain she'd told herself for ten years the very moment she saw him? She shook her head. Enough already. Geez. The dog was not her therapist.
She wasn't strong enough for too many hometown walks down memory lane. From the moment her sister Julia had called three days ago, Lainey hadn't let herself think about anything beyond getting here. Otherwise, she never could have forced her foot onto the gas pedal.
She flipped down the visor and grimaced into the tiny mirror. She'd showered at the dumpy roadside motel, but that was it. She hadn't applied a stitch of makeup or bothered to tame her crazy hair.
Ethan looked better than ever, his body strong and muscular underneath the T-shirt. She'd never been in his league. Why would a decade away change anything?
Pita's tongue flicked her bare arm like a salt lick. "I know. I'm a sweaty mess." Lainey didn't have the energy to push her away. "You act as disgusting as I feel."
Pita barked in response.