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By Kelly Moran
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Kelly Moran
All rights reserved.
Gabby Cosette smoothed her hand down the simple baby blue sundress she meticulously picked out for this evening and tried not to look too eager. Or throw up. That wouldn't do either.
From a back booth, she glanced around the only Italian restaurant in Redwood Ridge, comforted by the fact it was still early yet for the dinner rush. The place was a good choice. Right? Not as casual as Shooters — the bar she and her friends frequented — but not as formal as one of the seafood restaurants that dotted their Oregon coastal town. A step above grabbing coffee or a beer, yet it didn't scream desperation.
Was a booth in the back too obvious? Had she overdone it with her makeup? Maybe she should've put her hair up instead of down?
No, no. She went for light and natural on purpose. The patrons of Redwood Ridge had known her all her life. It wasn't far out of the realm of ordinary for her to wear a dress and light cosmetics. She was being a basket case.
It's just ... Well, she hadn't had a date in a year. A year!
To calm her nerves, she drew in a deep breath and focused on the red-checkered tablecloth. A votive candle flickered on the windowsill to her right, the flame reflecting off the tinted glass. The parking lot stretched beyond, where her date's car was not in one of the available spots.
It was silly to get this worked up over a first date, especially with Tom. She'd gone to elementary and high school with him. His parents still lived down the street from hers. Strange how he'd never shown any interest in her romantically, yet out of the blue, he'd asked her out this week.
Then again, most everyone in town viewed her as the sweet Cosette girl, everyone's friend. Thus the no date in a year. It was hard to get a guy to think about kissing her, never mind imagining her naked, when she had platonic all but tattooed on her forehead.
The waitress strolled over in her apron, holding a notepad in her hand. "Are you waiting on someone, sweetie pie?"
"Yes." She smiled and grabbed her cell on the table. Tom was five minutes late. "He should be here any minute."
"Ooh. Is it a date?" Mavis planted a hand on her plump waist and grinned, the wrinkles around her eyes growing to crevices. Gabby wasn't sure how old Mavis was, no one really knew, but she never seemed to age past the state from when Gabby was a child.
Gabby opened her mouth to answer, but Tom strode toward her, weaving around tables and plopping in the seat across the booth.
"Couldn't find ya at the bar. I wasn't expecting a table."
It was still early, and Le Italy didn't get that crowded even on a Friday night. How hard could it possibly have been to locate her? "Give us a sec," she told Mavis and waited for her to step away.
Tom had blond hair too short for her preference and a thin mouth. His unremarkable brown eyes darted around the restaurant and back to her. He made no attempt to apologize for being late, and it appeared as if he'd just come from work. His jeans and T-shirt were paint-splattered. The hazard of working for his dad's commercial painting and roofing company.
"Thanks for meeting me." He took off his ball cap and scratched his head.
Why did that sound un-date-like? "Um ... sure thing. How's work going?" Her gaze dipped to his hands, no better off than his clothes. Maybe she should've picked Shooters after all.
Something felt very, very off as her belly twisted. Not with nerves this time. Confused, Gabby's mind scrolled through their conversation from earlier in the week when he'd brought his dog into the vet clinic where she worked. As he was checking out, he'd anxiously spun around to face her and asked if she could meet him.
"Good. Work's good." He put his hat back on and glanced outside. "Getting to be warmer out, so the jobs are picking up."
Perhaps he was just nervous, too. Her tension drained a degree.
Mavis returned and asked for a drink order.
Tom lifted his hand to wave her off. "Nothing for me, thanks. I can't stay long. Got a poker game with the guys tonight. I need to shower before they show up."
The forced smile Gabby had plastered on her face began to wilt like her mom's petunias in August. What did he mean he couldn't stay long? And why would he ask her out and schedule a card game on the same night? Plus, he could shower for his friends, but not her?
Mavis divided her gaze between them, a mix of bewilderment and irritation lifting her brows. She tapped her pen to her pad as the silence hung. "Can I get you something?" She focused on Gabby, her tone indicating she should order something.
"I'll have a sweet tea. Thank you." When the waitress walked away, Gabby looked at Tom. He'd thrown his arm over the back of the booth and had stretched his legs out. The aroma of Eau de Paint Thinner wafted across the table. "So ...?"
"Right, right." Tom leaned forward and crossed his arms. "I appreciate you letting me do this in person."
She stilled. "Do what?" Because she was definitely getting the this-is-not-a-date vibe now.
A warring shift in contradiction took over her body. Everything inside grew rapidly chilly while her skin heated in what she hoped wasn't a blush. Her pale complexion always gave away her emotions and she hated that more than she'd hated freshman algebra. Math was evil.
He let out a tense laugh, which sounded more like a guffaw, and drew several heads from other diners. "Not exactly a conversation you want to have over the phone or somethin', ya know?"
No. She didn't know. "Maybe if you just tell me?"
He played with the parmesan shaker, not meeting her gaze. "Well, the whole town's buzzing about Rachel and Jeff's split."
She frowned, not connecting the dots on his crazy pattern. Her older sister had only dated Jeff for a few weeks which, per Rachel standards, might as well have been marriage. Rachel liked to keep her options — and legs — open.
Guilt immediately consumed her for the crass thought, but it didn't make it any less true. She and Rachel couldn't be any more different. Rachel was aloof and sexy. Gabby was the girl next door. Men desired Rachel. The only thing they desired from Gabby was a shoulder to cry on after her sister shot them down.
She twirled a strand of hair around her finger to keep from fidgeting. "I don't understand what Rachel and Jeff have to do with ..." Unable to finish the sentence — because she had no idea anymore what "this" was — she waved her hand between them.
"Well," he said in an aw-shucks kind of way that made her want to grind her teeth, "now that Rachel's available, I thought maybe you could put in a good word for me?" He blinked up at her hopefully.
She stared at him for several stunned beats.
The reality of the situation slowly crept into her head and shoved around her skull. Her stomach dropped somewhere near her ankles. When he'd asked her out at the clinic earlier this week, she supposed he hadn't actually asked her "out." The phrasing he'd used had been something more like, Can you meet up with me on Friday?
And stupid, stupid her had taken that to mean he wanted a date.
As if. Like anyone would ever be interested in her when her sister had gotten all the good genes and didn't have the reputation of being everyone's pal. Good ole Gabby.
"This wasn't a date," she muttered to herself, more to ground herself to the situation than for confirmation.
Closing her eyes, she shook her head to let Tom know her utterance wasn't important. To him, it wasn't. Because she wasn't the one he wanted, and there was no sense in amplifying her mortification. It wasn't his fault she'd brainlessly gotten excited.
God, she was an idiot.
Her heart sank a little as hope withered a painful death. She shouldn't be surprised, really. It wasn't like this was the first time someone had tried to use her as a go-between. If not with her sister, then her friends. Still, she'd been looking forward to tonight, had thought it was a blessed break in her dry spell.
A lump formed in her throat as tears threatened. She looked around the room until she could get the pathetic emotions under control. Many of the tables had filled since she'd arrived. Man, if she started crying now ...
"So what do you say?" Tom set the shaker aside. "Could you help a friend out?"
Friend. She nearly choked on the word. Instead, she cleared her throat and forced a smile. Who was she to stand in the way of potential true love? "Of course. I'll talk to her tomorrow."
His nervous grin widened into something more genuine, drawing attention to the slight crookedness of his two front teeth. "You're the best, Gabby."
Yep. That was her. She resisted patting her own back in a sarcastic response.
Did she really want a relationship with him anyway? Probably not. He wasn't classically handsome, but he had his charms. His looks didn't matter to her anyway as long as he had a good heart or sense of humor. It was more the idea of having someone that appealed.
Which was not going to happen. Not tonight.
Tom rose from his seat and tipped his ball cap as if it were a Stetson. "Thanks so much. I gotta go."
Of course. Alone again. Maybe she should become a poet. It had worked for Hemingway.
She nodded. Her gaze followed him to the front door, and then over to the bar where she was thinking of doing a little Cuervo therapy.
Flynn was leaning against the bar, his direct sights on her. Still wearing his dark blue scrubs, his posture telegraphed his typical laid-back demeanor. Now there was an attractive man. Tall enough for the top of her head to reach his chin and ropy muscle on an athletic build. Wide shoulders, narrow waist.
All three of the O'Grady brothers were sexy in their own unique way. But, they'd grown up together and there had never been any chemistry between her and them. Cade, the youngest brother, was engaged to their office manager as of a couple months ago, and Drake, the eldest brother, was a widower. Gabby couldn't envision him dating again, at least not anytime soon. Flynn wasn't seeing anyone.
Not that it mattered. She worked for Flynn and his brothers at their vet clinic, so that was an automatic hand-slap.
From across the room, Flynn's eyes narrowed as he tilted his head in question toward the door. Where'd your date go?
Flynn was deaf, and through the years, she'd grown to read him easily. They always had a strong connection, being able to understand one another without words. Part of that was being good friends and part was due to working closely together for many years.
She shrugged in answer, keeping her disappointed expression open for him. Sucked to be her.
His brows lowered and he straightened from the bar, poised to head over until the bartender tapped his shoulder. Flynn signed for his takeout and carried it over to her booth, setting the bag down on the table before sitting.
His hazel eyes, framed by criminally long lashes, swept her face. "What happened?" he signed with his hands. "I thought you had a date?"
Per their routine, she signed and spoke simultaneously. "Me, too. Turns out he wanted my help getting in with my sister." At his scowl, she shrugged, embarrassed enough without the urge to discuss it. "My own fault. I read too much into the initial conversation."
He stared at her with disbelief and shook his head. His handsome, angular face was dialed to irritated and his full lips were twisted. He ran a hand through dark strawberry blond hair just this side of wavy. Flynn had a tendency to forget routine trims.
Mavis made her way back to the booth. Her gaze zeroed in on Flynn. "Decided to eat in?"
Habit had him turning to Gabby. He could read lips, but sometimes people spoke too quickly or didn't face him fully so he couldn't see what they were saying. Gabby signed Mavis's question.
He grinned, back to his usual glower-free self, and nodded.
Well, it wasn't a date, but Flynn was better company, anyway. Gabby looked at the waitress. "He'll have a beer, whatever's on tap, and can I get the largest piece of tiramisu you can find?"
"You got it, sweetie pie."
Gabby watched her walk away before letting out a sigh, chest deflating. When she looked at Flynn, his expression indicated he was patiently waiting for her attention again.
He leaned forward as if to punctuate a point. "He's an asshole."
She laughed. "Aren't they all?"
"Not all." He pulled a styrofoam container of lasagna from the to-go bag, opened it, and grabbed her fork from her place setting. He waited for her to take it from him before signing, "Dig in."
He picked up his fork and took a bite, then did a double take when she just poked at his lasagna. "Hey. You all right?"
"I'll be okay. Just not today. Today, I mope." He was one of the few people she'd admit that to, and since his gaze had softened and worry wrinkled his brow, she forced herself to take a bite. "Thanks, Flynn."
He nodded, watching her intently. "Movie night. My house. I'll even let you pick."
Why the hell wasn't he dating someone? Seriously.
Sad truth was, women tended to overlook Flynn because of his disability, just like they overlooked her for being in the friend zone. People sucked. "Maybe we should make one of those pacts. You know, the one where if neither of us is married by the time we're thirty we marry each other."
One eyebrow quirked in his custom you-done-gone-crazy. "I'm thirty and you turn thirty in a couple weeks. That ship has sailed."
Yeah. "Fine. Throw logic into my delusions."
His shoulders bounced in a silent laugh.
She smiled. "Okay, hot date. What if I pick a sappy movie?"
He shrugged. "I'll hide my man card. Tell no one."
Covering her face, she laughed until her chest ached. When she sobered, her mood was irrevocably lighter. Praise God for good friends. "Just for that, I'll share my tiramisu."
"Deal." He ate a few more forkfuls before his smile slipped a fraction, the hint of seriousness reflecting in his eyes. "For the record, I would've taken the pact."
She dropped her chin in her hand before moving to sign. "We would've had such cute babies, too."
"Word. Now eat or I'll make you watch Die Hard again."
She scooped a bite of cheesy carb goodness. Calories didn't count on crappy days. "Which one?"
He whipped her a "duh" look. "All of them."
Death by Bruce Willis. Could be worse things.CHAPTER 2
Flynn barely resisted an eye roll. Parked on the couch in his living room with Gabby's bare feet in his lap and the cheesiest rom-com playing on his TV, he counted down the last five minutes of ridiculousness. The only saving grace from the movie had been Meg Ryan's fake orgasm. Funny shit.
He didn't even need to glance at Gabby reclined beside him to know her eyes would be red-rimmed with "happy" tears. Women and their romance. At least it got her mind off her non-date tonight. He'd love to pummel Tom's face for putting that dejected look on Gabby's.
She tapped his chest with her foot to get his attention. "Am I unattractive?"
His hand stilled in the process of massaging her arches. No matter how he answered this question, he was screwed. To lie and tell her she was not beautiful would put her deeper in some kind of female depression. To speak honestly would hint at something he'd long buried, even from himself.
Truth was, he always kinda had a little crush on her. Nothing serious or monumental. No pining involved. Just ... there. At the edge of consciousness. An awareness of her.
It had started the first day of kindergarten and had gone into hiatus in high school when he'd forced himself to ignore it. What made him first descend had been a five-year-old blond sprite with compassion in her eyes who'd marched home after school to insist her parents take her to the rec center to learn sign language because there was a deaf kid in her class. That was Gabby, forever thinking of others. He'd dug his heels in to quash his crush for the same reason. She'd do anything for him and had slowly stopped noticing other males. Such blips would ruin what they had as friends.
Pulling her feet from his lap, she sat up, her expression telling him she was forming her own conclusions during his lack of response. Hell.
He went for humor. "You're hideous. I can barely look at you without gagging."
Her pretty pink mouth twisted. Her baby blues narrowed in unamusement. "I'm serious."
"Me, too. I might need to run to the toilet to retch."
She sighed. He couldn't hear it, of course, but he could feel it like a warm caress on his cheek. What in the hell was wrong with Tom, anyway? Gabby was ten times the woman her sister was. He had perfection right in front of him tonight and he'd walked.
Excerpted from Tracking You by Kelly Moran. Copyright © 2017 Kelly Moran. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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