Handle with Care
Experience has taught Gayle Hayes one thing: men are jerks. And after forgetting that one lesson again and again, Gayle has decided to come back to her small-town Montana roots and reset her curlers, so to speak. The last person she expects to run into is her former high school sweetheart. With his steely grip and steady gaze, rodeo bad boy Tristan McCullough isn’t quite the boy she left behind. What hasn’t changed is the spark still zinging between them—and with a little luck, a little timing, and exactly the right touch, it just might light up the rest of their lives together . . .
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 10, 1949
Read an Excerpt
Batteries Not Required
By LINDA LAEL MILLER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Linda Lael Miller
All rights reserved.
"One last weekend," insisted Ted Brayley, the Darbys' long-time friend and now their divorce lawyer, facing the couple across the gleaming expanse of his cherrywood desk. "Just spend one weekend together, at the cottage, that's all I'm asking. Then, if you still want to split the proverbial sheets, I'll file the papers."
Joanna Darby sat very still, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw her soon-to-be-ex husband, Teague, shift in his leather wingback chair, a twin to her own. Distractedly, he extended a hand, not to Joanna, but to pat their golden retriever, Sammy, sitting attentively between them, on the head.
"I don't see what good that would do," Teague said. At forty-one, he was still handsome and fit, but he was going through a major midlife crisis. He'd sold his highly successful architectural firm for an obscene profit and bought himself a very expensive sports car, and though there was no sweet young thing in the picture yet, as far as Joanna knew, it was only a matter of time. Teague was a cliché waiting to happen. "We've settled everything. We're ready to go our separate ways."
Ted sat back, cupping his hands behind his head. "Really?" he asked, with a casual nod toward Sammy. "Who gets custody of the dog?"
"I do," Teague responded immediately.
"Not in this lifetime," Joanna protested.
Teague looked at her in surprise. It always surprised Teague when anybody expressed an opinion different from his own; he was used to calling the shots, leading the charge, setting the course. Somewhere along the line, he'd forgotten that Joanna didn't work for him. "I was the one who sprang him from the pound when he was a pup," he argued. "He's my dog."
"Well," Joanna answered, making an effort not to raise her voice, "I'm the one who house-trained him and taught him not to eat sofas. I'm the one who walked him every day. I love Sammy, and I'm not about to give him up."
"Joanna," Teague said darkly, "be reasonable." Translation: Agree with me. You know I'm always right.
"I'm tired of being reasonable," Joanna said, examining her unmanicured fingernails. "I'm keeping the dog."
Teague rolled his blue eyes and, shoved a hand through his still-thick, slightly shaggy dark hair.
A corner of Ted's mouth quirked up in a smug little grin. They'd both known Ted since college, and they both trusted him, which was why they'd decided to let him handle the divorce. Now Joanna wondered if a stranger would have been a better choice, and Teague was probably thinking the same thing. "I guess you haven't settled everything," Ted said. "Sammy wouldn't be the first dog in history to be the subject of a custody battle — but would you really want to put him through that kind of grief?"
"Joint custody, then," Teague grumbled, a muscle bunching in his cheek. "We'll share him. My place one week, Joanna's the next."
"Oh, right," Joanna scoffed. "I'd never see him unless you had a hot date."
Sammy whimpered softly, resembling a forlorn spectator at a tennis match as he turned his head from Joanna to Teague and back again. He wasn't used to harsh tones — the Darby marriage had slowly caved in on itself, by degrees, after Teague and Joanna's only child, Caitlin, went off to college. There had been no screaming fights, no accusations — or objects — flying back and forth. This was no War of the Roses.
It might have been easier if it had been.
"One weekend," Ted reiterated. He gestured toward Elliott Bay, sparkling blue-gray beyond his office windows. "You've got that great cottage on Firefly Island. When was the last time you went out there, just the two of you? Walked the beach? Sipped wine in front of the fireplace? Really talked?"
Joanna felt a sharp pang, remembering happier times. She hadn't been to the cottage in months — not once since she'd holed up there the previous summer, after Caitlin's wedding, to finish her latest cookbook, with only Sammy for company. Teague had gone on a sailing trip, off the coast of Mexico. It had been a lonely time for Joanna, endurable only because she'd been buried in work.
Now Teague got up from his chair, went to the windows, and stood with his back to the room, looking out over downtown Seattle and the waters beyond. "Are you a divorce lawyer or a marriage counselor?" he muttered.
Sammy started to follow Teague, paused in the middle of the spacious office, then turned uncertainly to look at Joanna.
She blinked back sudden, burning tears. Gestured for Sammy to go ahead, to Teague. Instead, he came back to her and laid his muzzle on her lap with a sad sigh.
As Joanna watched her husband, an unexpected question popped into her mind. When did we lose each other?
She'd loved Teague Darby since her first day of college, when he'd knocked on her door in their coed dorm and introduced himself. They'd married early in their senior year at the University of Washington, and Caitlin had been born a week after graduation. Joanna, having majored in business and intending to attend culinary school after college and eventually open her own restaurant, had happily set aside those plans to stay home with Caitlin and help Teague start his company. The early years had been hard financially, but he'd worked out of their converted garage behind their first tiny house, and they'd been happy.
They'd given Caitlin a secure, sunny childhood. While they'd both wanted more children, it simply didn't happen. The disappointment surfaced only occasionally; after all, they had a beautiful daughter, a good life together. What more could two people ask for?
And they'd loved each other passionately.
There had been no single inciting incident, no affairs, no traumas, nothing like that.
As the company grew, expanding at a breathtaking rate, so did the demands on Teague's time. They'd moved into progressively larger houses until they'd finally ended up in a mansion on Mercer Island, hired a housekeeper, and entertained lavishly. But they'd still had time for each other, even then. They'd made time.
Secretly, Joanna had always thought of the cottage as home, not the mansion. And the idea of going to Firefly Island for a last weekend with Teague broke her heart. They'd both been living in the main house, Teague on the first floor, Joanna on the second, and the place was so large that avoiding each other was easy. It would be more of a challenge at the cottage.
"If you won't do this for yourselves," Ted said evenly, "or for Caitlin, then do it for Sammy. The poor dog is beside himself."
Since Teague's back was still turned, Joanna took the opportunity to dry her eyes with the back of one hand. Sammy looked up at her with limpid brown eyes, imploring.
"I'll do it," Joanna said, resigned.
"Okay," Teague said, at exactly the same moment.
Ted consulted his watch. "The next ferry leaves in an hour," he said.
"An hour?" Joanna marveled. "But I'd need to pack a bag — and Sammy's food —"
"You have clothes at the cottage," Teague reminded her, "and there's a supermarket on the island. I'm sure they carry Sammy's brand of kibble."
Joanna opened her mouth, then closed it again. The truth was, she'd gained five pounds since her last visit to the cottage, and she wasn't sure her island clothes would fit. Since she was too proud to admit that, she decided to take her chances. Most likely, the experience would be a total bust anyway, and she and Teague would both be on the next ferry back to Seattle. She probably wouldn't even be there long enough to need a toothbrush.
Teague made that pretty much of a sure thing when he added, "Come on, Sammy. Let's get this over with."
Inwardly, Joanna seethed.
Ted gave her a sympathetic look as she rose. Teague and Sammy were already on their way out, though the dog paused every few steps, looking back, clearly waiting for Joanna to follow.
For Sammy's sake rather than Teague's, she did.
Leaving the suite housing Ted's office, they took the elevator down to the underground lot, where Teague's sports car was parked alongside Joanna's stylish but practical compact.
Rather than subject Sammy to another debate, Joanna didn't insist that the dog ride with her instead of Teague. The ferry terminal was only minutes away, and once they were aboard the large, state-operated boat, the ride to Firefly Island would take less than half an hour.
Teague had the top down on his high-powered phallic symbol, and Sammy loved an open-air ride, whatever the weather. Although the morning had been pristinely sunny, one of those days that seem to mock Seattle's reputation for unrelenting rain, the sky was darkening now, its gray tone reflected by the choppy waters of the bay.
In the old days, Joanna thought, with a quiet sigh, she and Teague wouldn't even have considered taking two cars to the cottage. If Caitlin was going along, she'd have had at least one friend with her, and they would have all crammed themselves into Teague's big SUV. On the occasions when Sammy and Caitlin stayed home, in the expert care of the recently retired Mrs. Smills, their housekeeper, they would have stayed in the car for the short duration of the crossing, willing the boat to go faster.
Back then, as soon as the front door of the cottage closed behind them, they'd have left a trail of clothes behind them, laughing as they raced for the bedroom.
Joanna waited in the short line of cars just behind Teague and Sammy — not as many people heading for the island as there usually were on Friday afternoons, she thought — paid her fare when her turn came, and drove into the belly of the ferry.
They practically had the whole boat to themselves.
Joanna waved reassuringly to Sammy, who responded with a doggy grin, but Teague sat staring straight ahead as though they were strangers, he and Joanna, not two people who had raised a child together.
She leaned back in the car seat and closed her eyes. Ted's heart had been in the right place — he hoped she and Teague would reconsider, of course, and decide not to go through with the divorce. Maybe he figured they'd fall into each other's arms, alone in a romantic island cottage, and rekindle the old flame that had once burned so brightly that it glowed within both of them.
When had it gone out?
The last time she and Teague had made love — weeks ago, now — they'd both been satisfied, but nothing more. Two bodies, colliding, responding reflexively, biologically — and then drawing apart. Afterward, Teague had quietly left their bedroom and gone upstairs to sleep in one of the guest rooms.
Remembering, Joanna felt humiliated all over again.
She went to the gym three times a week, but she was forty-one, after all, and soft all over, a little saggy in places. And even though she tried to watch what she ate, she was forever testing recipes for her cookbooks, and that involved a lot of tasting.
Hence the extra five pounds.
Was it the extra five pounds?
A brisk rap on her driver's side window startled her, and she turned to see Teague peering in at her.
She had put the key in the ignition in order to operate the power windows, and she'd done it before she realized she could have simply opened the door.
"I'm going upstairs for some coffee," Teague said, unsmiling. "Want some?"
"No," Joanna said. "Too late in the day for me. I'd be up half the night."
That familiar muscle in Teague's jaw tightened again. "Right," he said. "Keep an eye on Sammy while I'm gone, will you?"
"Of course," Joanna replied. As soon as Teague had made his way to the steel staircase leading to the upper deck, she got out of her car, crossed to Sammy, and stroked his silky golden head. The water was a little rough that day, and Joanna felt slightly queasy.
Boats, even cruise ships, made her seasick.
Teague loved anything that floated, and dreamed of building a craft of his own.
Just one of the many things they didn't have in common.
When Teague returned, carrying a steaming foam cup in one hand, Joanna got back in her own car.
Within a few minutes, the captain blew the horn, which meant they'd be docking on Firefly Island soon.
Joanna's spirits rose a little at the prospect of being at the cottage again, even though the place was probably full of dust and in need of airing out. But Teague would build a fire on the hearth in the living room, and she would brew tea in the old-fashioned kitchen, and if nothing else, they could talk about Caitlin or Sammy.
Or they could not talk at all, which was the most likely scenario.
Since it had begun to drizzle, Teague hastily raised the top on his sports car while the first cars to board started off the boat. Sammy seemed to droop a little, as if disappointed.
The cottage was several miles from the ferry terminal, which was little more than a toll booth on that side of the water, and Teague led the way along the narrow, winding road, passing the supermarket without even slowing down.
Irritated, Joanna pulled into the lot, parking as close to the entrance as she could, and dashed inside to buy kibble, coffee, a toothbrush and paste, and the makings of a seafood salad.
By the time she arrived at the cottage, Teague had turned on all the lights and built a fire. With a grocery bag in each arm, Joanna plunged out of the car into the rain, now coming down hard, and dashed for the front door.
Just as she reached it, Teague flung it open and Sammy burst through to greet her, almost sending her toppling backward off the small porch.
Teague caught her by the elbows.
Sammy, meanwhile, ran in mad circles in the yard, barking exuberantly at the rain.
"Damn fool dog," Teague said, with the first real smile Joanna had seen on his face in weeks.
He took the bags from her and shunted her inside.
"There's kibble in the backseat," she said, despairing of her tailored gray pantsuit, now drenched.
"I'll get it in a minute," Teague said, without his usual curtness, heading for the kitchen. "Jeez, Jo, the shopping could have waited —"
Sammy dashed back inside, soaked, and stood beside Joanna to shake himself vigorously. Teague used to joke — back when he still had a sense of humor — that the dog must be part water spaniel, the way he loved getting wet. Throw a piece of driftwood into the sound, and he'd swim halfway to Seattle to retrieve it.
Joanna laughed, forced the door shut against a rising wind, and peeled off her jacket, hanging it gingerly on a hook on the antique coat tree next to the door. What the well-dressed woman wears to a civilized divorce, she thought.
And then she didn't feel like laughing anymore.
Teague was back from the kitchen. "Dry off," he ordered. "I'll get the dog food."
Joanna kicked off her sodden shoes and wandered into the living room, with its pegged plank floors, and stood in front of the natural rock fireplace, where a lively blaze crackled. Sammy followed, shook himself again, and curled up on the hooked rug at her feet.
She heard Teague come in and slam the door behind him.
Hair dripping, he lugged the twenty-five-pound bag of kibble past her, retracing the route to the kitchen.
"Twenty-five pounds, Joanna?" he asked. "We're spending the weekend, not burrowing in for the winter!"
"I might stay," she heard herself say. "Start that novel I've been wanting to write."
The dog-food bag thunked to the kitchen floor, and Teague appeared in the doorway. For the first time, Joanna noticed that he'd exchanged his suit for jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. In those clothes, with his hair damp and curling around his ears, he looked younger, more like the Teague Darby she'd known and loved.
"We agreed to sell the cottage," he reminded her.
"No," Joanna said mildly, "we didn't agree. You said we should sell it and split the proceeds, and I said I wasn't so sure. I think Sammy and I could be very happy here." She looked down at the dog. His fur was curling, too, just like Teague's hair, and he seemed so pathetically happy to be home.
"Not that again," Teague said.
"You travel a lot," Joanna pointed out. "He'd be with me most of the time anyway."
Some of the tension in Teague's shoulders eased. "Maybe I'd like to live here," he said. "I could build my boat."
"You'll never build that boat," Joanna said.
"You'll never write a novel," Teague retorted, "so I guess we're even."
Sammy made a soft, mournful sound.
"Let's not argue," Joanna said. "We ought to be able to be civil to each other for a weekend."
"Civil," Teague replied. "We ought to be able to manage that. We've been 'civil' for months — when we've spoken at all."
Joanna felt cold, even though she was standing close to a blazing fire. She turned her head so Teague wouldn't see the tears that sprang to her eyes.
"Change your clothes, Joanna," Teague said after a long time, and much more gently. "You'll catch your death if you don't."
She nodded without looking at him and scurried into their bedroom.
Her wardrobe choices were limited, but she found a set of gray sweats and pulled them on. When she got to the kitchen, Teague had already opened a bottle of wine and busied himself making salad. Sammy was crunching away on a large serving of kibble.
Outside, the wind howled off the nearby water, and the lights flickered as Teague poured wine for them both — a Sauvignon Blanc, to complement the lobster topping their salads.
"I didn't know you still wanted to write a novel," Teague said.
"I didn't know you still wanted to build a boat," Joanna replied. She sat down at the table, and Teague took his usual place directly across from her.
"Why a novel?" Teague asked thoughtfully. "Your cookbooks are best-sellers — you were even offered your own show on the Food Network."
"Why build a boat?" Joanna inquired, taking a sip of her wine. "You can certainly afford to buy one."
"I asked you first," Teague said, watching her over the rim of his wineglass. She wondered what he was thinking — that she ought to get a face-lift? Maybe have some lipo?
Her spine stiffened. "I've always wanted to write a novel," she said. Weren't you listening at all, back when we used to talk about our dreams? "And this cottage would be the perfect place to do it."
"It would also be the perfect place to build a boat."
The lights went out, then flared on again.
Thunder rolled over the roof.
Sammy went right on crunching his kibble. He'd never been afraid of storms.
"Remember how Caitlin used to squirm under the blankets with us in the middle of the night when the weather was like this?" Teague asked. He'd set down his wineglass and taken up his fork, but it was suspended midway between his mouth and the plate.
"Do you think she's happy in California?" Joanna mused. "Happy with Peter?"
"They're newlyweds," Teague said. "She has a glamorous job, just like she always wanted. Of course she's happy."
Excerpted from Batteries Not Required by LINDA LAEL MILLER. Copyright © 2005 Linda Lael Miller. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not much of read.
This is a short novella with a teaser of a new book. Not worth the money
i loved this story. it's not a real long one, but so enjoyable. the reference to batteries will surprise you. a humorous love story that is so enjoyable you will read it over and over.