Aaron Amos was in the bookstore, too. Presley Christensen could tell by the prickle that skittered up her spine. Maybe she'd subconsciously recognized his voice amid the babble of the others, or there really was such a thing as a sixth sense, because when she turned and glanced across the crowded room, she confirmed what her body had already told her. He was standing off to one side, looking right at her.
It'd been two years since she'd seen him, and almost the same length of time since she'd shared his bed. But it felt like much longer. Her pregnancy and the first eighteen months of her son's life had been hard, harder than anything that had come beforewhich was saying something for a girl who'd lived out of a car or a motel for most of her childhood.
Although she'd known when she decided to return to Whiskey Creek that she might bump into Aaron, and had tried to prepare herself for that moment, her eyes locked with his as if he held a high-powered magnet that drew them there against her will. Then it was all she could do not to stumble back; the sight of him hit her like a blow to the chest.
Damn it! Her reactionthe way her breath jammed in her throat and her stomach knottedwas ridiculous. Why couldn't she get over him?
Gritting her teeth, she jerked her gaze away and slipped behind the people standing in line to get Ted Dixon's autograph. She was a big fan of Ted's work. Once she'd moved to Fresno to start over, his thrillers, along with a lot of other novels, had helped keep her mind occupied so she wouldn't fall back into her previous lifestyle. And after she found work at the Helping Hands Thrift Store, which was the best job she could land with so little education, bookssecondhand, mostlyhad provided the only entertainment she could afford. They'd especially been a blessing after Wyatt was born and she was up walking the floor so often with a colicky baby.
Still, Ted was local. It wasn't as if she wouldn't have another chance to see him. She'd wanted to come but probably wouldn't have if not for the urging of her sister. Cheyenne had insisted on watching Wyatt so Presley could get out for a few hours. She said it was important for her to take a break. And Presley was grateful. After the effort she'd put into cleaning her small rental house, getting settled and finding the perfect retail space to lease for her new yoga studio, she'd been eager for the chance to clean up and feel like something other than a mom.
But that was when she'd believed, as Cheyenne and Cheyenne's husband, Dylan, had believed, that Aaron would be a hundred and forty miles to the northeast. He planned to branch off on his own and open a franchise of Amos Auto Body, the collision repair shop he owned with Dylan and his other brothers. According to Cheyenne, he'd been spending a great deal of time in Reno looking for the best location.
"Excuse me." She pressed against the closest bookshelves in an attempt to squeeze past two men who were deep in conversation.
She'd been so intent on her escape that she hadn't even looked up, but this caught her attention. Kyle and Riley, two of her sister's closest friends, were standing there. Ted Dixon, the author, belonged to their clique, so it was no surprise to see them here. If she searched hard enough, she'd likely find a handful of the others who'd hung out with Ted since kindergarten.
"Hello." She managed a smile, although her heart was pounding. Was Aaron, at this very instant, threading his way through the people standing between them?
There wasn't any reason he should feel uncomfortable approaching her. Maybe they hadn't kept in touch while she was gone, but there'd been no expectations along those lines. Their former relationship hadn't involved any commitment or obligation. They'd partied a great deal, and they'd had the hottest sex she'd ever experienced, but as far as he was concerned it was all in fun. They hadn't even had a fight when she left. The death of her mother and the knowledge of her pregnancy had set her off on a self-destructive odyssey that led her to an abortion clinic in Arizona. She'd felt sure that ending her pregnancy was what Aaron would want if he knew about it, which was why, when she decided to keep the baby, she didn't feel she owed him anything, even notice that Wyatt was his.
"Chey told me you were moving back," Kyle said. "How long have you been in town?"
She checked behind her, but at only five feet two inches tall she couldn't see over the people surrounding herand it was so packed she couldn't see through them, either. "Just a couple of weeks." She paused to be polite, but she wasn't about to hang out and talk for more than a quick second, not with Aaron ten feet away and possibly closing the distance between them. Unfortunately, she couldn't leave. Ted had already signed and personalized her book, and there was a huge line at the register.
Riley spoke before she could actually say the goodbye that hovered on her lips.
"It's great to have you home. You look amazing, by the way." He gave her a low whistle. "Must be all that yoga."
Presley felt too anxious to enjoy the complimentor to tell them that yoga had done a lot more for her than help her get into shape. That would prove to be too long a discussion. "Have you ever been to a class?" she asked instead.
Kyle and Riley exchanged a look. "Can't say I have," Riley drawled with a smile that told her he probably wouldn't, either.
"Once I get the studio open, you'll have to give it a try," she said.
"If you'll be there, I'll do it," Kyle volunteered.
Presley hadn't expected either of them to flirt with her. When she'd lived here before, she'd always had the feeling that they considered themselves too good for her. They'd been popular and well-adjusted from the beginning; she'd been a lost and lonely outcast who'd made some very poor choices. She might've been flattered at how her reception had changed, but she was too worried that she was about to be confronted by Aaron. She didn't want to speak to him. It made no difference how many times she told herself that he wasn't the right man for her, that their relationship had been unbalanced and unhealthy; she couldn't stop longing for his smile, his laugh, his touch.
Not that the difficulty of getting over him should have come as any surprise. Her whole life had been a series of struggles.
"Great. I should be open for business in another week." She had to open soon. She couldn't go without income for much longer. "See you there."
She could feel their eyes on her as she moved away, could tell they were startled she'd brushed them off. But with Aaron in the room
all she wanted to do was melt into the background. Just the sight of his perfectly sculpted face, which was almost too pretty despite the scar he'd gotten in a fight, was enough to drag her to a place of weakness and craving.
He was like the crack cocaine that'd taken control of her life before. She had to avoid him as avidly as all the other things that had nearly destroyed her.
It wasn't until she stepped through the curtain and into the dark storeroom where Angelica Hansen, owner of Turn the Page, received her inventory that Presley relaxed. She'd reached safety, a hidden corner where he'd be unlikely to look for her. Once Aaron left, she'd pay for her book and get out of there.
But when she turned, intending to peek out at those in the front of the store, she collided with his hard, unyielding chest as he came through the curtain.
He grabbed her before she could fall over the stack of books at her feet, drawing her up against him. "What are you doing back here?"
Breaking his hold before the smell or feel of him could erode her resolve, Presley stumbled, which sent the books flying. She was lucky they didn't trip her as they almost had before. "I
needed room to breathe. It's so
crowded out there. I thought I'd wait here for a few minutes, until the line was shorter."
His eyes narrowed slightly at the way she'd scrambled out of reach so quickly. Or maybe it was her reason for seeking the storeroom that gave him pause. Did he think she was trying to steal Ted's book?
Or had he figured out the truth? He'd always been perceptivetoo quick-witted for his own good
and hers. He was the sensitive Amos brother, the one who'd taken the loss of his mother and everything that'd happened after her suicide the hardest. But he didn't comment on the fact that she was still backing away.
"I heard you moved into the old Mullins place two weeks ago," he said.
She had to tilt her head to look into his face. "I did."
where have you been?"
Was he asking why she hadn't contacted him? "I've been busy."
"That means you're never home?"
Her stomach muscles tightened again. "You've dropped by?"
"I didn't bother to knock. I never see a car in the carport."
"I don't have a car anymore." She'd sold her new Hyundai several months ago so she could get out from under the payments and save enough to be able to lease a studio. She would've stayed in Fresno and kept saving to give herself a bigger financial cushionwould've opened her studio there, toobut when she found some strange marks on Wyatt, she was afraid his home day-care provider was mistreating him and decided to return to Whiskey Creek. Her sister had offered to help with child care, and once Aaron had told Cheyenne and Dylan he was relocating, going home was finally a possibility.
He hesitated. "How do you get around without a car?"
"For the most part, I walk." Chey's house was down the street and around the corner from hers. Her studio was two blocks in the other direction, along with the rest of downtown, making it easy to get wherever she needed to go.
"The exercise has obviously been good for you."
She wished that compliment didn't evoke the pleasure it did. But during the past two years, she'd judged everything by how much he'd like what she was doing, how she was changing herself. She supposed the desire to finally be admired by him was too powerful to overcome. "The owner of the thrift shop where I worked introduced me to yoga. That made the difference, more than anything else."
"Flexible and toned." His teeth flashed in an appreciative smile. "You look better than ever."
"Thanks." There were other things to explain the physical improvementslike her strict eating habitsbut she didn't want to engage him in any more conversation than she already had. He wouldn't care what she was doing with her lifenot after he realized they weren't going to pick up where they'd left off and fall into bed.
"How have you been?" he asked. "It's been a long time."
And she'd felt every painstaking minute of it. She couldn't count how often she'd almost broken down and called him. Only the risk that he might find out he was Wyatt's father stopped her.
"Fine." She wiped sweaty palms on her jeans.
He seemed to be faring well. He'd put on a few pounds, nicely filling out his large frame, which he'd needed to do. He'd been muscular but too wiry that last year when they'd been seeing each other. According to Cheyenne and Dylan, he'd also quit using drugs. Now that she had the chance to see him, she believed it.
"Good," she said. "II'm glad to hear it." She wished he'd leave it at that, but he didn't move out of the doorway, and she couldn't go anywhere while he was blocking her in.
"I was shocked to hear that you rented the Mullins cottage. That place was a cesspool when they lived there." He grimaced. "Talk about trashy people."
"It's taken some serious work to make it livable." She'd rented the two-bedroom because it was cheap and centrally located. Fortunately, where the house was concerned, a little elbow grease could make a big difference. "It's clean now. I just have a few things still to do."
"Paint the porch and fix the fence. Plant some flowers out front."
He hooked his thumbs in his pockets. "Flowers?"
"Anything wrong with flowers?"
"Sounds like you're planning to stay for a while."
"You weren't that domestic when you left."
She hadn't had a child then, but she didn't want to draw his attention to that, since he didn't know he was the one who'd made her a mother. "It's tough to be too focused on everyday concerns when all you care about is getting high."
"Yeah, I guess you're right." He rubbed his jaw. "I take it you've changed."
"I can see that."
No, he couldn't. Not yet. He assumed the changes were superficial, that she'd eventually fall at his feet the way she had before.
"I would've helped you clean up the rental," he said. "You should've called me."
She cleared her throat. "It wasn't necessary. I managed."
His eyes became guarded and inscrutable. He was figuring out that the "changes" he'd noticed included an unwillingness to associate with him. "Couldn't have been easy to get all that done, not with a baby."
Tentacles of fear slithered around her heart and squeezed. This was his first mention of Wyatt. She had to be careful, had to handle his perceptions carefully from the start. Any hint of suspicion on his part could destroy her happiness. "No, but I could've had Wyatt's father come and help. He would have, if I'd needed him."
"Doesn't he live in Arizona?"
Cheyenne had supplied everyone with this information, even Dylan. "He does, but he could come here. He has money, and he cares about Wyatt."
"You're in touch with him, then? He's a stand-up guy?" He sounded hopeful, as if he wanted that for her. There was no reason he wouldn't. To her knowledge, he'd never wished her ill, never done anything purposely to hurt her. He'd been too self-absorbed, but that was simply a byproduct of the fact that he'd never really cared about her, not like she'd cared about him.
"We don't have a relationship beyond Wyatt," she said, "but
he's a great father."
"That's got to make a big difference."
If Wyatt's father helped out to any significant degree, she wouldn't have had to clean the worst property in town in order to have a place to live but, thankfully, Aaron didn't seem to make the connection. "It does," she said. "And soon I'll be earning good money myself."
"As a yoga instructor, right?"
"And a massage therapist," she added so no one would be surprised when she advertised her services. She wanted everyone to understand from the beginning that she'd be doing both. She needed all the legitimacy she could establish.
"How'd you get into that?"