Shy and retiring Tara Browning couldn't believe it. One minute she was enjoying an outrageous, out-of-the-blue weekend of heaven with Weaver's hometown hunk, Axel Clay, and the next minute he disappeared without so much as a goodbye! Was she dreaming? The baby on the way seemed very real indeed .
Now, months later, Axel was back in town, showing up on her doorstep with a song and dance about being her bodyguard while her brother testified in a high-profile criminal trial. In such close quarters, could Tara keep her baby secretand her hands to herselfnow that this masterful man of the Double-C Ranch was back on her radar?
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The hearts were everywhere. If anyone entering the high school gymnasium wondered what was being celebrated, the hearts would definitely have given it away.
"How much for these earrings?"
Tara smiled at the pretty teenager standing at her Valentine's Festival booth. It was only February 13th, but the event planners had figured they'd have a better turnout from the residents of Weaver on a Saturday than they would on a Sunday. "They're half off if you turn in a can of food for the food drive." The rest of Tara's profit would go directly to the primary purpose of the festivalraising funds for the elementary school expansion.
The girl handed her the distinctive bead earrings. "Promise you won't sell 'em, okay? I'll be right back."
"I promise." Tara watched the girl speed off across the gymnasium floor that was crowded with booths offering everything from kisses to cookies.
All of the businesses in Weaver had turned out to offer something of interest at the festival. Even Tara. Though the last thing she felt like celebrating was the hearts-and-love thing.
She sat down on the little round stool behind the stylishly draped table that constituted her contribution to the Valentine's Festival. Two more hours and she could pack up shop and move her wares back to Classic Charms, satisfied in the knowledge that she'd done her part in this latest exercise of community spirit.
There was no reason for her to stay after that. The festivities would culminate in the evening's dinner dance and purchasing the ticket didn't mean she had to attend.
The only thing she wanted to do that evening was have an early rendezvous with her four-poster bed. Alone.
"Afternoon, Tara." Hope Clayone of the festival organizers and the head of the school boardstopped in front of her booth, her violet eyes sparkling behind the stylish glasses she wore. "Looks like business has been good." She touched the jewelry rack that was very nearly empty. "This is the first chance I've had to come by. I was hoping to pick up something for my nieces."
Tara kept her practiced smile in place. She'd already seen more than one of Hope's nieces. "Leandra was by with Lucas on her hip as soon as the doors opened."
Hope laughed, looking younger than the fifty Tara knew her to be, because half the town had been invited to celebrate the milestone. "That little boy may be only two, but he has plenty of Clay blood running in his veins. Tristan and I sat for him and Hannah a few weeks ago. I was exhausted by the time Leandra and Evan picked them up." She shook her head, still grinning. "Not that Lucas is different than any of the other babies in our family."
Hope's gaze caught on a bracelet and she leaned closer to the glass-topped display. "Oh, that one's lovely. Is it amethyst?"
Tara drew out the woven strands of the bracelet and handed it to Hope. "Yes. In fact, Sarah" yet another one of Hope Clay's nieces "bought one for Megan about an hour ago. In peridot, though."
Hope glanced at the small price tag hanging from the white-gold clasp. "I wonder what it says when an old lady like me has the same taste as a twelve-year-old girl?"
"Hardly old." Tara's protest was sincere. "And considering the bracelets are my own design," she said as she smiled wryly, "I'd like to think that it says you both have excellent taste."
"Very well said." Hope's husband, Tristan, stopped behind his wife, closing his hand around her nape in a simple gesture that managed to eloquently display years of devotion.
Hope smiled up at her tall husband. "I thought you were going to be tied up with meetings all afternoon. Everything go all right?"
"Unexpectedly so." The man finally slid his attention from his wife's face toward Tara. His brilliant blue gaze crinkled with a timeless appeal. "So, Tara, how much is my wife's excellent taste going to cost me this time?"
Tara told him and he slid the cash out of his wallet. He waved off the receipt she began to write out. Not that she was surprised considering his video-gaming company, CeeVid, had already funded the brunt of the school expansion. The Clays in general were a generous lot when it came to supporting their community.
And then there were some Clays who were more like a hit and run.
She pushed aside the thought and finished wrapping up the bracelet in her traditional Classic Charms ivory and silver striped packaging before passing it over to Hope. "There you go. I hope you'll enjoy it."
"Here's my can a' food." The teenager was back, looking breathless as she handed over an enormous can and a wad of cash. "You didn't sell the earrings, did you?"
Tara pulled them out and handed them to the girl. "I promised I wouldn't."
"I knew this festival would be a good idea," Hope said as she took the can of peaches and set it in the nearly full bin beside Tara's booth. "We'll see you later at the dance. I now have the perfect bracelet to wear with my dress." Waving the pretty box, she moved off on her husband's arm.
Biting back the pinch of envy she felt watching the couple, Tara focused on her young customer. She picked up the wad of cash and began unfolding it. "These earrings are for pierced ears, you know."
"I know. I got my ears pierced last month." The girl held up the dangling earrings that she'd chosen, eyeing them with fervent delight. "These are going to be my first real pair when I can take out the studs. Finally." She rolled her eyes. "I thought my dad was never gonna let me pierce my ears."
Tara could identify. Despite his frequent absences, her father had still managed to implacably rule his roost with an iron fist. "Dads can be like that." She gave the girl her change, deftly wrapped the earrings in tissue and popped them into a small box. "There you go."
"Thanks." Holding the box like a treasure, the girl turned on her heel and fairly floated across the gymnasium floor. She didn't even stop at any of the other booths.
Tara sat back down on her stool, glancing at her watch. An hour longer, she told herself, and she could reasonably begin packing up.
Unfortunately, the hour seemed to drag by as customer traffic began to slow.
Her water bottle was long empty, her bladder was long full, and the only thing of interest to watch was the line of eager customers at Courtney Clay's Kissing Booth sitting smack-dab in the center of the gymnasium. Considering the young nurse was strikingly beautifuland eligiblethe line wasn't that surprising.
After a while, Tara turned away, hiding a yawn behind her palm, and reached beneath her table for one of the boxes she'd used to bring in her load that morning. Not quite an hour had passed, but it was close enough for her.
She set the box on her stool and began taking down the unsold garments hanging on the display rack. Slipping them off their hangers, she folded them neatly between tissue paper before placing them in the box. The more careful she was, the less steaming she'd have to do when she hung the clothing back up in her shop.
She filled the first box and put it on the floor, then bent below the table again to hunt down the next box.
"Did you bury a bone down there?" The voice was low. Husky. Amused.
Her heart nearly jumped out of her chest as she warily peered above the table.
She would have welcomed a nonstop procession of Clays, if this one would just disappear.
It was, after all, what he was good at.
Looking away from Axel, she dragged another box out.
Don't look at the guy. That's what got you into trouble last time.
It was almost laughable, if it weren't so clichéd.
"What are you doing here?" She didn't sound welcoming and wished she didn't care. She would have far preferred to sound breezily unconcerned about his unexpected presence.
"We need to talk."
"After four months of silence? I don't think so." Darnit. That didn't sound breezy, either. She grabbed the rest of the hangers from the rack, clothing and all, and shoved the bundle into the box.
If she had to steam out wrinkles until the cows came home, she suddenly didn't care. She just wanted to get out of there. She slapped the lid onto the box and dropped it atop the first.
But she'd already crouched down to fish out another box. Beneath the cover of the table, she exhaled shakily.
He's just a guy, she told herself for about the millionth time since that night in Braden that had turned into an entire weekend. More than forty-eight hours spent with each other in that little motel room, during which time she'd stupidly started thinking things she'd had no business thinking. Crazy things. Forever things.
All of which had come to a screeching halt when he'd been gone from their bed before she'd woken up that last morning.
The only thing he'd left behind was a note that he'd "call." He'd scrawled the message on the flattened pink bakery box that had held the small chocolate cake he'd managed to track down after searching three different stores.
The cake thatafter she'd made a wish and blown out the candles, all of which he'd insisted uponthey'd managed to share over those two days in shockingly creative ways that still haunted her dreams.
Not only had he been gone from her bed, but he hadn't shown his face in Weaver afterward. Not the next day. Not the next week. Not the next month.
The thoughts they'd shared. The laughter they'd had. The love they'd made. None of it mattered.
One weekend was all they had in common.
Well, she was a big girl. She would live with the consequences.
She grabbed the storage box and drew it out, squaring her shoulders and straightening her spine in the same motion.
Axel, unfortunately, was still leaning atop the display case, his shoulders seemingly wider than ever beneath the nubby, gray turtleneck sweater he wore.
The last time she'd seen those shoulders, they'd been bare and golden and glistening with sweat while he'd made love to her as if he'd never wanted to stop.
She banished the painfully vivid thought and looked pointedly at the case. "Do you mind?"
He backed away slightly. Ignoring his solid chest only inches away, she flipped open the case and drew out one of the sliding trays from beneath.
"I can explain the four months." His voice was quiet beneath the laughter coming from the nearby kissing booth.
"No explanation needed," she assured him. "It was what it was." There. That was breezy. She even managed to top it off with a careless shrug and a small smile. "When did you get back into town?"
"This morning. I intended to call."
Too little, too late. Four months too late.
"No big deal," she said, still breezy.
She was an adult. They'd had a "one-night stand" that happened to last an entire weekend, and the aftereffects were her business and hers alone.
The only thing that bothered her now was that she was bothered by his four months' worth of silence.
Liar. Tell him.
She ignored the insistent whisper inside her head and with no regard for her usual order, dumped the contents of the jewelry tray into the box. She'd sort it out when she got back to the shop.
"Something important came up," he said. She made the mistake of glancing at him and caught the grimace that crossed his unreasonably handsome face. "I know how that sounds."
"It doesn't matter how it sounds. It was months ago. No big deal. I hardly" she said as her tongue nearly tripped "hardly remember much about it."
The corners of his lips lifted ever so slightly. "D'you know that there are five little freckles on your nose that only show up when you lie?"
She shoved the empty tray back in its slot and grabbed the second one. "You've offered the obligatory explanation, but as you can see, I'm busy."
"I don't think I explained anything."
He hadn't, and they both knew it.
What she didn't understand, though, was why he bothered pressing the matter. "Let's just save our breath and say that you did." They'd spent a weekend together and she'd come close to losing her heart. He, on the other hand, had just taken a powder when he'd decided it was time to go.
He grabbed the tray before she could shake its contents into the box. "Tara."
She wasn't going to engage in a tug-of-war over a jewelry tray. Nor was she going to get into any sort of conversation about what had occurred between them when there were still too many people around who could overhear.
Gossip was going to be rife enough about her soon without anyone overhearing that.
She let go of the tray and reached for the last one, pulling it out and tipping it into the box.
He muttered an oath and set down the tray. "Tara"
"Axel Clay, is that you?" A bright, female voice accosted them from across the gymnasium.
"We will talk," he told Tara before turning to greet the curly-haired blonde aiming for him. "Hey, Dee. How's it going?"
The young woman unabashedly threw her arms around him, giving him an exuberant hug. "I'm going to have to give Sarah a lashing. She didn't tell me you were coming home.
We all thought you were still in Europe trying to buy up some fancy horse. Hi, Tara," she added absently.
Under other circumstances, Tara would probably have been amused by Deirdre Crowder's actions. Dee was a teacher at the elementary school. She and Sarah Scaliseanother teacher and Axel's cousinwere frequent visitors to Classic Charms.
But it wasn't "other circumstances," and the day had taken its toll on Tara's humor.
She was fresh out.
She nevertheless managed a casual response for Dee and took advantage of Axel's diverted attention to quickly finish unloading the jewelry case. She couldn't help but overhear Axel telling Dee that his cousin hadn't known about his arrival. She also couldn't help but notice the way Dee kept her slender fingers latched onto Axel's arm.
"Excuse me," she told Dee, whose other hand was near the display case.
"Sorry." Dee moved her hand, but didn't take her attention away from Axel. "So, how long are you going to be around? We ought to all get together."
Tara hefted the acrylic display unit off the table and perched it on the boxes, then slid out from behind the booth. She still needed to disassemble the clothing rack but she wasn't going to listen to Dee, avowed man-hunter that she was, set up a date with Axel.
Without looking at them, she made her way to the storage room to retrieve her handcart that she'd left there after unloading her wares earlier that day. She pulled it out, struggling with the recalcitrant folding mechanism.
"Let me help you with that."