I couldn’t do this. I wasn’t ready.
At the sound of leather creaking, I released a breath and let go of the poor, abused steering wheel. While wiping my sweaty palms on my jean-clad thighs, I noticed a crumpled receipt in the cup-holder. After throwing it away in my mini trash can, I began searching the rest of the interior, looking for more trash. But there was nothing there. I sighed. I could no longer avoid the inevitable. My blind date.
To say I was nervous would be an understatement. What was I thinking? I hadn’t gone on a date in…well, a long time. My last relationship had been disastrous, to say the least. It had shattered something inside of me, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever fit all the pieces back together again. And it had been all my fault.
I’d convinced myself that relationships weren’t for me. I would end up being a disappointment. And liable to hurt someone. Not physically. I wasn’t that crazy.
I shook my head and recalled what I’d learned from months of therapy. I was not defective. I had to get past that way of thinking. Which I was. Slowly but surely my confidence had built. And that was why I was there, sitting in my car, gathering my courage to go apple picking with a stranger.
“Blind Date is for our more daring members,” I remembered the words written on the dating site and grimaced. No one had ever called me daring. Cautious, diligent, and self-destructive were more my speed. I hadn’t always been that way, though. There had been a time when people would have used words like brave and ambitious to describe me. But that had been years ago. Before I’d let fear lead me down a path of stale relationships and loneliness. And I was tired of it.
I took a quick glance at my reflection in the rearview mirror and stared at the woman looking back at me. I reached for a wayward curl and brought it back to lay with the others. Though my cheeks flushed with nerves, my brown eyes lacked sparkle. I’d been numb for so long. I wanted to feel alive again. Feel anything, really. Even temporarily. And that’s why I’d signed up for this date. To try something adventurous again. Even if the guy ended up being a pig, at least it got me out of my comfort zone.
I knew for sure he wasn’t a boar, though. Not that there was anything wrong with boar shifters. Ogre might have been a better word choice. He could definitely be one of those.
I will not be a coward.
Decision made, I stepped out of my car, pocketing my keys and some cash. The building up ahead had a sign that read “Apple Picking” in giant white lettering. The email from Alpha Singles, the dating site that had set this up for me, said to meet my date at the entrance. I wasn’t given a name or photograph. The only information provided was his species, a wolf shifter, like me.
And supposedly we were a perfect match. I wasn’t sure that was possible. I’d met my perfect match a long time ago and was reluctant to believe it could happen again.
The only way to recognize my date would be by the stuffed wolf he would carry. But I was curious and opened up my senses, hoping to catch his scent. I turned toward the breeze and the pleasant scent of fresh air tinged with ripening fruit. I closed my eyes for just a second, feeling invigorated and happy. Until the wind changed, bringing with it a scent I knew all too well and thought I’d never experience again.
My eyes opened wide at the same time I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. He was looking at me. I could feel his gaze on my back. I should have left, and would have, had I not remembered my date.
Blood rushed between my ears as I turned slowly to face my fate. And found him staring straight at me. A sharp stab of pain pierced my chest, causing me to flinch. Brandon Scott. The relationship that had shattered me? Messed me up for anyone who came after? Yeah, this was him. The one who’d gotten away. The one I’d given away. I’d been the one to end us. And in the worst possible way.
His brown hair was a little lighter than I remembered, his skin more bronzed than fair. He was taller too. A little older. He’d lost some of the youthful roundness around his cheeks, making his face more angular and strong. He was leaner in the hips, broader in the shoulders, and the muscles in his arms were more defined. He’d been good-looking before, but now he was…more. A lot more.
When the light hit just right, his reddish-brown eyes reminded me of two dazzling red citrines. They gleamed in the sunlight beaming down from a cloudless sky, and my stomach fluttered. I stood rooted to the spot several feet away, mesmerized. It had always been that way with him.
The cool breeze blew at me from behind, shaking me out of my trance. Literally. I shivered, then drawn by the intensity of his gaze, I began walking in his direction.
He faced me, leaning one shoulder against the building, his arms hanging at his sides. His eyes, clouded with an emotion I couldn’t decipher and shadowed with surprise, slowly slid over my body.
“Brandon…” The whisper was more like a catch in my breath as I finally stood before him. I hadn’t been this close to him in so long, it was almost a shock that what I’d dreamed about for years was finally happening.
“Linnea.” The sound of his voice, much deeper than I remembered, caused my poor stomach to flip and my fists to clench at my sides, lest I give in to the temptation to touch him. I felt the stirrings of my wolf. She was excited to know our mate was near. She’d always considered Brandon our mate and refused to think otherwise. No matter how hard I’d tried to dissuade her.
Though he was trying to school his expressions, he failed, his lips turning down into a severe frown. Something I’d rarely seen on the laid back and fun-loving Brandon Scott.
I hadn’t seen Brandon in years. Not too long ago, he’d moved from home and joined a pack in Wild River, Georgia to attend college in Atlanta. I knew this because I’d been keeping tabs on him ever since I broke his heart and left him to grieve his mother’s death without the support of his girlfriend. The word “girlfriend” sounded silly to me after all this time. I’d like to think I’d been more than that.
“Hi,” I said, my lips turning down at the corners. Over the years, I’d filled a journal with everything I always wanted to say to him if I ever got the chance. Now here we stood, staring silently at one another, and I couldn’t remember a word of it.
I can’t believe he’s here.
“It’s been a long time. How are you?” I asked.
His frowned deepened.
I cleared my throat and looked around. Either my date hadn’t arrived yet or he’d stood me up. I wasn’t sure I cared at this point.
“What are you doing here, Lin?” Brandon crossed his muscular arms. The movement caused my eyes to snap to the stuffed wolf he carried in his left hand. “Looking for someone?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I murmured.
I gestured to the wolf. “You’re my date.”
He glanced down at the wolf and back at me. “What?”
“Blind date, right? With Alpha Singles, the dating site? I’m your date.”
His top lip lifted in a sneer. “Is this a joke?”
Rubbing at the ache behind my sternum, I swallowed hard and shook my head no.
He ran a hand through his hair and gave me a sardonic chuckle that cut right to the bone. “I can’t believe this. Of all the people…”
His gaze dropped to my mouth, and I released my bottom lip from between my teeth. I caught a flash of wolf-gold in his eyes for half a second before his expression flattened.
“I’m sorry,” I said, meaning so much more than just this blunder.
Brandon glared at me through his thick lashes. “Why? Did you set this up on purpose?”
“No, of course not,” I reassured him. “I just meant, I’m sorry we’re meeting like this. I’ve been meaning to call.”
His snort was anything but humorous. “Call? You were going to call me? A few years too late, Lin.”
We stared at one another before I finally pulled up my big-girl panties. If this was the last time I ever saw Brandon Scott, then I wanted to make this apology count.
“You’re right.” My remark caused his brows to raise up to his hairline and the tension between us loosened. I chuckled at the look of disbelief on his face.
“You’re admitting that I’m right?” He snorted. “That’s a first.”
“What I’m trying to say—”
“No, no, no,” he said with a shake of his head. “Admit it. I want to hear the Great Linnea Carver admit that I, Brandon Scott, am always right.”
I sighed, pleased to see his eyes lighten with amusement. Even at my own expense. Though I couldn’t help but tease back. “I never said you were always right. Now, how about we get back to the subject of me being great. I like the sound of that.”
“Please,” he scoffed. “You know you’re great. You’re smart and sexy. Beautiful and brilliant…”
Our grins disappeared as the spark between us lit up. He took a step closer, bringing us toe-to-toe. My chin tilted up as he leaned closer. I closed my eyes and parted my lips when I felt his warm breath tickle my cheek.
Then a blast of cool air hit me in the face. When I opened my eyes, Brandon stood a few steps away. His hands were on his hips, the wolf smashed against his side, as he glared at the grass under his feet. His chest rose and fell as rapidly as mine.
“Don’t apologize again,” he snapped. “Not for that, anyway.”
Gathering a deep breath, I nodded. “Then let me apologize for what I did four years ago. I was weak and stupid. And scared. So scared.”
“Not here,” he interrupted me. His gaze found mine and held. “I can’t do this here.”
“We can go somewhere private—”
“I’m not ready. I’m sorry, Lin.” His face was devoid of expression as he turned his back to me and walked away.
Inside, my wolf whined. For the first time in a long time, my wolf and I were in total agreement. No wonder he couldn’t forgive me. Being left behind sucked.