I blinked, my mouth gaping open. I pressed my clammy palms together in my lap, fingers wrapping tightly around my wrists, my heart rate and body temperature rising rapidly with my anger.
I wanted to strangle her. Grab her throat and shake. There was no way I heard her right. Laid off? I blinked again, snapping my limp jaw closed. It fell open again when I thought I had a verbal response to everything I’d just heard.
I had no words.
It snapped shut again.
I just stared at her, blinking in a stunned silence.
“I feel terrible about this, Hannah.”
It was the only word I could conjure in my shocked state of mind. She didn’t even look a tiny bit distraught about delivering such terrible news to me on a Friday afternoon.
Numb. Cold. Calculated. That’s how she looked. Maybe a little annoyed that I was still sitting in her office, not making a move to leave the black, leather chair my butt had been planted in since I was called in to see her.
And why would she look any different than her normal self? It wasn’t her getting the axe. It was me. It was my career—my life—that had just gone up in flames in a matter of seconds. What the hell am I going to do?
“I’m happy to write you a recommendation letter. You’ve been a great asset to our team. We hate to see you go.”
Then why let me go?
“Unfortunately, we’re having to make budget cuts across all departments,” my boss—I mean ex-boss—continued to respond to my silent questions.
This time, she’d had the decency to look halfway sympathetic as she said the last few words. Most likely she was just relieved it wasn’t her being sent home with a laughable severance check, a half-hearted apology, and a measly thank you for all your hard work.
My head bobbed up and down slowly, as if everything she was saying made perfect sense. It made zero sense. Surely there was someone else they could lay off, like…Amber. That woman was always the last one to work and the first to leave. I had it on good authority she was screwing someone in HR during lunch every day, too. Probably the reason she still had a job, and I didn’t.
We stared at each other for a few more uncomfortable seconds of silence until she attempted to dismiss me with the clearing of her throat. Breaking our staring war, she glanced at the early-edition TAG watch that hung off her boney wrist. Another subtle hint I wasn’t willing to take.
“Well”—she gave a swift double tap of her red, manicured nails on the desk—“unless you have any further questions for me, you are free to go, Hannah. Please make sure to leave your employee badge with the front desk before leaving the building.”
So, that was it. After eight long years of hard work, all I got was basically a don’t let the door hit you on the ass. Oh, and the mediocre severance package, of course.
I stood confidently— mostly—in my peep-toe stilettos, flipping my long, blond locks over my shoulder, my chin held high. Screw this. Screw her. Screw all of them. I was Hannah fucking Montgomery. I didn’t need this place. I’d show them! And I’d make them regret ever letting me go.
I turned on my heels, stomping proudly out of my ex-boss’s office, fisting my hands at my sides to keep from giving her the double bird. Only because I did need that recommendation letter. But that was it. I didn’t need them, otherwise.
* * *
I really needed that job.
I glanced down at the bills sprawled across the table, taking another large gulp from the bottle of wine I’d picked up on my way home from the job that was no longer mine. I swallowed hard, then cringed, squeezing my eyes closed, hissing through my teeth from the bitter aftertaste the cheap wine left on my tongue. Being broke was going to suck.
My phone rang in the distance, where I’d left it on the kitchen counter along with the wine glass I decided to forgo. Feeling a light buzz through my body as I stood, I dragged my pathetic ass over to answer it. I closed my eyes, taking in a deep, calming breath before picking it up to answer.
“Hey, Lottie! How’s life in the sticks?” I attempted to sound my usual optimistic self, only to come out sounding like a drunk toddler.
She was slow to respond. I could picture the wheels already spinning in that pretty little red head of hers. “What’s wrong? You sound…weird. Are you drunk?”
I took another swig from the bottle, walking back to the table where all my troubles printed on letter-sized sheets of paper were mocking me. Flopping into the chair, I sighed as I pulled a bent knee to my chest. “Aren’t I always?” I huffed my sarcasm. “And nothing’s wrong. Just a minor road bump. Nothing for you to worry about. How’s the wedding planning coming along? How’s Tucker?”
Despite her being my best friend who I told almost everything to, there was no way I was ready to tell Lottie I’d been let go from our previous place of employment. She’d only blame herself, thinking it was because she’d quit a few months earlier, leaving me there with no buyer to assist. It was in no way her fault. Plus, she didn’t need to be focused on that. She needed to be focused on marrying her soulmate. Lottie finding him again, finding happiness, was worth losing my job.
They’d been high school sweethearts, and after returning home for her mom’s funeral, they reconnected after twelve long years. I hadn’t blamed them for not wanting to waste any more time and having a short engagement. Tucker had proposed as soon as she made the decision to move from Seattle to Billingsley, Texas, to be with him and help raise his niece, Lily.
“Great. Everything’s set. That’s what I was calling you about actually. Did you get your flight booked?”
You mean, the flight I can no longer afford? “Yep. All booked. I’ll be there early next week.”
“Did you need a ride from the airport?”
Initially, I’d planned on renting a car, but looking down at all the bills that’d be due soon with no paycheck in the foreseeable future, I decided passing up a free ride was no longer an option. Sure, I had some savings, but I’d need to stretch that until I could find another job.
“You know what, yes actually. That’d be great.”
“Really?” She didn’t even attempt to hide the disbelief in her voice.
“Yeah, really,” I snapped defensively, rolling my eyes with another pull from the bottle, the bitter burn still present as it slid down my throat. You’d think the wine would start to taste better at some point, numbing my taste buds, disguising my depression.
“Okay, okay,” she surrendered. “Just a little surprised by your response is all… Are you sure everything is okay?”
She paused, her silence telling me she was debating whether to call me on my lie. Nobody was ever fine when they used that word to describe how they were. She sighed. “If you say so… I’ll have Billy pick you up from the airport.”
Wine sprayed from my mouth, burning my nostrils as I coughed and choked on the swallow I’d just taken, sputtering out, “No. Absolutely not. Forget it. I’ll get a car. I don’t need a ride.”
“I’m messing with you,” she responded, barely able to get the words out through her laughter. “I won’t send Billy.”
As she got control of her hysterics, I dabbed and blotted at the red spots on my unpaid bills.
“Are you ever going to tell me why you’re so hell bent on avoiding him?”
“Oh darn, I have another call coming in. I have to take this. Sorry, babe. I’ll see you in a week.”
“You’re a horrible maid of honor for lying to me right now, but I’ll let it slide this time. You can’t avoid me or this conversation forever.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Gotta go! Give Tucker and Lily a kiss for me.”
I ended the call before she could say any more or my tongue, loosened by wine and self-pity, could. We both knew the more I drank, the looser it got. And I was already passing tipsy town moving into slush city.
* * *
I stood on the sidewalk, my luggage resting beside my feet as I glanced at the clock on my phone. Where the hell is she? It wasn’t like Lottie to be late. She was punctual as hell. I’d been waiting over thirty minutes by the curb outside the tiny airport I’d thought I’d never pass through again. I sent her a text to see how far away she was.
L: Sorry! Going to kill him.
L: Wes. My one employee called in sick today.
L: Tuck’s brother. I’ll find out where he is.
L: He said he’s pulling in now.
Lifting my eyes, I glanced around for an arriving vehicle. The only thing coming toward me was a gust of wind creating a mini dirt tornado. There was no sign of anyone. The airport was mostly deserted. I was on the last flight in and all of my fellow passengers had left.
H: He lied.
I took a seat on top of my luggage, crossing my legs—my skirt riding up—and removed my heel. My feet were killing me from standing for so long. I was rubbing the sole of my foot when I heard the loud engine of a large truck coming up the road. It slowed, rolling to a stop in front of me, windows down, dirt covering almost every inch of it. The man sitting behind the wheel was not much cleaner.
He smiled. And I couldn’t deny it was a nice smile. Confident. Practiced. One that would normally earn him a smile in return, had I not been tired and annoyed.
“No need to show me some leg. I’m happy to give you a ride, sweetheart,” he said, winking.
I slipped my shoe back on my foot and stood, smoothing my skirt back down before crossing my arms over my chest, narrowing my eyes.
“Wes, I presume?”
“The one and only.” His grin widened.
I refrained from rolling my eyes, releasing my arms as he shifted the vehicle into park. He exited the truck, giving me the full vision of him. Unsurprisingly, his body was as defined and masculine as his younger brother’s, his face just as handsome. The Monroe family had good genes when it came to the looks department. As for whether he was as charming as Tucker—the jury was still out.
He lifted my suitcase one-handed with ease. That thing barely slid under the maximum-weight requirements at the airport check-in. I may have been impressed if he hadn’t immediately heaved it over the side of his dirty truck, tossing it into the rear bed.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I gasped.
“Helping you with your luggage,” he tossed over his shoulder with a shrug. He turned to face me, his large, masculine hands resting on his broad hips just below a lean waist, his brow wrinkling at the angry expression on my face. “Shit. Don’t tell me you’ve never had a man help you with your luggage. Guess those Yankees don’t know how to treat a lady up there.”
I glared at him, my hands on my own hips, my head tilting to the side at his incorrect assumption.
“Ah, I get it,”—he snapped his finger, pointing at me—“you’re one of those feminists. Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’ll let you get it out yourself when we get to the house.”
“Are you serious, right now?”
“Of course. Wouldn’t want you to think I didn’t see you as an equal,” he winked. Again. Did he have a tick?
“Moron,” I muttered under my breath. “I’m not mad you helped me with my luggage. I’m mad because you threw it in the back of your filthy truck. It’s probably covered in horse shit, now.”
He glanced over his shoulder where the luggage resided. “Nah, maybe some cow manure, but it’ll wash.” He gave me another slick smile, his eyes glistening with mirth.
I was not amused.
“Tell ya what, if it makes you feel better, I’ll move it inside the cab.”
“Oh, how kind of you,” I said, smiling sarcastically.
He chuckled, lifting the luggage easily once again as I walked to the passenger door. He opened the back door of the cab, placing it on the backseat before climbing into the driver’s seat. He stared at me, an eyebrow raising as I remained standing outside of the truck in the open passenger door.
“What now, city?”
I eyed the distance between the curb and floorboard of the truck. Even in my heels, it was still quite a jump, and the pencil skirt I was wearing was like a tight noose around my knees. There was no way I was going to pull off getting in this truck in a ladylike manner. At least not without his help. And I’d be damned if I was asking him for help.
“Nothing. Just…” I lifted a foot and the skirt tightened. I halted at the light tearing noise, dropping my foot back to the cement.
Wes’s face lit with sadistic amusement as he realized my predicament. “Need some help?”
“Nope. I got it.” I glared.
“Suit yourself, city.” He settled back in his seat, his smug smile taking up most of the real estate on his face as he lazily crossed his arms over his chest.
I bit back my irritation as I tried once again, only for my foot to come up short, failing to connect with the floorboard.
Ah, screw it.
Hiking up my skirt as high as I could without flashing him the goods, I crawled into the floorboard on all fours, landing my face a little too close to his goods. Way to think that one through, Hannah. At hearing his chuckle, I snapped my eyes up to his smirking face.
“Hey now, city. If I’d have known things were going to move this fast between us, I would’ve showered first.”
“Ass.” I grumbled, sitting back on my knees before lifting my butt to the seat and smoothing out my skirt.
I buckled my seatbelt, ignoring his eyes that were still on me as he chuckled and cranked the keys in the ignition. The engine roared alive, thankfully drowning out the obnoxious man sitting a few feet from me. I started to think maybe Billy would’ve been a better option until I recalled our one night together nearly a year ago.
Most definitely not.
I’d take this embarrassing little stunt with the infuriating, older Monroe brother playing witness over Billy Miller. If I never saw Billy Miller again, it’d be too soon. Problem was, with his sister being one of Lottie’s closest friends and a bridesmaid in the wedding, I was pretty sure “too soon” was less than forty-eight hours away.