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Crashing Into You (Paragon Series Book 3) by Juliana Stevens (1)

Dedication

 

To Alma, for letting my kids adopt you and for being a beautiful, amazing woman! We love you

To Linda. No words can fully say how caring and wonderful you are. The world needs more people like you!

To Angie, for being the absolute best for way too many reasons to list. You will be forever missed and always in my heart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 "Are you hovering between realms, Grace?" Victor asked, his voice pulling Grace back to their home of Star Dania, back to reality. She had no choice but to face him for the first time in weeks. She cleared her throat.

"Maybe," she said, forcing herself to look into his dark eyes. She'd forgotten how strikingly good-looking and tall he was. Though a thousand years old, Victor was destined to look thirty forever, and he was everything dark and broody an Anger Paragon should be. They stood on the expansive grounds outside their castle surrounded by tall trees, yet his very essence made everything seem small in comparison.

"Are you watching Charity?" he asked, and she knew it pained him to say her name. Ah, yes. If that wasn't the sucker punch Grace needed to stop looking at Victor moony-eyed. Charity was the one on Victor's mind, he didn't really care about Grace.

"I wasn't, matter of fact," she said, turning away and walking back toward the castle.

"Grace." The forceful way he said her name made her stop in her tracks, but she didn't turn to look at him. "I'm sorry about everything that happened between us. I would do anything to take it back."

"Victor," she said, turning to face him and wishing she hadn't. His usual stormy eyes were sad, his tan face crestfallen. "I'll say this. It wasn't all your fault, everything that happened. I don't place all the blame on you, you should know that. That being said, it's not a good idea we see each other for a while." It pained her greatly, but it had to be done. Victor had broken her when he helped flip her from love to hate, and no one aside from him would've been able to do so. No one else held the power.

"I'm sorry you feel that way, Grace. I miss you, I miss our talks."

"You miss Charity," she said, hating herself for saying it. Even she missed Charity. Star Dania hadn't been the same without her and never would be again. Spying on her from time to time and sneaking visits here and there wasn't enough. Charity would always be her favorite Happiness Paragon even though she was a human now. Happily married, even. She was enjoying life with her human, Keith, and Grace could never fault her for that. Even if she held an ache inside her since Charity's absence.

"I miss Charity," Victor admitted, and Grace blinked at the flash of anger in his eyes. "We all will, she is something special. But how I feel for her has nothing to do with how I feel about you. You're my best friend, and I miss you every day. You're the only one in this place who doesn't look at me like the devil I can be. You always saw me as more than that."

"You are more than that," Grace said, relenting. She always had a soft spot for him, even before she realized he had her heart. Luckily, she was the Love Paragon, and he never sensed her love for him was more than her love for anyone else. But she was just getting back to herself, and she had to let her feelings for him die. His anger could only harm her and now it'd been proven. She cared too much for him, and she was too easily persuaded to feel his wrath. The Love Paragon couldn't have that, she had too much of an important job to do in the world.

"Do you miss me?" he asked, and she wanted to wrap her arms around him and show him just how much she did. But she couldn't do that.

"I miss you," she answered. "But I still think-"

"I know," he interrupted. "Say no more. Go back to your hovering, Grace, to whoever you may be spying on."

"You're actually mad at me?" she asked, having heard it in his voice. "You must be kidding."

"What?" he asked innocently.

"I see what you're doing, Victor. If I think you're mad at me, then I'm supposed to run after you and apologize, right? I don't think so!"

"There's that spark I've missed so much," he said, the devilish twinkle in his eyes once more.

"Get serious," she huffed. "Too much has passed between us for that to work."

"I know," he said, wearing his customary scowl. "I will wear you down, Sunshine. Who is it you're spying on, might I ask?"

"If I tell you, will you leave?" she asked as pleasantly as she could. She knew he was too tough to be offended by her. Victor was a lot of things, but nothing if not respectable. If she wanted space from him, he would grant it.

"If that's what you really want, I will give you all the time you need."

"Thank you," she said, wishing her heart didn't plummet to her stomach when she looked into his eyes.  "A widow caught my attention. She's a very pretty human but her memories showed me a lot of heartache. I'm waiting to see if I should play matchmaker or give it some time. She might not even need my help, I'm not sure yet."

"A widow, you say?" Victor asked, intrigued. She should've known that detail would catch his attention. His job was bringing the bereaved into the anger stage of their grief to help them move on. It wasn't the happiest of lives, and why Grace had gotten a soft spot for him many years before. "How long?"

"Her husband passed a few years ago," Grace said. "But she still feels his loss deeply."

"Will you need my help?" Victor asked, jumping at the chance to work with her, Grace suspected. It was probably a mistake, telling him about her widow.

"I'll let you know. I'm not sure yet what I plan on doing. If you'll excuse me, I have work to do." She waved him off as though it didn't pain her, peeking through the realms and looking for her widow, Denise. Even hovering between the realms, she could feel Victor's unmistakable anger he carried with him always, part of him forever. She took a deep breath, determined not to let his natural emotions enter her ever again.

"Good luck, Grace. You know how to find me." Then he disappeared, and she knew it was for the best.

 

 

Chapter One

 

Denise Campbell idly put away books at Sandra's Bookstore, the shop she'd worked at for the past four years. She was lost in her own thoughts, thinking of cutting the split ends she noticed when putting her long dark hair in a loose braid that morning. She wasn't thinking of much else when she heard the bell chime above the door signaling that someone walked in. As she rounded the corner to greet the customer, she ran smack into her best friend, Shelly Davis.

"Denise, you won't believe it!" Shelly said excitedly, her hands gripping Denise's shoulders.

"Hello to you, Shelly," Denise said, smiling warmly, used to her friend's dramatics.

"Who has time for hello when there's this!" Shelly cried out as she shoved her left hand in Denise's face, showing off a huge, round-cut diamond ring.

"Shelly! Congratulations, it's beautiful! You finally said yes?"

"What do you mean, finally?" Shelly asked, smirking but never taking her eyes off the ring. "It's beautiful, don't you think?"

"It is! Kyle is a lucky man, I know he'll make you happy."                                                                                     

"I think so, too!" Shelly said with a beaming smile. "I've always loved that man. I know I give him a tough time, but he's my guy."

"I guess the third time really is a charm for Kyle, isn't it?" Denise teased, chuckling softly.

"I guess you're right about that. It took me a little longer than him to get used to the idea of marriage, but I'm so ready now. What time is it, by the way? When do you get off? We need to celebrate!" Shelly said excitedly.

"Five, as usual. Still an hour to go, but shouldn't you be celebrating with Kyle?"

"We've been celebrating all day," Shelly answered with a sly smile. "He asked me last night. Now I want to celebrate with you! And you can't say anything about hating going out or going to bars, or any excuse like that! I'm engaged and you have no choice. I'll kidnap you if I have to."

Denise smiled at her persistent friend and knew she had no choice. "Ok, meet me back here in an hour."

"That's not happening!" Shelly hollered, looking Denise up and down critically. "You are not going out like that, not tonight!"

"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" Denise asked, looking down at her outfit.

Shelly tugged at Denise's gray sweater. "I know you have a certain style. Oversized sweaters and blue jeans, and I could never forget the boots." She shuddered dramatically before continuing. "That's the way it is and usually I'm okay with it. Although a tank top now and then wouldn't hurt, even a cute shirt. But tonight, I want to do it right. You'll need a dress."

"A dress?" Denise repeated, dumbfounded. "You don't even wear dresses! Why should I? I don't even think I own a dress."

"You can borrow one of mine," Shelly said matter of fact, and Denise snorted.

"You are aware that I have a good four inches on you, right? And quite a few more pounds."

"Even better! You can squeeze your size eight ass into my size three dress and finally show off those curves of yours!" Shelly laughed, slapping Denise on the rear end.

"Shelly!" Denise exclaimed, blushing. "I have zero desire to do that. Where do you want to go, anyway?"

"I want to go to Rockford Country Club but considering none of us are members, it's a no-go. We'll have to settle for another place I've never been- Claudine's."

Denise groaned. Of course she knew the place, everyone did. Sandra's Books was in the heart of Rockford, Texas. It sat in the middle of four blocks lined with little shops in the small town she had grown to love in the past four years. There were several eateries around the bookstore, along with antique shops and an art gallery. The very last of the four blocks held the largest restaurant, Claudine's Café, a popular attraction for the town of Rockford. Its large back deck was decorated with twinkling lights and on most weekend nights, local bands played there. Of course, that was just what Denise had heard. She'd never been there to experience it for herself.

"Did I hear you groan?" Shelly asked, breaking Denise from her thoughts.

"Sorry," Denise said. "Why Claudine's?"

"Because they have a dance floor, silly! And Kyle will dance with me tonight. At least if he wants to stay engaged," Shelly said with a laugh.

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize he'd be going with us," Denise said, taken aback.

"He is! In fact, I should get back to him now, he's waiting for me. Come straight to my place after work, Denise. We'll find you something to wear, I promise."

"But, wait! Why do I have to go? I don't want to be the third wheel."

"Don't be silly. See you in an hour, sweetie," Shelly said, blowing her a kiss before running outside.

 Drat, Denise thought to herself. She didn't think there could be anything worse than going out with a newly engaged couple. Especially since she would most likely end up sitting alone watching them make googly eyes at each on the dance floor. She didn't have time to fret over it, though, because Ms. Evans walked in, a regular customer and one of Denise's favorites. Ms. Evans was a short, heavier-set woman who always kept her brown hair in a bun and wore long flowing skirts with a buttoned shirt tucked in. She loved to talk and loved to hear herself talk, which was probably why Denise liked her so much. Denise always preferred to listen.

"Hello, Ms. Evans," Denise said with a forced smile. As much as she liked the woman, she wasn't in the mood for conversation.

"Hello there, Denise! How are you this fine Friday afternoon? I had to get over here before you closed shop, you know! My son has come to town, and it was the last thing I expected!" Ms. Evans always spoke as though she feared someone interrupting her, so she continued. "He has come back with a broken heart, pitiful thing, which is why I haven't been here in the past few days. As a boy, he really enjoyed mystery books and I want to visit that section. Heaven knows something needs to cheer him up."

"I'm sorry to hear that, but I'm glad you get to see him finally. I know you've missed him."

"Very much, Denise. Thank you for remembering."

"You're welcome," Denise said, smiling. It had been many a visit to the store that Ms. Evans spoke of her son, Alexander. Alexander, the chef from Chicago... Alexander, who was fond of dancers... Alexander, who never returned his mother's phone calls. Denise had never met the man, but she already didn't like him much. The way Ms. Evans described him, he sounded like a snob, and who could like anyone that didn't return their own mother's phone calls? Denise's mother passed away when she was ten and she would give anything to speak to her one more time. No excuse in that regard would matter much to her.

"Is there anything you would suggest?" Ms. Evans was asking.

"Suggest for what?" Denise asked, forcing herself back in the moment.

"A murder mystery?"

"Yes, follow me. There are plenty to choose from. They're my favorite."

"Why, I didn't know that!" Ms. Evans exclaimed as though she were hearing fresh gossip. She put her arm around Denise and led, rather than followed, her to the mystery section of books.

"Here you go," Denise said, escaping from her grasp as gently as she could and pulling a hardback from the shelf she had read several times herself. "This one is a page-turner and it's on sale."

"What's it about?" Ms. Evans asked curiously. "I don't read them much myself."

"You love your romances," Denise said, smiling. "This one is about a man whose wife gets kidnapped. And-"

"He will be a hero and save his wife!" Ms. Evans interrupted excitedly. "How wonderful!"

"Not exactly. See, they had been having problems, so he thinks she left him. Her lover is the one who lets the husband know she's missing because she didn't show up at one of their meeting places on time."

"I don't know about that," Ms. Evans said disapprovingly, shaking her head. "It doesn't sound like it has any kind of good people."

"It does. I promise it's written in a way in which you will love every character," Denise insisted.

"I do trust your judgment. You've never strayed me wrong before on a book I wanted, so I'll take it."

"Great. Also, I set aside a book for you earlier," Denise said, smiling.

"Such a doll you are! Let's go check out then," Ms. Evans said, walking back to the front of the store, contented now.

After Ms. Evans left, Denise cleaned up around the small bookstore, putting away books and vacuuming the rugs. She was glad there weren't any other customers and hoped it stayed that way until closing. She needed peace and quiet before Shelly's big celebration dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

As much as Denise tried to fight it, Shelly talked her into wearing a black silk dress that had been given to Shelly. It was deemed far too pretty to give away, despite it being too big for her. Luckily, it fit Denise, though a little snugger than she liked and a touch shorter than she was used to. She could at least admit to herself when she looked in the mirror that it flattered her skin tone nicely. Shelly curled her long dark hair in soft waves that cascaded down her back and, at Shelly's insistence, even wore makeup beyond just her standard mascara and lip gloss. She barely remembered the last time she felt so pretty.

But, by the time they arrived at the restaurant, Denise regretted coming and was especially regretful of the outfit. She would've given anything to be home curled up with a good book instead.

"You think I don't notice it, but I do," Shelly whispered in her ear as they got out of the car.

"What are you talking about?" Denise whispered back.

"You have nothing to be nervous about, you look stunning."

"That's you," Denise said honestly, admiring her friend's glow. Shelly looked radiant and fresh-faced. Not for the first time, Denise felt envious of her friend. Shelly was all lightness, all the time. Always cheerful, always beautiful. Though small- five foot, three inches if she was lucky- she made up for it with a big personality. She had strawberry blonde hair and bright green eyes that always seemed to smile, even in her worst of moods.

"I am recently engaged," Shelly said, beaming at Kyle. "Let's go, shall we?"

Denise took a deep breath before following the happy couple inside Claudine's. The restaurant was bustling, as she knew it would be, but something about the place made it seem more inviting than she'd imagined. She still felt nervous in the dress but glancing around, she knew she didn't look out of place. Everyone dressed up, even though Claudine's itself had a laid-back vibe. The lights were dim, and all the tables had baby blue tablecloths with candles on them. There was a bar and off to the side was the dance floor Shelly promised, with a few couples already taking advantage.

"All eyes are on you, babe," Shelly quietly told her as the hostess led them to a table by the dance floor, as Kyle had requested.

"Stop it," Denise laughed, although she couldn't help but notice her friend wasn't entirely wrong as she passed up the other patrons. They probably just realize I'm the third wheel, she thought to herself.

After they ordered their food, Denise focused her attention on the dancing couples rather than on Kyle and Shelly, who were in their own love bubble. She looked around, wondering how anyone could dance with people eating at tables all around them. She couldn't think of anything more awkward than that. Then again, all the couples only seemed to have eyes for each other as they swayed to the soft music coming from who knew where. As she looked around, trying to figure out where the speakers were since no band played inside the restaurant, she couldn't help but notice one man in particular. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, and he sat at a table across from hers on the other side of the dance floor. She'd never seen a more gorgeous man, she surprised herself by thinking. He, too, sat at a party of three, with a man and woman turned away from her. The man she couldn't seem to take her eyes off of was smiling at something one of them said, and she couldn't help but notice the smile didn't reach all the way to his eyes.

She couldn't help but chuckle at her wandering thoughts. Was she really trying to analyze some poor guy's smile? He was a random person at a restaurant! Gorgeous as he may be, she had no right to stare at him. Even so, she couldn't help noticing how broad his shoulders were and how she liked that shade of brown of his hair when he looked up briefly and they made eye contact. Oh! she started, feeling flushed, and she looked away quickly. 

"Is something the matter?" Shelly asked, bringing her back in the moment.

"Not at all," Denise said, forcing a smile.

"Denise! You think I don't know your fake smile by now?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she insisted.

"Spare me!" Shelly said, laughter in her voice. "I always know when something is up with you. You look positively flushed. Want me to come sit by you? I know you hate this, don't you? You hate it here."

"No," Denise said, shaking her head. "I'm good, I promise. You stay where you are and I'll be right back." She got up before Shelly had time to argue and walked to the restroom she'd seen the sign for when they came in.

 Why did I agree to this? she wondered as she looked at herself in the mirror. Happy couples everywhere she turned! Couples dancing, couples flirting, couples staring into each other's eyes and seeing no one else. Happy, happy, happy! Denise barely remembered the feeling. "You can do this," she said to herself softly in the mirror.

She shook herself and freshened her lips with the gloss Shelly had insisted she put in her little silver purse. As she rounded the corner outside the bathroom, she ran into the man she was staring at before. Oh! She hadn't been expecting him to be so tall! At least six-foot-three because he towered above her even though she wore heels. He was even more gorgeous up close and personal, his blue eyes soft, those shoulders as broad as ever.

"Watch where you're going," he practically growled after a moment's pause, because he'd been staring at her just as hard. Before she could say anything back, he moved past her and walked in the men's room, leaving her shocked and confused. Wow! She should've known a man so attractive would be so rude!

She walked back to the table, where the lemon chicken she ordered was waiting for her. "Thanks for waiting." She smiled at the newly engaged couple, although she wondered if they even knew their food arrived before she got there.

"No problem at all," Kyle said, smiling warmly at her. "Let's dig in, everything smells great."

While they ate their meal, Shelly talked of wedding plans, just as Denise had feared. She tried hard to stay in the conversation as best she could, even though she loathed weddings and everything they entailed. She couldn't help remembering one that felt like a million years ago. She loved Shelly more than anything, but she hoped desperately she didn't become a bride with nothing else to talk of aside from her future wedding.

After they finished eating, Shelly got Kyle on the dance floor as she'd promised she would. While Denise watched them dance, she forced herself not to look at the table that held the attractive but rude man. She never felt so embarrassed in her life! Had she really been caught gaping at him? As if she never saw a cute guy before, as if she had no social graces whatsoever! Not that it excused him from being impolite to her when she bumped into him. It wasn't like she knew he would be there. She could even still remember his smell when her face had, for a brief instant, smacked into his chest. If he could be as nice in personality as the way he smelled, any woman's heart would be in serious danger. Of course, she knew if he was so rude to a complete stranger, he couldn't be a nice man at all. Her heart was as safe as it always was. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Denise spent the weekend off cleaning her house and running errands. She would work every day at the bookstore if she could, pathetic as that might be. But the owners, Sandra and Dan Johnson, enjoyed working the weekends. Luckily, Shelly came by on Sunday evening with some bridal magazines and a bottle of wine, and Denise was grateful for it. She'd been feeling lonely and Shelly could always pull her out of her funks. Even if it was to talk about her upcoming wedding. Not that Denise blamed her friend for her happiness or even envied her for it. Shelly had every right to be happy, even if Denise had hardened her heart years before. She would never resent Shelly for falling in love with a great guy like Kyle. They were terrific together and Denise knew that.

"Last night was crazy!" Shelly was saying as she uncorked the bottle of wine, bringing Denise back to the moment. They were sitting at Denise's kitchen table, flipping through magazines. "Three bar fights last night, and guess why?"

"Over a woman?" Denise asked, smiling, already knowing the answer. Shelly was a waitress at Randy's, a popular bar in Rockford. She always loved hearing Shelly's stories about what went on there, even though she never went herself.

"Yes, over a woman!" Shelly exclaimed, pouring their wine and taking a sip. "Love triangles and alcohol do not mix!"

"They never do," Denise said, laughing.  "I don't see how you work there. All smoky and dark, with drunks everywhere and loud music blaring."

"First, you sound like an old lady. Second, don't judge what you do not know," Shelly said, smiling. "Most of the time, it's not so bad. Saturday nights are always going to be worse. The regulars are great, and I have my favorites. It's the young ones that drive me insane. They have the worst problems, don't they?"

"I wouldn't remember, I'm an old maid."

"Impossible! Besides, you're thirty-four, you have lots of good years left. So long as you don't waste them in this house. You wonder how I can stand the bar and its dark lighting but look at this place!" Shelly said, looking around as if for the first time. "Where's the light? You have a bay window right there, yet you curtain it up and don't use it. You need fresh flowers in here, some sunshine!"

"There is no sunshine right now, Shelly."

"Like it matters. When there is, what? I swear, I would think you were a vampire if I didn't know better. You never open your curtains or blinds. Look at this place, I can't believe I never noticed it before. It's not homey at all, is it?"

 "Thanks, Shelly!"

 "I'm serious. This is serious, Denise! Forget those magazines, this house needs a makeover. You don't even have pictures on your walls! How have I never noticed before?"

"Aside from the fact that you're usually in your own world, most of the time you don't come here. We always meet at your place."

"Now I know why."

"Besides, I can't afford a home makeover, Shelly. I work at a bookstore, I have a budget."

"You have money saved, and this little house can't be racking up that big a bill. Certainly not an electric bill."

"I have a rainy-day fund, but it's set aside for an emergency, not for material items," Denise said in defense, trying not to feel hurt by Shelly's words.

Shelly stood up to pace the small kitchen, as if in deep thought. When she came back to her seat, she looked intently in Denise's eyes. "We don't talk about it much, or ever. I respect your privacy, I always have. But you were married once, before I met you, before you moved here. Tell me about yourself then, Denise. I've always wanted to know! I've grown to love you like a sister and I think you're fantastic, even though you are shy and serious most of the time. How were you before I met you?"

Denise looked away, embarrassed by the intensity of Shelly's gaze but unfazed by the question. It wasn't the first time Shelly asked, and it wouldn't be the last if she chose not to answer. It was only natural for Shelly to want to know.

 Denise always wondered why Shelly had taken a liking to her when they met a few weeks after she moved to Rockford. Shelly was a couple years younger than her and a regular customer at Sandra's Books, and one day she asked her to lunch. Denise reluctantly said yes but it ended up becoming a regular thing, eating lunch a few days out of the week. Eventually, Denise learned to laugh again, usually because of Shelly's various dramas. Gradually the lunches turned into them becoming shopping buddies and having family dinners with Kyle and Shelly's sisters if they were in town. Denise was thankful for Shelly, who helped her through a dark time in her life.

"Sometimes I forget who I was then," she answered finally, smiling at Shelly. "It was only a few years ago, yet it seems like a lifetime. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I expect him to be beside me. Then I remember this wasn't even our house, that I'm not even in our bed. Crazy, right?"

"I don't think so," Shelly said, her voice soft.

"If it's all the same," Denise said, shrugging as she flipped through a magazine. "This one here is pretty, and I think it would look great on you." She pointed at the picture, not paying attention to what the dress looked like.

"It's beautiful, but remember I don't want to be too traditional," Shelly said, her voice feigning perkiness. Denise was glad her usually persistent friend wasn't going to be pushy about Benny. She didn't want to remember him anymore. He was gone and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

       

    

Chapter Four

 

 Denise was glad to be back at the bookstore on Monday morning. The October air was crisp, but she loved nothing more. October was her favorite month of the year in Texas. The morning and evenings were cool, the days beautiful and sunny. She always kept the shop door open and loved to watch everyone going by, busy in the mornings. She would sit in her chair behind the cash register by the window, watching everyone on their way to work as they stopped at the bakery across the street to get their morning pastries and java. A few customers came into the store to buy a magazine or a book. The shop was busiest in the earliest part of the day and again around lunchtime. Denise always closed the shop for half an hour around two so she could get a bite to eat and sometimes browse the nearby souvenir shops. She was locking up for lunch when she heard a man's voice behind her.

 "Don't tell me you're closing?"

"For half an hour," she said, turning to face him. She was shocked to see it was the rude man from Claudine's on Saturday night.

"Oh," he said after a moment, obviously remembering her and taken aback himself. "It's you." He wore blue jeans and a white shirt that was just tight enough to show off his chest and toned stomach. He looked and smelled fantastic, but she wasn't about to give off the impression she thought so. As stunning as he was, he was rude and she had no intention of wasting her time on him.

"Can I help you with something?" she asked hurriedly.

"I hope so. My mother said there's a woman here that helped her find a book she bought for me. Denise, I think."

 Great, he's looking for me and he doesn't even know it, she thought. "That'd be me," she said, almost happy to disappoint him.

"Do you remember selling someone this book?" he asked, holding up a novel she knew by heart.

It couldn't be true, could it? That this was the son Ms. Evans always went on about? The man Denise didn't like before she met him and liked even less now that she had? Surely someone else bought the book and she didn't remember. She knew that wasn't possible, seeing how it was a favorite of hers. She had a vague realization the woman he sat with at the restaurant must've been Ms. Evans, though it didn't click at the time since she hadn't been wearing her customary bun. "Yes," Denise answered reluctantly. "I know the book. What about it?"

"It was a great choice, but I've already read it. I don't read often these days, but there isn't much else to do here."

Now he was going to insult her town? He really was something else! "There's plenty to do if you look in the right place," she said, keeping her tone even. "The shop will open again in thirty minutes, come back if you must. But, just so you know, that book can't be returned because it was at sale price," she added before walking away.

As she finished her turkey sandwich and sipped on her sweet tea at the deli the next block over, Denise tried not to feel too guilty. She could've returned the book if she wanted, seeing as Ms. Evans was a regular customer and almost always there every week when new books arrived. She was a nice woman, and she would've done it for her alone. Denise recalled her saying that her son had come home broken hearted, but was that an excuse for him to have been so rude at the restaurant?

She also remembered how Ms. Evans always complained that he never called her back and how he had a thing for dancers. He would! Denise thought, even though she never had a problem with dancers before. He seemed selfish and conceited, which was the real problem. Just because you were graced with good looks didn't mean you should go around being rude to people who accidentally get in your way! Also, when you have a mother like Ms. Evans, you should call her back even if you likely wouldn't get a word in edgewise.

Walking back, she was surprised to see him standing in front of the bookstore. He waved at her, but she had no intention of waving back or even acknowledging him. She slowed her pace, looking inside the other shop windows as she passed them. She stopped once, seeing a new painting in the window of the art gallery next door, but eventually she found herself in front of him. He looked amused, and she noticed once again how tall he was.

"You look different with your hair in that braid. I almost didn't recognize you," he said as she struggled to find the keys in her purse.

"Mmm," she murmured. Did he mean to insult her? It hadn't sounded like a compliment.

"Need some help?"

"Yeah, maybe don't stand so close." She waved him away. Why he made her nervous, she had no idea. "Found them!" she said a little too excitedly, waving her keys in his face, and he chuckled. She felt her face flush.

"I talked to my mom and she said if I explained who she was exactly, you might return the book," he said, following her into the store. He kept his distance while she flipped the sign on the door from closed to open. "I wouldn't mind keeping it because I do like it. It's just that I already own it and there's no sense in having two copies. If you knew my mom, you would see that she doesn't read anything other than romance, so I don't have much of a selection to choose from personally."

Was he babbling? she wondered as she walked to her seat behind the counter. Whatever it was, he was giving her a headache. "I'll return it, for her. If you want to find another, the third row back you will find the mystery section," she said, mindlessly sorting through paperwork looking for a return form.

"Listen," he said, and she looked up at him. "I'm sorry about the other night. I was in a bad mood, and I honestly didn't think I would ever see you again."

"So, you think it's okay to be rude to people because you're never going to see them again?" she asked before she could stop herself.

"Not at all. Usually I'm not like that. It happened to be a bad night after a lot of bad nights, and I was wrong for it. Obviously, you didn't mean to come crashing into me-"

"Crashing into you?" she interrupted haughtily. "I bumped into you coming out of the restroom! There was no crashing into anyone!" Why that choice of words offended her, she would never know.

"Okay," he said, holding his hands up. "I'm sorry. Like I said, it was stupid of me. Obviously, this is a place my mom frequents, and I don't want it to be weird for her to come here or anything like that. I don't want you to hold it against her because of something I did."

Denise wouldn't let the concern for his mother melt her heart in the slightest. "You never actually told me who she is."

"I have a feeling you know. My mom isn't the type to go unnoticed," he said with a sly smile and held up the book. "Even though I love this book, it's not like it was a best seller. There's nothing in the plot that hasn't been done before."

"I agree," Denise said. "The characters, though-"

"They're my favorite," he interrupted, excitement in his voice. "They're flawed, but very..."

"Lovable," Denise finished for him. "It's a standard murder mystery, but the heart of it is always the characters and how they redeem themselves throughout the story. It has humor but at the end-"

"Being torn up when Peter dies?" he finished, interrupting again but she didn't mind.

"Yes. Sometimes I think I read it hoping it'll be different."

"Me too." They stood staring at each other for a moment when an elderly couple walked in. She greeted them, thankful for the interruption. When she got the nerve to look over at him again, he was walking towards the mystery section.

It was ten minutes before the couple left, having bought a book of assorted crossword puzzles, and another ten minutes before he walked back carrying two books.

"I'm Alex, by the way. Alex Evans," he said with an endearing smile.

"Yes," she said, reaching for his books.

"Yes, you knew that?"

She looked at him, feeling nervous. Not for the first time in her life, she hated the shyness about her. "I knew it," she answered. "Although she only ever calls you Alexander."

"True," he said, chuckling.

"You want these two?" she asked, holding up the two books he'd brought.

"I changed my mind, actually. I decided I'm going to keep the one my mom got me since my other copy is in Chicago. I don't know when I'll be back there…" His voice trailed off and he was out the door without saying another word, leaving Denise speechless but curious about him.

                                       

******

 

Shelly's words were ringing in Denise's ears when she came home that evening. She looked around the house she bought four years earlier, after moving to Rockford. It was small but sufficient. The living room had dark wood floors and drab curtains, and she'd placed a plain rug under the coffee table. That was as decorative as it got. Walking through the house, she was surprised to realize she didn't have a single picture hung up, not one on any of her shelves, or even a vase or a plant in the whole house.

She couldn't believe she never noticed her own decorating style, or lack thereof, until it was mentioned to her. The last few years, Denise felt lost and, other than a few people, she also felt friendless. She had been so wrapped up in being sad and lonely that she never thought about decorating. After work, she never did much other than run errands, only to come home and watch TV or read a book. Why should she care about her home feeling like a home when she was just trying to make it through another day?

Sometimes she felt like she was still in the haze she fell under after Benny died. She sold the house they loved so much in Dallas a few months after his funeral, even though all her friends and family tried to talk her out of it. She loaded up all the artwork she'd done over the years and boxed up their pictures together, storing them in her dad's garage in Dallas. Every memento of their life together lived in that garage, and she hadn't seen any of it since. Hell, she hadn't been back to Dallas since.

After the house sold, she left, not sure where she was going. At some point, she must have remembered the town she and Benny fell in love with once, on a spontaneous road trip. Rockford was a hundred miles outside of Dallas, in the hill country. It was mostly known for its quarry and great shopping for tourists, but it also had the pretty Lake Somerset she and Benny spent the day at, a day she always remembered fondly. On a whim, she'd driven there, thinking she would go to remember him and all the time they shared. As she drove through the town, she fell in love with it all over again because of all the houses that had character and the eclectic shops downtown. It felt like home to her. She stayed at a hotel for a few weeks before finding her house and, almost as suddenly as she left Dallas, she was calling Rockford home.

Before she knew what she was doing, Denise was taking down all the dull curtains and folding up the rugs throughout her house, putting them in the guest bedroom. She knew it was time to make a change in her life. She didn't think placing pictures on the walls and hanging up new curtains would suddenly make her happy, but it had to make a small difference in her mood. She didn't want to feel so numb anymore, and she couldn't pretend her life was over because his ended. But, when she went to bed that night, she thought of a day long before, swimming and barbecuing with the man she loved, feeling free and happy.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 On Wednesday morning, Denise was especially tired and for once Sandra's Bookstore wasn't where she wanted to be. She spent the last couple nights deep cleaning her house and she didn't sleep well the night before. Luckily, Shelly saved the day by coming in with a cup of coffee for her and a bright smile.

"How's my girl? You look exhausted."

"Just what everyone wants to hear," Denise smirked.

"Sorry, but those bags under your eyes don't lie. Drink your coffee," Shelly said, and Denise obeyed.

"Thanks," she said, savoring the drink. "I didn't get enough sleep last night."

"Hopefully it's because after all these years, you took my advice and got a man in that bed of yours."

"I hate to disappoint you, but it's not the case."

"I'm sorry to hear that. It's the only thing worth having those bags for."

"You're going to give me a complex. Tell me you have concealer or something in your purse."

 "Sure do!" Shelly smiled, walking behind the counter to stand in front of Denise. "I'll fix you right up. I always say makeup isn't for you, but a little can't hurt. Hey, I like this! With you sitting, I'm taller than you."

"Ha," Denise said, closing her eyes. She felt Shelly rubbing concealer under her eyes, then eye shadow going on her lids.

"A little mascara now, look up," Shelly said in a soothing voice, and Denise did as she was told. "Whoa is me!"

"Huh?" Denise asked, eyeing her friend who held onto the mascara while looking out the big glass window of the shop. Denise groaned when she realized it was Alex outside the bookstore that had Shelly flustered.

"That is a beautiful man! You're going to have to hold me back, girl, remind me I'm engaged!" Shelly dramatically held her hand to her heart, taking deep breaths.

Denise laughed. "You don't want him," she said right before Alex walked in.

"You are wrong about that," Shelly muttered, looking him up and down shamelessly.

"Hello, ladies," he said in amusement. "Is this beauty hour?"

"Why? Do you want to be next? I can fix you right up," Shelly said enthusiastically.

"I came in for a book, but I'm a little oily today. Got anything for that?" he asked, and Denise rolled her eyes.

"Actually, I do," Shelly said, smiling wide. "Come around here, I'll take care of all your problem areas."

"You shouldn't even be back here, Shelly, so scoot," Denise said, pushing her away.

"No need to shove, I'm leaving," Shelly said, throwing the lip gloss at her. "Put this on, honey," she added. Denise felt her face flush but did as she was told, if only to keep her hands busy.

"Hi, Shelly, I'm Alex," he said, holding out his hand when he realized Shelly was coming straight for him.

"My goodness, you are tall!" Shelly exclaimed, not letting his hand go after shaking it. She looked him up and down slowly, and Denise stifled a sigh. Her friend really was shameless. "Tell me something, Alex."

"What's that?" he asked as he tried to break free of her grasp.

"Is this a gym body?" Shelly asked him, squeezing his arm. Denise wanted to disappear. The man was gorgeous to be sure, especially then, in a pair of blue jeans and a gray shirt. The casual look suited him well. Still, she couldn't imagine touching a perfect stranger, since that's what he was to both Shelly and herself.

"Excuse me?" Alex was asking.

"You work out, don't try to be modest here," Shelly cooed.

"I wasn't," he said, and Denise smiled at him. "I don't go to a gym. No time to."

"Mmm hmm. So, what? You run? Play basketball? Swim?" the ever-persistent Shelly asked.

Denise rose from her chair, grabbing some books off the counter that needed to be put away. To her surprise, Alex broke from her friend's grasp and grabbed Denise's arm as she walked by.

"Sorry," he said, pulling his hand away from her as quickly as he'd put it there. "Sorry. I came in for a book."

Denise looked at Shelly, who was idly rummaging through her purse a few feet away. "You finished yours already?" she asked, looking back at him.

"I'm halfway through mine. I'm here for my mom today, she's feeling sick-"

"Oh, no, I hope everything is okay," she said, interrupting him before she could stop herself.

"Definitely," he said, smiling. "She's a little under the weather, but she told me there's a book that should be here, part of a series she's been reading. She said you would know what it is because she thought I would forget, which I did."

  Denise smiled. "Yes. She's reading the Lanie Anderson series, and she's been excited about the newest addition to it. Unfortunately, there was an unexpected delay this week, but it will be here later today."

"Okay, I can come back." He flashed an impressive smile, and she felt her face flush. She was thankful for Shelly walking over to them.

"What are you two talking about over here?"

"I have to go," Alex blurted, moving past Shelly.

"That's too bad," Shelly sighed.

"Sorry, I have some errands to run. It was nice to meet you, Shelly. I'll see you around three? Do you think that'll be a good time?" he asked, looking at Denise.

"Yes. See you then."

"What was that about?" Shelly asked with a sly smile as soon as he was out the door.

 "Nothing," Denise insisted. "A book, so get your mind out of the gutter."

"How can your mind not be in the gutter when it comes to that man? Wowzah!" Shelly fanned herself, and Denise laughed.

"I don't like him. Do I need to remind you of something?" she asked, grabbing Shelly's left hand and looking pointedly at her engagement ring.

"Aww, Denise, you're no fun! I'm goofing around is all. You know it's harmless flirting, right? I would never cheat on Kyle."

"I know," Denise said, then she remembered an idea she had. "Hey, can you do lunch later? There's something I need to talk with you about."

"Sure, I'll be back at two for your late lunch," Shelly said, waving as she walked out the door.

Denise headed to the romance section to return the books she still held in her hands when she heard the chime above the door. She turned, thinking it would be Shelly but was surprised to see a tall redhead instead. The woman was literally jaw-dropping, as Denise couldn't seem to get out a proper greeting. She was in actual awe of the woman standing before her in a flowy white dress, her long hair halfway pinned up in a flowered clip. Denise's first thought was that there was no way she could ever pull off the look, but the woman wore it effortlessly. If the lady had a halo over her head, Denise wouldn't have questioned it. Denise's second and more annoying thought was being glad Alex already left before glimpsing the woman.

"That was a stupid thought," Denise said out loud, her face flushing when she realized it. She found her voice, at least.

"Hello," the woman said to her, appearing unbothered by Denise's talking to herself. She flashed a dazzling smile that put her at ease.

"I'm sorry," Denise said, setting the books on a random shelf. "Can I help you?" 

 "Did you see the man that just left here?" the woman asked. "He's a treat for the eyes, don't you think? Oh, pardon me! I'm Grace."

"Hi," Denise said, unfazed that Alex must've seen her if she'd seen him. There was something about the woman that gave her a warm fuzziness that felt familiar and long since lost to her. Denise laughed at the thought and shook her head. She was being ridiculous.

"Who is he?" Grace asked, smiling innocently at her.

"A customer," Denise said, feeling an immediate friendship with the woman. "I barely know him."

"What a shame that is. He really is something."

"He was rude to me the other day," Denise said, almost as if she couldn't stop the words from escaping.

"I see." Grace walked through the bookstore, her green eyes seeming to notice everything around her.

"He apologized for it," Denise said, pulling her eyes from Grace. She found her beloved seat behind the counter and sat down.

"That's wonderful!" Grace exclaimed, walking to the door, looking happy as could be. "That's a great start."

"I'm sorry?" Denise questioned, more curious than ever by the woman. "Can I help you find something?"

"You've helped me more than you know," Grace said, flashing a mega-watt smile before leaving the store. Denise hardly knew what to think, but she felt better than she had in a long time, so she wasn't about to question the oddness of it all.

 

******

 

Lake Somerset was a big reason Alex missed Rockford. He had many fond memories of the place growing up, coming with his mom on rare days she got a day off. They would spend those days fishing and swimming, sometimes barbecuing with her work friends and their kids. He sighed, sitting on a bench and eating his deli sub. He was trying to get Denise out of his head, to no avail. He still couldn't believe the woman he had a run in at the restaurant was the same one from the bookstore. The difference in appearance was astounding.

He'd seen her walk into Claudine's with a couple the week before, recognizing her friend Shelly as one half of that couple. He hadn't been able to take his eyes off Denise as she walked to the table across the room from his. Damn, that dress! It clung to her body in all the right places, but there was something else that caught his attention, something in her demeanor when she walked to her table. She was nervous, maybe, unsure of herself in that dress, though she had no reason to be. She was one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. Later, when she bumped into him outside the restrooms, he was struck again by her beauty. Unfortunately for her, he'd been having a rough few months and took his anger out on her. He only meant to excuse himself and keep walking, but their eyes had locked on each other for a second, and he could sense she was as attracted to him as he was to her. His idiotic brain chose that moment to let some of the anger he felt over the past few months burst out. He felt guilty about it all weekend, even though he never thought he would see her again. He assumed she would always be a woman in a little black dress he was rude to once outside a bathroom.

But he'd seen her twice at the bookstore by then, and he knew the way she dressed there was more the norm for her. Both times, she wore an oversized sweater and if he hadn't seen her in that dress, he wouldn't have known what a great figure she had.

He remembered the way she looked at him only an hour before, when he grabbed her arm trying to escape her friend. He regretted it instantly. Something about the way her dark eyes looked up at him in surprise, he knew she didn't want him touching her. Even though he knew she must hate him, he wondered if she had someone in her life.

He shook his head, trying to erase her from his thoughts. The last thing in the world he needed to be thinking about was a shy woman from a bookstore. He started thinking about her petite friend then, Shelly. Her small appearance reminded him of Wendy, his girlfriend of the past two years. His ex-girlfriend now.

 Damn it, Wendy! he thought, not for the first time since everything happened. He couldn't believe he had to resort to running back home to his mother. Wendy Clark had been the woman of his dreams when he met her two years earlier. She was petite and pretty, with dark blonde hair and big green eyes. He'd been so attracted to her that he followed her around anywhere she wanted. When she decided they should move in together six months after they met, he was happy about it. Six months after that, when she thought he should get his own apartment and give her the space she needed to focus on her dancing, he agreed. It was a hassle but he loved her, and he did whatever it took to prove that to her. She still let him come over some nights after he got off work from Sam's Bistro, where he was an executive chef. He was always happy to give her the space she needed, he knew she worked hard. He dealt with all her moods, all the ups and downs of being in the competitive world of dance. He fully supported her when she became a dance instructor, even through her mood swings that came from the decision. She eventually realized teaching was what she wanted to do in life, and he was the one who held her hand through it all, yet...

He stood up to throw his sandwich wrapper in the trash. He wouldn't let his mind go there again. He'd wasted too much time on it already, wondering if there was anything he could've done differently. None of it mattered. What's done was done. And here he was, back in his hometown, back at the lake he loved as a child. He'd run away from it all, and he knew he couldn't stay here forever, no matter how much he loved Rockford or missed his mom. Soon, he would have to go back to Chicago and fix his broken life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

 "Are you serious?" Shelly squealed, clapping her hands excitedly. "You're going shopping? I'm so thrilled, you have no idea."

Denise had locked up the bookstore for her lunch break, and she and Shelly were sitting on the bean bag chairs in the kid's section at the back of the store. They'd already eaten tuna sandwiches Shelly brought over from the deli down the street and had time before Denise needed to reopen. "Okay," Denise laughed. "Try not to get too excited, remember I said I want to do this on a budget. I don't want to go too crazy, but I realized you were right and I want to make my place homier."

"Believe me, everything in my house was on a budget. I'm not rich either, honey."

"Do you know where I can go? I want to make it nice, but I want something that's still me."

"For sure. You've seen Chic and Cozy, right, in the strip mall?" 

"Mmm," Denise nodded. "Never been inside, though."

"If you let me take you shopping more often, you would have. I swear, if it's not groceries, you just don't do it. It's supposed to be in a woman's blood to want to shop."

Denise laughed. "Not everyone can enjoy shopping as much as you do. Besides, I haven't had any reason to lately."

"You had reason, believe me!"

"Thanks," Denise said sarcastically.

"I'm sorry, honey. I didn't mean it to come out like that," Shelly said, leaning over in her bean bag chair to pat Denise's arm.

"I'm ok," Denise said, smiling. "You're right, it's why I agreed to do this. We can meet at the strip mall when I get off, right?"

"Sounds good. Hey, listen," Shelly said, turning serious. "There's something I wanted to ask you, but it might be a little awkward."

"What's up?" 

 "I wondered if all my talk of the wedding... I was hoping it hasn't been making you uncomfortable."

"What?" Denise asked, suddenly nervous.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…"

"It's okay," Denise said, shaking off her nerves. "I cut you off the other night on the subject of Benny, so I understand. Shelly, I'm happy for you. Love might be lost for me, but I'm glad you found your guy. You can talk and plan the wedding as much as you want around me, I'm fine with it. More than fine."

"Do you really mean it?"

"I do," Denise said, smiling.

"I'm asking because I want you to be my maid of honor. I figured it would be implied, but I had to ask to be on the safe side," Shelly said expectantly.

"I would love to!" Denise exclaimed, getting misty-eyed. They both leaned over in their funny little chairs to hug, laughing.

"I'm so happy, you have no idea. I want you to be happy, too," Shelly said as they pulled away from each other. "Love doesn't have to be lost to you, you can have it again. I know you can."

 Denise shook her head. "I can't go through it all again. Besides, it's not like I have any prospects."

"You might have at least one," Shelly said with a knowing smile.

"What are you talking about?" Denise asked, confused.

"I think you know. That cutie that was in here before, Alex."

"Ha! You really are crazy," Denise said as she got out of the bean bag chair, ignoring the flip flop of her stomach at the mention of Alex. The thought of Grace earlier came unbidden. For whatever reason, she seemed to like the idea of her with Alex. She didn't exactly say those words, but that was the impression she'd left on Denise. She briefly wondered if she would ever see the intriguing woman again. "It's time for me to open the store back up."

"Don't think you're getting out of this conversation," Shelly laughed, rising from her chair. "I saw the way you two were looking at each other before."

"We weren't looking at each other any kind of way," Denise protested, waving her friend off. She felt herself flushing thinking of Alex standing tall in front of her, flashing his brilliant smile that nearly made her stagger.

"Yes, you were," Shelly teased as they walked back to the front of the store.

"If he was looking at anyone, I'm sure it was you. You're the one with the glow."

"Don't give me that! He had eyes only for you, even as I was groping him."

"Yeah, what was up with you doing that?" Denise asked, unlocking the door and changing the sign over.

"Are you judging me, Denise? You know I love Kyle, but did you see that man's chest? How about those arms, oh my!" Shelly exclaimed, fanning herself. "Come on, he's drop dead gorgeous! Even you have to see it!"

"I noticed nothing," Denise said, feeling her face flush.

"She says while she's blushing! You noticed, alright!"

"Get out!" Denise laughed, pushing her friend out the door.

"You don't have to admit it, but I know. I know," Shelly teased. "See you after work."

"Bye!" Denise propped open the door to enjoy the breeze and waved Shelly off. She was still smiling as she walked back to the table, looking around, wondering what she could do. Lucky for her, the delivery guy came shortly after with a shipment of new books to sign for, and she hated to admit to herself how excited it made her.

As she exchanged some of the books in the display window, Denise noticed Alex stepping out of a Jeep Wrangler in front of the store. He was much too good looking! For a brief second, she wondered what it would be like to run her hands along his arms as Shelly had done earlier. He caught her off guard by spotting her through the window and waving, and suddenly she felt silly hunched over as she was. When she stood up, she knocked over the small table she'd just placed a book on, which knocked over the other two tables inside the window. Why always so awkward, woman! she thought with a groan.

"Let me help you with that," Alex said, rushing in.

"That's okay," she said, but he was already beside her and picking up some of the books. He smiled over at her, and she felt her cheeks flush even more.

"You are a jumpy person, aren't you?" he asked, grinning at her.

"Usually not so much," she said, taking the books out of his hand and resetting them on the tables, feeling shakier than she liked.

"Any of these for me?"

"Excuse me?" she croaked out, her mind fully on his nearness and the smell of his cologne.

"The book for my mom?"

"No, she doesn't like hardback, thinks the paperbacks are much easier to read."

"I knew that," he said with a boyish grin that was not lost on her.

"I set one aside for her already," she said, walking to the register with Alex following close behind. Once they had the counter between them, she felt much more at ease. Settle down, he's just a guy, she told herself. A guy with a grin to knock one's socks off but a guy nonetheless.

"I want to apologize," he said, taking her by surprise.

"For what?"

"For running out like I did earlier. I keep doing that, it seems."

"You don't have to explain anything to me."

"It felt rude."

Denise looked down at her hands, unsure what to say, finding it hard to look at him. She thought she noticed a little sadness in his blue eyes and damn it if she didn't want to give him a big hug. That is, if she were the kind of person who gave hugs. "That's okay," she said, giving him a reassuring smile.

"It seemed the other day you had a Miss Manners thing going on-"

"Excuse me?" she interrupted defensively.

"It seemed to bother you that I could be rude to a stranger. Like it was the end of the world or something."

"Do you mean the way you yelled at me in the restaurant for accidentally bumping into you?"

"Crashing into me, don't you mean?" he asked, but there was laughter in his voice and she felt herself soften.

"Wow," she said, shaking her head. "Guess you're not going to let that one go, are you?"

"I don't think I can."

"Watch where you're going," she said, mocking his voice as best she could from the restaurant incident. "Now, that was rude."

"You do a great impression of me," he said, laughing.

 "I'm very talented," she said, smiling back at him. Was she flirting with someone? Someone she didn't even like? Was this flirting? She hardly knew anymore.

"Good to know," he said in a way that made her knees want to buckle.

Not knowing what else to do, she reached under the counter and grabbed the book she'd set aside for Ms. Evans. "I'm sure your mom is waiting for this, so..."

"Yes," he said, grabbing his wallet from his back pocket.

"Would you like anything else?"

"No. Thanks, though."

"Mmm hmm," she murmured as she rang up his total. "Tell your mom I hope she feels better soon."

"Will do." He stood staring at her for the briefest of seconds after he paid before waving and walking out the door. She forced herself not to turn and watch him drive away.

What had gotten into her? She wasn't the flirty type, she never had been. Especially with someone like him. She knew he was only being charming suddenly because he didn't want her to be mean to his mom when she came into the store. Which, she could admit was kind of sweet of him. But, no! She would not fall for it, she would not feel flushed anymore when he came in or let her shyness get the better of her. He was heartbroken, and if he wanted to flirt with her to get over that or to kill time because he was bored, she wanted no part of it. She was no rebound woman. She wasn't any kind of woman, really, not in the dating world at least. She hadn't been for a long time.

 

******

 

"Are you going to say it or am I going to have to pry it out of you?" Shelly asked as they lugged the rest of the many bags into Denise's house.

"Say what?" she asked, teasing her friend.

"Tell me you had fun!" Shelly practically shouted.

Denise set her bags on the living room floor, laughing at Shelly's dramatics. "Okay, I admit it. I had fun. A lot of fun."

"I'm so glad! You got so much good stuff. We're going to have so much fun putting everything up."

"Not tonight, right? I'm so tired, I could pass out any second," she said, collapsing on the couch.

"I guess! Only because you didn't sleep well last night and because you took a major step by getting everything. Tomorrow night? Oh, I work tomorrow, so I can't. But you have to promise me you'll do it."

"I will," Denise insisted. "Lock the door on your way out, please."

"On it. Get a good sleep," Shelly said as she shut the door behind her.

 Denise looked at all the bags around her and smiled. She really did have fun buying everything. Good old-fashioned fun. She'd almost forgotten what it was like. Just thinking of decorating her house put her in a good mood, a mood that felt foreign to her for so many years. Before she knew it, she was hanging up her new blue curtains. After that, she was in the bathroom changing out her shower curtain, then putting all her knick-knacks on shelves. A while later, the walls had pictures on them. Pictures of beaches and pretty flowers, and pictures of mountain tops all in different rooms throughout the house. Suddenly, it was three a.m. and she was passing out on her new tan and blue comforter. For the first time in a long time, she went to bed without a deep longing in her heart. She was much too tired for that.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

 "You let her see you!" Victor roared, barging into Grace's room. She'd been looking out the window, admiring the view before her. She slowly turned, taking a deep breath as she faced him. She could almost see the fire blazing in his dark eyes.

"Hello, Victor," she said calmly. "It's been a few days."

"Am I the only Paragon around here with any sense?" he bellowed. "Do you all feel the need to go around letting humans and the like see you?"

"I have to wonder if you've been spying on me, Victor," Grace said, and she smiled at his taking a deep breath to calm himself. She really had missed him and his fierce ways. He was not the only Anger Paragon that lived in Star Dania, but he was the oldest and her favorite. He was the only one of them who could truly control the constant fury inside him. She trembled, remembering what it felt like to have his anger inside of her. She'd been jealous of his love for another and it had gotten the better of her. She flipped her emotions from love to hate far too easily because of it, and it scared her to no end. She faced the window again, looking out at the splendor before her. She never tired of the lush grounds of Star Dania, and her room had a fantastic view of the lake surrounded by trees. She would rather look at it than Victor's handsome face.

"You don't want to see me, I understand that, but I can't pretend I don't worry about you, Grace. You haven't been the same since..."

"Since Charity left?" She finished his thought, facing him. "It's only been a couple months, Victor. She was a human and married in the blink of an eye. Am I not allowed any time to mourn the loss of it? I'm glad she's happy in her human life, but she was like a daughter to me. I miss her."

"I know you do," he said, his rage subsiding. "Do you think it's worth the risk, I wonder, getting involved with someone like your widow? It's one thing to throw yourself into your work, but to let yourself be seen..."

"It's not the first time I've done it, it won't be the last. What's come over you? It isn't as if Denise will automatically assume I'm a Paragon. She wouldn't have a clue of our existence. Even if she did, I would make her forget."

"I know," he said, pacing.

"What's going on?" She watched him move, noticed how his white shirt clung to his tan skin. He always wore a buttoned shirt untucked with black slacks perfectly fitted for his muscled form. Watching him made her want to sigh in pleasure. She almost gasped when he stopped pacing to face her, his stormy eyes looking her up and down slowly. She folded her arms across her chest, hoping he didn't notice how heavy she was breathing.

"I thought," he said, shaking his head and looking away from her.

"Thought what?"

"I was afraid you had a desire to turn... to be..."

"What?" She resisted the urge to go to him, to pull him in her arms. "To be a human?" she croaked out.

"Yes." He faced her, and she saw torment flash in his eyes. "I can't lose you, Grace. Not you, too."

"Victor," she said, disappointed. He was sad about Charity, it was always about her for him. She didn't fault him for it, but for once she would like to be something other than the sweet and loving Grace. She wanted to be seen as more than his friend. "I'm not Charity. I was never a human, so I could never be one. You know that. I haven't a clue why this conversation is happening. I need Denise in my life right now. Work will help get me through this. She's important, she gives me purpose. I think she needs me, too."

"She never felt the anger after the loss of her husband. She might need me." 

"You looked in her memories?" Grace asked, irritated. "She's my job, Victor."

 "I know," he said, walking towards her before stopping himself. She was glad for it. "We can help her together."

"No," she said, adamant. "Denise doesn't need you. This is a job for a Love Paragon. There's already someone who has potential."

"The treat for the eyes guy, right?" he scoffed. "He's no good for anyone right now."

"What do you know about it?"

"I know what I know," he said casually.

"I don't have time for this, Victor. Leave the humans to me. I don't need your help, I don't want it."

"Is that how you feel?" he asked, hurt. She pushed aside the guilt and remembered he was no good for her. She was obviously too eager to lose control when he was around, and that was no good for anyone.

"We can't keep doing this, you know it."

"I miss you, Grace. Surely we can work through this. You've been in my life for a thousand years."

"You forget I'm older. So, really it is you that has been a part of mine for so long. You forget, too, we've only really been friends for about seven of those years. You didn't want to handle my emotions before that."

"It is a lot to handle." He smiled, something he didn't do often enough, and she yielded slightly.

"I'll let you know if I need your help with Denise."

"Thank you!" he said, excited. "I should go before you change your mind."

"Victor, wait!" she called, and he faced her. "Stop spying on me, please."

"I'll see what I can do," he said before walking out her bedroom door. She sighed, picking up the book she was reading earlier with little hope of being able to concentrate on it.

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 Monday morning came much too soon for Denise. For the first time in a long time, she wished someone else worked at the bookstore on the weekdays to cover for her. There had never been a reason for it, knowing Sandra or her husband would go in if she couldn't. The place wasn't busy enough to have more employees than herself, at least not without cutting her hours. So, she dragged herself out of bed. An hour later, she found herself at the bookstore, too tired even after two cups of coffee to wonder how she would get through the day. She regretted staying up late the night before, rearranging furniture and moving pictures around. 

By two, she was more than ready to take a break. She'd been going through the motions all day it seemed, straightening books on shelves and dusting and wiping down tables that were already clean. She was half tempted to lock up and take a cat nap on one of the bean bag chairs, but she was too scared she wouldn't wake up in time. As she locked up to go to the coffee shop, she noticed Alex pulling up in front of the store. She hadn't seen him since the week before, but he'd been on her mind since their last flirty encounter. She gave him a small smile and waved.

"I promise I'm not stalking you," he said laughingly as a greeting when he reached her.

"What's up?" she asked, ignoring the butterflies in her stomach.

"Big surprise, my mom needs a book. She's not feeling well again, and she finished the other one last night."

"I'm sorry to hear it, I hope she feels better. It's not the flu, is it?" she asked, concerned.

"Not at all. She just says she's feeling under the weather and pushes me away any time I try to check for a fever. She wants me to do all her bidding, I imagine. Trying to get back at me for all those times I never called her back," he said guiltily.

Denise smiled. "Good. I'm sure you deserve it."

"I see how it is," he laughed, then shrugged. "I guess I do, though. It looks like you're closing for lunch, I always do that to you."

"I can open back up if you'd like, so you can pick out a book for her."

"What's that?" he asked, amusement in his voice. "Was Denise Campbell just nice to me? I don't know how to act right now. My mom told me your last name, by the way."

"I noticed," she said, feeling flushed. "And no need to act so surprised about me doing you a favor. I'm nice."

"I'm sure you are," he said hoarsely, his blue eyes smoldering. Heat rushed through her body, and she stifled a moan. He cleared his throat. "You should have your lunch break. I'll come back."

"Don't be silly," she said, already unlocking the door, if only to turn away from him, however briefly. "I was just going to grab a sandwich and coffee anyway, no big deal. I'm tired today," she added without meaning to.

"Late night?" he asked, following her inside.

"Can't take the chance of someone else coming in behind you," she said, ignoring his question and locking the door. "Does your mom have a particular book in mind?"

"Your pick. If you don't mind, at least."

"I can do that," she said, walking to the romance section with him close behind. "I'm sure I can remember what she has already."

"She likes you a lot," he said, leaning against a shelf of romance novels, watching her while she pretended not to notice. "I wouldn't be surprised if she's faking this whole sickness thing to play matchmaker."

She looked up at him, having no choice since he was so tall. Damn if he didn't look gorgeous as ever with his arms folded across his chest, smiling that charming smile. She wished she could control her blushes and fought the urge to get lost in his blue eyes. She forced herself to focus on the books in front of her. "She definitely has that one," she said aloud to herself, looking back at him when he laughed.

"You're going to ignore me today?"

"Impossible to do since you're a ridiculous presence these days," she answered more gloomily than she intended.

"A ridiculous presence!" he repeated with a loud laugh that made her jump. "You're always so nervous."

"No," she said as she feigned interest in the books again, unable to concentrate on any of the titles as his body inched closer.

"Yes," he said, and she shook her head. "What do you mean by that?"

"You're too tall and always here. How tall are you, anyway? It's ridiculous," she repeated, trying to inch away to no avail. He only followed her, wearing a boyish grin that set her nerves on edge.

"Six-three. Why do I make you nervous, Denise?"

"You don't," she said, breathless.

"I think I do," he said, so close now. She thought for a second he would touch her face, but he ran his fingers down the spine of a book instead. She focused on those fingers far too long, mesmerized by them. What was wrong with her, she couldn't say. Damned if she didn't want to feel those fingers running through her hair, or along her neck, or watch them pulling off her sweater to caress her skin. Oh boy! She giggled out loud, actually giggled, realizing her own fingers were pressed against her lips. She shook her head and turned away.

"You have a sexy laugh," he said, his voice husky. She grabbed a book, any book would do, and thrust it at him.

"I can't for the life of me remember if she has this one," she said nonchalantly, as if her body wasn't on fire in desperate need of his touch.

"Oof," he said, still trying to recover from a book being flung at his chest. "I'm almost positive she does."

His eyes actually sparkle, she thought. This was a man who could charm anyone, she suspected, with those smoldering eyes, with that deep voice and irresistible smile. He belonged on one of these romance covers, he belonged on some billboard for cologne. He did not belong in a locked bookstore in the romance section next to her mousy self. "You don't know," she said, trying to stay in the moment.

"I do. I saw it on her shelf this morning." He smiled a smile that brightened his eyes, and she knew he was lying but she wasn't sure enough to call him out on it. She couldn't believe for a second this man would be flirting with her, then just as quickly remembered he had a broken heart. She had no intention of being a rebound, no matter how flushed he made her feel.

"Take this one instead," she said with more irritation than she intended, thrusting another book at his chest.

"Would you stop doing that?" he asked, grabbing for it but dropping the other one he was holding.

"Sorry," she said, going for the dropped book at the same time as he did and bumping heads with him. They kneeled on the floor, their eyes locked for a long moment before he asked her if she was okay. When she nodded her assent, he stood up and reached for her hand. "I've got it," she said, getting up without his help.

"Here you go," he said, sounding as nervous as she felt when he handed the books over to her. "I'll take them both and hope she likes them."

"I'm sorry," she said, trying to concentrate on the titles instead of his face. "I was rude just now, I'm sorry."

"It's okay," he said distractedly, running his fingers through his brown hair.

"No, it's not. I'm not myself today at all, I didn't sleep well last night..." Her voice trailed off, and she turned and walked to the cash register. She was already ringing him up by the time he reached her.

"I'm sorry, too," he said after paying. She handed him his bag, looking into his soft blue eyes. "I haven't been myself lately, either."

"Tell your mom I said hi, and I hope she feels better," she said, smiling.

 "I will." He waved as he walked out, and she suddenly had an odd feeling she might not see him for a long time, if ever.

 

******

 

Alex stretched his long legs out on the bed in the room his mom had kept for him all these years, his mind racing. Damn if Denise wasn't the most frustrating woman he ever met! None of his charms seemed to work on her. He didn't know what he'd been thinking flirting with her, anyway. He knew his smile charmed many a heart, even when he was with Wendy, though he never acted on the harmless flirting that always seemed to come his way. He smiled, thinking about Denise asking him how tall he was. She was attracted to him, he knew. It was her fighting the attraction that had him intrigued.

He realized when he was with her, he didn't think of Wendy. Denise was so different from the fiery little dancer. Wendy had a hold on his heart far longer than he liked to admit. He lost a lot of sleep the last few months as memories of their life together raced through his mind. Not that long ago, he was thinking of ways to propose to her, and it was mind-boggling to him now. He groaned, feeling embarrassed that they'd been in such different places emotionally.

He shook his head, trying to push the thoughts of his past away. He wished Denise was with him now, cuddled up next to him. He would love to make her smile and hear that laugh again. She had the most expressive face. He smiled, thinking of her staring at his fingers on that book earlier, while he couldn't take his own eyes off her pretty face. Her fingers had been pressed against her lips and her dark eyes held a dreamy gaze. He would've given anything to kiss her then, even more so after she giggled nervously. It had to be the sexiest sound he ever heard. He tried to be charming, anything to hear her laugh again, but nothing seemed to work. When they both reached down to get the books she threw at him, it took everything in his power not to pull her in for a kiss. He doubted he would ever be able to stop kissing those full, incredible lips.

 Not that he stood a chance with someone like Denise. He knew without knowing why that those oversized sweaters she wore were some sort of armor for her. She might as well be screaming to all who passed she was off limits to anyone. There was also something in her expressive face that practically begged him to keep his distance. Even when he tried to charm her, his brain was screaming at him not to get too close. When they were kneeled on the floor staring into each other's eyes, he saw fear and sadness in hers. He knew without her having to say a word that somehow, someway, her heart was broken. He knew he couldn't flirt with her anymore, wouldn't even try. He was being selfish doing so anyway, knowing he would be going back to Chicago soon.

 

Chapter Nine

 

 Denise just finished eating dinner alone at her house Wednesday evening when Shelly called. "This will probably be the dumbest question I ever ask you," Shelly said as a greeting.

"What's that?" Denise asked as she rested her head against the couch and closed her eyes.

"Will you come to the bar tonight?"

"Seriously?" she asked, laughing.

"Don't laugh, Denise. I need you here!"

"I'm afraid to ask why," she groaned. Shelly was using her pleading voice, and that voice always got its way.

"Because your boyfriend just walked in with a few guys."

"Who are you talking about?" Denise ignored the irritating heart trying to beat out of her chest since she knew full well who Shelly meant.

"Listen, I'm not supposed to be on the phone right now. I'm pretending to clean the women's bathroom, so I don't have time for you to act like you don't know I'm talking about Alex. You remember- that tall, beautiful man that can set off any smoke alarm when he walks into a room. Oh my, he is good looking! I would have to stand on a step stool to kiss him, but I would do it."

"Focus, Shelly!" Denise laughed. "Even if Alex is in your bar, what does that have to do with me?"

"Because, Denise! You should've seen it when he walked in, every woman in here had to wipe the drool from their mouths! His friends were nothing to sneeze at but all eyes were on Alex, that's a fact. You need to get up here, now!"

"There is no way I'm coming there, Shelly! Alex is single as far as I know and I have no interest, no desire whatsoever for that man! What makes you think I care about all the women setting their sights on him?" Denise felt a flood of irritation, but she assured herself it was because of Shelly's persistence, not because she pictured Alex eating up the fact that every woman in the bar was after him. No, it was definitely because of Shelly. It didn't help that it had been a long day, and she wanted nothing more than to take a warm bath. "Besides, I work tomorrow and it's late."

"It's seven o'clock, Grandma! Get your butt up here or I'm telling you, one of these women is gonna steal him away! Sorry, ladies, but you saw him first."

 

******

 

 After much debating with herself, Denise settled on a pair of jeans and a plain white t-shirt with a gray sweater over it, more form fitting than her other ones. She put on lip gloss and mascara, telling herself all the while it had nothing to do with Alex. She needed to get out of the house, that was all. It would be nice to see Shelly at work, she'd always been curious what Randy's Bar looked like on the inside.

 She would only stay for a minute, she told herself when she arrived, taking calming breaths all the way to the door. As she reached for the handle, she shook her head. What was she thinking? She almost wanted to laugh. Before she could turn around and go back to her car, a couple walked out, almost hitting her with the door. They both apologized and held it open for her, leaving her no choice but to go inside.

I'll stay for a moment, just a moment, she thought to herself as she looked around for Shelly in the crowded room. The bar was decent, she observed, and clean. She liked the wooden tables and floors, she liked the music and the laid-back energy.

Shelly spotted her first, which was clear with the squeal she let out, and Denise laughed. "I never thought I'd see the day, never in a million years!" Shelly shrieked, pulling her in for a hug. "I knew it, I just knew it!"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said, blushing.

"Sure, you don't," Shelly teased, then gasped. "Denise! Your sweater isn't so bad tonight, and I won't say a word about the perfume or the makeup, I swear!"

"Thanks." She chuckled, gently pushing Shelly away. "Kind of busy in here for a Wednesday, huh?"

"Dollar beers tonight. Now, take off the sweater."

"Excuse me?"

"Take off the freaking sweater before I take it off you myself!"

"No," Denise said stubbornly, looking around to see if anyone was paying attention to them since Shelly wasn't exactly quiet. No one seemed to care.

"Take it off, Denise."

"I don't want to, that's why I chose to wear it. Besides, it's a little chilly in here," she said, hugging herself.

"It's always the perfect temperature in here, as you well know. Okay, I guess you wouldn't know that, but it is a fact. Come, I found you a seat," Shelly said, grabbing Denise's hand and pulling her to an empty table in the middle of the room.

"I don't want to sit here," she said as Shelly pulled a chair out, practically pushing her into it. "There's one in the corner over there."

Shelly looked to where she was pointing and shook her head. "No one will see you there."

"I don't want to be seen," Denise pouted. "I suddenly forget why I came here."

"You and I both know why you came. Now, sit up straight and relax. Take off the sweater and show some of that cleavage. It won't kill you, I can promise you that. The worst that can happen is you have a little fun tonight. Be right back, I'll bring you a drink. I should get back to work, anyhow. What do you want?"

"A water is fine."

"Water? Really?" Shelly sighed.

"I'm driving."

"I'll bring you a water if you take off the sweater. Otherwise, it's a shot of tequila. I can always call someone if you drink too much." Shelly stood wearing the sternest expression Denise had ever seen, and she knew she had no choice. "Thank you. Hand it over so I can put it behind the bar for safe keeping."

"Fine, I guess," Denise said, defeated as she watched her friend walk away with what felt like her lifeline. She placed her hand on her necklace but the chain was long enough, even without the sweater. Suddenly feeling naked and very much out in the open, Denise realized she didn't know what to do now that she was there. It would be one thing if Shelly didn't have to work and they could have a girl's night, but that wasn't the case.

It wasn't until after Shelly brought her the water with apologies she had to get back to work when Denise realized Shelly had placed her directly across from Alex. He was hunched over a pool table on the other side of the room, ready to make a shot. Confound it! Did he have to look better in a black shirt and blue jeans than anyone else ever could? A group of women practically swarmed together behind him. The man had actual groupies! What in the world was she doing here? She wasn't the least bit interested in any man, now or ever again. Love was long gone to her or anything resembling it.

"Not you, too?" she heard a man's voice ask, right when she was thinking about going home sans sweater.

 "Excuse me?" she asked, looking up to see a handsome blonde smiling at her.

"I saw you looking at the guy playing pool over there. Half the guys in here lost their dates because of him."

"I hope you weren't one of them," she said, smiling.

"No. I don't think my ego could've handled it. Unless the prettiest woman in the room was looking at him just now. You being that woman," he added, and she laughed nervously.

"Thanks," she said tensely, never having been good with compliments. "I'm just people-watching, not paying attention to any one person."

"Cool. I'm Roger," he said, holding out his hand.

"Have a seat," she said, pulling out a chair instead of shaking his hand. "I'm Denise."

"Denise, are you a germaphobe?" he asked after he sat down beside her.

"I'm sorry?" she asked, amused by him.

"You didn't shake my hand."

"No. Sorry, I don't like doing that."

"Shaking hands?" he asked, crinkling his brows.

"Yes."

"Everyone is allowed their quirks, especially if the person has a smile as pretty as yours."

"Aren't you a charmer?" she asked, unsure what to make of him.

"Just honest. Do you play?" he asked, pointing at the pool tables. "There's a table open." Yes, and that table was right next to Alex and his friends.

"It's been a while," she answered honestly.

"That's okay." 

"Sure," she found herself saying, even though it was the last thing she wanted to do. In fact, all she wanted to do was rewind the clock so she wouldn't have answered Shelly's call that brought her there.

"Don't sound so excited," he said, smiling as he got out of his seat.

"I want to play. I'm just nervous, I'm not that great at it." What she wasn't great at was this. She didn't go into bars and invite strangers to sit down with her. She didn't play pool with them and have get-to-know-you conversations.

Alex was leaning against the wall and holding his pool stick, seemingly unaware of the three women vying for his attention. Oh, no. His eyes were only on Denise, and she rolled her eyes at the teasing smile she saw in them. She could almost swear he was baiting her, she just didn't know why. Well, she wouldn't take the bait. Instead, she followed Roger to the row of pool sticks and picked out her own, waiting patiently as he set up the game. She wouldn't even look in Alex's direction. It wasn't like he needed her attention.

"I'll break them," Roger said when the game was ready.

"Please do," she said, smiling at him.

"There's not much I wouldn't do for you, with a smile like that."

"Thanks." Did she hear Alex snort behind her? No matter, she thought, finding a chair beside their pool table. After seeing Roger's break, she knew it would be a while before she would get to play. She only had to ignore Alex's voice on the other side of her, and the incessant giggling from the women hanging on his every word.

They were halfway through the game, which Denise was suspiciously winning, when Alex walked over and put quarters down on their table, eyes locked on hers as he did so.

"What's this?" Roger asked icily. "You have a table, don't you?"

"Not anymore. My friends took over," Alex answered, waving in the direction of the table his friends and the three women were now using. Or not using, rather. More like hanging around it, with the women now hanging onto the guys Denise hardly noticed before. When had that happened?

"What if I win?" Roger asked, suspicion in his voice. "Would you still want to play?"

"I would," Alex said, flashing a killer smile in Denise's direction. She flushed despite herself.

"I bet," Roger said, unconvinced. "Still your turn, Denise."

"Denise, is it? What a pretty name. I'm Alex," he said, closing the short distance between them and holding out his hand.

"She doesn't shake hands," Roger was saying, defiance in his voice, but he sounded far away. Denise was mesmerized by the blue eyes staring so intently into hers.

"Really?" Alex asked sweetly, never breaking contact with her. She inched back, and she bumped into the table behind her. "It's okay, Denise. I promise I won't bite."

"It's my turn," she said, pushing past him. He grabbed her hand, taking her by surprise, and pressed his lips to her ear.

"You look beautiful," he whispered, and her heart fluttered against her will.

"No," she said before she walked back to the pool table. No, because he did not give her butterflies. No, because he did not send tingles vibrating through her body. No, because he was overconfident, and she never liked that in a man. She would lose this pool game so she didn't have to play with him.

She didn't lose. Even though she purposely missed her shots, Roger scratched the eight ball. Denise couldn't help but feel bad for him, as it was obvious he wanted to win terribly. He'd made himself too nervous and ended up sabotaging himself. His true colors shone right through when he ended up punching the wall and throwing a fit Shelly's six-year-old niece couldn't have pulled off. She didn't feel so bad for him anymore.

"I think someone has a few issues," Alex said as Roger went storming out of the bar.

"You're completely innocent in all this?" she scolded him.

"That guy was no good and you know it. You can do better than that, Denise."

"He was kind of nice! Until that fit anyway," she said with a small smile, trying to avoid his gaze.

"I don't think you found him attractive," Alex said while setting up the balls. 

"I'm not playing with you," she said, ignoring his comment.

"Why not?" He sounded disappointed. "I put my quarters on the table, and you won the game fair and square. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the rules, but it kind of means you have to play."

"I have to, huh?" she teasingly asked.

"He was right about one thing. You do have an amazing smile." So, he had been listening to her conversation with Roger before.

She cleared her throat. "Break 'em. Let's get this over with."

 "Just so you know, I won't let you win. It was clear that guy was going to let you have it before I came over."

"You were saving me from an ill-gotten win? Is that why you came over here?"

"Yeah, that's why," he laughed.

 "I guess I should thank you?"

"It would be the right thing to do." The boyish grin was on overdrive.

"Are you going to play the game or what?" she asked, then regretted it because he walked toward her, a swagger in his step. He stopped directly in front of her, their bodies very near to touching. The way he was looking at her, she half thought he would grab her shoulders and pull her in for a kiss.

"Not until you thank me," he said instead, his gaze intense. She sighed. This man took her breath away and with it, her sanity. "I'm waiting." His voice was teasing, flirting.

"I can't, please," she said suddenly, begging.

He shook his head, seeming to come out of a daze. "I'm sorry, Denise."

"No, I am," she said, taking a deep breath. "I don't know how to do this anymore."

"Do what?"

"Flirt, if that's what we're doing. I need some air."

"There are some tables out back, I'll walk you out. It's chilly, though."

"I left my sweater with Shelly," she said regrettably.

"I'll get it and you can meet me out there. How does that sound?"

 

******

 

"It was flirting," Alex told Denise after they settled on top of a blue picnic table outside of the bar. She almost wished he would wrap his arms around her. For warmth, of course. The night was chillier than the weatherman had let on, which was a good thing because they had the whole outside patio to themselves. Maybe that wasn't a good thing, she didn't know anymore. "At least on my end, it was."

"Really?"

"Yes, really," he said, bumping her shoulder with his own. "You're not as bad at it as you think you are."

"Are you sure?" she asked, unable to hide a blush.

"Positive. How long has it been for you?"

"Since I've flirted?"

"Since your breakup," he said, taking her by surprise.

"Why would you…"

"I assumed. You seem like you're trying to get over someone."

"It was a marriage," she said, unsure what else to say. It didn't seem like the time or place to tell him about Benny.

He bumped her shoulder with his own again and gave her a sweet smile. "I thought about doing that once."

"Getting married?" she asked, and he nodded. "I guess life never turns out the way we mean it to."

"You're right about that." They sat in comfortable silence for a while before he turned to face her. "I've been thinking of you a lot, ever since the bookstore the other day. I think about you all the time, honestly."                                                                           

"Alex," she breathed out, inching away from him.

"I know. I have no right to say that when I'm not in town long. I don't know how long ago your marriage ended or anything, but I can't seem to help myself. I like you, Denise, I'm curious about you. I'd like to know you better."

"Alex," she said again, standing up. "You don't understand. I'm a mess. I know people say that and it doesn't mean anything, but really. I'm a mess. Like you said, you're leaving soon so why even start this? If you're thinking about dating, I can't. I don't do that. Ever."

"Never?" he asked, surprised. He stood up and faced her. "I'll respect your privacy. I won't ask how long ago your marriage ended or why you feel the need to push me away every time you see me. We just met, I get it. I thought before I go home, we could have dinner. Lunch, a movie, a walk, anything. You can't go your whole life never going on a date, that doesn't make sense."

"It makes sense to me, Alex," she said, trying to ignore his hopefulness.

"Okay," he said, relenting. "Can I give you my number? In case you change your mind."

"I won't." She could barely remember what it was like to talk to someone on the phone, romantically at least. To make plans to go out, get a burger, watch a movie. Maybe even have a couple drinks in a quiet bar, laughing and flirting while playing darts or shooting pool. The thought of going back into the dating world, even just to dip her toes in the water with someone who was leaving town any day... the thought scared her to no end. "Thanks for the offer, though. Bye, Alex."

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

 Denise sat inside her car, not ready to leave. She was shaking, she couldn't believe it. It had been a long time since anyone asked her out or even asked for her number. In any romantic sense, she felt invisible for so long. Benny had been the only man interested in her, ever. She thought, had honestly thought, that no one could or would be interested again. She was okay with that. More than okay. Then an attractive and nice guy like Alex comes along and notices her. Despite her oversized sweaters, despite her aloofness. She didn't know what to think, what to do.

Really, she wanted to scream! She wanted to throw the same kind of tantrum she watched Roger throw earlier. She laughed, picturing him punching the wall before. It hadn't been funny at the time, he honestly scared her, but now she couldn't stop laughing about it. She laughed until she cried, she cried until she was sobbing. Ridiculously, uncontrollably, as she sat in her car in the parking lot of a bar. She hoped no one would come out and see her, yet she couldn't care less if they did.

This wasn't her life, this couldn't possibly be her life! Her life was a hundred miles away in Dallas, her life was four years before. It felt like an eternity ago and she cried for it, as she had too many times. She couldn't let it go, she didn't want to let it go.

"Hello," Shelly was saying, knocking on the window to Denise's Camry.

"I didn't see you come out," Denise said stupidly, her face hidden behind her hands. She dabbed at her eyes with her sweater before stepping out of the car. She felt Shelly's arms wrap around her neck and after a moment, she wrapped her own around Shelly. She couldn't remember the last time she hugged anyone, or even the last time someone touched her if she could help it. 

"What happened?" Shelly asked gently as they pulled away from each other.

"Shelly, I'm such an idiot!" Denise cried out. "You can't look at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like I'm a hideous mess and you feel sorry for me!" Denise cried, covering her face with her hands again.

"Don't do that. Here," Shelly said, prying her hands free. "I have a tissue."

"Thanks," Denise said, taking it and wiping her tears. 

 "I was worried about you, and you're still pretty."

"Yeah, right," Denise said, chuckling.

"Made you smile, at least. Do you want to tell me what happened? All the times I saw you tonight, you looked like you were enjoying yourself."

"I'm really tired." Denise dabbed her eyes with the tissue, busying herself more than anything.

"You were out here crying because you're tired?"

"Yes. I'm exhausted, really."

"I don't think I believe that. You need to talk to me, Denise. You never open up to me."

"You noticed that, huh?" she asked, attempting to laugh.

"It's not funny, I'm worried about you. When I saw Alex go back in alone, I hoped to still find you out here."

"Alex has nothing to do with this," Denise said stubbornly.

"Usually I would let that go, but not tonight." Shelly planted her hands on Denise's shoulders, forcing her to face her and make eye contact.

"Please, Shelly, I can't. Nothing matters, don't you see?"

"No, I don't see!" Shelly cried out, startling Denise. "You've become like a sister to me, but I never became one to you. I always felt, since I first met you, that we were supposed to be a part of each other's lives. I've let you into my home and my life and introduced you to all my friends and family. My sisters love you, Kyle loves you, my niece Tabby is always asking about you. Never once have you let any of us in! I've tried to ask you about Benny or anything about your life before I met you, but I get little to no response. Do you know how many hours I've logged onto the computer trying to find out more about you? And nothing! It's like you were a ghost or something, it's like you're a ghost right now. I can't understand it! Now you stand here and tell me nothing matters, Denise? Nothing matters?" Shelly was yelling now and Denise was shaking.          

"Shelly..." she said, her voice trailing off, unsure what to say. Everything Shelly said was true, all of it. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry, Denise. Just snap out of it! Because I can't do this anymore. I don't know what it will take to get you to stop walking around like a robot and going through the motions but never actually feeling anything. You've thanked me countless times for getting you to laugh again, for letting you in my life, but I have no idea what you're talking about when you tell me that."

"I had no idea you felt this way."

"I do. If tough love is what it is going to take, so be it. Call me when you're ready to talk, when you're ready to let people in. I have to get back to work."

"Okay," Denise whispered, choking back tears. She wanted to say more, but it felt as though her voice was broken. Shelly gave her shoulder a squeeze, then turned and walked away.

 

******

 

Grace watched Denise and Shelly from the parking lot, but she stayed invisible to them. She kept a safe distance, not wanting to influence their moods. It was important to her that their emotions were their own. Grace wouldn't be needed until after Denise went to sleep.

"I've been looking for you!" Hattie cried, appearing suddenly. Grace sighed. "The humans can't see me if that's what you're worried about."

"It isn't," Grace said, shaking her head. "Sorry for my irritation. I'm thinking."

"Do you need my help?" Hattie asked, looking at Shelly as she brushed past them unaware. Shelly shuddered and looked around her before rushing back into the bar. "I'm sure our emotions together are confusing."

"Yes," Grace said, chuckling. She looked over at Hattie, a Fear Paragon. She was tiny, with dark hair that looked forever windblown and dark eyes that darted every which way. Grace had seen her do amazing things for beings who needed a jolt of fear now and again. Hattie was powerful, and her own powers made her a nervous wreck most of the time.

"Do you need help?" Hattie asked again. Grace looked over to where Denise had been before, only to see her car was gone.

"My widow has enough fear going through life but thank you, Hattie. She also has a lot of sadness inside her, but the breakdown she just had might do her some good. Time will tell."

"A widow, you say?" Hattie asked, looking around. "Maybe Victor can help?"

 "Why should he?" Grace harrumphed. "If she hasn't felt much anger from it in the last few years, maybe she won't. It's not like Victor is the only one who works with the grief-stricken, Hattie. Furthermore, he never cares about the humans as much."

"Sorry," Hattie said, biting her nails ferociously. "I didn't realize it was a such a sore subject."

"It is not a sore subject!" Grace yelled before laughing. "Maybe it is. I'm sorry to take it out on you, dear."

"I'm here for ya. I know you like to avoid Victor, but he cares for you greatly. I see it every day."

"I fear he wants a replacement for Charity. He loves her so much. If anyone knows that, I do. He either wants to use me to get over it, whether it be through friendship or what, I don't know. That, or he needs someone to talk to about everything and it can't be me. Can you comprehend that?"

"I have no desire for love, no itching for a life mate," Hattie said, looking about. "I can at least grasp the idea of it. If I can do that, you should at least realize how much Victor cares for ya. He might love Charity, but he can't have her and he knows it. He has no choice but to move on. You've always been his rock and now he is denied your friendship. I only hope you will see it from his side. You are the Paragon of Love."

"Hmm," Grace murmured, eyeing her fidgety Paragon friend. "I guess I haven't looked past the pain I felt because of him, even if I'm the one who gave him that power."

"But he does not know it," Hattie pointed out. "While he can't forgive himself for flipping your loving side to hatred, on some level he believes it has to do with Charity falling in love with a human. He would never suspect it was also due to jealousy because you love him."

"Hattie!" Grace exclaimed, shocked.

"You think I didn't know? You are one of few to socialize with me, but that was mostly after Charity turned human. I might know more than all of you, strictly because I have no choice but to watch as an outsider."

"Hattie, I'm so sorry," Grace said, instinctively pulling her in a hug.

"I didn't mean anything by it," Hattie said, pulling away nervously. "I only meant to imply that it's not as if it's common knowledge, your love for him."

"That's good at the very least," Grace said, relief flooding through her. "Thank you. Is this the reason you were looking for me before? Because I feel I must get back to Denise. She's bound to be in bed soon."

"Are you going into her dreams?" Hattie asked curiously.

"I hadn't thought of that! I planned on working my powers on her. Do my jolt of love, Charity's favorite. As much as she didn't always care for romance, she was fascinated with my matchmaking." Grace chuckled, remembering her fondly. Maybe after her job with Denise was done, she would sneak in a quick visit with her.

"I miss her cheery ways. Good luck to ya tonight, whatever you do, Grace," Hattie said before disappearing back to Star Dania.

Grace closed her eyes and thought of Denise. When she opened them, she was in Denise's bedroom. She sat down on the bed beside her and placed her hands on Denise's upper chest. Grace thought of all the feelings Denise must've pushed down over the last few years since losing her husband. She would never be the same person, but it was possible to feel good again if she would allow herself.

 Grace realized Denise wasn't ready for her jolt of love. It wasn't time for her to open up to Alex in that way, but there was something else she could do. She pulled forth every good feeling she had inside her- all her love, courage and happiness- and waved her hands over Denise's sleeping form, washing the feelings over her. Denise smiled as she slept.

"Goodnight, Denise," Grace whispered before closing her eyes and willing herself back home.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

 Denise woke up feeling better than ever, causing her to do something she hadn't done in years. She called in to work. Luckily, Sandra was understandable, even happy about it. She told Denise she'd been waiting for years for her to call in and forbid her from coming back until Monday, with pay.

 When Denise hung up the phone, she realized she didn't know what she would do with her day or the next one. Or the day after that. She only knew she didn't want to be sad anymore. She didn't want to be bitter, missing a life that was long gone to her and never learning to love her new one. She thought of Alex and his flirty smile and it made her wonder about his heartbreak. She knew he was hurting, in a different way than she was, but hurting all the same.

It made her curious about the woman who broke his heart, and she hoped one day he would tell her that story. She realized she wanted Alex to be her friend. She didn't think she would ever want more than that but a friendship she could handle, even appreciate.

It made her think of Shelly. Their friendship was important to her. She spent the night before crying herself to sleep, turning Shelly's words around in her head over and over. She needed to talk to her before she went to work that evening, although she knew at this hour Shelly would probably still be asleep.

 She drank her morning coffee on the back porch, watching some squirrels playing in the yard. Then she took a shower and got dressed for the day, all the while knowing she had to get through each thing with more care than usual. She turned her music on full blast, trying to drown out the endless thoughts in her head. She took all but a couple sweaters out of her closet and threw them in a garbage bag. When she finished, she laughed at the realization that there weren't many clothes left in her closet. She grabbed her rainy-day fund stashed in the dresser drawer and loaded the shamefully large bag of sweaters in her car.

She drove into town with no true destination in mind until she came upon the strip mall and pulled in. She had never been much of a shopper, even in her former life. Probably the side effects of growing up with a single dad who hated shopping even more than she did.

One of the first shops was a clothing store that boasted sales forty percent off, so she walked inside. Luckily for her, it was an early enough part of the day and the place was almost void of people. It had always been the crowds keeping her from fully enjoying shopping. A sales lady greeted her and asked if she needed any assistance. Denise smiled, thinking the woman would probably regret the question. When it came to fashion, Denise was at a complete loss.

The saleslady proved helpful and an hour later, Denise was a few outfits richer and her rainy-day fund was quite a bit lower. She smiled as she loaded her bags into the trunk before walking to the nail salon a few shops down. She splurged, treating herself to a manicure and pedicure, getting her nails painted a deep red. Last stop at the strip mall was a hair salon that accepted walk-ins. She was the most nervous there since she spent the last four years trimming her split ends. For too long, styling her hair had been putting it in a loose braid and that was that. With some trepidation, she found a layered style in a magazine that would fit her just fine. The stylist proved to be a good one and afterward, Denise felt like a new woman and she left the salon with a smile on her face. With her jar empty, minus some dust and a few coins, she went home to try on her new clothes while listening to music.

 

******

 

Denise settled on a pair of blue jeans and a soft, form fitting green shirt. Her favorite buy, though, was the new wedge sandals that showed off her fresh-painted toenails. She fiddled with her necklace while she pondered ringing the doorbell. Her finger kept almost touching it before she would change her mind. It was back at the doorbell again when the door opened and Shelly stood there, looking bewildered.

"Who are you?" Shelly asked, a huge smile on her face.

"Hi, Shelly," Denise said, smiling back.

"I can hardly believe it!" Shelly squealed. "Turn around, you beautiful woman!"

"Stop it," Denise said but did a quick spin anyway, smiling all the while.

"I love it, I love it, I love it! The hair, the clothes, everything. Get your butt in here!" Denise laughed and followed her friend inside. "I'm not going to fret that you went shopping without me," Shelly said after they were seated on the oversized couch in her living room.

"I wondered if you would say something about that," Denise said with a laugh. "It was spontaneous, and I figured you would be sleeping."

"Probably, considering I just got ready for the day. For my work shift no less," Shelly pouted.

"I'm sorry. I can go."

"Don't you dare. I can afford to be late for once in my life."

"Aren't you always late?" Denise laughed.

"Yeah, well, whatever. I'm sorry about last night-"

"No," Denise interrupted, holding a hand up. "I came here to thank you for last night. Everything you said was true, Shelly. I also came to apologize. I haven't been the best friend I should've been, I know that."

"Not without reason. I shouldn't have pushed you like I did. I was frustrated because you were having an emotional breakdown- don't give me that look, you were- and still, you weren't going to tell me what was going on with you. But I could've been a better friend about it."

"You're a great friend," Denise insisted.

"Maybe, but you said you didn't want to talk about it, so I should've left it at that."

"Like you said, I never want to talk about anything emotional, so I can understand why you got so frustrated. You were right about everything you said."

"I know I was right," Shelly chuckled. "I'm only sorry I was so pushy about it."

"I'm glad you were. Look at me, Shelly! You can see my arms and feet!"

"I know, I never thought I'd see the day! It's sad that I'm so happy to see your feet!" Shelly said, and they both laughed.

"Today was good for me," Denise said, serious now. "I think it's because I did something for myself that was just for me. I liked getting pampered today, but I feel guilty."

"Why?" Shelly asked, scooting closer to her.

"Because I don't deserve it." Denise blinked several times, trying not to cry. She hadn't meant to say it, but the words slipped out.

"Why would you say that?" Shelly asked, her voice cracking.

"I don't know. I went to bed last night with the same ache in my heart that's there every day. I wake up feeling the same way, but this morning was different from all the others because of the words you said last night. Even though Benny is no longer here, I still am. It has taken everything in me all these years to get through another day. Sometimes to get through another hour or another minute. I'm here to ask for your help. Please help me, Shelly."

"I want to help you through this, I do. But, first..." Shelly's voice trailed off, and she looked nervous.

"What?" Denise asked.

"Start at the beginning. You need to tell me about Benny."

"You're already going to be late."

"Forget work. It can wait."

"Are you sure? We can talk about this another time."

"The moment is now," Shelly said, adamant.

"Okay," Denise said nervously. At first, she didn't know what to say, but then the words poured out. "I was always shy, as you may have guessed. In school, I always had crushes on boys but if any of them ever liked me back, they didn't say anything. I sure wasn't about to be the first to ask someone out. I was an only child, raised by a single dad, and we were all we had in the way of family. Still, I never wanted to ask him about that sort of thing. I never had a real date until after I graduated high school. I had a few dates with a few guys that never went anywhere. I was a struggling artist as they say, working as a waitress so I could pay my student loans back and for my small apartment. On my twenty-fourth birthday, I was out celebrating with some girlfriends when I met him. Ben Campbell, my Benny. The bar we were at was full of beautiful women, but he asked me to dance." Denise's eyes were getting misty, remembering.

"I'm not surprised!" Shelly practically squealed, breaking Denise from her train of thought. "You're gorgeous, but you act like you don't know it! I'd kill for all your curves and your dark, shiny hair. You don't even need makeup, with all your natural beauty."

"Stop that," Denise said, blushing. "I need it."

"No," Shelly insisted. "It would somehow take away from your eyes, they're very intense."

"That isn't the first time I've been told that," Denise said, then chuckled. "Wow, I didn't mean to sound conceited or anything," she added, and Shelly smiled.

"Let me guess, your Benny told you often?"

"He did. He always complimented me. He was the best," she said, voice breaking, but she was determined to go on. "Shelly, you would've loved him. He was so much like you in some ways. He was sweet and funny, he was fearless. I can picture him now, he would tease me so hard. He always teased me… we laughed all the time. He brought me out of my shell back then. There was never anyone I felt more comfortable with aside from my dad and a few friends, but it was different with Benny. He actually hated that nickname. It was my private name for him, but I find I still use it on the rare occasion I talk about him."

"What did he look like?" Shelly asked, happy to finally talk about Benny.

Denise closed her eyes, remembering. "He was average height, with dark hair. He was so... he was made for me. We just fit, in every way. I can't..."

"It's okay," Shelly said gently. "You don't have to go on."

"The thing is, I could probably talk about him all day. He was my best friend, and we had six years of happy memories. It isn't like I'm making him out to be something he wasn't, I'm not making us out to be something more. He was that great, we were really that great together."

"I'm sure you were. I don't doubt it for a second."

"He was my first, you know. He was my only," Denise said after a short pause.

"Wow," Shelly said, obviously struck, and they sat in silence for a few moments. "The Benny you describe to me sounds like someone special. I get why you haven't wanted to let him go, but I think he wouldn't have wanted you to live like this. He would want you to be happy, Denise. He would want you to move on and find love again."

"I've wondered if he's watching over me, and if he's upset that I sold our house in Dallas and moved here on a whim."

"Is that why you feel so guilty?" Shelly asked, and Denise shrugged.

"I think so. We spent the day here once, you know, that's how I knew about Rockford."

 Shelly nodded. "I did know that."

"Benny and I were trying to have a baby," Denise said, her voice sounding far away to her own ears. Her mind certainly was. "It had been a while, but we weren't having any luck. We both wanted a baby so much... it was all we talked about. How we would decorate the nursery, if we preferred a girl or a boy, what our baby would look like. We would get so excited thinking about starting a family, so we would be that much more disappointed every month when I wasn't pregnant."

"I'm so sorry," Shelly said sincerely.

"We didn't fight much," Denise continued, fighting back tears. "But this one was a doozy. We were both so frustrated! I don't remember the words spoken, try as I might these last few years. I don't remember how it started or why, just that it was bad. We always promised each other we wouldn't leave the house angry. We would fight, then five minutes later we would smooth things over. Usually, I was the one who stormed out, only to drive a few blocks, turn around and come right back home. He left that night, he's the one who left..."

"Denise," Shelly whispered, reaching out to hug her.

Denise pulled away first and wiped the tears from her face. "He was buying flowers," she said, her voice muffled.

"What?" Shelly asked, handing her a tissue from the coffee table in front of them.

"There was this convenience store that sold flowers up the road from our house. It was such a random thing and Benny always joked he would buy some if he ever got in serious trouble with me. It was a joke because the flowers were always half-dead, and what kind of convenience store sells flowers? Bouquets like that, I mean?" she asked, laughing shakily. "He was buying some when the store got robbed. That man killed the clerk and my husband for..." her voice trailed off, she couldn't go on anymore. She felt the loss all over again, and she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. 

 Denise went to therapy when it happened to help her through the initial shock of it all. She'd been on long walks and cried a lot of tears. Nothing had been as therapeutic as telling Shelly, finally, all that had been bottled up for so long. She felt some of the ache ease when Shelly pulled her in for a hug, and she allowed herself to cry in her arms.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Denise didn't know when she fell asleep or for how long, but she woke up on Shelly's couch with a blanket over her. A note on the coffee table let her know Shelly went to work but she wanted Denise to make herself at home. She stumbled to the bathroom, gasping at her reflection in the mirror. She splashed water over her tear-streaked face and freshened up with some of Shelly's makeup.

"Widow," Denise said to her reflection, not feeling the shock of the word as she had for all these years. She felt a little better. It had been nice to talk of Benny for a while, to remember him out loud instead of keeping their memories all to herself. She would miss and love him always, but at least she could talk to Shelly about him if she wanted. It felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders, and she would always be thankful to Shelly for that.

Her stomach started growling, and she looked at her watch to see it was already six. She locked Shelly's door behind her when she left, so she could find a drive-through. Not wanting to go home after she ate a burger, Denise found herself at Lake Somerset. She sat on a bench and watched the water, feeling peaceful. She smiled, thinking of a day many years before, a perfect day with her love. It seemed fitting to come here, as she had when she first left Dallas, to say goodbye to Benny. She never really made her peace that day because she hadn't been ready, but something felt different now. The last four years she hadn't only been mourning the loss of Benny, but also of the family they never got to have. She never told anyone they were trying to have a baby before, not even her father. When she told Shelly earlier that day, it was as if she could breathe again, as though she hadn't in all these years. She felt she could say goodbye to that life finally. She would try to live again, and really see the world going on around her that had been almost a blur all this time. She knew it wouldn't be easy, that she might wake up in the morning with the familiar ache deep inside. But maybe, just maybe, it would get better every day. Especially now that she knew she didn't have to keep the pain inside all to herself. She smiled, remembering a feeling long lost to her. Hope.

 As she watched the setting sun, she was startled by Alex's voice. "You should be more aware of your surroundings," he said, sitting down next to her. "Didn't you hear my car or hear me walking towards you?"

"No," she said honestly, not turning to face him.

"I could've been someone with ill intentions."

"Are you sure you aren't?" she asked teasingly, keeping her eyes straight ahead on the lake.

"Have you been crying?" he asked, worry etching his voice. "Your eyes look a little puffy and you sound stopped up. Unless it's allergies? That was a bad assumption, right? I shouldn't have asked that."

"Do you ever stop talking?" she asked, turning to face him but wishing she hadn't. He was much too good looking. He felt closer to her when they were sitting, she realized, since he couldn't tower above her.

"It's a downfall of mine," he chuckled. "Probably after living with my mom so many years. I couldn't get a word in edgewise with her around, so I have to take advantage when she's not."

"She does love to talk." Denise smiled at him. Did his eyes have to be so blue or his voice so alluring, no matter the words he said?

"Are you okay?" he asked softly.

"I think so. I mean, I think I will be."

"I looked for you today at the bookstore."

"I took the day off. Tomorrow, too, so you know. Just a fair warning, you'll be wasting your time," she teased.

"Thanks," he laughed. "I didn't know you were here, honestly. I come here sometimes to get out of my head for a little while."

"This is a good spot for it."

"Is that why you're here?"

"I was here to remember something. Or to forget," she answered, shrugging.

"Sounds mysterious, and still the most you've opened up to me."

"We've only just met," she said, smiling.

"That's true. But we've had a few encounters now, and I never seem to get a decent response from you."

"Today is a whole new day," she said, braving another look in his direction. Still cute as ever. "For me, that's a rare thing."

"Today being a new day?" he asked, puzzled.

"The metaphor, I meant."

"I understand that feeling."

"Why did you come to the bookstore today?"

"I felt bad about last night," he said with sincerity. "I came on too strong. I promised myself I wouldn't flirt with you anymore, but I did anyway. You don't like it and I'm sorry. I really am." 

"Thanks." She fought the urge to pat his shoulder. No need to send mixed signals. "I can't say you're all to blame. I should take some credit."

"Why should you? It's been clear from the get-go you don't even like me."

"Do you want the truth?" she asked, and he nodded. "I don't think I did like you, even before I met you. Before the whole restaurant incident, I mean."

"How is that possible?"

"You should understand, your mom is my absolute favorite customer. I adore her. You must know without me telling you that she talks about you a lot. Even though it's obvious she loves you very much, I heard in her stories something much different than she meant to."

"You finally talk to me for real, and it turns out you're mean," he said jokingly.

"Sorry," she said, smiling. "I was wrong, anyway. It's obvious, now that you're here, you're nothing like I imagined you to be."

"You imagined me, did you?" he asked, his blue eyes sparkling.

"Not like that," she said, bumping him with her shoulder, feeling more at ease with him. "It was hard not to, the way she went on."

"Tell me how you imagined I would be."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"More than ever."

"I was right about some things," she teased. "I pictured you to be a little full of yourself."

"Is that what you think?"

"Definitely," she said without hesitation.

"I see how it is!" he said, his turn to bump shoulders with her. "What else? Something real."

"That wasn't real enough for you? Okay, you asked for it. I guess I thought you were inconsiderate. Call your mom, guy! How hard can it be?"

"I know, but I had a busy life in Chicago! I know that's a lame excuse, but I was the executive chef at a busy restaurant, not to mention I had a..." he trailed off, the teasing in his voice gone.

"Dancer?" she finished for him, regretting it as soon as she saw the sadness in his eyes.

"Yeah," he said after a while. "A best friend, too. But that's all gone now. What am I going to do?" The question seemed more aimed at himself, and they sat in silence for a time.

"Who am I to talk," she said finally. "I talk to my dad once a week. I only see him a couple times a year when he pops in unannounced."

"You never go visit him?"

"I haven't been back home in years," she admitted, surprising herself. "Sometimes I wonder if I ever will."

"I'm guessing there's a story there and not a happy one."

"You're right," she answered, lost in thought.

 "I really am sorry for flirting with you so persistently since I met you," he said, the sincerest she ever heard him.

"You came back after a breakup. I knew that before you got here. I accept your apology, but..."

"What?" he asked earnestly.

"I say this hoping it won't happen again," she started, keeping her eyes locked on his. "I can't deal with things like that. My heart has been broken for a long time, and I'm very recently realizing I want it to heal. I don't know what it is about you, maybe there is attraction. Maybe it's just that it's been so long since anyone has noticed me, I don't know. Whatever this is, I can't handle it. If a fling is what you're looking for, it can't be me."

"I understand that," he said after a moment. "I won't try anything with you anymore. I won't lie and say it will be easy for me to not flirt with you. Yes, I'm upset, and I'm sorry if you feel like I'm using you to help me get over it. My attraction for you is real and my curiosity about you has grown every time I see you, but I promise I won't make a move on you again."

"Thank you," she said, relieved. "I'm glad to hear it."

"Maybe it's been a while since you saw anyone in that way, but there's no way someone like you has gone unnoticed."

"Alex," she breathed out, hoping he wouldn't notice her blushing since it had grown dark.

"That needed to be said. Since I'm putting my foot in my mouth already, I love your hair, even though I liked the braid. I'm digging the lack of sweater while we're at it."

"A fact I'm regretting now," she said, feeling the chill in the air. Her fingers instinctively reached for the long chain around her neck, and she gave him a nervous smile.

"Let me walk you to your car," he said, standing up and reaching for her hand to help her up. She didn't take it, and he chuckled. "You really don't like to be touched, do you?"

"Not so much," she said, keeping his slow stride. The sad truth was, she was getting used to it, with all the hugging she'd been doing lately.

"You were crying when I first got here, weren't you?" he asked once they reached her car.

"Yes." Why lie? She poured her heart out to Shelly earlier, and she guessed it wasn't so easy to stop now.

"You can talk to me," he said, leaning against the Jeep he'd parked next to her Camry. They stood facing each other, the moon shining bright above them.

"I was letting go of a day I spent here once. A million years ago, it seems sometimes. It's had a hold on me for a long time."

"Do you think you really let it go?" he asked thoughtfully.

"I wish I knew." She had a sudden urge to wrap herself in his arms. Instead, she grabbed his hand and held it in her own for a moment, surprising him. "Thank you."

"I think we were meant to see each other tonight," he said, his voice soft.

"Yes."

"I wonder..."

"What?" she asked, curious.

"Can I be friends with someone I find so compelling?"

"Maybe," she answered, fighting the urge to swoon in his arms.

"We can try it, right?" he asked, pressing his lips to her hand.

"I'd like that."

"Me, too," he said, flashing that boyish grin of his.

As Denise settled under the blankets that night and drifted off to sleep, she realized she might've made a new friend. A hard to handle how good looking he was kind of friend, but she would have to try and ignore that.

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

 When Alex opened the door into his mom's kitchen that evening, he felt at home. He always loved the house he grew up in and he'd forgotten how much. His mother worked two jobs to keep it when he was a kid, all for him to have a yard to play in and a neighborhood to run around in. Even as a child he appreciated that, and her, even when he missed her when she was gone so much. As an adult, he was happy when he started making enough so that he could finish paying the house off for her. Every month, he happily sent her money so she could pay her utilities or anything else she needed. It took a long time to get there and a longer time for her to accept the money, but they finally had it all worked out.

She was waiting for him, sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of hot tea in one hand and a book in the other. "How was your night, Alexander?" she asked with a tired smile, setting her book aside.

"Interesting," he said, bending over to kiss her cheek before pulling up a chair beside her. "But nice. How was yours?"

"I'm almost done with this book Denise picked out for me," she said, a knowing twinkle in her eyes. "She has great taste, even if she insists she doesn't read romance novels."

"That so?" he asked, perking up at the sound of Denise's name.

"Yes. Maybe she doesn't like to read about romance because she would much rather experience it for herself. She's not a big talker, that's for sure, but I noticed she doesn't wear a wedding ring."

"Sounds like something you would notice," he said, taking the mug from her hand and sipping from it.

"What are your thoughts on Denise? She's such a pretty girl, don't you think? She's much taller than Wendy, too! Not that it matters, I only think it should be noted. And Denise is so much nicer."

"Denise is unavailable," he said, feeling a pull at his heart thinking of her earlier that night. The thought of her crying, possibly over some other guy, upset him more than he expected.

"I can believe it," his mother was saying, interrupting his thoughts. "I'm sure she has someone in her life, but I've never seen her talking to anyone when I'm in the store. I must ask, what kind of man wouldn't go visit his lady while she works? Unless he's working, then it would be alright. Don't you agree, Alexander?"

"She's going through a breakup, Mother. A divorce, it sounds like," he answered, not wanting to have this conversation with her. "I saw her tonight with a new haircut."

"A breakup, you say!" his mother exclaimed, oddly excited by this news. "If she got a haircut, I'd say a breakup is about right! Isn't that the first thing we ladies do when we get dumped?"

"Get dumped? Really, Mom?" He couldn't help but laugh at his mother's antics.

"That is still the phrase, correct?" she asked, doubting herself suddenly.

"I guess so," he shrugged. "But, like I said, I think it was a marriage-"

"Won't you two be the pair, Alexander!" his mother went on, her mind running away from her. "Both of you going through this, it can be a good thing! You must be over Wendy by now, it's been months! You need to snag Denise, it won't be long before someone else tries to. I'll have to think of something," she finished, lost in thought.

"Mom, she wants to be friends," he said, shaking his head, tired suddenly. "It's just as well. I don't even live here, can't forget that. Sometimes I wonder what kind of fantasy world you live in."

"Friends?" his mother asked absently, nodding her head. "That can be good. I read these novels all the time, Alexander. A good relationship starts with being friends."

"The novels tell you that?" he asked, smiling.

"Don't tease me! I have lived a life. I had you, after all."

"Spare me, please."

"We need to get serious now. It's time for you to come back home. What's left for you in Chicago?"

"I don't want to have this conversation again," Alex groaned. "I have friends and a life there. Not to mention, I should get back to work soon. I can't live off my savings forever, and there are more opportunities for me to be a chef than here."

"Nonsense! I met the most amazing woman today and she told me they're hiring at the country club here in Rockford. They have your fancy, stuck up food there."

"That's what you're going to call it, Mom?" he asked, frustrated. Much as he loved the woman, she could drive him crazy.

"It's a good place to work and the pay is good. That's all I'm saying."

"It's nothing compared to what I made at Sam's," he said, saddened thinking of the restaurant he'd loved so much.

"Where did it get you, Alexander?" his mother asked sweetly, and he suppressed another groan.

"It got me five years at a gourmet restaurant, for starters. I get calls every day from people who want me to work in their kitchen."

"No need to get snippy," his mother said casually, angering him more. "I know your career is important to you."

"Do you? You never seem to care about how hard I've worked to get us where we are now."

"I don't understand why you have to work a thousand miles away. I would rather have you than the money any day of the week."

"It's a guilt trip, then? You knew I was only coming to clear my head. Well, now it's clear."

"I don't think it is."

"It is," he argued, feeling like a child.

"You never want to believe I know what's best for you, but I do. I know where you should work, where you should live, and who you should marry."

"Is that all?" he asked, and they laughed. He felt himself soften.

"Yes, that is all. Unfortunately for me, a son never listens to his mother. Even when it's clear she always knows best."

"Fortunately for you, you have a son who will come visit you a few times a year. I will make that promise to you now, and I'll always pay for your ticket to come see me."

"Would you buy one for Denise, too?" she asked with a smile that made her look ten years younger. "She would probably love your city, don't you think?"

"Mom," he said, but he didn't want to argue about it. He couldn't help but love the idea of Denise visiting him in Chicago. He would take her to his favorite places to eat and show her the best places to shop. The thought warmed his heart in more ways than it should.

"You wouldn't have to, see," his mom said, interrupting his thoughts as always. "Because she's here, just as you should be, just as she has been since she moved here."

"Do you know when she moved here?" Alex asked, curious about her. Maybe his mother had stopped listening to her own voice for even a little bit to find out something about her.

"Yes," his mother answered, sipping the last of her tea and staring straight ahead for a moment, as if in deep thought. Alex sighed audibly. Now she was quiet?

"Really, Mom?"

"Did I pique your interest?" she asked sweetly.

"I'm going to bed," he said, rising to get up but she stopped him.

"I liked Denise from the first moment I saw her. She replaced this one gal I didn't like. She always popped her gum like a child, drove me insane! Denise was always so helpful. She always, from the very beginning, set aside books for me and told me about the latest shipments. A dear, you see. Oh, how she would listen to me go on and on about you. I told her many stories about you, since the day I met her."

"If you meant for her to like me before she even met me, you told her the wrong stories," he laughed, thinking of what she said earlier at the lake. 

 "I couldn't tell her only the wonderful things about you. Where is the fun in that? I had to let her think you were a snob and that you never, ever call your mother back. That part was true."

"Once again, I'm sorry, Mother," he said, smiling at her. "Thanks for letting a stranger in on all my business, while we're at it. You really are crazy, you know that?"

"Denise is not a stranger," she said as if she were offended.

"Tell me one thing about her that has nothing to do with the fact that she's the greatest employee that ever lived."

"She's heartbroken, for one, smarty-pants."

"Tell me something I didn't tell you."

"Alexander." His mother chuckled to herself, patting him on the hand. "I've known it for years longer than you have. Four years at least, to be more specific."

"Excuse me?" he asked, frowning. "Do you mean to tell me she's had this same heartbreak for four years?

"That's exactly what I'm telling you," Rosie Evans told her son, serious now. "Are you saying she had to tell you she was heartbroken? Didn't you know?"

"I knew something was up," he said honestly. "Four years, though..."

"She's a widow, Alexander," she said, matter of fact.

"She told you that?" Alex was dumbfounded, but suddenly everything he knew about Denise made sense. His heart broke, thinking of what she went through.

"She told me nothing," his mother said. "I just know. She has an aura of sadness about her I've seen since I met her."

"If you knew that, why did you pretend earlier she was going through a breakup?" he asked, more confused than ever.

"I thought in that moment it's what you needed to hear. Your insistence on wanting to know more about her leads me to believe I was right all this time and you care about her."

"We just met. Those were her words to me tonight."

"That hardly matters. The more times I visited the store, the more I knew she could be right for you. Don't ask me why or how but I knew. It's why I kept sending you to get me books. I had to watch your face every time you came back home, and I could see you were a little better off every time. A lot less crabby, for sure. Even tonight, when you came home, I knew you'd seen her."

"Mom..."

"Please hear me out. A man never wants to be set up by his mother, I know that. I'm not as crazy as you like to believe. I wouldn't be saying this now, except I have to know."

"Have to know what?" he asked, curious despite himself.

"Have you made her laugh, Alexander?" Her voice was gentle, and the way she asked it made him feel awful. He felt even more guilty for flirting with Denise so soon after he met her, all to help get over someone who obviously never cared about him.

"I love her laugh," he answered after thinking about it. "She's nervous a lot," he added.

"That she is!" his mother exclaimed. "I don't think she's dated anyone in all this time. I could be wrong on that, she'd never open up to an old biddy like me. I've dragged her all over that shop telling stories, and I'm sure she just humored me when she would chuckle. But I can honestly say I've never heard a genuine laugh out of her."

"I haven't either, Mom."

"You just said..."

"I know," he said, waving her off, lost in his own thoughts. Denise said something earlier when she told him to stop hitting on her. She said she wanted her heart to heal. His mother was right, then. Denise was a widow. "She was saying goodbye."

"What, dear?"

"I happened to see her at Lake Somerset tonight and she said she spent a day there once. She was trying to say goodbye or something."

"I see," was all his mother said.

"Now you have nothing to add!" he cried out.

"What can I say to this?" his mother asked, shrugging. 

"Something!" he said, frustrated that he was looking for answers about Denise from his mother.

"I only have this. I know you. The fact that she's a widow will scare you like nothing else. After you sit on it for a while, you will think you cannot live up to this man she has held onto for so long. You should know, it won't be easy for her to let you in. She will be more scared than you can imagine. If you love her laugh and want to help her heal, you must be in all the way. Alexander, you cannot break this woman's heart! If you think for a second you can't be a part of her life, maybe it's a better idea if you leave now."

"Have some faith," Alex said, but her words were sinking in. "I thought you wanted me here."

"I do, but just because you're here doesn't mean you have to see her."

"The truth of it is, I don't think that's possible."

"The town isn't that small."

"That's not what I meant."

 "That's what I hoped to hear, but remember what I said," she said as she stood up. "Goodnight, sweet boy."

"Goodnight, Mother." Alex sat at the kitchen table for a while longer, lost in thoughts of Denise and his mother's warnings. The truth was, he liked Denise. But, now that he knew her heartbreak was much bigger than he thought, he realized she was right in thinking they should just try to be friends. He was going through his own heartbreak, and he didn't think he could deal with one as big as Denise's.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

 As if he sensed her talking about him the night before, Denise's father was at her door on Friday afternoon. Since she spent the morning deep cleaning her house, she hadn't taken a shower and she apologized for her appearance.

"You can't even clean up for your old man?" he asked cheerily as he pulled her in for a big hug.

"How am I supposed to do that when I never know you're coming by," she said, laughing, happy to see him.

"Look at this," he said, whistling, and walking into the living room. "Looks mighty different since last I saw it." Her dad made his way around the house, checking everything out. She smiled at his presence. Her dad was tall but not as tall as Alex, she couldn't help thinking. She had inherited his dark hair and eyes, and the nervous shuffle she was witnessing now. She wondered how he'd been doing, since their phone calls were always short. It'd been six months since she saw him, and that was a quick pop-over for dinner before he met some friends for a fishing trip. It was good seeing him now, wearing one of his flannel shirts she always loved and the familiar work boots.

"Shelly talked me into buying some things for the house, and I'm so glad she did. I wanted to give it a homier vibe."

"I'd say you succeeded," he said, whistling again.

"Would you like to sit down?" she asked, pointing to the couch beside her. "I can make you something to eat."

"No, it's okay. I wanted to stop and say hi, but I'm just passing through. I'm meeting up with some of the guys later."

"Oh," she said, disappointed.

"Why weren't you at work? I stopped there first," he said, drumming his fingers nervously on her kitchen countertop.

"Vacation," she answered, then had a thought. "Let me take a shower and freshen up, then we can go to this diner I like. Your fishing buddies can wait, right?"

"Why not?" he asked after a moment's hesitation. "If that's what you want."

"It is. I've been thinking about you a lot, I've missed you."

"Yeah?" he asked, and it made her sad hearing the surprise in his voice. "That's great, kiddo. I've missed you, too."

"Great! Give me thirty minutes."

It turned out she needed forty-five. The new hairstyle she thought would make things easier on her took longer since she had to straighten and style it. An hour later, she escorted her dad into Claudine's Café, taking him there instead of the diner she often frequented for lunch. This was a special occasion, since she hadn't seen him in a while and didn't know the next time she would. After the initial awkwardness wore off because of that, they warmed up to each other and had an enjoyable time. They remembered happier times, telling stories from when she was a kid, both careful not to mention Benny. Before they realized it, it was already after three, with lots of customers having come and gone. She apologized for having kept him so long from his friends.

"I'll tell you a secret, kiddo," he said with a blushing smile. "I didn't have plans this weekend. I wanted to see you, so I came."

"Dad!" she exclaimed. "You could've told me."

"I know, but..." he said, shrugging, not finishing his sentence.

"If I didn't ask you to lunch, you were going to go back home? A hundred miles away!"

 "It would've been worth it to see you."

"Dad!" she said again, smiling. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too. If we stay here any longer, we'll have to order dinner," he laughed.

"That's okay. Tell me how you've been lately. The truth."

"Work is good. We're building a house you would've loved when you were a kid."

"Those were good days." She smiled fondly, remembering visits to his construction sites when she was growing up. "I don't think any house could be as wonderful as the one you and your crew built for me and Benny," she said, chuckling at the startled look on her father's face. "What?"

"I didn't think I'd hear that name again, not from you."

 "I know. You couldn't have visited me at a better time, Dad, I'll tell you that. I sort of had a mental collapse the other night, sorry you missed it," she said laughingly. "I want to talk about Benny instead of pushing all my emotions down and crying myself to sleep every night."

"I'm sorry you've been through that, my girl," he said sadly.

"It's okay. I mean, it's not okay, and I'm sorry I never let you in. You tried to talk about it in the beginning with me, and if anyone would've understood what I was going through, it was you. You were always there for me, even after Mom died. We always talked about her, and you were always sure to tell me stories and... anyway, I'm sorry I didn't learn from your example."

"We all grieve in our own ways. You know, I see your old girlfriends around now and again. They always ask about you."

"I miss them so much! I've picked up the phone so many times to call and make plans but always stopped myself. I didn't want them to see me so grief stricken as I was, and now I'm not the same person they remember. They would only feel sorry for me, I'm sure."

"Don't talk crazy. You had an excellent group of friends. I always liked them, and I know they still care about you. When they ask about you, there's only concern, not pity."

"Dad, I just ran away, didn't I? I still can't believe I did that. Crazy, really." She took a deep breath, feeling nervous. "I'm sorry I sold the house you built for us. It meant something to all of us, I know."

"I like your home here," he said after a moment, and she felt relieved. Ever since she sold the house, she carried around a lot of guilt, and she was never more thankful for her father's understanding nature than that moment. "Shelly seems like a great friend to have. But you should know you always have a home with me in Dallas if you'd like, until you found a place on your own. Just throwing that out there."

"You're the best," she said, fighting tears. It felt good to talk to him, to have her feelings out in the open. Her dad gave her the latest updates he knew about her old friends- who'd gotten married, which ones had kids, and what they did with their lives. She felt happy for them but sad knowing everything she missed out on.

"You should visit soon," he said, eyes on his watch, noting it was already five. "They would all love to see you. Now that you're looking the best I've seen you in a while, it has to be the best you've felt in a long time. I think it's time we leave or order dinner before they kick us out of here."

She laughed. "If you want to eat dinner here, just say so!"

"You know I want to," he laughed, patting his oversized belly.

"I like the idea. Let's get a smile from the waitress, instead of the glower we've gotten over the past couple hours!"

"It's so nice to hear you joking around, Denise. You've had to deal with so much tragedy in your life. I would give anything to change that for you."

"I know you would. You really are a great dad."

"I should've been better for you these past few years."

"I didn't want to hear it, I wasn't ready. You know I always had to learn things the hard way. I'm stubborn, just like the old man," she laughed.

"You did get that from me," he said, waving the waitress over. "Now, let's see if their dinner menu is as good as the lunch."

 

******

 

The night crowd rolled in just as Denise and her father were finally about to get up to leave. They'd spent enough time there, but it soon became obvious her dad was enjoying the music and the people watching.

"I don't suppose you would want to dance with your old man?" he asked shyly, and she smiled.

"I wouldn't be ashamed of you, that's not the issue. It's just..."

"Look, we wouldn't be the only ones out there," he said, pointing to the dancing couples a few feet away. "It's not a romantic song, so it wouldn't be creepy."

 Denise laughed. "I can't do it, I'm sorry."

"Come on, I'm your dad. It's my job to embarrass you," he said, rising and pulling her up with him.

 "You're really going to make me do this?" she laughed, unable to stop him as he urged her to the dance floor. "I forgot how pushy you are!"

"It's been a momentous day, best in a long time. I'd like to end it with a dance with my favorite daughter."

"Your only daughter," she corrected. She suddenly wondered what it would be like to dance with Alex, to feel him wrap his arms around her waist and pull her close. She knew she would like it very much, and the thought shocked her.

"Lucky for you," her dad said as they circled the dance floor. "You always got to be the favorite because of it."

"Did you and Mom ever want to have more children? If you say I was so much trouble, you wouldn't want another, I will punch you," she said, remembering how often he said that when she was a kid.

"I doubt it. Here, in front of all these people? They would notice you, and you wouldn't know what to do with yourself."

"How could I forget how much you used to tease me about my shyness? You were the worst dad, now that I think of it," she laughed. "Remember the time you came to my school in those overalls with your flannel? In that old beater truck, too. All my friends were laughing and felt sorry for whoever you were getting. And what do you do? You got out and waved, calling my name! I had to tell everyone you were my crazy, drunk uncle! Now I don't know why I thought that would sound better."

"How could I forget?" he laughed. "You didn't speak to me for a week. I still don't see the big deal."

"I was in the seventh grade, everything was a big deal!"

"Apparently, you're not over it."

"It's still not funny!" she exclaimed, pulling away from him now that the song was ending.

"Keep complaining and I'll find a new way to embarrass you. Maybe find a microphone and give an epic speech about you to everyone here."