Excerpt from Deal Me In

CHAPTER ONE

“Jeez, Grace. Get a room. If you’d give me half the passion you’re giving that cheesecake, we could be happy together.”

Grace McIntyre paused, her fork poised above the cheesecake in question and looked across at her date. “We’re happy,” she said. “Aren’t we?”

Zach’s eyes looked a little sad like when he thought one of his students wasn’t working up to their potential. “Are we?”

Grace set her fork down. She’d looked forward to this dessert all through dinner. It was the Silver Birch Inn’s specialty: cranberry-orange cheesecake with chocolate crust. Seriously worth every calorie. But Zach was talking.

She proceeded to chew and swallow then heard him clunk his water glass down with disgust. “It’s like you’re making love to that damned thing.”

She opened her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You were moaning.

She was? “It’s really good.”

“I gathered that.”

“Well you don’t have to sound so peevish. I offered you a bite.”

He shook his head. “A bite? A bite?” His voice began to rise. Grace glanced over her shoulder at the other diners as a couple of them paused their conversations to more effectively eavesdrop. “I want more than a bite, Grace. If you hadn’t noticed, I want all of you. The whole package.”

Okay, that should have sounded flattering, except he was eyeing her disdainfully, his voice much louder than the modulated tones he typically used. Maybe this was his professor voice.

“But I only ever get a tiny piece of you,” he said, gesticulating less than subtly. “You’re holding back. And yet, you sit there in that red dress which screams sex, by the way, moaning into your cheesecake and I know—I know!— I’m not getting any further than second base if I’m lucky and…” He took a deep breath. “I’m okay with that. Mostly. But, do you have to rub my face in it? Do you have to sit there like some porn-star performance right across the table from me?”

Grace’s face felt hot as she avoided the now avid stares of her fellow patrons. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t wear red?”

He rolled his eyes and shoved his chair back with a hard scrape on the floor. It echoed across the intimate dining room. “Everyone knows what a red dress is code for but you, Grace. I suppose you’re going to tell me now you only wore it because you’re getting your period.”

“Well, actually…”

He leaned across the table toward her. “Don’t. No one gets their period as much as you. Six times in two and a half months? You expect me to believe that?”

“I…” Okay. Maybe she had fibbed a bit when he started to get cozy. Was it her fault she liked to take things slow?

He stood and picked up their check. “There are times I wonder if you even like men.”

She felt heat creep up her neck. “Of course I like men!”

A passing busboy stopped on his way by. “’Cause if you don’t, my sister has always been a bit into you.”

“What?” Grace asked.

The busboy nodded. “I could give you her number.”

Zach made a disgusted noise and headed toward the exit.

“Um, thanks, but I’m kind of into guys,” Grace mumbled before shoving her own chair back.

“I could give you my number!” he called after her.

“Zach, wait.” Grace stopped her date with a hand on his sleeve.

He shook off her touch. “No, Grace. I’m done.”

“Done with dating me or just dinner?”

“Let’s face it. You clearly don’t want to be with me as much as you want to be with that cheesecake.”

An elderly couple sat nearby, openly watching Grace’s little drama unfold. The woman sniffed in disapproval. “That’s not true!” she said to the woman. She turned to Zach’s retreating backside. “That’s not true!”

He stopped in the front hall and turned, and she half wished he wouldn’t have. His unwavering gaze made her feel very small.

“I didn’t believe people when they warned me about you. They said you were an Ice Princess. I told them they were crazy. You were so warm and fun and witty. I was sure they had no idea what they were talking about.” He fumbled in his pocket for his wallet. “But they were spot on.”

He’d already handed his credit card to their waitress before Grace knew what was happening. He was breaking up with her and paying the bill? Guilt crept up her spine, especially seeing as, if she were to admit it, she’d really enjoyed the cheesecake.

“Here, let me” she said, scrounging in her tiny clutch for her credit card.

He paused, his face impassive as he accepted his receipt. “Too late.”

“Zach,” she pleaded. He scrawled a generous tip at the bottom of the receipt and smiled his thanks to the waitress. “Can’t we at least talk about this? What about Saturday? We were going to go miniature golfing with Billy and Cam. We’ve been talking about it all week!”

Zach stopped at the exit. “Sometimes I think you enjoy spending time with my nephews more than you do me.”

“That’s crazy,” she said to his back.

The door to the parking lot swung closed behind him.

She turned to the waitress. “Could you just wrap up my dessert to go, and I’ll be back for it in a minute?”

“Zach, please!” Grace called, hobbling over the gravel parking lot toward Zach’s car, the spikes of her heels slipping between the stones. “This is so out of the blue. You need to give me time to process.”

He stood in the open door of his car, his trim blazer open, his blue eyes defeated. “Ten dates, Grace. Today is our tenth date. I may teach English, but even I can do this math. If you’re not into me by now, it’s not going to happen.”

“I’m slow to warm. I know. That’s my problem, but it’s not about you at all. I find you very handsome. I do!” She reached around him and hugged him to her. Dang, he was nicely warm, and the air outside had a bite to it. She cuddled closer.

“See? Isn’t this nice?” she cooed.

His arms hung at his sides. “Kiss me,” he said.

“What?”

“I said, ‘kiss me.’”

She must have made a face, because he rolled his eyes and pulled her arms from around his waist. “If you find me so repulsive…”

“No! It’s not that, it’s just… you took me off guard. I thought we were breaking up. I’m happy to kiss you.”

He raised one eyebrow, his chiseled cheekbones and piercing blue eyes every woman’s dream. The hate-stares she’d gotten from his female students the one time she’d met him at work told her he was quintessential academic eye-candy. So, it wasn’t him.

It was her.

It was happening, again, and it was all her fault.

She moved onto tiptoe and leaned in for a kiss, pressing her lips to his. They were warm, pleasant. Not too fat or too thin. Not too wet. She angled a bit and let her hands hold his face in her palms. Mmm. That was definitely nice. His chiseled cheeks felt good under her chilly fingers. She angled a bit the other way and puckered more. His lips shifted under hers and she gave them one last peck before moving away.

There. How could he leave her after that? There was definitely something there, right? “Mmm,” she said, opening her eyes again.

He stared at her, his face framed in her palms. “Like kissing my sister.”

She dropped her hands. “You don’t have a sister. Do you?”

He shook his head and slid into the driver’s seat. “No.” He ran a hand through his thick, slightly unruly hair. “Go ahead and get in,” he said. “I’ll drive you home.”

She hesitated, pretty sure that kissing like somebody’s sister wasn’t a compliment. She glanced at the passenger seat and then back toward the restaurant. “I’ll… I just need to grab my, um, cheesecake, and I’ll be right out.”

He gave her a look that said he couldn’t believe his ears.

“I’ll find my own way home?” she said in a small voice.

She watched as his taillights flickered and blinked into the distance before heading back into the restaurant. Well, that stunk.

Their waitress gave her an unsympathetic look. “Cheesecake don’t keep you warm at night. You’re crazy not to bang that guy. I sure would.”

Grace snatched the handles of the plastic bag from the waitress. “I don’t ‘bang’ guys,” she said.

“Maybe that’s your problem.”

Grace let the door slam shut on the waitress’ unhelpful retort and stepped carefully down the walkway.

Okay this… sucked. What had begun as a special night at one of her favorite restaurants had ended rather unpleasantly, but Grace was nothing if not resilient. She’d simply call… someone… and have them drive out here to pick her up and take her home.

Someone who wouldn’t judge or ask too many questions.

The mental list became quite short.

She pulled her phone from her clutch and turned it on. It beeped a low battery warning and then went dead.

Crap.

Hiking her skinny purse strap higher onto her shoulder, she returned to the restaurant.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I wonder if you could call a cab for me.”

“He left, didn’t he?” She didn’t even have the decency to raise her head.

“He, ah, had an emergency,” Grace lied.

The girl raised her head, her lips fighting a self-satisfied grin. “Right.” She dragged the word out disbelievingly.

“The cab?”

“I’ll trade you. Give me the hunky guy’s number, and I’ll call a cab.”

Grace didn’t feel great about throwing Zach under the bus, but he had left her here, which wasn’t particularly chivalrous of him. Yes, she’d told him it was okay, but she didn’t mean it. Was it her fault the cheesecake was to die for? And besides, if she was going to be dumped, she might as well have comfort food in hand.

“Fine.” Grace grabbed a flyer from next to the register and scribbled Zach’s number on the back.

The waitress tucked it into her pocket and picked up the phone. A minute later she hung up. “Ronnie’ll pick you up in a couple hours.”

“A couple of hours? Why so long?”

“He don’t get off work ‘til then.”

“Isn’t there someone else you can call?”

“In Sugar Falls?” The girl laughed and bent her head again to whatever she’d been doing.

Grace blew out a breath and turned around. “I’ll wait outside.”

She found herself a spot along the rock wall that bordered the parking lot and brushed the stones with her hand. It was an uncharacteristically raw June evening, but that was New Hampshire weather for you. She sat down. The stone felt cold under her butt, but she was the Ice Princess. She should be able to handle a cold bum.

She hated that nickname, but she knew she deserved it.

A person didn’t drive off a guy like Zach without something being wrong with her. She shouldn’t have even bothered to agree to that first date, but he’d been so charming. But just like all the other times, the more things heated up, the more she felt herself pulling away. It had always been that way.

Well, not always. But that relationship had ended in disaster, too, so pretty much she was doomed either way. Better to live in a lukewarm world.

The elderly couple stepped out of the restaurant and made their way down the walk toward the parking lot. The man stopped next to Grace and winked. “If it makes you feel any better, I think you look the cat’s meow in that dress.”

His wife tugged him toward their car. “That wasn’t the point the young man was trying to make.” She leaned toward Grace. “You’d do well to stop being such a tease.”

“I am not a tease!”

The woman raked Grace with a speaking glance. “That dress says otherwise.”

“What’s wrong with my dress?” Grace called after them. “Is it my fault I look good in red?”

She wasn’t a tease. She was just hopeful. There was a difference.

She watched patrons filter out of the restaurant, stuffed and satisfied as they strolled hand in hand or arm in arm toward their cars and drove away.

After a while, the weight of the cheesecake got the best of her, and she nabbed one of the kitchen guys when he came outside for a smoke and asked for a fork.

He didn’t think it was weird how much she liked the cheesecake.

She ate a few bites and let out a long, weary sigh.

She’d blown it. Again.

And the worst part was the waitress was right. Self-righteous and judgmental, but right.

Grace shivered and rubbed a hand on her arm to warm it. She ate another bite then stood and walked up and down the path for the umpteenth time. A drip of something hit her in the face. Then another.

She closed the clamshell to-go container and looked at the sky. Seriously?

The kitchen guy popped open the back door. “Hey, ma’am. We’re closing soon. Are you all set?”

Ma’am? Could this night get any worse? She’d gone from a hot chick in a red dress to ma’am? “Yes. I’m fine, thank you. I expect my ride will be along any time now.”

“Sure. Have a good night.”

“You, too.”

Another drop landed on her. Then another. Soon a fine sprinkling mist began to fall over the few remaining cars in the lot. To think it was the summer solstice, a time to celebrate the longest night of the year.

Yup. Already the longest night of the year.

At long last, a vehicle pulled in, its tires crunching over the gravel, and Grace heaved to her feet. It was about time! She hurried forward, grateful for the possibility of warmth. She’d tip extra if this Ronnie guy cranked the heat.

But it wasn’t a taxi.

Or another customer.

It was a Sugar Falls police cruiser, and as it rounded the parking lot toward the entrance of the restaurant, she got a clear view of exactly who it was.

Ack! Seriously? Wasn’t it bad enough to be standing alone, dumped and depressed, in a dress everyone assumed meant something she never intended to convey, clutching half-eaten cheesecake? Did her ex have to see her this way?

No. She’d be damned if Jefferson Ward Dayton was going to see her chowing cheesecake in the rain while wearing some red hooker dress. She glanced around frantically for a hiding place and then ducked for cover behind the dumpster.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she was hiding behind the dumpster.

The smell of trash hung in the misty air, assaulting her nose, and she rubbed her arms, retreating a bit further into the shadows as the SUV cruiser pulled to a gentle stop in front of the restaurant.

Great. Now he was stopping?

Go, she mentally encouraged him. Nothing to see here.

She wiggled her nose and rubbed her arms again to get the blood circulating, but her cheesecake bag rustled, so she stilled her hands.

Hurry up and leave. Please, don’t get out. Just keep going…

The door to the restaurant swung open, and the mean waitress ran down the walkway, a to-go bag in hand. Jeff stepped out of his SUV, took the bag, all smiles, as he passed over some bills. Grace rolled her eyes.

She huffed out a breath then slapped a hand over her mouth.

Something rustled nearby.

And it was not her cheesecake bag.

Grace had that itchy feeling crawl over her skin she got every time something bad was about to happen. She turned her eyes toward the rustling sound and froze.

A small form waddled into view, its distinctive stripe like a neon alert sign flashing under the outdoor spotlight, warning those nearby like the logo on a nuclear reactor. Warning. Alert. Death this Way.

Grace couldn’t help herself. She gasped.

The skunk stopped and turned, no doubt as horrified by Grace’s presence as she was of its.

She held its beady black gaze and moved very, very slowly backward. Very, very quietly. As quietly and unthreateningly as she could move, while holding her breath so completely she thought she might pass out…

Then a car door slammed.

After that, it was a blur. Grace may or may not have screamed (a few times, but who was counting?) between gulps for breath, the odiferous cloud stinging her eyes as she stumbled toward the parking lot like a stunned accident victim.

“Grace?”

Jeff leaped out of his cruiser. He took two steps toward her and stopped abruptly.

“You’ve been sprayed,” he said.

“No shit, Sherlock.” She blinked, spitting the taste of skunk—who knew it had a taste?—ungracefully onto the parking lot.

The waitress chick came running down the front walk. “What the…? You!” Her accusing stare pinned Grace like a bug to a specimen board. She wrinkled her nose and threw her hands in the air. “Great. It’ll be days before this clears.”

“It’s not my fault! Someone—” Grace flung an accusatory arm toward Jeff, her cheesecake bag flopping wildly “—slammed his car door and startled it.”

“What were you doing lurking around in the dark anyway?” he asked.

“I was waiting for my cab.”

His lips twitched. “Behind the dumpster?”

Waitress girl pinched her nose between her fingers. “Ronnie won’t be taking you now, that’s for sure.”

“It’s not my fault I was sprayed. It’s his!” Grace jabbed a finger toward Jeff.

“Why weren’t you waiting inside where it’s warm and dry?” he asked.

Grace looked at the judgmental waitress. “She was mean.”

Jeff turned with disbelief toward the waitress. “Angela?”

Grace turned toward the girl. Angela was a misnomer if ever there was one. There was nothing angelic about her. Were those skull earrings?

Angela smiled an evil grin and had the nerve to laugh. “Her boyfriend dumped her. It was pretty epic. He accused her of liking the cheesecake more than him.”

Jeff turned. “Do you?”

“What?” Grace blinked madly at them. Really? They were talking about this now?

“Do you prefer their cheesecake over this guy?”

Grace felt the weight of the plastic bag in her hand. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“She had us wrap it up after he dumped her,” un-Angela blabbed, pointing to the plastic bag.

They all stared at the bag.

Suddenly Grace hated them. She hated the mean waitress and the unhelpful ex-boyfriend and a world where someone could get dumped and sprayed by a skunk all in the span of an evening and no one cared.

Grace sniffed in her misery and then instantly regretted the action. She swiped at her nose instead and turned her back on both of them, fumbling with the handles of the plastic bag, which were somehow tangled on her wrists. She stalked over to the dumpster and heaved it in. It wasn’t any good now. The cold misty fog plastered her hair to her face, and her eyes stung, but she wasn’t sure it was from the skunk spray as much as abject humiliation and soul-deep misery.

When she arrived back at the parking lot, mean waitress was gone.

Jeff stared at her. “I suppose you need a ride home now.”

“Yes.” She didn’t want them to, but she knew her lips wobbled.

He compressed his mouth, assessing. “Don’t take it personally, but I asked Angela to bring me some plastic bags. I’d rather you not sit directly on my seats.”

She nodded, looking up so no tears would spill over in front of him. “I don’t blame you.”

Angela came down the walkway, her nose pinched between her fingers again, and handed a box of trash bags to Jeff.

He pulled a couple out and held them toward Grace. “You can change behind the dumpster while I prep the backseat.”

“What?”

“Well, you can try, but I doubt Angela will let you back in the restaurant in your present state.”

Angela raced back up the walkway. Grace heard the sound of a deadbolt clicking into place. She turned to Jeff.

“You expect me to ride in your cruiser wearing nothing but a plastic bag?”

“How about two plastic bags?”

Grace snatched the trash bags from his outstretched hand. At least they were waterproof.

A few minutes later, she met him at the cruiser, one bag with holes torn in the top and sides for her arms, another pulled on like a skirt. She’d decided to toss the dress in the dumpster. She hated that dress now. She might never wear red again.

“Very chic,” he murmured, laughter in his voice.

“Not to be ungrateful, but I’m not ready to see the humor in any of this. Please just take me home. You probably need to get back to the station anyway.”

“Nope. Shift’s over. I’m on my way home myself. Just picked up dinner.” He frowned. “I may put that in the trunk, though. No offense.”

Grace rolled her eyes and waited as Jeff moved his precious dinner. While she’d changed, he’d spread a handful of bags over the back seat like she were nuclear waste or something. She sat, the bags squeaking under her.

He walked back to the restaurant, presumably to return the unused bags.

As the minutes ticked by, she wrapped her arms around her for warmth. Come on! What was the hold up? Wasn’t this evening hellish enough? Did he need to drag it out?

Eventually, he returned, threw something into the trunk and eased into the driver’s seat.

She saw his grimace in the rear-view mirror. “I promise, I’m not making fun of you, but would you mind if I crack a window or two?”

She swallowed her humiliation and shook her head, welcoming the cold, wet, fresh breeze that flowed in as he pulled onto the main road, shivers be damned. If she froze to death it would all be over.

“I just have to make one stop.”

She sighed. Was it too much to ask that he take her straight home so she could shave her head, take a four-hour shower and go to bed?

He pulled into the local grocery store lot and cut the engine. “Be back in a minute,” he said.

She should be grateful he was taking her home and not being too much of a jerk about it, but she couldn’t quell the resentment flowing in where all her good karma was flowing out. Hadn’t she forgiven him after all this time? Hadn’t she forgiven herself?

She’d thought so… right up to the moment she’d seen him again after all the years he’d been away in the Army, but then there he’d been, back in Sugar Falls, standing there in this very grocery store of all places, staring at a display of apples. She’d stopped dead in her tracks, unable to breathe or think as the wave of all their shared history had washed over her, overwhelming her. She may or may not have bruised her mango as she clutched it in her hand. Damn him. Damn him for still having that something that called to that place inside her that only spoke in sighs.

That had been nearly two years ago. She’d successfully avoided him for two years. Why, oh why, did fate pick tonight to throw them together?

Grace leaned forward and hung her head in her hands, the tears welling up despite her best efforts to hold them in.

It was bad enough Zach dumped her, but this? The plastic bags chafed parts of her body that, frankly, were not used to being encased in plastic.

She raised her head when the cruiser door opened again.

“All set,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later, they pulled into her driveway. She didn’t bother to ask how he knew where she lived. He was a cop. She supposed that was his job.

He held open the door, and she slithered out, clutching her makeshift skirt and handbag. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Hang on.”

She turned, a bit alarmed by the fact that he was unbuckling his seatbelt and opening his door. “No offense, but I plan to leave these outside and go shave my head, so if you’d just go ahead and leave, that’d be great.”

He had the nerve to chuckle. “I actually thought I might help.”

“Thanks, but I’ve got this.” She turned toward her door.

His car door slammed behind her. “Grace, hang on. No need to do anything crazy. I called the vet’s. They told me what to do.”

She stopped. “The vet’s? When?”

“When I returned the trash bags to Angela. They told me what supplies to pick up. Now we just need a bucket and your garden hose.”

“I fail to see how a bucket and garden hose would make this evening less of a disaster.”

“I’m serious. They said it works, but it’s messy and you probably want to do the initial treatment outside to keep the odor from getting in the house.”

“It’s barely fifty degrees out here. I’ll freeze to death!”

He pulled the plastic bag of grocery items out of the front seat and dropped it on the walkway. “Okay. Your choice. Have a good night.”

He made it to the driver’s side again by the time she forced the words out of her mouth.

“Fine. You can help.”

His lips tilted at the corner. “How gracious of you.”

She shivered and looked at the bag. “That doesn’t look like much tomato juice.”

“Actually, it’s not.” He pulled out a couple of bottles of peroxide, some baking soda and some dish soap.

“That’s it?”

“And some deodorizer for my cruiser.”

She turned her back. “The hose is over by the garage.”

“I’ll need a bucket or something to mix this in,” he called out.

Grace pulled open the side door to the one-car garage and found a bucket. By the time she met him again at the side of the house, he’d hooked up the hose to the faucet.

“All right. We mix it in the bucket then lather it into your hair.”

Grace handed over the bucket. She clutched the neck hole of her trash bag closed while he rolled up both his sleeves and measured out the ingredients. “So I just dump this all on my head?”

“Pretty much. Just don’t get it in your eyes, she said.”

The mixture foamed ominously. Grace fumbled the bucket as she tried to pour with one hand and hold the trash bag tight to her neck with the other.

Jeff lifted the bucket out of her grip. “You’ll dump it all over the ground if you keep this up. You hold your bag, and I’ll do your hair. Just… bend backwards or something so it doesn’t go in your face.”

She leaned back and Jeff poured with one hand while working the vile smelling liquid through her hair with the other.

She closed her eyes, the heat of humiliation replacing the shivers of cold. He shook the remainder of what was in the bucket onto her scalp, spreading the foamy mess over her head and hair until he stepped back to pick up the hose to rinse off his hands. “There. Now we wait.”

Grace kept her eyes screwed shut and straightened a bit to ease the kinks in her back. “What do you mean, wait?”

“The vet said you’d want to leave it on for a bit. She didn’t say how long, but it helps neutralize the odor if you let it sit before rinsing.”

“I think that’s long enough.” She heard his chuckle. She hated that chuckle. It sent warm tingles over her chilled skin.

“Do you want this to work or not?”

“I’d rather not freeze to death.”

She heard footsteps retreating, and then the sound of the garage door opening and closing. A few moments later, he’d obviously returned, because something bumped her shoulder. She cracked one eye open. “What are you doing?”

“Wrapping you in a tarp to keep you warmer.”

“Just kill me now,” she whispered.

“That would be against the law,” he said.

“Laws are meant to be broken.”

“It’s not that bad.”

She opened both eyes now. “I’m dressed in trash bags and now—God help me—a tarp, standing outside my house at midnight, and I reek of skunk. Please tell me how it could possibly be worse.”

“It could be raining harder,” he said.

She sighed and held the tarp more tightly around her. “True.”

She swiped at a dribble of goo seeping down the side of her face. “How long do I have to stay like this? For real?” she asked.

“Ten minutes maybe? She wasn’t specific.”

“This peroxide smells worse than the skunk.”

“No it doesn’t.”

She gave him a quelling look, but the haughty expression probably didn’t work particularly well seeing as she was currently sporting the latest in tarp-chic.

“I can’t wait to take a hot shower.”

He grunted and looked at his watch. “Seven minutes to go.”

She sighed and decided if she couldn’t make him go away, she’d retreat to her mental happy place. The only problem was her happy place tended to feature this man. And fewer plastic bags. She could hear him breathing, slow and steady, as if having her naked, plastic-wrapped body so close to his did nothing for him while she… She blew out a breath. “So… you get take-out from there often?”

Jeff glanced up, his dark eyes unreadable in the dim glow of her solar butterfly outdoor lights. “You’re not the only one that likes their cheesecake.”

She pressed her lips together. Talk of her lost cheesecake made her depressed.

“So what happened?” he asked.

“Well, I was waiting for my ride, and then you slammed your door—”

“Not the skunk. With your date.”

“Oh. Him.” It was probably telling that she’d already forgotten about Zach. “We broke up.”

“And he left you stranded?”

“I told him he could leave.”

She didn’t have to see Jeff’s face to know he was probably rolling his eyes.

“So what did you do?” he asked.

“What did I do? What makes you think it was my fault?”

One dark eyebrow rose at her.

“I didn’t do anything. We just decided we weren’t compatible.”

Hmm.”

She frowned. “There’s no hmm about it.”

“I just find it interesting that Angela had a much different take on things.”

“I see. And you’ll take her word for it over mine? A woman who bribed me for Zach’s number just so she’d agree to call me a cab?”

“Did you give it to her?”

“Yes. They deserve each other.” He snickered. “What’s so funny?”

“She’s married, you know.”

“What?”

“She was only screwing with you. She has a funny sense of humor”

“I don’t think she’s funny at all. What did I ever do to deserve that?”

His body grew tense beside hers. They both knew what he was thinking. He leaned over and picked up the hose again. “Brace yourself. Time to rinse.”

Even though she clutched the tarp tight around her, she could feel little rivulets of cold water sliding down her bare skin, her scalp going numb from it.

Jeff worked quickly, thank God for small miracles. Grace screwed her eyes shut and clamped her lips closed against errant drips.

“There.” He shut off the sprayer. She heard it clunk on the ground behind her. “That’s probably good for the first try. I’ll stick around until you’re done with your shower in case you need a second treatment.”

And here she’d barely survived the first treatment. She swiped her face, avoiding looking directly at him as water slithered down between her shoulder blades. “Can you wait in your cruiser?”

“I’d rather not.” He pressed his lips together. “I think it could stand to air out a bit longer.”

She swallowed as he stared at her, all massive, solid male. Despite the cold water dribbling down from her hair, parts of her grew warm. “Fine,” she said, “but avert your eyes. I’m not planning on taking these plastic bags inside with me.”

One eyebrow cocked as his gaze slid down her tarp. “That’s indecent exposure,” he said.

“Only if I’m seen. So turn around.”

He turned, eventually. Still, something about the way he was standing made her feel incredibly exposed.

She let the tarp slide to the ground. Then her makeshift skirt. Last, she pulled her arms inside of her remaining coverage. “Are you sure there’s no one around? No cars coming?”

“Just us ghosts.”

With one last peek to be sure he was behaving, she tore off the last trash bag, grabbed her purse, and bolted to the front door. She fumbled the keys in her cold fingers but finally managed to get the door unlocked and made a mad dash to the first floor bathroom.

She had her back to the closed door, her naked skin sticking to the wood paneling when she heard the front door close down the hall.

“I’m just going to leave the supplies outside the bathroom door in case you need them,” Jeff called through the paneling.

She popped the bathroom door open. He was bending over, setting the bag on the floor. His dark eyes grinned up at her. She huddled back a bit.

“There’s soda in the fridge if you want one,” she said before slamming the door in his face again.

“I didn’t think you drank soda.”

She reached into the shower and turned on the tap to warm it up. He wasn’t supposed to remember little things like that. “I don’t. They were for Zach’s nephews.” She opened the bathroom door again and reached a hand out, groping for the plastic bag of supplies. She felt the handle loop over her wrist and shivered. She’d thought he’d gone to the kitchen.

“Can’t hurt to dose yourself twice,” he murmured as she shut the door again.

He was right. She still stank a little. Or it could be that the skunk smell was permanently stuck in her nose. She wrapped herself in a towel and leaned over the tub for another peroxide treatment before finally, gratefully, taking the long, hot shower she’d craved.

A half a bottle of shampoo and a generous amount of body soap later, she stepped out of the shower feeling almost normal. She dressed in the robe she had on the back of the door, wrapped a towel turban-style around her head and went in search of her rescuer.

She found him in the living room.

Jeff stood by the window, fingering the butterfly sun-catcher she had dangling there. He dropped his hand without turning around. “Better?”

She nodded, figuring if he knew she was behind him, he must have eyes in the back of his head to see her response. “Yes, considering.”

She took another step closer. “Could you just, um, smell my hair?”

He did turn then, his body all stiff with surprise. “I don’t think…”

“Please.” She pulled the towel off with a hard yank and shook her head. “Just sniff it, okay? I want to know if I need to de-skunk it again.”

He walked closer, his throat working as he swallowed. She looked away and held her breath. He leaned toward her and inhaled.

He pulled back abruptly. “Seems fine now.”

“Are you sure?” She lifted a big hunk toward her own nose. “All I seem to smell is skunk.”

“It’ll dissipate. You’re on olfactory overload.”

“If you say so.” She grimaced. “Thanks. For helping. I’m going to go get dressed and stuff.”

He frowned and cleared his throat. She stepped back to give him a clear path to leave.

“Sure,” he said. “Have a good night.”

“Goodnight.” She walked him to the door and only breathed freely again when he was on the other side of it.

She returned to the bathroom to dry her hair.

A few minutes later reality set in.

Suddenly the front door slammed against the wall behind it. “Grace?”

“I’m fine!” she lied through the bathroom door. Apparently she must have screamed for a second time that evening.

He didn’t even bother to knock, just burst in on her. “What is it?”

“It’s…” She was about to say ‘nothing’ but that would be a horrific lie, as horrific as the skunk streaks running amok through her hair. So, she pointed and winced, waiting for his response.

“What?”

She looked at him. “What? Do you not see? Look what your skunk remedy did to my hair!”

“What? It looks good.”

“Good? I’m all streaky! I look… I look like a skunk!” She turned back to her reflection. “How could you do this to me?”

“Relax. I’m sure it’ll grow out.”

She glared at his reflection in the mirror, sure that if she looked at him directly, her gaze would burn hot holes of wrath through his skin. “It’ll grow out? That’s all you have to say?”

“It doesn’t smell like skunk anymore, does it?” And then he did the unthinkable. He laughed.

“Oh, I brought you this.” He held up a plastic bag.

“I don’t need any more of your quack remedies.” She sniffed. “I’m fine. Just…” And then all the anger and humiliation left her, and she simply felt hollow. “Go. Please? Just go.”

“Sure,” he said.

She didn’t watch him leave this time, just let the tears flow silently as she turned off the bathroom light and went in search of her slippers.

She saw the plastic bag sitting on the floor just inside the door.

“I told you, I didn’t need your quack remedies,” she mumbled, but she frowned when she realized it wasn’t a bag from the grocery store. It was a plain white one like from the restaurant. She peered inside and popped open the clamshell. A pristine piece of fresh cheesecake lay inside.

She clamped the container shut again, and was about to take the bag and put it in the fridge when a paper napkin floated to the floor.

She picked it up and couldn’t stop the sob that gurgled up in her throat. Tears flooded her vision, and she slid down the wall, clutching her knees.

The bastard. How could he? How could he rub it in her face like this?

She looked at the napkin again, the two words written there making her want to lash out and curl in a ball all at the same time.

Happy Birthday.

She crumpled the napkin in her palm, hurled it at the wall and wept.

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