Friday, October 17, 2014
One in a Million
By the time Tanner grabbed the empty chair and pulled it out for himself, Callie’s heart was knocking hard against her ribs in panic.
And okay, a little bit of lust as well. Or, you know, a lot. In checking up on her grandma, she’d been through Lu- cille’s social media pages. Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter… and she’d inadvertently learned a lot about Lucky Harbor’s
One in particular.
Tanner Riggs was Lucky Harbor’s current most popular bachelor. Actually, Lucille had called him the Last Hot Sin- gle Guy for Two Hundred Miles. Callie wondered if he knew. Not that she was going to be the one to tell him if he didn’t.
“Real pants today,” Tanner noted. “I like the boots.” She’d argued with herself earlier when she’d gotten
out of the shower and stared into her closet. Yoga pants or jeans? Don’t care or care?
Turned out she cared. Hence the jeans.
And the boots. “They’re my kick-ass boots,” she said.
He smiled and she forgot how to breathe. Just plain forgot.
“You plan on kicking any ass today?” he asked.
“Too early to tell,” she responded. Look at her, all smooth and cool. “But I wanted the odds balanced in my favor if anything comes up.”
“I like the way you think.” He straightened out his leg, letting out a long, careful exhale as he did.
“You okay?” she asked quietly.
“Yes.” He drank deeply of his coffee and her gaze was drawn to his throat as he swallowed.
And then his broad chest. And flat abs.
And the way his jeans—faded and threadbare in some of the good spots—fit him. Which was perfectly. “I meant your leg,” she said.
“It’s fine.” “Huh,” she said.
He slid her a look. “Huh what?”
“Well, it’s just that ‘it’s fine’ is a typical guy response. Men tend to use ‘fine’ as a catchall.”
“Yeah,” she said. “You know, a noun, adjective, ad- verb, whatever. Tell me the truth—your leg could be literally falling off and you’d still say it was fine, right?”
“Nah,” he said. “When it was actually threatening to fall off, I was most definitely not fine.”
Her smile faded and she regretted her flippancy. “I’m sorry.”
He shrugged. “Shit happens. You were saving me a seat,” he said, back to teasing.
“No,” she said in automatic denial. “I—”
He flashed her a knowing grin that was so innately Tanner-Riggs-of-the-Past—all cocky, popular football star, aka the guy she’d never been able to say two words to without tripping over her own tongue—that she once again found herself momentarily tongue-tied.
“What are you working on?” he asked, gesturing to her laptop. “Ordering a litter? Designing three-D wedding in- vitations?”
“Both,” she managed to say in what she hoped was a perfectly normal voice.
Because you are perfectly normal, she reminded her- self. You are not just a computer geek. You are so much more. You…ah, hell. She couldn’t think of a single thing when he was looking at her like that, like maybe she was amusing him again.
“Your job suits you,” he said. “What does that mean?”
“You have this sort of…” He waved his cup at her. “Dreamy, romantic air about you.”
She let out a low laugh and he set his cup down, sitting forward, at attention. “You going to start choking again?” he asked.
“No,” she assured him. Or she hoped not anyway. “And it’s not a romantic job. It’s a technical job.”
“How are hearts and flowers and chariots technical?”
“Okay,” she conceded. “Maybe it’s romantic for a minute or two, if you believe in that sort of thing.”
“And you don’t?” he asked.
“My job is to create the right setting to culminate their romance,” she said, trying to explain her job. “That’s all I can do. I can’t guarantee a happy ending.”
“Not that kind of a happy ending!” she said, and laughed in spite of herself. “The stats are completely against a real happily-ever-after, not that anyone wants to think about it while planning their wedding. Which means that TyingTheKnot.com should really be called AnotherOneBitesTheDust.com. But I doubt I’d be able to make a living with that.”
“Huh,” Tanner said, cocking his head as he studied her. “Didn’t see that coming.”
“You’re a cynic.” He gestured at her with his cup. “All wrapped up in a sweet, warm package.”
He thought she was sweet and warm.
Don’t get excited, a little voice inside her warned. He also thought you were cute. Like a puppy. And he doesn’t remember who you are. “I earned the cynicism,” she said.
“Someone break your heart?”
He didn’t say this with a mocking inflection. Nor did he sound like he was pitying her. She looked into his eyes— those hot-as-hell eyes—and saw that he was just genuinely curious. Which was the only reason she answered him. “Yes, actually,” she said. “But it was my own fault.”
His voice was low and a bit morning gruff, and she found herself staring at his mouth. “That’s a little bit per- sonal, don’t you think?” she asked, her own voice low, too, but not because it was morning.
It was more because he was turning her on with little to no effort.
He leaned in and smiled. “You don’t want to get per- sonal with me?”
Her breath caught. Her pulse skipped another beat. Or a hundred. And there were other reactions, too, things that really shouldn’t be happening in public. But once upon a time she’d dreamed about him wanting her. She’d even gone as far as to send him a secret Valentine, one of those anonymous lollypops with a heart that you paid a dollar to the student body fund for and then it was delivered to the recipient’s homeroom class in front of everyone.
Except Callie hadn’t sent hers anonymously. She’d signed her name.
And he’d never said a word about it.
And suddenly that bugged the crap out of her. Love sucked. Romance sucked. And even if that hadn’t been true, there was no way she was going to admit her failures out loud to a guy she didn’t really know. She shook her head. No, she didn’t want to get personal.
“You really don’t believe in love?” he asked.
Did he think she was just being coy? “Let’s just say that I know that love isn’t enough,” she said. “And I’m not interested in it. Not for myself.” She knew this without a shadow of a doubt. After all, she’d had the perfect guy and the perfect life, and had planned the huge wedding to celebrate it—and it’d ended with her heart crushed.
Nope. Love was not enough. Not by a long shot. Tanner startled her by running a finger along her temple,
tucking a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “A definite cynic,” he said softly, meeting her gaze. “I like it.”
“Not exactly a romantic myself,” he said, and leaned back. “And no disrespect to your work, but I think love was something made up by Hallmark for Valentine’s Day and…well, wedding websites.”
She laughed. Touché. “So I guess you think Valen- tine’s Day cards are pretty dumb, too. Even if, say, you got one from a girl who had a crush on you.” She held her breath for a beat, and then someone bumped into him from behind and the moment was broken.
The cute brunette who’d done the bumping sent a big smile Tanner’s way. “Sorry,” she said breathlessly. “My fault. Let me buy you a coffee to make up for it.”
Tanner lifted his coffee. “Already taken care of.”
The woman looked disappointed but moved on and Tanner turned back to Callie. “Sorry, what were we talk- ing about?”
Well, she’d been about to admit that she’d once sent him a Valentine’s Day card, which meant she’d also be admitting to her painful crush.
And that would lead to him saying out loud that he didn’t remember her. So she was eternally grateful they’d been interrupted. “We were discussing you being a cynic too,” she said. “You’re not…involved.”
“No,” he said. “I was married once, for about ten min- utes.”
She knew all about him and Elisa. It’d been the talk of the town back then. “It didn’t work out?”
His laugh was mirthless. “No. I got beat all to shit.”
So she did have something in common with this big, built, tough, gorgeous man. “I’m sorry.”
“It was a long time ago,” he said. “And I did get some- thing really great out of it. My son, Troy. But it’s not anything I’d repeat.”
She understood that. She lifted her coffee and touched it to his in a toast, acknowledging that they were in per- fect sync on this sentiment.
“If it makes you feel better,” she said, “I got all the way to the altar before I got beat to shit. Didn’t actually say the I dos but it was close enough to teach me that happily-ever-afters are for fiction.” She smiled. “Don’t tell anyone, though. It’s not exactly good for business.”
He didn’t smile back. In fact, his gaze was dark and unreadable but also somehow…warm. Commiserating without pity. “Your secret’s safe with me,” he finally said softly, and they finished their coffee in comfortable si- lence.
Well, Tanner was comfortable anyway, at least going by his kick-back, sprawled posture in the chair.
Callie, not so much. She was wishing that she believed what she’d said about not wanting romance for herself be- cause as she watched him, while pretending not to, she found herself aching just a little bit.
Damn, she really wished he remembered her. “Gotta get back to work,” he said and rose.
“Right,” she said. “Me too.” She slipped her laptop back into her bag. Then she stood up and…knocked over her coffee.
Tanner grabbed a stack of napkins and efficiently cleaned up the mess in about three seconds, during which time Callie ordered herself to get a grip. “Sorry,” she said.
He shook his head. “No need.”
Good. Great. No need for her to be sorry that she was an idiot. A clumsy idiot. She gathered the rest of her things, trying to keep her hands busy.
And her brain.
Just get out the door without further incident, she told herself. But Tanner was standing close, looking down at her, his dark, dark eyes holding hers prisoner.
“What?” she whispered.
Again he ran a finger along her temple, letting the touch linger. “I’m sorry I never thanked you for that Valentine,” he said quietly. “I should have.”
And then he was gone.