The woman he loved was getting ready to walk out of his life forever. And there wasn't a damn thing he could do to stop her. How could he stop someone who was, in essence, a stranger yet someone he'd come to know right down to the innermost depths of her soul? How could he love someone who wouldn't even tell him her name? And refused to hear his?
Maybe he was crazy. Maybe his grief had created something that wasn't there. But he didn't believe that. In one short weekend, he'd fallen in love this woman with the flowing, cinnamon-colored hair and vulnerable-as-a-lamb eyes--so much more than he'd ever loved Tawny in a year and a half of marriage. This woman understood him; she'd touched him deeper than anyone ever had. Deeper than anyone except Dakota. Somehow she'd even touched and eased that pain without words.
He loved her. He didn't want her to walk out of this cheap motel room and disappear from his life as if what had happened between them meant nothing.
She was here tonight, and that meant there was still a chance to convince her they could have a life together outside of this room. He'd convinced her to stay an extra night, hadn't he?
Randy slid across the bed to where she sat with her arms wrapped around her knees. He'd found her like this, so lonely and huddled into herself, each time he awoke. He didn't think she'd slept at all.
Snaking his arms over her shoulders, he felt the cold of her bare skin. One lamp pierced the curtain-shrouded room. Her hair shone like fire in that dim light. Brushing long silken strands back over her shoulder, Randy pressed a kiss into the curve of her neck while allowing one hand to trace the heart tattoo just above her breast. She allowed his touch, too. The ease they'd both displayed in their intimacy still astonished him. He'd never felt this natural with Tawny or the few women he'd dated before her, especially in such a short time. The first time he'd touched this woman, he'd forgotten she was a total stranger.
"I know this great Chinese restaurant. You must be as sick of pizza as I am." He smiled toward the empty pizza delivery boxes on a tattered bistro table. "We could go--"
She turned her head toward him. For the first time, he wondered how old she was. In the half-light, she barely looked old enough to have a license to drive the car she'd met him here in. Then again, the kind of naked honesty she'd laid before him would leave anyone looking like a child.
"When I leave, I leave alone," she said, her tone husky, firm. "When I leave...this never happened."
She'd given him every reason for why she wanted that yesterday. Yesterday her objective hadn't been nearly as unequivocal though. He drew back from it, from her. If he left here alone... Hell, he'd go back to his home and he'd have to face that Dakota was gone. Forever. And I'm not ready to consider that, let alone call it my reality.
Something had died in this woman recently. She'd bared her heartache to him as if they'd needed a reason for meeting and coming together this way. Even if she didn't know it, something had died in him, too. And, God help him, he didn't want to face the emptiness all alone. Not when they could heal each other.
"The hell if this never happened," he muttered. "It happened. We'll never forget it." Instinct took over, and he dragged her back toward him, turning her into his arms. He took her mouth, adding another layer of pain. Physical. Emotional. She was his. Every part of her responded to his passion. She crawled right into him like a caddis fly into its case. Yet she said, "I'll forget you, you'll forget me."
As cruel as her words were, the way she said them only heated him. With anger. With desire. With the need to grab hold and possess. With the ache to forget so I can find something in life that matters again. "I'll never forget you, sweetheart. I--"
But she stopped his words with a kiss so desperate, he couldn't deny her. "Don't," she begged. "Don't kill me. Because this is all we can have. All I'll ever allow myself again."
Gentle eyes the color of whiskey strengthened his hope. She felt what he felt. This wasn't a casual fling. Strangers getting through a night or two. This was love. Maybe even true love.
"I'll forget you," she whispered. "I have to. Because I don't want to hurt ever again."
She made love to him, at once cutting him and healing him. And, in the morning, she was gone. His emptiness returned.
Part I: PAPER DOLL
I am Love.
I can touch those who believe.
I take your heart and I make it bleed.
I bring the rain that darkens the sky.
I am Love, I am Pain.
Turn your eyes on me.
I can set you free.
I can tear your world apart
if you open up and let me into your heart.
But look deeper and you'll find
I'm just a feeling you you'll never see.
I am the Reaper,
and they all fear me...
10 years later...
"This is a pretty big house for just one person," Randy Briggs commented, watching his younger sister refill his coffee mug. "Six bedrooms, three baths?"
Rod Summers, "the love of Bethany's life" so she claimed, grinned at him like a little boy. "How'd you know?"
Shrugging, Randy picked up his mug. How could he worry so much about his sister's choice and yet be charmed by the very same guy? The first time Randy had met Rod, he'd put him down as a no-account rogue. Maybe he was. But he was also an endearing child, a romantic, a partner in a prospering motorcycle sales and repair shop named Hog Heaven. Rod really seemed to care about Bethany. That was the bottom line. But, despite that Rod had generously invited to put Randy up for a few days or weeks--as long as necessary--Randy couldn't help looking for anything suspicious in the offer.
He'd found a culprit yesterday when he'd driven up to this house. Mansion. Prospering partner aside, there was no way Rod could afford a house this size and value. Six bedrooms, three baths, every conceivable luxury including an enclosed pool, hot tub, built-in sound system, home theater, and an elaborate second floor gym. While believable that a man-child like Rod would feel the need for all these expensive toys, how could he afford them on his presumed slightly higher than moderate income? Either he was in debt up to his eyeballs or he had something shady going on the side. Neither pleased Randy, considering his innocent and naïve sister had all but picked out a china pattern with this guy already.
"How much did this monster set you back?" Randy continued nonchalantly. Houses were his business, so he knew Rod wouldn't find the question too personal. Bethany might see his true purpose... or simply assume he was trying to bond with her boyfriend. His sister gave him a big smile as she set a healthy stack of pancakes before him. Yup, he'd pleased her with his "efforts."
Rod dove into his breakfast, shrugging in disinterest. Didn't know or had something to hide? Randy's suspicions grew. Those innocent-as-a-lamb eyes gave nothing away. "Did it come with all the amenities or did you have them put in afterward?"
The way things looked, Randy would have to get another house quick. Bethany had recently given up her apartment to move in with Rod. They'd need a place to live when Randy dragged her out of here kicking and screaming.
"I had most everything installed," Rod said, passing him the syrup, then tossing a cool sausage to the German Shepherd begging at his feet.
This was getting him nowhere.
"Except the gym," Rod amended with his mouth full. "Josie did that."
Rod nodded, swallowing. "My sister. JoJo. She owns the house. She's got a chain of fitness clubs. She's filthy rich, but if she had her way she'd still be living in a two-bedroom apartment with just the bare necessities."
Shame kept Randy from bursting into sheepish laughter. He'd painted Rod--despite all appearances--black as a drug lord or a Mafia hitman. Never mind that he didn't have the cold-blooded nature needed for either role. Randy shook his head, murmuring that he hadn't known Rod had a sister. After fanning opening the newspaper, he dug into his breakfast.
He looked up to compliment his sister's culinary skills but found Rod already bestowing gratitude. Since arriving yesterday, Randy had been witness to constant displays of their affection for each other. Every time he felt annoyance, he told himself he should be happy for his sister. Jealousy hadn't occurred to him until now. Could that be why he'd tried so hard to ferret out any suspect behavior in Rod? Was he jealous because he himself had given and received very little affection in the last ten years?
Glancing at Bethany perched snugly against Rod on the stool, he thought, It wasn't as if I didn't try. He'd had dates, prospects... No, he hadn't tried. Loneliness had been a choice, unconscious as it was. Because of her.
"Where is your sister?" Randy asked. He hadn't met her at all yesterday after he'd arrived. She slept in her own house, didn't she?
"She's in California. Business."
Something in Rod's tone came close to a snort of derision. "She'll be back this afternoon."
Randy went back to his pancakes and the newspaper. After a minute, he glanced at Rod again. Impulsive--that was another trait he saw in his sister's boyfriend. "You cleared me staying here with her, didn't you?"
Another boyish smile told him all he needed to know, but Rod added reassuringly, "She won't mind. She never minds."
Great. Rod hadn't bothered asking his sister. Good way to get in the family graces. She's out of town for a day or two and comes back to find the entire Briggs clan taking over her home. Randy didn't ask, but he had a hunch that Bethany had come in without invitation from this JoJo either. Randy would have to make it clear he could be expelled without hurt feelings at any time--and that meant securing his next job without being as choosy.
When his sister had started attending beauty school in preparation for the salon she now owned, Randy had ventured out of general contracting. For the past five years, he'd been buying houses, fixed them up and selling them--sometimes for twice what he paid. Since he was qualified, certified and/or licensed in all aspects of house building and renovation, he did ninety percent of the work himself and made good money at it.
Usually, as he put the final touches in and just before he put a house back out on the market, he began the process of seeking out his next project. On rare occasions, like the last one, the house had sold before he'd chosen another fixer-upper. That put him out of a home. Since there was little point to getting an apartment for a couple weeks or months, he'd stayed with his sister in-between jobs over the years.
When Bethany had heard he was staying at a motel this time, she'd talked to Rod and he'd invited him to stay here. Randy had put aside his reservations about accepting the generous offer simply because he was interested in getting to know the man his sister was sure she'd spend the rest of her life with.
Discovering Rod had "generously" offered what wasn't even his didn't sit well with Randy. He'd spent his life taking care of other people. No one took care of him. And he didn't sponge off the people he knew, let alone strangers.
After breakfast, he called a real estate agent he knew and made an appointment to check out Stevens Point's finest fixer-uppers. Then he re-packed what little he owned. Just in case JoJo Summers wasn't welcoming strangers today, he'd be ready to go at a moment's notice.
* * * *
JoJo didn't say a word when she walked through her front door, exhausted, and her brother announced that he'd invited his girlfriend's brother to stay for a couple weeks. She didn't need the explanation for it either and didn't really listen as Rod gave the details.
She'd bought this house for one reason: Every time she turned around, Rod was living in her apartment full-time and invited everybody he met to live there with them. The friends they had in common she didn't mind. But the deadheads, the flavors of the week, the moochers... At least in this big house, she had an entire wing to herself. She didn't even have to meet Rod's playmates if she didn't want to.
"Should I set a place for you at dinner?" Bethany asked.
Shaking her head, JoJo didn't bother to look at the blond-haired, blue-eyed nymph her brother had his arm around perpetually. Despite the duration of her stay, Bethany Briggs would get old to her roving-eye brother. Rod never stayed with any woman longer than two weeks. Bethany had been here two months--and had pretty much taken over--but JoJo was sure her culinary skills accounted for a lot of that record. "I'm gonna take a bath and go to bed." And call Morris for some answers, she added to herself firmly.
"Come on. You gotta meet him. He's gonna be your brother-in-law someday," Rod claimed boldly.
JoJo couldn't control her snort. "No thanks." She bent to greet her dog Cameron.
She was too tired to sit through another meal listening to her brother's thoughtlessness and Bethany's currying favor. After Morris, without explanation, had missed his plane out to the new club in San Francisco, she'd gone instead. She'd caught herself up on the details of the acquisition--another of Morris's jobs--during the flight and took care of everything in two days without more than a couple hours' sleep. If I'd known I'd be chief, cook and bottle washer, I would've paid Morris's loan back and left it at that instead of asking him to be a partner, she'd thought more than once since Seasons Fitness Center soared into the black less than a year after she opened.
"He could be here awhile. You're gonna run into him sooner or later," Rod said to her back.
"I'll risk it then." She picked up her staircase and, with Cameron on her heels, climbed the stairs, veering left at the top into her personal wing. She'd converted one of the extra bedrooms there into a personal gym. The other one was empty...
She walked past the extra bedroom, and then it registered. Backing up, she saw a large carryall on the bed.
That little weasel! JoJo clenched her teeth. Rod's guests went in his wing, never hers. He knew that, so why had he put Bethany's brother over here? Unless he was playing matchmaker again. Damn him!
Dropping her duffel bag where she stood, she moved back toward the staircase, took the plushly carpeted stairs two at a time, and swung toward the voices she heard in the living room.
Something stopped her. Saved her. A word, an inflection, a sigh. Whatever it was, she flattened her back against the wall just outside the living room. Her heart rate had picked up to the point that each breath was a struggle. She couldn't have explained her own behavior because it wasn't until she peeked in to the living room that she understood. And remembered.
He wasn't simply a vision or a memory. He was a heat in her blood, a shiver under her skin, an ache down so deep inside her she would have said she'd forgotten him if not for the rush slamming through her.
It was him--older, more masculine, if possible. But he was the same man who'd made love to her like he knew her inside and out only minutes after they met, who'd seemed to understand her on a level no one else ever had, who'd begged her to stay past the fantasy, who'd probably hated her when he'd woken up the next morning to find her gone like a coward.
And, like that same coward, she turned tail now and ran soundlessly up to her bedroom to hide.