"What do you think of planting the garden here?" Scott asked once they'd cleared the backyard of dead brush, branches, and many years' accumulation of leaves. Some of the maple, oak and pine trees, along with the lone willow, were dying or overgrown. They'd have to cut them back once the debris from the main yard surrounding their cabin had been burned.
It'd taken a month and a half of working together to make the rundown cabin Scott Romero and Melina Rose's dream house. Their relationship was still so new and overwhelming, they often became amorously distracted by each other while they worked up a sweat fixing the house. Just looking at Scott--covered in dirt, dried leaves in his reckless, russet brown hair from the morning of hard labor--Melina wanted to take an early lunch. She hadn't had a decent nibble of him since early that morning.
"I never thought I'd have a garden of my own," she said with a lump in her throat.
She'd been in an overemotional state for some time now--at least since she came home to the small town of Amethyst, Wisconsin, where she and Scott had grown up. They'd both returned home, prodigal children. The instant Melina saw her sister Lona's old boyfriend--the drop-dead sexy and sweet Scott "Romeo" Romero--in the very cabin she'd decided to purchase herself, she knew her life would change radically. And it had. Never before had she fallen for someone so fast and strong. But then, after years of having a crush on him before he dropped Lona and ran for his life after high school, it seemed like heaven itself had designed for them to be together.
Scott walked over to her, all rangy hips and muscles, and she couldn't wait for him to hold her. He stopped only long enough to remove a cluster of dried leaves from her orange curls before he drew her into his embrace.
"Aw man, you two gonna be kissin' all day again?" four-year-old Devlin groaned from the patch of lawn he cleared. He was Scott's cousin's son. Melina and Scott watched him during the day while his mother, Sheila, worked.
Finding even a few minutes to be alone together wasn't easy, despite...or because...of Dev's independent spirit. He had a tendency to find trouble a bit too easily--usually with the local wildlife he wanted to adopt as domesticated pets.
Before any of them could say anything, a cherry red Corvette pulled into the clearing in front of the house and parked beside Scott's pickup. He made a face of dread, recognizing the audacious vehicle as surely as Melina did.
What was Lona doing here? Especially after her desperate and foolish antics at their engagement reception two weeks earlier? They'd invited the whole town--all seventy-five year round citizens--to the shindig. As much as Melina had wanted to reconsider inviting her sister, she knew she needed to make peace with her family. She and her father had reconciled prior to the engagement party, and they'd become closer than ever before. Her father told her recently that, when she left home at the age of eighteen, he hadn't had the courage to admit his regret in the annual Christmas cards they exchanged--their only correspondence--while she lived in New York. She'd certainly been too busy with her successful career as the nationally acclaimed sex therapist and bestselling self-help author Dr. Mindy Rose to consider things had changed back home.
"I'll talk to her," Melina murmured to Scott, knowing he wouldn't want to be within a hundred miles of her sister.
She set down her rake and strode over to her sister's car in an effort to head her off from seeking out Scott, if that was Lona's intention in coming here.
"What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be attending to Divorce #2?" she asked when Lona slipped out of her car with a cigarette in hand. As usual, she'd underdressed for the occasion. Both top and bottom were far too tight and revealing. Melina conceded that she'd managed to hold onto her killer figure, but then she suspected the vindictiveness of her current divorce made her sister forget meals and appetite.
"Dad keeps saying we should reconcile," Lona said in an airily, isn't-it-stupid? tone before she looked past Melina at Scott and Dev now back at work in the yard.
"You came here to reconcile?" Melina confirmed in disbelief. More like you're worried you'll lose your place as Daddy's girl.
Lona glanced at her with her designer sunglasses in place. "You're the one who disappeared for seventeen years, little sister," Lona said in a defensive voice that didn't reveal her true intentions.
Because Lona's gaze lingered on Scott again, Melina offered reluctantly, "Do you want some iced tea?"
Her sister's answer was to slam the driver's door and follow her into the luxurious cabin. She muttered something under her breath, making Melina wonder if their father had mentioned to her how much time--and money--she and Scott had put into their love nest. The cabin had gone from a junk heap to a luxurious yet cozy home with every conceivable convenience. They'd spared no expense, and why shouldn't they? The success of their prior careers allowed them at least that much.
The expression on her sister's face progressed to decidedly sour by the time they reached the kitchen and Melina had poured them each a tall glass of iced tea. Lona kept glancing around the kitchen and family room beyond with plush, woodsy furniture and an immense fieldstone fireplace they'd restored to its former glory.
"Well, you certainly didn't come home to live quietly, did you?" Lona said, her lips twisting jealously.
"Actually, I did."
Lona hooted at that. "This is not inconspicuous, dear sister." Lona cast another spiteful gaze around. "I'm not s@#n' you, darlin'. You've increased the value of this property to well over a hundred thousand. At least. You'll never be able to sell it for what it's worth now when you move."
As a real estate agent, Lona would know.
Melina shrugged. "With the town's push for tourists, I think we could sell it if we really wanted to. But Scott and I intend to live here together with a family for a very long time."
Lona had removed her dark shades, and now faced her with glaring pity. "That's what I thought when I got married. Both times."
"Did you?" While her tone remained friendly, they both knew Lona didn't commit to anything for the long haul.
"I still don't understand why you came back," Lona said, sweeping her long, over-styled and dyed hair back over her shoulder. Then she picked up the frosted glass of iced tea and sipped. As soon as she set it down, she went on. "You had a good set-up in New York. You could've had any man you wanted. What could possibly have convinced you to come back to this hole in the middle of nowhere to marry a loser?"
Oh, she had nerve. "Scott's not a loser, and you know that as well as I do, after your unsuccessful attempt to steal him back."
In a Sunday school room at the Baptist church in town, which was the only building large enough for the engagement party, Lona had tried to seduce Scott. Failing at that, she'd decided to follow up Melina and Scott's April Fool's Day wedding announcement and open invitation to town members to attend with one of her own. Lona had publicly objected to the engagement and upcoming wedding on the ridiculous grounds that Scott was still in love with her, not Melina. After a suspended moment of silence where she held the attention of every person in the building, everybody turned away guffawing while one person shouted "Sour grapes!" in response. Lona had stalked out of the church without the slightest notice of the townspeople--definitely not a situation she was accustomed to.
"I didn't intend anything to happen when I came back here," Melina continued. "I didn't know he'd be here. Everything just...unfolded. And it didn't take me more than a second to know it's everything I want." Why was she trying to justify herself to her sister anyway? Lona would mock her for it. And I don't give a damn what her opinion is anyway.
Scott had assured her he'd never been in love with Lona, despite everyone in town's assumption to that end. In the two years they'd dated as teenagers, Lona apparently threatened to kill herself each time he told her he wanted to break up with her. When the offer of a scholarship came, he'd taken it and never looked back--until two months ago, when injuries from his football career and what should have been a deadly car accident turned his thoughts to home and 'smelling the roses'.
If she'd had any lingering doubts about Scott's love for her, they'd vanished when he laughed at her sister's silly attempts to woo him back. Remembering she wasn't a gawky, pumpkin-haired giraffe of a kid anymore wasn't easy for Melina. But Lona could no longer qualify as the uncontested beauty queen of Amethyst either. Too many people saw her for who she was and had grown disillusioned. Besides, at age thirty-nine, the years hadn't been terribly kind to Lona, despite years of pampering herself with cash readily provided by her string of admirers. Wrinkles, shadows and dark spots she tried hard to cover up with excessive make-up told of her fall from grace. Even as Melina scolded herself for being pleased about it, she couldn't seem to help it.
Lona shook her head as if Melina's defensive spiel about Scott and her choices had been gibberish to her. "What was that you mentioned at the engagement shindig anyway? Asking the town to hide you here and not reveal that you're the Dr. Mindy Rose, gone underground. You were as famous as Dr. Ruth, for Pete's sake! Why would you give it up? You're even stupider than I thought."
Expecting her sister to understand that her job counseling people with sexual obsessions, deviations and sick lusts had turned her into a head-case herself was plain stupid. How could she expect a self-centered person like Lona to understand that she'd gotten to the point where she couldn't connect with people for fear of having them open up to her and get too close? When she was alone and unguarded, even then she couldn't find peace. She closed her eyes and the nightmares--in some cases, realities--her patients told her about filled her mind with horror. Even now, eight weeks after returning to Amethyst, her panic attacks hadn't gone away. If anything, they seemed to return more often. The twisted words spoken by her patients came to her in transcripts, like those she'd recorded during sessions and gone over countless times to write her books. Sometimes every single sentence of the memories came back to her in transcript. She could hear them as they played themselves out in scarlet color behind her eyes. Her lack of control seemed to coincide with her overemotional state lately. She'd tried to hide it from Scott, but she knew he continued to worry about her the way he had the first time she had a panic attack while inside a nightmare. She frequently woke both of them with her screaming.
"I wasn't happy with my career, no matter how successful it was," Melina murmured, her stomach rolling and churning the way it had been a lot of late. Cold sweat and fatigue washed over her.
"Did it make you happy, betraying me?" Lona asked, lighting a new cigarette that increased the nausea Melina felt. "I mean, we've never been close, no s@#t, but it's an unspoken rule that you don't betray a sister."
Impatiently, Melina demanded, "Betray you? When did I do that?" Her voice sounded far away and weak, even to her own ears.
"You, with Scott. You knew how I felt about him. He's the only... Well, no one else has compared to him since."
"Oh, don't you dare give me that! Scott left Amethyst twenty-two years ago, Lona. Don't even try to make me believe you've harbored a thing for him all this time. He dumped you because you treated him like crap. Those two years together, you manipulated and schemed and threatened him to get what you wanted. What part of that was supposed to enamor him to you? All he wanted to do was escape. And he never looked back either. He was relieved to be rid of you."
"He loved me. He would have done anything for me. He was completely obsessed with me. His parents forced him to take the scholarship. If they hadn't, we'd be married now."
"You live in a dream world where you're the queen, Lona. You always have. But it's time to face facts. Scott was obsessed with the sex you so freely gave him. What teenage boy wouldn't be? You were the only girl in town who'd put out. It had nothing to do with you personally, Lona. Trust me, anyone would have done just as well or better--without your constant load of complaints."
Melina's mouth filled with excessive saliva, and she knew she had to get out of here soon. But all the rage she'd kept pent up for years seemed to want to come out. Why did Lona seem to need to shatter her confidence at every turn? This time, Melina couldn't stop herself from speaking her mind. "No one wants to be with someone who threatens to kill herself if dumped. It's the only reason Scott stayed with you." She snorted in unladylike scorn. "Anyone else would have known you only loved yourself. You'd never harm a head on your own precious head."
"He told you about that?" Lona asked, unwilling embarrassment filling her flushed face.
"He told me everything. He loves me now, Lona, completely. And you can't have him."
Lona's overgenerous top lip curled in derision. "I always knew you had the hots for him, even when you were a geeky ten-year-old with buck teeth and a million freckles."
Shutting her mouth--and not simply because she felt she could easily barf if she opened it--Melina cast her gaze away from her sister. Only Lona could make her feel so worthless. Striking back at her this way wasn't helping her own conscience either. The past was gone. None of this mattered. Silly as it sounded after her own cruel words, she wanted to reconcile with her sister, even if they never became close. She didn't want any more regrets in her life.
"So you admit you've betrayed me," Lona said triumphantly. "And how could we ever be anything like friends with that between us?"
Melina didn't have it in her to respond at the moment. Her nausea had gone from mild seasickness to a hurricane rolling through her stomach. When Lona stood with a huff and stalked out of the kitchen on her ridiculous five-inch stiletto heels, Melina made no effort to restrain her. She rushed upstairs and into the master bathroom. The big, healthy breakfast she and Scott prepared and consumed together, in preparation for a labor-intensive morning, left her violently.
Afterward, she lay weakly on the wood floor, not sure if she felt better or worse. But she knew Scott would come looking for her if she didn't go out soon. Dragging herself up, she saw through the window Scott in the yard below, wielding an oversized branch as if to keep Lona back if she tried anything. Melina watched his expression of impatience until her obviously displeased sister finally left them in peace.
I returned home, but I never expected everything to be perfect even after things unfolded in the unanticipated way they did. Lona and I have always been at odds--nice way to put it. Why would time change that?
More tired than before, she washed her face and brushed her teeth, taking care not to upset her stomach again. She heard Scott's distinctive footsteps enter their bedroom once she turned off the water. At the bathroom door, she took in the sight of him with the usual--but far from mild--zing of giddiness.
He loved her. He proved that in every glance, every word, every deed. Right now, she was in need of a little reassurance.
"I need a shower. And not just from clearin' brush," he said as she came to him.
He didn't enjoy seeing Lona, nor interacting with her, but he'd offered Melina the assurance that he'd tolerate her for the sole reason that they were sisters.
Boldly, she moved into his arms, and he didn't disappoint her with his earlier promise of a soul-deep kiss. It wasn't long at all before she wanted him so badly, she could hardly keep from begging him. But Dev was nearby. When he napped later...
"You all right, honey?" Scott asked, his forehead against hers after they broke apart, both gasping for breath. She wondered if he tasted the toothpaste she just used. "You look pale. Lona upset you that bad?"
Her arms wrapped around his neck so he couldn't get away from her, she murmured, "Uh-uh."
"You got sick again? Third time in as many days, isn't it?" Concern filled his expression.
She closed her eyes for a second, breathing in his scent, soaking up his presence and so-perfect love for her. "We haven't exactly been careful since we met up on Valentine's Day after almost two decades apart," she said in a soft voice, pressing butterfly kisses to his mouth and chin. "How would you feel about...?"
"A little cupid addition to our family?"
She let out an abundant exhale. "Yeah."
The effect of his grin worked its way from her giddy head straight to her curling tiptoes.
"I'm in for the whole package with you, Melina Rose-soon-to-be-Romero. Bring it on."
Giggling, she tightened her arms around him and kissed him happily.
He slid his hands up and down her sides, so close but not close enough to her breasts, clearly wanting to do much more that would satisfy their growing hunger for each other, but aware they couldn't right now. Dev was waiting, would be calling... "How many cupids you think you're up for?" he growled in her ear.
"As many as the Big Guy gives us."
"Mhm, sounds like a plan."
His mouth covered hers again, and she opened herself to him...a heartbeat from giving herself completely when the phone rang.
For the last year, Amethyst had put everything behind making their town a major summer tourist attraction. The job of developing a string of tourist cabins had gone out for bid only a few weeks ago and Scott's uncle Jake had thrown his local construction company into the mix. He fully expected to get the job. If he did, Scott wanted to work beside his uncle the way he'd imagined himself doing as a kid, before football became his life.
Although they hadn't completed the landscaping around their home, Melina thought she could handle it alone while he worked the ten hour days required to complete the cabin development. The work needed to be done before summer was upon them and the tourists poured in, making Amethyst's population surge from a mere seventy-five to seventy-five hundred or more.
"Go," she insisted, pushing him toward the phone on the nightstand. "And I'll go make sure Dev doesn't try to kidnap that baby raccoon we saw with its mother in the dead oak tree."