Aaron Amos was in the bookstore, too. Presley Christensen could tell by the prickle that skittered up her spine. Maybe she’d subconsciously recognized his voice amid the babble of the others, or there really was such a thing as a sixth sense, because when she turned and glanced across the crowded room, she confirmed what her body had already told her. He was standing off to one side, looking right at her.
It’d been two years since she’d seen him, and almost the same length of time since she’d shared his bed. But it felt like much longer. Her pregnancy and the first eighteen months of her son’s life had been hard, harder than anything that had come before—which was saying something for a girl who’d lived out of a car or a motel for most of her childhood.
Although she’d known when she decided to return to Whiskey Creek that she might bump into Aaron, and had tried to prepare herself for that moment, her eyes locked with his as if he held a high-powered magnet that drew them there against her will. Then it was all she could do not to stumble back; the sight of him hit her like a blow to the chest.
Damn it! Her reaction—the way her breath jammed in her throat and her stomach knotted—was ridiculous. Why couldn’t she get over him?
Gritting her teeth, she jerked her gaze away and slipped behind the people standing in line to get Ted Dixon’s autograph. She was a big fan of Ted’s work. Once she’d moved to Fresno to start over, his thrillers, along with a lot of other novels, had helped keep her mind occupied so she wouldn’t fall back into her previous lifestyle. And after she found work at the Helping Hands Thrift Store, which was the best job she could land with so little education, books—second-hand, mostly—had provided the only entertainment she could afford. They’d especially been a blessing after Wyatt was born and she was up walking the floor so often with a colicky baby.
Still, Ted was local. It wasn’t as if she wouldn’t have another chance to see him. She’d wanted to come but probably wouldn’t have if not for the urging of her sister. Cheyenne had insisted on watching Wyatt so Presley could get out for a few hours. She said it was important for her to take a break. And Presley was grateful. After the effort she’d put into cleaning her small rental house, getting settled and finding the perfect retail space to lease for her new yoga studio, she’d been eager for the chance to clean up and feel like something other than a mom.
But that was when she’d believed, as Cheyenne and Cheyenne’s husband, Dylan, had believed, that Aaron would be a hundred and forty miles to the northeast. He planned to branch off on his own and open a franchise of Amos Auto Body, the collision repair shop he owned with Dylan and his other brothers. According to Cheyenne, he’d been spending a great deal of time in Reno looking for the best location.
“Excuse me.” She pressed against the closest bookshelves in an attempt to squeeze past two men who were deep in conversation.
She’d been so intent on her escape that she hadn’t even looked up, but this caught her attention. Kyle and Riley, two of her sister’s closest friends, were standing there. Ted Dixon, the author, belonged to their clique, so it was no surprise to see them here. If she searched hard enough, she’d likely find a handful of the others who’d hung out with Ted since kindergarten.
“Hello.” She managed a smile, although her heart was pounding. Was Aaron, at this very instant, threading his way through the people standing between them?
There wasn’t any reason he should feel uncomfortable approaching her. Maybe they hadn’t kept in touch while she was gone, but there’d been no expectations along those lines. Their former relationship hadn’t involved any commitment or obligation. They’d partied a great deal, and they’d had the hottest sex she’d ever experienced, but as far as he was concerned it was all in fun. They hadn’t even had a fight when she left. The death of her mother and the knowledge of her pregnancy had set her off on a self-destructive odyssey that led her to an abortion clinic in Arizona. She’d felt sure that ending her pregnancy was what Aaron would want if he knew about it, which was why, when she decided to keep the baby, she didn’t feel she owed him anything, even notice that Wyatt was his.
“Chey told me you were moving back,” Kyle said. “How long have you been in town?”
She checked behind her, but at only five feet two inches tall she couldn’t see over the people surrounding her—and it was so packed she couldn’t see through them, either. “Just a couple of weeks.” She paused to be polite, but she wasn’t about to hang out and talk for more than a quick second, not with Aaron ten feet away and possibly closing the distance between them. Unfortunately, she couldn’t leave. Ted had already signed and personalized her book, and there was a huge line at the register.
Riley spoke before she could actually say the goodbye that hovered on her lips.
“It’s great to have you home. You look amazing, by the way.” He gave her a low whistle. “Must be all that yoga.”
Presley felt too anxious to enjoy the compliment—or to tell them that yoga had done a lot more for her than help her get into shape. That would prove to be too long a discussion. “Have you ever been to a class?” she asked instead.
Kyle and Riley exchanged a look. “Can’t say I have,” Riley drawled with a smile that told her he probably wouldn’t, either.
“Once I get the studio open, you’ll have to give it a try,” she said.
“If you’ll be there, I’ll do it,” Kyle volunteered.
Presley hadn’t expected either of them to flirt with her. When she’d lived here before, she’d always had the feeling that they considered themselves too good for her. They’d been popular and well-adjusted from the beginning; she’d been a lost and lonely outcast who’d made some very poor choices. She might’ve been flattered at how her reception had changed, but she was too worried that she was about to be confronted by Aaron. She didn’t want to speak to him. It made no difference how many times she told herself that he wasn’t the right man for her, that their relationship had been unbalanced and unhealthy; she couldn’t stop longing for his smile, his laugh, his touch.
Not that the difficulty of getting over him should have come as any surprise. Her whole life had been a series of struggles.
“Great. I should be open for business in another week.” She had to open soon. She couldn’t go without income for much longer. “See you there.”
She could feel their eyes on her as she moved away, could tell they were startled she’d brushed them off. But with Aaron in the room…all she wanted to do was melt into the background. Just the sight of his perfectly sculpted face, which was almost too pretty despite the scar he’d gotten in a fight, was enough to drag her to a place of weakness and craving.
He was like the crack cocaine that’d taken control of her life before. She had to avoid him as avidly as all the other things that had nearly destroyed her.
It wasn’t until she stepped through the curtain and into the dark storeroom where Angelica Hansen, owner of Turn the Page, received her inventory that Presley relaxed. She’d reached safety, a hidden corner where he’d be unlikely to look for her. Once Aaron left, she’d pay for her book and get out of there.
But when she turned, intending to peek out at those in the front of the store, she collided with his hard, unyielding chest as he came through the curtain.
He grabbed her before she could fall over the stack of books at her feet, drawing her up against him. “What are you doing back here?”
Breaking his hold before the smell or feel of him could erode her resolve, Presley stumbled, which sent the books flying. She was lucky they didn’t trip her as they almost had before. “I…needed room to breathe. It’s so…crowded out there. I thought I’d wait here for a few minutes, until the line was shorter.”
His eyes narrowed slightly at the way she’d scrambled out of reach so quickly. Or maybe it was her reason for seeking the storeroom that gave him pause. Did he think she was trying to steal Ted’s book?
Or had he figured out the truth? He’d always been perceptive—too quick-witted for his own good…and hers. He was the sensitive Amos brother, the one who’d taken the loss of his mother and everything that’d happened after her suicide the hardest. But he didn’t comment on the fact that she was still backing away.
“I heard you moved into the old Mullins place two weeks ago,” he said.
She had to tilt her head to look into his face. “I did.”
“Then…where have you been?”
Was he asking why she hadn’t contacted him? “I’ve been busy.”
“That means you’re never home?”
Her stomach muscles tightened again. “You’ve dropped by?”
“I didn’t bother to knock. I never see a car in the carport.”
“I don’t have a car anymore.” She’d sold her new Hyundai several months ago so she could get out from under the payments and save enough to be able to lease a studio. She would’ve stayed in Fresno and kept saving to give herself a bigger financial cushion—would’ve opened her studio there, too—but when she found some strange marks on Wyatt, she was afraid his home day-care provider was mistreating him and decided to return to Whiskey Creek. Her sister had offered to help with child care, and once Aaron had told Cheyenne and Dylan he was relocating, going home was finally a possibility.
He hesitated. “How do you get around without a car?”
“For the most part, I walk.” Chey’s house was down the street and around the corner from hers. Her studio was two blocks in the other direction, along with the rest of downtown, making it easy to get wherever she needed to go.
“The exercise has obviously been good for you.”
She wished that compliment didn’t evoke the pleasure it did. But during the past two years, she’d judged everything by how much he’d like what she was doing, how she was changing herself. She supposed the desire to finally be admired by him was too powerful to overcome. “The owner of the thrift shop where I worked introduced me to yoga. That made the difference, more than anything else.”
“Flexible and toned.” His teeth flashed in an appreciative smile. “You look better than ever.”
“Thanks.” There were other things to explain the physical improvements—like her strict eating habits—but she didn’t want to engage him in any more conversation than she already had. He wouldn’t care what she was doing with her life—not after he realized they weren’t going to pick up where they’d left off and fall into bed.
“How have you been?” he asked. “It’s been a long time.”
And she’d felt every painstaking minute of it. She couldn’t count how often she’d almost broken down and called him. Only the risk that he might find out he was Wyatt’s father stopped her.
“Fine.” She wiped sweaty palms on her jeans. “You?”
He seemed to be faring well. He’d put on a few pounds, nicely filling out his large frame, which he’d needed to do. He’d been muscular but too wiry that last year when they’d been seeing each other. According to Cheyenne and Dylan, he’d also quit using drugs. Now that she had the chance to see him, she believed it.
“Good,” she said. “I—I’m glad to hear it.” She wished he’d leave it at that, but he didn’t move out of the doorway, and she couldn’t go anywhere while he was blocking her in.
“I was shocked to hear that you rented the Mullins cottage. That place was a cesspool when they lived there.” He grimaced. “Talk about trashy people.”
“It’s taken some serious work to make it livable.” She’d rented the two-bedroom because it was cheap and centrally located. Fortunately, where the house was concerned, a little elbow grease could make a big difference. “It’s clean now. I just have a few things still to do.”
“Paint the porch and fix the fence. Plant some flowers out front.”
He hooked his thumbs in his pockets. “Flowers?”
“Anything wrong with flowers?”
“Sounds like you’re planning to stay for a while.”
“You weren’t that domestic when you left.”
She hadn’t had a child then, but she didn’t want to draw his attention to that, since he didn’t know he was the one who’d made her a mother. “It’s tough to be too focused on everyday concerns when all you care about is getting high.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He rubbed his jaw. “I take it you’ve changed.”
“I can see that.”
No, he couldn’t. Not yet. He assumed the changes were superficial, that she’d eventually fall at his feet the way she had before.
“I would’ve helped you clean up the rental,” he said. “You should’ve called me.”
She cleared her throat. “It wasn’t necessary. I managed.”
His eyes became guarded and inscrutable. He was figuring out that the “changes” he’d noticed included an unwillingness to associate with him. “Couldn’t have been easy to get all that done, not with a baby.”
Tentacles of fear slithered around her heart and squeezed. This was his first mention of Wyatt. She had to be careful, had to handle his perceptions carefully from the start. Any hint of suspicion on his part could destroy her happiness. “No, but I could’ve had Wyatt’s father come and help. He would have, if I’d needed him.”
“Doesn’t he live in Arizona?”
Cheyenne had supplied everyone with this information, even Dylan. “He does, but he could come here. He has money, and he cares about Wyatt.”
“You’re in touch with him, then? He’s a stand-up guy?” He sounded hopeful, as if he wanted that for her. There was no reason he wouldn’t. To her knowledge, he’d never wished her ill, never done anything purposely to hurt her. He’d been too self-absorbed, but that was simply a byproduct of the fact that he’d never really cared about her, not like she’d cared about him.
“We don’t have a relationship beyond Wyatt,” she said, “but…he’s a great father.”
“That’s got to make a big difference.”
If Wyatt’s father helped out to any significant degree, she wouldn’t have had to clean the worst property in town in order to have a place to live but, thankfully, Aaron didn’t seem to make the connection. “It does,” she said. “And soon I’ll be earning good money myself.”
“As a yoga instructor, right?”
“And a massage therapist,” she added so no one would be surprised when she advertised her services. She wanted everyone to understand from the beginning that she’d be doing both. She needed all the legitimacy she could establish.
“How’d you get into that?”
“I met someone at yoga who became my roommate. He was a massage therapist.”
“We’ve never been together, if that’s what you’re asking. Roger was gay. He paid half the rent and got me into massage.”
“I see. Do you have a license or…whatever it takes?”
“I did some yoga-teacher training. And I’m a certified massage therapist.” Luckily for her, a government grant had covered her schooling and Wyatt’s day-care expenses while she attended class.
“You’ve got big plans. When will you be open for business?”
“In a week, if everything goes well.” After she’d painted the interior of her studio and built her own tenant improvements, like the reception counter. She didn’t know much about construction but with the price of supplies she couldn’t afford to hire anyone, so she’d just have to learn. Dylan would do what he could, and Cheyenne would help when she wasn’t working at Little Mary’s B and B, but her sister and brother-in-law had their own lives, and she was in a hurry to get it done.
“Great.” He winked at her. “I’ll be your first customer.”
She knew he thought he was being charming, but she stiffened all the same. “Excuse me?”
He stared at her. “I said I’d become a client.”
“But…it’s not what you think.”
His smile faded at her affronted tone. “What do I think?”
“I’ll be running two legitimate businesses, Aaron. I don’t…I don’t party anymore. Or do anything else that might interest you.”
He scowled. “Because you know so much about what interests me after being gone for two years?”
“I know the only thing I’ve got that interests you. It’s all I’ve ever had. And I’m no longer willing to…to be one of your many sex partners. That’s not the life I’ve chosen for myself.”
“Many partners? Are we counting?”
She shook her head. “I’m not judging you.”
That hadn’t come out right. She had no grounds to criticize anyone, and she knew it. “I’m not the same person I was, that’s all.”
A muscle flexed in his cheek. “You’re saying I took advantage of you before?”
He’d had a few brushes with the law, so his reputation wasn’t any more sterling than hers. The Fearsome Five, as he and his brothers had been called, were used to being blamed even for things they didn’t do—although she doubted that would continue. The last chief of police had recently been fired for misconduct; the new one didn’t seem quite so drunk on his own power.
“No.” She shook her head again for emphasis. “What happened before was entirely my fault. You never asked me to follow you around like a puppy or to crawl into your bed whenever I had the chance.” She laughed as she rolled her eyes. “It must’ve driven you crazy to have me hanging on your every word, your every move. I’m sorry I was so annoying.”
He didn’t laugh with her. “Yeah, that was pretty miserable.”
She could hear the sarcasm in his statement. He’d probably forgotten how much she used to irritate him, but she remembered. When her mother died, she’d instinctively gone to him for comfort, but he’d turned her away with a few sharp words for waking him in the middle of the night.
Still, she didn’t hold that against him. Not really. She just wanted the next man in her life to care a little more.
“I’m sure it was,” she said, taking his words as if he’d meant them literally. “But I won’t bother you this time around. I—I’m looking for other things.”
“So you’ve said.” Jaw hard, lips tight, he leaned one shoulder against the doorframe. Obviously, he wasn’t happy with the way this was going. She could tell because of the badass attitude he’d adopted. It might’ve made her uneasy—that cutting glare made most people nervous—but she couldn’t imagine he’d get angry just because she preferred to keep her distance. He’d never wanted her to begin with. So why would it matter now if she refused to have any contact with him? He could have practically any woman he wanted. Even those who pretended to be too good for him sometimes cast longing glances in his direction.
“And what, exactly, are these other ‘things’ you’re looking for?” he asked.
“A husband for me and a great, uh, stepfather for Wyatt. A committed relationship.” Which counted him out.
“So…if you’ll excuse me…”
He didn’t react. He was too busy searching her face with those hazel eyes of his. Maybe he was hoping to find the old Presley, but she hadn’t been lying when she said that person was gone.
When she stepped closer, indicating that she expected him to get out of the way, he shoved off from the wall and waved her past him with an exaggerated flourish. “Be my guest.”
Gone was the flicker of excitement she’d seen when he first addressed her. His expression had turned implacable, stony. But she had no reason to regret her words. She’d only done what she had to do. And she’d taken responsibility for the past, laid nothing at his feet.
“Thank you,” she said softly, and walked into the front, although it felt as if she was dragging her heart on the floor behind her.
Now she wouldn’t have to worry about running into him in the future, she told herself. They could both work to avoid each other—cross over to the other side of the street, if necessary. That would make the next few weeks or months, however long it took him to move to Reno, easier.
So why did her eyes sting with unshed tears and her throat feel like she’d just swallowed a grapefruit?
She was standing in line, face hot and pulse racing, when Kyle and Riley stopped Aaron as he strode toward the front of the store. They greeted him, and he responded, sounding perfectly fine. Her rejection hadn’t stung at all—which proved he’d never really cared about her to begin with. He’d used her, but the way she’d thrown herself at him made it equally her fault.
“Hey, Presley’s here,” Kyle said. “Have you seen her?”
She curled the fingernails of her free hand into her palm, praying she wouldn’t have to hear Aaron’s response. But there was no missing it. She couldn’t have kept herself from listening even if she’d had the power to do so.
“From a distance,” he said.
There’d been very little distance between them when he saved her from falling over those books, but she didn’t begrudge him a white lie. She just wished the line would move faster so she could get out of the bookstore.
“She’s opening a yoga studio one store down from Callie’s photography studio,” Riley informed him. “She’ll be doing massage there, too.”
There was an undercurrent in that statement, as if they all considered it pretty amusing. No doubt everyone was wondering if there’d be additional services she couldn’t advertise. But that was her fault, too. It would take time to live down what she’d been like before.
“One-stop shopping,” Aaron said dryly.
Assuming he was playing into those suspicions, Presley flinched.
“She’ll have no trouble coming up with paying customers,” Riley said. “Not the way she looks these days.”
“She looks about the same to me,” Aaron said, and moved away.
He was leaving. Presley’s internal “Aaron radar” tracked him to the door. Then, in spite of her efforts to keep her eyes on the person in front of her, she glanced over to catch a final glimpse of him—and found him looking at her again. This time his expression wasn’t inscrutable as much as it was bewildered. But that hurt-little-boy pout disappeared beneath a mask of indifference as soon as he realized she was watching, and he stepped out.