Hannah’s eyes burned and her head ached from the effort not to cry as she pulled into a parking spot at Foodland. At eight o’clock that morning she’d walked into the veterinarian’s office a dog owner. Three hours later she’d walked out…not.
She cut the engine, her forehead dropped to the steering wheel. She’d known Max wasn’t himself, that he might be sick, that eleven was old for a dog, especially a large shepherd mix. But she hadn’t expected to hear the words nothing we can do, or best thing for him.
Biting her lip against tears, she forced herself out and into a spring day so bright and beautiful she couldn’t decide if it was cheerful or a slap in the face.
She grabbed a cart and mentally planned her route, hitting produce first. Avocados, jalapeños, tomatoes. She searched her fuzzy brain for what else she needed for guacamole, her standard contribution when she went to her brother’s. Exactly where she did not want to go tonight. She didn’t want to watch the brothers who’d raised her tiptoeing around, giving one another worried looks, thinking they needed to fix it like they always did. They couldn’t fix this. A lot of things couldn’t be fixed.
Finished with that, she silently repeated the rest. Chips, bread, beer. Chips, bread, milk, beer. She added things and ticked them off as she went. But old habits were hard to break, and like a car on autopilot, she found herself in the dog food aisle.
All she saw were Max’s big eyes fixed on hers. Trusting her when she said it would be okay, not understanding the vet’s syringe was filled with enough anesthesia he’d never wake up. The lump in her throat swelled until she couldn’t swallow past it. Her nose burned and the bags in front of her blurred.
Just get the beer and go. She wheeled around and turned the corner of the next aisle.
She couldn’t handle a pity party tonight. Of course if she didn’t go, if she said she just wanted to hang out at home, they’d cancel the whole March Madness deal and insist on coming to her house. Her house, where a certain brown-eyed shepherd wouldn’t be waiting. An enormous weight settled on her chest.
Don’t cry. She scanned the beer case and swiped at her eyes. She wasn’t going to cry. She bit down on her bottom lip.
Damn it. She was. No wonder her brothers treated her like glass. Broken glass.
Hannah jerked at the deep voice beside her. Right beside her and way too close. Dark, tall, and wide, the man filled out his expensive-looking black suit like an athlete entering the stadium tunnel before a game.
He angled his head, smiled, and her heart actually stumbled.
“You know, people usually cry in their beer after they drink it. Just saying.”
He continued to study her with soft brown eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she didn’t want to look away. But she did. And pulled the sides of the long-sleeved shirt she wore open over a tank top closer together. Because of the frigid air coming from the beer case, and because no matter what she had on, no matter how covered, she could never shake the feeling people could somehow see through to what lay beneath. “Well, I’m done now.”
He looked back to the case as well, but even from the side she could see a smirk pulling at his lips. “That’s good.”
She grabbed a six-pack of AmberBock, spun her buggy around, and headed to the front, feeling the stranger’s eyes burning her back the entire way.
Stephen McKinney watched her go, enjoying the way she moved in tan riding breeches that hugged her legs before they disappeared into tall, brown leather boots. He smiled, enjoying it a little longer. Golden-blond hair hung in a long, loose braid nearly to her waist. He had a flash of it tangled in his fingers, spread across silk sheets. Beautiful. And gone.
He loosened his tie and opened the top buttons of his dress shirt as he made his way through the express lane.
Still feeling a stab of disappointment, he exited alone. But the sun warmed him and, it seemed, blessed him, with extreme luck, because, as he stashed his items in the tiny trunk of his Porsche, he caught sight of Goldilocks pushing her cart straight toward him.
Grinning, he pretended to search his bags as she made a wide birth around him and stopped at the neighboring car—a black 4Runner that had seen better days. She rearranged some piles in the back, then stashed her groceries, not once looking at him.
While she delivered her cart to the holding pen, he closed his trunk and stepped around to lean against the side. He waited, watched, noting the deliberate way she walked. Tall and lean, though he still had a good six inches on her.
Still several feet away, she slowed, a touch of fight-or-flight in her eyes. She took a few more steps, maintaining a certain distance he felt compelled to close. But he stayed where he was, legs crossed in front of him, effectively blocking her way. “Have dinner with me.”
Golden eyes blinked up at him. Not the shade of the gold bars stacked inside the national reserve, more like the dark whiskey he’d drunk too much of not so long ago.
“I’m asking you to dinner.”
She looked around again, seeming more concerned with the parking lot than with him. “Oh.”
Not exactly an answer and not the effect he usually had on women. “Stephen,” he said and offered his hand.
She hesitated so long, he thought she might leave him hanging. But finally, and with obvious reluctance, she slipped her small hand into his. He got a little buzz from the slide of her palm against his. He imagined the rest of her would be just as soft. “Your name?”