Authors: Lori Wilde
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Natalie said. “There are fishing poles in the attic. I keep them there for guests. Let’s go get them.”
“It’s all right.” Gizmo scratched his cheek with fingernails that had been bitten to the quick. “I want a pole of my own.”
“Are you sure?” Natalie asked. “What if you don’t care for fishing?”
Gizmo’s shoulders humped up, and then slid back down in a slow shrug. “What’s not to like?”
“For one thing”—Natalie smiled—“you have to get up early.”
“Yeah, there is that.” Gizmo didn’t meet her eyes. Then again, he rarely met anyone’s direct gaze. He was an odd kid, but he never caused any trouble and paid his rent on time.
“For another thing, you have to stab the minnows on the hook.” She shuddered. “I hate that part.”
Gizmo’s eyes widened. “Dude, you didn’t tell me nothin’ ’bout stabbing minnows.”
“How did you think the minnows were going to get on the hook?” Lars asked. “They don’t climb on there themselves to suit you.”
Gizmo toed the ground, jammed his hands in his pocket. “It’s brutal.”
“Sometimes life requires brutality of us.” Lars’s chiseled mouth pressed into a hard line.
“I’m leaving the minnow stabbing up to you,” Gizmo said staunchly. “Got it?”
Lars shook his head. “That’s the trouble with young people these days. They want everything handed to them.”
“Yo, dude.” Gizmo held up his palms, waggled them back and forth in a no-no gesture. “If you’re gonna rag on me, I ain’t going fishin’ with you.”
“You’re going fishing.” Lars’s tone was steely and commanding.
Natalie swiveled her head to stare at him. Why did he care whether Gizmo went fishing?
Lars puffed out his chest. “To be fully alive is to feel that everything is possible.”
Natalie raised her eyebrows. “Hoffer?”
“Hoffer is very profound,” Lars said. “Are you listening, Gizmo?”
Gizmo might not be, but Natalie was. That was exactly what was happening to her. For the first time in her life, Dade made her feel fully, one hundred percent alive. So alive that the faith that had kept her a virgin for so long, before it had grown shaky, returned to settle and gel.
Hope could be a dangerous thing. Maybe there really was such a thing as love at first sight, but just because Dade made her feel alive didn’t mean that it was love. The only way to discover the truth was to find someone else who made her feel equally alive and compare the two.
Like that was so easy to do. She’d waited twenty-nine years to feel this way. Mind games. She was playing mind games with herself and she was losing.
“Well,” Natalie said, “if you’re certain you don’t want to use the Cupid’s Rest fishing equipment, I’ll leave you to your minnow hunting.”
“We appreciate the offer, Natty,” Lars said. “You’re too generous.”
“Have you met our new boarder yet?” Natalie asked, interested in knowing Lars’s opinion about Dade. Over the years, Lars had become something of a father figure to her, and she valued his opinion.
“Ah, the dark loner who has taken up Red’s former abode,” murmured Lars.
“What do you think of him?”
“Seems like a hard-ass to me, yo,” Gizmo commented. “He glares a lot.”
Natalie met Lars’s eyes.
“I don’t want to prejudice you,” Lars said.
Natalie’s breath hitched. “But?”
“I’m not sure that I trust him.”
Lars looked dubious. “It’s probably nothing. I just miss Red. He’s not Red.”
No, Dade certainly was not Red. “He probably won’t be staying very long. I just wondered what your impression of him was.”
“You’re attracted to him,” Lars said flatly.
Natalie couldn’t deny it. “He’s a handsome man.”
“You could do so much better. You deserve far better than some transient outsider.” Lars shifted, and his eyes narrowed at something he spotted over the top of Natalie’s head.
She glanced over her shoulder.
Dade came jogging up the path.
Her stomach did a back flip. God, this was getting ridiculous. Would she ever be able to look at the man without her vital signs going all wonky?
“Morning, folks.” Dade’s smile was slick, but his eyes were wary, as if he suspected them of some kind of conspiracy.
been talking about him behind his back, and Natalie’s face gave her away when she was guilty. Because of that, she’d never been able to get away with lying. Gram had caught her every time she’d tried to tell a fib.
The heat of Dade’s gaze was already starting to burn her. “I better get to work,” she mumbled, unnerved, and pushed her bike toward the house.
Dade moved to open the back gate for her. She rushed through, and in her haste, her elbow accidentally clipped his bare, hard-muscled abs.
The power of the contact went through her like an electrical shock.
Oh sweet heaven.
The involuntary sound that came out of her mouth dazed her. It was a moan, low and needy.
Dade made a noise of his own, a startled, sexy grunt.
His face was unreadable. A stone would have shown more emotion, but she could feel the testosterone radiating off him and she had an irresistible urge to plaster herself up against him.
Her heartbeat thundered.
She had to do something about these riotous emotions. Had to stop this lustiness in its tracks. She had to find someone else to get hot and bothered over, because if she didn’t, Natalie feared she would give in to temptation and fall heedlessly for him.
She had to get herself under control.
Tossing her head, she moved forward, determined to appear just as circumspect as he. So what if he turned her on? Big deal.
But it was a big deal because this as the first time she’d ever felt so swept away. A very big deal indeed.
The problem was, you couldn’t be both controlled and liberated. If she wanted love, she was going to have to take a risk and let go.
You can resist all you want, but denial won’t make love go away.
atty?” Zoey’s voice broke through Natalie’s mental fog.
At three o’clock that same afternoon, Natalie stood at the front desk making a to-do list. The Fourth of July was the following Thursday, and it was their biggest holiday weekend of the year. They were booked up, even the smallest room normally reserved for storage. She had so much to get done—decorating, shopping, and cleaning.
Blinking, she looked up to meet her sister’s curious gaze. “Huh?”
“Hello?” Zoey knocked gently on Natalie’s temple. “You with me?”
“How do you do it?” Natalie mused.
“Do what?” Zoey opened the lid on the candy jar that Natalie kept on the desk for guests. She took out a bite-sized Twix bar and peeled off the wrapping.
“Juggle so many men without getting hurt.”
Zoey shrugged, munched the Twix bar. “Not so many. Just seeing Seth and Ryan right now.”
“Do they know about each other?”
“They know I’m not exclusive. I make that clear from the start with every guy I meet.”
“You don’t want anything long-term?”
“Jeez, Nat, I’m twenty-two. I haven’t even finished college, why would I want to settle down?”
“But how do you keep from falling for these guys?”
“Oh, I get it. You’re still freaked out about answering Shot Through the Heart’s letter. Is Aunt Carol Ann breathing down your neck? I thought she gave you until Monday.”
“Listen, it’s not that big a deal. Tell Shot Through the Heart that true love waits and she should get her education first.”
“Really? That’s the answer you’d give?”
“Sure. Why so surprised? What did you think I’d tell her to do? Throw away everything for some guy?”
“You seriously underestimate me, sis.”
It dawned on Natalie that one of the reasons Zoey was taking so long getting through school might not be just that she couldn’t make up her mind about her field of study. She was delaying growing up. “Does it?”
“Does true love wait?”
“How should I know? I’ve never been in love, but it seems like the kind of answer people like to hear.” Zoey fished in the candy jar, and came up with an Almond Joy.
“Those are for the guests.”
“Take it out of my allowance.” She popped the candy into her mouth.
“You still didn’t answer my question. How do you keep from falling in love with these guys you date?”
“Unlike you, my faith in the thunderbolt has never wavered. When it strikes, I’m confident that I’ll just
“So . . . you’re still a virgin?”
Zoey snorted. “What century are you living in?”
“But you just said you were holding out for the thunderbolt.”
“For marriage, not sex.”
“There’s nothing wrong with waiting to be in love before you have sex,” Natalie said lightly.
“C’mon, this isn’t the Dark Ages where women give their virginity as a gift to their husband on their wedding night.”
“It’s romantic though and special.”
“Women now days are free to claim their sexuality.” Zoey pumped her fist in the air. “We have birth control. We’re not hidebound by some archaic patriarchal structure that says only men get to have fun before they settle down.”
“Sex has consequences beside pregnancy and genital diseases. That level of intimacy with another person involves a great deal of trust. Treat sex casually and it ceases to have meaning.”
“There’s nothing wrong with recreational sex as long as you take precautions,” Zoey said.
“If being promiscuous is an acceptable choice, then why isn’t celibacy?”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t acceptable, just totally unrealistic. Who today, beyond the most deeply religious, hang on to their virginity beyond their early twenties?”
“Lots of women.” Natalie busied herself with stacking papers. Could her sister read her secret on her face?
“Not anyone I know.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“If you’re trying to convince me to save myself for marriage, gotta tell you that ship has already sailed.” Zoey gave her a funny look and got really quiet.
Natalie glanced up. “What?”
“Something just occurred to me. Something I never considered before but it would explain a lot. Natalie, are you still a vir—”
“What about the guys you string along?” Natalie rushed to cut her sister off.
Zoey kept staring at her strangely. “I never string them along. They all know I’m not serious. If a guy is the serious type, I don’t get involved with him.”
get serious. If he was The One.”
“Sure. If he’s The One. That’s what you do when you find The One. You get serious. That’s the point.”
“What would you do if you found yourself falling for a guy that you really shouldn’t fall for? Say Ryan or Seth for instance.”
Zoey pondered this while unwrapping a Three Musketeers bar. “I wouldn’t.”
“For the sake of argument, let’s say you did.” Natalie took the candy jar off the desk and stuck it in the bottom drawer.
“I’d break things off immediately.”
“But what if you weren’t even dating the guy you were falling for? Let’s say it was someone you sat next to in your anatomy class.”
“I’d drop the course and find a new guy to get involved with, pronto.”
“How would you do that?”
“Buy some new sexy clothes and hit the town.”
“Which means . . . ?”
“Chantilly’s. Unless I was in a mood to drive to Alpine, but if I’m going to be drinking, I’d need a designated driver. If I stayed in Cupid, I could just walk home from Chantilly’s. Or call you to come get me.”
“Not if I went with you.”
Zoey’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened with delight. “What?”
“I want to go out clubbing with you.”
“Are you serious?” Zoey jumped up and down.
“Wow, oh gosh, that’s amazing.” She paused in her glee. “Wait, aren’t you terrified that the world will stop spinning if you take the night off?”
“Only the Fant room is occupied tonight. I can get Lars to watch the front desk.”
Nostrils flaring, Zoey sniffed the air. “I smell sardines.”
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I went to Cousin Gina’s bachelorette party.”
“Ahem, that was two years ago and you left as soon as the stripper got there.”
“I play bingo with Junie Mae once a month at St. Stephen’s.”
“Hanging with the old ladies does not count.”
“I like hanging with them.”
Zoey pretended to fall asleep and snore loudly. She opened one eye. “You’ve got your whole life to be boring.”
“Maybe I’m starting to realize that.”
“Or maybe . . .” Zoey scooted her fanny up onto the desk, studied Natalie a long moment. “You’re starting to like a guy and he scares you.” She snapped her fingers. “Yes, yes. That’s it. Why else were you asking me all those questions? Why else do you suddenly want to party with your kid sister?”
“That’s not it—”
“Omigod!” Zoey hopped down off the desk. “It’s the new boarder. You’ve got the hots for our new boarder!”
“I do not,” Natalie denied, but her face burned crimson.
Zoey grabbed Natalie’s shoulders. “Is he The One? Did you feel it?”
“Of course not. I barely know him.”
“You’re lying. Your left eyelid twitches when you lie.”
“It does not.” Natalie put a hand to her eyelid. It was twitching.
“Oh wow, I can’t believe this, I can’t wait to tell—”
Natalie snagged her sister by the arm. “You will
tell anyone anything because there is nothing to tell.”
Zoey did a little dance, executing a few Zumba moves. “I thought it was never going to happen to you.”
“It hasn’t happened to me.”
“Methinks thou doth protest too much.”
“He makes me feel . . .”
“Yes?” Zoey leaned forward, drinking it in.
Natalie took a deep breath. “I dunno. Restless.” That much was certainly true.
“Restless is a great start.” Zoey rubbed her palms together.
“It just dawned on me I’m not going to meet anyone suitable by staying home and working 24/7. It’s time I got out.”
“I’m not going to question whatever it is that caused you to figure this out,” Zoey said. “I’m just happy you’re willing to do something about it. And you’re in luck. They’re having a Life Saver relay at Chantilly’s tonight.”
“What’s a Life Saver relay?”
“You’ll see. It’s a lot of fun.”
“But Chantilly’s?” That was where Dade worked. She couldn’t avoid him if she went where he worked, but if she admitted that, then Zoey would know for certain that Dade was the one she was having these feelings for. “Why not go to Alpine?”
“I don’t think you’re ready for Alpine. Trust me, you should start small.”
There wasn’t another club in Cupid. It was Chantilly’s or nothing. Natalie hesitated. “I changed my mind. Forget I brought it up.”
“No, no, no, sister mine. We’re doing this.”
Okay, just because Dade was at Chantilly’s didn’t mean she couldn’t scout out other guys. In fact, what better way to prove that he didn’t have any power over her, right? If she rearranged her life to avoid him, then
would be power. In fact, now she
to go to Chantilly’s to prove that he did not have power over her.
Zoey picked up the receiver off the cordless phone dock on the desk and passed it to Natalie.
“Call Lars to come babysit the desk for the rest of the day. It’s time for a complete makeover. When I’m done with you, you won’t recognize yourself.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Natalie grumbled, but secretly, she was excited to try something new.
hen Zoey got finished making her over, Natalie stared in the mirror, stunned by her transformation. Her unruly curls had been ironed flat, her eyes were expertly lined and shadowed, her lips looked plump and pouty. Zoey’s shimmery green sheath dress hugged Natalie’s body, giving added curves to her lean figure. If it weren’t for the blasted AFO and the Keds, she would have been a knockout.
Duh. Just duh. She had no idea that a new hairstyle and a little makeup could make such a big difference.
“Told ya. I’ve been waiting years for this.” Zoey followed Natalie’s gaze down to her shoes. “Do you have to wear that darned contraption?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“What would happen if you didn’t wear it?”
“I’d wake up tomorrow with a horrific backache.” She bent to tie her sneakers.
“Wouldn’t it be worth it? For just one night?”
“Not really. I have a lot to do tomorrow.” She straightened, smoothed her hands over the silky material. She really did look dorky in such a nice dress and Keds.
Zoey picked up her pair of Stuart Weitzmans with kitten heels. “C’mon, just once?”
Natalie reached out longingly to stroke the shoes. “I’d twist my ankle, fall, and break my neck.”
“You’d only have to walk from the car into the club. After that, you just sit at the table and show off those legs.”
Natalie shook her head. “This whole thing is beyond stupid. It’s not like I can dance or anything. I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going.” She reached around for the zipper on the dress.
Zoey put a hand out to stop her. “Oh, no way. You’re just scared.”
“C’mon, you’re not going to let that bum leg dictate your life.”
“Um, to some degree, it
dictate my life.”
“Forget the Stuart Weitzmans, but don’t back out.”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“That’s because it’s something new. Please, sis, do it for me. I’d love for us to go out and have fun together. You know we’ve never had any fun together,” Zoey pleaded.
“We’ve had fun,” Natalie protested. “I’ve taken you to the movies and picnics in the park and the circus and—”
Zoey yawned. “Pleasant outings to be sure, but not
“Well,” Natalie said defensively. “Excuse me for being crippled.”
“It’s not the limp that’s the issue.”
“Pretty much. Can’t really dance or ski or skate or play slow-pitch softball with this leg.”
“It’s the excuse you like to hide behind.”
“That’s not true. Don’t you think I want to be like everyone else?” Natalie put on a pair of emerald earrings.
“Then let’s go.” Zoey picked up her purse.
Natalie stared at her gorgeous younger sister. “There’s no way I can compete with you.”
“You don’t have to,” Zoey linked her arms through Natalie’s. “Just be yourself. Tonight is about having fun. No pressure. No expectations. Just let your hair down and par-
Natalie waved at the mirror. “That is not me.”
“For tonight it is.”
Natalie hauled in a deep breath and reminded herself why she was doing this: to find some more suitable guy to obsess about. “All right. Let’s do this.”
y the time they arrived at Chantilly’s, the parking lot was packed. The nightclub was situated next door to the marina and directly across the lake from the Cupid’s Rest. There was a back porch patio deck that stretched out over the water. White twinkle lights were strung in the trees over the deck. Out on the water, party barges cruised, and the smell of fried catfish scented the air. Alternative rock music vibrated through the open door—the very door that Dade was blocking with a red velvet rope as he checked identification.
He wore snug-fitting jeans, a black Chantilly’s T-shirt, and a straw cowboy hat that had seen better days. She’d never seen a more breathtaking sight.
Zoey jostled her elbow. “C’mon.”
Adrenaline pumped through her. Run.
“This is a really bad idea.”
“It’s a splendid idea.” Zoey nudged her forward.