A woman in a man’s world…
CPA Rebecca Walker wields a hammer and saw with skill, but it’s like fighting tooth and nail to prove to her chauvinistic father that she’s capable of managing the family construction business. Romance is a luxury Rebecca can’t afford.
A man with secrets…
Thanks to his past, romance isn’t in Sean Kinkaid’s future, so when Rebecca proposes ‘friends with benefits,’ Sean agrees. It’s the perfect scenario until love sneaks in—and Sean’s secrets tear them apart.
But Rebecca has a secret too, one she fears Sean will never accept. It will take intervention from an unlikely source to convince these two lovers they have the one thing neither of them ever expected to find…a love to believe.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Love to Believe by Lisa Ricard Claro, Rebecca Walker is the sister of Caleb Walker from the first book in the series. Rebecca’s got it bad for Sean Kinkaid who happens to be the brother-in-law to Maggie Kinkaid, the widow of Sean’s brother Jack. Rebecca doesn’t have time for romance and wants a no-strings arrangement for sex. Or so she thinks. So Sean is the perfect choice since he claims to want the same thing. Except they’re family—sort of. And if things don’t work and there are hard feelings, it could cause awkward family gatherings for years. It’s a risk neither of them are sure they want to take. Then there’s the guy stalking her, a missing cat, and secrets from the past on both sides that complicate the mix.
The story is a fun read, with a strong unpredictable plot, and plenty of fast-paced action. A good book for an evening when you’re home alone, and don’t want to be, as it lets you connect with old friends from the first book and meet new ones.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Love to Believe by Lisa Ricard Claro revolves around Rebecca Walker who’s working in her family’s construction business, against her father’s wishes. Rebecca, sister to Caleb from Love Built to Last, is a strong, independent woman, more than capable of taking care of herself. But she’s up to her ears in alligators, trying to do the work of three people and prove to her father that she can handle running the family business while he recovers from his heart attack. She doesn’t have time for a serious relationship. All she wants is some great, no-strings sex with a hot hunk—and who can blame her?—but when she chooses Sean Kinkaid to have it with, it’s a recipe for trouble.
Love to Believe is a story about love, self-reliance, and miscommunication that’s well-written, heartwarming, exciting, and fun. Claro just gets better with every new book. I can’t wait for the next one.
A key scraped in the front door of the Walker & Son Construction management office. Rebecca Walker jerked her head toward the sound, her eyes going wide. A second later the deadbolt slid to the unlocked position with a thunk.
“No, wait!” She scrambled for her jeans. “Don’t come in!”
The door swung open and the two men at the threshold watched with surprised appreciation as their operations manager shimmied into a holey pair of skinny jeans, affording them a brief glimpse of her butt-hugging boy-shorts. When their attention rose to her lacy push-up bra their smiles expanded.
“Rebecca? You still there?” A disembodied voice crackled from the glow of a laptop sitting on the desk, facing away from Rebecca.
Rebecca thrust her face in front of the laptop video cam. “Hold on, Vern, okay? Just gimme a second.”
“Holy crap,” fifteen-year-old Vern choked through a mouthful of sparkling orthodontia. “Are you naked?”
Rebecca slapped the laptop shut, grabbed the sweater lying on her desk and yanked it over her head without regard for the clip keeping her coppery curls under control. Helped along by the wrenching of the bulky knit, the clip popped free and bounced out of sight. When Rebecca’s head popped through the neck of the sweater her spirals sprang out in wild abandon. She opened the laptop and stuck her face in view of the screen again. “Hold on, Vern, okay? Just a sec.” To the men grinning in the doorway, she said, “What part of ‘wait, don’t come in’ did you two not understand? Shut the door, for Pete’s sake, you’re letting all the cold air in. And how’d you get a key?”
“It ain’t that we didn’t hear ya,” Trey, the younger and lankier of the two men drawled, “we just was already fixin’ to open the door.” He gulped, and his eyes bulged with the effort.
Rebecca stared, ever fascinated by Trey’s uncanny ability to look like a human Chihuahua.
“And if I may say,” the older and fleshier of the two began, his eyes bright with amusement, “you’re looking particularly lovely this–”
“No, Howard, you may not say and, if you do, you’re fired.” Rebecca dragged her gaze from Trey’s protuberant eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. She mustered a stern look and directed it at Howard, who was old enough to know better, annoyed that both men continued to gawk although she was now covered ankle to throat. “It’s after hours, and I locked that door for a reason.”
“Right. Well.” Howard shrugged and swallowed his smile. “Big Will gave us the key and the code. We’ve got finishing work on the Bartholomew building in Gainesville tomorrow and there’s some notes we’re supposed to bring. Cal made some changes.”
“Rebecca? You still there?” Vern called from the ether. “Becca?”
She grabbed the laptop and lifted it up to eye level. Vern’s pimpled face filled her line of vision. “Sorry. I’m trying to multitask, and failing. You want me to call you later?”
“I just wanted to make sure you’re still there.”
“Still here, Vern.”
“I’ll wait. You’re the best tutor out there, and this econ homework is killing me.” He adjusted his chunky glasses, and his face loomed large as he leaned closer to the camera on his end. “Hey, are you still naked?”
Rebecca snapped the laptop shut. A second later her cell phone rang out the Hawaii 5-0 theme song she had designated for the sheriff’s deputy she was dating. She set the laptop down and snatched up the phone.
“Hey, Nate. Can you hold on?” She muted the call and turned back to the two men in the doorway. “I assume Dad told you where you’d find them.”
“Uh, yes’m.” Trey pointed to the closed door beyond Rebecca’s desk. “On a clipboard on his desk.”
She waved them in with her hand. “Be speedy. I’m trying to get out of here. I’ve got someplace to be.”
Rebecca stood in the doorway to the office her father sometimes shared with her brother, Caleb, and watched Howard and Trey poke around on the desk, a scarred and dented monstrosity purchased new by her Grampa Boone at an office supply sale down in Atlanta sometime in the 1950s. She tapped her bare foot on the thin carpet and made a mental note to talk to her father about not handing out keys to the office without first giving her a head’s up.
“Got it.” Howard held the clipboard over his head like he’d won a prize.
“Okay, guys. Out.” She closed and locked the inner office, strode across the room to the front office door and opened it with a flourish. “Not one word to anyone about seeing me in my undies. I’d hate to have to bury you under a ton of concrete. ”
“Yes’m.” Trey nodded, his Chihuahua eyes warm and sincere.
“And don’t forget who does your time cards.”
The men grinned and waved on their way out. Rebecca smiled back, locking the door behind them–not that doing so would keep anyone out, apparently–and took her boyfriend off mute.
“Hey, Nate. Sorry about that. I’m trying to do too many things at once.”
“I’m used to it.”
Rebecca cringed. “Are you at the party already?”
“Yes, Rebecca, I am and you’re not. Big surprise.”
“Oh, c’mon, big guy, don’t be mad. My meeting with the inspector ran over, and I promised Vern I’d help him with his econ paper.” Vern. Oh, crap! “Hey, Nate, hold on a sec, will you?”
She hit the mute button and opened the laptop. Vern’s face popped into view. “Sorry about that. Can you hold on just another sec?”
“You still naked?”
She cringed. “Ice those hormones, buddy. That was a flash you weren’t supposed to see. Listen, I’ve got Nate on the phone. Wait two seconds and I’ll give you my undivided attention. Okay?”
Rebecca shut the laptop again, took a breath, and unmuted the phone.
“Rebecca, this has to stop. You can’t keep standing me up.”
“I’m not standing you up. I’ll be there. I mean I have to, right? It’s my brother’s engagement party. Can’t miss that.” She forced a laugh. Nate’s silence spoke for him. “I’m really sorry. There was a problem at one of the job sites and–look, I’ll be there within the hour. Who all’s there?”
“Almost everybody. If you’re not here before eight, you’re going to miss surprising Caleb and Maddie.”
“Let’s hang up so I can help Vern with his homework, and then I’ll be on my way.”
“Can’t the kid figure it out himself?”
“Do you want to argue with me, or let me go so I can finish helping Vern and get to the party?”
After a protracted silence, Nate responded with a curt, “Bye.”
Rebecca shut her eyes and took a breath. She blew it out in a puff, tossed the phone on the desk, dropped into her chair and checked the time. She could give Vern twenty minutes and still get to the Kinkaids’ house by eight as long as nothing else held her up. She tucked her long legs underneath her, opened the laptop, and plastered on a smile.
Thirty minutes later she powered off her computer and made a final trip to the bathroom before heading off to the party. She wrestled her curls into some semblance of submission with an elastic band she’d found at the bottom of her purse and perused the results in the bathroom mirror. Giant top-knot messy buns were in, right?
So what if she looked like the love child of Pebbles Flintstone and Marge Simpson. Fussing with makeup wasn’t her thing, but she figured she owed it to Nate to at least look like she tried, so she flicked a mascara wand against her lashes and smoothed tinted balm on her lips before flipping off the lights. She double-checked the alarm and lock, checked them again for good measure because you never could be too careful, and power-walked to her car. The parking lot was well lit, but she was still alone out here, with the building situated away from the road and behind a stand of Georgia pines so draped in dormant kudzu they looked like a cluster of muddy swamp monsters.
The November wind gusted. The shrouded pines shivered, and the whispering rustle caused Rebecca to glance around her with unease. She increased her pace, clicking the button on her key fob in rapid succession and breathing easier when the chirp-chirp signaled the unlocking of her car door. She checked the backseat for serial killers–yep, all clear–and slid behind the wheel, yanked the door shut, and hit the locks. Being inside the vehicle didn’t relieve her of the notion she was being watched, but at least she was locked up and out of the cold, safe and sound.
She took a deep breath and sighed. She really had to stop watching crime shows with Maddie and Brenna. They were making her paranoid.
Yeah, right. Like TV is to blame.
She blew out another long breath and buried the thought.
Rebecca drove from the parking lot and cranked the radio full blast, singing loud and proud with Miranda Lambert, undaunted by her own lack of a musical ear. Who needed pitch? What she lacked in talent she more than made up for with attitude and enthusiasm.
Between the pounding bass and her own singing, she never heard the boom of thunder warning of an impending downpour, nor the telltale thwunk-thwunk-thwunk when her tire went flat. The car’s suspension suddenly vibrated and the vehicle pulled to the right.
No stranger to flat tires, she gripped the steering wheel and guided her car to the shoulder of the road where she parked and gave herself a moment to curse her bad luck.
The heavens opened up the second she stepped her suede boots onto the ground. She zipped her jacket and ran around the car to confirm the flat–yep, front passenger side–and then got back in the car to call Nate.
She grabbed her phone, groaned, and tossed it back into her purse. No service. Perfect.
The dashboard clock glowed the time, and she knew she would miss the surprise portion of Caleb and Maddie’s engagement party if she didn’t get back on the road. She’d have to brave the elements. She chewed the side of her thumb, while eyeing the steady fall of rain, and steeled herself for another blast of the wet cold, courtesy of the North Georgia mountains’ November night.
“Man up, Rebecca,” she said aloud and climbed from the car.
A few minutes later, she stared into the trunk which looked just as she had left it earlier in the week. Empty, save for the folded comforter still tagged and bagged from a journey to the dry cleaners–a trip made necessary by her cat, Mr. Peabody, who had puked up two fur balls along with the remains of an unfortunate catnip mouse–and the space beneath the matting that should have housed her spare tire lay hollow.
Oh, yeah, she remembered now. She’d loaned her spare to Vern’s mom, her neighbor Etta, a few weeks ago. Never got it back. Great.
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Do either and you’re a damned fool idiot.” So went the altered quote by Rebecca’s Grampa Boone.
Rain sluicing over her, she slammed the trunk and would have run to get back into the car, but headlights winding up the two-lane highway held her to her spot of relative safety on the road’s shoulder. She cursed the other car–no, not a car, a Chevy Silverado, tricked out and badass–and its driver as she waited for them to pass. The falling rain, mixed with sleet, pricked the skin of her hands. Great. Just freaking great. She hunkered into her jacket and shivered, willing the truck to hurry by. Damn, it was cold. Since when did it sleet this early in the year anyway? It was usually January before this kind of precipitation invaded the region, and even then, this sort of bad weather wasn’t always a given.
The truck slowed as it approached. Panic trickled into Rebecca’s extremities.
No, no! Don’t slow down. Keep going!
Why was the guy stopping? What if he was some crazy serial killer? What if he whacked her on the head and forced her into his truck? He could dump her into a ditch, or drag her into the woods. She gulped. Nothing but protected state forest as far as the eye could see. Lots of places to hide a dead body.
Why today, of all days, had she left her Glock at home?
The door of the truck opened and the guy got out. She planted her stance and curled her hands into fists. The man was in for a big surprise if he thought–
“Rebecca, is that you?”
Well, hello, gorgeous. Relief pumped through Rebecca’s veins and she relaxed her muscles. Not a serial killer after all, just a guy with killer looks. Damn those crime shows. A smile brightened her face, and she jogged around her car to meet her savior halfway.
“Sean Kinkaid, you sexy beast, your timing is impeccable.”
“C’mon, let’s get out of this mess.” He took her arm, led her around to the passenger side of his truck, and helped her climb up and in.
“Nice ride,” she said after he slid behind the wheel. “Sorry, I’m dripping all over your leather seats.” She held her hands in front of the warm air blowing from the dashboard, and the heat made her shiver.
“Who cares? It’s a truck.” He flashed a smile. “Did you already call for help? You weren’t planning on changing that tire yourself were you?”
“I was, but I loaned my spare to a neighbor. I’ll have to call a tow later.”
“I assume you were headed to Cal and Maddie’s party?”
“You assume correctly. Let’s just go on ahead. I’ll have to take care of this tomorrow.”
“You sure? I don’t mind waiting with you if you don’t want to leave it.”
“No cell service on this stretch of road, so I can’t call for towing. Anyway, neither of us wants to miss the party. I need to get my stuff though.”
Sean held out his hand. “Give me your keys. I’ll get whatever you need.”
“My purse and laptop are on the passenger seat. And there’s a big bag of M&Ms in a grocery bag in the back. I’ll share. Consider it your reward for rescuing me.”
His eyes, those amazing Kinkaid peepers of dark denim-blue, dropped to her mouth. When he met her gaze again, mischief played at the corners of his lips and Rebecca’s cheeks heated under his perusal. Sean must have seen her blush, because his eyes crinkled at the corners and his expression slid into one of unabashed amusement.
“Be right back,” he said, still grinning as he headed out into the wet mess.
Okay, score one for Kinkaid.
Rebecca cursed herself for falling into Sean’s sexy little trap. The man was incorrigible. Gorgeous, but incorrigible.
She thought back to the first time she met Sean, at last year’s Fourth of July picnic in the park when her mother, Sada, and his mother, Edie, had combined their matchmaking skills for the purpose of bringing Caleb and Maddie together. Her first impression of Sean was that he was too good looking to be real, and she began an outrageous exchange that set the tone for their relationship–a casual friendship, anchored in extreme flirting and wild sexual innuendo with not one teeny bit of action to back it up.
Rebecca snapped her seatbelt and adjusted it for comfort. Sean had gotten the best of her with that look and he knew it, the bastard. She settled back into the seat.
Next point goes to me.
“Damn, it’s freezing out.” Sean slid back into the truck and set Rebecca’s purse and laptop between them. His soaked hair dripped water into his eyes, and he pushed his hand through it, slicking it back and sending a shower of raindrops across his broad shoulders. “How about this freak storm? I’ll pay better attention to the weather report from now on, I guess, but who worries about freezing rain or sleet in November?”
“You look smokin’ hot to me.” Rebecca delivered the comment in her sexiest voice, dropped her gaze below his belt line, held it there for a few beats, and then roamed her eyes back to his with deliberate scrutiny. She congratulated herself for his momentary speechlessness and maintained the steamy look until her humor got the better of her and she laughed, back to her snarky self. “What’d you do with the M&Ms, hot stuff? Melt them?”
He squeezed his eyes shut, said, “Damn it,” and opened the door.
Rebecca’s laughter followed him back out into the storm. He returned a few moments later and handed over the bag of candy along with her keys. “Open that thing up. I’m starving. What kind are they?”
“Mine too.” She tore open the bag and tilted it toward him. After a quiet moment she asked, “Is it weird for you? Seeing Maddie with Cal, I mean, since she was married to your brother.”
Sean eased the truck onto the road and finished his mouthful of M&Ms before answering her question. When he spoke, he delivered his words with quiet deliberation. “I guess it was hard at first, because I never knew Maddie when she didn’t belong to Jack. I remember the day he called me from college his freshman year to tell me he was in love. I laughed my ass off, told him she was just the first of many to come.”
He kept his eyes on the changing road conditions, but smiled. “I was wrong. Jack loved Maddie from the minute he saw her, and she was over the moon for him, too. After Jack died, Maddie wasn’t–” Sean sighed, shook his head. “The light went out of her. And then Cal and TJ came into her life and it’s like she’s started breathing again. How can I be anything but happy about that? Besides–” He shot her a quick glance. “–if Cal and Maddie are to be believed, Jack is the one who got them together.”
“Do you believe it? That Jack, you know, did some matchmaking from the Great Beyond?”
“I think Caleb and Maddie believe it.”
“It’s all I’ve got.”
“Maddie said Jack used to communicate with her all the time through the stuff on his desk. Do you ever feel like he talks to you?”
“I wish. I’d be lying if I said I never talk to him, and there are sometimes it seems like he’s, I don’t know, I’ll say nudging me, for lack of a better term. I’ve never felt it like Maddie, but yes, there are times I feel like he’s hanging around, knocking me upside the head when I need it.” He shrugged. “Wishful thinking.”
“Maybe not. I like to think the people we love stay with us.”
“I hope that’s true.”
“Hey, where’s your girlfriend tonight? What’s her name?” Rebecca asked.
“No, the other one.”
“Give me a clue.”
“I’m talking about the one with the gigantic boobs. The chick you brought with you to the picnic last Fourth of July.”
“Ah, Cynthia.” His sigh embodied appreciation.
“Cynthia. That’s right. All boobs, no personality. What was she, like a 42 DD on a size two body? No way those puppies are real, you know.”
Rebecca laughed. “I bet if I look up the word ‘shallow’ in the dictionary your picture will be next to it.”
“I’m a boob man. So sue me.”
“Well, then, I’m forever safe from your wolfish ways. When God passed out boobs, I was a block away standing in line for a double helping of Freaking Awesome.”
“He gave you a quadruple helping of Freaking Awesome, but we both know I can’t personally vouch for your boobs. I’m willing to rectify that anytime.”
“Trust me. Not worth your notice.”
Sean flipped the directional and slowed for his turn off the rural highway, stopping for the red light. He remained silent and Rebecca gave herself a point in their silly verbal game, knowing she had congratulated herself too soon when he turned his full attention to her.
“I’ll always take quality over quantity, and you know what they say–more than a mouthful’s a waste.”
Rebecca blinked her eyes, speechless.
“Point goes to me.” He licked the tip of his index finger and check-marked the air.
Rebecca’s lips curved in a grudging a smile. “Okay, yeah, you got that one.”
“Thank you. Anything else I should know?”
“Well, if this is true confessions time, I’ll admit that half the time I don’t wear any undies. It’s more comfortable to go fully commando.”
He regarded her through narrowed eyes and she knew that he knew she was game-playing. But some little part of him, she bet, wouldn’t be one hundred percent sure and he’d have to take the bait. Wait for it, she thought. Any minute now. She studied the landscape of naked trees shivering in the icy wind beyond the passenger window and bit her lip to hold back the smile of impending victory.
“So, uh…” he began.
And here it comes.
“Are you saying you’re completely naked under your clothes right now?”
Rebecca burst out laughing and copied Sean’s gesture of check-marking the air. “We’re all naked under our clothes, Sean.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do. And you’ll never know, but I bet you’ll wonder.”
“That is so not fair.” He laughed, the sound rich and warm in the interior of the truck.
The light turned green and he drove through the intersection with care. The defroster blew full blast to keep the windshield clear of ice.
“It’s after eight,” Rebecca said. “You might have made the party on time if you hadn’t stopped for me. Thanks for not leaving me stranded.”
“Nasty night to be stuck out in the middle of nowhere.”
Rebecca regarded him. “Did you know it was me when you stopped?”
“I recognized you after I got out of the truck.”
“But not before. You were being a good Samaritan.”
“Like I said, rotten night, middle of nowhere. When I came around the bend, I only saw a woman being pounded by the weather, alone by the side of the road. If it was my mom or sister out there, I’d want somebody to stop and help. I like to think somebody would.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “It just happened to be me this time around.”
“What if I had a partner in crime built like Mike Tyson who coshed you over the head, and we left your body in the woods and stole your truck?”
“Have you been watching crime show marathons with Brenna and Maddie again?” Sean asked.
“Look, stuff like that happens in real life, too.” Rebecca glanced out the passenger window and tamped down the memory that oozed into her brain, unbidden. She swallowed hard and cleared her throat before looking back at Sean. “You know it’s true. You’re a lawyer, for Pete’s sake. You must hear all kinds of crazy stuff.”
“I do, but not that kind of crazy. Anyway, I’d rather take the…what is it?…maybe a one in a million shot that the person I stop to help is out to do me harm. If I don’t stop to help, the chances are one hundred percent that I’ll feel terrible about it.”
Rebecca gave him a light punch on the shoulder. “You’re a softy. Nothing but a big ol’ teddy bear underneath all that hot sexy. Who knew?”
“Don’t tell anybody. You’ll ruin my practice. No one wants a lawyer with a conscience.”
“Damn it. There’s Cal’s truck. We missed surprising them,” Rebecca said when they turned into the Kinkaids’ driveway.
Sean eyed the landscape for an out-of-the way place to settle his truck and maneuvered around other parked vehicles, choosing a spot in the icy grass while Rebecca took in the house and yard with admiration. Sean’s mother, Edie, had decorated for Christmas the day after Halloween, and the Kinkaid home, with red-bowed wreaths of evergreen adorning every window and garland looping the rails of the wraparound porch, glowed now from within and without with enough lights to power a small city. Primrose and pansies, and other winter-strong flowers Rebecca couldn’t name, overflowed from large urns and planters on the porch and nestled in the garden areas amid the evergreen shrubs. Rebecca wondered if the flowers would survive the freezing rain. She supposed they would, or Edie wouldn’t have put them in harm’s way.
“Maddie told me that the first time she saw your parents’ house Jack joked that it was the inspiration for one of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings.”
Sean turned off the engine. “We’ve no relation to the artist. The last names aren’t even spelled the same. That fib was one of Jack’s favorite things to tell people when he was a kid.”
“That’s because it looks like it could be true.”
“I guess. Hey, I’ve got an umbrella in here somewhere. You want me to find it?”
“Nah. At this point, the rain and sleet can’t do more damage than they’ve already done.”
His eyes moved upward to what Rebecca supposed looked like a dripping beehive on top of her head. She opened her mouth to snap a smart-ass comment with regard to her Marge Simpson look, but caught her breath when Sean looped one of her escaped curls around his finger and gave the spiral a gentle tug. His eyes narrowed and he tilted his head as if her naturally curly hair was the most fascinating thing in the world. And then he looked beyond her through the window and set her curl free. “Your boyfriend’s name is Tate, right?”
“That’s right. Nate.” Sean opened his door and offered a genial wave to the man glowering on the porch. “Hey, Tate. How ya doin’?”
Rebecca rolled her eyes and opened the door.
“Why didn’t you answer your cell phone? I’ve been going crazy here!” Nate hollered from the covered porch. The precipitation stopped him short of coming down the stairs.
“Flat tire and no cell service, but I’m fine. Sean rescued me from the side of the road.”
“A call would’ve been nice, Rebecca.”
“I just told you, no cell service.”
Mollified for the moment, Nate stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and waited.
Sean stared at Nate for a beat and then his eyes cut to Rebecca. “Leave your stuff. We’ll get it later after the weather eases up. C’mon, let’s make a run for it. Your man is desperate for a kiss and to cop a feel.” His smile shot through her like a lightning bolt.
Oops. Wrong man. She looked away from the mischievous Sean and blinked through the blurry windshield at Nate.
“Ready?” Sean said.
You have no idea.
She gave herself a mental head slap and grabbed her purse. “Yep. Let’s go for it.”
They hopped from the truck, slammed the doors, and jogged across the yard, laughing as the run for warmth turned into a slippery race. Due to the angle of the truck, Rebecca had the advantage. She ran up the porch stairs and out of the storm several steps ahead of Sean. Nate caught her in his arms and she laughed up at him, wiping the water from her face and pushing away loose strands of hair with her hands.
Sean loped up the stairs, nodded to Nate, and disappeared inside the house.
“I was worried about you,” Nate said.
“I appreciate your concern, and I’m sorry I worried you, but you know cell service is spotty on these mountain roads. I’m just lucky Sean showed up.”
“I’m sure you had service at some point between here and there.” He scowled. “I feel like an afterthought.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean for it be like that.”
“It’s not just that. I know your work is important, but you let it take precedence over everything else in your life.”
Rebecca frowned, tired of revisiting this conversation. “When we started dating, I told you my main focus is the family business. Ever since Dad’s heart attack, Caleb and I have had to step up to keep things on track, and because Cal is running his own business, too, I’ve taken on most of the responsibility. If you remember, Nate, I warned you I’m not in a good place for a serious relationship. You said you were okay with that.”
Nate dropped his arms and stepped back. His expression bordered on a pout and Rebecca doused a blast of annoyance. She had been honest with him from the start. What else could she do?
“Let’s not talk about this now, okay? I’m soaked, freezing, and turning blue out here. C’mon. Let’s go have a good time. We can talk all this out later.”
Rebecca reached for his hand but he drew away, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Instead, she plastered on a bolstering smile and opened the door. She walked into the foyer of the Kinkaid home, greeted by the delicious scents of baked goods and roasted meats comingling with pine and bayberry. The formal living room to the right boasted a stone fireplace that swallowed the better part of one wall and glowed with crackling logs. Candles flickered on the mantle. A Christmas tree stood in the corner, themed with angels and elves, and miles of curling red and silver ribbons.
Sean’s mother, Edie, met her at the door with a warm embrace. “Welcome!” Edie took Rebecca by the shoulders and delivered both a broad smile and a critical once over. “Bless your heart, sweetie, Sean wasn’t kidding. You’re soaked. I’d give you a big smooch hello, but I don’t see a dry spot anywhere. And you’re shivering. Well, c’mon now, let me have that wet coat. Brenna!” She called to her daughter, “Take this sweet thing upstairs and find her some dry clothes. And stand her up in a hot shower so she can warm up.”
“I really don’t need–”
“Of course you do, honey. You’ll agree with me the second you take a look in the mirror. Trust me.” Edie winked and patted Rebecca’s shoulder. “Brenna!”
“Here, right here.” The always-gorgeous Brenna Kinkaid, her sleek hair as black as Sean’s and eyes the same shade of blue, hurried from the kitchen and down the hall, her enviable curves on display in a red cashmere sweater and snug jeans. She smiled a greeting at Rebecca and held out a steaming mug. “Mulled wine, my own recipe.”
“Thanks.” Rebecca curled her icy fingers around the warm mug and sniffed the contents. “This smells like heaven.”
“Tastes like it, too, if I do say so myself. It’s similar to the holiday cider I brew for the L&G,” Brenna said, referring to the coffee bar she owned and operated in town, the Lump & Grind. “But this recipe for home packs a punch, so watch out.”
Rebecca sipped, let the mulled spices tingle her tongue, and then took a good swig to revel in the hot brew sliding down her throat to warm her. “Is there whiskey in here along with the wine?”
Brenna smiled. “I told you it packs a punch. C’mon upstairs. Let’s get you dried off and warmed up. Mama’s right. A hot shower will fix you right up.”
“Where is everybody?”
“The ladies are in the kitchen, and the men have gravitated downstairs to Daddy’s man cave. Except your grandfather. He’s in the kitchen eating cookies, getting buzzed on mulled wine, and flirting with me like the construction jock he used to be. I wish I knew him when he was forty years younger,” Brenna said. “C’mon. I’ll find you a change of clothes and then you can hunt down your brother and sister-in-law to-be.”
Rebecca took a second to pull off her wet boots and socks, which she left on the mat by the door next to Sean’s soaked shoes. She hoisted her purse over her shoulder, took a couple big swigs of her mulled wine, and followed Brenna up the stairs in her bare feet, enjoying the relaxing and warming effects of the beverage. They met Sean on the second floor landing. His wet hair gleamed like black ice, and he’d traded his dripping business attire for jeans and a ragged NYU sweatshirt.
Sean winked at Rebecca and his lips curved in a slow smile. “Call me if you need any help.”
“You’re a moron,” Brenna said, but Sean just laughed and proceeded down the stairs. “My brother is an idiot,” she said to Rebecca, but the words came through an indulgent smile and her words carried no bite.
“A charming idiot.” Rebecca hoped her tone sounded as light as she intended.
“Yeah, but don’t tell him I said that.” Brenna led Rebecca to the left and flipped on the bathroom light. “Towels are in this closet. Soap, shampoo, conditioner–all that stuff–is in the shower. Feel free to use it. I can see by your face that you feel uncomfortable using the shower, but you shouldn’t. It’ll warm you up. Besides–” She patted Rebecca’s hair. “–you’re going to want to do so something with that mess.”
Rebecca glanced around Brenna to see herself in the mirror. Her eyes widened and she emitted a horrified squeak. It was worse than she thought. Her hair had gone from beehive to rat’s nest, and the mascara she applied earlier had laid skid marks from cheeks to chin. Dear god. She looked like an eighties punk rocker gone wrong–or horribly right, depending on one’s perspective. Either way, she needed serious fixing.
Brenna stepped from the bathroom and pointed down the hall to the left as she led Rebecca in the opposite direction. “Daddy and Mama’s room is down there. Behind door number one here,” she walked past the first closed door to the right of the stairs, “is Jack’s old room. Sean’s is behind door number two, and my old room is here.” She stopped at the end of the hall across from Sean’s room. “You’d think Mama and Daddy would’ve converted these bedrooms into useful spaces after we moved out, but they never bothered. And I’ll apologize now for the Backstreet Boys and ’NSync posters.” She opened the door to her childhood bedroom.
“Justin Timberlake still does it for me,” Rebecca said, “so you’re forgiven.”
She stepped into the time machine that was Brenna’s old bedroom. As promised, boy band posters adorned the walls, along with Bright Hills High School and University of Georgia pennants, and four framed poster replications from Monet’s Water Lilies series. Three walls of pale pink were offset by a fourth of eye-popping fuchsia from which protruded the canopied bed dressed out with lacy trimmings and an overabundance of pillows running the gamut from frilly to plush. Red fuzzy dice the size of cantaloupes dangled from one of the bedposts, and a collection of Mardi Gras beads swung from another.
“Wow,” Rebecca said, taking it all in.
“I know. I was such a cliché.” Brenna made a face. “Did your parents entomb your old bedroom like this?”
Rebecca laughed. “Hardly. The day I moved out my mother moved in her sewing machine and a new TV, and that was that.”
“Well, let’s see what we can find you to wear. I got into the habit of leaving a few changes of clothes here because it’s convenient, like on a night like tonight when the weather is bad and it’s easier to just stay over. Sean does the same thing.”
While Rebecca poked through the few things hanging in the closet, Brenna looked through her dresser drawers.
“I appreciate your offer for a change of clothes, but I can’t imagine you have anything that will fit. I’m a flagpole and you’re an hourglass.”
“You’re willowy,” Brenna argued, tossing a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants onto the bed, followed by a pair of thick socks. “That isn’t the same as a flagpole. How tall are you, anyway?”
“You look taller than that, but then I’m height challenged at five-foot two. Maybe these sweatpants will work, and the sweatshirt is a large. I gave up trying to be a size six long ago. And anyway, I like to give the girls plenty of wriggle room.” She shimmied to make her point.
Rebecca looked down at her own chest and smirked. “I like my sweatshirts roomy, too, so this will be perfect. Thanks.”
“I don’t have any extra bras here–”
“They wouldn’t fit me if you did.”
“–but there are some undies in the top drawer, and I’ll share, but if you feel hinky about that, I understand. And you know where to find the bathroom. Other than that, I guess you’re all set.”
“Thanks, Brenna. I appreciate it.”
“See you downstairs.” Brenna smiled and slipped from the room.
Rebecca finished her hot drink and set the mug next to a Bedazzled princess phone that sat on the bedside table nearest the door. She made a mental note to bring the mug downstairs with her so she could fill it up again. The mulled wine, spiked with whisky, had done its job, and her relaxed muscles and warm belly conspired to remind her of her exhaustion. Maybe taking a shower was just what she needed to wake her up. She eyed herself in the mirror over Brenna’s dresser and admitted that she’d benefit from a makeover.
She stepped from Brenna’s room and saw that the door to Sean’s boyhood bedroom stood ajar. With a guilty glance down the hall, she pushed the door open farther with her foot and peeked in, but earned only a slight glimpse afforded by the light spilling in from the hallway. Typical room for a teenaged boy from what she could see, with posters of athletes on the wall. Judging from the Atlanta Braves paraphernalia, baseball had been Sean’s sport of choice back in the day. Vying for attention amid the sports stuff hung a movie poster for 9-1/2 Weeks, depicting a tousled and sexy Kim Basinger. Rebecca pictured Cynthia, Sean’s date at the Fourth of July picnic. There was no doubt about it. The man preferred well-endowed blondes.
Not that it mattered, of course. Her relationship with Sean was superficial at best and silly at worst. She was the flat-figured redhead he joked with, not the sort of sexy bombshell that attracted his male attention.
And that was fine, a totally good thing. Being just friends with Sean was great. Really. She enjoyed their ridiculous verbal play and wanted it to continue. Besides, she was dating Nate, even if he was too demanding, too eager to turn their romantic friendship into a serious relationship. She’d have to talk to him and reiterate her desire to keep things casual. Maybe it was time they took a break.
She resisted the urge to flip on a light for a more thorough view of Sean’s boyhood room and instead closed the door and headed to the bathroom, where she turned on the shower and stripped off her wet clothes. She didn’t care about the jeans, but the sweater she had chosen to set off the green of her eyes had exceeded what she could afford without feeling pinched, and now it would require a trip to the dry cleaners where she hoped a miracle might be wrought to undo impending shrinkage. That’s what she got for a giving in to a little vanity.
The hot shower completed the relaxation of her muscles and infused her skin with a rosy glow. She towel dried her curls, bemoaned the lack of products to tame them, made a lame attempt to smooth them down, and huffed in resignation. She’d traded Marge Simpson for Medusa, but even in tumbleweed mode her hair looked better than before. Sort of.
She glanced around for the sweatshirt and pants, and muttered, “Crap.” She’d left them on Brenna’s bed. Great. Just freaking great.
The plush towel covered her most important parts, so she cracked the door and peeked out, nibbling her thumb. Conversation and laughter floated up the stairs from the kitchen, but otherwise the coast was clear. She’d make a run for it past the stairs and down the hall. No worries.
She set off toward Brenna’s room at a near lope, seeing too late that Sean’s door hung wide open. A moment later he stepped into the hall. Rebecca gasped. She couldn’t halt her forward motion fast enough to avoid a collision.
She hugged her arms to her chest to keep her towel in place a half second before she slammed into Sean Kinkaid.
© 2016 by Lisa Ricard Claro