I fiddle with my collar, wishing it would lie flat. I guess that’s what I get for only wearing T-shirts for the past year. I mean, I drive people around the city of Charleston for a living. It doesn’t exactly require a uniform.
My clothes are clean, even if they’re tees, shorts, and jeans. Fine, I wore sweats the morning I picked up the curvy Callie Michaels, but it was a Monday morning before eight a.m. No one can blame me for rolling out of bed mere minutes before I needed to be at her house for the pick-up. I’d at least put on a baseball cap to hide my misbehaving hair.
I’ve showered and combed it tonight. Used gel and hairspray and everything. I’m wearing a pair of jeans that haven’t seen the light of day for months, and this polo that my last girlfriend said made my eyes look like deep, dark pools that she wanted to dive into and swim around in.
Yeah, she said all kinds of things that weren’t true. Or maybe she meant them, I don’t know. I sure liked her, but she left town to do something, and I guess I couldn’t go with her for some reason I don’t remember.
For a reason I can’t name, my mind flows back to the woman I dated before her, but I quickly shut the door on those memories. The one and only time I’ve been in love—and then had my heart shattered—doesn’t need to be relived.
I have a date tonight—finally.
Callie Michaels. She was put-together and professional, and I might need to get a new wardrobe to go out with her more than once.
“Maybe tonight will be a disaster,” I say to my reflection, giving up on the collar. It is what it is. If Callie doesn’t want to go out with me again because it won’t lay flat, that’s fine.
Is it? I wonder. It’s been a while since I’ve been out with anyone, because no one has really caused a spark to ignite inside me. Callie did, because she was so cute giving that pitch for her raise.
I can admit I was bummed when she had to reschedule last night to tonight. She said something had come up at work, and listening to her talk about her job and her boss, I believe her. We set up a meeting-date at Carter’s, which is a great sandwich shop on the northern cusp of the city. I’ve been there a bunch of times, and I grab my keys to leave.
Behind me, a whine and a bark remind me I’m babysitting my sister’s puppy. I groan and turn around to handle this situation. Nothing with puppies is fast or easy, but Wilma is a smart dog, and she uses the bathroom when I let her out and command her to do so.
When she comes back in, she jumps all over me, her golden retriever face just so cute and so happy to see me. “No,” I say in the meanest voice I can muster. “No jumping.”
She barks in my face, and I press my eyes closed. Probably a mistake, as she jumps again and I don’t see her. I grunt and push her away, telling her, “No jumping and no barking.”
Telling a puppy that is like telling the sun to stop shining. Irritation flashes through me, and I determine to give my sister a piece of my mind as soon as I can.
But I’m late now, so I open the fridge and pull out a piece of string cheese. “Come on, Wilma,” I say in a falsely nice voice. “Back in the kennel. Come on.” Since she’s obsessed with food in the canine way, she jogs alongside me as I go back to the kennel and open the door.
In she goes, whipping around and sitting, ready for her treat. I feed her the entire piece of string cheese, which is probably going to make her sick and fat, and then lock her in the kennel. “I’ll be back soon,” I tell her.
I don’t know if I will be or not. It’s a Friday night first date, so anything is possible. At Carter’s, I find a parking spot just down the street, which is a stroke of good luck for a weekend.
Callie said we needed to meet early, because her boss’s mother is in town, and they might have plans with her later. I’ve done no homework on this woman, but she didn’t seem like the type to keep too many secrets. She’d had an open face, with all of her emotions storming through those blue eyes. She devotes Friday nights to her boss’s mother, so maybe my eyebrows should be raised a little.
It’s early, so when I enter the fast-casual restaurant, there are plenty of tables open and a short ordering line. Since I’m meeting someone, I don’t join the line but pick a table instead. It’s by the window, so I can see people walking by, and I keep looking for Callie.
I look for ten minutes before pulling out my phone and check our text string. She had to cancel on Thursday. We rescheduled for tonight. I said Carter’s and a time, and she sent a thumbs up. But she’s not here.
Hey, are you coming? I ask. The dining room is starting to get full, and that blasted bell on the door won’t stop chiming as more and more people coming into the shop. Most of them are wearing collegiate athletic gear, so there must be some sort of game tonight, and they’re all grabbing a quick dinner beforehand.
We’re not meeting tonight, Callie says.
“Uh, yes, we are,” I mutter under my breath. Can she not see the text string above this conversation? I quickly type out that uh-huh, we are too, and send it. She doesn’t answer, and that sort of tells me where I stand. Thumbs-up emojis and canceled dates fifteen minutes after they were supposed to start.
Never mind, I tell her. Sorry it didn’t work out. I stand, still looking at my phone, and tap to send the message.
Someone laughing catches my attention, and I turn toward the sound—and run right into someone. They grunt; I pull back my arm; the laughter stops.
Time slows to non-moving too, because I’m suddenly staring right into the gorgeous green eyes of the woman who I refuse to think about.
The one who broke my heart when she broke up with me.
Melanie Thurston, the only woman I’ve ever loved.
She’s blinking like it’s the only thing she knows how to do, but she’s the one who says, “Chris,” like I’m back from the dead.
The woman she’s with says, “Why are there paw prints on your shirt?”
I look down, because that’s what someone does when they’re asked about their clothes. I’m just glad I’m wearing pants and a shirt, because the whole world has slowed, taking my mind with it.
Everything rushes forward again when I see two paw prints on my abdomen. I slap my hands over them, as if my flesh is made of those stain-remover pens and the mud will be magically gone when I remove my hands.
Melanie looks at her friend and says something. The woman nods and picks up the paper cups they’ve just put on the table that would’ve been right next to mine. She walks away to fill them with soda pop, leaving me to stare at Mel.
“You look so amazing,” I say, my voice somehow mine and not mine at the same time. “I’ve really missed you.” I hate the words as soon as they leave my mouth, but I can’t take them back.
Mel has always been kind and smart and beautiful, so she doesn’t throw sarcasm back at me. She broke up with me, and I have nothing to apologize for. She ducks her head and tucks that dirty blonde hair behind her ear. Before she can say anything, my mouth is off to the races again.
“Are you in town for very long?” I ask. “Let’s ditch this place and…go back to my place.” I raise my eyebrows as if I’m shocked at my own suggestion.
Mel certainly is. Her dark eyes—almost hazel, but not quite—search mine, and I have no idea what she sees. I think she’s beyond shocked when she says, “Okay,” and I know I am.
I recover quickly, telling myself that this is real life. Not a dream. Not a fantasy. If I’d ever fantasized about meeting up with Mel again—if. I mentally scoff. I definitely have, many times—it wouldn’t be in a polo shirt with a crooked collar and dirty paw prints on it.
No, I’d be a knight in shining armor, with a fat bank account and a private jet that can whisk us away to tropical paradises.
“Okay,” I say. “Did you order already?”
“We got drinks,” she said. “We were meeting people, but Hailey was parched.”
I glance over to the drink machine. “Do you need to talk to her?”
“Yeah.” She looks over to Hailey too. “Can you give me a minute?”
“I’m parked right down the street,” I say. “I’ll wait outside.” It takes every ounce of willpower I possess to leave her standing inside Carter’s while I leave it. I wander down the street, everything feeling light and fluffy and made of cotton candy.
Melanie Thurston, I think. Is she back in town for good? Why is she here? Is she seeing anyone?
Then, as the seconds tick by, my mind screams at me, Why did you invite her back to your place? You don’t cook!
I’m frantically trying to remember what I even have that’s edible in my fridge when I reach my car and turn back to the restaurant. Mel isn’t walking toward me yet.
“She’s not going to come,” I tell myself, my hopes already falling toward the ground, where they’ll ignite in a fiery crash once impact happens.
Then, the door opens, and she walks out. She looks left and then right, and I raise my hand. She comes my way, her pretty sundress swaying with the movement, and I feel myself opening up my ribcage wider and wider so she can reach in and steal my heart all over again.
I open her door, and she gets in the car. I get behind the wheel and buckle my seatbelt. As I pull out into the road, I ask, “So, what are you doing here?”
“I moved to Cider Cove,” she says.
I almost plow into a parked car. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope.” She smiles and tucks her hair again. I wonder if there’s some sort of school where they teach girls to do that. Adorability 101 or something. “I got a job transfer at TransAtlantic. I fly to Europe three times a week.”
“Wow,” I say. “And you still love it? Flying?”
“Love it,” she confirms.
I shift in my seat, because I drive a car for a living and she flies a plane. We’re both in transportation. It almost feels like kismet. “I, uh, I’m in Cider Cove too.”
Her face brightens. “You are?”
“Mm hm. Yep.” The small suburby type of town isn’t far from the sandwich shop, and we pull into my driveway only a few minutes later. I rush to open her door, but she’s already rising from the sedan as I round the corner.
So maybe I’m like Wilma—a little overeager and completely enthusiastic. I try to tame myself as Mel looks up to my house. “This is nice, Chris.”
“The tone of surprise is interesting,” I say.
She smiles at me and says, “It’s just different than where I pictured you living. When we were dating, you lived in that apartment with the gamer guys.”
“That was five years ago,” I say. The way she talks about our prior relationship like it doesn’t faze her isn’t lost on me. I knew I was in way too deep with her—deeper than she was in with me—but I didn’t care.
I take her to the side entrance, because only uninvited guests use the front door, and open the door. Barking sounds, but I say, “It’s my sister’s dog, and she’s in a kennel.”
At least I think so, until I hear the skidding of paws on my hard kitchen floor and the barking getting closer. And then closer.
And then a white-powdered version of Wilma-the-golden-retriever launches herself at Mel and me.
Chris Potter is seriously the hottest man on the planet. My tongue has been tied in knots since he bumped me in the sandwich shop that Hailey and her friends wanted to take me to. Getting out of that get-together and into this one had taken some quick wit and a lot of promises to explain everything later.
Now, a dog the size of a ten-year-old rams into my legs. My knees don’t buckle that way, and I stumble backward. Right into Chris. His hands land on my back and hip; his voice shouts something; the dog barks and barks.
It’s white when I think it should be brown, and when Chris and I don’t fall to our deaths down the several steps we’ve taken to get up to the side entrance on his house, he turns me toward him. “Are you okay?” he asks as the dog goes sprinting past us and leaps like a deer off the back of the tiny porch.
He doesn’t even look at the canine. I can’t look away from those eyes. He’s got beautiful eyes, and I remember the golden flecks in the darkness of them. “Yeah,” I murmur, leaning further into him. “I’ve missed you too, Chris.”
I didn’t say anything in the sandwich shop when he said he missed me, but every cell in my body has been buzzing with the words since then.
I reach up and touch his face, the dark stubble there not really a beard but not clean-shaven either. We’re body-to-body, and the world could catch fire around us, and I wouldn’t know.
Chris searches my face too, and I hear barking in the distance. I wonder if he does. I wonder if he lays awake at night, thinking about me. I wonder if he sometimes remembers the fun we had at random times, like when he’s flying across the ocean and there’s nothing to do but let the plane guide itself.
I give myself a little shake. Chris isn’t a pilot, and I don’t want him to be a pilot. I dated one after we broke up, and it was a capital-D-disaster. I don’t mix my work and personal lives anymore. Of course, if Hailey is to be believed, I don’t have a personal life anymore.
Chris’s eyes flutter closed, and I realize how near he’s come. His lips touch mine in the next moment, and I seize onto the kiss with the passion of a woman who hasn’t been held or kissed in a long time—because I haven’t been.
He’s taller than me, which I like. It makes me feel safe and protected. He’s always been the best kisser out of anyone I’ve dated, and this stroking of our mouths together is no exception. My pulse races, and everything around me turns white and hushed. Even the barking disappears.
“Oh how I’ve missed you,” he breathes into my mouth before claiming it again. He takes as much as he gives, and then he slides his lips along my jaw to my neck. “Come in,” he whispers next, and he leads me into his house.
I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience. First, running into him the way I did, and now this. I’ve literally come home with him.
He takes a few steps through the kitchen, my hand securely in his, and stops. “Buttered biscuits and gravy.”
I step to his side, noting the haunted quality of his voice, and look at his face. He’s staring, horrified, at his living room, and I follow his gaze.
My mouth drops open at the sight of white powder all over his dark couch. The carpet. A bean bag. The flour is capital-E-everywhere, the bag empty and nearly shredded sitting in the middle of the room.
“I don’t even know where to start,” he says.
“It’s like a crime scene.”
After a few moments, I squeeze his hand, some of the feeling starting to return to my body. How he’d made me all floaty and soft like that with just a couple of kisses, I’ll never understand. “Maybe we should try to get the dog back into the kennel.”
Chris looks at me, those eyes still so wide. He reaches up with his free hand and runs it through his hair—or tries too. It’s a little too gelled, but he manages to separate some of the more stuck-together parts.
I smile at him. “I don’t remember you using gel in your hair.”
“Yeah, well, I had a date tonight with someone I thought would appreciate it.”
“You had a date tonight and still brought me here?”
“She canceled,” he muttered, his eyes roaming over the flour carnage again. “It was a first date. We were meeting. That type of thing.” His attention returned to mine. “I don’t want to go out with her. I want to go out with you.”
I smile, his words like manna from heaven for a woman who’s been wandering in the dating wilderness for a long, long time. Forty years. Fine, thirty-one.
“What if I’m seeing someone?” I ask.
He growls. “Then you can break up with him.”
I laugh, because Chris is so different than I remember, but also very much the same. I turn and see a leash sitting on his peninsula. I grab it and say, “You go get the dog. I’ll get out the vacuum cleaner.”
He takes the leash from me but doesn’t leave. “You’re real, right?” he asks.
I put one hand on his chest and lean into him again. My lips brush against his as I say, “I’m real, and I’m not dating anyone, and even if I was, I’d break up with them to go out with you.”
He growls deep in his throat again, puts on his game face, and stalks out of the house to get his naughty dog. I stand at the window and watch him, because he’s that gorgeous and I’m that giddy to be reunited with him.
When he catches the floury golden retriever, I hurry away from the window to find the vacuum. I don’t want him to know I’ve been staring, and we definitely need a place to sit and kiss later.
So someone has to get the couch cleaned up, and as the water cranks on outside and Chris starts spraying down the dog, I plug in the vacuum.
This is why you came back to Charleston, I tell myself as I pull up stripes of white from the upholstery.
He’s why this job came up, why you applied for the transfer, and why out of dozens of people, you got it.
Chris Potter has been in my past, and I’ve never forgotten about him. He’s obviously never forgotten about me.
Now, he’s in my future too, because I don’t think either of us have left much doubt about how we feel about the other.
He comes back inside, wrestling with the puppy on the leash, and ties her to a doorknob. He strides through the house, the ends of his hair a little bit drippy—which makes me smile—and gets a towel from the same closet where I found the vacuum.
He dries the dog to damp and puts her back in the kennel. Then he looks at me. I grin, and he grins, and yep, I’m definitely already re-falling in love with him.
Chris joins me at the couch, his hand sliding along my hip. “Is it salvageable?” he calls over the roar of the vacuum.
I reach to switch it off, and the noise dulls tick by tick. “Us or the couch?” I ask.
“Both,” he says, taking me fully into his arms again. “I’ve thought about you every day since you left.”
I play with the buttons on his polo and try to get the collar to lie flat. It just crinkles up again. I look up into his eyes, feeling more alive than I have in years, even more so than when I’d gotten the transcontinental promotion I craved.
“I think we’re salvageable,” I say. “We might even be able to build us into something better than before.”
“You think so?”
I nod. “I’ve never stopped loving you, Chris.”
He pulls in a breath, pulls me closer, and whispers, “I’m in love with you too, Mel,” just before performing that precision matching of his mouth to mine again.