by Debbie Herbert
“Look at her…”
Snicker. “Thinks she’s somethin’…”
“Heard about her latest?”
Lily ignored the whispers and kept the corners of her lips slightly upturned as she studied the dead fish on display. Her insides churned as cold and slushy as the fishes’ beds of ice.
“Miss Bosarge!” The portly seafood manager beamed behind the counter. “What can I get ya?”
She pointed to her selection and he wrapped it in white paper, all the while looking her up and down, a lecherous glimmer in his eyes. He winked. “I’ll make a special deal for you.”
The buzzing from behind grew louder.
That was going too far. Lily placed the fish in her cart and withdrew her makeup compact. She held it up and dabbed on a touch of lip gloss, checking out her latest tormentors. Yep, Twyla Fae was with a couple of friends and no doubt the ringleader. Twyla still smarted from the time her then-boyfriend-now-husband briefly dumped her to pursue Lily. You’d think the woman would be over something that happened two years ago.
Lily composed the habitual all-is-well smile as she faced Twyla. “How’s J.P. doing?” she asked with double-sugar-fudge politeness. “I haven’t heard from him in the longest. I really should drop by and say ‘hey’.”
Twyla paled beneath her tan but quickly recovered and glowered. “You stay away from J.P.” She shifted the whining toddler in her arms. “We’re a family now.”
Lily moved her cart straight at the trio. They jumped out of the way.
“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t,” she threatened in honeyed tones, strolling down the aisle. Never let them see you care—her mantra since puberty, when her siren’s voice had developed and unleashed its power over the entire male population of Bayou La Siryna.
Lily took her time filling the cart with dozens of cans of sardine and tuna and cases of bottled water. The usual fare.
An explosion of green bean tins hit the floor, but she didn’t flinch. A teenaged stock boy gathered the spillage, so focused on Lily he made a worse mess and cans rolled in all directions. Almost without fail, men ran into stuff or dropped what they were doing when she walked by. She would have helped the boy, but experience proved it would make matters worse. He’d say something stupid or his girlfriend would see them and get mad, or he’d continue to bumble on or…It was always something.
The grocery store’s sliding glass doors opened, bringing in a wave of humid Alabama air. A tanned stranger walked in with an aura as hot and powerful as the bayou breeze. He didn’t look around the store to get his bearings, but immediately turned right and went to the produce department. He had a patrician vibe, as if he were Mr. Darcy strolling across English moors, not a local good ole boy grocery shopping at Winn-Dixie.
Lily leaned against the cart and watched as he efficiently grabbed a sack of potatoes and loaded it in his cart, paying no attention to the admiring glances of all the women. Something about the angle of his jaw and the gleam of his long, dark hair looked familiar.
Tingles of awareness prickled her arms and legs. She had to get closer. He drew her like a thirsty traveler to an oasis. Is this how men felt around her? The same clawing need for contact? It was a new experience, and Lily wasn’t sure she liked the loss of control—no matter how exciting the sensations.
Ignoring the dirty looks from other women, she approached. Bettina, once an elementary school friend, rolled her eyes and deliberately jostled against Lily.
“Fresh meat, huh?” Bettina whispered, breath whooshing against Lily’s neck like a poisonous vapor. “Can’t you leave one guy for the rest of us?”
Lily refused to glance at her old friend, afraid of losing it. Bett had deserted her like all the other jealous bitches. She lifted her chin and continued toward the stranger, who was culling through vegetables. What to say? The only opening line running through her brain—hey, haven’t we met before?—was way tacky. But really, it didn’t matter what she said. The mere sound of her voice would be enough.
“Hello,” she purred, pulling her cart alongside Mr. Darcy-cum-Brad Pitt.
He threw some corn in his cart without looking up. “Hi,” he answered in a voice so clipped he might as well have said back off.
Shock disconnected Lily’s brain from her limbs and she stood immobile while pounding blood made her ears ring. How odd. He acted impervious to the dulcet tones that made other men cross-eyed. Lily stiffened her spine. She’d bowl him over with more talking, would force him to look into her ocean-blue eyes. That ought to do the trick.
“Are you from around here?” she asked.
“No.” He pushed away and started down the dairy aisle, his back to her.
What the hell? Lily froze again as she tried to grasp the foreign concept of being snubbed by the opposite sex. It really kind of sucked. Snickering noises from all around sent heat rushing to the back of her neck.
“About time she had a comeuppance,” Bettina said with a loud snort.
Lily faced her directly. “What’s your problem?” she snapped. “What have I ever done to you?”
Bettina’s lips curled. “You really don’t get it, do you? How about stealing Johnny Adams in junior high? And then Tommy Beckham in high school?”
It’s not my fault, she wanted to scream. But they would never understand. Their dislike and mistrust ran as deep as the Gulf waters, their tears and anger as salty and bitter as the sea that encompassed the bayou. Forget them.
Lily shoved away in a huff, turning her attention once again to the handsome stranger’s retreating figure. Her fingers gripped the cart handle until her knuckles were white as sea foam against her already pale skin. She lifted her chin. Nobody ignored her. Envied, yes. Lusted, of course. Later left humiliated and angry at her inevitable rebuff, check. But never this total lack of interest.
Lily hurried toward the mystery man. “Hey, you. Wait a minute.”
He slackened his pace but didn’t stop as she drew close.
“Have we met before?” She’d thought so at first, but she must be wrong. This brutal disregard would have been memorable.
The man turned so slowly, Lily had a sense of inevitability as the seconds wound down into a series of freeze-frames. One: broad shoulders flexing under a dove-gray T-shirt. Two: a profile of a strong chin and deep facial planes. Three: a lock of obsidian hair falling across high, prominent cheekbones.
It wasn’t a tan after all; his skin was the shade of light cinnamon from Native American heritage. Leaf-green eyes lit upon her, so shot through with a golden starburst they were startling in their brightness. Not a speck of recognition sparked in them, though.
But, oh, Lily knew those eyes. “Nash,” she breathed. “Nashoba Bowman.”
He frowned slightly. “Do I know you?”
She swallowed down the burn at the back of her throat. Not only was he immune to her siren’s voice and unaffected by her physical beauty, but also he didn’t even remember her. A riptide of humiliation washed over Lily. Only years of hiding her emotions kept her from betraying hurt. She licked her parched lips. “You used to spend summers here with your grandfather when you were little.”
Nash stared long and hard, the brightness of his pupils deepened to a darker hue as the seconds—minutes?—sped by.
He had to remember. She held up her right hand and twirled her wrist. His gaze shifted to the colorful beaded bracelet he’d given her when they were children. “Friends forever,” he’d said when he’d tied it on her wrist. Lily willed him to recall those long-ago walks on the shore, the jaunts in the woods, the picnics and bike rides and…A glimmer of warmth lit his face.
“Yes,” she whooshed in an exhale of relief.
He gave her the once-over, a slow appraisal that left her hot and breathless. His dilated pupils and smoldering aura suggested he might not be as indifferent to her as he tried to act. Or it might be wishful thinking on her part.
Did Nash also remember that chaste, sweet kiss they’d once shared as curious twelve year olds?
His eyes met hers again, blazing green and gold. Yet the stoic, expressionless face more resembled Nash’s inscrutable grandfather than the kid she used to know. The heat from his skin and a faint, familiar scent drew her closer, strong as the full moon’s pull on the tide. The same odd compulsion to approach Nash now drove her to touch him. Lily dropped her gaze and rested her pale hand against his bronzed forearm, admiring the contrast of fair and dark. Her gaze swept lower, noting that no gold band adorned his fingers.
Nash’s skin was hot as the Southern sun and his muscles rumbled and flickered under her touch, like thunder over deep waters. His jaw tightened at the brazen contact, but he didn’t pull away. His fingers curled tightly on his cart. Indifferent, my ass. Lily closed her eyes and inhaled, using her heightened senses to identify Nash’s enticing scent—a woodsy, sandalwood base with wisps of pine and cedar and perhaps a touch of oak moss. He smelled like the backwoods they used to roam together.
Bet his kiss was anything but chaste now.
Copyright © 2015 by Debbie Herbert
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
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