Never Too Hot
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“I didn't know you worked here. I'm glad you do. Now I don't have to wait until morning to see you again.”
Oh. Oh my. A half dozen ceiling fans kept the diner cool. She shouldn't be feeling so warm.
“I've been wanting to tell you that I was a complete jerk this afternoon.”
She could feel herself softening, melting down from her core outward. But then she looked at him and realized her reaction was probably exactly what he'd been expecting.
This afternoon she could have sworn he wanted to throw her bodily off the porch. He had to have an ulterior motive. A second later it hit her.
“I take it you spoke with your grandparents?”
“I did. But my grandmother isn't the only one who thinks I misbehaved. Earlier today you asked if we could start over. Any chance that offer still stands?”
Her body screamed Yes! at the exact same time that her brain shouted Don't you dare, he's playing you!
Frankly, she had a hell of lot more faith in her brain to steer her right.
He thought he could come in here smelling like fresh soap and pine needles and blink those shockingly blue eyes at her and get her to dumbly agree to whatever he wanted.
He might be saying all the right things, but she very much doubted his heart was in it. He wanted Poplar Cove.
She narrowed her eyes, widened her stance behind the counter. “Enough with the charm. Let's get down to it. What exactly do you want from me?”
“Poplar Cove hasn't been overhauled in two decades at least. Logs need to be replaced before they crumble. The roof is on the verge of blowing off. I need to get in there, do the work.”
She was glad that he'd finally dropped any pretense of trying to patch up their rough start. An honest discussion she could do. Not this smoldering, try-to-make-her-swoon stuff. Still, there was no way she was going to let him hang out in the cabin day in, day out, for weeks on end.
“The cabin has held this long,” she insisted. “I'm sure it'll make it another few months.”
“Ever use the stove? The microwave? A blow dryer?”
Knowing his questions had to be a trick, that with every word he said her perfect summer was disappearing day by day, hour by hour, she reluctantly said, “Of course, all of them.”
“The wiring is ancient. Anyone of those appliances could start a fire. You wouldn't know the house was burning at first. The sparks would start behind the walls. They wouldn't kick into overdrive until you were asleep. That's when smoke would start flooding into the room.”
He paused. Gave her plenty of time to color in the picture he'd just sketched.
“Odds are you'd never wake up.”
He was doing it again. Trying to scare her into giving up her home. To him.
She leaned in closer over the top of the counter, too angry now to remember to keep her distance from all those muscles, all that heat.
“You were sure I wouldn't be able to say no to that, weren't you?” Especially when he was practically a walking billboard for the necessity of fire safety. “Well, guess what? The answer is still no. I can hire an electrician to work on the cabin. I don't need you to do it.”
“My grandparents aren't going to pay to rewire the place from the ground up. Not when I'm here and able to do the work for free.”
Unfortunately, she didn't have the money either. Not anymore, damn it. Not unless she wanted to ask her parents for a loan, which she definitely didn't.
“Fine,” she snapped, loud enough that a couple of customers looked up from their plates to see what the problem was. “You can redo the wiring. And then I want you out.” She propped her pencil point hard enough against the paper to make a small hole. “Now what do you want to eat?”
But instead of looking at the menu, he said, “We're not done yet. I'm not just here to fix the cabin's safety issues.”
“There's more?” she said, amazed by his nerve. Almost impressed by it, in fact.
“My brother's fiance is pregnant. It was a long road for them to get there.”
“Good for them. But since I don't know your brother or his fiance,” she said, knowing she was being harsh, but hating herself for giving in about letting him redo the wiring, “I'm missing the part where any of this matters to me.”
“They want to get married on the beach at Poplar Cove. End of July.”
How was it that he seemed to know right where to aim to hit her most vulnerable spots?
He had to mention marriage, didn't he? That elusive happily ever after they were all searching for. That she was searching for. Because even though her own marriage had crumbled to pieces, in her heart of hearts she still wanted to believe that lasting happiness was possible.
Worse, after living at Blue Mountain Lake for eight months she agreed that Poplar Cove would be the perfect place to host a wedding.
Beyond frustrated, the words, “Next thing I know you're going to be telling me you couldn't get a room at the Inn,” came pouring out.
“You're right. A big wedding has taken over.”
Oh no, she'd completely forgotten that her friend Sue said a Bridezilla was in residence for the next few days.
“What about one of the B&Bs?” she tried, feeling the situation slip even further out of her hands.
“Nope. Nothing on the lake. But there's a room open in Piseco.”
“Piseco? That's an hour away.”
“At least,” he agreed, finally picking up the menu.
The movement drew her eyes down to his hands and she was stunned by how bad his scars were up close. She couldn't pull her eyes away from them, couldn't stop thinking about how much pain he must have endured from not only the burns, but the grafts as well. And then, he rubbed his left hand with his right, as if he were trying to work out the kinks in the muscles and tendons beneath the rough skin.
“When I was a little girl,” she found herself saying in a much softer voice, “I reached up to the stove and knocked over a pot of boiling water onto my shoulder. I still remember how much it hurt.”
It had been only a first degree burn, and the scar had almost completely disappeared by now, but it had been one of the most painful physical experiences in her life.