Making It Last - A Novella (Camelot Series), page 5
He saw only a few scattered groups of people at the bar. A crowd at the back that had pushed together two small, round tables. All ages—maybe a family reunion or a wedding. Talking up a storm. Smiling a lot. None of them people Tony knew. None of them with long, dark hair and big brown eyes.
Over by the railing, a blond couple took in the ocean view. A single man was talking to the bartender. Another couple stood at the bar, a man in a sport coat smiling, leaning over a brunette with a short, choppy haircut and red spiky shoes and a black dress cut so low in the back, he could see the full length of her spine.
She had a birthmark like a hyphen on her shoulder blade.
Tony looked again.
Amber with her hair chopped off, wearing a dress and shoes he’d never seen, holding a drink.
Amber with some random guy’s face eight inches away from hers, their body language shouting couple so loudly, he could hear it all the way across the bar.
Tony’s hand reached out and gripped the top of the nearest chair.
His arm locked. Everything in him locked tight with rage.
For a minute, all he could do was stand there and watch and think, over and over again, You knew this would happen. You knew it. You knew. But even as he blamed himself, he felt nothing but fury—fury that he’d let this happen, and now he couldn’t move.
He watched, paralyzed. Waiting for it to get worse. For the man to touch his wife. To kiss his wife. Then Tony would kill him.
It didn’t happen.
The man kept leaning in, but Amber—was she tilting herself away from him, just a bit? Was Tony imagining how stiff her shoulders were?
The man said something and chuckled, but Amber didn’t laugh. Her smile was tight. Fake.
When he put his hand on her back, the smile vanished, and Amber took a step away from him.
She shook her head.
When the guy walked away a few seconds later, all the breath whooshed out of Tony in one exhale, and he felt dizzy. The chair he was holding on to slid a few inches across the tiled floor, the screech of its movement inexplicably audible over the music being piped into the bar.
“The Limbo,” of all things.
How low could he go?
Chasing his wife to the Caribbean, crashing her solo vacation, and then assuming on the basis of a haircut and a new dress that she was having an affair?
Pretty fucking low.
Tony let go of the chair he’d been gripping, pulled it out, and sat. Amber hadn’t seen him yet. Maybe she’d turn around soon. Maybe she wouldn’t.
Either way, he needed to sit. To breathe.
He needed to figure out what was supposed to happen in the giant planning gap between “get to Amber” and “fly home with your marriage miraculously fixed.”
Tony sighed and rubbed at his temples. His hands were shaking.
He had no clue how to do this.
Their marriage was a system with no slack in it. They had work, they had three kids, they had ten or twenty minutes together in bed at night before they fell asleep. He didn’t know what was wrong with Amber—what was making her cry—and frankly he was afraid to find out. He’d been afraid to find out for a long time.
Because he was pretty sure that whatever it was, he couldn’t fix it.
He couldn’t work less—not and keep the house. He couldn’t take back the children he’d given her, he couldn’t hire a team of housekeepers and nannies to make her life easier.
He could tell her he loved her a hundred times, but she already knew that, and whether she believed it or didn’t—whether it mattered to her or not—what could he do? Nothing.
He could take her to bed and make love to her for two days straight, and that would be pretty fucking grand, but what would it change? Nothing.
They were stuck with the lives they’d made for themselves, and he wanted to keep her stuck if the alternative was to let her escape.
Which made it hard for him to think of any way to also help her out.
Amber picked up her drink and swirled it around. It was green. Foggy-looking. She took a sip. The lines at the edges of her mouth drew deeper. She didn’t like it, but she was trying not to let on.
She scanned the room and saw him.
For an instant, her cheeks bunched, her eyes widened—the delight in them so delicious, he began to smile back, to grin, because Christ, yes, she was going to smile at him, and that was a damn sight better than what he’d thought was going to happen a minute ago—but then she went sort of blank.
Like she hadn’t quite recognized him at first, but then when she really placed him, she remembered that she didn’t feel like smiling.
Tony lost his breath, the blow as effective as a roundhouse kick to the chest.
Amber averted her eyes. Looked down at her drink again.
She lifted it and knocked off the rest of it in four deep gulps, and he tried to get his head around the fact that this person—this eye-catching stranger at the bar—could be his wife.
And that she could decide not to smile at him.
When had this happened? When had she started taking parts of herself back, and why had he let her?
He didn’t know. It scared him how little he knew, now that he was here.
But he wanted to know her. He wanted to know who she’d dressed up for, what she felt, why she’d almost smiled at him and then changed her mind.
He wanted his wife back, and he wanted this woman. Whoever she was.
If she was a stranger, he could be one, too. He’d seen magazine articles that claimed women liked that—liked to pretend to be new and unknown, liked to be seduced all over again by the men they’d married.
The last guy had struck out with the gorgeous brunette at the bar.
Tony hoped like hell he could do better.
* * *
When she looked up, he was right there, leaning against the bar beside her. Big and broad, smelling like woodspice deodorant and Seventh Generation double-concentrated laundry detergent.
Smelling like Tony.
“Hi,” he said.
She was so glad to see him, her skin hurt. Her jaw ached with the pressure of not smiling at him, her fingers twitching to touch him.
Amber held herself in check.
He nodded at the empty glass on the bar. “Buy you another one?”
Sure, he could buy her a drink. Because that made sense.
It made sense for Tony to be here. Why not? He’d probably dropped by on his way home from work.
No. It was only nine. Considering how badly things were going on the job and how long the commute to Chillicothe was, he wouldn’t be home from work yet.
Maybe this was his lunch break.
She’d forgotten to pack his lunch.
The thought produced a hysterical pressure at the back of her throat, and she clamped down on it, afraid to do anything more than breathe in, because she might break.
One tap would do it, she was so brittle. Iced over. Ever since she’d sat down in the chair at the salon and watched her hair drop to the floor in heavy, wet chunks.
She’d let herself be towed along in the wake of the spa receptionist’s enthusiasm. Brittany had booked the haircut, followed by waxing, massage, sugar scrub, and manicure. Amber had let herself be buffed. She’d felt the hot trickle of a tear at her temple when a stern aesthetician in a lab coat ripped all the hair off her labia, and the tears had kept coming, strangely warm. Inside, she’d felt like she was getting colder.
Last night, she’d eaten a four-course dinner alone and tried to convince herself she enjoyed it. Today, the beach. The pool. A drink, and then shopping. New dress. New shoes. A not-quite date at the bar with Jared from the pool at some not-quite-defined time after dinner, because she hadn’t felt like saying no when she could shrug and look at the horizon.
She hadn’t led him on, precisely. Hadn’t batted her e
She was so weary of being touched.
She was so weary of everything, and she didn’t know what she’d thought her mini-makeover would accomplish, but it hadn’t. She’d stood naked in front of the mirror in the suite’s bathroom and stared at herself and felt … not nothing, precisely. An absence of pleasure. An absence of anticipation.
She hadn’t cared what happened with Jared until he’d put his hand on her back and some of the ice had started to crack.
Don’t, she’d thought. Don’t, or I’ll break.
And then she’d seen Tony across the room. A hammer blow, delivering back to her all the blood beneath her skin. All the sweat, the joy, the fear. So much fear, she’d had to clamp down hard on the need to smile. She’d had to. Because when she saw him, she felt that kiss he’d given her—that last firm press of his mouth against hers before he got in the van and left the island—and she’d thought, I was waiting for you to come back.
She had been. Or she hadn’t.
Amber had no idea. No grip on anything.
God, it was terrifying. Why not have a drink?
“What is it?” he asked.
One eyebrow went up. “I’ve never had that before.”
Tony hailed the bartender and said, “Two more of those.”
After the drinks were in front of them, the tip pushed across the counter, he lifted his glass and said, “Cheers.”
Then he tried it, and his brow drew in, darkening his eyes. Casting a shadow over the planes of his face.
He hated it.
Was it terrible that she loved how much he hated it? She soaked up the barely disguised loathing in Tony’s expression, and she let herself acknowledge how dangerous his arrival was.
It meant something that he’d come back. His arrival was a declaration, and it gave her so much lift—such anticipatory excitement—that she wanted to crawl into a corner and hide.
You can’t fix this, her fear whispered. Neither of you knows how to fix this.
But here he was.
Here he was, and he smelled like Tony, and he looked tired and a little rumpled and a whole lot good. So maybe he knew how. Maybe they could.
“That’s … different,” he said.
She sipped at hers. It tasted like licorice and ass.
She’d only ordered it because she remembered reading an article once that said absinthe wasn’t available in the United States. Some vague danger in the way it was produced that alarmed only Americans. She liked the idea of drinking such a forbidden, evil substance. She liked how ugly it was, how smoky and green.
“I’m Steve,” he said, and stuck out his hand.
She didn’t mean to. It just happened.
He was playing. He’d flown here for her—it must have been for her—and now he was pretending to be some guy she didn’t know. A Steve.
It was cute.
She’d never been able to resist Tony being cute.
She shook his hand. No wedding ring.
“Nice to meet you, Jennifer.”
“That remains to be seen, Steve.”
That made him smile, and a prickling awareness slid over the exposed skin of her back. For the first moment since her eyes had landed on Tony she saw him as a stranger might. Flight-weary, tired around the eyes, but intense, even as he leaned casually against the bar and crossed one leg in front of the other.
Her eyes slid down him. His jeans lovingly cupped his crotch, and when she looked back up he gave her a wink, and her face heated.
He was sexy.
A sexy stranger.
“Remains to be seen, huh?” he asked.
Amber twirled her glass, watching the fog circle inside it. “Remains to be seen,” she repeated. Because so much did.
“I figure I’ve got about ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes to drink this while you drink that.” He nodded toward her hand. “And then we’ll either grab a table and get to know each other better, or you’ll send me packing like you did that other guy.”
“That sounds about right.”
“Want me to cut to the chase?”
She studied his face.
Handsome guy, Steve.
“No,” she said. “No, I think ten minutes leaves you plenty of time to beat around the bush first.”
Tony sipped his drink. Grimaced. “Notice how I just declined to make a bush joke.”
“I did notice, but then you ruined it by mentioning it.”
“See, the thing is, it’s not really my forte.”
She glanced at him sideways, accidentally smiling again before dragging her gaze away to the liquor bottles lined up behind the bar.
No, he wasn’t indirect. He was one of the most direct people she’d ever met.
If she dropped the act and asked him why he was here, he would tell her, and … and then she would know. She’d have to figure out what to do about it.
There was a reason that she cried in the shower or sitting on the toilet, locked in the bathroom, even when no one was home.
She wasn’t ready to have that conversation.
She was afraid that once they had it, all her options would be laid out on the ground in front of her, and she’d have to start making choices that broke her heart. Or he would.
“I guess you’ll have to work on that,” she said. “If you want to be sitting with me at a table in ten minutes.”
“You don’t like direct men?”
She inhaled and drank some of her vile drink. Looked over at him. “It’s not that, exactly, Steve. It’s just—you’re dying to tell me what you want from me. What you saw from the other side of the room that made up your mind to come over here and buy me a drink. You have this story you want to tell me, and you think it’s going to get you something. But from my perspective …”
She trailed off, looking at his forearm on the bar. Tony’s forearm.
“From your perspective?”
“I didn’t come to this bar to give anybody anything.”
“Why’d you come?”
“I thought it might be more fun than the room.”
She looked at his upper arm now, his shoulder. His shorn hair, black and gray mixed together.
Not Tony. Steve.
“It’s looking up,” she said.
“You know what I’m thinking now?”
“Yes. You’re thinking if you show me a good time at the bar, maybe I’ll let you show me an even better time in the room.”
He put his hand to his chest, eyes wide with mock amazement. “How did you know that?”
She met his eyes, and she smiled.
Because he was making it so easy for her. She could be Jennifer with this man. She could say what she liked. Flirt with a hot guy at a bar. Feel pretty. Feel seen.
She could be Jennifer if he would be Steve.
“Jennifer knows many things,” she said.
“I’m not supposed to say that I want to find out what Jennifer knows, right?”
“I’m supposed to say something smooth, like, ‘You’re an intriguing woman, Jennifer.’ ”
“If that’s your idea of smooth.”
He picked up his terrible drink and knocked half of it back. “Best I can do. ‘You’re an intriguing woman, Jennifer.’ ”
“Thank you. You’re doing a lovely job of pretending to be humble.”
“I don’t think you have a humble bone in your body.”
A straight face. A slow smirk. “Look at me, not making any ‘bone’ jokes.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re a simple man, aren’t you, Steve?”
“Now you want me to say something like, ‘All a man needs to know how to do is work, fuck, and grill a decent steak.’ ”
“You do. Then you can shoot me down, and you won’t have to sit at a table with me.” He pointed at her, eyebrows raised. “The whole prospect of the table thing fills you with panic.”
“Sorry, why am I panicking?”
“The footsie,” he said. “You can’t handle the footsie.”
She looked at their feet. Closer together than she’d realized—they’d been edging nearer as they talked.
Or, at least, she had. His bag was in the same place where he’d set it when he walked over, right next to his legs.
It wasn’t smart, letting herself play with him this way. It only set her up for the crash when playtime ended and they had to go home and pick up their problems all over again.
But it was so enticing, talking to this man who was Tony-but-not-Tony. This man who was everything she loved about her husband and none of the baggage that came with him.
Stripped of his husbandness, and her without her wifeness. So much more fun.
“I have to admit, I’m not sure I want those clodhoppers anywhere near my feet.”
“Nah, you’re misunderstanding. You’re not afraid I’m going to step on you. You’re afraid of what you’ll do once you get me underneath a table.”
“Oh, I see,” she said with dawning understanding. “I’m terrified that my feet will be magnetically attracted to your …” She raised a skeptical eyebrow at his crotch.
“My humble bone,” he supplied helpfully.
Amber laughed, and he grinned, and oh, Steve had a smile on him. A good sense of humor, a winning grin, nice hair, nice hands, nice arms.
She liked him. Liked the way he looked at her, the way he talked to her.
As if she was really here, and so was he, and he was listening. He was interested.
“You might be right,” she admitted. “It’s kind of a scary prospect.”
“Don’t be scared, baby,” he said with an exaggerated leer. “I’ll keep you safe.”