Making It Last - A Novella (Camelot Series), page 6
“I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about what happens if these shoes get too close to your humble bone.”
He peeked at the pointed toes of her heels and winced. “You’re supposed to take the shoes off when you play footsie.”
She made her eyes round. “Oh? Dag. I’ve been doing it all wrong.”
“Left a trail of emasculated men in your wake, have you?”
“And I never could figure out why they didn’t call me after.”
Shaking his head, smiling, he polished off his drink. “I don’t believe that.”
“What, that my conquests never call?” She propped her elbow on the bar and rested her head in her hand, openly flirtatious.
When had they last bothered to flirt? When had her eyes traveled over this man’s chest, his shoulders, his face, and thought something other than, I need to get the clippers out this weekend and give them all haircuts or That undershirt’s getting ratty. Add that to the Target list?
He nodded toward her wrist. “Looks to me like you give them a reason not to call.”
Confused, she lifted her head and glanced at where he was looking. “What’s that?”
Oh. The ring.
She twisted it off and tucked it in her purse.
“Oops,” she said.
A wry grin. “Yeah. Oops.”
“Was that a game-changer, Steve?”
He met her eyes. “You want it to be?”
No, she didn’t want the game to change. She wanted to keep going. See where they ended up.
She wanted this adventure, this hope, whether it was the smart thing or not.
Steve tapped the bar with one finger. Looked at her again. “Then I guess the question is whether your husband would kick my ass if he found out.”
“He’s not here.”
“Not here, like not in the bar, or not here, like—”
“Like not on this island.”
“He had to work.”
A searching pause as he looked into her eyes, and she wanted to take it back. The words had burbled up, unplanned.
She did have a husband. He was back in Ohio, working. And she didn’t want to think about him right now—his work, what it meant, what it cost her. She only wanted to be with this man.
“His mistake,” he said quietly.
Amber let herself drift a step closer. Close enough that her arm brushed his, and she thought about his hand on the bar. If he lifted it and dropped it to her hip, how heavy it would feel there. How the humidity meant that her skin would feel cold, bereft when he took it away.
“What brings you to Jamaica, Steve?”
“Not yours, I hope.”
“Oh, brother wedding. That’s treacherous. Do you like the bride?”
“She’s great. But to be honest, she could be a total bitch and I’d still be happy to see him married.”
“Why, is he horribly ugly?”
He shook his head. “Nah, just horribly messed up.”
God. He was talking about Patrick.
No. No Patrick.
Jennifer didn’t want to think about Patrick or his suffering.
So what are you good for, Steve?
That was what she should say. Then he would reply with an innuendo-filled joke, and they’d be right back on track. They would get that table. Drink some more. She would take him back to the room.
That was what Tony wanted, wasn’t it? That was what he was looking for: some way to invite her to take that step with him. To give them a chance to start over so they could prove they had something between them, some real and important blaze of attraction that would exist even if they were Steve and Jennifer or Tom and Amanda or Adam and Colette.
If you want me, win me over, she thought.
Make me believe in you. In us.
Make me believe in myself.
“Marriage isn’t for everybody,” she said.
Which made Jennifer sound like the sort of woman who was pissed off at her neglectful husband, seeking revenge sex.
He leaned in. “If I were an indirect sort of man,” he said quietly, running one finger up her forearm. “If I were a subtle man.” His mouth was so close to hers, she could feel his breath.
“If you were the kind of man who can do more than work and fuck and cook a steak?”
“Right. If I were one of those kind of guys, what would I say next?”
“What does it depend on?”
He turned his eyes on her again, dark and knowing. “What if I told you my intention was to get you out of that dress as soon as I could manage it?”
Perfect question, perfect tone of voice, perfect heat in his eyes, and a perfectly delightful shiver down her perfectly bare back.
“Then I would be glad I took off my ring.”
He slid his hand down her spine, parking it on the same spot Jared had tried to occupy.
It felt as good as she’d hoped. Heavy, warm, just the right trigger to transform her excitement into arousal. Weight in her breasts. Heat between her legs.
Amber wanted to bask in it, but she stepped away. “You’re going to have to woo me some more first, Steve.”
That earned her a chagrined smile. “At least the drinks are free.”
“We already paid for them,” she corrected. Because the resort was all-inclusive. The illusion of free everything, when in fact you’d coughed up all the money in advance.
“How about I get you another drink, and then we grab that table?” Steve asked. “Would that suit you?”
Jennifer approved. She located an empty alcove with a view of the water and picked up her drink, ready to make her way over. “See if you can get a bottle of wine instead.”
Red was what Amber liked.
“White,” she said, and sauntered to the table.
* * *
Tony poured out chardonnay, watching moisture condense on the bowl of each glass.
He poured generously, even though he hated chardonnay.
Amber hated it, too.
But Jennifer wanted white wine, and Steve wanted to get lucky, so there were rituals to perform. He added another splash to each glass.
“Thanks,” she said, accepting hers. “So what do you do for a living, Steve?”
“I’m a builder,” he said, and then wished he’d come up with a lie.
He really wasn’t any good at this. First he’d dragged Patrick into it, and now he told her his real job. Why not just announce he was the father of three orphaned boys, looking for a nice lady to scrub his linoleum?
Nice escapist fantasy, asshole. She’ll be playing footsie with you in no time.
“What do you build?”
This, at least, he could manage not to fuck up. “Houses.”
“What sort of houses?”
She smiled. “I meant, you know, mansions or prefab boxes or little cottages on the beach? Frank Lloyd Wright–ish sorts of houses?”
“Custom stuff, but only a few that have been super fancy. Mostly they’re just houses, for families to live in.”
“Do you like it?”
“I love it. I used to do commercial stuff—warehouses, renovations, car washes, pull-aparts. That kind of work is a drag. Houses are better.”
She was playing with her earlobe, looking right at him like she really wanted to know. Like she wasn’t sure how he would answer the question, which was interesting.
He thought maybe she’d never asked before.
That he’d never even tried to explain it.
“When you build something like a car wash … it’s fine. The client wants a car wash, they tell you what it’s supposed to be like, you get it done. There’s satisfact
“That’s kind of presumptuous, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but that’s not quite what I mean. What I mean is, they haven’t thought everything through, and maybe the architect hasn’t, either, but I can make sure their doors get hung right so they don’t cut off access to the light switch when they’re open. I can hire the most talented trim carpenter I know—this buddy of mine who insists on the best wood and always makes sure the grain matches. I can figure out that they’re really serious about the fireplace, or they have this dream about sitting on the front porch together, and I can make sure they get the most careful mason, or that the guys I hire to do the porch are super meticulous so it’s perfect for these people.”
“I get it. So what’s the best house you’ve built?”
“The one with the best idea behind it.”
Surely she knew.
Surely she didn’t want him to tell her that the best house he’d built was the one he built for their family. For her.
But she was looking at him guilelessly, legs crossed, leaning forward in the chair enough to give him a view down her dress that he didn’t think was an accident.
She really seemed to want to hear this.
“I built one for this couple,” he said. “Two kids, and a third one on the way.”
“What was special about it?”
“It wasn’t any one thing. It was all the details, added together. The skylight in the mudroom, so it’s not gloomy where they come in from the garage. Cork floors in the kitchen so her feet won’t ache when she’s cooking. The laundry room has a built-in table, long and narrow, for folding clothes on, and deep enough underneath so the baskets fit.”
But none of that was why it was special. He’d built the house as proof of how much he loved her. Proof that he could take care of her, that he had something to give her and the kids. Proof that he was worthy of her.
He’d built it because he wanted to be able to think of her inside it, surrounded by walls he’d had put up, windows he’d had installed. He’d wanted her to look around that house and think about him and feel safe and loved, even when he wasn’t there.
He didn’t know how to put that into words that made sense for Jennifer and Steve—or even into words that didn’t sound so stupid that he couldn’t say them out loud.
It was just a house.
He was just a guy who knew how to work and fuck and grill a decent steak.
And anyway, he wasn’t going to be building houses like that anymore. Not if things kept slipping away from him.
Amber’s eyes had lost focus. He’d been sitting there, brooding over her question, and she’d gone somewhere else in her head.
“I’m boring you, sorry. Too much shop talk.”
“No, it’s all right.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a trainer,” she said. “I work at a gym.”
He saw her in yoga pants and a sports top, walking some poor besotted sap through his weight routine.
She’d gone to school for sports management, been working at the community center when he met her, and in the past couple years since Jake started preschool she’d found her love of exercise again. Lost some weight that was bothering her, put on some muscle.
She looked like a trainer now, out for a night of fun. Lean body, trim and muscular. Those fingernails, and the dress.
The haircut, too. Her haircut kept startling him. She’d never had short hair, not once since he met her or in any picture of her he’d ever seen. And it wasn’t just short, it was short—half an inch long in some places, maybe two inches in others, revealing the shape of her head and the length of her neck. There was something choppy about the way it had been cut, so that it looked like somebody’s hands had been in it. Fingers skimming the crown of her head, pulling a slick line to a point in the tender space before her ear.
It made him notice how her eyebrows arched and how enormous and luminous her eyes were. How her face wasn’t as round as it had been when they met, because the years had drawn hollows where she hadn’t always had them.
The dress hung suspended from glittery straps, draped in front in a way that exposed her collarbones.
She couldn’t be wearing a bra.
He looked at her mouth, painted red, and wondered if the lipstick would be sticky or dry. If her mouth would taste like Amber. What her skin would smell like tonight.
How it was possible that she’d looked like this all along, and he’d known it, but he hadn’t been taking the time to really look.
Her neck seemed so naked with her hair gone. As naked as the constellation of freckles over her right hip. She had a hollow there where he liked to put his mouth.
“You should work at a gym.” He was breaking character, but whatever. This was more important. “If that’s what you want, you should do it.”
She reached across the table and touched the back of his hand. “And you should build houses. Only houses.”
“I wish I could.”
“Why can’t you?”
But he couldn’t answer that question, and he couldn’t look away from her mouth.
He felt shaky, so he slid his hand out from under hers and took a drink. Wine always tasted like vinegar to him, but at least it was cold.
She gave him a little smile. An offering.
“Amber,” he said. Because she held his heart in her hands, and he would drink white wine with her forever if she would let him back in.
She pursed her lips. “Jennifer.”
Tony looked at the ocean.
He didn’t want to play anymore. He wanted to make love to his wife, to look in her eyes and know she was there and she was okay.
He wanted to make everything okay, through sheer force of will.
Not the kind of hope he could take to the bank.
“It’s time for more innuendo,” she said. “Your nipples are hard.”
“That wasn’t innuendo. And you’re not supposed to notice.”
“I’m supposed to notice. I’m just not supposed to say.”
“Either way. You’re not very good at this.”
“I hardly ever get complaints.”
That made her smile. “You’re so cocky, Steve. It’s lucky for you that I’ve always had a thing for cocky men.”
“I’m at least ninety percent cock, Jennifer.”
She snorted, and he knocked back a gulp of cold chardonnay, feeling like he’d accomplished something.
“You were supposed to ask if I liked my job,” she said.
“Yes. So I know that you’re interested in more than my nipples.”
“Oh, I am. I’m interested in a lot more than your nipples.”
“So say it.” Her eyes were happy.
“ ‘How do you like being a trainer, Jennifer?’ ”
“I bet you like it a lot.”
“I do,” she said. “It’s fun.”
“What do you like about it?”
She tilted her head, considering. “I like that people come in with something wrong, and I can help them fix it, but they have to do all the work. It’s their choice, and they have the freedom to stop coming if they want.”
“Why do you like that?”
“Because it means that when they’re in front of me, asking for my help, I know they’re going to get what they want and then feel better. They’re going to be able to go through their day with less back pain, say, or to feel more attractive or energetic because they’ve lost the weight that was making them unhappy.”
“It sounds very … concrete.”
She nodded enthusiastically, and he knew he’d said the right thing. “It is. And
Tony thought about Amber’s day. Amber’s life. There were no boundaries in it anywhere. Just kids who needed her all the time, no matter whether she was supposed to be on or off duty. Him, coming home late, needing conversation or comfort in the middle of the night.
He could see the appeal of the fantasy.
He could understand the appeal of the gym, too, as much as he’d resented hearing her talk about Marc when she was a member there going for regular training sessions. Marc this, Marc that. Marc is going to help me strengthen my core.
Tony had met Marc once. The power of his hatred for the man had surprised him.
Unfair to Amber, but there it was.
“I dated a girl with a job kind of like that,” he said. “She worked at a community center.”
“Was she cute?”
“Adorable. Hot, too.”
She ran her finger around the rim of her glass. “What happened to her?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Last I heard, she was getting married.”
“It’s a plague.”
“She was pregnant.”
“Ah. The old shotgun wedding.”
“I always wondered if she’d have made the same choice. If she hadn’t been pregnant.”
As soon as he said it, he wished he could take it back. Her mouth went flat, and he could see it in her face. She knew what he was asking.
Would you choose me again?
He’d never asked.
He’d always been afraid of what she’d say.
“What was the guy like?”
Tony looked at the ocean, because the bar was getting loud and he was starting to feel cramped, the noise compressing him into too little space.
“He was all right, I guess. He worked hard. Tried to give her the kind of life she deserved.”
“Did he love her?”
His foot found hers under the table, and he slid past so their legs pressed together, calf to calf.
He wished there were some way to tell her. Some new way that involved different words. Another language.
He said “Yes,” and it sounded like nothing.
“Did she love him?” she asked.
He looked up, wanting to see the answer in her expression, but now it was her turn to avoid his gaze.