Tainted

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Tainted

Lance and Mary (Cliffside Bay, Book 5)

Regular price $15.99
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women's fiction · contemporary romance · Cliffside Bay series · family saga · standalone series

 “Let me start by saying I gave this a 5 [star review], but it is more of a 10 or even 20. I have fallen in love with his series. Up to this point, we haven't seen much of Lance and Mary. But this book brings them both to light. This book was crazy on my emotions. At times, I found myself mad, at others I was crying ugly tears, and at others, I was deliriously happy. This book was, in my opinion, the best of the series.” —Boundless Book Reviews 

In love, there are no mistakes, only detours. Find out for yourself in this standalone, swoon-worthy, small town romance from USA Today bestselling author Tess Thompson.

Businessman Lance Mullen is no stranger to mistakes, but he’s determined to get things right this time. Coming home to Cliffside Bay proves to be the first in a series of great decisions, and in no time at all Lance has his life back on track.

After losing her mother, child, and marriage, Mary Hansen is determined to keep her heart safe from any further pain. By convincing herself that her job and her books are enough, she’s sure to never be vulnerable to love or loss again.

When New Year’s Eve brings these two unlucky souls together over a bottle of tequila, their celebratory mood will get the best of both of them. But it won’t take long before one fun night turns into long days of panic when they discover that perhaps they’ve both made the biggest mistake of all. Is it possible that the things we don’t think we want can turn out to be the very things we actually need?

*** Each book in the Cliffside Bay Series is intended to be read and enjoyed as a sweet standalone, but for maximum enjoyment read this binge-worthy series in order. ***

— scroll down to read book sample — 

REVIEWS

“Tess Thompson has ‘wowed’ once again with her ease of writing and talents in storytelling, one that will have you crying, cheering and experiencing the ‘laughing-tears’ just as much, if not more than its previous installments. It's enjoyable to a fault which makes it that much more difficult in preparing yourself to say goodbye to such a lovable and meaningful story.” —Wild Sage Book Blog

“I continue to love this series and put it up there as one of my favorites in the contemporary romance genre. I'll be reading more of Tess Thompson's books, that's for sure!” —Deb's Hooked on Books
“Fantastic read…Tess's books are always filled with positivity, no matter what bumpy ride the characters may take you on, to get to the end of their journey.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“So the amazing Tess Thompson did a fantastic job of really penning an amazing story to give us the inside look of Mary finally facing herself. And she & Lance were amazing together. The twist that I was waiting to be revealed, well, when it was because secrets always come out, the reaction really shocked me silly, so YAY for another shocker! And the cast of secondaries make of up characters from the previous stories were all present & accounted for, so there were plenty of laughs to go along with all of the angst. What another amazing story in an amazing series, and I hope it never ends! HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMEND” —Jennifer Pierson, The Power of Three Readers

“How Tess Thompson writes this story is amazing, you are pulled in and you could only wish you had such caring individuals in your life.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“Absolutely mesmerizing story! I felt all the pain [the] characters felt as if it was me there.
Tess Thompson does it to you. Such an incredible talent she has…telling stories and developing characters' deepest feelings. Cliffside Bay series is like meeting your old friends and family. Those relationships are amazing!” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“My first book by this author and I loved it. It kept my interest from the first page to the last. Looking forward to reading more of her books.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly 40 published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on, Hometowns and Heartstrings.

She’s married to her prince, Best Husband Ever, and is the mother of their blended family of four kids and five cats. Best Husband Ever is seventeen months younger, which qualifies Tess as a Cougar, a title she wears proudly. Her Bonus Sons are young adults with pretty hair and big brains like their dad. Daughters, better known as Princess One and Two, are teenagers who make their mama proud because they’re kind. They’re also smart, but a mother shouldn’t brag. 

Tess loves lazy afternoons watching football, hanging out on the back patio with Best Husband Ever, reading in bed, binge-watching television series, red wine, strong coffee and walks on crisp autumn days. She laughs a little too loudly, never knows what to make for dinner, looks ridiculous kickboxing in an attempt to combat her muffin top, and always complains about the rain even though she chose to live in Seattle.  

She’s proud to have grown up in a small town like the ones in her novels. After graduating from the University of Southern California Drama School, she had hopes of becoming an actress but was called instead to writing fiction. She’s grateful to spend most days in her office matchmaking her characters while her favorite cat Mittens (shhh…don’t tell the others) sleeps on the desk.

SAMPLE FROM TAINTED

Chapter 1: Lance

Ten seconds before the clock struck midnight and tossed them into a new year, Lance Mullen had only one wish. He wanted to kiss Mary Hansen. Not a friendly peck on her alabaster cheek or a chaste brush of lips. No, his kiss must steal her breath and quicken her pulse and weaken her knees. He must make her swoon.

This was not a task for the shy or meek. Only a hero could rouse her from her half slumber.

It would take the kiss of the greatest love story ever written.

Around him, his friends began to chant the countdown.

Ten…

Mary stood next to him in Zane and Honor’s crowded living room. All night she’d stayed near, so close he could smell the subtle scent of her perfume and bask in the heat that radiated from her skin. She tugged the sleeve of his jacket.

“Lance, you have to count.”

Nine, eight…

He looked down at her. His pulse quickened, his knees weakened at the mere sight of her. With an oval face and one of those well-defined jawlines he found so attractive, she reminded him of fine china, meticulously honed into beautiful lines and curves. Tonight, she wore a dark blue velvet dress that clung to her slender waist and hips. Her caramel-hued hair was swept up into a pile on top of her head, exposing her long neck, the tips of her delicate ears, and the birthmark on her neck that reminded him of a question mark. All evening he’d longed to trace the birthmark with his finger as if it might unleash the answer to her heart. Yet, he wondered, too, would she shatter under his touch?

She played with the gold bangles around her wrist and counted down the seconds with the rest of his friends. Seven, six…

She smiled up at him with eyes as dull as a child’s crayon. Five, four…

One day she’d told him that all interesting characters in novels have a secret.

He had one.

He was in love with Mary Hansen. No one knew, not even his best friends. She was tainted in their eyes, prickly and cold.

Unlike a hero in Mary’s favorite novels, his secret did not make him interesting. More like pathetic.

Three, two, one…

Confetti floated and danced around him. “Auld Lang Syne” played from the speakers. His best friends and his brother kissed their wives—everyone married now but him. Maggie and Violet were pregnant. He knew his sister-in-law, Kara, wouldn’t be far behind. He was ashamed that their happiness made him sad. More than it should? Maybe. Was he wrong to want a love of his own? A woman to cherish and dogs and babies and the busy, messy lives his friends had made for themselves? If it was wrong, if he should not yearn for more when he had so much, then he was guilty. His new house and all the money in the bank and his expensive cars and clothes meant little when you woke up alone.

He wanted to wake up with Mary Hansen.

The passage into her heart was as mysterious as the Agatha Christie novels she lovingly displayed on the Staff Picks table of their bookstore. That said, he knew more than most about the damaged beauty by his side. During their late nights of easy friendship, she’d slowly revealed herself to him as they prepared to open the revamped bookstore. The plot? Six years ago, her baby daughter had died, followed closely by her mother’s death. Then, her husband had admitted to having an affair while she was pregnant. The subtext? Trained as a librarian, she lived only in the pages of the novels she coveted. They were her link to the living world.

Mary turned to him and played with the collar of his shirt. “Sir Lancelot.”

“Yes?” She labeled everyone by characters in books. He was Sir Lancelot. Every time she called him that, his heart fluttered. However, she was not his Guinevere but his Sleeping Beauty. If only he could waken her.

“You’re supposed to kiss me or it’s bad luck.” She held up her cheek.

This was his chance. Do it. Be bold.

“It has to be on the lips,” he said. “Or it doesn’t count.”

“I’m not sure that’s true, but just in case, you better do it.”

She pursed her lips, playful.

She was about to know he was not playing.

He pressed his lips to hers, not hard like he wanted but with just the slightest of pressure, and kissed her. To his surprise, she softened against his mouth. She kissed him back! Yes, there was no question. Her lips moved, mimicking the flutter of the confetti that tickled his ear. He lingered at her mouth, lost. My God, she tasted of champagne. Another stanza of music passed. Still, he could not let go. He slipped one arm around her waist. She kept her arms at her sides but allowed him to pull her small-boned frame against his broad chest. Overwhelmed by the scent of her perfume and her hair, he kissed her harder. A spark of light exploded behind his eyes. An engine rumbled through his stomach.

She pulled away, flushed and breathing hard. “What was that?” she whispered.

​“A kiss.”  

“Why did you do that?” She splayed her fingers against the base of her neck, as if a collar choked her.

“I’m sorry. I got carried away.”

She looked down and rearranged the bangles on her arm. “It’s fine. Just a kiss between friends.”

Suspicions confirmed. He was a sick man. Not with a physical ailment, by the grace of God, but with a mental malady he’d named after himself. The Lance Syndrome. Men who fall for women who are either married, gay, emotionally unavailable, or not interested due to lack of physical attraction.

“I want to go,” she said.

His heart no longer fluttered at her words. Once again, he’d blown it.

A few minutes later, he pulled out of Honor and Zane’s driveway and headed down the hill toward town. Mary sat beside him, stiff and quiet. He’d frightened her with his unwanted kiss. He could kick himself. Here it was the first day of the new year and he had nothing but the same mistakes stretched out in front of him like a road map to his own personal hell. New year. Same mistakes. New woman with which to make same mistakes.

Nice. Tori Hawthorne, the woman who’d wrecked his life, had once called him vanilla melba toast during a fight. He was the guy you called when you needed a warm smile, genuine encouragement, or to kill a spider. Not the guy who pressed you against the wall and kissed away all reason.

Everyone knew nice got you nowhere in life.

His father had always said a man’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. Lance was a good man, a compassionate person. He was sick to death of himself. Sure, it was great to be empathetic and nonjudgmental, but it made life more complicated. Seeing beyond a person’s public face made almost everyone understandable, even lovable. He could see a person’s innate character, the person they’d been before life whittled away at their trust and courage.

It was as if he stood on a glass floor and could see what lay below when others saw only a shiny reflection of themselves. One couldn’t truly see another if they looked exclusively with their eyes. Only a heart could see through glass.

He saw Mary with his heart. Behind her reticence and aloofness, those layers of porcelain, was a woman who had suffered great losses yet continued onward, fighting the darkness that wanted to pull her under. To him, this was the true definition of character. She was strong and brave. His friends didn’t understand. They couldn’t see beyond her cracked glass floor.

Make small talk. Get through the awkwardness. Back to friend zone.

“What’s the famous medical manual? You know, the one on my mother’s desk?” Mary knew every book ever published. She was a walking database of books.

“The Merck Manual,” she said.

Lance snapped his fingers. “Right, that’s it.”

He imagined The Lance Syndrome listed in the Merck Manual. Along with the description of the syndrome, photographs of the women he’d once loved displayed as exhibits A though F. His last conquest, Exhibit F, Tori Thayne Hawthorne, best described as married. A footnote at the bottom of the page would include details such as, the boss’s daughter who subsequently got him fired from his upwardly mobile job as a hedge fund manager in one of the most prestigious firms in New York City.

Never one to fail quietly, no, not Lance Mullen. He went out with a splash big enough to empty his famous brother’s swimming pool. Lost the girl and the job and his eye twitch and everything else he’d built over the past eight years of eighty-hour work weeks by falling in love with his boss’s married daughter.

His brother, Brody, had convinced him to come to Cliffside Bay. Start fresh.

So, he had. He began again in Cliffside Bay. He’d had a beautiful house built on the corner of Brody’s property. The Dogs and their wives had welcomed him back into the fold, delighted he had finally moved to town. He thought he’d made the right decision for his life. However, one couldn’t shake fundamental flaws just because one moved across the country and constructed a beach house.

Wherever he went, there he was.

Exhibit G was his current work in progress. Mary Hansen. She might be his finest disaster to date. Mary fell under two categories. She was emotionally unavailable and put him squarely in the friend zone. Only his most self-destructive work contained women who fell into more than one category.

She shifted in her seat, smoothing her hands down the front of her dress. Damn that clingy blue dress coupled with the pair of nude sandals that showed off her long legs. Mary Hansen was one sexy librarian.

He should never have asked her to be his date. Not when he knew his feelings were so far out of the friend zone it was practically another planet.

Mary looked over at him. Her eyes sparkled in the lights of a passing car. “I don’t want to go home.”

“You don’t?” If only she meant, I want you to take me home and rip off my clothes.

“No, it’s just a little after midnight. Now that half your friends are pregnant or have small children, that was a tame New Years’ Eve celebration.”

“Everything’s changed.” He’d felt it keenly all evening. He was going to be alone the rest of his life, thanks to The Lance Syndrome.

“Let’s buy a bottle of tequila and make margaritas,” she said.

“You drink margaritas?”

“I used to. I used to be fun, believe it or not.”

“I think you’re fun now,” he said.

“I’m not.”

“You are,” Lance said. More than you know.

“I want to be fun again. I want to have fun. Do you know how long it’s been since I cut loose?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

She laughed. “Yes. I don’t want to go home to my empty house. Not tonight. I hate New Year’s Eve. I just want to forget my life for a few hours.”

“I have tequila at my house.”

He turned onto the road that took them out of town and up the hillside toward the Mullen property.

“I feel like drinking too much and dancing in my underwear,” Mary said.

He coughed. “What?”

“You are awake,” she said.

He was awake now. The thought of her dancing in her panties was enough to keep him from sleeping for weeks.

“You’ve never danced in your underwear,” he said. “No way.”

“Once. In college. After too many tequila shots.”

“I can’t picture it.” Maybe you could demonstrate later.

“Librarians know how to party,” she said.

He laughed. “That’s a party I’d love to go to.”

“Seriously, the country song’s true. Tequila does make your clothes fall off. And other things.” The last part was said under her breath.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“Never mind.” She punched his shoulder. “Keep your eyes on the road.”

They turned into the Mullen property. The head of Brody’s security team, Rafael, was off for the night, but Taylor, the night guy waved them through.

“I’d hate to be as famous as Brody. Well, famous at all,” Mary said.

“It’s the price he had to pay to play football.” In the past tense. Brody would never play again. A neck injury had forced him into retirement at age thirty-one.

He drove by Brody’s house, then past the driveway that led to Mary’s dad’s place. Her father had married the Mullens’ longtime housekeeper, Flora, essentially their second mother, and built a cottage where they planned to stay part of the year. Currently, they were in Oregon at their other house and wouldn’t be back until next month. Mary was staying at their place while they were gone.

“Any luck finding a house?” he asked.

“Nothing’s for sale or rent. I’ve got to find something before Dad and Flora come back. I cramp their style.”

“I still think we should make the rooms above the store into an apartment. Like Zane’s apartment above The Oar.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Something about living above a bookstore in that tiny space reiterates the fact that I’m doomed to a life of cats and spinsterhood.”

You don’t have to be.

He turned into the third driveway. His house wasn’t far from the cliff, but not so close it would fall into the ocean. He’d made sure of that. Like trading stocks, one had to measure the risks versus the rewards.

They walked up his stone pathway to the front door. He’d left the yard lights on, but the stones were craggy and uneven. Perfect excuse to take Mary’s arm. How she walked in those heels was as intriguing as the woman herself.

He kept hold of her as they ambled up the stairs to the front door of his Cape Cod–style home. Once inside, he turned on a few lamps with a command on his phone.

“Oh, Lance, it’s gorgeous.”

His designer, Trey Mattson, had put the finishing touches on his house that afternoon. The white couch was now adorned with blue pillows that mimicked the color of the ocean on a summer day. Paintings of the Italian seaside hung on the walls.

The living room and kitchen were one great room, strategically designed to face the ocean. Tonight, the giant windows acted as mirrors, catching their reflections. During daylight, however, they looked directly out to the ocean. Wide-planed, distressed hardwood floors throughout contrasted with white walls and light furniture with pops of blue in pillows, bowls, and vases. At the kitchen island were five stools for five Dogs.

“Did the table for the dining room come?” she asked.

“Yes, finally.” He pointed toward the closed door to the dining room, next to the stairs that led up to the second floor. “You can look at it later.” He’d bought an enormous table with enough seating for all of his friends and family. Someday, he would host a holiday meal. A vision of the two of them together with a couple of kids flashed before his eyes. How he wished it could be true.

“Oh, Lance, the view from this window is unbelievable.” She stepped out of her sandals and placed them neatly by the door to the patio.

“I’ll never tire of it,” he said. The window was in fact a door, much like a garage. During warm months, the entire door rolled upward and disappeared, making the living room and deck into one space.

“I love the high beams and light walls. Everything seems so clean and fresh.” She swept her hand over the back of his white couch. “And the bits of blue are lovely. My favorite color.”

“Mine too. Anyway, we can thank Trey for all of this. I can barely pick out a pair of shoes let alone decorate an entire house.”

Lance had asked Trey for the ultimate seaside escape—a sanctuary from the world. He hadn’t said it out loud, but he wanted a place where he could feel at peace. A home where he could forget what happened in New York and let all the expectations he’d had for his life drift away in the ocean breeze. This house should grant him peace. Something had to.

“I love the floors,” she said.

“Brody said they’re manly but also pretty, like me.”

“That’s not nice.”

“It’s fine. Just brotherly ribbing.”

“You’re handsome, not pretty,” she said.

“I guess so.” Embarrassed, his ears burned. For years the Dogs had teased him about being too pretty for a guy. Secretly, it offended him. He’d grown a short beard just to counteract the prettiness. It did nothing to disguise his delicate features. “Now, about that drink.”

“Yes, let’s get this party started.”

He laughed at how awkward those words sounded coming out of her mouth. In all the months they’d spent together, he’d never known her to have more than a glass of wine. At the shop, she drank apple cinnamon herbal tea all day long. “I’m always cold,” she’d told him one time when he’d teased her about her tea addiction.

In the kitchen he found a bottle of tequila in the pantry. “I don’t have margarita mix, but I have lemonade. Will that do?”

“That’ll do just fine.” She sat, rather primly, on the oversized chair by the fireplace. That dress. That dress needed to come off.

“You want to borrow a shirt and a pair of my boxer shorts?” he asked.

“You read my mind.” She crossed the room in her bare feet over to where he had opened the bottle of tequila and the lemonade carton. “Here, I’ll do this while you fetch me something to wear. This dress is like a cobra around my middle.”

“I can imagine.” He’d like to be a cobra around her middle.

When he returned with a soft t-shirt and a pair of his boxer shorts, two glasses of the lemonade tequila concoction waited on the coffee table. She excused herself to change in the downstairs bathroom. Do not think of her naked.

She returned a few minutes later with her dress over one arm and placed it on the back of a chair. “I just thought of something. You won’t be able to drive me home if we have too many drinks.”

“It’s too far to walk in the dark. You can sleep in the guest room. No one’s stayed there yet. I figured it would be Kyle’s room, but now he’s married, and I’ll probably never see him again.” He spoke casually, oh so cool, like there was no agenda.

“Especially with another baby on the way.”

He looked at her closely. Had her voice quivered when she’d mentioned a baby?

She grabbed her drink. “I need a straw. Do you have straws?”

“I do. For when Dakota and Jubie come over. Kids love straws.”

“I love straws,” she said.

“I never knew that.”

“We’ve never had drinks before.”

He left his drink on the coffee table and went into the kitchen to get her a straw. He grabbed only one. Men didn’t drink from straws. Even nice men.

She thanked him and stuck it into her drink, then took a long suck as he sank into the corner of his L-shaped couch. “I have something to say.” Her eyes shone in the light from the fireplace. Now that he thought about it, she might have been a little drunk at the party. “Thanks for hiring me to manage the bookstore. I have a purpose I wouldn’t have if not for your generosity.” She cut herself off and raised her glass. “Anyway, to the new year.”

“To the new year.”

She curled up in the oversized chair looking comfortable, not to mention sexy as hell, in his shirt.

“Speaking of the store,” he said. “I closed the books this morning. We made a profit our first month. It’s much better than I expected.”

“The holidays helped. Next month might be terrible.”

“Don’t be such a pessimist,” he said. “Having trivia night and book clubs and all the other stuff you thought of will bring people in during slower months. Plus, customers love how you help them find just the right book for them.” Every time a new customer had come in looking for a gift, she’d rattled off a few questions and then presented them with several books sure to please.

“I love finding people the right book.” She was talking faster than her usual measured pace. He worried over how quickly she was downing her drink, but there wasn’t much he could do to stop her. “I looked at my stock account today. How are you making me all this money?”

“I’ve been pleased,” he said. More than pleased. Over the past few months, he’d increased her wealth by ten thousand dollars. She didn’t have much to start out with, unlike his former clients who invested millions. “I watch the market closely, that’s all.”

“Not all. You’re a genius.”

“That’s what my boss used to say.” Back when he was a rising star at the firm. Before he was summarily fired.

Her glass was almost empty. She wasn’t kidding when she said she was in the mood to have a few drinks.

He moved to stand by the fire. Her hazel eyes glittered with energy when she met his gaze. And her cheeks were flushed a bright pink. This was not self-contained Mary. Tonight, she was all sexy librarian Mary.

“How about another?” She uncurled her long legs and got up from the chair, then crossed over to the kitchen. “I made a pitcher.”

“I’m good for now.” He might have to look after her later. Best to stay sober.

Moments later, she was back in her spot, guzzling her drink.

“Be careful,” he said gently. “You’re not much of a drinker, are you?”

“Not really. But do you ever just get sick of being who you are?”

“Almost every day.” Definitely today.

“What would you change?” she asked.

He rattled the ice around his nearly empty glass. “I’d like to be more like Kyle and Zane. More of an alpha type guy.”

“You mean because of women?”

“What else reason would there be? It’s always about a woman.”

“A woman? Or women?” She pulled a pin from her hair and her hair cascaded around her shoulders. “It has to be the latter if you’re going to be a romance book alpha male.”

“Do you like that type?” he asked.

“I have no idea. I don’t think about men. I have no interest in ever letting myself get hurt that way again.”

“Are you ever lonely?”

“I didn’t think so.” Indecision played across her features. She was obviously wrestling with what to say next. “Until recently.”

“How recently?”

“Tonight. When you kissed me...” She looked up at the ceiling. Her eyelashes fluttered. “Your kiss unsettled me.”

“Is that good?” Act like it was nothing. He strolled over to the couch and sat with his legs stretched out on the coffee table. Mr. Casual.

“Yes. Our kiss, to be more accurate. I believe I kissed you back, making it ours.” She crossed her legs. “Which is weird.”

“Because it was nice?” he asked, a flare of hope in his chest.

She rested her neck on the back of her chair and stared at the ceiling. “Nice isn’t how I would describe it. More like, hot.”

He swallowed and gripped his glass in both hands, afraid he might drop it onto his new couch. The ice cubes had melted into slivers.

“It surprised me,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t think of you that way. You’re my pal. My best pal.”

The friend zone. Damn it all.

“But now I feel a little confused,” she said.

“You do?”

“I do, yes.” She tilted her head, studying him. “Are you?”

“Not in the same way.”

“I don’t follow.”

“I think about you.” How’s that for an understatement?

“You think about me? Like that?”

“It’s impossible not to. Given how gorgeous you are. I mean, seriously, that dress tonight. I’m a man, not a zombie.”

“Oh.” She stared at him for a second, then finished her drink with a noisy slurp and got up for more. Surprisingly, she walked in a straight line all the way to the kitchen. When she returned, she stood near the couch and examined him as if they had come upon each other on the street and she was trying to place where she knew him from. “You’ve surprised me twice tonight. That never happens. People don’t usually surprise me.”

“Most people are much more than they appear on the surface,” he said.

She shook her glass at him. “You’ve taught me that. It’s humbling to hear what you see in others that most people miss. I love that about you.”

“Yeah?” She loved that about him. She’d narrowed in on this trait. She saw him for who he was.

She slapped her left knee. “I’m vowing right here and now to make this a better year. I can’t be sad forever. I mean, it’s been six years since I lost Meme and my mother, and my husband left me for that barista skank.”

Skank. He’d never heard her use that word before. Tequila loosened her tongue.

Mary slurped up her drink. In hindsight, the choice of a straw might not have been wise.

“It was like everything was mine one minute and poof it all disappeared in the next.” She waved her hand in front of her face like she was swatting away mosquitos. “But I have to stop being like this. I have to start living.”

“You suffered a terrible loss. It’s understandable that you withdrew.” What a stupid thing to say. Trite and ridiculous.

“You want to know something?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Reading novels—my old friends—has been the only thing that gets me through the day. I can get lost in a story and forget for a while. Or, sometimes, the story mirrors something in my own life and helps me cry and grieve and feel less alone. But you know what? I’m not really living. Dammit, my mother would be truly disappointed in me.” She placed her empty glass on the coffee table and wandered over to the bank of windows. “Do you know how long it’s been since I had sex?”

He almost choked on his drink.

“The last time was with my husband. Can you believe that? Good old Chad the Cheater.” She giggled as she turned to face him. “Do you know he’s married and has three kids? Three. Can you imagine how that hurts?”

She’d shared this with him before, but he didn’t remind her. He would let her talk for as long as she needed.

“I could, yes,” he said.

“How stupid is it to have an incompetent cervix? I mean, seriously? Of all things. My Meme never had a chance because of my incompetence.”

He had no idea what to say. She’d gone into labor at only twenty-two weeks. The baby wasn’t developed enough. Despite heroic efforts of the hospital staff, tiny Meme had died in Mary’s arms.

She turned back to the window. Her breath steamed up the glass as she spoke. “And wouldn’t you know it, life goes on. Unfortunately. So, you just have to get up every single stupid day and pretend like you’re present in the world when all the time you’re just a ghost floating amongst the living. And in the middle of all the soul-crushing grief, you’re pissed as hell too—witnessing all the lucky ones with their precious families and happy marriages—those adorable babies at the supermarket all fat and pink. It all eats away at you until all that’s left is this angry, bitter shell. You hate yourself for it. Honestly, you do. You want to be gracious and graceful and believe that God is good, but you can’t. You rage against Him. You hate all the happy people.”

Lance joined her by the windows. Her reflection in the glass appeared ghostlike and eerie. He wanted to take her in his arms and hold her, comfort her, but remained at a distance.

“Now you know. I’m an awful person,” she said.

“No. Not awful. Hurting.”

“Damn, Lance, how are you so good all the time? How do you always know what to say so that I feel understood instead of judged?”

“I’m not good all the time. You know how I wrecked my life. No one to blame but myself.”

“I blame the boss’s daughter.” She rested the side of her head against his shoulder. “I could never blame you for anything. You’re too good for this world.”

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder.

Mary jerked away. “No, I’m not doing this. I’m not ruining our fun night. This is the beginning of a new year. We’re going for broke.” She scurried across to the kitchen and grabbed the pitcher of drinks. “You’ve got to catch up. It’s terrible manners to let a lady get drunk while you remain sensible and sober.”

“Sensible and sober? God, I sound like an old man.” He fetched his drink from the coffee table and finished the dregs. “Here, give me that pitcher. I don’t trust you.”

She laughed. “Because I’m drunk?”

“Yes, and my furniture’s white.” He poured them both a new drink. “I’m worried you’re going to be sick.”

“No way. I ate a huge dinner. I’m fine.” She fell back onto the couch and planted her legs on the coffee table. Her toenails were painted pink and reminded him of perfect seashells. “My mom always made me come up with New Year’s resolutions. Did you guys do those?”

“Sure. My mom was always big on making goals. I mean, not that we stuck to them, but yeah.” He took the chair she’d vacated earlier, afraid if he sat by her he might lose it and pull her onto his lap.

“Do you have any for this year?” Mary asked.

“Read more.” He grinned at her. “Someone suggested that.”

She’d given him a stack of some of her favorite books for a Christmas present.

“What else?” she asked.

“I’d like to find someone. The right someone. I guess that’s not a resolution, but a wish.”

Her voice softened. “Those are different things, yes.” She fiddled with the hem of her t-shirt before she leapt up. “We need music. Something cheery.”

He found his phone and turned on the Bluetooth speakers. A pop song came on, sexy and up-tempo.

“Is this the dancing-on-the-table portion of the evening?” He leaned back in his chair like he was ready to watch a show.

In front of the fireplace, she swayed to the music and flashed him a saucy grin. “What? You think I won’t do it?”

“I know you won’t do it.”

“Really? Well, how about this?” She put aside her drink and stepped onto the coffee table. With her arms stretched out above her head, she moved her hips in a circle one way and then the other. Maybe she was right. Librarians knew how to party.

“Didn’t you say something about underwear?” The comment flew from his mouth without proper evaluation of the consequences.

Her hip gyration commenced. With an evil glint in her eyes, she gazed at him. “You don’t think I’ll do it.”

“I don’t.”

“Oh, I’m doing it all right. And you have to watch. No turning away now.”

“There’s no way in hell I’m turning away,” he said gruffly.

^ back to top ^

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