I never considered myself a gambling man, but today, I was doing just that. I’d woken up this morning with Coral on my mind, the memory of that kiss—hot damn! That kiss!—still on my lips and the scent of her clinging to my tux jacket as I rolled it up to send it to the cleaners. I’d considered my options and decided I had nothing to lose by seeing if she was still in town and up for a late breakfast.
When Coral had responded that she was already on her way home to Burton, I hadn’t let that slow me down. I wasn’t the type of guy who was used to being told no by women—not that I was jerk about it when it did happen, and not that I ever pushed the issue. I’d been raised right.
Still, I’d gotten the sense the night before that Coral had been teetering on the verge of . . . something like saying yes to me. In her eyes, even as she’d told me that this was goodbye, I’d seen a tinge of regret, as if she was making that decision against what she really wanted. She was following the lead of her head instead of her . . . well, not her heart, necessarily, but maybe of her body.
So I’d pushed a little on the idea of a picnic. It had popped into my mind, and I’d run with it, thinking about the little mom-and-pop sandwich shop on the edge of town. When Coral had finally said yes, I grabbed my keys and headed out.
Now I was bouncing along a dirt road that was a dotted line on my navigation program, hoping I was going in the right direction and not about to run into an angry farmer with shotgun. Just as I rounded a corner, I saw a small figure standing beneath a tree, her back resting against the trunk as she bent her head over a book. Pulling onto the grass, I turned off the engine, slid the keys out of the ignition and climbed out of the driver’s seat.
Coral lifted her head to look at me, and I felt a jolt when her eyes met mine. She looked completely different today; she wasn’t all dolled up for a date as she’d been the first time we’d met, or for a fancy premiere as she’d been last night. Today, she was dressed down in an oversized T-shirt and faded jeans with scuffed Chuck Taylors. Her face was clean without a hint of makeup and her short hair was tousled.
But to me, she’d never been so beautiful.
“Hi.” She pushed off the tree and took a few steps toward me, her hands still clutching the worn paperback. “You found me.”
It felt like those words meant more than what she’d said. You found me. Like she’d been lost, just waiting for the right guy to see who she was, to recognize her beauty, her worth . . . to sweep her into his arms the way I was longing to do.
I swallowed hard. “Yep. It was touch and go there for a minute. I was a little worried you’d sent me out in the middle of nowhere just to get me off your back.”
Coral smiled a little. “Nah. Trust me, if I was planning to get rid of you, I know all of the best ways. After all, I’m an author.”
“I’ll have to remember that. Might be a good incentive to behave.”
She laughed. “I’m not sure it would work with you. I have a feeling you’re kind of incorrigible.”
“I might be,” I admitted. And then, before I gave in to the desire to sweep this woman into my arms once again, I opened the trunk of my car. “Okay. I’ve got a blanket in here, and I picked up sandwiches, a couple of sodas, some chips . . . and oh, yeah, some napkins.” I scooped up everything we needed and slammed the lid of the trunk. “Sorry it isn’t fancier.”
“I don’t need fancy. Just food. I’m actually starving.” She patted her stomach. “What did you get me?”
“Well, I didn’t know what you wanted, so I just picked up their specialty. It’s an Italian sub with oil and vinegar. I hope you like it.”
“It sounds perfect.” She helped me spread the blanket, and we both sat down. “I’m not that picky when it comes to sandwiches. I love them all.”
“Good to know.” I handed her the paper-wrapped sub and a can of soda, and ripped open the bag of chips. “I like a girl who isn’t fussy.”
“Hey.” She shot me a mock-stern glance. “Don’t be sexist.”
I spread my hands. “I’m not. I don’t like guys who are fussy, either. I’m an equal opportunity disliker of high maintenance people.”
She grinned. “Okay, as long as we’ve got that straight.” Taking a bite of her sandwich, she groaned a little. “Oh, my God, this is so good.”
My body reacted to the sound as though she’d taken off a key piece of clothing. I watched in fascination as she chewed and swallowed, as her tongue darted out to swipe over her pretty pink lips. In my dark and dirty mind, I saw those lips wrapped around my—
“What did you get?”
“Huh?” I blinked, taking a deep breath. “Um, I got ham and cheese. I’m not a big fan of salami.”
Coral smirked. “Good to know.”
“Okay, listen.” I laid my sandwich on the open paper. “Let’s talk about something that doesn’t feel—you know, like, sex talk in disguise. Unless you want to forget this food and roll around on the blanket with me instead.”
She stared at me in silence for a long moment. “I didn’t realize we were, um, sex talking in disguise. Okay. Ah . . .” She inhaled, and I did my damnedest not to look at her tits. “So. Tell me about you. Are you originally from Savannah? Did you grow up there? Is your family still in the area?”
I struggled to keep up as we switched gears. “No, not from Georgia. I was born and raised in a small town in North Carolina. Family . . . I don’t have any left. None that I want to know, anyway. I have no idea who my father was, and my mother took off when I was a kid. Left me with my grandpa, and he brought me up.” I shrugged. “He owned a bar. We lived upstairs, and I started working there when I was still in grade school. You know, like, bussing tables and shit.” I reached for a chip. “My grandfather had a heart attack when I was twenty. He decided he wanted to retire, to live in town with his sister . . . and he didn’t want me to be tied to the bar for the rest of my life. So he sold it to his son, my uncle, and I headed south. Ended up in Savannah . . . because I met a girl.”
“Ohhhhh.” Coral wagged her eyebrows. “A girl, huh?”
“Yeah, and I was still young and stupid, so I thought I’d found my happy ending, you know? Got a gig at a local bar, worked a lot to get us a decent place to live, but before I could save up for the security deposit, I came home one night and found that while I was working, she was fucking another guy in our bed.” I shrugged. “So I took my shit and moved into the decent place by myself. I kept working, got better jobs when I could, and finally, I landed at the Gwynn. It’s a good spot for me. I like what I do.”
“And after getting your heart broken, you lived like a monk?” she teased. “All work and no play?”
“Hell, no.” I winked at her. “I’m not a dull boy, baby. There’s been a lot of play over the years. I don’t know that the girl who kept me in Savannah broke my heart, though. More like my pride. And maybe she hurt my trust in people.”
“Hmmm.” She took a long drink of her soda. “I get that. And it was her loss.”
“Thanks.” I finished my sandwich.
“What about your grandpa? Do you ever go see him?”
I shook my head. “I did, but he died two years ago. My uncle sold the bar to a company that tore it down and built some chain restaurant. So no reason for me to go back there.”
“I’m sorry.” She reached one hand to cover mine and then seemed to think better and withdrew her touch. “That sucks.”
“Nah. It’s fine. Gramps was ready to go—he’d gotten pretty sick at the end. And my uncle wasn’t running the bar the way it deserved, so that needed to stop, too. I don’t have any regrets. It’s not my thing.” I stretched my legs out and leaned back on my elbows. “That’s me. Now tell me about you.”
“You know about me. Author. Klutz. Unrepentant babbler.” She lifted one shoulder. “That’s me.”
“No, it’s not,” I corrected. “You’re a talented and successful author who gets her books made into movies. You have two very loyal best friends who think you’re the shit. And they told me that you’re glad to play matchmaker for them, but that you never date.”
“That’s not exactly true,” she countered. “I just don’t have relationships. I have my fair share of dates.” Her cheeks went slightly pink. “I don’t object to one-night stands.”
“Oh, really?” I cocked my head. “But no relationships. Why is that? I’d think the romance author would be all over finding her own happily ever after.”
“Maybe I already did find it, and I know I’m not going to get it again.” She dipped her gaze to the blanket between us, her teeth sinking into her full bottom lip.
“Now that needs some explanation. Sounds like there’s a story.” I nudged her hip with my foot. “Spill it, writer woman. I need to know.”
Coral flickered her eyes to me. “It’s not a pretty story, Dax. No happy ending in this one.”
“I figured. If it did, you wouldn’t be sitting here with me.”
“True,” she admitted and then took another deep breath. This time, I did let myself ogle her chest. Just a little.
“Okay. Um, when I was seventeen, I found a lump in my breast.”
“What?” I frowned, bringing my attention back to her face.
“A lump,” Coral repeated patiently. “I was young, and everyone figured it was just, you know, a gland or something. Maybe a cyst. But my mom was always super vigilant, so she took me to her doctor, and they did a mammogram, an ultrasound, then a biopsy. And it was cancer.”
“Fuck, Coral.” I sat up straight. “Holy fuck. You had fucking breast cancer?”
“I did.” She nodded. “And so I was in and out of the hospital for over a year. In the end, I responded well to the chemo and radiation—it was grueling, brutal, and nothing I ever want to live through again—and I went into remission.” She tapped her head with a crooked smile. “And knock on wood, twelve years later, I’m still okay. At least, I’m still cancer-free.”
“Crap, Coral. I didn’t have any idea.” I raked my hand through my hair.
“No, because I don’t make a big deal out of it. But that’s not my point.” She leaned back on her hands, staring over my shoulder. “While I was in the hospital undergoing treatment, I met Jason. We fell in love. I found my soulmate when we were both in the fight for our lives.”
I didn’t like where this was going. “Jason, huh?”
“Yeah.” Her lips curved slightly. “He was sweet and earnest and he had a very aggressive form of brain cancer. But still, he was doing incredibly well. The doctors were optimistic, and we . . . we were wildly in love. We spent every minute together that we could. We had sex for the first time the day after the doctor told me I was in remission.”
“Oh.” I pictured a younger Coral, and my heart ached for the girl she had been.
“A couple of months later, Jason told me he had to go for an overnight procedure to have a shunt repositioned. He joked that it was such a small thing, the prep was going to take longer than the procedure. And it did—it was successful. I went over to see him when he was back home, and for the first time ever, we made real plans. We talked about where we wanted to go to college, when we wanted to get married, what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives . . . then before I left, I kissed him goodbye and said I’d see him in the morning.” She paused. “But I didn’t. He never woke up. There was—an aneurism. No one knew, no one could’ve known. He died in his sleep . . . painlessly, the doctors told us. They said he never would’ve known.”
“God.” My voice was raw. “Fuck, Coral, I’m so sorry. You were just a kid.”
“I was, in a way. And in another way, cancer makes you grow up fast. So does death. I wasn’t a kid anymore.” She squared her shoulders. “And I knew then, just as I know now, that I’d had my one chance at real love. Jason was my soulmate. He was who I was meant to be with, and when he died, part of me did, too.”
I understood now why she’d been so resistant to my overtures last night. “You don’t know that. You were so young. Wouldn’t Jason want you—”
“Don’t do that.” She held up a hand. “Don’t you think everyone has said this to me? My parents, my friends? But they don’t know what I feel. What I know.” She shook her head. “And I know that Jason was it for me. I might have . . . like, hook-ups, friends-with-benefits, sex dates, but I’m not going to fall in love. Not again. Not ever.”
I should have been ecstatic by this news. After all, hook-ups and one-night stands were my jam, right? I should’ve been relieved that I had a shot to get naked with this woman who turned me on in a big way without having to worry about catching feelings.
But instead, as we slowly began cleaning up from our picnic, all I felt was a hollow sense of despair.
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Sixteen is coming next Friday, December 10th!
Tawdra Kandle writes romance, in just about all its forms. She loves unlikely pairings, strong women, sexy guys, hot love scenes and just enough conflict to make it interesting. Her books include young adult and new adult paranormal romance, new adult and adult contemporary romance and adult paramystery romance. She lives in central Florida with a husband, kids, sweet pup and too many cats. And yeah, she rocks purple hair.
You can FOLLOW Tawdra here to receive updates on her releases, sales and special events. You can also subscribe to her newsletter http://tiny.cc/TawdraNewsletter for sales announcement, special exclusive content and promotions!