“Thank you all for being here.” Dana, the bookstore owner, clasped her hands and smiled broadly at the packed room. “We’re so excited—and honored—to have bestselling—and local to Burton!—author Coral Jennings with us tonight. She’s going to tell us a little about the process of seeing her beautiful words turned into breathtaking films—and if we’re really nice to her, she might tell us about her new book, too.”
The audience chuckled appreciatively, and I forced my own smile to stay in place. God, I hated these things. I didn’t have a problem interacting with my fans on a one-on-one basis. I could sit for hours talking about my characters and listening to readers tell me how different stories had made them feel, what they hoped for the future of those characters . . . but standing up in front of a group of people, with the weight of their collective expectation falling heavy on my shoulders, I had to really focus to keep from panicking and running away. Fast.
But Dana, who’d opened her business in Farleyville, the next town over from Burton, had been such a cheerleader to me from my very first book that I felt an obligation to show up whenever she threw one of these events. Small, independently owned bookstores struggled these days, I knew. They were competing against the few remaining chain book sellers as well as the on-line giants. Dana was a savvy businesswoman who paid close attention to what her customers bought, and she’d begun working with local authors as a way of differentiating herself from other booksellers. Attendance at these monthly salons, as she called them, had swelled over the past year.
The applause jolted me from my reverie, and I glanced over to see Dana taking a step back from the podium, gesturing to me. Great. Showtime.
I took my place behind the microphone, placing my cards carefully on the stand in front of me, and lifted my eyes to the people in the seats, taking a moment to scan the crowd and remind myself that I was speaking to individual readers, not to a nameless, faceless entity. Sitting in the front row was Mrs. Elishman, who’d been one of my very first readers. She never missed one of my appearances if she could help it. A few seats behind her was Kevin Shewell. He’d started up a book club after getting hooked on my stories, and I’d made a few surprise video visits to the meetings.
My gaze stuttered when it swept over the other side of the room. Sitting on the end of a middle row was an all-too-familiar face, and when our eyes met, it felt as though everyone else disappeared.
What the hell was Dax Turner doing here?
I went hot all over, and for a long moment, I forgot where I was and what I was doing. It had been two weeks since the movie premiere, two weeks since our picnic on Sam and Meghan Reynolds’ farm. Two weeks since I’d admitted my sad history for Sexy Bartender Dude, letting him know that while I might be down for a hook-up, I wasn’t ever going to be interested in anything else.
When we’d left that day, we’d both been silent. Since my YouRideIt from Savannah had dropped me here at the farm, Dax had offered to drive me home, and I’d taken him up on it, thinking maybe I’d invite him in . . . and then we’d see what came next.
I couldn’t deny that I was attracted to him, and if he wanted to get down and dirty with me now that he understood I wasn’t going to get all mushy and insist that we were in love or any crap like that, I’d be open to it.
But Dax hadn’t said anything during our drive. I’d been mute, too, aside from giving him directions, telling him where to turn. And when he pulled up in front of the house I shared with Celeste, he hadn’t turned off the car or moved to unbuckle his seatbelt. Hell, he hadn’t even put the car in park.
So I’d stumbled over a goodbye and thank you for the ride, and then I’d grabbed my stuff and hightailed it into the house, refusing to look backward.
Since that day, Dax had texted me a few times, asking me to meet him for coffee or a drink . . . he’d even offered to drive to Burton to take me to dinner. But I’d declined each time. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but something about the guy felt dangerous to me. Not in a stranger-danger kind of way—no, I trusted him completely. Maybe it was myself I didn’t trust. Maybe I was a little afraid that Dax might be a threat to the promise I’d made ten years ago, the one I’d kept faithfully since Jason had left me.
Dax had gone radio-silent over the past couple of days. I’d assumed that he’d finally given up on me. But now here he was, his face alert and serious as he and the rest of the audience waited for me to speak.
I pushed him from my mind. If I was going to get through this next twenty minutes, I’d have to pretend Dax Turner didn’t exist, or I’d end up stammering and babbling.
Drawing in a deep breath, I pulled up my big girl I’m-an-author panties and began to speak.
“I just loved the movie.” The woman in front of me hugged copies of three of my books as she gushed over the just-released film. “You did such a great job picking actors to play all those characters. I can’t imagine how you do it!”
I refrained from rolling my eyes, but barely. No matter how often I explained—as I just had at length during my speech—that as the author, I actually had very little or nothing to do with the casting and producing of movies made from my books, some readers still didn’t get it. Trying to correct her assumption now was a losing proposition, so I just nodded and smiled.
“Wait until you see the next one,” I replied. “You know, they’ve cast Diego Ramos as Thomas. And some of the filming is going to happen right here in Burton. I’m hoping to be on set for a few days.”
The woman wrinkled her nose. “I heard that. Do you really think Diego Ramos is right for that role, though? I mean . . .” She shrugged. “I guess he’s a good actor, but Thomas isn’t, um, you know.” She flipped her hand over. “What do they say now? Latino?”
Inwardly I bristled, but I managed to control my expression. At least I hoped I did. “I don’t think that really matters, do you? Thomas is a sexy guy with dark hair and tanned skin. I even mentioned in the book that he had some Spanish blood from a few generations back. I think Diego will be fabulous.”
“Maybe. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to see him as Thomas. After all, he’s not only Puerto Rican, he’s also—”
Dana interceded at that point, perhaps sensing that I was about to lose it. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said, guiding the reader kindly but firmly away from the table. “Have you seen our special movie display over here? We even have a couple of autographed scripts that are up for auction—all for charity, of course.”
I blew out a breath, slumping back into my chair. It had been a long evening, and I was pitifully grateful that the line in front of my table had finally petered out. I’d lost track of Dax after my talk had ended, and I assumed that he’d slipped away. He wouldn’t have any interest in getting books signed, so there wouldn’t have been a reason for him to stay. Although come to think of it, I wasn’t entirely sure why he’d shown up at all.
“You look like you could use this.” As if my thoughts had summoned him, Dax was suddenly at my side, setting down a steaming cup of coffee in front of me.
I tilted my head back to look up at him. “So you didn’t leave.”
He frowned. “No. Why would I leave? I came here to see you.”
“Oh.” I picked up the coffee and sniffed it, humming a little in appreciation. “You disappeared after I finished speaking.”
“I was waiting for your fans to leave.” He lifted one shoulder. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Hmm. Thanks.” I pried the lid from the paper cup and blew on the coffee. I hated getting a burned tongue. “Why are you here, anyway? And how did you know I’d be speaking tonight?”
“I followed you on social media, and there was an announcement,” Dax replied, answering the second question first. “And like I just said, I’m here to see you. Since you turned down all my invitations, I decided to give it one last shot and just—show up.” He spread his hands. “That makes me sound like a stalker. But I honestly just wanted to see you again, Coral. I was hoping maybe we could go somewhere and talk.”
I squared my shoulders. “Haven’t we said everything that needs to be said? I told you that I’m not looking for a relationship. If by talk you mean we should go somewhere and get naked, I would definitely take that under consideration.”
“Since I was thinking about taking you to the little restaurant around the corner, getting naked doesn’t seem like the best plan,” Dax shot back. “God, Coral. When did I become the girl in this scenario? Here I am, telling you I don’t want to have no-strings-attached sex, and you’re acting like I’m the unreasonable one.”
“Because you are!” I raised my voice, and several customers still lingering turned their heads, reminding me that we were in a very public setting. I took a calming breath and went on. “I made myself very clear when we were on the picnic. I’m not looking for anything other than . . . friends with benefits. I’m not capable of more. Trust me. That part of me died with Jason.”
“And I told you that day that I call bullshit,” he growled. “If you’re so sure that you’re never going to feel that way again, why not give us a chance and prove it to me? If we start seeing each other and you can still honestly say that it won’t work, then fine. I’ll accept that. But I think you’re afraid of me. Of this.” He pointed to himself and then to me. “You’re scared shitless that you’ll fall for me, and that will somehow make what you felt for Jason . . . less.”
A mix of panic and fury, laced with something I else I didn’t care to name, rose within me. Struggling to keep my voice low, I stood up and stepped closer to Dax, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything I had to say.
“You don’t know me. You don’t know how much Jason meant—means to me. And I have to wonder why you’re going to all this trouble to chase after a woman who’s made herself very clear from the word go.” Anger made me impulsive and unreasonable—and careless with my words.
“As a matter of fact,” I went on. “What I think is that you liked the little taste of fame you got when we were at the movie premiere. You saw what it was like to have people cheering, reporters asking you questions, photographers taking your picture. And now that you got that taste, you want more, and you see me as the ticket. That’s why you keep asking me out. That’s why you stalked me here tonight.”
Dax’s eyes flashed with hurt and irritation. “If that’s what you really think of me—if you can believe that of me—maybe we don’t have anything more to say to each other.”
I swallowed a whole heap of regret and tossed my head. “Why the hell else would you be interested in me, Dax? That’s the question I’m asking myself right now. When you could have any woman in the world, why are you pursuing me?”
He took one step backward. “Did you ever stop and think that it’s because I really like you, Coral? Or that I can’t get the memory of the one kiss we shared out of my head? Did you consider that maybe I can’t stop thinking about spending more time with you—and that it has nothing to do with your job or your fame—” He spit out the word as though it tasted bad. “—but only because I really fucking liked you? Because I do. Or I did before you just made me feel like nothing more than a—a guy you hired to pretend to be your boyfriend.”
Before I could even take another breath, Dax turned and stomped out of the bookshop, vanishing into the darkness and leaving me with nothing but my own remorse and shame.
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Seventeen is coming next Friday, December 17th!
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.
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