Not In Her Wildest Dreams
BOOK 1 in the Secret Dreams Duet
Small town secrets, big time heartache…
Paige Fogarty never believed Liebe Falls’ golden boy, Sterling Roy, could want a No Good Fogarty, but one magical night, they kissed-ruining her already murky reputation. Fifteen years later, she’s still reviled, now as a professional accountant auditing Roy Furnishings. It’s a daunting task even before she’s forced to work with him.
Sterling made a fool of himself over Paige once. Never again. He only returns to the factory his mother calls his ‘legacy’ to ensure Paige doesn’t pull a fast one. When their chemistry blazes hotter than ever, he wonders if he misjudged her, but secrets come to light, including an embezzler she tries to protect, proving she’s still the wrong girl. So why does holding onto her feel so right?
Not In Her Wildest Dreams
BOOK 1 in the
Secret Dreams Duet
"You didn’t come back to apologize. You came here to forgive me, didn’t you? You’re something else."
— Paige to Sterling, Not In Her Wildest Dreams
Around the turn of the century, I wrote a manuscript called Hot Beds, Cold Feet. It was a murder mystery romance with a Wrong Girl/Golden Boy, Romeo/Juliet vibe that I particularly loved. It also has that small town gossipy-ness I also adore.
In the first book, the heroine, Paige, had a ne’er-do-well brother whom the hero, Sterling, loathes. Lyle was quite irredeemable in those early drafts, yet somehow earned his own story, tentatively titled Sweet Dreams. The agent I had at the time read Book Two and said, “I was surprised I liked him,” since Lyle was so awful in the early version of Hot Beds.
In 2016, When I came to re-write both, I had learned a lot about storytelling and how to create characters with ‘rooting interest.’ That’s writer talk for ‘likeable.’ Hot Beds is now Not In Her Wildest Dreams. It’s no longer a murder mystery. It has a mystery plot, a subplot romance that involves Paige’s best friend, and a lot of small town secrets that get in the way of Sterling and Paige finding Happily Ever After. (But they do, hashtag-spoileralert)
You also learn why Lyle is the train wreck he is. In the much-revised version of Sweet Dreams, now called Only In His Sweetest Dreams, he calls himself L.C. and gets his chance at HEA. I hope you’ll check it out along with this one.
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Not In Her Wildest Dreams
“—would have been so much easier, but the fucker just won’t die.”
Paige Fogarty heard the male voice, followed by snorts of laughter, as she came up the wide hospital corridor toward the lounge. The voice was vaguely familiar and the words so tasteless, she instinctively halted. Should she proceed into that nasty conversation or come back in a few minutes?
She hung back, out of sight, glancing around for a ladies’ room even though she didn’t have to go.
While another man said, “That’s Fogarty for you. Always screwing up or screwing you over.”
“Hell yes. Tries to hump himself to death and can’t even get that right.”
Okay, that gravely voice she definitely knew. It was her father’s partner, Walter. They were talking about her dad. Such a classy town.
Leaning forward enough to see into the lounge, which was an open alcove of chairs set against three walls, a coffee table, and a sofa back that formed the invisible fourth wall, she confirmed, yep, that was Walter. Holding a meeting of the Superiority Club with the rest of Liebe Falls’ pillars of the community: the Mayor, the bank manager, and the guy who owned the car lot.
She couldn’t remember all their names, but her father sarcastically called them friends. They weren’t looking at her, too absorbed in referring to Dad as a ‘lucky bastard’ for surviving his latest heart attack and snickering about what a great way it would be to go—on top of a woman young enough to be his daughter.
Paige debated turning on her heel and heading back to Seattle without saying goodbye. The four-hour drive had never looked better. It had already been a brutal three days, but he didn’t need surgery this time, which was a relief. She had to come back when he was released anyway, to help him get settled at home.
But she had promised Zack she would drop off this stupid game on her way, so he could play with Pops when he came by after school. Zack had left his hoodie in her car, too. She’d pulled it on to duck through the rain on the way in. It had his iPod in the pocket so he’d be pretty cheesed with his Auntie Paige if she skipped town with it.
“Did he accept your offer?”
“Said it was probably time, yeah,” Walter said, but his voice sounded tight, like he wasn’t pleased.
Wait. What? Paige stepped forward.
“What kind of offer?” she demanded.
Shoulders jerked, and the men turned to form a horseshoe. As they recognized her, they went from looking surprised to uncomfortable to arrogantly disdainful.
Regret hit her square in the chest. Being the center of attention made her feel awkward at the best of times. When she slipped into town to see her family every couple of weeks, she didn’t usually face these types—the lofty ones who owned Liebe Falls and hated Fogartys on principle.
She loathed being on the defensive and reflexively switched to offense, which was never a good look for her.
“I’m sorry, is this a private conversation? About a man who is lucky to be alive? As opposed to what you were implying,” she said to Walter with a sugary smile. “That death by fornication would be so awesome.”
Shut up, Paige, she thought, but her mouth kept running.
“Maybe show a little respect when you come to visit a friend in the hospital.”
“I’m here for my prostate,” the car lot guy said.
“My daughter had a baby,” the Mayor said, turning red and making for the nearest stair well.
The bank manager swiped his handkerchief over his bald head, starting to stammer, “My wife’s car is in the shop and she’s off shift soon.” He cut himself off and hung his head as he followed the Mayor.
Walter didn’t so much as twitch a white hair.
“Respect is something you earn,” he said with a condescending curl of his lip.
The damp of rain on Zack’s hoodie penetrated to chill whatever heat Paige’s indignation had worked up. She shivered, regressing fifteen years in fewer seconds, once again soiled by talk that she was living up to the family name. She didn’t need this. She could walk away.
And would have, if a man hadn’t come up behind her.
“Excuse me,” he said, touching her shoulder lightly to indicate he’d like to get by.
Her bones turned to sand as recognition of that particular voice dawned. Sterling Roy. Walter’s son.
The battered box of Scrabble in her hand, the one she’d forgotten she was even holding, tilted. She’d meant to tape the end, but there hadn’t been any in the house, not without venturing into Lyle’s shop and monsters abided there. But maybe she should have risked her life and gone looking because the end of the box opened and letter tiles spilled all over the hospital’s green lino.
Maybe she could spell, Terrific, while she was down here, groveling at the feet of these grade-A a-holes.
“Oh hell, I’m sorry.” Sterling crouched with her.
She glimpsed a dark gold crew cut of tousled spikes and a suit that put the other men’s to shame, then lowered her gaze to the scattered game pieces.
“I can do it,” she muttered, opening the box on the floor and thinking the whole thing would have to go into the incinerator. Hospital germs. Gross.
“It’s my fault. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He gathered up x’s and o’s and offered them to her.
What the hell was he doing here?
Apparently Walter found it equally questionable.
“What are you doing here?” He moved to stand above them.
“Plane was late.” Sterling’s voice had grown deeper, developing a hint of North Carolina ease. “I called Mom. She said you were here, seeing Grady. I thought you might need an exit strategy—”
Rude. Paige stopped what she was doing to look at him.
He met her gaze and shock froze his gorgeous features, giving her time to note that his all-American looks had matured into sculpted, Prince Charming perfection. His strong jaw was stronger, the cleft defined and lightly coated in brown-gold stubble. His straight nose was more arrogant, his lips full and sensual without being pretty. His brows had darkened enough to frame his eyes.
Those eyes were that kind of painful, mid-winter blue that was so intense it hurt to look into them. A cloud of scent surrounded him that was clean like rain, but warm and welcoming, masculine and enticing.
When did anyone ever feel their blood moving in their arteries? She did. Right now. Her whole body came alive with subtle throbs and a generation of heat that would embarrass her to death when it hit her cheeks.
“Paige.” His expression smoothed to something more neutral and polite while his gaze took in the hood that she’d pulled over her hair and the way the oversized hoodie hung off her narrow shoulders so much more loosely than it did on her fifteen-year-old nephew.
“I’ve seen Grady. We can leave now,” Walter urged.
Paige heard the tension in Walter’s voice and understood his impatience stemmed from Sterling being this close to Paige.
Because she was so irresistible to him.
Slapping the lid on the box, she stood, being careful to keep her hand over the broken end.
“Always a pleasure to see you, Sterling,” she said as he rose in front of her. She punctuated with a brilliant smile that she conjured purely to annoy his father.
It died on contact. Sterling wasn’t easy to lie to. His gaze traveled from her to his father and back.
Then he returned her killer smile with his own, letting his gaze linger as he surveyed her face as if he had every right to take a long perusal of her lack of make-up and dismayed scowl.
“Likewise,” he said, super friendly and edging toward charismatic, punishing her, she supposed, for daring to attempt to use him in a power play.
Rich and good-looking wasn’t enough for him. He had to be perceptive, too. Jerk.
He hadn’t changed much from the few times she’d spotted and avoided him, when they’d both been in town over the last fifteen years. He had filled out the way some men did in their thirties, from lanky to perfect, but he still had the celebrity air that made him the alpha-male just by showing up.
While she felt like the ultimate scullery maid, standing here with her broken board game, tongue-tied in the presence of the Homecoming King.
“No time to catch up,” she said with an edge of mockery. “I’m just saying ‘bye to Dad before I get on the road back to Seattle. Nice to see you.” Die.
“I hope he recovers quickly.” Sterling was better at sounding sincere than she was. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
Sarcastic ass. She wanted to show him her finger.
He looked to his father as a signal they leave.
She turned toward the corridor that would take her to her father’s room, but she hadn’t gone two steps before she heard, “Whoa, there.”
And why was part of her oddly pleased that he was calling her back? She ought to ignore his condescending order, but spun around to see what that arrogant pr—
Sidestepping to the nearest wastebasket, Paige threw the game away then cupped her hand for a few squirts of disinfectant. She rolled it into her skin as she walked to where Sterling was helping her father’s girlfriend stand upright.
“Sweetie, I thought you were sleeping? How did you get here?” Paige asked her.
“Drove,” Rosie slurred.
No, no, no. Rosie was smashed, swaying in her heels, blond curls crushed by the pillow where Paige had left her. Her make-up was smudged and she looked even more tired than Paige felt. Yet younger, wearing skinny jeans and a crop top. Paige felt about a million years old next to her, despite the fact they were both thirty-two.
“You drove Dad’s car? Rosie, you can’t drive like this.” Paige said it firmly, but without anger. She didn’t shame, didn’t let herself engage too deeply at all. Years of dealing with alcoholics had taught her there was no point in taking this personally, although she would check in with the police, make sure there hadn’t been any hit and runs in the last fifteen minutes.
This was awful.
“Let’s sit down,” Sterling suggested, starting to steer Rosie toward the lounge.
“Actually, can you help me get her to my car? I have to take her home.” No way could she leave Rosie here to get herself back to the house. The car, however, would stay here at the hospital. The keys might even come to Seattle with her.
“Sterling.” Walter’s bushy brows lowered with disapproval.
“Dad,” Sterling shot back, impatient at being scolded. “Go ahead. I’ll meet you at home.”
“I want to see Grady. Is he okay? I need to see he’s okay,” Rosie whimpered. “Every time I close my eyes…” Her voice trailed off into an anguished moan.
She had already treated Paige to the play-by-play of exactly how and when her father’s heart attack had happened. Super awful. Paige felt for her, she really did, but seriously, way too much information.
Why did you move all the way to Seattle, Paige?
Because she couldn’t afford airfare to Australia.
“Let’s get you home,” Paige said, pointing Sterling toward the elevator. “You have to work tomorrow, remember?”
“They fired me!”
When had that happened? Fan-freaking-tastic.
“I’ll call them. See if we can work something out,” Paige said, even as she silently wailed that she so didn’t need this. “It will be okay.”
“Thank you, Paige.” Rosie let out a big sob and lurched out of Sterling’s grip to fling herself at Paige for a hug, but her feet weren’t moving as fast as the rest of her. As she pitched forward, her brow cracked into Paige’s cheekbone.
Jolting pain cut through the dull headache Paige was already nursing.
She tangled arms with Rosie, trying to push her away, but Rosie yelped and hung on, completely off balance. They both staggered and tilted. She was going down and taking Paige with her.
A strong arm scooped behind Paige’s back, firm and a little too proprietary, leveling her onto her feet. Sterling. Of course it was him, freaking white knight, clasping her into his muscled frame like some bare-chested hero from a romance novel cover, smelling like a high-end magazine sample.
He released Paige so he could pry Rosie off her and support her himself. Walter was making choking noises, but Sterling only wore an expression of pained patience.
Rosie touched her eyebrow and said, “That hurt.”
No kidding. Paige blinked back tears and covered her hot cheek, wondering if she was going to have a shiner.
Walter grumbled at them to get into the elevator and touched the button for the ground floor.
A moment later, Rosie went completely lax as Sterling buckled her into the passenger seat of Paige’s hatchback.
“Thanks,” Paige said begrudgingly from the driver’s side, twisting to put her purse on the floor in the back seat.
“You’re taking her to Grady’s? I’ll follow you, help you get her into the house.”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” Paige dismissed, mentally rearranging her day and desperately wanting it to be over.
“She outweighs you. Is your brother there to help?”
She sighed. Who knew where Lyle was these days.
“Even if he’s not, I’ll manage,” she insisted.
He slid his gaze to where Rosie’s head lolled. It looked like Paige was tampering with a body.
“She said she can manage,” Walter said, jangling his keys.
“I’ll meet you at home, Dad,” Sterling insisted and closed the door on Rosie’s side, not giving Paige another opportunity to argue.
Please let Lyle be home, she prayed as she shifted into reverse and backed out of her spot, even though Lyle hated Sterling enough there might actually be a dead body at the end of any run-in those two men might have.
She really didn’t need Sterling coming to the house and being all judgey. She had done what she always did when she was there: vacuumed, dusted, cleaned out the fridge and brought in fresh groceries, but that didn’t change reality. The house was neglected and dated and worn. Lyle treated the bottom floor like something between a speak-easy and a metal shop.
She really didn’t need Sterling, with his Italian leather shoes—yes, she had noticed those and recognized the brand because her ex wore them—and his silk tie and his manor-born manners getting an eyeful of where she came from.
She was too ashamed.
Rosie, as Paige called her, was still out cold when Sterling pulled up behind Paige’s silver Mazda outside the house where she’d grown up.
He took in the most salient fact, that her brother’s truck was not here, and moved to carry the unconscious woman into the house. She was leggy but tall and gave him the workout he had feared he would miss because he was traveling.
He was breaking a sweat by the time he was walking down the hall. “Which room?”
“Mine. On the left. We had to throw out Dad’s mattress and the new one isn’t here yet. This is where I put her an hour ago.” The bed was already mussed.
Paige came in behind him and quickly pushed the edge of the nubby yellow bedspread further out of the way.
Sterling didn’t ask why the other mattress was ruined. Stuff happened during medical distress that was best not dwelt upon. He had heard through his parents about Grady’s latest heart attack and knew a woman had been in bed with him when it had happened. Not sleeping.
No wonder the woman in question was drinking herself into a blackout.
As Sterling settled Rosie, Paige said, “I can handle it from here,” and began removing Rosie’s shoes.
He was sure she could, but now that they were alone, he would steal a word.
He straightened away from Rosie’s musky perfume and gin breath. Then, because he’d spent his adolescence longing to penetrate these walls, among other things, took in Paige’s bare yellow room.
It didn’t look like he had always imagined it. No stuffed animals or rock posters, no lacy bras and flowery undies dangling from drawer pulls. The closet doors were cheap, hollow panels with chipped paint, the blue curtains were discolored to pale green at the edges. The gold carpet was worn thin in front of the dresser.
Nothing suggested a girl had grown up here—except that crooked heart carved into the footboard of the Canopied Princess Twin. Little vandal. In his house, defacing a Roy Collectible had been a hanging offense. He tried and failed to make out the initials gouged away beneath Paige’s.
Paige covered Rosie and started texting someone. Her husband maybe.
A gust of rain hit the window, drawing his glance to it and through to his grandmother’s old house in the yard that backed onto this one. At one time, a picket fence had separated the two yards, but it had disintegrated into a line of pick-up-sticks that was now just another contributor to the greater eyesore. The tiny bungalow was pushing seventy years old and showing it. The plugged gutters had caused water stains down the siding and the lawn hadn’t been mowed this year. The house looked worse than this one, which was saying something.
“I said you can go,” Paige prodded, unzipping the hoodie she wore and shrugging out of it.
“I heard you.” He reluctantly gave Paige his attention. He’d been putting off looking at her because, well, he might not stop. She was fifteen years older but still sleek as a mink in yoga pants and a clingy, long sleeved black shirt under a fitted purple T. It was a practical outfit on an intensely female woman who possessed thick lashes, elegant cheekbones, and a carnality-inspiring mouth. He didn’t like the bruise coming up under her pale cheek, or the fatigued slant to her shoulders though. It made her look like she needed someone to worry about her.
“I need to talk to you about something. You should ice that.”
She winced and touched her cheek. “Yeah, it hurts.” She moved to the dresser and tucked her straight, chin length hair behind her ear as she leaned into the mirror.
He had wondered, all the way from the Carolinas, what had made him lust from afar all those years ago, then make such a fool of himself. Whatever it was, he had convinced himself it wouldn’t happen again, but as he watched her bend just enough to push her round ass out, accenting her supple thighs and the shallow dip of her lower back, he felt a kick of desire right in his groin. It was a purely physical, animalistic want that emptied his mind so all he could think about was petting that ruthlessly feminine line.
She straightened abruptly, turning with a look that said, Hey pervert. Eyes up here.
Mirror. Shit. She’d seen where he’d been looking. The back of his neck grew hot and her bruised cheek grew darker.
“What do you want to talk about?” She slanted a dour look as she passed him on the way to the door.
Good work, Roy. He ran his hand over his rain damp hair, then dried it on his thigh as he followed her down the hall to the kitchen.
The house was one of those raised bungalow floor plans that had been all the rage about forty years ago, with two bedrooms and the rest of the living space upstairs and a full basement that savvy owners, over the years, had turned into rental suites.
She dug a resealable bag from a drawer and opened the freezer side of the refrigerator, filling the bag with ice. As she wrapped the bag in a tea towel, she prompted him with a look to answer her question.
“Dad was leaving some paperwork with Grady.” He pushed his fists into his pants pockets, feeling overdressed, which was strange for him. Power suits were always a comfortable uniform for him.
But there were so many shadows of suspicion in the one eye Paige showed him, as she covered her cheek and leaned on the counter to face him, he felt at a disadvantage.
A very unusual sensation for him.
“This is his third heart attack,” he pressed on. “Each time the factory gets by without him while he recovers, so… Dad’s thinking it’s time to—”
“Force him into retirement. So you can take over at the factory. I wondered why you were here.”
“Why can I never visit my parents without everyone thinking I want to take over Roy Furnishings?” He covered his annoyance at that recurring accusation with a smile of patient boredom. “No. I have my own company, including a contract that starts Monday in Texas. Consulting,” he added when she quizzed him with a lift of her shaped brow. “Operations management. I help businesses in trouble turn themselves around.”
He was surprised she didn’t know that.
“So your father wants to run the factory by himself? Alone?”
“He did it before Grady bought in. He can do it again.” Will, Sterling assured himself. He was here to make sure of it.
Paige’s mouth pursed in thought. “Your father always regretted letting Dad buy in, didn’t he?”
He’d loathed it, loathed her father, but Sterling doubted saying so would encourage her to sell. He spun it. “Grady is a helluva salesman. Dad gives him credit for that, but Dad realized as time went on that he likes autonomy. It would mean a lot to him to own it outright again.”
She nodded, mouth still pouted like she was waiting for a kiss, but her gaze was stuck in the middle distance. She was only half here, which annoyed him. He wanted her full attention.
Really wanted it.
Focus. Shit. She was married. And he had an axe to grind with her. He gave his head a shake.
“Listen. I came home to see you, to make sure what happened between us won’t affect Dad’s buyout of Grady’s share.”
“Really?” She lowered the ice pack.
He shrugged. “It’s time to forgive and forget, don’t you think?”
Her surprise became something softer. An optimistic wonder that was so damned pretty it made his animosity slippery and hard to hold onto. It put him in danger of Doing It Again. Letting her get to him.
“You came all this way, after all this time, to apologize?”
He hesitated. “I, uh, think we should let bygones be bygones, yeah.”
Her brows came together, and her eyes narrowed. “Are you apologizing or not?”
He was willing to do almost anything to facilitate that buy-back, but…. He opened his palms, laughed a bit. “Come on, Paige. I was the one who was beaten and banished. But, hey, no hard feelings.”
“Oh, my God. You came here to forgive me, didn’t you?” She choked out a noise and pushed the ice pack back against her face. “You’re something else.”
He opened his suit coat, growing hot. Prickly. The old reel of frustration and anger and contempt played through him. That weird, stunned shock that not only didn’t she like him, she had actually gone out of her way to hurt him. Everyone loved him. He hadn’t done anything to deserve being set up, but she and her brother had taken pains to sick Grady on him and it still infuriated him.
He held onto his temper and firm, calm tone as he said, “Whatever problem you had with me fifteen years ago, I wanted to make sure we got past it, so it wouldn’t affect Dad now.”
“Oh, please. I got past it,” she said, moving into the dining area to push in a chair. “I got past being broke after you labeled me a slut and made it impossible for me to get a job in this town. I got past years of people talking behind their hands every time I came back here. I’m even prepared to get past you coming into this house with me today, no doubt stirring up all of that stupid talk again with every neighbor peeking past her curtain. It’s people like your father, making remarks in the frigging hospital, where everyone can hear it, who aren’t getting over things. If you think one of us is going to cause a problem in the buy-back, I suggest you start with him. In fact, you should go do that now.”
He didn’t move, only watched her through the space over the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room as she hustled around stacking bills into a pile.
“So you’re not going to try to stop your father from selling his shares back to my Dad?”
She sent another baleful look at him from her one eye. “I’m not going to let Dad sign anything while he’s in the hospital stoned on morphine. You wouldn’t either. But I don’t hold grudges.”
“You just said you blame me for the talk about you, but I had nothing to do with it,” he pointed out.
“You told your mother I had sex with you! And that you weren’t my first!” Her tone rang with, What the fuck?
“That’s not what I said.” He held up his hand, still feeling a pinch of guilt over the way his mother had interpreted his ‘I didn’t get her virginity’ remark: that he’d completed the act, but there’d been no virginity to be had. “And people were talking already, Paige. You started that yourself.”
“No. That’s not fair.” She held up a finger, stern and strong and with an anger that was deep enough and genuine enough to earn his full attention. “I was a kid, being teased by my brother and his friend about still being a virgin. They turned it into me wanting to lose my cherry to you and you’re the one who made it real by showing up and making me think you liked me.” She pushed the ice pack back onto her face and turned her head to hide her expression behind it.
He had liked her, in the way that was ninety-percent youthful lust. But he’d barely spoken to her before that evening.
“I guess putting it out all over town is what everyone expects from a Fogarty, though. So that made it okay to call me a whore?”
“Paige.” She was exaggerating.
“Men offered me money. Men. A forty-year-old stranger propositioned me in the grocery story. Do you have any idea how scary that is when you’re seventeen? So, yeah, thanks for coming all this way to forgive me for that. You’re a helluva guy, Sterling.”
She flipped him her middle finger then went the long way around the partition and came back into the kitchen, opening the freezer again to pull out a loaf of bread.
He drilled holes in her back, trying to ignore the unease crowding out his righteous anger.
“Maybe I should thank you,” she said, turning with a magnanimous smile that went flat very quickly. “Since Dad finally took out a loan and sent me to Seattle, once he heard I was the town bike.”
He winced. “You didn’t act like a virgin,” he reminded in a mutter and watched her eyes bug out.
“I kissed you back so I deserved to be treated like a paid sex provider? Called out as a slut and turned down for honest work?”
No, he begrudgingly acknowledged, squirming at the picture she was painting, but she had kissed him back. She’d seemed damned willing to have sex with him in his car in her father’s driveway.
He could still recall the way his heart had pounded like a pile-driver from the moment her brother had said, ‘She wants you to be the one.’ He’d been planning to just ask her on a date. Somehow a few laughing, excited comments had turned into a kiss and that had turned into so much trembling heat pressed against him, he’d nearly lost his mind.
Did she have any idea how much of a betrayal it had been when the yank on his collar had come, as Grady had dragged him from the car and wailed on him? She had set him up for that insanity. Had to have.
“You and your brother wanted to take me down a peg. That’s why you set up your Dad to find us like that.”
“I didn’t know Dad was here!” She made a contemptuous noise then needed two tries to put the bread in the toaster. “Lyle brought his car home from work to fix it and I thought Dad was at the bar or something.”
Her hand was shaking, making him realize that for all her bravado, she was deeply rattled. Which shook him, making him feel even more of a bully when he was the injured party.
“I didn’t even know you were coming over,” she reminded. “How could I have arranged for Dad to show up right then?”
Sterling didn’t know, and he didn’t want to believe her. If she was telling the truth, it meant he’d been wrong. Worse than wrong.
…made me think you liked me.
If she hadn’t been setting him up, she might have been genuinely carried away that night. Didn’t that blow a man’s mind? If their necking had been purely natural reaction, they’d been positively volatile.
His heart took a few staggered, clunking steps as he absorbed that.
All this time, he had been telling himself she had felt nothing for him, but what if she’d been attracted in the same hormonal way? He’d not only rejected her, refusing to return her call, he’d been downright cruel, not caring about her shredded reputation. He’d been so busy wallowing in resentment that it had taken years for him to notice that the debacle had brought about the best thing that ever happened to him: Harvard and a life beyond Liebe Falls, Washington.
While the seventeen-year-old virgin had been fielding offers for horizontal work.
He pinched the bridge of his nose.
Judging by the filthy looks she was sending him, yeah, really.
How long had it taken Grady to figure out what was going on and put a stop to it? At least six months, because Paige had still been here when Sterling had come home for Christmas. She’d been hollow-cheeked and defensive looking when they’d pretended not to see each other in the grocery store. She’d been buying no-name spaghetti while he’d been picking up cranberry sauce and a pecan pie for his mother.
She pulled a tub of margarine from the fridge, dropped it and swore.
Fortunately, the lid stayed on. He bent and handed it to her. “Are you okay?” he asked, realizing how pale she was.
“No. I get clumsy when my blood sugar is low. I was going to eat at this café on the way to Seattle, but—” She sighed and turned to set the margarine on the counter, then took out a plate and a butter knife.
He took in her bowed shoulders. Her delicate build. He wanted to brace her, set soothing hands on her shoulders.
“Are you diabetic? Christ, you’re not pregnant, are you?” He was not a bully. Didn’t mistreat women. Ever.
“No,” she said, mouth curling disdainfully. “Just a stress case who drinks too much coffee and forgets to eat. And my reluctance to get pregnant is the reason my divorce was finalized last Monday. It’s been quite a week. You. This delightful conversation? It is such sweet icing on top of everything else, I can barely stand it.” Bitter loathing coated her voice.
“Are you serious?” She was divorced? That news cold-cocked him so thoroughly, his mind blanked for a full three heartbeats.
“About what? That talking to you is icing? No, that’s sarcasm.” Her knife scraped over the toast as she buttered, then she pushed a corner into her mouth and bit, slapped the cold pack onto her face again and turned to regard him, the light in her eye defiant, but sad at the same time.
“I hadn’t heard about your divorce,” he said, really, really thrown. Divorced.
Available, a sick voice whispered deep in his brain.
Fuck, what was it about her?
“Don’t beat yourself up.” She brushed crumbs from her lips. “You’ve only been in town an hour. You haven’t caught up to your mother yet. Be sure to tell her about this little ménage a trois when you do.” She jerked her head toward the bedroom where Rosie slept.
Sterling hung his hands on his hips, tipping his head back to send a humorless laugh at the stained ceiling. So bitter. Freshly divorced, too. Did any woman hate men more?
“Dad’s never getting that company back, is he?”
“I don’t know, Sterling,” she said tiredly. “I agree. My dad should retire, but…”
She only bit into her toast and hitched her elbow at the other slice, offering it to him.
He was hungry enough to want it, but shook his head, something else occurring to him. Did her divorce mean she was moving back here?
“Are you thinking about exercising the option clause?”
“To take over from him? God, no. I don’t want to be here today. Why would I move back here for good?”
“I hear that,” he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck, “But?” he prompted.
“Dad and I have talked before about his retiring early and it always looks like it will cause more problems than it will solve. For instance, if he leaves Roy’s, does Lyle get to keep his job?” She looked him right in the eye, like she was demanding an answer she already knew.
Sterling kept his teeth firmly clenched against saying, Not if I have anything to do with it.
Paige’s pained smile told him she knew what he was refusing to say aloud.
“If Lyle doesn’t have a job, his support payments to Brit dry up. Dad cashing out means he could pay off some of his own debts, but then what? He needs something to live on. So, honestly? My reasons for encouraging him to sell or not to sell will have nothing to do with you. That’s what you want to hear, isn’t it?”
“No, I want to hear that you’ll sell.”
She smiled without teeth. “And you always get what you want, don’t you? I’ve always envied that.”