A MARRIAGE-MINDED MAN
Available Aug 2009 on eHarlequin.com (paper and e-book)
Eli’s Garrett’s last encounter with Tess Montoya involved her chasing him down Main Street, wielding a sponge mop. Aimed at his head. Twelve years later, Tess is a next-door-to-bitter divorcee with a pair of little kids, and Eli’s still a bachelor with – word has it – a baaaaad reputation for hooking up with anything with hooters. So naturally that makes him the perfect choice for a bout of drunken, angry sex, right?
Mortified after her wild ‘n’ crazy night, all Tess wants to do is put her indiscretion behind her and resume her quiet, safe, uncomplicated life. Loving people has never ended well before, so why should it now? Especially with Eli? Except sometimes bad boys are “bad” for reasons the gossip mill never gets wind of. And sometimes a bad boy turns out to the be the best thing ever to happen to a gal who’s given up on love.
Especially if that bad boy has marriage and family on his mind…
Crackly leaves darted out of the old pickup’s way as Eli Garrett effortlessly navigated the mountain road, one hand resting lightly on the steering wheel, the other thrumming the dashboard in time to Willie Nelson. Behind him, like backup, ladders and tools and what-not rattled and rumbled in the truck’s bed.
Good times, Eli thought as he approached the final, dusk-cloaked curve to his house. He had a check from a thrilled client in his pocket, 007 waiting in his mailbox, and Evangelista Ortega’s chicken enchiladas tucked up all nice and cozy in the aluminum tray on the seat beside him. So the late fall evening stretched before him, gloriously free, nothin’ to do except hang with Mr. Bond and chow down on the best enchiladas this side of Santa Fe. Maybe in all of New Mexico, he mused, cresting the hill—
“What the hell—!”
He swerved to avoid the small, ghostlike figure who’d popped up out of nowhere, jogging on the wrong damn side of the road. The figure shrieked, then toppled over into a thicket of brush and chamisa, cussing in a mixture of Spanish and English loud enough to blow poor Willie right off the map.
All the junk in the truck bed crashed mightily as Eli jerked up short on the shoulder ahead and jumped out. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you!” he yelled, striding toward the figure, already getting to her feet. “You okay?” In the glow from his tail lights, she spun around, glaring, and what was left of Eli’s good mood evaporated
like smoke in a high wind.
He froze, unsure of his next move. Recognizing him, Teresa Morales – wrong, Montoya – stiffened, too, a moment before a caustic laugh sprang from her mouth. Eli relaxed. Some.
“Holy hell, Tess – you tryin’ to give me a heart attack?”
Swiping dirt, dead leaves and chamisa gunk off her butt, Tess shot him The Look of Death. “Yeah, well,” she said, “you didn’t exactly do my cardio-vascular system any favors either. Crap.” Shoving a headband off her short, wavy hair, she plunked back down in the dirt, inspecting an ugly-ass dark slash on her shin. “Am I bleeding? I can’t see a damn thing in this light.”
“If I look, you promise not to go after me with a blunt object?”
Her eyes flashed to his, then back to the cut. “It’s your lucky day, I’m unarmed.”
“You sure? That headband looks kinda dangerous—”
“Geez, Eli – just look at my leg, okay?”
Eli squatted beside her, trying not to react to her scent, the same one that used to make his eyes cross as a horny seventeen-year old. That threatened to short out his brain now. Especially when he yanked up her leg to get a better look and came into contact with all that cool, smooth skin—
“Sorry,” he mumbled. Rubbing the underside of her calf, a little. Noticing she’d recently shaved. Or waxed. Or something. Stubble, the curse of the dark-haired, she’d said. “Yeah, you’re bleeding all right. Must’ve been a branch or something stickin’ out, scratched you up pretty good. What in tarnation were you doing runnin’ this time of night? And why on earth were you way out here?”
“It was still daylight when I started,” she muttered, digging a tissue out of her body-hugging, light-colored jacket. “And I didn’t mean to run this far – or even run at all, I’d just gone for a walk – but it sorta got away from me.” He noticed her hand trembling as she dabbed at the blood, like most of the fight had gone out of her.
Like a woman still stinging from her recent divorce, maybe?
Eli sighed. “Hold on, I’ve got paper towels and water in the truck.”
Amazingly, she was still there when he returned, her forehead propped on her arms, folded across her knees. Knowing Tess, he’d half expected to see her hobbling down the road, muttering, “Don’t need no stinkin’ help from no stinkin’, stupid ex-boyfriends.” He handed her a soaked towel. “Here.”
She jerked her head up like she’d forgotten about him, then took the damp towel and pressed it to the wound, clearly holding back a wince. A single tear dribbled down her cheek, looking like blood itself in the red glow; she shouldered it away.
“I’m fine,” she snapped, then released a breath, her mouth set. “Really,” she said, more softly, and it was everything he could do not to call her on the obvious lie.
Eli sat back on his haunches, trying to reconcile what he saw in front of him with both the carefree sixteen-year-old his hormone-crazed younger self had been crazy in love with, and the sharp, confident business woman she’d become over the past few years. Or so he’d heard, since they’d barely exchanged ten words since Eli’s Big Screwup.
Even so, in a town like Tierra Rosa you could go for years without talking to somebody and still know every detail of their lives. Either you’d overhear something, or some kind soul would fill you in, or you’d notice things with your own two eyes. Things you kept to yourself, no matter how much they might be killing you inside.
“Where’s the kids?” he asked, exchanging the bloodied towel for a clean one.
“In Albuquerque. With their father,” Tess said through a grimace. She glanced at him, just long enough for him to catch the anger-tinged shadows in her eyes, then back at her leg, pressing the towel to the wound. “Yesterday would have been our ninth anniversary.”
She shrugged. Lifted the towel. “You think it’s stopped?”
“Can’t really tell in the dark. Can you walk?”
“Of course I can walk,” she said, rising and putting her weight on her foot. Doing the stoic thing.
“Come on, I’ll take you back to my place and get you patched up.”
Clearly gritting her teeth, Tess took another step. Swore under her breath. “How about you take me home instead?”
“Because something tells me you shouldn’t be alone right now.”
Even in the dark, he felt the full force of her glare. Caught the pain behind it, too. And not just because of her leg. “And I don’t recall asking for your input. You don’t want to give me a lift, I’ll get back on my own steam.”
“Before next Sunday?”
The glare intensified. Eli almost laughed. “Tell you what – how about we go back to my place and get the dirt cleaned out of that scratch, then I’ll take you home?” When she still hesitated, he said, “Might even rustle up a slug of whiskey from somewhere.”
“Why? In case you need to amputate?”
“Never hurts to be prepared.”
Muttering something about “damn Boy Scouts,” Tess started for the truck. Eli tried to put his arm around her waist, got his hand smacked for the trouble. Of course, she then limped the ten feet to the passenger side door, leaning against the extended cab for dear life while Eli shifted the enchiladas so she’d have someplace to sit. Once settled in her seat, however, she emitted a sound that was half sigh, half moan.
“Those Eva’s enchiladas?” she asked.
“They are.” Huh. “When’s the last time you ate?”
Tess erased the frown before – she thought – Eli noticed it. “A while ago.”
Thinking, Women, sheesh, Eli slammed shut her door and walked around the truck’s hood, got in. “I got no problem sharing.”
“That’s okay, I’m fine.”
Shaking his head, he pulled back out onto the road. “Your stomach might take issue with you on that.”
Tess crossed her arms over her loudly rumbling middle. “There’s food at home.”
Eli decided to quit while he still had all his crucial body parts.
Didn’t take but a couple minutes to get to his place, a nondescript pseudo-adobe number he’d bought some time ago, close to a much larger building that housed the family woodworking and cabinetry business, which in turn was maybe fifty yards away from his parents’ house. Award-worthy? God, no. Affordable and convenient? You bet.
Tess slid out of the truck on her own steam – big surprise, there – taking a second to either get her bearings or scrutinize the house. Maybe both.
“Hard to get the full effect in the dark,” he said, carting the enchiladas past her, figuring she’d hobble behind when she was ready.
“I’m sure,” she muttered. Hobbling along behind.
Eventually she made it inside the house. “Huh,” she said, although to whether the open space – the result of his knocking out a bunch of non-load-bearing walls after he’d first bought the place – or the lack of Clueless Bachelor clutter, he couldn’t say.
“Yeah, good thing the maid came today,” he said, carting the enchiladas to the kitchen.
The tray on the counter, Eli shrugged out of his denim jacket. “No, Tess, no maid. Not that I’m suggesting you eat off the floor, but I do know how to wash a dish and take out the garbage.”
“Oh, I…” She blew out a sigh, then pointed to her wound. “Triage?”
“Right straight through, on your right. First aid kit’s under the sink. I take it you don’t need my help?”
“No,” she said, hobbling off. Ten seconds later, he heard a shriek. Eli hotfooted it to the bathroom to find Tess gawking at her reflection in the medicine chest mirror. “How come you didn’t tell me I have half the national forest in my hair?” she asked, plucking at twigs and chamisa fluff and stuff, and in the light he could see that twelve years and a couple of kids had added a few not-unwelcome pounds here and there.
“It was dark,” he said. “Couldn’t tell.” He leaned one palm against the door jamb, appreciating the view. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen you with short hair.”
Her eyes cut to his for barely a second before veering back to the mirror. “Got tired of taking care of it long,” she said softly, bitterly, finger-combing most of the chamisa gunk out of it, sending the yellow bits floating all over his bathroom.
Don’t get sucked in, don’t get—
“Looks good,” he said, then walked away and left her to it.
Tess braced herself against his sink – far cleaner than she would have expected, nothing on it except a cup and a razor – willing her heart to settle down.
What on earth had she been thinking, not turning back long before she’d gotten so far from her own house? She supposed that had been the whole point, that she’d wanted to run away. From everything. Not forever, just for a little while. But to end up in Eli Garrett’s bathroom?
If they’d seen each other a half dozen times since their breakup, she’d be surprised. Wasn’t anything deliberate, exactly, even if their parting had been, well, pretty bad. In retrospect, chasing him down Main Street with a sponge mop had probably been a bit over the top. Not that she would have inflicted any lasting damage – she didn’t think – even if there’d been the slightest chance of catching up with those long legs of his. But for heaven’s sake, it wasn’t like she still had any feelings for the guy. Not after a dozen years and a couple of kids and a marriage blowing up in her face—
Sighing, Tess hauled out the first aid kit, getting her first good look at her boo-boo. Eww. She’d hardly be crippled for life, but miniskirts had just been crossed off the list for the near future.
She banged down the toilet seat and sank onto it, dampening a gauze pad with antiseptic before tentatively touching it to the wound. She hissed, then swore, as hot tears bit at her eyes – from the pain, yes, but more from a sudden surge of anger and frustration, topped with a leftover jalapeno or two of grief. All that time, petrified of losing Ricky to something she didn’t even fully understand, only to discover she’d lost him, anyway.
Yeah, there was some sick irony for you.
The grief, Tess could handle. Had handled, for the most part. People change, marriages die, let’s move on. The anger, however…this was new. The anger was what had propelled her out the door two hours ago, fueled a run that had lasted far longer than it should have, made her take risks she would have never normally taken.
The anger frightened her, because she didn’t know its limits. What it would do. What it would make her do.
She glopped on some antibiotic ointment, then bandaged the scrape. Already, the shock of the fall was wearing off; when she stood this time, her leg seemed more inclined to do its job. The kit shoved back underneath Eli’s sink, she made her way to the front room, a living/dining combo all rustic and woodsy – and surprisingly homey – with its wooden floor and paneling, the dark beams running the length of the white ceiling. The decorating style was strictly Early Parental Cast-offs – she thought she recognized the old beige corduroy sofa – but mercifully devoid of ancient pizza boxes and beer cans.
One might not even think a bachelor lived here at all, had it not been for the two solid shelves of video game cases and the corresponding jumble of consoles under, beside and around the boxy, ‘90’s issue TV squatting in the entertainment center like a bloated rhinoceros.
“So what’s the prognosis?” Eli called from the dining nook, which is when she noticed not only that he’d set the table for two, but the man who’d set that table.
Taller. More solid. Curly, light brown hair still too long, the Henley tee still too loose, the jeans still ragged. The person wearing them still too damn sure of himself for his own good. And – much as it pained her to admit it – for hers.
Her hands stuffed in her jacket front pocket, Tess shrugged, reminding herself the sexually predatory divorcee was such a cliché. “No worries on that amputation thing. Um…what’s this?”
“Dinner,” he said, flashing her that dimpled grin that had been her undoing so long ago. Ducking the not-half-bad wrought iron chandelier over the table, he set down a plate of enchiladas, then another, like Enrique used to once upon a time, when they were first married and the future beckoned, unblemished and secure.
The anger flared, like a rearing horse. “I thought I said—”
“I know what you said,” Eli said mildly, although there was nothing mild about the way he was looking at her. Don’t do that!, she wanted to yell, even as longing – hot and thick and syrupy – welled inside her to mix with the anger. Since, you know, he looked at pretty much every female in the county that way—
“I’ve also been working my butt off all day,” he continued, still watching her, and her eyes latched onto his mouth, and another memory flashed, of what good a kisser he’d been, and she realized she was an inch away from pity party status, which only made her madder—
“And you live clear on the other side of town. So I’m gonna eat before I take you home, if it’s all the same to you. And since my mama taught me it’s rude to eat in front of people without offering to share…” He gestured toward the plate on the far side of the table. “You may as well join me.”
Staring at the table, Tess removed one hand from its cocoon to jerk her hair behind her ear – a habit left over from when she’d still had hair. For some reason, this set the anger loose all over again. Not a single, neatly defined emotion or reaction to any one particular thing, but a whole damn herd of pissed-off thoughts, stampeding through her brain and soul and body—
Eli’d said her name so softly it took a moment to register. “It’s okay,” he said gently when she jerked her gaze to his, and her eyes burned, partly because it wasn’t true – at all – partly because it felt so strange, somebody reassuring her, a job that had been hers for as long as she could remember. His hands resting lightly along the top of one of the high-backed wooden chairs, his gaze was warm and steady and completely unthreatening. Not at all what she’d thought she’d seen earlier.
Yeah, like that was a step in the right direction.
Only because she was starving, and because her options at home began and ended with frozen pizza, she sighed out a “Fine,” her leg only hurting a little as she crossed to the table, plopping into the chair he held out for her. She thought she might’ve caught a smile before Eli turned to the refrigerator, a white, no-nonsense old-timer that wobbled slightly when he opened the door. “What would you like to drink? I got tea, Coke, water—”
“What happened to the booze offer?”
He turned, eyes sparkling, dimples dimpling, and wasn’t she thrilled to notice they were both far more deadly now that it had been a dozen years ago? And they’d been pretty damn deadly then. “Somehow I’m thinking whiskey on an empty stomach isn’t the best idea.”
And she was thinking she’d never get through the next twenty minutes without something to dull her senses. Especially those prone to reacting to cocky smiles from sexy old boyfriends with baaaaad reputations. “Beer, then? Unless you don’t have any?”
“Oh, I’ve got some, but—”
“Then hand her over.” At Eli’s dubious – and annoyingly protective – look, she sighed. “I can hold a single beer, Eli.” Never mind the nasty little voice whispering that, actually, no, she couldn’t, which was why she rarely drank. “Especially if I’m eating.”
The voice sniggered.
Oh, for crying out loud – so what if she got a little buzz on? She somehow doubted the world would implode. But dammit, she thought as she watched Eli pour out a can of Bud into a tall glass – which he rinsed out first – she’d been responsible for everyone and everything for so, so long, what was one little old beer in the scheme of things? And besides—
“And besides—” Her hands fisted on the table, she looked him square in the eye. “This is weird, okay? Me being here with you, in your house. What with all the other weirdnesses going on in my life…”
“Got it.” Eli handed her the beer, then sat with his own, and he was all big and solid and manly and what-all, and she remembered that baaaad reputation of his.
“Don’t you think this is weird?” she said. Shivering a little.
“Heck, yeah,” he said, lifting his glass to her. Spearing her with those eerie light brown eyes. Almost gold. Kinda the same color as his hair. The too-long hair half covering his ears, all glossy in the chandelier’s light, all those hard-edged features at odds with those soft, soft curls—
Tess tipped back her glass; three gulps later, it was half gone—
“Hey,” she said when Eli grabbed it from her. “Give that back.”
“Not until you eat something,” he said, tucking into his own food while holding her glass just out of reach, the creep. Only after Tess downed several bites and her eyes were streaming from the chili did Eli take pity on her and return her drink. Her mouth on fire, she finished it off. The belch just kind of escaped.
“Whoa,” Eli said. Grinning. Tess blinked, thinking she could practically see the pheromones rising from his warm skin. Like ghosts from a graveyard on Halloween.
And you know this is only because every time you see Ricky you go a little crazy. Has nothing to do with Eli.
“You know, these are almost as good as mine,” she said, jabbing her fork at the enchiladas. Which were beginning to get a little blurry.
“No way,” Eli said, forking in a huge mouthful. “Nobody makes enchiladas better’n Evangelista.”
“Oh, and you would know this, how? I love Eva with all my heart, but my grandmother’s recipe…people have been known to kill for her enchiladas.”
“Okay, not really. But close.” Tess took another bite. Then burped again. And frowned at her glass. “S’empty.”
Laughing, Eli stood, pulling a pitcher from the fridge. “How ‘bout some tea now?”
“Hell, no. I can have tea at home.” She held out her glass, suddenly fascinated with the way it sparkled in the light from the chandelier. “Hit me with another Bud, bud.” She giggled. And hiccuped.
Eli got a funny look on his face. “You sure?”
She rolled her eyes. They felt a little loose. “Not driving, I’m good. Oh, come on – have pity on the poor divorcee, huh? What’s the worst that can happen?”
“You get bombed and puke all over my rug?”
Tess shook her head. Decided maybe she shouldn’t do that again. “I didn’t even throw up when I was pregnant,” she said, which made her sad, thinking about her babies, and how much she loved them, and how hard it was when they were off with their father, even though that only happened maybe once a month, if that, and that here she was, sitting in Eli Garrett’s kitchen, drinking his beer and not even thinking about them. Except she was, because she was always thinking about her babies.
She thought maybe she was getting a little…confused.
Nothing another beer couldn’t fix, right?
“Please,” she said, and Eli took her glass, pouring another beer into it, God bless his baaaaad self.
Copyright 2009, Karen Templeton-Berger. All rights reserved.