THE PRODIGAL VALENTINE
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At 39, Mercedes (Mercy) Zamora has resigned herself to her singlehood. Not that she’s bitter – with her two partners, she’s made a success of her small business, and she has a terrific extended family that includes loads of nieces and nephews. In fact, at this point she’s not even sure she’d make a very good wife. Then Benicio (Ben) Vargas, the boy-next-door with whom she had a brief, but highly satisfactory affair ten years before, pops back in her life. Bad enough that five minutes in the man’s presence forces her to admit that no man she’d dated since had even come close to lighting her fire the way Ben did – and still does – but then Ben starts talking about taking up where they left off. And he’s deadly serious. But Ben’s always been a drifter, so why should she believe him now when he says he’s home for good, that he wants to make a life with her?
Especially since she has a very strong feeling he’d not being totally upfront about what he’s been doing for the past ten years he was away. . .
“Need any help?” Mercy grabbed the gutter to keep from toppling off the step stool, then twisted around, trying her best to keep the And who are you again? look in place. But one look at that goofy grin and her irritation vaporized. Right along with her determination to pretend Ben didn’t exist. That he’d never existed. That there hadn’t been a time—
“No, I’m good,” she said, returning to her task, hoping he’d go away. As if. All too aware of his continued scrutiny, she got down, moved the stepstool over, got back up, removed the next few feet of lights, got down, moved the step stool over, got back up—
Ben stood at her elbow, the rest of the lights loosely coiled in his hand. A breeze shivered through his thick hair, a shade darker than hers; the reflected beam of light from his own truck window delineated ridges and shadows in a face barely reminiscent of the outrageous flirt she remembered. Instead, his smile – not even that, really, barely a tilt of lips at once full and unapologetically masculine – barely masked an unfamiliar weightiness in those burnt wood eyes. An unsettling discovery, to say the least, stirring frighteningly familiar, and most definitely unwanted, feelings of tenderness inside her.
She climbed down from the stool. “You started at the other end.”
“Seemed like a good plan to me.”
That damned smile still toying with his mouth, he handed the lights to her.
On a huffed sigh, she folded up the stool and tromped back to the garage. The cat, wearing a fine coating of dirt and dead grass, followed. As did Ben.
She turned. “If I told you to go away, would you?”
He shrugged, then said, “How come you’re taking down your lights already? It’s not even New Year’s yet.”
Mercy and the cat exchanged a glance, then she shrugged as well. “I have to help Ma take her stuff down on New Year’s day, I figured I’d get a jumpstart on my own, since the weather’s nice and all. And they’re saying we might have snow tomorrow. Although I’ll believe that when I see it. Not that there’s much. Which you can see. I still have my tree up, though—”
Shut up, she heard inside her head. Shut up, shut up, shut up. Her mouth stretched tight, she crossed her arms over her ribs.
“And why are you over here again?”
“I’m not really over here, I’m out for a walk. But you looked like you could use some help, so I took a little detour. Damn, that’s a big cat,” he said as she finally gave up – since Ben was obviously sticking to her like dryer lint – and dragged a plastic bin down off a shelf, dumping the lights into it.
“That’s no cat, that’s my bodyguard.”
“I can see that.” Mercy glanced over to see the thing rubbing against Ben’s shins, getting dirt all over his jeans, doing that little quivering thing with his big, bushy tail. Ben squatted to scratch the top of his head; she could hear the purring from ten feet away. “What’s his name?”
“Depends on the day and my mood. On good days, it’s Homer. Sometimes Big Red. Today I’m leaning toward Dumbbutt.”
The cat shot her a death glare and gave her one of his broken meows. Chuckling, Ben stood and wiped his hands, sending enough peachy fur floating into the garage to cover another whole cat.
“Because he’s too stupid to know when he’s got it good. If he sticks around, he’s got heat, my bed to sleep in and all the food he can scarf down. But no, that would apparently cramp his style. Even though the vet swore once I had him fixed, he wouldn’t do that. She was wrong. Or didn’t take enough off, I haven’t decided. In any case, he periodically vanishes, sometimes overnight, sometimes for days a time. Then he has the nerve to drag his carcass back here, all matted and hungry, and beg for my forgiveness.”
“You wouldn’t be trying to make a point, there, would you?”
Mercy smiled sweetly. “Not at all.”
“At least I’m not matted,” he said, his intense gaze making her oddly grateful the garage was unheated. “Or hungry. My mother made sure of that.”
“How about fixed?”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured.” She turned to heft the lights bin back up onto the shelf. “But you’re not getting back in my bed, either.”
Funny, she would have expected to hear a lot more conviction behind those words. Especially the not part of that sentence.
“I lost out to the cat?”
There being nothing for it, Mercy faced him again, palms on butt, chest out, chin raised. As defiant as a Pomeranian facing a Rotty. “You lost out, period.”
They stared at each other for several seconds. Until Ben said, “You know, I could really use a cup of coffee.”
“I thought you were out for a walk?”
“Turned out to be a short walk.”
More gaze-tangling, while she weighed the plusses (none that she could see) with the minuses (legion) about letting him in, finally deciding, Oh, what the hell? He’d come in, she’d give him coffee, he’d go away (finally), and that would be that. She led man and cat into her kitchen, hitting the garage door opener switch on the way. Over the grinding of the door closing, she said, “I’m guessing you needed a break?”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “You could say.”
“I don’t envy you. God knows I couldn’t live with my parents again.” She pointed to one of the barstools. “Sit. And don’t let the cat up—” Homer jumped onto the counter in front of Ben. “—on the bar.”
Long, immensely capable fingers plunged into the cat’s ruff, as a pair of whatchagonnadoaboutit? grins slid her way. On a sigh, Mercy said, “Regular or decaf?”
“What do you think?”
No, the question was, what was she thinking, letting the man into her house? Again. When no good would come of it, she was sure. And yet, despite those legion reasons why this was a seriously bad idea, the lack of gosh-it’s-been-a-long-time awkwardness between them was worth noting. Oh, sure, the atmosphere was charged enough to crackle – surprising in itself, considering her normal reaction (or lack thereof) to running into old lovers and such. That was fun. . .next? had been her motto for, gee, years. So who’d’athunk, that in spite of the unexpectedness of Ben’s reappearance, the sexual hum nearly making her deaf, in the end it would be a completely different bond holding sway over the moment, lending an Oh, yeah, okay feeling to the whole thing that made her feel almost. . .comfortable. If it hadn’t been for that sexual hum business.
Which led to a second question: If yesterday – shoot, this morning – she’d been totally over him, what had happened since then to change that?
Digging the coffee out of the fridge, she glanced over, noticed him looking around. Then those eyes swung back to hers, calling a whole bunch of memories out of retirement, and she thought, Oh. Right.
“Cool tree,” he said.
Grateful for the distraction, Mercy allowed a fond smile for the vintage silver aluminum number she’d found at a garage sale. Some of the “needles” had cracked off, but with all the hot pink marabou garland, it was barely noticeable. Well, that, and the several dozen bejeweled angels, shoe ornaments and crosses vying for space amongst the feathers. This was one seriously tarted up Christmas tree, and Mercy adored it. “That’s Annabelle. You should see her at night when I’ve got the color wheel going. She’s something else.”
Ben shook his head, laughing softly, and yet more memories reported for duty. Including several that fearlessly headed straight for the hot zones.
“How are your folks?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said, even though what she really wanted to do was scream Stop looking at me like that! “Dad’s finally retired, driving Ma nuts. Her arthritis has been acting up more these past couple of years, which is why I have to help her take down her decorations.”
“She still turn the place into the North Pole?”
“You have no idea. And every year she buys more stuff. For the grandbabies, she says.”
“How many are there?”
“Twelve. Although Rosie’s pregnant with her fourth. A fact my mother never tires of shoving down my throat. That I’m the only one without kids. Oh, and a husband.”
His expression softened. “Guess there’s no accounting for some men’s stupidity.”
Uh. . .
Mercy spun back to the gurgling coffee maker. “No matter. What can I say, that ship has sailed.”
After a silence thick enough to slice and serve with butter and jam, Ben said, “So what are you up to these days?”
The coffee maker finally spit out its last drop; Mercy pulled a pair of mugs down from a cabinet, filled them both with the steaming brew. She handed him his coffee, then retreated to lean against the far counter, huddling her own mug to her chest. “Actually, I finally got my business degree, opened a children’s gently used clothing store with two of my classmates, about six or seven years ago. Except it grew, so now we carry some furniture and educational toys, too.”
He held aloft his mug in a silent toast. “And you’re doing well?”
“Fingers crossed, so far, so good. We were even able to hire an assistant last summer. A damn good thing since both of my partners have babies now. Had to find a larger place, too. One of those old Victorians near Old Town? Your father’s company did the remodel, actually.”
“No kidding? I’ll have to drop by, check it out.”
“You, in a kid’s store?”
“Why not? Hey, I’ve got a niece and nephew to spoil. Especially. . .” His eyes lowered, he thumbed the rim of his cup, then looked back up at her. “Especially since I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“You know, you could at least pretend to be diplomatic.”
“I could. But why? And since we’re on the subject. . .so what exactly have you been doing for the past ten years?”
His eyes narrowed, a move that instantly provoked a tiny Hmm in the back of her brain. “This and that,” he finally said. “Going where the work was.”
“Whatever that’s supposed to mean.”
He looked at her steadily for a long moment, then said quietly, “I didn’t vanish without a trace, Merce. My family’s always known where I was, that I was okay. And I’m here now, aren’t I?”
“But why, is the question? And don’t give me some song-and-dance about your father needing you. Because I’m not buying it.”
Ben leaned back on the bar stool, gently drumming his fingers on the counter, as he seemed to be contemplating how much to tell her. “Let’s just say events provided a much needed kick in the butt and let it go at that.”
“A kick in the butt to do what?”
One side of his mouth kicked up. “Thought I said to let it go?”
“Not gonna happen. So?”
He slid off the stool, moseying out into the living room and picking up a family photo of her youngest sister Olivia and her family, including four little boys under the age of nine. “I needed some time to. . .reassess a few things, that’s all.” He set the photo back down and turned to her, his hand in his back pocket, and something in his eyes made her stomach drop.
“Ben. . .? What’s wrong? Did something happen?”
“You always could see through me, Merce,” he said softly, a rueful grin tugging at that wonderful, wonderful mouth. “Even when we were kids. But this isn’t about something happening nearly as much as, well, I find myself wondering a lot these days how I got to be thirty-five with still no idea how I fit in the grand scheme of things.”
Yep, she knew that feeling. All too well. Only, up until a few minutes ago, she could have sworn she’d left that “Who the hell am I?” phase of her life far behind her. Apparently, she’d been wrong.
Not only because the grinning, cocky, nobody-can-tell-me-nuthin’ dude of yore had morphed into this man with the haunted eyes who’d clearly been knocked around a time or two and, she was guessing, had come out all the stronger, and perhaps wiser, for it. But because, in the time it took to drink a single cup of coffee, whoever this was had turned everything she’d thought she’d known about herself on its head.
On a soft but heartfelt, “Dammit,” Mercy sidestepped the breakfast bar and crossed the small room, where she grabbed Ben’s shoulders and yanked him into a liplock neither one of them would ever forget.
(c) 2006 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.
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