Christine would be howling with laughter if she could see me now, sitting alone at a wedding—well, not totally alone. I’ve somehow found myself at the kids table. They’re supposed to be minding their manners and eating their dinner, but between you and me, the brown-haired boy—the one who reminds me of myself—is acting like a little snot, putting ice down the dress of the girl beside him. I tell him to knock it off and his eyes get wide with fear. It’s pretty much the same way everyone has looked at me tonight. I wonder if the kids around Cedar Creek think of my house as the dark, scary, haunted house on the dead-end road. Apparently, I’ve created quite the reputation for myself.
It’s why I’m here by myself.
Meredith isn’t alone though. Even now, she has all of Tucker’s friends circled around her, eating out of the palm of her hand. She has a way with people. She makes them laugh and puts stars in their eyes. Two days ago, I accused her of using her charms on purpose, but now I’m not sure it isn’t just her natural effect on people. Add that to the list of things I need to apologize for.
I push barbecue around on my plate because I can’t stomach another bite.
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. It’s Daniel’s brother walking over—a nice guy I’ve hung out with once or twice. I smile and pull out a chair for him to sit.
“Oh, actually I was just gonna ask if anyone was using the chair…”
The troublemaking boy laughs. It’s just him and me at the table now. Seems fitting.
“They say you’re mean as the devil.”
“And what do you think?”
He looks at the top of my head, in search of red horns.
“I think it’s true.”
“Well, you’ll find out if you keep messing with that girl who was sitting by you earlier.”
He scowls and stomps off.
“Oh yeah, and also if you don’t eat your vegetables!”
I push away from the table and head for the bar. They’re serving Blue Stone wine tonight. I donated a few cases as a wedding present to Daniel, plus a fat check and a week off from work. Apparently he’s taking Leanna down to Cancun. I might treat myself to a trip there later this year; I could use a few days away from the ranch. It occurs to me in this moment that Christine tried for two years to get me to take a vacation and I turned her down every time. The thing is, I didn’t want to go away with her. Now, the feisty brunette who hates my guts? I wouldn’t mind being on a beach with her. Piña coladas, coconut bikini, tan lines…sí señora.
I’m thinking about the prospect when she comes up right beside me at the bar. I haven’t spoken to her in two days and now here she is, within arm’s reach.
I glance down at her and offer a conciliatory smile.
She doesn’t respond.
“You just skipped the line,” I joke, trying to coax some kind of conversation out of her.
She ignores me, orders another sauvignon blanc, and then tells the bartender to put it on my tab.
I smile wider. “It’s an open bar.”
She emits a little annoyed humph then spins on her heel. Before I know what I’m doing, my hand reaches out and I catch her elbow, spinning her back around to me and gently leading her away from the bar.
“Still upset with me?” I ask, leaning down to try to catch her blue eyes. Tonight they’re more electric than ever, alive with disdain for me.
“Upset is putting it mildly.”
Her voice is biting, but mine’s not.
“Fair enough. Still, I saw you watching me during the ceremony.”
“We were in a church, so I was waiting to see if you’d spontaneously burst into flame. I didn’t want to miss it.”
I’m smiling, even though I know I shouldn’t be. I just can’t help it. She’s funny.
“Dance with me.”
Her eyes turn into two huge saucers.
I’ve never been kidding less.
My hand releases her elbow and I hold it out palm up, waiting for her to accept it.
“Don’t say no.”
Not with everyone watching.
She looks at my hand like it’s a snake.
“I did just buy you a drink.”
“It’s an open bar,” she points out, throwing my words back at me.
“Yeah, but that’s Blue Stone wine.”
She sneers at her glass and sets it down on a nearby table.
I have no choice but to take matters into my own hands. She’s not going to accept a dance with me—and she shouldn’t—so I’ll just have to guide her toward the dance floor while she’s too stunned to turn me down.
I pull her into my arms, appreciating the slow song playing over the speakers. Her hands hang like limp noodles at her sides and I tug her closer. We aren’t hip to hip, but we’re not far off.
“Why do you want to dance with me?” she asks, her voice devoid of any real anger. “After everything you said in your office, I’m surprised you can even stand to look at me.”
“You’re supposed to put your hands on my shoulders,” I say, ignoring her question. “Or if you’re feeling fancy, you can clasp them around my neck.”
“That might give people the idea that I like you. Where should I put my hands if I want to show that I can’t stand you?”
Her dig garners a few suspicious stares and awkward laughs from the couples dancing around us.
“Guess I’m not alone in thinking you’re a jerk,” she continues, firing shots every chance she gets.
I smile. “Alfred doesn’t think I’m a jerk.”
She snorts. “You don’t deserve Alfred.”
Finally, resigned, she moves her hands tentatively up to my shoulders. I use the opportunity to bring us a little closer. She feels good in my arms even though every atom inside of her is trying to pull away from me. A more polite guy would respect that and move away, but I think we’ve established that I don’t have much respect to lose in her eyes.
“What about you?” I ask gently. “Do you hate me?”
She’s focused on the edge of the dance floor, her profile facing me. I can still see anger building behind her blue gaze. “I do.”
“Then I won’t try to talk you out of it.”
She nods. “There’s no point. You won’t convince me you’re anything but an arrogant jerk.”
“Glad that’s settled.”
My capitulation only makes her madder. She’s fuming for a fight, but I’m ready to humble myself and apologize.
“No. You know what?” Her temper flares. “One second you’re hot, the next you’re cold. What you said in your office was unforgivable.”
“I completely agree.”
She jerks her gaze to me, and I hope she can see the regret buried there. For a second I think she does, but then she shakes her head and tries to move away.
“Please don’t leave. Everyone’s watching us.”
Her expression breaks and I know I have her. Her heart’s too big to walk away now. She won’t embarrass me.
“This isn’t fair. I don’t want to dance with you, not after what you said.”
“I want to apologize.”
“I don’t accept.”
I lower my voice. “Look, Helen painted a picture of you early on that wasn’t pretty, and I didn’t know any better than to believe her. But, I’m starting to see that she doesn’t know you any better than I did three weeks ago.”
“I don’t want to listen to this.”
I tip my head down and whisper against her hair. “Meredith, I’m sorry. I wanted to make sure you weren’t the person I thought you were. Once I saw your reaction in my office, I realized I was wrong.”
“Oh yeah? Is that why it’s taken you two days to apologize?”
“It’s not an easy thing for me to do.” I smile. “Besides, you can run pretty hot too. I know what it’s like to need time to cool down.”
She’s a ball of fiery anger in my arms. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s thinking about socking me in the jaw.