St. Martin’s Press
“Expertly, Ms. Barrett delights us with her unique style.”
“Great job. Sure beats sparklers and Roman candles.”
– Under the Covers
© 2006 Vicki Hinze
You can never go back.
No matter how desperately you want to, or how hard you try, things happen to change you from the person you were into the person you are, and you can never go back to who you’d once been.
That simple truth, whether blessing or curse, had proven itself inescapable to Adam Weston and Anne Hayden. They’d kissed and caressed and made love a thousand times–in Anne’s dreams. In her fantasies. In those darkest niches of her heart where her deepest desires and most cherished wishes hid secreted from the rest of the world.
From first glance between them it’d been fireworks. All sparks and sultry sizzle. Sheer magic and pure temptation. But anything between them had been forbidden.
Now, six years later, it still was. And that they had parted then without once kissing or touching or making love still haunted her, still fed her fantasies, still flooded her dreams.
With a little sigh of remorse-laced regret, Anne replaced the telephone receiver on its cradle, disconnecting the link to Adam now as she had then. With that final click, she tried to bury the lingering memories and futile wishes that things between them could have been different. If only he hadn’t been her college roommate Maxine’s lover. If only Anne hadn’t taken one look at him and proven true that “old rubbish” about love at first sight. If only she could meet her eyes in the mirror when she swore to herself that breaking the connection to him in these phone calls didn’t hurt, didn’t remind her of the pain she’d suffered in walking away from him six years ago.
Why couldn’t she convince herself that reality could hold a candle to her fantasies of him . . . and to his fantasies of her?
Get a grip, Anne. That can’t happen. Things are what they are, and nothing that matters can change.
Oh, but she’d be wise to listen to herself. So what if Adam and Maxine had parted ways a year ago and she’d married Adam’s best friend? Aside from their phone calls, Maxine’s marriage hadn’t impacted Adam and Anne’s relationship. The facts had to be faced. She had to accept that their chance had come and gone. Adam had become a neurologist and built a life in New Orleans; Anne, a physical therapist, had done the same in Mississippi. But far more than a state line and a scant sixty miles separated her and Adam, and it always would.
She slumped down in an overstuffed chair in the two-bedroom apartment she shared with her younger sister, Janese. They could never go back.
“I’m late. I’m sooo late!” Janese breezed through the living room in a lacy bra and peach panties, looking like a leggy blonde bundle of sex straight off the latest catalogue pages from Victoria’s Secret.
Obviously Janese had a date. When didn’t she have a date? Nearly choking on a cloud of her sister’s perfume, and on an absurd knot of envy, Anne mentally prepared for another exciting night of TV and her own company. “Why do you do this? You know Rick’s anal-retentive about time.”
“He’s not. He’s just punctual. But that was last night–or maybe the night before.” Her eyes lost focus, as if she were trying to remember, then she shrugged. “Whatever. Tonight I’m seeing Jay.”
“Another new one?”
“New and yummy. Six solid feet of tall, dark, and handsome.”
Weren’t they all? “What does he do?”
“Mmm, I don’t know.” Dismissing that tidbit as unimportant, she let out a wistful sigh. “But he fills out a great pair of jeans.”
“God, Janese. There’s more to life and relationships than–”
“Don’t start, okay? I’m going to settle down to one guy . . . eventually. Well, glare if you want to, but I am. Just as soon as I’m ready. Until then, I intend to have a good time.” She bent down to dig through a mountain of clothes they loosely referred to as her ironing pile. Taking up a good chunk of corner in the dinette, it more realistically resembled a hill. “Maybe once in a while you should try having a little fun.”
“I have plenty of fun.”
Janese snorted. “Earth to Anne. This is your sister you’re talking to. You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to me.”
She couldn’t. But she wouldn’t admit the truth either. More than not wanting Janese to hear it, Anne herself didn’t want to hear it.
“Seriously. Men are fun. They’re interesting and stimulating.” Janese’s voice went husky. “And sooo sensual.”
“All those assets and yet you still find keeping track of them separately a challenge.” Droll, and catty. Anne didn’t like sounding either, much less both. Maybe she’d just forget TV, fix herself a scotch and water and sit on the balcony.
A year ago, she could have seen the Mississippi shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico from there. Now, the view was of a casino’s parking garage. She sighed. TV might be the better option, after all. With nothing to look at, she’d think, and she didn’t want to think. Not so soon after talking with Adam. They were friends, but. . . .
“Keeping track is only the nicest kind of challenge.” Janese laughed, low and throaty. “Now you, on the other hand–” She glanced over, sobered, then winced. “Ouch.”
Toeing off her sneakers and shrugging out of the lab jacket covering her jeans and blue silk blouse, Anne frowned. “What?”
“You’ve got that look.”
Janese flung aside a slinky black jumpsuit, rifled through the pile, then pulled up a hot pink halter dress. “That I-wish-I’d-damned-my-conscience-and-Maxine’s-feelings-when-I-had-the-chance-and-jumped-Adam Weston’s-bones-so-I-could-quit-wondering-what-it-would-have-been-like look.”
Anne had wished it countless times, and had damned herself as forty kinds of fool for ever wishing it. But her pride wouldn’t let her admit it. Not now, not ever. “That’s not my style.”
“But it is mine, hmm?” Janese smiled, her green eyes twinkling without shadows or remorse, or even a shade of guilt. “It’s okay. I’m first to admit I’m a firm believer in going with my gut instincts. If they say go for it, I go.” A pair of purple slacks flew across the pile to the carpet. “Though, I have to say, my instincts don’t go for it nearly so often as you think they do.”
“It wouldn’t have been right between Adam and me.” Anne studied her nails, wishing they were long and painted a soft pink like Janese’s. But they were practical for her work; neat, trimmed and buffed, but not ultra-feminine. “Nothing good can come out of a relationship born in someone else’s pain.” How many times did she have to say it?
“Honey, please. Unless we’re talking pre-puberty here, everyone is in pain. Nobody gets through adolescence without it, much less all the way to adulthood.” Janese pulled a lemon colored sheath from the pile, gave it a visual once over, then tossed it back onto the heap. “Besides, Maxine’s married to someone else now, and that leaves the door wide open for you and Adam. You still have the chance–”
“Don’t even think it,” Anne interrupted. Six years was far too long. They were different people now, and their fantasies of each other surely would crumble under reality’s unforgiving glare. No human being could measure up to fantasy’s perfection, and Anne had no intention of falling short and disappointing Adam. Obviously, he had no intention of risking disappointment or failing either.
Janese wrinkled her nose. “But if you really want the man–”
Janese went statue still. A black blouse draping over her hand shimmered, and she cast Anne a shrewd look. “Are you honestly going to sit there and tell me you don’t regret not jumping Adam Weston’s bones?”
How did the woman always know? Anne resisted squirming by sliding the gold hoop earrings from her earlobes then plopping them down on the table, next to the telephone. “I’m not telling you anything.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I know you, okay? And I know you’re wishing you’d jumped–”
“Would you please stop saying that?” Anne gritted her teeth. “How do you know what I’m thinking? Can you read my mind or something?” If Anne could figure that out, she could hide whatever evidence Janese picked up on and stop these infernal inquisitions. They were really wearing thin, rattling her nerves–probably because they forced her to look too closely at things she’d rather not see at all.
“Aside from it being a safe guess–the man has called you every night since Valentine’s Day, for God’s sake–you’re flushed and your boobs look like dart tips. It doesn’t take a mind reader or a rocket scientist to figure out you’re attracted to him.”
Anne glanced down to the blue silk and saw the telltale evidence. Her face burned red-hot. Too agitated to sit, she got up then headed for the kitchen.
Tip-toeing through a gap between the clothes littering the floor, she spotted her forest green skirt. It’d been missing for a month. She scarfed it up, wrapped it over the back of a bar stool, then went on around the end of the bar and into the kitchen. One day she’d get brave enough to dig through her sister’s ironing and gather up all the items Janese had borrowed. But not tonight. Tonight, Anne felt fragile. Mostly because her too observant sister was dead right when Anne wanted her to be dead wrong.
Janese tossed the pink dress onto a chair, reheaped the rifled articles into a semblance of a pile, then grabbed the ironing board from its closet in the corner of the kitchen. Near the dining room table, she cranked the board open, plugged in the iron, then flicked it on. “When are you guys going to quit talking about which brand of paper towel is most absorbent and get to the good stuff?”
“We aren’t.” Anne filled a glass with ice at the fridge, then poured tea into it from the crockery pitcher they’d inherited from Grandma Hayden. Why was her blasted hand shaking? “But, for the record, we have some serious talks, too.”
“Ah, yes. Your life, death, and the universe’ debates. Your God, what a lousy date I just had’ discussions. Your this job is really getting to me’ sessions. I know all about them but, Anne, this thing between you two is still crazy.” Janese reached over the board and grabbed the pink dress. “I know what you’ve said about your jobs, but Adam lives in New Orleans, for God’s sake. Not on Mars. You could get together any weekend.”
Putting the pitcher back into the fridge, Anne debated making a sandwich, decided against it, then snagged a slice of cheese. “We like our independence.”
“Bull.” Janese plunked down the iron, then furiously swiped at ironing the pink fabric, muttering something godawful, Anne felt sure, under her breath.
“We do.” She frowned, held it so Janese wouldn’t miss it, then sat down on a stool and unwrapped the cheese. The cellophane wrapper crinkled. God, but she loved the smell of cheese. And hot bread. And baked apples. And Adam’s cologne. It’d taken her two weeks of exploring scents in Gayfer’s to peg it as Obsession.
Obsession. She chomped down on a bite of cheese. How fitting.
“I know you both prize your independence–why, only God and you know–but that wasn’t what I meant.” Janese flipped the dress to press its skirt. “What you guys are doing isn’t healthy. Seriously. I mean, you’ve been talking to each other on the phone for a year. Why the heck don’t you ever see each other?”
“Janese, don’t start. You know Maxine was my friend and Adam belonged to her.”
“Operative word there, Sis. Belonged. As in, past tense. She married another man. All bets are off now.”
“Who she married doesn’t matter. And there are no bets.” Anne nibbled at the edge of the smooth, creamy slice. “We did what we had to do then, and it’s too late now. You can’t go back, Janese. You just . . . can’t.”
She grunted, rolled her gaze ceilingward, then leveled Anne with an I-can’t-believe-you-expect-me-to-swallow-this-tripe look. “What, she’s still got dibs on the man–in case she ever gets a divorce?”
“No.” The cheese stuck to her teeth. Anne rubbed her tongue over them. “It’s not like that.”
“Well, how is it, then?”
Anne wished to heaven she knew. She squeezed her eyes shut, then swallowed down a long draw of tea. Condensed droplets of water trickled down the outside of the glass and made a perfect circle under its base on the beige bar. “Adam and I are just friends. That’s all we’ve ever been, and all we’ll ever be.” Her voice sounded as weak as a beggar’s. Was she convincing Janese, or trying to convince herself? Unsure, Anne’s chest went tight. “We just like to talk. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Let’s not. You were in love with the man in college, and I think you’re still–”
“Don’t say it.” Anne’s heart thudded against her ribs. “I mean it. Just . . . don’t.”
“All right, I won’t.” Janese shrugged, looked down at her ironing, and lowered her voice. “But not saying it doesn’t make it any less true.”
“Those days are over.” Anne took another bite of cheese, then chewed it slowly to steady her nerves. “I was in love with him, but we’re different now. We don’t love each other anymore.”
“You might be different, but you’re both still blockheaded–and too blind to see the truth and it right before your eyes.”
“Janese, I’m warning you–”
“Okay. Okay. Don’t have a spasm.” She flipped the dress off the board, then pressed down the halter ties. Steam lifted from the iron. “I have to say this, though. Quit glaring at me, Anne. You’re my sister, okay? When you’re being stupid, it’s my duty to tell you.”
For all her fun-loving sass, Janese took her sisterly duties damn serious. And the only way to get her to shut up was to let her have her say. Once she had, she’d be over it, and then Anne could get some peace. “Whatever. Just no long-winded lectures. I had a rough day at the hospital–two burn victims–and I’m really not in the mood for it.”
“I’ll keep it short.” Janese turned off the iron, then stepped into the slinky dress that hugged her every lush curve and ended abruptly mid-thigh in a flattering flair. “You and Adam talk about everything and nothing. But you never talk about getting together in person. Why do you think that is?”
Anne knew exactly. She opened her mouth to tell Janese, caught herself, and said nothing.
“I think it’s fear.”
The glass of tea in Anne’s hand shook. Ice clinked against the sides and tea splashed over the rim, down onto the counter. She swiped at it with her hand, then brushed her wet palm over her jeans. “That’s ridiculous.” And, God help her, true.
“Maybe. But I think you and Adam don’t want to risk changing your lives. You’ve got these ideas about each other, and you’re scared stiff you won’t measure up in real life. This phone-relationship of yours doesn’t threaten anything. It’s safe.” She paused to slide into three-inch strappy heels that matched her dress. “I can’t speak for Adam, having never met the man, but you’re a warm and loving, sensual woman who’s living like a sexless hermit. It’s not natural, for God’s sake.”
“Okay, that’s enough. I said I wasn’t in the mood, and I’m out of patience.” Anne set down her glass with a firm thunk. “Besides, you’re wrong. Adam and I both date. And we both like dating.”
Janese crossed her arms over her chest.
Tall, lithesome, and blonde, she was the pretty sister. Dating came as natural as breathing to her. Janese was bright, an extrovert with great legs that perfectly matched her great face who was out for a good time and had no intention of settling down before she hit thirty. Anne was shorter, about five-six, slim rather than curvaceous, quieter and more intense. They were as different as night and day and, in relationships with men, those differences became glaringly apparent. Janese fell in and out of love at least twice a month, and seemed to welcome the emotional roller coaster rides that went with it. Anne had fallen in love once. With Maxine’s Adam. The experience stung and scarred, so she’d backed off and avoided letting it happen again.
Why was the woman just standing there, arms akimbo, staring at her? Anne grimaced. “What?”
“You know I do.”
“An occasional dinner with a man you know will bore you stiff doesn’t qualify as dating, Anne. Where’s the fun? The excitement? Where’s the romance?”
“I don’t only date boring men.”
“Yes, you do.”
Did she? Of course not. Well, sometimes. “Not always,” she stubbornly insisted, shifting on the bar stool.
“Always.” Janese grabbed her purse, then slung its strap over her shoulder. “You need to take a few risks. Find yourself a summer love.” Janese shrugged. “Hell, why not go all out and have yourself a summer fling?”
Anne shuddered. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“A summer fling?” Anne guffawed. “Me?”
Janese hiked her brows and nodded.
Good grief. Her arms were folded over her chest again. Janese was dead serious. Wondering how long it’d take them to get past this discussion, Anne set the iron on the counter to cool, then let down the ironing board. It creaked, grating at her raw nerves. “I can’t imagine a man I’d want to have a fling with, not that I would–”
“I can.” Janese tilted her head and the light caught her chin-length hair. Swinging over her cheek, it shone like spun gold. “Ordinarily I’d suggest a suitable stranger–a girl has to be careful these days, you know–but you’re far too stuffy to go for a stranger. So why not Adam?”
Anne’s knees threatened to buckle. She crammed the ironing board back into its cabinet then slammed the door shut. “No.”
“Why not? He’d be perfect. No chance of you falling in love with the guy again, right? And you’d get to find out what jumping his bon–er, what he’d really be like.”
Anne went pier-post stiff. “He wouldn’t be perfect, and it wouldn’t be perfect. It’d be a disaster.”
“Fear.” Janese grasped the front door’s knob. “Just like I said. And some serious doubt too, I think. You really should–”
“Shut up, Janese.”
“Certainly. Just as soon as you give me one good reason why you shouldn’t have a fling with Adam Weston.”
Why–oh, why–had she chosen now to nag? “I said, no.”
“Good grief, Anne. I’m not talking about chaining yourself to the man forever.” Janese struck a be-reasonable pose, her hands uplifted, her shoulders hiked. “I’m talking about having a fling with the guy. One weekend. That’s it.”
The thought alone had Anne’s blood thrumming, her pulse pounding in her temples, heat swirling low in her belly. She clenched her muscles and talked from between her teeth. “You don’t understand. Neither of us ever has mentioned meeting in person. We have an unspoken agreement.”
Pursing her pink-tinted lips, Janese strolled over, propped her elbow on the bar, then leaned low and dipped her chin to her hand. “Well, dear heart, if the agreement is unspoken, then I’d say the sucker doesn’t exist.”
Anne gripped the edge of the countertop, held on so tight that her fingers ached. “I can’t just ignore it and ask him to do this, Janese.”
“Why not?” She arched a brow, defiantly challenging, and her gaze never wavered. “Afraid he’ll say no?”
Anne’s stomach flipped over. She forced her gaze up to her sister’s, then slowly shook her head. “I’m afraid he’ll say yes.”