One Night in Memphis
One Night, Book 2
by Allie Boniface
eBook ISBN: 978-1-60504-063-9
Print ISBN: 978-1-60504-288-6
What if a broken-hearted woman traveled to the heart of Memphis to forget her past? What if a grieving widower ventured out to Beale Street’s blues clubs for the first time in over a year? And what if they met and realized love was still possible for them both?
“Get out!” Dakota James threw Sean McCabe’s jeans—her favorite pair, she noted bitterly, faded in all the right places—across the room.
He held up both hands in a plea. “Wait a minute.”
“No.” Hands on hips, Dakota stood in her bedroom doorway and did her best to keep the glare cemented on her face. She was not falling for his excuses anymore. Or the blue eyes that turned green in the sunlight. Or his arms, strong with muscle and soft when they wound around her late at night. Jaw clenched, she narrowed her gaze and waited.
Sean raised his eyebrows and swung his feet to the floor.
Oh, God. Her resolve wavered. Pectoral muscles flexed as he leaned back and waited for her to return to bed beside him. The dawn light caught the kitten-soft stubble along his jaw line.
“I said no.” Dakota willed steel into her voice. She was terrible at this, at breaking up, saying goodbye, giving in to the inevitable. “I want—” A sob threatened to rise up, but she swallowed it away. “I want you to leave.”
As the words fell from her mouth, her heart pattered a different wish. That’s not true. Really, I want you to be mine again. I want you to leave her for good. I want—
“You don’t mean that.” Sean scratched his chest with a lazy hand, cocked his head to the side and studied her.
She looked at the floor. “Yes, I do.” One bare toe stubbed its way along the hardwood and stopped at a small pink patch near her dresser. Candle wax, a reminder of a Valentine’s Day now gone. Tears filled her eyes and she pulled her robe tight around her. “It’s never going to work. Not if you stay with her.”
He sighed and reached for his sweatshirt, tossed across the bottom of the bed. His t-shirt had landed on the floor, his socks somewhere close by. Dakota’s sundress lay in a crumpled heap on the dresser and her bra hung from one bedpost. It always looks like this, she thought, a war zone of sex. She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her robe and remained standing, silent, as Sean dressed. Really, really good sex.
“I’m not staying with her.”
“Yeah? Then why does she still have a key to your place? Why is her name still on the goddamned mailbox out front where everyone can see it?”
He didn’t answer right away. Long, lean legs slid one after the other into his jeans, retrieved from the floor near the doorway. He bent to collect a sock at her feet, sliding one hand along her hip as he did so.
She brushed it away as if she’d been burned.
“Babe, come on. You‘ve got to give me some time. I told you when we got involved that it was complicated.”
“That was almost a year ago.”
“I didn’t think it would be this hard.”
“I did.” The corners of her mouth turned down. She knew because she’d been here before, a hundred times. Never, ever, could she manage to fall for a guy who wasn’t already involved. Not like there were a lot to choose from, here in the middle of south central New Hampshire. Most of the kind, intelligent guys she’d gone to school with had either moved away or married young and taken over their fathers’ businesses. She knew; she waited on them every night at the Candlelight Restaurant. And the single ones seemed to stay far away from Dakota James, meeting and marrying other nice single girls and settling down with picket fences and a dog. Meanwhile, the married/engaged/living-with-a-girlfriend-for-the-last-eight-years men followed her home by way of an invisible line of breadcrumbs she was certain she trailed behind her. Her shoulders hunched. When would she learn?
“Your keys are on the kitchen table,” she said.
His jaw twitched a little. “Don’t do this. I love you.”
“No, you don’t.” She looked past his chin, fixing her gaze just below the copy of Starry Night that hung on her bedroom wall. If I believe that, I‘ll never get over you. Ever. Squaring her shoulders, she said, “You love the idea of me. The chase. It’s a game to you. That’s all. Just a game.”
Sean scrubbed his face. “You—we—aren’t a game. The first time I walked into the Candlelight, I knew I wanted to be with you.”
“Yeah. Whatever. You tell your wife that?”
“But you won’t divorce her.”
He laced both hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. “It’s…”
“I know. Complicated.” Dakota scratched her arm. “Which is why you need to leave.”
“You don’t love me?”
She didn’t answer that. She couldn’t.
He inhaled, a sound of exasperation if she’d ever heard one, and shook his head. “If that’s how you feel—”
“Fine.” Suddenly cold, Sean brushed past her, clipping her on the shoulder and almost knocking her over. He marched into the kitchen, and she could hear him rattling around in the porcelain dish where she always tossed keys. The faucet turned on, ran for a long minute, and turned off again.
He reappeared in the doorway, blue eyes solemn. “I wanted this to work.”
Softening again, Dakota leaned against her easy chair and kept her distance. She bent her head to keep in the tears. “Me too.”
“It still can.”
She shook her head. “Not unless you really leave her, Sean. Not unless you come back to me tomorrow and say you’ve filed the divorce papers.”
He didn’t answer.
Dakota sighed. Looking up, she allowed herself one last treacherous step into the blue of his eyes, where memories of the last year flickered. There again she saw the night they’d met at the restaurant. The spring day he’d packed a picnic and convinced her to skip work. The phone calls they shared late at night, after the town settled into sleep. Every single magic moment. She’d been so close this time, so hopeful that at twenty-six, she’d finally found love.
Sean McCabe, thirty-nine years old, police chief of Little Lakeside, New Hampshire, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, husband to Mollie McCabe, raised one hand in a silent goodbye.
Then he was gone.
Fifteen hundred miles away, Ethan Meriweather swung a hand in the direction of his alarm clock and missed. A glass crashed to the floor and shattered.
He cursed. Somewhere above his head, the buzzing continued. He buried his head underneath two pillows and tried to ignore it. Didn’t work. It penetrated through his skull until he thought the sound waves might actually pierce his brain and kill him from the inside. Not a bad way to go, actually. Probably pretty quick.
Ethan grunted. Eyes still closed, he groped around his bedside table until he found the alarm’s Off button. Finally. He rubbed his face and tried to remember. What day was it? What time was it? An arm flopped across his forehead. Saturday morning. Late morning, probably. He rubbed a hand across his jaw, rough with stubble. Had he stayed in last night? Oh, yeah. He rarely left the house on Friday nights. Too many memories.
Lydia’s face swam into his mind, and her blue eyes pierced him with that no-nonsense gaze. You know what tequila does to you.
“Yeah. I know,” Ethan said aloud. But today’s headache seemed worse than usual. He pressed his fingers against his temples and willed the percussionist inside his head to take a five-minute break. Okay. Saturday morning. Eleven-ten. He had just enough time to pop a couple aspirin and find something to eat before meeting the guys for basketball.
He swung his feet to the floor and waited for the lightheadedness to pass before he pushed himself to a stand. Piles of clothes—some clean, most dirty—lay scattered around the room. He stumbled over them. Noah meowed and wound his way through Ethan’s legs until he nudged the cat out of the way. Outside, he heard the Taylor kids playing ball across the yard. He shook his head. Once, he’d been just like them, outside at dawn and reluctant to come in when his mother called long after dark. He snapped on the bathroom light and stared at himself in the mirror.
Jesus Christ. The pale, unshaven face that stared back at him was no one Ethan would have wanted to know as a child. He wasn’t sure he wanted to acknowledge it now, almost twenty years later. Reddish-brown hair, too long, fell into bloodshot green eyes. Wrinkles pulled at the corners of his mouth, set into a square jaw. A crooked nose did nothing to help the picture. He spat into the sink, then reached for the half-empty bottle of mouthwash and took a generous swig. Though it burned his mouth, the sensation felt good. Somehow cleansing.
The hot shower helped too, and he stood under the spray long after he’d soaped and shampooed away the ache and remorse of last night’s binge. Gotta stop, he told himself. Staring at four walls with a bottle beside me isn’t helping anything. That’s what Dr. Lowenstein, his therapist, told him anyway, and Ethan was paying enough for the hour-long sessions that he figured he’d better agree. He switched off the lukewarm stream of water and reached for a towel.
Dressed in a wrinkled t-shirt and shorts, he made his way to the kitchen. He dumped some food into Noah’s dish and gave the cat a perfunctory pat on the head. Pulling open the refrigerator, he eyed the boxes of leftovers on the shelves. Though he’d become a decent cook over the years, lately he’d settled for take-out or that frozen stuff that would keep forever. No use making anything gourmet when he was the only one eating it.
Ethan poured himself an enormous glass of orange juice and washed down three Tylenol. Two pieces of bread went into the toaster, and he peeled a banana that had seen better days. Then, balancing a paper plate piled high with toast, a couple of Pop-Tarts, and the half of the banana that hadn’t rotted, he made his way into the living room.
His headache began to subside just as the phone rang.
“E, you up?” Mike, probably already buzzing on three cups of coffee, jumped into conversation.
“Yeah.” Good thing, too, he knew. Mike wouldn’t let him hear the end of it if he wasn’t one hundred percent on the basketball court that afternoon.
“You’re gonna make it on time today?”
Mike chuckled. “Sure. Listen, we’ve got a score to settle with Howie and Paul, so don’t be late. I mean it.”
Ethan grunted. Best friend or not, that guy and his buddies took a pick-up game too seriously for Ethan’s sake. Miss one shot, and you heard about it for days. Lose your steam halfway through the game, and the other guys called you a pussy. He rolled over and tried to get comfortable on the couch. Still, as a sportswriter, his own life pretty much revolved around athletics, so he hadn’t figured out a better way to spend Saturday afternoons than with three guys who felt the same way.
“Hey, I went out with Sheila last night,” Mike continued.
Ethan finished the Pop-Tarts and started on his toast, now cold. “Which one is she?”
“You remember. That cute bartender from the club last week.”
“Oh yeah.” He didn’t, but it was easier telling Mike he did, rather than hear all the details of how beautiful this woman was, how intelligent, how perfect.
“Took her to dinner at the Crocodile Lounge—that new place over on Forty-Fifth. Remember? We drove by last month, saw ‘em putting up the sign?”
Ethan grunted again.
“What’s with you?”
“Nothing. Listen, I’ve got some stuff to do around here.” He stared at the piles of discarded newspapers, the half-eaten pieces of pizza, the empty dishes sitting around the room. That much, at least, was true. “I’ll see you at the courts.”
“All right. One o’clock. Not ten after. Or twenty after. Or—”
“I told you, I’ll be there.” Ethan hung up, reached for the remote and began to surf the channels. He stopped for a couple minutes at a poker tournament and then again at a beach volleyball game, but he wasn’t really in the mood to pay close attention. His mind always snapped into work mode when he ended up watching any kind of sporting event. He’d organize stats, work up quotes, grab slips of paper to jot down notes. Nah. Better to find some stupid reality show or a sitcom rerun than stare at something that reminded him of his life Monday through Friday.
Ethan kept flipping. The last thing he wanted to do on a weekend was worry about a story. Over on Nickelodeon, he located an old Bugs Bunny episode and left it there. He hadn’t watched cartoons in ages. Pretty funny stuff, he thought, and cracked a smile as Elmer Fudd walked in circles while the rabbit laughed behind the poor guy’s back.
Stretching out, Ethan settled into the sofa and closed his eyes against the sun that insisted on poking through the blinds. A few of the neighborhood kids must have joined the Taylors, because now it sounded like a full-fledged game of whiffle ball out there. A lawnmower buzzed somewhere in the distance and muffled sounds of traffic came through the open screens behind his head. He’d been right to buy this house five years ago, when Memphis’s historic district was just beginning to flourish. Since then, the little ranch-style on the end of the street had nearly doubled in value. Too bad he couldn’t stand living in it, most days.
He stuck a pillow under his head. He loved the city and its suburbs, he really did. It was just that this house rattled too much with a single person inside its walls. He folded his hands behind his head and was about to slip into a pre-game nap when his fingers touched slick paper.
Startled, he grabbed at the magazine and pulled it from its hiding place in the cushions. A tall brunette, gorgeous and airbrushed, struck a seductive pose on the cover of some woman’s monthly glamour guide. Pink lips pursed out at him, and with one hand on a hip, the model seemed to undress Ethan with eyes rimmed in charcoal. Block letters leapt off the cover: How Much Do You Really Know About His Big-O? Lose 15 Pounds Without Trying. Snacking Your Way to a Swimsuit Body.
He read the words one at a time, without putting them all together. If he did, he suspected something inside him might explode. His fingers slipped on the cover and he could see as he turned it in the light that a few of the pages were turned down at the corners. She was going to read this article. And that one. Or maybe she already had. Maybe she took a quiz that told her all the ways they’d measured up as a couple…or all the ways they didn’t.
Something clicked inside Ethan, something heavy that dropped from his throat to his groin. His eyes skimmed the words on the cover a second time. Then a third. One fist closed around the magazine, and he had to keep himself from tearing it in two. What the hell was it doing here, resting in the comfort of his sofa cushions, waiting for the right moment to grab him by the throat?
“Goddammit!” He thought he’d cleared the house of every last reminder, but once in a while, something showed up, in a forgotten kitchen cabinet or underneath the bed. Jaw clenched, Ethan rolled the magazine into a tube and threw it across the room. It hit the wall and slid to the floor, falling cover-side up. The brunette continued to smile up at him, beckoning with amber eyes.
Things change, echoed Dr. Lowenstein inside his skull. Your goal is to deal with that and move forward.
Yeah, some things change, Ethan thought. The weather, for example. Sports scores, too. And the way your face looked in the mirror from year to year. Those things changed with the flip of a button or the turn of a calendar page. He knew that.
The problem was, not everything changed. Not the things that got inside your skin and marked you forever. They stayed around and haunted you until you went mad.
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