Love Burns – Chapter One

Olivia Benedetti-Harper stepped unsteadily from the casino hotel elevator onto her floor and let the I’m-just- fine-and-dandy-and-happy-for-you smile plastered on her face fade away. Cool quiet wrapped around her dizzy head and tired body. What a long day. Early breakfast. Shopping. Play cheerful bridesmaid. File for divorce—Bracing a hand against the wall, she steadied herself and blinked against the tears pricking her eyes. Enough was enough. Too much to do, too much to drink. Done.Olivia was truly happy for Kay and Nate. It was the fine-and-dandy part that had been exhausting to fake all through the whirlwind search around Las Vegas for Kay’s wedding dress, the impromptu bachelorette party at the hotel spa, Elvis chapel ceremony, and the merry dinner, dancing, and drinking afterward. She’d kept her troubles from shadowing their day, that’s all that mattered. As for tomorrow, its problems could keep for the daylight.

A whirlpool tub and a good, long cry awaited her in the room, but her feet cried mercy at the length of hallway left to walk. She stooped to slip off the strappy stiletto sandals and finish the trek barefoot.

As she fumbled with the first small buckle, the elevator dinged behind her, and the doors hummed open.

“Hey there, Florida.” Dave Knight’s slow aggressive voice growled behind her.

Heat shivered over her, and she swallowed hard. Oh, please, she didn’t need his wisecracks now. Steeling herself, she straightened from her teetering, fanny-in-the-air crouch to face Nate’s exasperating best man.

And found him close enough to touch—if she dared.

A zip of adrenaline at that unexpected curiosity jolted Olivia back a step, and another. No matter how forever grateful she’d be that Dave had stepped between her and R.J.’s fist, the man was just too much to bear.

His amused smirk, blurry with drink, tempered into a smile that on anyone else might be considered friendly. He leisurely raked his bright whisky-brown gaze over the scant fuchsia silk of her dress and returned to lock with her eyes. “Love you in that dress, Florida.” His voice lowered, more purr than growl.

A heated shiver ran her spine, and she clutched the slippery drape of her wrap more securely around her shoulders. A compliment from Dave? He’d definitely had more than a little too much to drink.

Despite the horrible public disintegration of her marriage, Olivia had been plenty aware of Dave Knight over the past ten days. A woman would have to be dead and buried not to have noticed Mr. Hot, Rugged, and Grouchy. Tough, dark, and dangerous to a woman’s pulse, Dave was magnetic more than handsome. Gorgeous eyes fringed with thick lashes, strong brows, and military-short black hair accented features carved just this side of harsh. The stark white guayabera shirt set off his weathered tan and his strong forearms.

Kay, JoAnn, and Patti had confessed after several wedding supper drinks their unrepentant desire to see their friend pose all sweaty for a firefighter’s calendar. Having seen the man soaking wet in swim trunks, his defined long-distance runner’s physique honed by rigorous training and a demanding career as a smokejumper, Olivia could only blush at the vivid image and privately agree.

Dave stepped closer.

An alcove wall halted her retreat. Her pulse ratcheted up another notch. She knew precisely how a mouse felt when pinned by the golden eyes of a stalking cat.

His eyes and smile gentled, blunting his sharp expression into something very different. Kind. Tempting.

Kind? Tempting? Oh, mercy. Dave Knight was not tempting. He was drunk. He didn’t like her. He was trouble.

Olivia tried her best visiting-hours-are-over voice. “It’s very late, Dave. I really need to sleep. It’s been a long day.”

“Yeah. It’s been a real good day.” He leaned on his left hand against the wall, trapping her further in the alcove, and twirled a tendril of her hair over the fingers of his bandaged right hand. “Missed sayin’ goodnight to you downstairs. But here we are, on the same floor. I’m down the other wing though.”

His focus sharpened, as if he were searching her eyes for some answer.

An eerie sensation and…interesting. Oh, interesting was so wrong.

“Well, goodnight then.” Meaning to nudge him on his way, she set her hand to his solid chest. Oh, touching was a bad idea, and he didn’t budge.

And she didn’t slip away.

Dave abandoned playing with her hair to cup her face, calloused fingers brushing in gentle deliberation.

She froze, her hand splayed over his heartbeat, the heat of him radiating through the cool linen of his shirt.

“They looked real good, Nate and Kay. Took ’em damn long enough to figure it out.” He sighed, his smile

brimming with honest happiness for their friends. “Everyone’s fallin’ in love…” His low words rolled out tuneful, as if he sang for her, sweet and deep and sad.

His smile faded into pensive serenity, and he softly touched his lips to her cheek.

A shivery gasp escaped her.

Easy, it’s just a kiss…nothing to raise a fuss over, simply an innocent, inebriated goodnight kiss. One moment, then you’ll step firmly away, and he’ll free you.

However, as he traced his firm, warm lips curiously from her cheek to jaw, his breath and the sandpapery burr of his dark evening beard teasing her skin, allowing one moment drifted into more. A man shouldn’t smell this good after a July day in Vegas and a night of drinking.

Dave settled his mouth on hers. In no hurry, he played with her lips, cleverly caressing with surprising sweetness. She’d never imagined the irritable, impatient man could be leisurely, affectionate, but…

Is stealing one moment’s respite from the pain so wrong?

He coaxed her mouth to open to him and innocent ignited to sizzling. He tasted of scotch and heat, and she forgot why she wanted to push him away. Why she should.

He traced his fingers along her collarbone, her shoulder, and her wrap fell away, baring more skin to his exploration. This dress made wearing a bra impossible and with every brush of his rugged frame against her, her body tightened. He cupped her breast, and she arched into his hand. With deft, delicate touch, he caressed her nipple into a yearning point as skillfully as he’d played his guitar. Delightful, worrisome sensation zinged through her body and mind.

As he blanketed her against the wall, all heavy languid strength, his rich, deep kiss leached away the agony of the past weeks, wrapping her in a lovely rising tension. He possessed a magician’s touch with those big hands, gentle, slow, and intense.

Shutting her eyes, Olivia succumbed to the hazy, luring sense of shelter in his arms. Yes, oh, yes, she’d had far too much to drink today, but to be touched with such sweet tenderness, to be kissed as if she were cherished, and held as if he truly cared…

Dave slid his hand up her thigh under the short skirt of the dress. Before the muzzy thought to stop him cleared her brain, his hand cupped her bottom bared by the scandalous silk thong panties bought and worn on JoAnn’s dare.

She gasped as sensibility and sobriety attempted a tiny whimpering return. In the daylight, surrounded by friends and laughter, accepting that dare had seemed safe.

Here, with her skirt rucked around her hips, only the wispy lace of her panties and his body kept her from utter exposure to him, to anyone. His kiss curved into a smile against her mouth. He traced the skimpy silk ribbon toward her tailbone, shifting his stance between her legs, and groaned hungrily. Sensibility vanished swiftly and quietly under his intensified kiss.

Somehow, she was gripping his broad shoulders. He cupped and stroked her bottom, his strong hands keeping them closer than close. She clung to him, her spike heels making her the perfect height to ride against the heavy ridge of his arousal.

This was wrong—only, she couldn’t bear to make him stop. She needed…anything to forget her pain…and he gave, surging against her, his mouth and hands and the sweet, drugging drive of his body drowning her in delight. Her mind spun under the crazy melting kiss. Her legs trembled. A delicate bubble of pleasure burst in shivering heat, intense and sweet. The pent tears she’d forbidden since morning tore loose and flooded.

The elevator’s chime behind them shattered the moment and the kiss. They froze, locked as close as two people could be while fully dressed.

She hadn’t—She couldn’t have…

Laughter drifted away down the opposite hall.

Oh, sweet heaven have mercy. She had. Here. With him.

Olivia let her head fall against the wall, her legs shaking and breath heaving, burning tears streaming from the weird emotional cocktail of surprise, release, and mortification. Her blurred gaze fell on her hand clutching Dave’s shoulder and the already-fading pale mark left by R.J.’s rings.

Cold reality slapped her along with the rush of airconditioning over her bared skin. Wrong…Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong man. A cracking sob broke through her throat.

“Oh, shit!” The soft curse ripped from Dave. He lurched away, swaying. Scrubbing a hand over his face and hair, he stared stricken into her eyes, as confused as a sleepwalker. “Hell, I’m, I—” His mouth snapped shut. Olivia jammed a hand against her kiss-bruised mouth and bolted for her room.

****

Three cracking raps on the door spiked pain through Dave’s head like a gang of monkeys wielding Pulaskis. He pried an eye open and groaned. Sunlight cut a gleaming thread along the closed drapes of the quiet hotel room, but what was the time? At the moment, rolling over to peer at the clock was too much work.

Idiot.

Waking with the hangover from hell was fair punishment for his royal screw-up last night. He winced. Could be a lot worse—he might have found he had company in the king-sized bed.

“Come on, Dave. You in there?” Lloyd’s bellow through the door cranked up the throbbing and answered the question of time. Late. Groaning, he jammed the pillow over his head.

Damn, he’d sure hit the screw-up trifecta last night. Running into Olivia had been freak chance. He’d meant to be polite and say goodnight. What happened between that alcohol-blurred intention and needing to kiss her like he needed to breathe, hell, he hadn’t a clue, but his formerly unbroken rules had been smashed to shit. Don’t mess with married women, don’t mess with friends, and don’t mess with friends of friends. Maybe Olivia wasn’t a personal friend in the strictest definition, but his pals had folded her into the group, and that labeled her a friend.

“Open the door. Time to toast the lovebirds and let them hit the road.”

Shit. Right, as best man, no slithering out of the command performance, hangover or no hangover. Nate and he’d been best friends since they were kids, and Kay was his closest female friend. After six frustrating years of watching the two deny being in love from the moment they first laid eyes on each other, finally they were together.

Three more knocks banged through his brain and derailed his musing. “Coming,” he croaked, his mouth pasty as mud.

“So’s Christmas, but Kay and Nate want to leave today, so move your ass.”

Gritting his teeth, he shoved out of bed to find he wore only his shirt half-buttoned and his socks. He stumbled into the bathroom, ignored the light switch, and poured himself some water, drank the glassful, poured another, and sucked that one down. His head took a queasy swim, and he steadied himself against the wall. The water decided to stay put in his stomach, and his head settled.

Why the hell did he drink so much yesterday? Not like him at all. He could count on one hand the number of times in his life he’d been that stupid. Yeah, he’d been in a major weird-assed mood, but hell…

“Come on, Dave.”

He yanked off the wrinkled shirt and wrapped a towel around his hips. After he fumbled opening the door, Lloyd shot him a measuring glance and laughed.

Dave narrowed his eyes. “Shut up and make yourself useful. There’s aspirin in my bag somewhere. Find it, and I won’t kill you. Maybe.”

“Get in the shower, and soak your head. I’ll find your aspirin.”

He remembered to wrap his hand. He was healing fine, but a sick chill swept him at how close he’d come to losing his job and his music. He swallowed bile and stepped under the steaming, heavy spray.

“Shit!” He’d forgotten the socks. He succeeded in peeling off the sopping socks without falling on his ass and shoved them outside the tub.

“Here, got your aspirins.” Lloyd’s hand pushed through the shower curtain gap. A glass of water followed the pills.

“Thanks.” That emerged as more a pissed-off grunt, but Lloyd only chuckled.

Dave downed the tablets and struggled to focus on washing, but focus was a lost cause. That stolen kiss had clearly fried what few brain cells he hadn’t pickled. Even before the drinks got the better of him, those deep brown eyes of hers, soft mouth, and sexy pink slip of a dress had kept him hot and bothered all evening. Hazy memories teased. He remembered the consuming need to comfort her. Then he was holding her, making out, and discovering that scrap of a thong and bare, perfect ass. He thought he remembered her sweet needy sighs, her pulling him to her and kissing him back, long, slow, and deep. He was mostly certain she’d never said stop. His stomach rolled. Thank God, he’d been sober enough to snap to at the elevator’s chime and stop. Thank God, they hadn’t gone too far.

Too bad he hadn’t been near drunk enough to erase the memory of those scared doe eyes and huge tears slipping over her cheeks.

He wrenched the shower knob to cold and sputtered under the icy blast. “Shit!”

Aided by the aspirin and Lloyd’s wisecracks, he got himself shaved, dressed, packed, and downstairs for Nate and Kay’s sendoff lunch, but between the hangover and the wondering what the hell to do or say when he saw Olivia, his appetite had taken a hike.

Sour guilt and vivid memories of Olivia pressed against him churned in his brain. She had her plate full with her cheating scumbag of a husband, and he’d only made matters worse. Sorry probably wasn’t enough. However, every apology he practiced on the way sounded lame.

Sorry I was drunk. Sorry I was an ass. Sorry I didn’t smash R.J.’s teeth down his throat for you. Sorry, for everything.

Memories of that night nine days ago pulsed in his aching head: R.J.’s raised fist, the clear intent in R.J.’s eyes to hit Olivia, Olivia’s stunned fear and heartbroken face, April’s smirking amusement at the chaos she’d instigated. The cold fury and need to defend that had filled Dave as he’d stepped between R.J. and Olivia still left him shaken. It had taken everything in him to not pound the bastard into the sand. If the asshole had even twitched one millimeter, he’d have gone down hard.

Hell. He fixed a cheery grin on his face and strode into the restaurant. Time to man up and face Olivia, find a way to pull her aside, and apologize. He wouldn’t let his being an ass last night ruin Nate and Kay’s day today.

No trouble finding everyone. His friends filled three tables, studying the menus and gabbing fast and furious. However, new problem. Two open seats remained. One belonged to Lloyd, and Olivia was missing.

Nate waved. “There he is. Finally!”

“Sorry I’m late.” Dave kissed Kay and Nate’s mom hello and shook Nate’s hand. As he offered his hand to Nate’s dad, his shame deepened, like he was once again that smart-ass, screwed-up kid with a mountain of a chip on his shoulder.

“Olivia’s not joining us for lunch.” Kay spoke to everyone, but her neutral gaze set on Dave as he slid into his seat beside Nate. “Plans changed, and she had to catch an earlier flight. She asked me to say good-bye to you all for her.”

Guilt twisted its dull knife through his gut again. Did Kay know how badly he’d blown things last night? Olivia’s changed plans might be his fault. He squashed the whacked-out urge to charge off after her. Damn it. Now how was he supposed to properly apologize?

At least his glib tongue and mental autopilot carried him through the boisterous lunch and impromptu toast. Everyone laughed, so he must have done okay.

Seeing Nate and Kay’s joy was worth sitting through the raucous conversations rattling his pounding head. Talk about a honeymoon glow. Dave looked from the newlyweds to Nate’s parents. New love to old love. Complete. Yeah, that’s what he wanted someday. Someday, when he could slow down and finally give his all to something besides the job.

The time came to wave Nate and Kay on their honeymoon jaunt to Idaho and for the other folks to head home. He’d failed to find a discreet way to get Olivia’s cell number or email out of anyone.

Mr. and Mrs. Quinn were next for departure.

Nate’s petite mom Ellie hugged Dave tightly. “You’re under orders to join us for Christmas. No excuses. Tommy and I want a full house again, with all our kids.”

Yes was the only answer. For the first time in years, Nate’s brothers and sister would all be home for Christmas, and the Quinns were the nearest thing to family Dave had anymore.

Mr. Quinn winked and clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m trying a new beer recipe, and there’ll be Ellie’s pies.”

“How can I say no? Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Mrs. Q’s pies saved my life.”

People always assumed that was another of his jokes. He was dead serious. He’d never forget how Nate’s folks had given an angry boy a chance, a hand, and hope. Plus, spending Christmas alone working at the Dos Arboles made no sense when he could be kicked back eating Mrs. Quinn’s pies and sharing fishing stories over Mr. Quinn’s homemade beers. Only sensible, right?

“And you don’t have to wait for a holiday to come visit either.” Mrs. Quinn gathered him into a last tight hug. “Be careful and be safe.”

Dave winked. “Always.”

A fresh load of shame over what Mrs. Quinn would think of his behavior last night piled in his chest.

Somehow, he’d make things right.

****

Two taxis, two planes, and too many coffees later, Olivia arrived at her parents’ home in Savannah. Festive lights blazed from the windows and porches of their lovingly restored 1902 mansion. Olivia flinched. She’d forgotten Mama’s dinner party. She fought the urge to beg the taxi driver to turn around and slunk along through the humid evening, dragging her bags to the back door.

Coward.

She slipped in, only to be caught by Helen, their housekeeper. “Miss Olivia! What in heaven’s name are you doing creeping in the kitchen door?” Helen planted her hands on ample hips.

Olivia smiled weakly. “Hi, Helen. I thought I’d drop in for a visit, but I forgot Mama’s party was tonight. I didn’t want to be a bother.” Nerves and the chill air-conditioning raised a shiver.

Helen turned to a gawky young man dressed in crisp white and black. “Brian, take Miss Olivia’s bags to her room.” She fixed her attention on Olivia. “Get yourself freshened up while I set another place, and hurry on down. Mr. Paul and Miss Louise have missed you, child. This will just make their day! Now, shoo.”

Up in her bedroom, Olivia slipped off her shoes and eyed the tempting comfort of her bed. Yes, she was a coward. Coming here was a huge mistake. She should have gone to the Myrtle Beach condo, or even home to Fort Lauderdale, but while buying her tickets at the Las Vegas airport she’d had a panic attack. What if he’d taken April there? Realistically, the condo was R.J.’s least favorite home, and he’d likely stayed in Vegas since he’d always discreetly kept his affairs at hotels.

Until now.

Shudders wracked her. Oh, Lord, how could she face everyone? But if she pleaded a headache or other ailment, Helen and Mama would fuss.

Okay, take a deep breath, freshen up, and you can have a glass of wine.

She stripped off her clothes, ignoring the impulse to drop them higgledy-piggledy, and properly gathered them into the hamper. After a quick wash, she tended to her makeup, masking the haggard shadows below her eyes.

Last week she’d asked Kay if she was doing the right thing. Kay’s answer hadn’t helped, but it was the only answer. “I think the right thing is different for each person.”

She’d grown up doing the right thing. Been a good daughter, a dutiful student, a dedicated nurse, a faithful wife. Only, doing the right thing had led her to a crushed heart and betrayed dreams. She’d carried on her farce of a marriage far too long in the name of futile hope and keeping up appearances.

Keeping up appearances. That meant tonight, as well. She chose a simple wrap dress she always enjoyed wearing, but the sensuous slide of black silk over her skin reminded her of the pink dress and Dave’s gentle hands. Shuddering from exhaustion and the memory, she exchanged the dress for a summery leaf-green sheath.

The simple gold hoop earrings she wore suited the dress. Mama would notice her bare ring finger, but she could say she’d left the rings at the jewelers for resizing while she vacationed at the river. Her dress’s loose fit proved she’d lost more than enough weight to support that lie.

When R.J. had first announced the Lake Mohave trip, Olivia’s blind optimism had bounded. Yes, the trip combined the usual business with fishing because of the venture he and Lloyd were negotiating, but Lloyd was so genial and the trip seemed a wonderfully different and fun adventure. She’d fought successfully to slip several extra days afterwards into their schedule in hopes R.J. and she would have private time together in Las Vegas to relax and perhaps talk things out.

So much for hope.

She added the pink sandals and, after a thorough brushing of her hair, took a final look in the antique cheval mirror. Not too dressy, not too casual. Aside from her exhaustion, perfect.

You look a mess. You haven’t done a thing with your hair.

No. She shuddered at the carping echo of R.J.’s voice. She’d wear her hair as she pleased. She turned from the mirror with her hair loose, not even tucked behind an ear.

Despite her efforts, the Lake Mohave trip had been far from perfect. For the first time, R.J. hadn’t been the starring ringmaster of an event. For the first time in her life, she’d been the one dressed improperly for an occasion. She couldn’t escape into her hostess role. Lloyd was too distracted by his wife’s pregnancy and his friends to focus on business, exacerbating R.J.’s irritation. That tight-knit group of friends couldn’t care less about business, the stock market, golf, or saltwater fishing. They knew how to have fun, relax, and talk about nothing for sheer camaraderie and enjoyment. She’d never felt so lost. Or so envious.

Okay, time. She’d smile her way through the evening as she’d done time upon time at her own dinner parties. The truth could wait for another day.

What if R.J. called Mama and Daddy? Why did she feel as if she were the one running away, when R.J. had flagrantly walked out on their marriage? Flagrantly had an affair. Affairs.

Olivia descended the curving front stairs, breathing in the comforting scents of home: roses, lemony polish, and Helen’s savory cooking. Laughter and muddled conversation erupted from the dining room. She wanted Mama to tell her everything would be okay. She wanted R.J. to say he was sorry. No—Sorry wasn’t nearly enough. She wanted to turn back the years and the lies and the evasions to the time she believed and trusted him, when he’d sworn he loved her. What had she done wrong other than never be what he wanted?

Love certainly hadn’t been enough. What if he fought the proceedings? What if she lost everything?

Lose everything? She’d already lost everything she’d valued.

She clutched the bannister and dragged in a deep breath. “Don’t you worry yourself.” Warren Dixon’s kind instructions swirled in a tattered blur through her mind. Her marital disaster rested in his competent legal hands.

Firming her shoulders, she raised her chin and entered the crowded dining room. Her parents’ welcoming smiles equally raised and chilled her spirits. Mama was going to be beside herself and Daddy so…disappointed.

“Olivia, darling, this is a wonderful surprise.” Her mother gathered her into a delicate hug.

Daddy touched his usual peck to her cheek. “We’ve missed you, honey. Weren’t you vacationing out west for another week? Where’s R.J.?”

“He’s—” In a hotel somewhere wrapped around that brainless blonde. Olivia steadied her smile against the aching anger. “He’s tied up with business. My calendar was clear, and I missed you. So…here I am.”

“Well, I’m thrilled. You know everyone here tonight.” Her mother waved around the room. Yes, familiar faces all, including Dixon, who was wading toward her through the crowd. Panic surged. What if Dixon talked to Daddy?

No, he’d kept her shame a secret ever since she’d turned to him four years ago and failed to follow through on his advice to deal with R.J.’s infidelity. No matter, she’d have to tell Mama and Daddy soon.

Dixon kissed her hand. “What a pleasure to see you here tonight, Olivia. How was your vacation?” he asked innocently, his voice a soothing rumble. Dixon always reminded her of a dapper polar bear with his thick white hair, lumbering walk, and fondness for white suits and bowties.

“Very different.” Oh, wasn’t that the truth.

“Promise me we’ll get together for lunch while you’re visiting. I’ll have Louella clear my schedule for you.” He winked and gave her hand a consoling squeeze.

“That would be lovely. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Gigi Mason hugged an arm around Olivia, startling her from her rumination. “We’ve missed you visiting, honey. You look gorgeous, as always. So whenever are you and R.J. going to give your Mama a grandbaby?”

Never. The old unending pain lanced Olivia. R.J. had broken every promise. Joy and hot jealousy for JoAnn and Lloyd over their coming baby tumbled after. Tears pricked at her eyes, but she choked them back. Her mama’s best friend hadn’t meant to be hurtful.

Olivia smiled prettily and shrugged, seeking the right air of nonchalance to plaster over the deep ache. “Life’s been…hectic. Anyhow, look at Mama and Daddy. They waited until their careers settled to have me. You could say we’re following a family tradition.”

Gigi laughed. “And your mama always says if she’d known what a perfect girl you’d be, she would have had you ten years earlier. You’ve never given her a moment’s worry. My Cindi, now there’s a reason for my silver hairs.” She patted her sleek salt-and-pepper bob.

A laugh escaped Olivia. If Gigi had known even half of Cindi’s escapades, she’d have gone stark white years ago. Back in high school, wild-child Cindi had decided her polar opposite Olivia to be the perfect confidant for tales of her pranks and boys of the week. These days, Cindi was a tennis coach and shared her madcap adventures with her Marine captain husband who adored her and their three children.

Dinner passed in a haze of beautiful food and conversation. She sipped a lovely pinot noir from a crystal goblet, but strangely, she missed her plastic cup of vodka and tonic on the shore of Lake Mohave. She fielded flurries of questions about her trip and, to her surprise, sounded as if she’d enjoyed a delightful adventure. She’d spent over a week camping in the July desert and, excepting the troubles with R.J., honestly enjoyed the experience. The lake had called to mind carefree childhood days in Florida at Uncle Jake’s when everything held possibility.

Amid the heartbreak, she’d experienced good times and made new friends to treasure. How they’d rallied around her at R.J.’s defection and included her in Kay’s wedding meant more to Olivia than she could voice. She missed them all desperately.

Even Dave Knight. Sort of.

His dark flippant “Florida” echoed through Olivia’s mind. He never called her Livie as the others did. Heat flooded her. Oh, my heavens, that kiss and everything he’d made her feel. What he’d so easily made her body do.

He only kissed you because he was drunk.

Drunk, he’d exposed a tender side beneath that arrogant, grouchy exterior, and loosed a wild side of herself she’d never known existed.

Sober, he didn’t think much of you.

No surprise. She didn’t think much of herself these days either. She’d let herself become a discarded decoration.

Slipping into co-hostess mode with Mama during dessert and coffee let her step further away from reality’s burdens. She carried on with head high through the endless post-dessert chitchat and afterdinner drinks.

Finally, the last guests wandered home, and her parents settled in the den to watch the weather and have a quiet drink, as they did every evening before bed.

A pang struck Olivia. Mama’s hair was almost as silver as Daddy’s. Daddy was approaching his eightieth birthday…Choked with loss, present and future, Olivia clutched the Drambuie on the rocks Mama had poured her, unable to settle and join them.

“I’m going to sit for a bit out back before I head to bed.” Her strained resolve to avoid a cigarette cracked, and she filched one from Daddy’s stash. She was undeniably her father’s daughter in their love/hate relationship with that bad habit.

She kissed them both, swallowing the need to tell them her woes, needing to preserve the fiction a few hours more.

“Sweet dreams. We’re so glad you’re here, honey.” Mama squeezed Daddy’s hand. Yes, their smiles proved silence was best for tonight.

In the foyer, she slipped off the pink sandals, set them neatly on the staircase, and walked barefoot over the silky wood floors, through the spic and span kitchen where the dishwasher hummed, and outside to the old comfort of her favorite rocking chair.

The night air clung heavy as a wet blanket and lightning flickering in the west promised rain. She allowed herself half the cigarette and crushed the remains in the flamingo ashtray Uncle Jake had given Daddy years ago, the sole garish note in the sedate porch decor.

Swamped with memories, she sipped at the potent honeyed whisky, the chill condensation dripping over her fingers. R.J. had first kissed her by the fountain. She’d held her bridal shower here on this porch. She’d posed for pictures in this garden on their wedding day, brimming with dreams and hope.

Now her marriage was over.

R.J.’s publicly cruel act left her stunned. Until Mohave, he’d always been discreet, keeping his public image polished, fooling everyone into believing the fairy-tale façade of their marriage. She’d clung to the illusion. Had he deliberately used April to make this split Olivia’s fault? Why not be honest and simply agree their marriage had been over for years?

She had no answers.

Much of that night remained a blur. One moment a quiet night. The next moment she was screaming at R.J. and watching the remains of her heart and marriage shatter.

“Why the hell I ever married a frigid bitch like you,” R.J. had shouted as Dave, Lloyd, and the other men had charged into the camp.

“What the hell is the problem here?” Dave’s low, icy voice cut through the dark. “People are sleeping, damn it.”

“Mind your own damn business, Knight.”

“And seems you need to mind your manners, Harper.”

Like a storm surge, the insanity swallowed them: R.J. getting in the men’s faces, Lloyd snapping at R.J., Olivia herself railing at him and April, past tears, her throat raw, and April smirking shamelessly behind R.J. Nate raced down the steep trail into camp, his flashlight dancing wildly over the standoff.

Cornered, R.J. turned on Olivia, fisted hands rising. She froze in that teetering eternity of shock—he meant to hit her.

“Back off, R.J. Now!” Dave’s voice slammed out, his body a sudden solid wall between R.J. and Olivia.

A gentle hand tugged her out of harm’s way. Her icy paralysis broke. She gulped a breath and found Mark at her side.

R.J. faltered, his bristling stance deflating, and glanced uneasily from Dave, who looked downright dangerous, to Lloyd, whose expression revealed concrete existed behind his easy smile, to every man standing against him, somberly disgusted. R.J. slunk away two more steps toward April. April’s smile faded.

A peculiar calm had settled around them, intensifying the night’s insect noises, the lake shushing against the beach, and her heartbeat drumming in her ears. With Dave and Lloyd standing silent frowning guard beside her, Olivia had watched in dazed disbelief as her husband threw his bags and April’s in the rental boat, and left with April.

Stranding Olivia.

Her throat knotted. He’d chosen April! He’d taken that—that empty-headed bimbo with him!

The slick glass spurted from her hand to spill and shatter across the white porch floor.

“Olivia?”

She flinched and turned at her father’s voice, unable to hide the streaming tears.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m divorcing R.J.,” she blurted just as Mama stepped outside, and she cringed as the dreaded shock, dismay, and disappointment filled their faces.

So much for being the perfect daughter.

* * *

Thank you for reading.

All rights reserved. No part of this webpage may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever w/o written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

★★★★★ “a lovely story with a steamy yet tender romance.”

Love Burns, a contemporary romance by Babette James

Come fall in love at the river

Goodreads Love Burns

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