The front door on the old Whitaker place creaked open, and Boaz straightened from his lean. The motorcycle behind him, Wilhelmina, didn’t budge. She was built like a brick house, and it had been love at first sight across the crowded dealership floor. Too bad women didn’t come with operation manuals. Maybe then he’d have more luck understanding what made them tick, or how he always managed to tick them off.
The curvy blonde who stood in the doorway was just his type, which was a good thing, given she had agreed to marry him.
Gathering the takeout bags off Willie’s handlebars, he set his smile into familiar lines then approached.
“Sorry I kept you waiting.” Adelaide clutched the halves of her robe together at her throat. “I wasn’t expecting company tonight.”
The leather boots were the lace-up kind you wore to make a statement, usually a sexual one, but on her he couldn’t puzzle out what they meant. She wore them underneath a ratty green housecoat that fit what he knew of her personality. The sultry/slumpy combination confused the hell out of him. Still mulling over her choice in loungewear, he didn’t think to ask how she beat him inside without him noticing her park or enter.
Unless… Had she been here the whole time?
Boaz didn’t know her well enough to call her on a lie he wasn’t certain she had told, and it wasn’t like he was sharing his life story with her all in one sitting, so he didn’t push her for explanations.
Still, the flush in her cheeks fit with a woman who had run down the stairs to greet him, convincing him she had been up in her room. Maybe with a lover? Why else the red face? The slight breathlessness that didn’t come from her attraction to him. So far, she had shown none. That worked for him. For once, he wasn’t eager to jump straight to the physical.
“No problem.” His gut knotted so hard at the thought of sex the smell of takeout made him want to run to the nearest bush and vomit. “I wasn’t waiting long.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Two words stuck on repeat in his head. Damn it. At this point, he couldn’t say he if he meant them for her or for Grier or for both.
Maybe he meant them for himself too.
Goddess, I don’t want to be here. I want to go home. I want to pretend none of this happened—not Amelie’s arrest, not her disownment, and not this attempt to fix it—and for our lives to go back to normal.
This must be the karma he had been warned so many times would jump up and bite him on the ass one of these days. Well, sure enough, it had finally sunk its teeth in him and was having a good chew at his expense.
“That smells delicious.” Adelaide retreated behind the door, only her hands and head visible, but it didn’t erase the memory of those boots or the light dust coating them. “Let’s eat in the living room. The kitchen feels empty these days.”
Medical bills had drained the Whitakers’ coffers until a rundown house, a rare beauty in its day, was all they had to show for their station. They were an old family, a well-respected one, and most importantly— They were too poor to be picky about Adelaide accepting him to be used as damage control for his own family name.
“Works for me.” He carried the food in and waited on her to direct him. “Do you have any beer?”
“I don’t drink.” A slight hesitation then she cleared her throat. “Beer, I mean.”
So much for the hope alcohol might numb him to this required courtship, not that she was bad company. Her father was nice enough, but Boaz had yet to see the man sober. He struck Boaz as a scotch or whiskey drinker. He should have asked for that instead of a beer, but it was too late to backtrack now.
“That’s fine.” He flashed a practiced smile and received the expected response in the corresponding curve of her lips. “Water?”
“We might be poor,” she said, shutting the door behind him, “but we can afford sweet tea for guests.”
Kicking himself in the ass, he faced her. “That’s not what I—”
“I’m kidding.” She tucked the robe tighter until she became an Adelaide burrito. “Three doors down on your left is the living room. I’ll grab what we need and meet you there.”
Afraid he might trip over his tongue again, he kept it simple. “Okay.”
On his way past the staircase, he couldn’t help noticing more of the dirt that dusted her boots had left prints on the carpet runner. The rest of the house was spotless, though he doubted they could afford help for the cleaning. That told him she was no stranger to hard work. Anything this family had, he felt certain was owed to Adelaide. And here she was, with him, ready to sacrifice herself yet again. He respected the hell out of her for that, and he hated himself a little more for taking advantage, but not enough to halt the proceedings.
The living room was shabby but comfortable, and its threadbare furniture put him at ease.
You’re a bull in a China shop.
That was his mother’s go-to description of him, and she hadn’t been wrong when he was a teen, forever bumping into her knickknacks and breaking her doodads. The army helped him grow up, and the Elite polished him to a shine, but he still hated elegant spaces decorated with breakables and baubles that served no purpose but to spark insecurities in visitors.
A wall of gloomy portraits distracted him from thoughts of his own family, and he didn’t hear Adelaide until she placed cups, plates, and utensils on the low coffee table with soft clinking noises.
Cranking his head toward her, he watched her set their places. She hesitated over the second one every time, as if reminding herself to put out two of everything instead of one. It led him to believe she ate in here often, and alone. That wasn’t the only thing he noticed about her.
“Nice shoes.” He set his jaw, but it was too late. Might as well roll with it. “You like frogs?”
“Love them.” She waved him over and took the food to begin plating it. “They’re adorable.”
She stuck out one leg and rotated her foot, showing off a plush treefrog house slipper she hadn’t been wearing earlier. The top of her foot was red with creases from the bootlaces, but he refrained from mentioning them. She would tell him if it was any of his business. Until they got married, she was free to play dress-up with other men. It’s not like he could ding her when his mind drifted back to Savannah every time he let himself slip.
Forgive me, Grier. Goddess knows you deserve better.
Even his own mind refused to cut him a break, not that he deserved one.
“You okay?” Adelaide paused. “You look like you’re hurting. Headache?”
Heartache, but he couldn’t tell her that. “I skipped lunch.”
“I’ll grab you some ibuprofen.” She passed him a glass of tea. “Drink that. The caffeine will help.”
Head cocked, he watched her dash into the kitchen, heard her too. So her shoes weren’t to blame for her earlier stealth. Now that was interesting. Not many people could sneak up on him, but she had with no problem. Silent appeared to be her default, as if she had to remind herself to make noise.
The suspicion blossoming in his gut wilted when she opened a cabinet, and he spotted the rows upon rows of medicine bottles that must have belonged to her little sister. Adelaide must have taught herself to be quiet for Hadley’s sake. Or, depending on how long their father had been an alcoholic, for her own.
Thanks to Boaz’s mother disowning his little sister, he had lost Amelie in name but not in the flesh. He could see her, talk to her, hold her. Amelie might not be a Pritchard anymore, but she was still alive. Adelaide had lost her sister and her mother, and he felt like an ass for admitting that it had made her all the more appealing.
Amelie couldn’t be a Pritchard again, that ship had sailed, but she could become a Whitaker. She might not be his sister legally, thanks to the disinheritance, but she could become his sister-in-law if the muleheaded imp took advantage of the opportunity he had arranged and stepped into the deceased Hadley Whitaker’s shoes.
Adelaide ought to have kicked his ass from here to the moon for asking her to turn her misfortune to his advantage, but she was as desperate as him. Neither of them could look too close at the other for fear their golden ticket might start flaking and reveal the tarnish underneath.
Arm braced on the cabinet door, Adelaide hung her head and sucked in a deep breath, girding her loins for dealing with him. A problem most women were happy to have. He liked her better for the glimpses of her struggle. That she was fighting to make the best of their situation, the same as him, meant something. What, he couldn’t say, but something.
Glancing away, he gave her privacy, and noted a gleaming pair of keys tossed in a decorative bowl on one of the side tables next to the couch. The dull set beneath it must belong to the dinged-up sedan he spotted in the garage, the one she drove to their first meeting. Unless he was mistaken, and a gearhead like him never was when it came to cars, that was the Ferrari logo on the fob.
“Here you go.”
Caught snooping, Boaz bristled like a spooked cat. Damn but the woman was quiet as a wraith. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” She touched his shoulder, but there was nothing sexual in the press of her fingers. It was more of a guiding hand, urging him toward the food and away from the keys. “So…Keanu?”
Intrigued by her mysteries, he searched Adelaide’s face for more than the exhaustion that plagued her, but he found no clues. “Only if you promise not to spoil the movie for me.”
“I’m a talker.” She winced. “I talk through them, over them, and after them.”
“Can two people with differing movie ethics coexist without killing one another?”
“Put a TV in the bedroom if you need your own.” She shrugged. “This one is mine. My TV, my rules.”
The forty-inch flat screen was pristine but dated. Clearly Adelaide took care of what was hers.
Encouraging as far as revelations go, but it made that damn noose of obligation cinch tighter. He didn’t need a caretaker. He needed…
Grinding his teeth, he clamped down on that useless line of thought.
This wasn’t about his needs. Otherwise, he would be sitting on a couch in Woolworth House, stealing kisses—or trying to—from Grier. This was about family, about keeping his word, and about being the man Adelaide deserved.
“Bedroom?” He took a seat on the sofa beside her. “I figured you would move to Savannah with me.”
“Oh. Yeah. I plan on it.” Her voice softened. “I wasn’t thinking there for a minute.”
As the eldest daughter, she had inherited the title of Matron Whitaker. Had their finances not suffered, she would have brought a man into her family, into her house, and given him her last name. Instead, she had agreed to give up that title in favor of becoming Matron Pritchard. Losing her identity had to hurt, but his hands were tied. That was one line in their marriage contract he would not strike.
“You’re welcome to stay here, as long as you can handle your duties remotely.” He hadn’t meant to make the offer, but her expression begged him for some glimmer of hope he provided on reflex. “My parents are in good health, and there’s my little brother to consider too. We’ve got a packed house.” He tucked into his meal. “That doesn’t mean I can’t make room for you, and your dad, but you’ve got options.”
“Dad won’t leave this house.” She toyed with her food, pushing it across her plate. “As much as I’ll miss him, I won’t miss it. I’m looking forward to a fresh start, away from all the memories.”
“There’s no rush,” he assured her. “We can take this as slow as you like.”
“I appreciate that.” Her timid smile told him she was still trying, and he couldn’t ask for more than that. “I could use more time for Dad to adjust to the idea of me leaving, though. I’ll need to set up housekeeping too, since I won’t be around to clean or cook for him.”
“I’ll make it happen.” He didn’t imagine the relief in her expression, or the quick lash of her temper for daring to let someone else shoulder a burden that was hers. “You can pick the housekeeper, and I’ll vet them.”
“Ah.” She stabbed a dumpling with her fork. “You don’t trust my judgment, but you want brownie points for framing the offer as if you do.”
Prickly, prickly. Handling her when money was involved might require wearing gloves.
“The person you choose for the job is up to you. I won’t interfere with that decision. I just want to make sure we’re leaving your dad with someone we can trust to take care of him.”
Just like that, she and he were a we.
The room spun around its edges, and his throat grew tight. This was moving too fast. Way too fast.
And Grier had no idea. No goddessdamn idea.
She would hate him for this, but not half as much as he despised his cultivated reputation for the message it would send her.
You’re better than me, Grier, better than I ever will be. I hope you know that.
“Giving up control is hard for me.” Adelaide kept nudging her food back and forth. “You don’t deserve me snapping at you.” She angled her head toward him but not her eyes. “You’ve been very kind, about everything.”
“We’re in this together.” For better or for worse. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Together,” she whispered, as if trying it on to see how it fit.
The phone in his pocket buzzed, and he checked the caller ID. “I have to take this.”
“No problem.” She ditched her fork for the remote. “I’ll get the movie set up before our food gets cold.”
Standing, he walked across the room for a modicum of privacy. “Boaz.”
“We got another one.” Chambers exhaled across the receiver. “This one down at the railroad museum.”
“I’ll be right there.” Boaz itched to get moving. “Hold the cleaners off as long as you can.”
Adelaide rose as he ended the call. “Work?”
“Yeah.” He scrubbed a hand over his prickly scalp. “Looks like I can’t stay after all.”
“No problem.” She tossed the remote aside. “I’ll walk you out.”
An honest laugh escaped him. “That eager to get rid of me?”
“No,” she said, dragging out the word like she was still making up her mind. “I was remembering what you said about a case keeping you in town. I didn’t want you to think you had to stay on my account.”
An hour or two made no difference to the dead. Boaz could have blown off work, plopped back down, and gotten to know Adelaide better on her home turf. That’s what he should have done, but he was a coward.
When Adelaide stared at him, his future looked back, and he couldn’t see Grier even on the periphery. The loss gutted him. So, yeah. He could have stayed and done the fiancé thing, played his role, but she gave the impression of being just as eager to get rid of him as he was to escape her.
Goddess, this was it, wasn’t it? The beginning. So why did it feel so much more like the end?