“Now, don’t forget,” Stephanie told her sister as they stood in the hall, “Cory has reservations for seven thirty, and Mom and Dad are expecting you to stay overnight, so come prepared.”
“I’ll be there in time for dinner, but I’m not sure if I can stay over. Next week is the last week of school, and I have a lot of work to do before Monday.”
“But you will try, won’t you? I’d love things to be like they were before Donald.”
Melanie narrowed her eyes at the young girl. The subject of Donald wasn’t exactly foremost in her book of conversation topics, despite how much she’d been reliving the past lately.
“I’m very happy for you and Cory,” she began, forcing as much control in her voice as she could. “I hope you have an incredible life together and I wish you only the best of everything, but I don’t want to be reminded of the jerk I was married to. I said I’ll try, but I have obligations here in Salt Lake that I can’t put off.”
“Thank you,” Stephanie said, hugging her older sister and kissing her on the cheek before hurrying down the stairs to where their parents were waiting in the car.
Melanie leaned against the frame of the door and closed her eyes. The past evening seemed unbearable, with the excitement and exhausting subject of Cory and weddings, but the prospect of this evening was even worse. She didn’t look forward to spending another meal listening to more ideas about the happily ever after she didn’t have.
With a deep sigh, she turned to go into her apartment, when Jordan’s door opened, and he stepped out into the hall. He held the tray she’d left with him that morning in his large hands, along with her clean dishes that were stacked on the top of the folded towel.
“Hello,” he said with a smile. “As promised, clean and fresh.”
“You can keep the towel a bit longer if you need it,” Melanie told him, taking the items he handed her.
“Not a problem. I managed to find Walmart and got a new set myself, as well as a few dishes to hold me over until I can figure out which box has the ones I packed. I have everything in the washer as we speak.”
“If you’re sure…”
“Very, but I still want to take you to dinner as a thank you. You’re the only person I know in Utah, and I’d like to repay your hospitality. Besides, a meal with a beautiful woman is much more inviting than shopping for fish.”
He smiled as she blushed, but before she had a chance to utter a single word, her sister came running up the stairs again.
“I forgot something in your bedroom,” she said cheerfully.
She ran into the apartment and returned a second later, a rolled-up lace bra in her hand. She smiled shyly, hugged and kissed her sister’s cheek again.
“Thanks for everything. I love you,” she said.
Jordan watched the young girl hurry back down the stairs, then stared blankly at Melanie. He looked stunned as he eyed her suspiciously, looking her up and down once before clearing his throat. His smile seemed odd, and his eyes held a strange gleam she couldn’t understand.
“Well, thank you again, Ms. Kent,” he said with a slight frown, then walked back to his own apartment, shutting the door behind him.
Melanie looked at the items in her hand as if to find her answers among the flowers of the plate. What had made the man act so strangely? Why did he call her Ms. Kent, when he had been using her first name since the night before, when they first met? She went back inside her apartment and closed the door, securing the bolt, as she always did, then walked into the kitchen.
She set the glass and plate on the counter, then lifted the towel and sniffed it as she walked down the hallway to the linen closet. It smelled clean and fresh, and for a moment all she could do was breathe in the lingering hint of the man’s cologne.
Jordan James was as confusing as any male ever had been. The frown that pulled her dark brows together, deepened as a sigh of exhaustion escaped her throat. She returned the towel to its spot in the closet, then walked into the bathroom. With a heavy sigh, she gathered the damp towels together, tossing them in the laundry basket.
Melanie pulled her hair into a ponytail and gathered the cleaning supplies from under the sink. The image of Jordan stayed with her as she sprayed the cleanser into the tub and sink and returned the toothpaste to the drawer. Just when she thought she could figure out a man, he turned around and changed completely.
Her head was starting to ache, and she considered using it as an excuse to get out of tonight’s arrangements but knew her mother would never let her forget it. With a reluctant sigh, she cleaned her bathroom and took the laundry basket with her, as she hurried back into her bedroom. Maybe a few hours of deep cleaning her apartment would put her mind to rest. At least it was a better idea, then sitting around and thinking about the past, or the handsome man next door.
The drive down from Salt Lake City took a little more than three hours, with only one stop for gas and a drink. Melanie felt much more confident driving the old Camry, now that she had a new battery and alternator. Taking out the membership to the car club was probably the best idea she’d had in years, even though she had done it out of spite. Donald always objected to the idea of having a backup plan, so after he left, she bought it out of vindictiveness.
Melanie found her conscience forcing her foot to remain on the accelerator, as she considered turning around and going back to her apartment. She wasn’t looking forward to the long hours with her family, listening as they planned Stephanie’s future, just as they had hers, six years ago. The memories of her life with Donald seemed more like a paperback novel then reality, but it had been all too real for comfort.
As her mind continued to drift back over the years, she barely noticed the road signs flying past her. Life had changed drastically over the last three years, but somehow, she managed to put the past behind her and move on with her life. She went back to work full time, moved into her own apartment and even settled the debts left behind from her divorce.
Since Stephanie announced she was engaged to Donald’s younger brother, Melanie found herself thinking a lot about the past. There were good times as well as bad, yet the last few months she was with him, Donald seemed to make more bad memories than she could count. The late hours at the office, the extravagant spending, even the overnight trips to Nevada, all left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Melanie knew she had been hiding from the truth. She knew he was fooling around behind her back, but she chose to ignore it. She didn’t want it looking like she couldn’t satisfy her husband, to the eyes that watched her so closely.
It was bad enough that they refused to marry in the Mormon temple. That alone told her parents’ neighbors that she wasn’t worthy. She had family, as well as friends, inspecting her for a suspicious bump for the first six months of their marriage. When they didn’t see one, they began looking deeper into the cracks of her relationship.
She remembered a particularly difficult conversation with her Aunt Alma, who told her to watch out for Donald. She wasn’t shy in telling her that she didn’t like him, and she never trusted him. She was certain he was going to break her heart.
At the time, she told her nosey aunt to mind her own business, but when she found herself alone in their overly mortgaged home, the sole responsible party for the credit cards and lavish furnishings, she knew she’d been a fool. The only one Melanie was lying to all those months, was herself. Everyone else saw through the stories and deceptions her beloved husband was telling her.
Now, she was having to confront those long-forgotten nightmares all over again. Her little sister was marrying her ex-brother-in-law. Fortunately, Cory was nothing like Donald and Melanie was thankful for that. He was a kind, loving young man who worked his way through college with two jobs, in order to earn his Engineering degree. He was a hardworking man and was determined to make his parents and Stephanie proud of him. Cory took it upon himself to make up for all the heartache Donald left behind. He wanted his parents to be proud of at least one of their children.
Melanie pulled her car onto the dirt road that led to her parents’ house and shut off the radio. The old farm where she was born and raised, looked exactly as it had when she was a child. The corn still grew in the fields and the cows still grazed in the pasture. Nothing had changed, not the old barn with its tractor sitting in front of the open doors, not the old hound dog with his half-eaten ear. Not even the room where she used to sleep, play records and dream of eternal love. Everything was exactly the same. Yet somehow, Melanie couldn’t find pleasure in reminiscing.
The dread of spending the evening with her family weighed heavy in her heart. She wanted to be happy for Stephanie, but she couldn’t forget what it had been like for herself. The dinners, the arrangements, the dreams, they were once hers. Now, it was her sister’s turn for the happily ever after, and all she could remember were the skeletons that haunted her.
“It’s about time you got here,” Vera scolded when she walked into the backdoor.
“I’m not late,” Melanie assured her mother. “The reservations are for seven thirty, and it’s only five after seven now.”
“It’s going to take twenty minutes to get to the restaurant, and Cory’s parents are probably going to be there waiting for us.”
“Who all is going to be at this thing?” Melanie asked, hoping to distract her mother’s irritation.
“Your brothers, Tommy and Justin and their wives. Patricia and Ronald will be bringing Kathy with them, and Steven is staying home with Susie, since she’s about to deliver. We’ll pick Grandma Maxine up on our way, and of course the Prescotts.”
“What about the kids? Who’s staying with them?” Melanie asked, wondering where her nieces and nephews were going to be during this awkward supper.
“Steven and Susie agreed to watch them,” Curtis said, slipping the end of his tie through the knot and snugging it up around his throat. “They’ve rented two movies and ordered pizza. I’m sure they’ll reconsider having more kids after tonight.”
Melanie smiled as Curtis chuckled, feeling less stressed then when she arrived. As much as she loved both of her parents, she had always been a daddy’s girl. He made her feel as if there was nothing in the world she couldn’t accomplish, while her mother tried to hold her down to the role of housewife.
“If you two are ready, let’s go,” Vera argued, grabbing her purse and sweater.
“I’ll meet you there,” Melanie told her mother, walking to her own car.
“No, you can come with us. After all the trouble that car has given you, I’m surprised it made it down here.”
“It’s a good car, Mom, and it’s paid for.”
“Maybe in the morning, we can take you to the dealer and help you get another one. Something more reliable.”
“I like my car, and I’m not going to waste money on a new one. Besides, I’m not spending the night.”
“You can’t go back tonight. It will be too late, and too dark. What if your car stalls on you again?”
“Then I’ll use that newfangled device called a cellphone and call AAA. That’s why I pay the bills every month.”
Melanie climbed into her car and closed the door before her mother could complain any further. Two days of dealing with her continual arguments was enough to drive her nuts, but to endure a whole dinner with both her parents and her ex in-laws, was going to be an event worthy of at least a few nightmares.
Dinner was much as she had anticipated. Most of the conversation was centered on her sister’s wedding, engagement party and honeymoon plans. Melanie listened with as much interest as she could display, nodding whenever necessary, smiling almost constantly and commenting only when required. Cory’s parents, Kyle and Diane, added their bit as often as possible, as did the large Kent clan. Like Melanie, the others remained mainly as an audience for the young lovers’ enthusiasm.
Diane and Kyle tried to include Melanie into the conversation, but the strain and awkwardness of the past lingered between them. When Donald first left, her in-laws insisted she should have shown more affection to their son, but as time progressed, they began to understand Melanie’s side of the story. It wasn’t anything she did, or didn’t do, that made him walk out that night. It was just the man’s hunger for more.
Vera walked out of the restaurant with Melanie, while Cory, Kyle and Curtis argued about who would pay the check. The night was clear, but chilly, as was the norm for May in Utah. A million stars twinkled their universal secrets in the vast darkness of twilight, as Melanie silently prayed to make it to her car without her mother’s usual chastising, for how she chose to live her life.
“Beautiful evening,” Vera said, pulling her sweater a little snugger around her shoulders.
Melanie smiled and nodded her head silently, listening to the cheerful voices of her siblings and their spouses filling the parking lot. The wind was cool as it bit her tender cheeks, but it felt refreshing after spending the past two hours in the heat of the restaurant, pretending to be happy for the young couple.
“Are you sure you won’t come home with us, Dear?” asked the older woman, inspecting her daughter’s features as only a mother could.
Melanie shook her head and glanced down at her wrist watch. Nine thirty. The offer was tempting, and the drive would be long and boring, but staying home with the flood of excitement, was more uninviting than struggling to stay awake on her way back to Salt Lake.
“Next week is the end of school, and I have a lot of work to do,” she lied, hoping she sounded sincere. “I have to finish the final grades, and if I don’t get busy, I’ll never get them done before class starts.”
Melanie felt guilty for lying to her mother, especially since she worked late on Friday to get the grades in, but she didn’t want to listen to Stephanie any more than she already had. She was honestly happy for her sister, but she was tired of the overwhelming need to scream with frustration. The plans were filled with romance and joy, but everyone seemed to be walking on eggshells around her. They went out of their way to make her feel like a part of the event, but she knew they were leery of her feelings.
“You’ve barely spent a day at home, since Donald...” Vera paused and turned away. “You can’t keep living in the past, Melanie. You have to go on with your life.”
“I’m not living in the past, Mother,” Melanie replied, hoping she sounded as confident as she tried to make out.
“I just wish you would find a good man and settle down, have a few babies, and quit your job so I can see you once in a while. You know how much I’d love to be a grandmother.”
“Mother, five of your eight children have families. Whether I give you more grandchildren or not, you will still have your hands full in your old age.”
“Is it too much to want my oldest daughter to be happy?”
“Mom please, I am happy,” she said in an exasperated tone, as she turned and saw the others emerge from the restaurant. “I have an amazing job that I love, my own place and great friends. For the first time in my life, I’m doing what I want.”
“But you’re not married. You need a man who loves you. You need a family to care for.”
“I had the man, I had the expensive house, I had the toys and all the fun things couples are supposed to have. It didn’t work out, remember? Besides, I’m happy being alone.”
“You can’t judge all men by Donald Prescott. He was a lousy bum.”
“As I recall, my darling mother, you thought Donald was the greatest thing to happen to me, since puberty.”
“I was wrong, and I’m sorry,” her mother said in a soft voice. “You have to stop judging every man by Donald. If you keep expecting them to cheat on you, you’ll never find happiness.”
“Mom, please understand, I am happy. I like the way my life is going. I don’t need, or want, a man in my life. I like being single, and I like not having to answer to anyone. If that doesn’t meet with your approval, then I’m sorry.” Melanie turned as she spoke, seeing the others heading in their direction. “Mom, let’s drop the subject, alright? Cory is Donald’s brother and I don’t want anything to upset Stephanie’s happiness.”
“I’ll drop it for your sister’s sake, but until you’ve got a man in your life, I’m not going to stop worrying. I’m just thankful Cory isn’t like his brother.”
Melanie sighed deeply. At least they agreed on one thing.
Pulling her car into the parking stall, Melanie switched off the ignition. The solitude of her Camry’s interior was exactly what she needed. The argument she had with her mother played in her mind, over and over again, all the way home from Vernal. She knew her mother was right, she was judging every man by Donald, but three long years was enough to warn her against getting hurt a second time.
The hour was growing late, and Melanie reluctantly climbed out of her warm car and locked it. She unlocked the side door and walked up the flight of stairs to her apartment. The hallway was lit with the nightlights that lined the mahogany paneled walls. She stepped to her door and slid her key into the lock. She was about to open it, when a large shadow fell across the door from behind her, just before a warm hand touched her shoulder.
Melanie turned quickly, delivering a hard knee to the groin of the man standing close behind her. He doubled over and moaned in pain, bringing the door across the hall open with a quick jerk, assuring Melanie that the nosey old woman had been spying on her return. The short, chubby figure of Mrs. Walsh came out in the hall, in her hand was poised an old broom in the form of a weapon.
“What’s going on out here?” she demanded, her husky too-many-cigarette voice raised in anger.
Melanie looked at her with a stunned expression, then down at the man bent over at the waist. His dark head raised, and his eyes narrowed at the young woman.
“A simple get lost would have sufficed,” he groaned, pulling himself up straight.
“Mr. James, what’s the idea of making so much noise at this late hour?” demanded the old woman, resting her broom bristles on the carpeted floor. “I told you, when you first moved in here, I wouldn’t put up with any noise after nine o’clock.”
“You’re louder than I could ever be,” Jordan grumbled under his breath.
“It’s alright, Mrs. Walsh,” Melanie said, glancing at the man who leaned against the wall before turning back to the landlady. “It’s my fault. I didn’t know it was Mr. James. Go on back to bed. I promise we won’t disturb you again.”
The old woman snorted her discontentment, then turned to go back into her apartment.
“Well, see to it you don’t. I won’t be having any noise at this hour. There are other tenants in this building, don’t forget.”
She continued to complain, even as the door shut, and the sound of the bolt turned. Melanie looked back to the man and frowned suspiciously at him.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing sneaking up on me?” she demanded, keeping her voice barely above a whisper. “You scared the hell out of me. Don’t you know you could get hurt doing something like that?”
“I do now,” he whispered, laughing lightly despite his pain.
“Well, come in and have some coffee. I’ll get you an ice pack.”
Melanie opened her door and stepped aside as the man walked cautiously through. He glared seductively at the woman, then quickly blinked the look from his dark eyes.
“I think I’ll be alright,” he assured her, sitting down on the sofa in slow movements. “You have one hell of a move there, Ms. Kent? Don’t tell me, Karate lessons, right?”
“No, four older brothers. How do you like your coffee?”
“Black, please. I’m sorry I frightened you. That was not my intensions. I heard you come home and I just thought I owed you an apology for this morning.”
Melanie poured the water into the coffee maker, assembled the filter and grounds into the cup and secured it in place, then leaned against the end of the counter and stared at the man. Her eyes roamed across his hard, firm torso as she admired him, yet she held her face tight, looking much like a scornful librarian.
“Well?” she said, her voice sounding as irritated as she looked. “I’m waiting.”
Jordan smiled as he cleared his throat.
“I apologize for my behavior, Ms. Kent. It’s none of my business what you do in your private life. If my actions were unwanted…”
His voice trailed off when he saw Melanie’s confused frown. She couldn’t understand the meaning behind his apology, or the underlined statement he was trying to make. She blamed herself for her naïve conscience. A drawback to being raised with cows and chickens, as Donald used to say.
“What the hell are you talking about?” she demanded.
“Look, it’s none of my business if you prefer...that is, if you don’t like...what I mean to say is, who you choose to spend the night with is none of my business.”
Melanie continued to stare strangely at the man. Her mind racing over everything that had happened the past twenty-four hours, but she still couldn’t understand what he was getting at.
“Jordan, I’ve had a very long day and I’m not in the mood to play guessing games. Either tell me what you mean, or please leave.”
“I saw your...friend…leave this morning, remember? I just wanted to let you know I’m not judging you.”
Melanie’s frown deepened, trying to think of the friend he meant, but only remembering Stephanie coming back to get her bra.
“I still don’t understand,” she said, pulling the restraints from her hair, allowing the long tresses to hang freely down her back.
“The young lady in the hall,” Jordan clarified, irritation lacing his own tone. “I saw her kiss you and thank you for last night.”
“Are you calling me a lesbian?” she asked with a shocked expression, noting the sudden rise in color in the man’s tanned cheeks.
“Listen, I didn’t mean to...I’m not judging, really.”
Jordan’s tongue stumbled over the words that threatened to strangle him, and he watched the anger replace the confusion on the beautiful woman’s face.
“First off, what I choose to do in my private life is not open for discussion and your approval or disapproval has very little merit. Second, it’s very rare when I’m accused of things such as what you’re blaming me of. I don’t know why I should feel the need to explain, but the girl you saw leaving wasn’t my friend, as you put it, she was my little sister.”
“Sister?” he said, in a cracked voice. “You mean you’re not...”
“No, I’m not, and just for the record, Mr. James, I don’t care much for being accused of things that are really none of your business. Understand?”
“Perfectly,” Jordan said, standing carefully from his perch on the sofa. “I really do owe you an apology, now. I’m very sorry Melanie. I didn’t mean to accuse you of anything. I just didn’t want my behavior to come between our newfound friendship. Actually, I’m quite relieved. I don’t have anything against homosexuals, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that I don’t really like seeing a beautiful woman with another woman, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t think I know what anyone means, any more,” she said with a tired sigh. “At any rate, apology accepted. I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression.”
“It wasn’t your fault. I jumped to the wrong conclusion. It’s just that I’ve always heard Utah was the home of the Osmonds, Mormons, polygamists and homosexuals.”
“Where exactly do you come from, Mr. James? Mars?”
“Washington D.C., actually. At least that’s where I’ve been the past four years,” he said, moving to the counter and sitting down on one of the two barstools.
“I’ve always heard Washington was the capital of liars and corrupt politicians,” she commented lightly as she poured two cups of coffee and passed one to her guest.
“Actually, it is, to a point, but then it’s highly over rated, just as Utah is.”
“What were you doing there and please don’t tell me you were a presidential candidate. I don’t much care for politics.”
“No, I wasn’t in the public eye. At least not like that. I’m a reporter. I used to be an anchorman for a television station.”
“Why did you leave, or were you fired?”
“I left. I was sick of being stuck behind a desk, while the other reporters got to hunt down the news, so I got a job here at the Tribune. I think I’m going to like it a lot better. It seems like a fairly nice state.”
“Looks can be deceiving, don’t forget. It’s alright, but it’s pretty backwards from most places.”
“I know all about backward places. I come from a very small town in Canada. At least here, you don’t have to chase bears out of your backyard.”
Melanie laughed, thinking of the time her father did exactly that.
It had been a very rough winter and they had gone up to her grandparents’ home in Montana, near Yellowstone Park. They woke to find their hound dog, Stuffings, barking wildly at the back door. Curtis got up to find a large old grizzly bear frantically searching through the torn trash bags for food. Her grandfather chased it off, only to have another one run out from beside his car, heading back into the mountains behind the first.
“Hey, where are you?” Jordan asked, softly touching her elbow.
Melanie blinked and stared oddly at the man then blushed lightly and smiled.
“Sorry. I guess I must be more tired than I thought.”
“It’s getting late and I should be going,” he said.
“I didn’t mean for you to leave,” she admitted.
“No, you’re right. It’s been a long day and you need your sleep.” Jordan placed his coffee cup on the counter in front of him. “I know we’ve only known each other a few hours, and this is a little forward, especially after accusing you of being gay, but I’d like to see you again. That is, if there’s nobody else?”
“There’s no one,” she whispered softly, uncertain if her words had been audible over the sudden pounding of her heart.
“Great. Then have lunch with me tomorrow?”
Melanie smiled shyly as the color rose slightly in her delicate cheeks.
“I’d really like to, but I can’t. Sunday is my busiest day and I have to get things finished for school, but I’ll take a raincheck if you don’t mind?”
Melanie could hear her mother’s voice echoing in the back of her mind, insisting that all men were not like Donald Prescott.
“School? I didn’t know you were in college.”
“I’m not. I’m in grade school.”
“Excuse me?” he asked with a deep frown.
“I teach fourth grade.”
The smile that curved her sensuous full lips deepened when she saw the sudden look of shock on the man’s face.
“I’m surprised,” he told her, walking with her to the front door. “I would have taken you for a Judo instructor, or a wrestler, but not an ordinary fourth grade teacher.”
“I only save the rough stuff for Saturday nights with new neighbors.”
“I’ll have to make it a point to stay on your good side from now on. But as for lunch, being a teacher, you should know how important nutrition is to a growing body. Forget the raincheck and have lunch with me. I promise to bring you home before your curfew.”
“I really shouldn’t, Jordan. I have a lot to do and I’ve wasted the whole weekend with my family.”
“Come on. You can take a couple of hours off for good behavior, can’t you?”
Melanie chuckled at the pleading look of insistence, shining in his dark eyes.
“Alright, why not?” she finally conceded, knowing full well she wanted to get to know this handsome stranger better. “But I get to pick the place. You’re new in town and Lord only knows where we’d end up.”
“It’s a deal. I’ll pick you up around noon.”
He leaned down to her and kissed the soft skin next to her mouth, before stepping into the hall.
“I’ll see you tomorrow and thanks for the coffee.”
Melanie closed the door behind him, feeling a weak sensation caress her lower abdomen. She reached forward and locked the door, then fell against it and closed her eyes. Her flesh tingled from the warm tenderness of his all too brief kiss.
She put her hand across her heart and felt the erotic thumping beneath the material of her dress. This man could turn any woman’s head and lead most, if not all, into his bedroom. He was far beyond handsome and there was a soft, almost quiet seduction that overtook her senses, with the warmth of his chocolate eyes.
Melanie shook her head, forcing the thoughts from her mind. Jordan James never said he wanted to sleep with her. He merely asked her to have lunch with him. If he had intended on seducing her, he wouldn’t do it in broad daylight.
Drawing a deep breath, she walked into her bedroom, pulling her heels off as she went. Thoughts of Jordan James occupied her conscious as she changed out of her nylons and dress and into a simple nightgown. She had to put this man out of her head, she thought, as she tugged the brush through her dark hair.
He was interesting and strangely familiar, but she had long since vowed never again to become so involved with a man, that she lost sight of herself and her own ambitions. There was a time, not that long ago in fact, that she had set aside her own desires for those of a man’s, and what did she get in return? Heartache and misery that would last her a lifetime.
Melanie padded her way back into the living room. She took her laptop off the counter and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television. At least the promise of the late show and an online game should keep her company, while she fought her way through another lonely night.
Morning came sooner than Melanie would have liked, and she awoke feeling warn out. She laid in bed for the longest time, trying to remember why she had set her alarm on a Sunday morning. It wasn’t until her cellphone rang that she realized she had a date. The first one with a man, other than Donald, since she was a teenager. She sat up and rubbed the sleep from her tired eyes, as she pressed the button that answered the phone.
“Good morning, neighbor,” the voice on the other end said, definite cheerfulness ringing in his deep tone. “About ready to get started?”
Melanie looked over to her clock and frowned. ten o’clock. It was too early to get started, as he put it. Then another, more important thought entered her semi-conscious mind.
“How did you get my number?” she asked him suspiciously.
“I’m a reporter, remember? I have my sources,” he told her, sounding much like a schoolboy caught playing hooky.
Melanie smiled to herself. She would have to be very careful in the future not to underestimate this man’s abilities.
“I don’t know if I should be angry or not,” she said, laying back down across her pillows.
“Don’t over think it. Fact is, it’s very easy to find a cell number if you know where to look.”
“So, I shouldn’t feel too flattered?”
“Only if it works in my favor,” he said with a warm chuckle that made her tingle all over. “By the way, did you know your number is one digit off, from being Rockin’ Rob’s Game Room?”
“No, I didn’t know that, but I’m glad you told me. At least I won’t be too surprised if I get strange phone calls, in the middle of the night.”
“I hope you won’t hang up on me, if I decide to call you.”
“If you call me in the middle of the night, you had better believe I’ll hang up.”
The sound of Jordan’s laugh was like a breath of fresh air, waking and stimulating Melanie’s tired soul.
“It sounds like you’re awake now,” he told her, the sound of his smile lingering in his words. “I’ll let you get ready and come by for you in an hour.”
“An hour? I thought we weren’t going to leave until noon?”
“I hoped you wouldn’t remember that. I guess that’s a side effect of being a school teacher. I thought maybe you could take the time and show me around town. I’d like to get a feel for the place before I’m thrown into rush hour, tomorrow morning. Do you mind?”
“No, it sounds great. A lot better than spending the day doing laundry.”
“Great. I’ll be over in an hour. Get up.”
“I’m up,” she insisted, then shut off the phone and wrapped her arms around the softness of her pillow.
She closed her eyes against the morning light filtering through the lace curtains across her bedroom window. Fifteen minutes was all she needed, she argued with the vision of her new neighbor. His overpowering, masculine charm and handsome dimpled face burned its image into her conscious, forcing her to throw back the covers and stumble out of the warmth of her bed.
“You better be worth it Mr. Jordan-Tight-Butt-James,” she said as she padded her way into the bathroom.
Jordan was true to his word. Exactly one hour later and he was standing outside her apartment door, ringing the bell. Melanie was ready, even though a strange tingling seemed to take over her insides. She took one last glance in the hallway mirror, smiling at the image that stared back at her.
She had pulled on a new pair of tight blue jeans and the snug lavender sweater her brother Justin gave her last Christmas, hugged her curves perfectly. She had taken extra care applying a full cover of makeup to her delicate ivory complexion, and quickly inspected the dark blue eyeliner once more, before hurrying to the door.
“Wow,” Jordan said with a wide-eyed grin. “You look fantastic.”
The twinkle in his dark eyes, made the color on her pink cheeks deepen, which in turn made the man’s smile brighten.
“Do you want to come in for a minute?” she asked, reminding herself not to lose her self-control with this man.
“Thank you,” he said, brushing past her.
Melanie placed her hand across her jumping stomach, calming the sudden eruption of nerves. It was like a warm electric shock shot through her spine at the merest touch of his arm.
She took the chance to look at him with his back to her, admiring the way his tight black jeans hugged his long muscular legs and firm buttocks. He wore a tan shirt beneath a dark brown leather jacket, and his feet were hidden inside a pair of cowboy boots. He looked comfortable and at ease with his attire, while she began to wonder if she should have worn her sneakers instead of the black high-heeled boots.
“Would you like some coffee, or maybe a Danish?” she asked as she closed the door behind him.
“No thanks, it’s too close to brunch,” he said, turning and catching her eyes that roamed down the length of him.
“Let me grab my jacket and we can go.”
“Ready whenever you are,” he answered, watching as she walked down the hallway, taking particular attention to the room she turned into.
He had a very strong desire to follow her, but stomped the urge back down, into that secret place she had been occupying, since he first met her. He had to bide his time with this woman. Rushing her could prove hazardous to his final plans, as well as the case.
Melanie returned a minute later, a long sleeved black jacket across her torso, hiding the swell of breast that had captured Jordan’s attention the moment she opened the door. Melanie giggled as he bowed, like an obedient servant. She felt lightheaded and a little dizzy, as she stepped through the door and into the hallway.
A warm breeze drifted up the stairs and through the narrow corridor, making Melanie feel refreshed and eager to get on with the day. Jordan was at her side in a matter of seconds, his warm hand securely placed on the small of her back as he guided her down the stairs and into the parking lot.
“Where do you want to begin?” she asked, glancing to the car as it beeped when he unlocked it with the remote.
The man had taste, she thought. She had to give him that. He drove nothing less than a baby blue Mazda Miata convertible. She looked around as he opened the door for her, amazed at the luxury of the leather interior.
“I’m starving,” he told her, the look on his face was oblivious of her inner thoughts. “Let’s grab a bite before you show me this lovely town of yours.”
He climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine, smiling a very small grin when she gasped in surprise. The glass packs were loud, but not as overbearing as Donald’s old Trans Am used to be.
Jordan pressed a button and the top slid backwards and out of sight, allowing them to soak up the sun in the clear morning sky. The warmth made them relax a bit more, and the vibrant blue sky made Melanie feel the excitement of the approaching summer. A large white fluffy cloud hung over the pointed peaks of the Wasatch Mountains, making it appear more like a painting.
Melanie told him to drive south and leaned back against the headrest, closing her eyes and feeling the sun wash away the winter’s chill. It was a typical Sunday morning with little traffic. They passed a church and Melanie realized the meetings were just letting out. She glanced to the usual crowd of people in dresses and suits, who walked casually down the street to their homes.
A part of her felt guilty for not being one of them, but she hadn’t gone to church in years. Not since before her divorce. Donald was never much on the whole Sunday services, choosing instead to go skiing or golfing, while she stayed home to make supper.
Jordan drove a little further and came upon another church. Like the first, it too had finished its array of meetings and cars were filing out of the parking lot. Melanie smiled with amusement, as a young mother ran across the green lawn to catch her small son who had escaped her maternal grip.
“I swear, there must be a church on every corner,” Jordan commented, stopping to allow a family to cross the street in front of them.
Melanie chuckled, thinking of how accurate he was and how strange it must appear, to someone who wasn’t accustomed to the sights of Sundays in Utah.
“There are a lot of people in Salt Lake,” she answered in defense of her home. “About sixty percent are Mormon and more than half of them are very active.”
“Why don’t you go to church? Aren’t you religious?” he asked as he stepped on the accelerator.
“Not really. I mean I used to be, and I still believe in God and the teachings. My parents are very active. They attend every meeting, pray every evening, pay their tithing as regular as clockwork and do whatever the church asks of them. I guess I just had my fill of religious life when I was a kid.”
“So, you’re a Mormon then?”
“I was raised and baptized L.D.S., if that’s what you mean.”
“What does L.D.S. mean?”
“You are from Mars, aren’t you?” she teased. “L.D.S. stands for Latter Day Saints. The common term is Mormon.”
They continued to drive as Melanie guided him to a nearby restaurant and found the parking lot packed tight with cars.
“This place must be really popular,” he said, parking the sleek car on the street in front of the building and looking at the line of patrons waiting outside.
“The food is great, but this is typical for Sunday,” she said as he pushed the button to raise the roof.
Jordan looked at Melanie, a frown creasing his dark brows.
“What’s Sunday have to do with it?”
“You’re not supposed to do any work on Sundays, so you make others work instead,” she said with a smirk.
Jordan frowned silently as he climbed out of the car and walked around to help Melanie out. He stopped her from passing him by, with a gentle hand on her elbow.
“I know I’m going to regret this, but is making other people work for you, some kind of a religious order, or something?”
“No, it’s just less of a personal sin than doing the work yourself. Besides, the food is great and when you have a dozen kids, who are tired of being in church for three hours, it makes sense.”
“People don’t have a dozen kids,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Melanie stopped and waved to a pregnant woman who was struggling to keep her twin girls under control.
“Hello Mellie,” she said, brushing her long red hair out of her face.
“Hello Anne. How was church?” she asked, knowing Jordan was close by her side and she would have to answer questions about him over the next few days.
“The same as always, I suppose.”
Anne looked up to Jordan and smiled, a soft blush caressing her freckled cheeks.
“Anne, this is Jordan James,” Melanie introduced the two as Anne lifted one of the little girls in her arms, watching her father run after the other. “Jordan, this is my cousin, Anne Simmons. Jordan is my new neighbor. I was just showing him around town.”
“Not much to see,” Anne said as a tall, slightly bald-headed man joined them, the other twin held in his arms. “We have a lot of parks and recreation areas, but otherwise, it’s just cars and people.”
“I’m liking it so far,” Jordan said, smiling as five children gathered around the couple. “I came too late for skiing, but I’m looking forward to doing some hiking this summer. I hear the mountains are beautiful, and I really like camping.”
“There’s some great fishing spots as well,” the man said, reaching a hand out to him. “I’m Dalton Simmons.”
The two shook hands as four older children came running around the corner, catching Jordan off guard. He mentally counted the children, frowning as they all began complaining about being hungry.
“Don’t mind them,” Dalton said. “They’re just excited to have the sun out again.”
“Anne,” Melanie began with a warm smile. “Jordan and I were just talking about kids and he didn’t believe me that there are a lot of large families in Utah.”
“Oh, but there are,” Anne said with wide eyes, while Jordan narrowed his expression on Melanie. “I don’t know of a single family in our ward who has less than four.”
“Speaking of which, when is the new baby due?” Melanie asked, ignoring the man’s look as she spoke to her cousin.
“Not until September. I have a horrible, hot summer to endure…again.”
“What does this make for you now?” Melanie continued. “Nine pregnancies or ten?”
“Try eleven pregnancies and thirteen children. We’re having another set of twins. I swear, if they don’t stop coming in pairs, I’m going to run out of patience.”
“Well, at least you’re getting them over with while you’re young enough to handle them.”
Melanie fought the urge to laugh at the look on Jordan’s face. It was the same everyone got when they visited Utah and saw the sheer explosive number of children running around the streets. It was worse, when they saw her cousin, but she was only one of six in the extended family with more than ten children.
“Would you two like to join us for lunch?” Dalton asked as a young waitress called their name from inside.
“No thanks,” Melanie said quickly. “Jordan is a reporter and he’s curious about Utah. I think it would be easier to answer his questions without your circus to interrupt us.”
“At least they always put us in the corner away from the civilized world,” Anne said with a warm smile.
Melanie watched as Dalton shook hands with Jordan again, then set the little girl he’d been carrying on the ground and watched as they all preceded inside through the glass doors.
“I’m going to get you for that, Miss Kent,” Jordan warned, slipping his arm around her waist.
“Why? You said nobody had that many kids. I just wanted to make sure you had the story straight. Besides, I got you out of having lunch with them, didn’t I? The least you could do is thank me.”
Jordan pulled her into his embrace, as the last couple that had been standing outside, was called in to their table. He eased her against his strong chest and lowered his mouth across hers in an act that had her gasping in surprise. His kiss was passionate and demanding and she found her knees shaking beneath her, forcing her to reach out and grab hold of his strong shoulders for support.
“Thank you, Sweetheart,” he whispered, his voice heavy with emotion and desire as he steadied her back on her own feet. “Just remember, I still owe you and I always get even.”
Melanie stared at him for several confused moments, feeling the tingle of emotion travel along her lower limbs. A small voice inside her warned her not to get involved with this man, but the gentle twinkle of Jordan’s dark eyes put an instant halt to the advice. The desire to be with him was overpowering and made her feel like a lovesick schoolgirl.
Her mother had always warned her about the difference of falling in love and falling in lust. He wrapped his hand around her waist and walked toward the restaurant’s entrance as the wise old woman’s words echoed inside her head.
“Don’t fall in love with the first boy who comes along,” her mother would say.
She had already done that, and she knew how much it hurt and how hard it was to recover. So, if what she had with Donald was love, and what she felt for Jordan at that exact moment was lust, she’d willingly choose lust over love any day.