Read the first three chapters of Love in Due Time!

Chapter One

[Naomi]

I’m going to be forty.

Someday.

Soon-ish.

And I’m thinking these things as I stand in the baking aisle of the Piggly Wiggly late at night, while the world is out partying, and I’m grocery shopping. Alone. At ten-fifteen. 

Sigh.

Okay, maybe not the world. Just Green Valley, Tennessee. It’s Friday night and most of Green Valley is attending the weekly jam session, a night of musical talent and good things to eat, at the community center. I don’t attend for several reasons. 

I used to go, though.

When I was a teen, I was a wild child. Naomi, God put a spirit in you, girl, my mother would say.

It wasn’t a god, though, at least not one I readily believed in. The spirit wasn’t something placed in me, but something I was born with—something I tried to contain. Daughter of a preacher and a woman who thought she wanted to be a nun, my home was ultraconservative growing up. 

Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t dance.

As soon as I was told not to do those things as a teen, it’s exactly what I wanted to do. Then I turned twenty-one. Recollection of that night pulls my heart in opposing directions, like a tug-of-war within my chest. 

I reach for a box of brownie mix to chase away the memories. Chocolaty squares of heaven solve everything. Truthfully, I could make these from scratch. I have a great recipe and guilt gnaws at me as I consider the boxed mix. I volunteered to bring a dessert to a luncheon hosted at the library. I could always order something premade from Donner Bakery or grab something from the pre-packaged goods section here at the grocer, but where’s the fun in that? Adding water, oil, and an egg to the dry mix will make me feel as if I’ve accomplished something. 

Julianne MacIntyre can probably sniff out a box-made dessert, and my holistic approach to life prefers I remain all natural. My beliefs are different from the norm. I’m a Wiccan. I celebrate nature, purity, and most importantly, the spirit of women. Mother Nature is my guide. She’s the Goddess Supreme, or rather the Triple Goddess is my ruler. Local rumor is I’m a witch, but my story is nothing fantastical. I’m a librarian at the Green Valley Public Library. 

I look left and right, make certain no one notices me, and add the brownie mix to my handheld basket. Sometimes, you just need to break the rules. Tonight, I need quick and easy, I console my conscience as I head for the checkout lane. Ten items or less. I always want to take a red pen to the sign. It’s ten items or fewer. At this time of night, I don’t see how many items a person carries would matter. I’m the only one in here except for Sara Stokes. 

“How’s it going, Ms. Winters?” Sara Stokes has the misfortune of once being married to Deveron Stokes, the dry cleaner. He was not a good man and his ex-wife suffered the repercussions of reproducing with him. He was a child support dodger to the nth degree, thus her job working the night shift at the Piggly Wiggly. As a woman roughly my age, it was strange she called me Ms. Winters, but then again, all the mommas were used to formally addressing me in front of their children.

“Just fine, Sara, and yourself?” I’m only half listening to her response as I place my plastic basket on the conveyor, preparing to set my items on the belt when I feel a presence next to me. Someone tall, solid, burly. The scent alone signals he’s all spicy male, and without thought, my head turns. Then my breathing halts.

Nathan Ryder. 

Standing six plus, double my size, and with a chest covered by a leather jacket, he peers down at me with silver-colored eyes I’ll never forget. He nods in greeting but I don’t respond. My tongue swells three times larger. My tongue. The same one that tangled with his and licked his—oh my. My gaze drifts down to the very spot I shouldn’t be remembering, a place on him I shouldn’t be imagining.

My hand comes to the collar of my linen peasant blouse, and I tug. 

Is it warm in here? Why is the heat on in September? Am I experiencing hot flashes already?

Still drawn to him, my eyes climb up his mountain height and fall again on the unusual spark in his eyes. His hair—more chrome than ink—matches the metallic stitching in the black leather of his jacket. His hair isn’t as long as I remember, being cropped close to his head, almost military in style. 

“Ms. Winters?” Sara says, interrupting my perusal of this hunk of man and calling attention to the fact that my basket sits on the belt, but I haven’t unloaded the items, keeping the handle looped over my arm, and fighting the tug of the conveyor. I look ridiculous. 

Shaky fingers come to my long white and gray streaked hair, and nervously comb back the strands. My appearance adds to the witch rumors—wild curls of premature gray, clothing made of natural fabrics, and black lace-up boots. A finger catches in my hoop earring and I struggle for a second with myself. A sharp tug and the silver circle releases, flinging from my sensitive earlobe and flicking Nathan in the chest.

Ow. My eyes sting with the release but I notice he catches the jewelry as it ricochets off the hard plains of his pecs under the soft-gray Henley he wears. He holds my earring out in between thick fingers I instantly recall tweaking my nipples once. Maybe twice. 

With noticeably trembling fingers, I reach for the hoop.

“Sorry about that,” I mutter, as if I did it on purpose. Right? Who would purposefully stick her fingers in her own nest of hair, get said finger hooked on her dime-store earring, and flip it at a burly man dressed like he’s in a motorcycle club?

I’m a hot mess. 

Did I mention how warm it is in the Piggly Wiggly? 

I lower my eyes, willing myself to look away from him when I notice he holds only one item. 

Is that a box of condoms?

Sweet Goddess, grant me strength

My eyes flick to his zipper region again, and then I turn away. My cheeks flood with heat, undoubtedly matching the maroon swirls in my ankle-length skirt. I’m fifty shades of red and then some. 

“You only have the one item?” I question, no longer able to look in his direction as he taps the box on the metal edge of the counter. I tug my basket upward and step back. “Why don’t you go ahead of me?”

There isn’t enough space between the checkout counter and the rack of candy behind me for the two of us, yet he shifts his large body to face mine and steps forward, pinning my back to the bars of chocolate and bags of trail mix behind me.

His eyes catch mine for a moment, widening in surprise before narrowing in question. He doesn’t appear to recognize me and why would he? It’s been a long time. He gives his head a shake, more like a twitch, and straightens. A mischievous curve appears at the corner of his lips and leaning toward me just the slightest bit, he says, “You sure you don’t want to go first?” And just like that I’m propelled back in time to a night I’ve told myself to forget, and yet, never have. The deep timbre of his voice melts over me like drizzled caramel, suggestively hinting at something I know he doesn’t mean. A pulse beats at the cookie crunch in my center while I stare back at him, swollen tongue and all.

“Thanks, sweetheart,” he adds when I don’t respond. His rough tone drips like nougat and fills my mind with candy-coated metaphors. My head shakes to dismiss his gratitude and he slides forward. And I mean slides, allowing his body to glide across mine in a leisurely drag. His firm upper body narrowly misses my face, but his lower area does not escape my belly, which does its own roundoff back handsprings as the awkwardness of something other than a candy bar—yet strong and yummy—swipes over me. The pressure lasts no more than a few seconds, but I’m like a champagne fountain come to life without a single glass to collect the bubbly drink. 

What has come over me?

A thick hand comes to my upper arm as Nathan twists away from me and warmth seeps through my body. Then my blouse continues moving with him. My mouth pops open to say something, warn him, as my shirt opens wider at the neck, exposing my nude bra as my blouse follows the twist of his body. 

I’m stuck on him

“Um …” I hold up a finger, and he turns to glance down at me. I freeze. All thought escapes me as his eyes dip lower and heat rises up my neck. I lick my lips. Another second and I’m certain I’ll be frothing at the mouth despite my embarrassment. I’d like to say I understand my reaction when he looks at me like he is—silver eyes glistening. But I don’t. I’m a thirty-nine-year-old sexually-repressed librarian who practices self-love in hopes of reviving her inner goddess.

I’m still waiting for divine inspiration to spring forth.

With that thought, the fabric springs free of his protruding belt buckle and his hand releases my arm.

Thank you, Mother Earth.

I risk a quick glance up at him to see if he noticed our attached clothing, but it appears as if he missed everything. Instead, he looks like a god with his broody-edged jaw layered in white with a smattering of lion-brown in the mix, not to mention his hulking body. While Wiccan practices remind me life is about balance, it also teaches me I don’t need a man on the other side of my seesaw. At least, the way I celebrate my religion.

I blink. I blink again. Then I reach for my shirt, tugging the hem forward to notice a small hole caused by our caught clothing. How appropriate considering the hole he left inside me. And just like the time before, he doesn’t even notice what he’s done to me. He doesn’t look back at me, like he didn’t look back then. 

Rough fingers with short nails like they’d been bitten come to his belt buckle and absentmindedly press at the metal confine. He straightens it against his waist, leaving his callused digit on the tip a bit longer than necessary. Then he smooths his hand down the front of his zipper.

My mouth falls open. Swollen tongue. Then it snaps shut.

Nathan chuckles softly to himself and glances up at Sara who is slack-jawed and wide-eyed, watching us with interest. I don’t imagine the night shift offers much entertainment, and right now, the sexual tension vibrating off me is higher than a Passionflix rating of five heats. 

“It’s your turn,” I say, nodding toward the clerk, and he turns his body, giving me his back as he steps forward. Harley Davidson, I read across his broad back and take in the symbol underneath. Is he a member of a motorcycle club? Not versed in the who’s who of area bikers, I know enough of the Iron Wraiths, the local MC presided over by the incarcerated Razor Dennings, to make me shiver.

Nathan’s box of condoms swipes over the scanner and Sara lowers the package for a bag.

“Oh, I won’t need a bag. Keep the environment safe and all that.” His eyes drift to the carrier over my shoulder, the one I use to collect my groceries. Environmentally friendly, women in Africa make these bags as a way to raise money for an education which could lift them from oppression. My heart leaps in my chest. He cares about the environment. “Not to mention, I’ll be opening the package soon enough.” 

Or not

He turns to Sara and winks. Fingers come to her pinkened cheeks while her other hand reaches for the twenty he offers for his purchase.

Quickly understanding his meaning, I begin removing items from my basket, setting them on the belt with more force than necessary. Why would I care that he’s going to use a condom soon?

Brownie mix. Rice cakes. Tampons. 

I look over at the magazine rack to my left and reach for a novel from the ten bestsellers at the top of the display. I don’t even read the title. I simply grab the book with the cover of a bare-chested man ripping the bodice of a woman in a floor-length gown and drop it down on the belt with the remainder of my things.

“Looks like an interesting night,” Nathan says, eying my stuff as he holds out his hand for his change. Sara seems to be taking her sweet time doling out the bills and pressing coins in his palm. 

Did she just stroke his fingertips?

My brain mutters a litany of profanity, but my mouth tweaks up in a false smile.

“Well, we can’t all be as interesting as you.” My brows tip up as my eyes flip to the box in his hand.

What the … Nice retort. Am I in high school?

Nathan leans toward me, his head lowered, and his voice deepens. “Plan on it being very interesting. Want to join me?” He smirks—literally—with a rough chuckle. A raised brow matches mine and that damn corner of his lip creeps upward again. Is that a dimple? Sara’s eyes flick between him and me, her mouth clamping in a grimace as her head tips just the littlest of bits, almost encouraging me to follow him.

“No thanks,” I mumble, sweat trickling down the center of my back, coating my spine. You’re lying, my brain taps my forehead. 

Deny. Deny. Deny.

His eyes focus on my breasts for a moment. Maybe I’m imagining it? Then he tips his chin upward like he’s a movie star and I’m lingering paparazzi. “Okay then, Naomi.”

It takes a moment to register he said my name. I’ve seen Nathan a few times in the last year, but he hasn’t acknowledged me. I assumed he forgot me, like he must have forgotten my phone number. I, however, have never forgotten him. My chest clenches—a sensation like my ribs are caving inward—and I want the tile floor to open and swallow me whole.

Sara watches me as she scans each of my items slowly, her expression stoic but I sense the question churning inside her. Him? You? Her eyes shift once again to Nathan’s retreating back as he exits the store and then to me. I remain focused, following the swipe of each item before they are placed in my environmentally friendly bag. My toes wiggle in my leather boots and my fingers twitch, tapping a crisp twenty on the raised counter waiting to pay as I refuse to watch Nathan’s departure. My entire body flickers with a flame I haven’t felt in a long time.

I will not live my life in the past.

Sara reaches for the impulse purchase, scans the back, and then holds the book up to face me, as if waiting for an explanation.

Tonight is not going to be an evening of stellar, stimulating, quality literature like we host at the library. No, tonight will be a late night of unadulterated smut and self-soothing pleasure. 

“You tell anyone, and I’ll never let you check out the 9 ½ Weeks DVD from the library again.”

Sara slams the book into my bag and winks.

Interesting evening indeed.

Chapter Two

[Naomi]

It’s almost October and in a few days, we will decorate for Halloween, a Green Valley Public Library favorite. Fall used to be a dreaded time for me. Summer was life when I was a teen. As I grow older, I appreciate the crispness of the changing seasons, the preparation for shorter days, and the necessity of a revolving life cycle. Like the season, I’m in the autumn of my life, desperate for a change, but not knowing what such a change should be.

This time of year is also a crossroad for me. The locals celebrate through the annual Halloween party at the community center, but I refuse to attend organized functions at the former school, especially on the night of such a commercial holiday. The lore of vampires, werewolves, and witches isn’t really my thing, being that I’m rumored to be one.

Samhain is my holiday. It marks the beginning of a new year—celebrating harvest and happiness. The night is bittersweet with both a reflection of my accomplishments throughout the past three hundred and sixty-five days and a remembrance of long-gone ancestors. 

Seeing Nathan Ryder has been a painful reminder of a night which brought both celebration and devastation to my life. Since running into him at the Piggly Wiggly, I’ve been thinking of him too often over the last few days. It’s been a struggle to face my history when all I’ve done for eighteen years is repress the memories. Yet seeing Nathan stirs up old yearnings; yearnings that I haven’t allowed myself to explore with anyone else.

I’m a follower of the social media sexpert Vilma Louise who has helped me work through my desires, turning urges inward to please myself, not seek pleasure from others. You do not need another person to complete you. As a social media sensation advocating women’s individual sexual awareness, Vilma’s motto is your self is the center of your personal universe. Diane Donner-Sylvester, a former library patron, introduced me to Vilma’s videos, encouraging me to develop my inner sexuality and the wonders of my own womanhood. Diane had similar issues after years without sex with her husband. She thought I was too uptight and might need a little sex education to loosen me up. She wasn’t wrong, but I hadn’t found a man to experiment with. I didn’t want to be with just anybody.

You are your own circle of sensuality. The mantra repeats in my head as I round the check-out counter at the library for the children’s section. I pass Sabrina Logan as I near the reading rug and my thoughts of Nathan and sex dissipate.

Sabrina replaced Bethany Winston six years ago when she—eternally rest in peace, my sister booklover—passed. Sabrina could never replace Bethany in my heart, though, which is still full from the goodness Bethany offered me. I was twenty-one when I came to the library. As the mother of seven children, Bethany took me under her proverbial wing, a fairy godmother of sorts, and the rest is my history. When Sabrina started, she had been the same age as me when I became a librarian. I want to be her friend like Bethany was for me.

At first, I misunderstood Sabrina’s awkward silence, considering her standoffish, almost aloof, but eventually, I realized she was just painfully shy. The characteristic was foreign to me. Shy was not a word many would have used to describe me at twenty-one. At thirty-nine, my persona is a different story.

With the addition of Sabrina came her now nine-year-old nephew Harry who beams up at me from his spot on a comfy purple beanbag big enough for two people. We have three others in various sizes scattered through the section. Blue. Orange. Green. They look like planets, he said to me when we first met. He wouldn’t look at me then and I thought his timidness equal to his aunt. Eventually, I realized his lack of eye contact was something he couldn’t control without some practice. Harry has autism. 

Spending time with children is one of my favorite things about the library. Harry and I have a routine. He tells me about the planets, or we skim through a Harry Potter picture book together, which is what we are doing when Sabrina enters the children’s area. 

“I …” Her lips clamp shut. “He …”

My brows pinch. Not one to stutter, it’s evident she doesn’t know how to explain what she needs. 

“There’s a man.” The words stumble out, awkward and incomplete. I tilt my head trying to see through the stacks in the general direction where she points. 

“Excuse me, Harry,” I say to him, struggling to remove myself from the beanbag. One can never gracefully stand from a lumpy sack of beans. When I stand, I crane my neck and Sabrina and I both gawk over the shorter shelves in the children’s department at the sliver of a large man.

“What does he want?”

Sabrina’s face heats a deep shade of red as her eyes lower to her feet. Oh my. What could that mean? I nod as if I understand, smooth my hands down my skirt—today I’m wearing a full denim skirt with a long sleeve, black T-shirt—and walk toward the waiting patron. 

Turning down the aisle, I have a better visual of him. Brownish jacket, sturdy and stiff, and typical of men who work outdoors. Construction boots both scuffed and covered in dirt. Jeans which hug the curve of his … two firm planets. I blink and force my eyes away, but the attraction is too strong and my focus returns. This man knows how to wear denim. With that unsettling thought in mind, he turns, and I’m met with sterling laser beams.

“Naomi?” He says in a voice rough and smoky, as if he just woke from a nap. I’d sleep with him. Oh wait, I already did.

The thought catches me off guard and I audibly gasp. Nathan’s head tips to the side at my reaction and I try to calm my racing heart by smoothing over the denim at my hips one more time. It’s a nervous habit. My hand lifts for my chest instead, cupping the black tourmaline crystal hanging from my neck. The anxiety-ridding stone in my palm soothes me.

“Nathan.” My voice squeaks like a mouse under the scrutiny of a lion. His size reminds me of one, the color of his coat matching the skin of the jungle king. My eyes flit to his hair like they did the night at the Piggly Wiggly. Almost all silver, his chin holds a patch still mixed with light brown. He has black dots on each ear, like flat earrings. His sudden movement draws my attention to his arms, which stretch behind his back holding something hidden behind the broad mass.

My eyes squint as if I can see through him. 

“May I help you?” 

His eyes roam down my body and up again. I blush although there’s nothing exposed on me. My standard lace-up black boots cover my ankles to the edge of my skirt and my T-shirt comes to my neck. I slide the crystal on the leather strap—another anxious motion—as he scrutinizes my appearance.

“A book, perhaps.” I interrupt whatever he’s thinking, and he ducks his head to peer through the shelves. He won’t find the other librarian, Julianne MacIntyre, here today. She has the day off. He’s already frightened poor Sabrina. I’m his only hope.

His eyes flit to the shelf at his right and then back to me. I step forward for a closer examination. 

Health. Female health. Young female health.

My eyes leap to his for an explanation.

“I need a book about …” He pauses, leaning toward me. His breath holds a hint of cinnamon. “You know, your cycle.”

I stare at him a moment, unclear of his meaning but also dazed by the intensity of his silver eyes. In the dull light of the library, they gleam with an outer rim of granite. 

“My cycle?” Bicycle? A tricycle. The cyclical rotation of the seasons.

He clears his throat before he speaks. “Menstruation.”

My fingers come to my lips as if he’s muttered a dirty word. For some reason, a part of me thrums. He closes his eyes a second and exhales. His thick knuckles rub under his chin and the scruff makes a scratchy sound, causing tingles to erupt over my skin.

“My daughter is eleven and I think she’s going through the change.”

“The change …” I mumble.

“I thought a book to explain everything might help. I don’t want her getting random sh … stuff … off the internet.”

I gape at him as if he’s speaking a foreign language, although I fully understand his meaning. I’m female. Of course, I know what he’s talking about.

“She doesn’t have a mother,” he clarifies.

The statement stops my heart and forces me to blink in sympathy. 

“I mean, Margie … her mother … she doesn’t live here. With us. With Dandelion.” His rambling becomes rather sweet. He’s flustered sharing this information. 

“Dandelion? That’s an interesting name,” I offer, lightening my voice to ease his discomfort. 

His expression relaxes, his face filling with a growing smile. He’s proud of his little girl. “It’s a nickname.”

The Dandelion Seed is one of my favorite children’s books,” I say but he stares at me like I’m the one suddenly speaking a different language. I wait for more explanation about the nickname, but Nathan’s eyes flick to the bookshelf.

“So the … um … change. Her mother didn’t explain it.” It’s rude to ask, and I stop myself before I start fishing for answers to questions that I have no right to ask like: is he married? Nathan’s large shoulders fall, and the curve of his lips drop a little.

“Let’s just say I’m both parents.”

I smile softly as if I understand and Nathan’s eyes lower to the floor. I take a deep breath, ignoring the pinch in my chest, and go into superpower mode. I’m a librarian. I can help him find answers.

“Okay, we have several books about the young body and … the changes … it goes through. Eleven seems a little late to discuss these things, though.” I glance up at him, not wanting to judge his parenting, but a young girl should know these things a little earlier in life. 

My fingers troll the spines of books like a pianist expertly skimming the keys of a piano.

“I think this is one of the better books for a young woman.” I hold out the book with an illustration of a light pink bloom on the cover. “I Have a Vagina is an excellent read.”

Nathan sputter-coughs, choking on his gum. He bangs at his chest with a fist, and for a moment, I’m worried I’ll have to administer the Heimlich. I’d rather administer mouth-to-mouth.

Nathan rereads the title for himself and his eyes fly upward to mine, then quickly divert. Stay in super librarian mode, I warn myself.

“It includes visuals with age-appropriate vocabulary and an explanation of how to use tamp—I mean, feminine hygiene products.”

Nathan’s eyes roll upward as his head tips back. His cheeks pinken. Is he embarrassed? If he thinks this is awkward for him, what about me? He’s the one who has experience with the fact I do have a vagina. Experience doing wonderful things to my vagina. Which happens to pulse more rapidly than the life-sustaining organ in my chest at the moment. 

This cannot be good. I don’t want my vagina to beat to the rhythm of Nathan. I don’t want any body part to hammer at the thought of him. Too late, though. My heart races as my mind fills with memories.

Are you sure about this?

I’ve never wanted anything more.

I was so naïve.

“There’s a companion book as well.” I swallow as I offer Nathan the second book in the collection. At some point, I’ve stepped closer to him and I smell him. Sandalwood and musk. Manly and sharp. And something else. Sawdust. Is he a construction worker? My eyes drift down his broad body.

Only the length of the book separates us. A distance I want to shorten. 

I Have a Penis,” he reads. Instantly, I’m inflamed by his statement. I am a sacrifice to my goddess and I gladly give of myself, if he’ll be the horny god to take me. Horned God, I mean. God with a horn on him. A horn for plundering and …

“Yes, I do,” he adds, his voice low as his twinkling, teasing eyes find mine.

Deep exhale. 

Here’s the thing, I’m aware of the appendage on Nathan like he’s familiar with the special spot on me. Unfortunately, the experience was a long time ago, and I’m quite certain he’s forgotten all about my womanly parts especially if he has a daughter. 

His eyes widen as he reads the title again and then the corner of his lip curls. I don’t see it at first, but I know it’s under the fuzz on his cheeks. A dimple lurks beneath the silver and Sweet Goddess if it isn’t the sexiest thing I’ve seen in years.

“Naomi?” His questioning tone forces me to realize I’m practically pressed into his chest. Taking a step back, my necklace catches on the zipper of his jacket. The leather tugs at the back of my neck. 

Not again. “I’m stuck on you.”

His breath hitches before he speaks. “Is this becoming our thing?” His brows rise, and he chuckles, a rich mixture of rumbles. Then he shakes his head as I struggle to pull myself free, drawing back and jiggling the crystal-zipper combination. Nathan’s hand wraps behind my neck, pausing my jostling. A thick finger swipes up my nape, curling under the leather string, and I shiver at the intimate touch.

“Let’s just take this off,” he whispers with smoke and ash in his voice, as he lifts my hair with his other hand and removes the strap over my head. More shivers slither down my spine, and in another moment, I’m going to be a puddle on the floor. He’s said these words once before to me.

Yes, take it off. Take it all off. 

My face heats. It’s suddenly very hot in the library.

I think I’m having another hot flash like the one in the Piggly Wiggly.

Is there a pattern to hot flashes I should be aware of? Hot man. Hot flash. Maybe I should check out a book about things at the other end of the … you know … change cycle.

After he slips the leather from my neck, he unhooks it from his zipper. Dangling it from two thick digits, he holds it up.

“This is cool.”

“Thank you,” I mumble, reaching out my hand for my pendant but he curls his fingers into the leather strap and lifts the accessory over my head. Lowering it to my shoulders, he swipes my hair upward, cupping the massive curls in one hand. His curved fingers stroke down the string, narrowly missing my breast as he straightens the elongated crystal to hang between them. I should consider it forward. Women press charges for this kind of behavior, but all I want to do is press against him. My nipples respond instantly, standing erect and visible through my thin shirt.

“Thank you for the books, Naomi.”

The way he says my name sends another river of shivers washing over my skin, and I decide to risk a question plaguing me. “So you remember me?”

His finger taps on something solid just over my heart and I look down to see my name tag.

Naomi.

“This is your name, right?”

Without answering his question, it’s clear he’s answered mine. Nathan Ryder has no recollection of me. Even though he teased me at the Piggly Wiggly and called me by name, he doesn’t remember me. I must have been wearing my name tag that night, too. My nose prickles and my eyes burn. The hurt of my twenty-one-year-old self returns to my almost forty-year-old heart.

“Will this be all you need?” Suddenly, I want Nathan out of the library, away from me, and out of my memories. I don’t need a reminder of the things we did, the pleasure lingering in my fantasies coupled with the pain of my actions. 

I don’t want to think about his backside firm and snug in his jeans.

I don’t want to notice the dimple peeking through his silver scruff.

I don’t want to see his eyes sparkling at me with a questioning look. 

It’s been eighteen years and all that time Nathan Ryder hasn’t remembered me, so why should it sting that he doesn’t recognize me now? I don’t need his recognition, but strangely, I want it. I want the acknowledgment of this man who changed the course of my life, and yet, I won’t give into him. I’ve already done that. I’ve learned my lesson. Nathan Ryder plus me equals catastrophe.

Chapter Three

[Nathan]

Naomi.

So you remember me?

Could I ever forget her?

Her name tag tells me her name, but is it really her? Naomi isn’t common, and I’ve never met anyone else named the same. Can it really be that after all this time, she’s still here? What are the chances I’ve seen her twice in one week when I haven’t seen her once since I returned to Green Valley?

When I saw her a few nights ago in the Piggly Wiggly, I dismissed the sneaky suspicion of familiarity curling inside me when her eyes met mine. The longing in them. The history. I didn’t want to believe it could be her even when I called her by name. But I couldn’t shake the hint of something suppressed passing through my memory. I didn’t want to allow myself to believe it was really her. It’d been such a long time.

Still.

I’m stuck on you.

The words whisper like a door in a dark room slowly opening to allow light. There was a girl with curly raven hair and eyes the color of chrome, deep pockets of granite gray, peering up at me. The crinkles in the corners of this woman’s eyes throw me off. Still, when she looks at me, there’s something I can’t ignore. An undeniable sense she knows me, and I know her.

This woman with silver and white streaked hair, dressed in clothes covering every inch of her, seems nothing like the girl I once met. The girl who danced and whooped and begged me. But there’s something unforgettable about her hair—the weight of it—as I wound it upward and righted her necklace. The out-of-control curl hints at tresses once a different shade—midnight and wild—spilling over a motel pillow. 

I’m stuck on you.

My memory pulls up the Fugitive—a bar off a treacherous mountain road. A typical night of rambunctious bikers and reckless drinking. An unusual girl celebrating on the dark side. It would be hard to recall one in twenty of the women I’d slept with over nearly the same number of years, but Naomi always stood out. That one girl your mind refuses to forget.

I watch her turn away from me and suddenly there’s too much here reminding me of all I want to forget but never could quite let go.

Perhaps it was the timing. At least I’ve told myself that over the years, but that’s not the whole truth. That night changed everything for me, and a shiver ripples down my spine with the memory.

So you remember me?

I never forgot her, but I don’t want to admit to the sharp ping of hope and the deep jolt of pain at seeing her again in Green Valley. She hasn’t exactly acknowledged me, either. Sure she said my name, but it isn’t the deep recognition of what we shared. Then again, how do you bring up something like that night?

Hey, Naomi, remember when we …

I exhale.

People change, Nathan, my brain reminds me.

She isn’t the same person from eighteen years ago and neither am I. This woman is old … er. Her hair. Her eyes. In miles of denim draped around indistinguishable legs, she is not the Naomi of my memory. But even in her altered state, she’s pretty and I blink, a little startled by the realization. 

Strangely, I wonder what she’s wearing under her matronly outfit.

I have a vagina. The statement almost brought me to my knees, and I swallowed my gum. I’m a little doubtful the girl I knew is inside this woman.

Still.

I remember her. Under me, she was once curves and skin and life. Vibrant. Electric. Blooming.

I’m stuck on you

Her sweet, quiet voice rings in my ears like the seduction of a siren at sea. Ironic even more so as I’ve never stuck to anything in my life. I thought I was on my way one night. The club. The girl. Then everything fell apart. 

One thing is for sure about this new Naomi, she looks like she wants to lick me, and I feel strangely compelled to let her. Her eyes linger as if she’s fighting the impulse to take a walk on the wild side of my body. It’s a nice sensation—her so obviously checking me out. The stirrings inside my chest haven’t been like this for a long time. 

But just as I thought our conversation was heading somewhere, she seems ready to dismiss me.

My eyes wander to Naomi’s backside as I follow her to the lobby. What’s under all that denim, I think once again until we stop at the check-out counter, which she uses as a barrier between us. Suddenly, my phone peals. A loud fire alarm ringtone echoes through the quiet of the library lobby. 

“End of lunch,” I say, fumbling for the damn thing in my pocket and struggling to shut it off. She points to a sign printed in black ink on white copy paper slipped into a display stand.

Let freedom ring, but not your cell phone. Turn it off and your brain on.

Naomi taps a pencil on the edge of the plastic, as if sternly emphasizing my lack of rule following.

“It’s a reminder I only have ten minutes before my lunch break ends,” I explain. I work construction for Monroe & Sons. Bill Monroe is my boss, and while he isn’t a stickler, I don’t want to piss him off by being late. The trip to the library was a last-minute decision after fighting with my older daughter Dahlia last night.

“I need you to explain some things to your little sister,” I asked my seventeen-year-old.

“Just buy her a book like Gramm did for me.”

I didn’t have time for a bookstore run in Knoxville, so the library was the next best thing.

Naomi nods, acknowledging my explanation but obviously no longer wishing to engage in conversation. She twists the corner of her lips with her teeth, and I notice the deep maroon color. It’s bloodred, and tempting, a hint of who she might be underneath the yards of denim and black cotton. There’s one final way to find out if she’s the girl of my memory.

“So, Nae—” I use the name she asked me to call her that evening. Call me Nae, a sweet voice whispers breathlessly through my head. 

“I don’t go by that name anymore.” The sudden flare in her ashen-charcoal eyes stops me short. Her brows furrow forming a deep dimple between them. The sharpness in her tone solidifies my query. 

It’s her.

“These are due back in three weeks,” she adds louder, avoiding further eye contact. Sliding the books to me across the counter, I reach for her wrist, pressing her hand flat over the short stack.

“Hey.” Without realizing it, my thumb strokes the tender skin on the underside of her wrist. “Was it the penis thing?” My brows wiggle, teasing her, flirting with her. “You know, I’m not offended to admit I have one.”

“Just stop,” she warns. Her eyes are buckets of coal looking to set me on fire. 

“If I recall, you didn’t say that before.” My voice drops deeper. I don’t know why I’m taunting her, but my heart races with the thought she might have forgotten me. 

Walk away, Nathan. This chick is not your speed—slow and dowdy. She’s not your Naomi. Not anymore.

“As you don’t recall who I am, I don’t suppose it matters what you think I did or did not do before.”

Shocked by the snap of her tongue, my grip on her wrist tightens and my thumb strokes harder, rubbing deeper at the pulse of her vein. 

You’re the girl I can’t forget, and I don’t want you to have forgotten me.

“Of course, I remember you. I saw you at the Piggly Wiggly last week.” It’s not what I intend to say, but I’m struggling to come to terms with all I want to tell her. Her mouth pops open and she blinks. The sudden expression brings another flash of memory. A girl shocked by the things I said I wanted to do to her and then a slow smile giving me permission. A grin written for sin. A mouth that made a man linger as I did that night. 

“I don’t even know who I am most days, how can I expect you to remember me.” Her lids lower and she turns her face away from me. Her quiet self-reflection, muttered under her breath, is eerily familiar. 

Who am I? I wonder most days.

“Three weeks,” she reminds me, tapping a finger on the books. Then she tugs her arm to release herself from my grip. I don’t know why, but I don’t want to let her go.

I’m stuck on you.

* * *

Once outside, I try to shake the weird vibe radiating over my skin. I’m going to be late from lunch and I don’t miss the irony of Naomi as my cause. 

One more kiss. It’s the reason I was late, once upon a time.

I’m still puzzled by the woman inside the library as I sling a leg over my bike—a 2012 CVO Softail Convertible Harley—and set the books inside my side satchel. On days like today, I love my motorcycle just a little bit more. A brisk ride through fresh air and over quiet roads will reset me. Clear of Naomi’s presence and those leering lick-me eyes, I relinquish thoughts of her. 

I don’t need the local librarian. 

I have Charlese. 

With conviction, I decide to pay her a visit on Friday night and rid my mind of one mysterious library worker. The idea rumbles through me as the sound of my metallic baby roars to life. After my two daughters, Dahlia and Dandelion, this machine is my life. The vibrating hum is music to my ears, although she’s running loud today, as I peel onto the road leading to my current build. Maybe I need the engine checked. Maybe I enjoy the noise, drowning out the sounds in my head. Ones I wish to forget from a particular night eighteen years ago. I will myself not to think of then, telling myself I’m just wound up from seeing Naomi again. 

Then I glance over at my side view mirror and notice two bikes flanking my rear.

Shit

More reminders I wish to forget.

The Iron Wraiths. Specifically, Catfish and his sidekick, Drill, are behind me. It’s rare to see the two separated, however, the first time I saw Catfish after returning to Green Valley he was with Dirty Dave. I’m surprised the old buzzard Dave was still alive. Actually, I was surprised to find Catfish still living. All the shit the Iron Wraiths have done makes my skin crawl, even though I know that most likely not every member has participated in the various rumors I’ve heard. 

You owe me. His voice rings through my head—deep, determined, and dangerous. It’s the new tone of my old acquaintance, Curtis Hickson, aka Catfish. I can no longer give him a friendly label. I deserted him, and he will spare nothing to remind me of it. When I returned to Green Valley, I did my best to avoid him. I flew under the radar for months until I went to the damn racetrack with my older brother Todd, and his best friend, Big Poppy. Catfish was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. Sixteen years banished from my home. Had that night been a mistake? Undoubtedly, the Iron Wraiths would have been the biggest mistake of my life.

“You were never to come back here again,” Catfish growled.

“I have family here. Kids. A home. A job.”

“So, you’re living the straight and narrow life, and you think all can be forgiven?”

“Have I done you wrong in the years I’ve been gone?”

My response had stumped Catfish. He knew I was right. I hadn’t shared a club secret in all the time that had passed. I didn’t know anything new about them other than what the general public heard. Incarcerations. Disappearances. Suspicious activities. I wasn’t anymore a threat to the Wraiths than anyone else.

Still.

I did know a few incriminating details, and I’m sure Catfish remembers one particular night involving me. Our secrets keep us locked together, circling each other, but I want to stay on the periphery, not at the center.

I turn into the drive leading to the construction site and release a breath. I don’t look over my shoulder as I cut my engine and hear their bikes continue down the mountain road.

If Catfish wanted to run me off the road, he could have done it.

You owe me.

If he wanted to shoot me in the back, he would have done it.

You owe me.

But Catfish hasn’t done any of those things. Yet. He has other plans. He wants me to patch in again. Been there. Done that. And not a chance of Jon Snow resurrecting Eddard Stark will I return to the Wraiths. They could run me off the road or shoot me in the back, and even then, I wouldn’t consider being one of them. I paid my time. I did my banishment. I just want to live in peace.

I enter the job site, grateful Bill Monroe isn’t present, and head for the third floor of the monstrosity we are building. Among the stud-framed walls, peacefulness triggers a certain someone with lick-me eyes and deep maroon lips. I shiver at the possibility of her anywhere near my history, even when she’s a slivered part of said past. She’s too good for me. I knew it back then. I know it now. 

I don’t have to fully recall what she wore, or what we did, or what we said. I remember the feeling of her as if it was yesterday. I’m stuck on you. There’s something about her—something different—unique even. But Naomi looks complicated, and I don’t do complicated, I think as I find my toolbox on the third level, strip off my jacket, and strap on my toolbelt. 

I’ve had enough complication in my life. Been burned twice by complicated women already. What I need is Charlese—simple, sensual, specified. The routine of her keeps me away from random barflies and one-night stands—both of which have been trouble for me in the past—so I stick to a regular girl now. My girl Friday.

I’m stuck on you. I shake my head and double-check the plan for the bathroom I’ll be framing out, but my mind wanders.

Charlese isn’t someone I’d bring home to Ma and the girls, but I like her just fine. When I want the physical interaction of another body, Charlese is willing. We don’t need to talk. We don’t share feelings. 

Get in. Get it on. Get out. 

It works. 

It works well enough, my heart thumps. 

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement as Charlese has no interest in a serious relationship. We keep things between us carefree and low-key. Easy. However, my heart hammers within my chest, my memories swirling like a buzz saw. A wild beauty acting recklessly in the wrong bar. Teasing me. Wanting me. Giving in to me. 

The woman in the library merges with the girl in my mind’s eye. Long curly hair of gray and silver blur over the raven color in my memory. Eyes the hue of smoldering charcoal brighten a little to sterling silver. A twist of red lips whisper of sweet kisses turned eager and electric. 

I’m stuck on you

The remaining condoms in my satchel come to mind, and I’m suddenly thinking of using a few with someone other than Charlese. Eccentric clothes, silver waves, and bloodred lips are not a combination I thought would attract me—but I find myself bewitched nonetheless.

** END SNEAK PEEK **

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