Authors: Shannon Stacey
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
Maybe she hadn’t expressed herself well. Maybe he’d overreacted. Maybe it was a little of both, but there was no maybe about the fact that they were over. He’d been so cold at the end, his body language totally unforgiving.
She cried for an hour, drenching her pillow in her effort to be quiet in case Jake came upstairs. She never heard him, so either he was very quiet or he stayed downstairs until after she’d cried herself to sleep.
He was gone before she woke up, and she spent the morning packing her car. When the cooks and Karen showed up to start prepping and there was still no sign of Jake’s truck, she said her goodbyes, wished them all luck and hit the road.
It felt as if she were leaving her heart behind. The drive seemed endless as she fought to keep her emotions under control. She’d been right all along. The pain
too much to bear and she should have walked away the day she got there.
She gave herself twenty-four hours to wallow in heartbreak and then she showered, dressed and drove to Jasper’s Bar & Grille.
“Darcy!” Paulie was so glad to see her she gave everybody a round on the house.
The other woman had barely gotten her arms around Darcy for a welcome-home hug before she started sobbing on her shoulder.
“Shit. Office. Let’s go.”
She let Paulie lead her there like a little kid and push her into a chair. Once the door was closed, Paulie got comfortable in Kevin’s chair. “Okay, spill.”
So she spilled. The entire story, from meeting at trivia night to finding out Jake and J.P. were one and the same to the horrible end of the story the night Jasper’s Pub opened. By the time she was finished, she was pretty much cried out, which was good because she’d decimated the box of tissues Kevin kept on his desk.
“You know I love you,” Paulie said. “You also know I’m not good at the whole girl-talk thing, so I’m going to be straight with you. You’re both idiots.”
That surprised a laugh out of Darcy, and she knew she’d come to the right shoulder to cry on. “How did we screw it up so badly?”
“He’s a man and you’re a woman. Trust me, that comes naturally.” Paulie grabbed a bottle of water out of the mini fridge and handed it to her. “Obviously Valentine’s Day’s a big deal for him.”
“It’s a big deal for the pub, yes.”
“And he wanted you to be there with him and you told him you’d see if you could fit it in?”
“He wanted me to be there for the pub. That’s work.”
“Are you sure? It’s the most romantic holiday of the year, and you guys are supposed to be doing the falling-in-love thing, so what do you think it says to him that you don’t really care one way or the other if you spend it with him?”
Darcy picked at the label on the water bottle. “He kept saying I’d worked too hard to miss being there. Why didn’t he tell me he loves me and he wants me to be there with him?”
“I don’t know. Because he’s a guy?”
“Then tell me, Dr. Paulie, why
it more important to me to spend the most romantic night of the year with him?”
“I don’t know. The female mind is a screwed-up thing. Men are easier.”
“Great.” She drank some of the water just because Paulie had gotten it for her. “We were in work mode and Valentine’s Day has been a work thing. If he’d asked me while we were cuddling on the couch or in bed or something if I’d go back to spend the evening with
it would have been different, I think.”
“So tell him that.”
Darcy shook her head, blinking back a new wave of tears. “When he walked away, it was like he flipped a switch. It was over.”
“Doesn’t work like that. There is no switch when it’s the right guy. It can be years and then you see him and—
—you can’t even breathe.”
That’s how it had worked for Paulie and her husband. It had been years since she jilted Sam at the altar, but he’d walked into Jasper’s one day and, as she said,
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Paulie continued. “If you love him and you think there’s even the slimmest chance you might still work it out, you have to be there on Valentine’s Day.”
“Even if he won’t speak to me?”
“He will. Like I said, there’s no switch.”
“It’ll hurt if it’s not enough.”
“It hurts now, right? The important thing is that you let him know he
more important than whatever else you have going on. If it’s not enough for him, we’ll put his picture over the dartboard and have a tournament. But I’m thinking I won’t fire Courtney just yet.”
* * *
absence made the heart grow fonder. Now he knew it also gave a guy time to think and realize he’d acted like a total jerk.
On the first day, when he came home to find her car gone and a note on the counter that said nothing but
and her name, he’d stayed good and pissed off. The second day the heartache and the missing her kicked in. Day three had brought the first inklings of clarity. And today came the realization he’d totally blown it.
Darcy didn’t know the Valentine’s Day thing was about more than two-for-one Big-Ass Steaks and putting Jasper’s Pub on the map. She didn’t know he’d been working on the right words to say to make her want to stay with him. She didn’t know about the ring. She didn’t know he was going to tell her he loved her and ask her to be his wife.
He’d basically told her she’d worked too hard not to be there to watch happy couples eat their half-price steaks and then totally overreacted when she pointed out she had a life that had been on hold for over a month and might need some of her attention.
And to really top things off, he still didn’t have her freaking cell phone number. Wasn’t that just a kick in the ass?
There was nothing he could do but call the Bar & Grille and hope Kevin would give him the number without verbally taking his pound of flesh first. He’d screwed up, he knew it, and he wasn’t in the mood for a lecture.
“Jasper’s Bar & Grille, Paulie speaking.”
“Hey, it’s Jake Holland. Is Kevin around, by any chance?”
He was beginning to wonder if she’d hung up on him before she finally answered, “He’s not, actually. Something I can help you with?”
“I need Darcy’s number.”
“I’m sorry. We don’t give out our employees’ personal information.”
He knew she wouldn’t make it easy for him. “Technically, she’s been an employee of Kevin
and I need to contact her, which is entirely different.”
“Really? That’s the way you want to play it?”
He sighed. “I love her and I fucked up and I need to make it right.”
“You got a pen?”
Screw pens. He had a fat-tipped permanent marker and a big beige wall. “I’m ready.
“Thanks, Paulie,” he said when he’d read it back to her just to make sure he didn’t screw that up, too. “I hope she’ll listen to me.”
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told her. There’s no off switch. Stop being idiots and work it out.”
He took a few minutes to gather his courage and give some profound speech time to pop into his head. Nothing came, so he took a slug of beer and dialed Darcy’s number.
And got sent straight to voice mail.
When it beeped, signaling it was his turn to talk, he still didn’t know what to say. “Hi, it’s Jake. I...uh. I’m sorry. That’s the most important thing. I’m sorry. I really want you to spend Valentine’s Day with me. There’s this great place called Jasper’s Pub and they’re having a special dinner. I’d like you to be here because...dammit, I’m not telling you I love you on your voice mail. I want you to be my date because it’s Valentine’s Day and it won’t be special without you. That’s it, I guess. I’m sorry and I hope you’ll come back.”
He hung up and rested his forehead against the kitchen cabinet. All he could do now was wait. And plan. It was going to be a Valentine’s Day she’d never forget.
If she came.
* * *
how many snowmobiles were parked up and down the road in front of Jasper’s Pub. There were some in the parking lot, too, along with a respectable number of cars and trucks. Jake and Kevin had pulled it off. With her help, of course.
Thankfully nobody had parked in the two spaces marked as reserved for the apartment, so she parked next to Jake’s truck, even though she technically shouldn’t. But she was wearing heels instead of boots and there was a limit to how far she could walk in the damn things. Especially in the cold.
She went around to the front door and stood inside, taking it all in. There were couples and laughter and roses and trays of chocolates and little candy hearts set around the dining room, as well as down the bar.
Nerves danced in her stomach and it took all of her self-control not to reach over and snatch a glass of champagne from the nearest table. She’d listened to his voice mail message a hundred times just to hear him say he wouldn’t tell her loved her on her voice mail, but she was still anxious about seeing him. She probably should have called him back, but she was afraid talking things through over the phone could go wrong so easily.
Smoothing the front of the red dress she’d bought just for the occasion, she looked around the restaurant again, this time looking for Jake. She was expecting him to be moving around the room, checking on customers and helping the staff, so she almost missed him sitting at the bar, an empty stool next to him.
Then Karen spotted her. “Look, everybody, Darcy’s here!”
And everybody turned to look before a cheer went up. She froze, not sure what the hell was going on. Then Jake turned to face her, and nothing else mattered anymore. Paulie was right. There was no off switch.
He walked over to take her hand. “My partner’s here, so let’s play!”
She let him lead her to the stool. “What’s going on?”
“It’s the Valentine’s Day thing. Shindig. Shebang. Whatever you want to call it.”
She’d anticipated a quiet table in the corner where they could talk. Instead, all eyes were on them and Karen, for some reason, had a microphone.
God, please don’t let it be karaoke,
“Okay, everybody, let’s play Valentine’s Day trivia! Remember, the winning couple doesn’t pay for dinner.” From what Darcy could tell, half the room had signed up to play. But Karen looked at her. “Jake and Darcy, you’re up first. Which day of the week is said to be named in honor of the Norse god of combat and victory?”
Jake rested his arm across the back of her stool and leaned over to brush his lips against her ear. “Tuesday.”
The night they met, which was funny. “Tuesday,” she repeated to be official.
“That’s correct!” Karen went around the room, asking each couple a Valentine’s Day-themed trivia question. Darcy wasn’t sure how Tuesday fit in, but it was fun, anyway.
When their turn came around again, Darcy didn’t miss the wink Karen sent Jake’s way. “Which permanent marker was introduced by the Sanford Ink Company in 1964?”
Again, Jake brushed his lips across her ear. She really couldn’t think when he did that. “Sharpie.”
It wasn’t until Jake answered a question about a popular stove-top dish introduced by Kraft Foods in 1937 that Darcy realized the questions had very little to do with the holiday at hand and a lot to do with her.
This time she did the leaning over and whispering in his ear. “What are you doing?”
“I asked myself what kind of gift I could give you for Valentine’s Day that would be uniquely you.”
” she corrected.
His expression grew serious and he laced his fingers through hers. “Is there still an us?”
The diners around them applauded and cheered for another couple, and Darcy sighed. “Is there someplace more quiet we could talk? Maybe come back to this later?”
Without letting go of her hand, he signaled to Karen that they’d be back and led her into the kitchen. She was surprised when he took her out the back door and up the stairs. Luckily there was no wind, so she wasn’t too numb by the time he closed the apartment door behind them.
The first thing she saw was her telephone number scrawled on the wall in black marker. “What did you do?”
“Didn’t want to lose it again.” When he shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders, she could tell he was nervous. “I know this isn’t the most exciting place to live. And I know you like your job at the bar and have your own place. And I’m not going to lie to you. I like it here. Even if I hadn’t given my word to Kevin that I’d stick it out until it ran in the black long enough to hire a manager, I’d drag my feet about leaving. But I want you in my life, Darcy, even if it’s only for one weekend a month and a week here or there. I’ll take it, if you still want me.”
“I’ll always want you.”
“And I’m sorry I was a jerk that night. I was excited about Valentine’s Day because that’s when I was going to tell you I love you. It’s all I could think about, and when you said you might not come... I know it’s stupid because you didn’t know what was in my head, but I felt like you’d rejected me.” He had to stop and clear his throat. “I got so wrapped up in the life I was making here I lost sight of the fact that you already had one waiting for you to go back to.”
“You know what my life there doesn’t have that this one does? You. And I love Jasper’s Bar & Grille. I always will. But when I was there, I realized that’s Kevin and Paulie’s place. They built it together and it’s special. I feel that here. This is ours and it’s special.”
“I love you, Darcy.” He pulled his hands out of his pockets, and in one hand he had a small box. “I bought this before you left.”
He opened the lid, and Darcy’s breath caught in her throat. The diamond caught the light from overhead and winked at her. “It’s beautiful.”
“I want to marry you. I love you and I want you to be my wife.”
“I love you, too. And I want you to know I’d made up my mind to come tonight before you called. No matter what I was going to be here.”
“So, will you marry me?”