Authors: Evelyn Aster
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
“Rough week?” asked Chloe.
“It's November.” She stated it as if it were a full explanation before continuing, “Work was okay, but my sisters are in an uproar that I'm insisting on hosting Thanksgiving this year. Won't you please, please give me the recipe for the Holiday Cafe pecan pie?”
Hudson loved pecan pie, but mostly he was fascinated by seeing in person a woman he'd only exchanged texts with.
Chloe held up her hands. “I told you, I don't have the authority to do that. Just buy one.” She didn't seem angry, just a little exasperated.
anything. Grandma's coming.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a business card. “Give this to whoever can give me the recipe...I'm willing to pay.”
Chloe took the card, tucked it into her skirt pocket and said, “You have a visitor.”
The muscles in Hudson’s neck tightened when he realized he was about to be introduced. She was even better than he'd allowed himself to imagine.
“Oh, really? I wasn't planning on meeting anyone today.”
Chloe nodded her head towards Hudson. He fumbled to stand up and meet Stacy's gaze. The shocked expression on her face brought the stalker thoughts back. He should've told her he was coming. Hell, he should've asked before coming or just not come at all.
And then she smiled. “Hudson?”
He must've nodded because she embraced him. Just like that. Like they were actual friends and not just casual acquaintances from an Internet game. His hands wrapped around her waist, but he tried to keep space between them so she didn't feel how hard he was for her. She smelled like money with a hint of flowers. He pulled away and sat down before he gave into the urge to grip her against his body.
“You should've told me you were coming! God, I can't believe it. Chloe, this is that soldier I was telling you about, who I met playing Words with Friends.”
He was all sorts of happy and scared that she'd told someone about him before they'd even met.
Chloe said, “I thought you might be that guy. Even before you told me your discharge day was the same as the release of the Apple Pie Latte, your haircut gave you away as a soldier.”
He grinned, still reeling from the warm welcome. “I'm sure I'll be this way the rest of my life. I get twitchy if my hair gets below my ears.”
Stacy put a hand over her mouth. “But if you're here--”
He knew his face reddened. He didn't want to talk about that. But there was probably no way around it.
Chloe asked, “The usual, Stacy?”
“Oh, yeah.” She lifted her purse and started to search through it, but Hudson put his hand over hers—soft and warm.
“I'll get it,” he said and pulled away his hand. He took a ten spot from his wallet and slid it across the counter. “Keep the change.”
“Thanks!” said Chloe, snatching up the bill.
Stacy took the seat next to his, and he sat back down. His pulse raced, letting him know he still lived and hadn't died and gone to the Heaven of Welcome Home Soldier. He should've come straight here to start. This was his true homecoming. “I'm sorry I didn't let you know. I wasn't exactly sure I'd end up here. I hit the road on my motorcycle, and then here I was.”
“I'm glad to finally meet you, but I know you were looking forward to seeing your girlfriend. I hope she didn't notice our game and get jealous. I mean, you were the one who started it, but it was all play.”
“I'm the one who started it? It was you.” Cool, he could delay the story with a mock argument.
“I used the word cock meaning rooster. You're the one who sent the first dirty word after that.”
“You don't send a soldier the word cock and expect him to think of rooster right away. You started it.”
They grinned at each other, and she tilted her head down and gazed up at him through thick lashes. She was the perfect sort of woman to make him forget not just the broken relationship, but the war. Chloe slid the latte to her and walked away. Stacy said, “Would you like to sit in the couch by the fireplace? It's more comfortable.”
He looked over to see that the cuddling couple had left. He nodded, thinking he'd prefer a couch at her place, but he was getting way ahead of himself. He should just be glad she hadn't run away. He followed her over to the couch, watching her ass more than where he was going. Maybe the breakup had been for the best if he wanted a new woman so soon. Or maybe Stacy was just that incredible. Or maybe it'd been too long since he'd fucked.
She sat in the corner of the couch by the fire, leaving him either the middle section close to her or the end section far from her. He decided to sit at the far edge of the middle section so he wouldn't crowd her but they could talk comfortably. She set her latte on the coffee table, and he took another sip before setting his next to hers.
“Do you like it? Or is it far too girly for a soldier?”
“Don't tell my platoon, but I think it's awesome. It's like my grandma's apple pie.”
“I know, right? My grandma always laced caramel across the crust. So good.”
“Is she not bringing it with her for Thanksgiving?”
She was just about to take a sip of her latte when he asked the question, but she put it back down on the table and said, “No, that was my other grandma who made the apple pie—the stereotypical grandma who baked pies and sewed quilts. She died a few years ago.”
He automatically took her hand from her lap and held it. “I'm sorry.”
She seemed startled but then wrapped her fingers around his. “Thanks. The grandma who's coming to Thanksgiving makes me feel like I never do anything right. But I just bought a home, and I want to show her I'm a competent adult and not a kid who breaks the dishes whenever I try to help with dinner.”
“I'm afraid I can't be much help with recipes. I haven't cooked in nine years.”
“That's okay. I have all the Internet at my disposal if it comes to that.” She paused but looked at their hands together instead of at him. He was moving way too fast, but it was a relief to give into something when he spent his day trying to keep sudden noises from taking him back to the war. He needed some relief. She looked up and said, “So, since you're here, and holding my hand, I have to know what happened. Do you think I’m a rebound fuck or what?”
She caught him mid-sip, and whipped cream flew when he coughed into his cup. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Rebound fuck?”
“Our word games may have given you the wrong idea about me. I still can't believe you're sitting next to me. I'm just trying to figure out if you think of me as a sure thing or a shoulder to cry on.”
He leaned his elbow on the back of the couch and propped his face on his fist. She was unlike any woman he'd ever met. A real “put your cards on the table” kind of person. “Would it surprise you to know that I think of you as a possible friend? Going home was a disaster. You just gave me a warmer welcome than anyone in Austin. And yeah, since you mentioned it, the possibility of getting laid had crossed my mind, but you’re by no means a sure thing.”
She seemed to size up the situation for a moment, leaned her elbow on the couch too and said, “So what happened?”
He took a deep breath in preparation. The betrayal was worse than not being with Bev anymore. Maybe telling someone about it would make him feel differently. “So I arrived at the airport after an ungodly long flight, ready to see Bev for the first time since forever. And there she was, with my brother Colton.”
Stacy's eyes widened. “I hope this isn't going where I think it is.”
He pressed on, wanting to tell the story fast. “She gave me the quickest hug ever, like a split second, and no kiss. Not even a peck on the cheek. My brother gave me a longer hug and went on and on about how he was so glad I'd made it through the war safely, like all the way to the baggage carousel. I kept trying to get Bev to talk to me or even make eye contact, but she wouldn't look at me. And then in the car Colton told me. They were getting married. Bev didn't even say one word. She let Colton do all the talking.” He gave a big sigh. It was out. Done. He shivered as if still feeling the backdraft of Bev's coldness, but his heart had no warmth for her anymore.
Stacy tightened her grip on his hand. His blood surged for her, and he remembered all the messages she'd sent him for the past year. “No way. They just dumped it on you like that?”
“I don't know how they could've done it better, but they sure as hell couldn't have done it worse.”
“No shit. So what did you do?”
“I had no idea what to do or say. I just sat there like an idiot. When we got to my parents’ house, I stayed for dinner, pretty much ignoring Colton and Bev, and then took off on my bike with my carry-on. When I ended up here, I figured even if you told me to get the hell away from you it'd be at least understandable.”
To his surprise, she leaned in with her face only inches from his. “I'm not going to do that. I'm afraid soldiers are a weak spot of mine. You spent all that time serving our country, so I'll have to buy you dinner at least.”
He brushed a stray hair away from her eye and tucked it behind her ear. Kissing her now would be too fast given that they were pretty much strangers, but she didn't seem to be holding back.
And then her phone rang.