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Authors: Sable Hunter

Pretty Face (3 page)

BOOK: Pretty Face
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‘Carpenter Work Needed—Kitchen Renovation—Call Cody Napier.’ A local number was listed.

Hunter thanked the man and walked over to a customer service area to place the call. If this contact worked out, he’d rent some tools and be in business. Sage would just have to understand that he was serious. Hunter Reed wasn’t a quitter.

 

*  *  *

 

As her identity was split, so was her time. Truly, Cody worked from dawn till dusk—and after. Her classes and research at LSU came first. She never took her responsibilities to her students lightly and the time spent in the lab was her sanctuary. Secondly, she supported her partners in The Right One dating service. After they’d set the system up, paid for all the programming to be done that Marnie couldn’t finish, they’d hired a few tech gurus to run things, and Cody had been able to back off. Her main responsibility now was to monitor the feedback, to review the messages and ratings they got from satisfied or unsatisfied customers. The trio still met once a month at Willow Bend and reviewed things—mostly they got together to visit—but all in all, the dating service was going well.

Right now, she was reading a letter from a woman who praised TRO. “Dear TRO. Thank you so much for providing a place where I didn’t feel inadequate. I’ve always been a little overweight and completely self-conscious about it. But finding a source where everyone was honest about their shortcomings up front made it so much easier. We are all more than the sum of our attributes, but many times we get hung up on one issue and completely ignore what is wonderful about one another. Randy and I have been on three dates and he’s asked to be exclusive. I’m a very happy woman. Helen.”

Cody smiled, Helen seemed happy. If only she could be so lucky. Oh well, nothing had happened to her that she didn’t bring on herself…even the abuse, or so her mother said. When her land-line rang unexpectedly, Cody answered it automatically without checking the read-out. Only one person called regularly on the land-line. Nana or the nursing home for Nana. “Hello,” she croaked, unnerved.

“Is this Ms. Napier?”

Cody went stock still. Was she mistaken? She cleared her throat and glanced at the read-out. God! It was Hunter. Had he found her? How had he found her? “Yes.” She spoke in her own voice, not the Cajun lilt he was used to hearing from her.

“Hello. My name is Hunter Reed. I got your name from Mr. Treadaway at Home Hardware. I believe you’re looking for someone to redo your kitchen?”

Shit. Shit. Shit. “That’s right.” Her head was spinning. This was Hunter! Her Hunter!

“Could I come over and give you an estimate and show you some photos of my work?”

Almost—almost—she told him the job was no longer available. Almost, she hung up on him. Almost, she confessed. But she did none of those things. The temptation to see him, be near him was too great to resist. “Okay.” He probably wouldn’t want the job after he saw the extent of the renovations and found out the age of the cottage. The home was a nineteenth century period structure and the plumbing and electrical wiring was in major need of updating.

“Would it be okay if I came over now? I have the time and I would love to get the ball rolling if you find my work acceptable.”

God, he sounded so professional. Cody sighed. He sounded so beloved. “Sure, of course.” She gave him her address, wishing her voice wasn’t quite so husky. He probably thought she sounded like a guy.

“All right. I’ll be there as soon as I can find your street. I’m new here.”

After he’d hung up, Cody jumped up and ran around the house, picking up and straightening as much as she could. The dogs and cats thought it was a game. They followed, barking and meowing, bouncing around. When she’d done that, it hit her that there were things he’d sent her scattered around also. She had a jewelry box he’d made with his own hands, a photograph of Hunter himself for her nightstand, and a vintage Elvis poster he’d paid top-dollar for. She dashed from room to room and finally Cody felt safe she’d hidden everything that connected Cody to her alias and her cyber life with Hunter.

Out of breath, she sat down, then jumped up, panicking again, realizing she needed to freshen up and put on some makeup. He might not know who she was, but there was no use grossing the man out. With shaking hands, she brushed her teeth, fixed her hair and applied enough lipstick and eyeshadow to make herself halfway presentable. Again, she left off the sunglasses and hat. There was no use hiding behind them, he probably wouldn’t pay much more attention to her now than he did at the airport earlier. Deciding the animals would be better off in the backyard, she turned them out, then stood by the door like she was awaiting an executioner. Still, when the doorbell rang she jerked. Taking a deep breath, Cody slowly opened the door. “Come in.”

Hunter wasn’t in a good mood. He’d missed his turn twice and his cell phone was just about dead. On top of that, he’d left his charger at the first motel room. “Thanks. If you’ll show me the way, we’ll get started.” He wanted to get this show on the road.

After her bout of nerves, the fact that Hunter didn’t even look at her beyond a sideways glance was almost a relief. Heck, he probably didn’t even remember seeing her at the airport. Talk about not making an impression! Cody felt totally invisible. “Sure, follow me.” She took him to the kitchen and pointed out the things she wanted changed. To make things easier, she had photos from magazines and even a little sketch she’d made herself. Holding it out to him, she realized her hands were shaking. Being this close to him was killing her. This was Hunter, her Hunter, and she couldn’t even let on. Out of habit, she kept the scarred side of her face turned away from him as much as possible.

“This is good. Thanks. You did a great job.” Hunter was impressed. The woman seemed a bit nervous, but she had it all together, so different from most clients he dealt with. Usually initial visits were useless because the customer really had no idea what they wanted. It was hard to give an estimate when the parameters of the job were so fluid.

“Thanks.” Cody didn’t know what to do. Her mind was racing, her palms were sweating, and she was scared to death. “I wasn’t sure you’d want the job since the house is so old.”

Hunter took a few steps deeper into her home, glancing at the living room, dining room and the hall that led to the bedrooms. “No, this is right down my alley. I love to work on old homes. I’ve been able to redo a couple in Denver that dated back to the early 1900s. It’s my dream to renovate a plantation or Greek revival home someday.”

Cody was surprised. She hadn’t known that about him. He’d been holding out, she surmised. “You’re certainly in the right part of the world for that opportunity.” Almost she asked him about his plans, but she was too chicken.

“Yea, I am.” His hand reached out to touch the antique paneling. “I just don’t know how long I’ll be here.”

Cody gasped, understanding what he was saying. Quickly, she coughed, attempting to recover. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Yea, that’d be nice.” Hunter sat down at the kitchen table and began to figure prices and materials. He asked her a few questions, which she answered, trying to keep her voice from cracking. Knowing his preference, she went to the refrigerator and instinctively selected a cold root beer, handing it to him. Over the last few months she’d found herself buying and trying things he preferred, just as a way to feel nearer to him.

“Hey, thanks, I love root beer.” He chuckled, opened it, and took a big swig.

Watching him swallow was like watching porn. She shivered. Funny, she would’ve thought being near him and not being able to touch him would be agony. But she was so freakin’ aware of how perfect he was compared to her own imperfections that the idea seemed too farfetched to consider. It was like watching a bird fly. You could admire it from a distance, but you knew there was no way you were going to sprout wings and take flight yourself.

“Here, while I work up a plan, I’d like you to review some of my work.” Hunter handed her a folder he’d been carrying. “In there you’ll find some photographs and recommendations.”

“Thank you.” She took it, opened it up, and marveled at what was inside. The papers smelled like him, a woodsy fresh scent. She wanted to pick them up and inhale. No video or photo had prepared her for him—right here—in the flesh. Carefully, she touched each page, enjoying the images of things he’d created and homes he’d brought to life. “They’re beautiful. You do marvelous work.”

“Good, I’m glad you think so.”

Cody sat at the far end of the table, stealing glances at him when she could. She reverted to an old habit, one elbow on the table with her palm covering the side of her face. It was a pitiful endeavor to look halfway normal while obscuring the ugliness she lived with every day.

After a little while, he finished, tearing off the slip of paper which explained his proposal, handing it to her. “I can go put an order in for these materials, if you agree on my labor.”

He held the paper out to her, and she took it, studying the numbers. They were blurry. Blinking her eyes, she focused, trying to make sense of it. Even though the work on her house wasn’t nearly as important as what was going on between her and Hunter, she settled her thoughts enough to realize what he offered was very reasonable.

For a few minutes, she stalled. What should she do? Having Hunter around would be sweet torture. On the other hand, she’d have the opportunity to spend some stolen time with him. He wouldn’t know who she was, but at least she could be good to him while he was here. Cody owed Hunter so much. Maybe they could be friends. Telling him the truth at this point was out of the question, but hell, she didn’t know what she was thinking…this whole situation was a farce—a fiasco.

“Well, what do you think? Do I have the job?”

She looked up into his dear face. How could she tell him no? “Yes, I agree. You have the job.”

Hunter smiled, and the woman smiled back at him. She had a beautiful smile. And she looked strangely familiar. Where had he seen her before? While he studied her, she kept one small hand over the very obvious scar on her face as if she were trying to keep him from noticing it. What she succeeded in doing was to draw attention to it, probably not what she intended. He wanted to wince. It looked like it had once been painful as hell. He didn’t ask about it, although he considered it. Ms. Napier seemed extremely self-conscious about it all. “Thank you, I look forward to working for you.” He held out his hand. “Like I said before, I’m Hunter Reed.”

She looked at his hand. God, she was going to touch Hunter. Her first time to touch him and he wouldn’t even know it was her. “Cody. I’m Cody Napier.” She shook his hand and a wave of absolute love swamped her soul. “It’s so good to meet you.”

“Okay!” Hunter stood up, apparently through. “Let me go get the materials we need and I’ll be back to work for you first thing in the morning.”

“All right.” She followed him out of her kitchen. As he walked ahead of her, she studied him, memorizing his height, his breadth, the way he smiled, the rhythm of his walk. He was her Hunter. The man she loved.

“By the way.” He stopped. “Let me ask you something. Would you happen to know a woman by the name of Sage Donovan?”

Cold dread rose in her bones. Imperceptibly, she began to shake. “Sage Donovan?” She repeated. “No, I don’t believe so. I do tend to keep to myself, however. There are people moving in all the time.”

“Thanks, it’s just so odd.” Hunter sighed. “I know she lives here. I’ve talked to her every day for months. I’ve got packages from her labeled with this zip code and I’ve mailed things to her at a PO Box here. Yet, no one I’ve asked has ever heard of her.”

“Why are you looking for her? What is she to you?” Cody blurted out the question. She just wanted to hear his answer. Whether she was torturing him or torturing herself, she didn’t know.

“She’s the woman I love,” he stated flatly, laughing wryly. “That sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? I’m looking for the woman I love and I’ve never been in the same room with her.” He sighed and kicked the floor with his foot. “I don’t mean to bore you. I just have to find her. I don’t have a choice.”

Cody crossed her arms over her chest, mainly to keep from throwing them around him. She ached to hold him. “I hope you find her.” The words cost her dearly. She meant them and she didn’t. How she managed to maintain her composure long enough to see him out the door and make arrangements for the next day, Cody didn’t know.

The moment his rental truck left the driveway, she collapsed in a sea of tears. She was a coward. Not only was she a coward, she was a sadistic, cold-hearted coward. As surely as she was breathing, Hunter was suffering—needlessly. The last few months had been a calculated ploy on her part just so she could experience the sensations of admiration, sexual attraction, and love.

None of it was real.

Oh, their emotions were real enough. But online infatuations were only as good as the people involved and while Hunter was the real thing, Sage Donovan was an unadulterated fraud.

Twice, she took phone in hand to call him and confess. Twice, she failed. Finally, she let the animals back in and fed them. When she couldn’t settle down, Cody walked out of the house and ran for about two miles in the late winter chill, trying to run hard enough and far enough to escape the ache in her heart and the burn in her throat. How was she going to handle this? What good could come out of it? With a heavy heart, she started toward home. Maybe she needed to sleep on it, pray about it—ha! What did God think about a liar such as she? Scripture said all liars have a place in hell. This was true. She could vouch for it. Cody Napier lived in hell. A hell of her own making.

BOOK: Pretty Face
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