Authors: Shirley Jump
For a second, she panicked, thinking he'd guessed her identity. Then she caught his gaze and saw the tease in his blue eyes. “Me? I'm just Allie.”
“Well, Just Allie, you're making me forget.”
He traced along her jaw, his gaze so intent, she nearly had to look away.
More lingered in his words, his look, than Allie wanted to deal with. She intended revenge, a love-him-and-leave-him strategy, not to care about Duncan Henry or what he was trying to forget.
Get in, get out,
her mind screamed.
But her heart flickered to life, demanding she care about this man. That she remember the boy who'd called her Grace and once told her he liked her eyes because they were the only honest ones he knew.
Her plan was going wrong, but it was the kind of blissful wrong she couldn't turn away from, couldn't stop.
THE BACHELOR PREFERRED PASTRY
THE ANGEL CRAVED LOBSTER
THE DEVIL SERVED TORTELLINI
THE BRIDE WORE CHOCOLATE
And don't miss her Christmas novella in:
SUGAR AND SPICE
Published by Zebra Books
Kensington Publishing Corp.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold.
But Allie Dean, who knew what a good meal could do forâand toâa girl, figured she'd take it hot, cold, or Ã la mode.
She stood on the side of State Road 89, bouncing a smooth, round rock in her palm, contemplating a little malicious property damage. Before her loomed the
Welcome to Tempest, Indiana,
sign, the words written in a bright, happy-looking ivy-bordered script.
Beneath that sat a bright red footnoteâT
APITAL OF THE
It wasn't much, as claims to fame went. But Tempest had greedily accepted the gift from the Kitty Kleen Litter Company, scoopable crystals and allâanything to restore the town and bring in tax dollars. Ten years ago, Tempest's claim to fame had been steel-belted radials. Then John Henry had bought the tire factory, run the rubber into the ground, and sold the building to Kitty Kleen.
In the process, he'd turned Tempest into a desperate laughingstock, which then earned the town a week in the sun of Jay Leno's monologues and not one, but three Top Ten lists from Letterman. Even Jeff Foxworthy had worked Tempest into his redneck routine, saying something about “you know you're a redneck if you're proud to be the second shift scoop manager.”
But hey, at least the no-kill cat shelter did brisk business.
When Allie had left Tempest seven years ago, it had been with the express intention of never, ever coming back.
Who'd have thought she'd
When Tempest had turned out to be a prime location for the latest teen horror film by her employer, Chicken Flicks, Allie had changed her mind. The movie would undoubtedly have a thin plot, a thinner budget, and be followed by thirteen even thinner sequels. In the process, she had to scare up a bunch of extras who didn't mind running around in NC-17-rated undies, covered with gore and trying to escape a furry killer wearing the complete set of Ginsu knives on her fingernails.
Not exactly Academy Award material, but hey, Allie was using this as a step up, not a ticket to a gold statue.
And best of all, after suffering through her teen years here, she had plenty of people in mind for murder victims.
Alone on the road, she stared at the sign, decades-old thoughts of revenge coiling in her stomach. Her grip tightened around the cold, hard stone.
The sign's square-shaped shadow teased at the edges of her toes. Her Prada heels sank into the half-dry mud at the edge of State Road 89. She was dressed head-to-toe in designer duds, yet standing at the town line, she felt like the old Allie all over again.
Tempest. How she'd
When she'd been sixteen and nearly three hundred poundsâher mother's scale had stopped at two-eighty, making her feel like she'd leapt into some kind of category beyond acceptable human sizesâshe'd been the size of a small sofa. The kids at Tempest High had treated her as an object to torture, to use as their own personal joke machine. Or worse, they'd looked away, ignoring her as surely as the puke green hallway walls.
She clenched her jaw and swallowed the lump in her throat, forcing those memories away. It didn't work. The years may have passed, but the sharp, biting sting still lingered.
In junior year, they'd read the
and Allie had wanted to argue with Mrs. Anderson that Ralph Ellison's character had had nothing over Allison Gray. That she had been as invisible as air. As lonely as a single tree in the middle of lush farmland. And as powerless to turn her world around.
She reminded herself she wasn't Allison Gray anymore. She was Allie Dean, at least for a few more days, until the divorce was final. And she sure as hell wasn't invisible anymore, either.
They couldn't hurt her again. Because she wouldn't let them. And she'd come a long wayâa hell of a long wayâsince then.
Allie chucked the stone as hard as she could at the sign. It pinged off the edge, denting the space just above the
That one was for the cheerleaders who'd sat at the next table in the lunchroom. Laughing at her clean plate, her emptied milk carton. By junior year, she'd started skipping lunch, instead finding a corner in the stairway to consume her bologna sandwich and soda, like an incontinent dog banned from the living room.
She bent over, grabbed another rock, threw that one, then a third, a fourth, a fifth. So many that she lost track and the dents in the sign multiplied, one on top of the other. She saw their faces in the sign, heard their laughter at her struggles to climb the stairs. She threw another rock for the prom she had missed. One for the graduation ceremony too painful even to attend. A bigger stone for the gym class that had been pure torture. Tears started streaming down her face, a salty river filled with whale calls, snickers, and worst of all, disdain and disgust.
She picked up two rocks, bigger than the ones before, one in each hand, ready to fire them off, bam-bamâ
“Hey! What'd that sign ever do to you?”
One rock had already flown forward, dinging the corner, leaving a permanent mark in the painted ivy border that danced around the edge. She jerked around, ready with her last piece of stone ammunition, half thinking of throwing it at the person who had interrupted her.
Until she saw who it was.
Oh, hell. Duncan Henry.
Of all the people she'd thought would leave Tempest on the first bus, Duncan Henry would have been at the top of the list. He was bound for bigger things, he'd always said, than this little spittoon of a town.
“So, are you mad at the sign or just looking for some target practice?” he asked.
“Darts,” Allie said, thinking fast, swiping at her face, erasing the tears as he approached. All six-foot-two of him, lean and rugged. Dark hair with piercing blue eyes set off by the blue in his shirt. He had a way of walking, of commanding each step, that flipped a switch in Allie. A switch she'd thought she'd turned off the minute she'd left Tempest.
Obviously, it had just been waiting for Duncan to walk back into her life.
“Darts?” he said.
“Yeah. I couldn't resist the urge to hit a few bull's-eyes.” She hid the second stone behind her back, her face hot.
Yeah, that was believable, considering the Swiss cheese she'd made of the welcome sign. If she hoped to make her time in Tempest work, she'd better beef up her lie-telling skills.
“New in town?”
She smiled. Friendly, out-of-town kind of smile. “Just arrived today.”
He considered her for a moment. Did he recognize her? She waited, heart beating, but no recognition dawned in his blue eyes.
“If you're done beating up the sign,” he said, jerking his chin toward the stones littering the grass in the shadow of the sign, “would you, ah, be interested in getting a cup of coffee? I could show you around, give you the scoop”âhe gestured toward the sign's footnoteâ“no pun intended.”
Allie had to look twice to be sure she saw interest in Duncan Henry's eyes, not the same twisted joke he'd played on her at the senior prom. The whole “pretend I'm interested and then dump the fat chick before the prom” thing.
But no, it was real, impossible-to-miss attraction. The kind that stirred an answering heat in her veins, the tribal music of desire.
In the last five years, she had met menâmany of themâwho had wanted to date her. Take her to bed. Some even wanted to marry her. She'd dated several. Married one. And over the years, her confidence had built until she could handle herself pretty damned well in the male-female sexual dance.
But none of those men had lived in Tempest, Indiana.
And none of them had been Duncan Henry.
The only guy who had ever been nice to her at Tempest High. The only one who had made her believe that maybeâmaybe he'd cared no matter what she looked like.
“Uhâ¦coffee?” she said.
“Yeah. Hot beverage, lots of caffeine, little nutritional value.” He grinned, the same familiar sexy grin that had flipped her stomach in high school every time he'd sat beside her in Algebra II or Trig and marveled over her ability to whip through an equation. Told her she was smart. Good with numbers. His saving grace.
That had been his nickname for her.
The memory hit her, fast, quick, darting in, overriding the pain of his senior-year betrayal. “Hey, Grace, how are you?” A smile, then him sliding in beside her, his book next to hers, two peas, same pod. Pencils twinning, her heart slamming in her chest, wondering if he would ever want more from her than help figuring out what X was.
She looked at him now and realized the power of his smile hadn't dimmed over time. Something tingled in Allie's gut and the first few words she meant to say got lost somewhere between her throat and her mouth. “Coffee soundsâ¦good.”
No, it doesn't
. She wouldn't fall for Duncan Henry again like she had when she'd been twelve and trying on hormones with her training bra. She wanted closure. To show she was way beyond all that crap that had happened years ago.
Back in L.A., she'd told herself she was going to Tempest to find extras, to scout out a spooky house for the opening scene, a cornfield for the climactic moment. But she'd lied.
She'd come here for revenge. For a comeuppance.
And to prove to every resident of Tempest that losing one hundred and seventy pounds had made her into someone totally different. Someone who didn't need the approval of a single damned soul in Tempest, Indiana.
Especially not Duncan Henry.
“There's a diner right down the street,” Duncan said, “about five blocksâ”
“Margie's,” Allie finished, forgetting to play it dumb.
“You've been here before? Do you live in Tempest?” He bent forward, studying her, and for a second, Allie held her breath, sure that he would see past the size six dress and see the size twenty-six she used to be. That he wouldn't see big green eyes deepened by colored contacts, but plain hazel ones hidden behind dark-rimmed glasses. That he'd miss the sleek blond hair, and instead glimpse the mousy, curly brown.
That he would see three times the woman before him, and that he would turn awayâ
But he didn't. No spark of recognition showed in Duncan Henry's blue eyes.
“No. I, ah, saw the sign advertising it on the road back there.” That much was true. The faded, peeling wooden billboard still read M
OME IN AND
INE ON A
. A friendly, perpetually young woman, presumably Margie, was smiling and holding a pie beside the words. Margie's husband Dick had painted that sign back in nineteen seventy-four and it had stayed there, on the outskirts of town, ever since. Never getting a touch-up or a change, although Margie herself had always gone into the Curl Up 'N' Dye for regular tune-ups. Allie doubted anything on Margie's menu went for a dimeâif it ever had. There was no truth in advertising, at least not in Tempest.
People who met the real Margie, who had all the warmth of a porcupine getting a rectal exam, found that out pretty quick.
“I'll take my car and follow you.” Allie sent him a smile, a little helpless-girl wave of her hand. She needed the time to clear her head. Get out of the “Duncan Henry is the cutest thing on the entire planet” thinking and back into “I am a capable woman who is here for a purpose” mode.
“Sure.” Duncan tossed her another grin, then headed back behind her rented Taurus, climbing into a black Miata. He zipped away from the shoulder, spitting pebbles in his wake.
Allie turned back toward the welcome sign. She raised her arm, closed one eye. She let loose the last rock in her fist, watching with satisfaction as it landed squarely in the middle of the word
, compressing the circle of the
like a well.
“Take that, Duncan Henry.” Then she climbed in her car and did the exact same thing he'd done to her seven years ago.
Blew him off.