She’d ended another relationship this morning, the most promising yet, with the high school football coach and Winchester Cove, California’s favorite son, Trey Berenger. They’d been together almost a year--a personal best--but she couldn’t deal with his self-centeredness one more day. And yes, she saw the irony there.
She’d already imagined what the gossips would say: “Just like her mother.” “Didn’t know a good thing when she had it.” “Doesn’t know what she wants.”
Well, one out of three was right. Maybe two. But she was not like her mother. And just to make damned sure she didn’t follow in her mother’s footsteps, she wouldn’t settle for less than true happiness, true love, without a doubt. Trey hadn’t been that guy. Time to move on.
The deep voice startled her. She pivoted to see Noah Weston standing by his truck on the sidewalk in front of the diner.
Noah Weston. Now there was a man who knew what he wanted, and had gone after it. He’d loved her best friend Lily for ten years, the kind of partnership that made everyone around them believe in love and happy endings--except they hadn’t gotten their happy ending. Lily had died two years ago, and Noah had just now stopped wearing his wedding ring.
He approached Ellie now, brown eyes concerned. “Something wrong?”
Damn. She used to be better at hiding her emotions. He’d known her long enough to read her, so she shifted her gaze to the fender of his truck and forced a smile that strained the muscles of her cheeks. “Nothing, just running late.”
She started to edge past him but he caught her arm, his work-roughened fingertips grazing her skin below the short sleeve of her T-shirt. Startled by the gesture, she looked up.
“Something else has you upset.”
She eased back and tucked her hair behind her ear. May as well come clean. He’d find out sooner or later. “I broke up with Trey.” She had to have imagined his sharp indrawn breath, and waited for the inevitable, “Why?” or, “I figured it would happen sooner or later.”
But he didn’t ask those questions. “You doing okay?”
The question surprised a smile out of her, since she’d fully expected to be cast as the bad guy here. “I’ll be just fine.”
“You’ve been together a year?”
He inclined his head toward his truck. “Need a hand moving out?”
Of course Noah wouldn’t judge her. Before Lily, and since, he kept to himself and appreciated people who did the same. That he’d step out of his comfort zone was because of her friendship to Lily, and to him after Lily’s death.
She backed toward the diner, some of the strain easing. The sooner she could make the complete break, the better. “Um, yeah. But aren’t you meeting Matt for breakfast?” She gestured toward the plate glass window, where his friend and daily breakfast partner, the reverend, was watching them. He probably wasn’t the only one.
“He can eat alone today.”
Now she was stalling. She dreaded telling her dad she needed to move home--again. Telling him she needed the morning off. Again. But she needed to cut ties to Trey completely. “Give me a minute. Can someone else open the store for you?”
“We don’t do much business in the morning. Go do what you need to do. I’ll wait here.” He rested against the fender, hands on his thighs.
The bell over the door announced her arrival, but everyone no doubt knew she was coming inside, anyway. They’d probably watched her conversation with Noah and wondered about it.
Marie, a five-foot-nothing, needle-thin blonde, the other breakfast waitress and her father’s right hand woman, rushed from the kitchen. Ellie braced for a scolding over her tardiness, and cut it off, not wanting another confrontation.
“Marie, I need the morning off.”
Marie sagged against the counter. “What happened? Oh, dear. I know that face. You and Trey?”
Wow, Ellie had apparently completely lost her poker face. She rocked back on her heels and folded her arms, aware of ears in the vicinity. “Um. Yeah. I want to get my things.”
Marie followed her glance and, understanding, grasped her arm and pulled her into the kitchen, where Eric was alternating between pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon on the grill. He ignored them, as always.
“I need to move home for a few days until I find a new place.” Her stomach knotted as she said the words. She hated asking for anything, and so far she’d had to ask for two things. It wasn’t even 8:00 AM.
Marie leaned against the prep counter, the corner of her lips turned down in the disapproval Ellie had expected. “Ellie, you’re going to have to grow up sometime. You’re too restless for someone who’s thirty.”
“Well, I’m not going to settle with someone who doesn’t make me happy.” Marie was content to take a backseat to her father’s diner, to her father’s past, to his daughters, just for the crumbs he’d throw her. Ellie didn’t want to be like her mother, or Marie, either, but she would never say so to the woman who had been like a mother to her. Not wanting to pursue an argument, she sighed. “Look, if I can’t come home, I need to find another alternative.”
Marie’s mouth crimped as if regretting losing a chance to state her opinion, and she inclined her head to the closed office door. “Your father’s in there. Ask him.”
Ten minutes later, feeling like a chided twelve-year-old after lectures from Marie and her father, Ellie walked through the quiet dining room--no doubt everyone had been straining to hear what was going on. The bell over the door was still ringing in her ears when she crossed the sidewalk to Noah’s truck. He unlocked her door, held it as she climbed in, then shut it securely. She let out a long breath, let her head fall back against the seat and closed her eyes.
The truck smelled like his chocolate Labrador, Mocha, but was otherwise spotless. His personal appearance--the ever-present stubble, the untucked flannel shirts and jeans--never would have suggested a clean vehicle.
She opened her eyes when he got in and started the engine. “You could have had a four-course breakfast in that amount of time. Sorry about that.”
“I’m sure everyone already knows what’s going on by the way they were looking at me. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten what it’s like, everyone looking at you.” There hadn’t been pity in the gazes in the diner, not like when her mother had run off with Marie’s husband fourteen years ago. No, this time she was the guilty one for walking away from the coach.
He’d barely shifted to third gear before they coasted to a halt in front of her house. No, not her house anymore. Trey’s house. She would miss the big deck out back, the neat little kitchen, the deep bathtub. Sad she would miss the house more than she’d miss Trey.
“You okay?” Noah waited, his hand on the handle.
“Yeah.” He blew the word out on a breath and pushed the door open.
* * *
Noah shifted from one foot to the other. This was Ellie’s home with Trey, and as often as he’d thought about her recently, he wasn’t ready for the intimacy of carrying out her personal items. He wasn’t ready to know what books she read, what movies she watched, what color toothbrush she had. All those things were better left to his fantasy life.
Everything was better left to the fantasy life that had only started to spark again the past few weeks. Yeah, he had been watching her. Ellie always had a sparkle in her eyes, a bounce in her step, a snap in her voice. So alive. The part of him that was coming alive again wanted to be around it, around her, even if she was with Trey Berenger. But his survival instincts forced him to stand back.
He’d just go through the motions of living. Less painful that way.
He didn’t know why he’d volunteered to help. Okay, yeah, he did. He’d ridden to the rescue. Only he hadn’t thought this through.
Her welcoming smile didn’t reach her pretty blue eyes. “Come on in.”
Low, comfortable couches in deep red focused around a plasma TV Trey hadn’t bought with his coaching salary. On top of being Winchester Cove’s favorite son, well, he was also their wealthiest.
“Taking the paintings?” He pointed to one in the dining room.
Her mouth turned down in an exaggerated pout. “No. Trey bought those. Like I said, I don’t have much.”
“You picked them out.” He stepped closer to the wall to decipher the artist’s signature. No luck.
“How did you know that?” Surprise brightened her tone.
What could he tell her? That he thought about her enough to know her taste? “They don’t look like something Trey would choose.”
Just that one word sounded so deflated.
“Most of my stuff is in here.” She led the way down the hall, past the open door to the bedroom.
The bed where she’d slept with Trey was unmade, the white sheets rumpled. She’d slept with him last night, left him this morning. Noah wanted to close the door, close off the thoughts, but didn’t want her to reason out why.
She led him to a room at the front of the house. A table sat in front of the window, looking out onto the street. The curtains were pushed back. She probably enjoyed the view as she worked on--what? He scanned the room. Clearly she used it as a hobby room, only the built-in shelves that lined one wall were empty.
“We can start with these.” She pointed to some plastic totes stored against the wall opposite the shelves. “And the table. I gave Bev a call. She should be here soon and we can get started in the bedroom.”
His face heated as he bent to pick up a tote by the handles, and he was glad for an excuse not to look at her.
“This wasn’t exactly planned.” She picked up another tote with a grunt, leaning way back to compensate for the weight of what was inside.
“What’s in here?” He nodded toward his burden.
“Some books, some fabric.”
So she sewed. He looked at her jeans and fitted t-shirt. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her in anything she could have made. The tote she was carrying rattled.
“What’s in there?”
She gave the tote a little shake. More rattling. “Beads.”
Huh. “And in those?” He nodded toward others lined against the wall, stacked three high.
“Um, thread, yarn, some cross-stitch material.”
“Apparently a failing of mine.”
He opened his mouth, ready to offer to listen, when the doorbell rang. He was ahead of Ellie in the hall, blocking her path, so he opened the door.
Bev Taylor, the third corner in Ellie and Lily’s friendship triangle, stepped back in surprise. “Hey, Noah.”
“Bev.” He nodded toward the tote he carried.
“Oh. Sorry.” She scrambled out of the way, then once he passed, hurried into the house.
* * *
“What is Noah Weston doing here?” Bev demanded in a stage whisper as she rushed down the hall to Ellie’s craft room.
Ellie hefted her tote onto her hip. “He was in the diner this morning.”
“He’s in the diner every morning. You told him you needed help moving out?” Bev was incredulous.
“Noah Weston.” Bev turned and watched him load the tote into the back of his truck. “He hardly talks to anyone but Matt since Lily died.”
“He talks to me sometimes when he’s walking Mocha on the beach.” Which had been more often lately. “Get my suitcases out of the garage, okay?”
The rumble of a truck engine rattled the window of the house when Bev left the room. Ellie walked to the door to see Trey’s truck speeding down the road. Noah, on the sidewalk, turned, too.
“Oh, no,” Ellie murmured.
Noah glanced from her to the truck as it jerked to a halt in front of the house. He placed himself between her and the sweaty man who slammed his door and stormed toward Ellie.
“We need to talk.” Trey’s face was red, his light brown hair plastered to his head from football practice, as if he’d been running drills with his team. “I thought this was just a fight, and now I hear you’re moving out?”
Noah stepped forward, hand extended, palm out. “Hold it there, Trey.”
For the first time since he’d gotten out of the truck, Trey pulled his gaze from Ellie to Noah. “What are you doing here?”
Noah took the tote from Ellie. “I think it’s clear.” He turned toward his truck.
“Him?” Trey shouted, jabbing his arm toward Noah. “You’re leaving me for him?”
“No! No, Trey, please.” Their neighbors had come out onto their porches to watch the show. No shyness in this town. No shame, except for her. She gestured toward the house and stepped back to let him in. Past him, she saw Noah watching from the tailgate of his truck. She held her hand out, motioning for him to wait. He nodded and leaned against the bumper, and she followed Trey into the house.
“Vivian Lassiter told me you were moving out, announced it in the teacher’s lounge, for God’s sake. She said she heard it in the diner.” Trey’s voice echoed off the walls. “You didn’t mention that this morning.”
“I told you it was over this morning,” Ellie shot back. “You think I’m still going to live here?”
He sighed and paced away across the room. “I thought it was a fight. I thought I’d come home and apologize and everything would be back to normal.”
“You’d apologize. That’s it?” She stepped back. What else did she want? For him to propose? Of course not. Maybe once. But she never would have done anything so melodramatic to force his hand. She was just ready for it all to be over.
He looked at her, green eyes sharp. “What would you want me to do?”
Tears clogged her throat. “I thought I wanted something more from you. But truthfully right now I don’t know what I want. I just know I don’t want to be taken for granted anymore.”
His shoulders tensed and the vein in his neck pulsed. “You don’t ask for much, do you? Why did you wait to do this now? It’s the most stressful time of year for me. I’ve got a championship caliber team, I’m just getting them going. I don’t have time to change things around for you.”
Even though she’d expected his response, it hurt to hear. “Shall I wait around for Christmas then? Maybe spring?”
He narrowed his eyes. “You know I hate sarcasm.”
Usually because he didn’t get it the first time. Ellie bit back the mean thought. This was the man she was supposed to have loved, after all. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t think you can give me what I want, even if you had time. So I need to leave. I’m sorry, Trey. I’ll be out of here in an hour.”
His jaw clenched in that stubborn way she knew so well. Hurt? Anger? A mixture of both? He stared at her for a long moment, like he didn’t know her. And that was a huge part of the problem. He didn’t, but how could he when she didn’t?
Then, with sorrow softening his expression for only a moment, he pivoted and left.
When Trey’s truck rumbled to life, Bev rushed in from where she’d been waiting in the doorway to the garage and wrapped her arms around Ellie.
Ellie dropped her head to her friend’s shoulder and burst into tears.
* * *
“Is he right?” Ellie twirled her wine glass and watched the dark red liquid coat the sides before slinking back down. She and Bev sat on the floor of Bev’s apartment, three fat flickering candles on the low oak coffee table between them. “Should I have given him more time?”
Bev set her glass on the table. “Do you want to get back with him?”
Ellie set her glass down, studied the glow of the candles through the wine. “He might change for a little while, but then he’d go back to being the same way. He’ll never love me the way Ryan loves you, or the way Noah loved Lily. Trey barely even looks at me, much less adores me. I want someone to look at me with his heart in his eyes. Remember how Noah was with Lily? I want that.”
Bev stilled across the table. “You want Noah?”
Ellie snapped her head up. “No! God. No. But when I was with him today, I was remembering how they were together, how much I wanted Trey to treat me that way, to think of me first, you know? Now I wonder if I stayed with him with that hope in mind.”
“And after Lily died, seeing Noah alone,” Bev added.
Ellie nodded. “It was scary to think of being alone.” She rubbed her forehead and leaned back against the couch. “Trey thought I was leaving him for Noah. I can’t believe he would think I’m so shallow to have someone else on the line before I leave him.”
“Well, you can kind of see it.”
Bev rolled her eyes. “Noah’s good looking, if you like that scruffy outdoorsman thing he has going on. He’s a widower. You were there for him when Lily died. He’s always at the diner and he’s always looking at you.”
Heat crept up Ellie’s throat. She wanted to deny it, but more than once she’d turned to see him look away. She hadn’t thought twice of it, until now. “He is not.”
“He is. He has this--focus when it comes to you. Kinda sexy.”
“Bev, he was Lily’s husband. That would be like--”
“Like dating my sister’s husband.”
Bev leaned forward. “Why are you so red? Have you thought about Noah like that?”
Flustered, Ellie tipped her glass, caught it, licked off the wine that splashed on her hand with the movement. This conversation was so wrong on so many levels. “No! I mean, yeah, I can see what you mean about him being handsome, and that look you’re talking about, that’s how he’d look at Lily and God knows I want that from someone, but no. It would be too weird. It would be betraying Lily.” Besides, if she hadn’t wanted to play second fiddle to a football team, why would she want to play it to the ghost of an adored wife?
“She’s been gone more than a year and a half.”
Ellie raised her eyebrows. “So it’s time for me to give her husband a look?”
Bev inclined her head. “It’s time for him to start looking. I just think it’s pretty clear that he’s looking in your direction.”
Ellie sucked in a breath. And she had welcomed him right into her life. Had she made a mistake?
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