Monday, June 7, 2010

Tupelo Honey by Tina Gallagher

Chapter One


“Naked?” Cassie shrieked. She wasn’t thrilled with the topic of conversation and thinking about him in his birthday suit only made things worse.

Jodi glanced around the restaurant to see if anyone heard her friend’s outburst. No one seemed to be paying them any attention, so she answered. “As a jaybird.”

“So what’d you do?”

“I interviewed him. That is my job.”

“Your job is to interview naked men?”

Jodi rolled her eyes. “My job is to interview athletes. Tim’s an athlete.”

“He’s more like a jockstrap,” Cassie snorted.

“Tim’s not a bad guy. He even put a towel on during the interview. I think he was slightly embarrassed that I caught him with his pants off.” It was Cassie’s turn to roll her eyes. “Hey, you dated him, not me.”

“Yeah, a million years ago.”

“It was high school,” Jodi pointed out. “And, from what I understand, you were crazy about him.”

“I was young and naive.”

“You had sex with him,” Jodi pointed out. “In fact, he was your first, wasn’t he?”

“Don’t remind me,” Cassie groaned.

“Was he that awful?”

Cassie sipped her water and carefully placed the glass back on the table. After a slight hesitation, she answered, “no.”

“It’s funny we never talked about him,” Jodi said. “We’ve dissected every other relationship either of us ever had.”

“Well, I don’t even want to talk about this one, much less dissect it.”

“Okay.” Jodi dragged the word out, telling Cassie it was anything but.

Cassie let out a sigh of relief when Jodi redirected her attention to her burger and fries. They ate in silence for a short while when Jodi spoke again.

“From what I saw today, you must’ve been one happy girl.” She picked up a French fry, dredged it in ketchup and popped it into her mouth.

“That nice?” Cassie couldn’t help being curious.

Jodi stopped mid-chew. “Are you asking me?” Cassie nodded as her face burned. “But you…and he…” Jodi made a hand motion that finished her sentence for her.

“I never actually saw it,” Cassie mumbled.

“What?”

“I never actually saw it,” she repeated.

“Why not?” Jodi asked. “How is that even possible?”

“It was dark.”

Jodi snorted and chewed on another fry.

“Jodi, I was seventeen. I wasn’t exactly sexually liberated. I barely even touched it.”

Jodi clucked her tongue. “Well, you missed out.”

Cassie was trying to come up with a clever retort when the topic of their conversation approached the table. She’d been so wrapped up in their discussion she hadn’t even noticed him enter the restaurant. When Jodi mentioned meeting at Avery’s, Cassie was hesitant knowing the restaurant was a popular hangout for local jocks. Her reluctance only lasted a short time, however, before she decided that she refused to hide from Tim or any man. Looking at him now, she wished she’d gone with her first instinct.

“Long time, no see.” Tim directed that comment to Jodi, then turned to Cassie. “Cassie Evans, it definitely has been a long time.”

When his cerulean eyes met hers, Cassie’s stomach flip-flopped even as her nipples tightened. She got lost in his gaze and felt cold when he returned his attention to Jodi once again.

“Jodi, I forgot to ask you this morning,” he said. “Are you going to the benefit Saturday?”

“Is that an offer?” Jodi’s saucy tone grated Cassie’s nerves. Why did her friend have to flirt with Tim of all people?

Tim chuckled. “Mark wanted me to ask,” he said, referring to his teammate who had been engaging in a mild flirtation with Jodi for the past couple months.

“Yes I’ll be there and Cassie will be accompanying me,” Jodi replied.

Tim’s eyebrows lifted as he redirected his attention to Cassie. “You’re going?” he asked.

She nodded her response, too breathless to speak. The man’s mere presence sent a flush of heat through her even as her entire body broke out in goosebumps making her feel as like she’d been dipped in Ben Gay.

“I’ll let Mark know you’ll be there.” He directed his attention toward Jodi just long enough to get those seven words out then looked right back to Cassie. “Save a dance for me, okay?” A sexy smile punctuated his words.

Without waiting for an answer, Tim excused himself. His broad shoulders, tapered waist, and tight butt were a sight to behold as he walked away.

“Yowza,” Jodi said, drawing Cassie’s attention her way. “There were so many sparks flying between you two, I’m lucky I didn’t get singed.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The hell you don’t,” Jodi chuckled. “If a man looked at me like that, I’d melt.”

Cassie shifted in her seat and felt the moisture that had collected between her thighs during her brief encounter with Tim.

“You okay over there?” Jodi asked in a too-knowing tone.

“I’m fine.” Cassie bit into her sandwich, taking a minute to collect her thoughts and her hormones. In order to change the subject she said, “Nothing’s happened with Mark yet?”

“No.” Jodi sighed. “Somehow I’ve managed to find a shy hockey player.”

“Have you made a move on him?”

“Yes and no.” Jodi took a sip of her iced tea. “I’ve flirted like hell and let him know I’m interested, but nothing more.”

“Did you interview him?” Jodi’s smirk let Cassie know she understood what was being asked.

“The man blushes every time I walk into the locker room, and I think he showers with his underwear on.”

“So you haven’t seen the goods, huh?”

“No, but that’s okay.” Jodi blushed. “It’s kind of sweet, actually.”

“Sweet?”

“He’s so shy, it’s adorable. After dealing with arrogant, exhibitionist jocks, he’s like a breath of fresh air in a really smelly locker room.”

Cassie chuckled. “I don’t know how you do what you do.”

Jodi shrugged. “At first I took the job to have a steady paycheck, but now I really like it. Some of the guys can be real jerks, but most are okay.” Her lovesick smile would have looked goofy if it wasn’t so sincere. “But I’ve never met anyone like Mark.”

Cassie looked at her friend’s glowing eyes and smiled.

“Maybe something will happen on Saturday.”

“Maybe for both of us.”

****

Cassie washed her hands and eyed herself critically in the mirror. Her face still held a slight flush from her encounter with Tim. She splashed cool water on her cheeks, hoping to cool down. Why did the man still have this effect on her? One glance at those amazing eyes and it was easy to remember how he’d managed to get her out of her pants fifteen years earlier.

She stepped back and fluffed her hair. At least her unexpected encounter hadn’t caused enough heat to frizz it out. Her blond corkscrews had been the bane of her existence when she was younger, but she’d stopped trying to tame them a few years back.

She still longed for sleek, shiny hair, but that just wasn’t in the cards. Whenever she tried to straighten her hair, it ended up looking dry and frizzy. Besides, men seemed to really like her riotous curls.

She left the bathroom and took only two steps before crashing into the solid wall of Tim’s chest. He offered her a steadying hand.

“Tim.”

She hated the breathless sound of her voice when she said his name. She also hated the way her body responded to his innocent touch. Cassie mentally snorted. As if Tim’s touch could ever feel innocent.

“Cas,” he said, using the shortened version of her name he’d always preferred. “I’m glad I caught you before you left.” He chuckled and gently squeezed her arms. “Literally.”

Cassie allowed herself to enjoy the deep rumble of his laugh and the feel of his hands on her before steeling herself again.

“Why?”

The tone of that one word cooled the air surrounding them. Tim released her arms and took a step back.

“I wanted to say hi.”

“Hi,” Cassie said. “And bye.”

She stepped around him and headed toward the front door of the restaurant. She needed air and she needed it now. Tim’s raven hair and blue eyes made him the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome, but did he have to smell so damn good too? Spicy citrus cologne combined with his unique scent filled her nostrils even as she gulped in crisp, fall air.

“Cas, wait up,” Tim said from directly behind her. “Why’d you run out like that?”

Cassie turned to face him just as a gust of wind carried his intoxicating scent to her. She breathed in and savored the aroma for a moment before meeting his gaze.

“What do you want, Tim?”

He shrugged and looked unsure.

“I just wanted to talk to you.” When she didn’t say anything, he added, “How’ve you been?”

Cassie tilted her head and studied him through narrowed eyes. He looked nervous and she wondered if maybe she had the advantage with him for the first time since her senior year in high school.

Not that she’d seen him in the fourteen years since they’d broken up, not in person anyway. Yet he’d always been in her thoughts.

Every time she dated a new man, kissed him, even screwed him, Tim had been on her mind. Probably because he’d been her first. No girl ever forgot her first.

“I’ve been fine,” she said. “And you?”

“Good.” His gaze drifted across, then down the street before meeting Cassie’s again. “I’ve been good.”

“So I’ve read.” Cassie wanted to kick herself for that comment.

“You follow hockey?”

“Not specifically, but I do read Jodi’s column.”

“Oh.” He nodded his understanding. “How do you know Jodi?”

“We were roommates in college.”

“And now?” Her arched brow asked its own question. “Do you still live together?”

Cassie knew what he was really asking and figured she’d give him an answer.

“No, I live alone.”

“Hmmmm.”

While the sound should’ve sounded non-committal, it did anything but. He seemed very interested, and part of Cassie gloried in that fact. A woman would have to be dead to not enjoy Tim O’Brien’s interest.

“Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” He gestured toward a shop across the street. “It seems kind of silly to be carrying on a conversation in the middle of the sidewalk.”

Cassie glanced at her watch.

“I really have to get going. I have an appointment, and I’m running late as it is.”

Disappointment clouded Tim’s eyes, but he still managed to flash a killer smile.

“Maybe I can get a rain check?”

Cassie nodded. “Maybe.”

That said, she turned and walked down the block toward her car. She halted and turned back when he called her name.

“I’ll see you Saturday.” His words were a promise that was punctuated by twin dimples on either side of his magnificent smile.

“See you Saturday,” Cassie managed to say before retreating to the safety of her car. As if mere metal could block the potency of Tim’s sex appeal.