Getting Wound Up

By: Jennifer Bernard

And how was she going to handle a night in a hotel room with him? Even now, on the road in her ugly mustard-mobile, her glance kept straying to his big hands as they rested on his thighs. If she had to pick one word to describe Eli, it would be “strong.” Not just because of his powerful physique, which definitely qualified. Or because of his face, with its square jaw and clean, blue-eyed all-American look.

It was more because of the way he’d shouldered the entire burden of the family business without ever complaining. How he’d been there for his mother when she fell apart after Chip’s stroke. How he’d gotten his sister Lindsay to school when his mother couldn’t even get out of bed. Whatever progress Chip had made was at least partly thanks to Eli. The fact that Lindsay was one year from graduating high school at the top of her class—Eli’s doing. The entire family would have collapsed without him.

Strong—that was Eli. Almost as strong as the crush that had been tormenting her for the past year. It was all Bryan’s fault, really. If she hadn’t followed him back to Sapphire Falls after his accident, she would now be using her culinary arts degree at some five-star restaurant instead of at Scott’s Sweets Shop. And she would still be in blissful ignorance of the magnificent, irresistible, sexy glory of Eli Anderson.

If Bryan had any idea how hard it was for her to be around Eli without throwing herself into his arms, he would never have sent her on this trip.

She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and glared at the highway. Hey, she was a big girl. She could handle herself around a hot guy, even one as devastating as Eli. She could do this.

“What’d that steering wheel ever do to you?” Eli’s teasing drawl interrupted her. “I mean, aside from being attached to the biggest piece of junkyard scrap metal in Nebraska.”

She seized on the chance to get back to familiar ground—teasing. “Are you going to mock my car the entire trip to Kansas?”

“Got any other ways to pass the time? I’m open.”

“We could try conversing. That’s a thing people do.”

“Fine. Conversation it is. Ladies first.”

She swallowed hard. Eli sure knew how to call a bluff. But this opportunity was too juicy to resist. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend, Eli?”

He swung his head toward her, an astonished look on his face.

Really? Did he think she hadn’t noticed his chronically single state? She’d been living in dread of him finally starting a real relationship.

“I have…women. I mean, one woman at a time.”

“I know. For about a month. Then they’re gone. And they’re always about ten years older than you.”

“Keeping track, are you?”

Yes. Lord, yes. Like “one step away from stalker” yes. But he didn’t need to know that. “Lindsay’s worried about you,” she answered primly. “She asked me to find out what’s wrong with you.”

“There is nothing wrong with appreciating a slightly older woman who knows what she’s doing.”

Caitlyn seriously reconsidered her first idea of decking him right in the nose. But then Eli went on, in a more thoughtful tone.

“I guess…you know, I was only nineteen when my father had his stroke. The girls my age were still partying every night, same as I used to. I guess I just clicked more with women who’d been through some stuff. Seemed like I had more in common with them.”

Caitlyn nodded, even more depressed now. She was two years younger than Eli. How could she ever catch up with those oh-so-experienced older women? No wonder he saw her only as some kid. It totally made sense.

But then…why didn’t any of those relationships last?

Before she could ask him, he spoke again. “What about you? Not that I’m sad to see Dude-face go, but why aren’t you replacing him with the next guy in line?”

“The next guy in line? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you could probably pick a random guy from the Sapphire Falls phone book and he’d want to date you. So who’s next?”

Her face flamed. Was that what he thought? Seriously? “You’re in the phone book,” she blurted, only to feel her cheeks burn even hotter. Smooth, Caitlyn. Really smooth. “So that just proves you’re wrong.”

She felt his gaze and fought to keep her cool. Change the subject, change the subject. “So, do you think the Royals are going to win the World Series again this year? Would you mind playing for the Friars instead of the Royals? That might be kind of weird after an entire lifetime of rooting for the Royals. Do you think it would be hard to play against them?”

Thank the sweet Lord, he went for her change of topic. “If the Friars sign me, I’ll become an instant Friars fan. But I’d probably be playing for one of their farm teams. The Kilby Catfish, if I got really lucky. That’s their Triple-A team. But I don’t even want to talk about that. It’s bad luck. One thing at a time. Let’s just get to the tryout and see what happens.”

He went back to drumming his fingers nervously on the car door, while she heaved a silent sigh of relief. She couldn’t keep making little slips like that. Revealing her crush would be mortifying. Sapphire Falls was a small town, and everyone knew everyone else’s business. It was a miracle no one had guessed already. But if Eli himself knew? And rejected her, or pitied her for her unrequited lust? Ouch!!! She’d still have to see him every other day because he ran the only hardware store in town, and her brother was his friend, and she knew his family and…ugh, it would be the worst. Everyone would feel awkward and sorry for her. She’d rather move to Borneo than go through that. And she couldn’t move to Borneo because Bryan needed her.

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