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STILL THE ONE by MICHELLE MAJOR
Only a distress call could summon Lainey Morgan back to the small hometown she had run from, leaving her family—and the man she adored—standing at the altar. Yet even fame as a globe-trotting photojournalist couldn’t erase the pain of losing the baby Ethan Daniels had been marrying her for. Still, he always had been the best veterinarian around—and the stray dog that had attached himself to her needed attention. Almost as badly as she did…
As for Ethan, Lainey was driving him crazy all over again, and ten years away had only made him want her more. She had done the unforgivable, true, but he was beginning to discover that she had suffered more losses than even he knew about. Both of them had done some growing in the past ten years. Maybe this time, forever could be within their grasp….
STILL THE ONE by MICHELLE MAJOR
STILL THE ONE Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Lainey Morgan clutched the paper bag, avoiding the corner already stained with grease. “Please,” she whispered. “I need this food.”
Yanking the sack across the Formica counter, the waitress wagged a finger in Lainey’s face. Small sunbursts glinted on the tips of her acrylic nails. “I don’t know how it’s done where you’re from, sweetheart, but around these parts people pay for what they eat.”
“I don’t have the cash. If you’d let me pay with a credit card—”
When bells above the diner’s door jingled, Lainey glanced over her shoulder. At the sight of the man gesturing wildly to a teenage busboy, she inched toward the far wall feeling like she’d been sucker punched. The last thing she needed was to see a familiar face, let alone her ex-fiance. She knew it had been a mistake to return to her hometown, and just five minutes here proved it.
If possible, ten years had heightened Ethan Daniels’s raw appeal. The boy was gone, replaced with a man more suited to the stark desert plains of New Mexico she now called home than this sleepy North Carolina town.
He pointed to the front window and her gaze followed. “No animal should be left in this heat—”
The rush of blood in Lainey’s head drowned out his voice.
She needed to get out of the diner. Now.
“You okay, hon?” The waitress had followed her to the end of the counter. “We don’t accept plastic for such a small amount. But I guess I can make an exception this once. You look like you could use a decent meal.”
She darted a glance at the woman’s name tag. “Thank you, Shelly.” Adjusting the baseball cap lower, she pushed away the camera around her neck and slid her credit card toward the waitress.
Shelly’s voice rang out over the din of the restaurant. “Hey, Doc, what’s got you so bothered on a Sunday morning?”
Lainey swallowed hard against the awareness that pricked at her body. Today’s agenda did not include puking in front of the weekend rush at Carl’s.
“Some fool left their dog roasting in the sun.” Heat and frustration rolled off him. “Can I get a cup of water, Shelly? I swear people think two legs and half a brain gives them the right to treat an animal any way they want.”
Even angry, Ethan’s voice flowed through Lainey like music. The fact he could still affect her after all this time irritated the hell out of her.
“Whose is it?” Shelly asked.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lainey saw a tanned hand settle on the counter. She swallowed hard, praying the floor would swallow her whole.
That prayer, like countless others, went unanswered.
“Can’t say.” He blew out a breath. “Every canine within fifty miles has been through the clinic, but I’ve never seen that mutt.”
Lainey scribbled the total plus a hefty tip on the receipt and reached for the bag. The waitress held it tight.
“You know anything about an abandoned dog?”
“She’s not abandoned,” Lainey muttered. Not yet, she added silently. She gave the bag a hard yank and stumbled when Shelly let go. As an arm reached out to steady her, Lainey looked up into Ethan’s dark eyes. Recognition dawned, and with it his gaze filled with anger. Maybe she deserved it, she thought. The way she’d left town ten years ago, why would he show her any kindness now?
“Good lord,” he said.
“Nope.” Lainey hitched her chin a notch, with the tiny bit of pride she had left. “Just me.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I know about Vera.” He ran a hand through thick hair that curled against the collar of his faded Duke T-shirt. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
“She had a stroke. Of course I came.”
“Hold the phone, people.” Shelly’s heavily lined eyes blinked several times. “Are you…” Glancing at the card before handing it back to Lainey, she said aloud, “Melanie Morgan.”
A hush fell over the diner.
Shelly’s gaze shifted to Ethan. “She’s the Lainey Morgan. Your Lainey.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “Not mine,” he said. “Just Vera’s daughter.” A subtle patchwork of lines etched the bronzed skin around his eyes, highlighting their deep chocolate color.
A blush rose to Lainey’s cheeks. This was so not the way she’d pictured her morning. “I have to get out of here,” she said to no one in particular.
“Not so fast, girlie.” Shelly leaned across the counter, her twang thicker with every syllable. “Your mama is in a delicate state. She don’t need anyone upsetting her.”
“I’m here to help,” Lainey said through clenched teeth, hating how defensive she sounded.
“Vera Morgan is a saint, I tell you.” This from an elderly woman two stools down.
Lainey glanced around the crowded diner. If looks could kill, she’d be a goner a hundred times over. Those angry stares were what had kept her away for so long. And the reason she already regretted returning. Cradling the bag of food against her belly, she raced for the door. To know why people loathed the sight of her didn’t make it any easier to stomach.
When the door to Carl’s slammed, Ethan blew out a breath. “I need the water to go.” He forced an even tone and raised his eyebrows, willing Shelly to remain silent.
She didn’t speak. The entire diner was eerily quiet, but the pity in her smile made him grit his teeth. He’d tolerated enough pity for two lifetimes. He’d gone from the town’s golden boy to a humiliated laughingstock because of Lainey Morgan and had no intention of repeating that mistake.
He stalked outside where the dog lay under the iron bench. Water sloshed over the side of the cup and dripped down his fingers as she lapped up greedy gulps.
“What are you doing?” Lainey asked behind him. She held a small bowl of water in one hand, balancing the takeout bag in the other arm.
In an instant, her scent surrounded him, different than before—still sweet but with a hint of something he couldn’t name. “Shouldn’t you be halfway to the county line by now?”
“Not that it matters, but my mother called me. Or had Julia call me. I’m not running away.”
“We’ll see how long that lasts.”
“She needs help—”
“I’ve worked with Vera a long time. I know what she needs.” He paused then said, “It’s been tough, between the stroke and rehabilitation. She’s not used to doing what other people tell her.”
“That may be the understatement of the century.” She sighed, a small, sad sound.
He pushed his fingers into the thick fur around the dog’s neck then looked at Lainey. “No collar,” he muttered. “What idiot…”
She crossed and uncrossed her arms over her chest, avoiding his gaze. Finally she reached out and smoothed the hair on top of the animal’s head. “I’m the idiot.”
Her voice was so quiet he wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“This is my dog. Sort of. Not really.” A wave of pink stained her cheeks.
“Your dog?” He looked back and forth between the two. The dog pushed against Lainey’s hand as she halfheartedly scratched behind its ears.
“Her name’s Pita. For now.”
“And you left her in the sun?” He grabbed the blue rope tied to the bench’s armrest and worked his fingers against the knot. “Didn’t you learn anything from your dad?”
She took a step back as if he’d struck her. Regret flashed through her eyes before they turned steely cold. “I was getting a hamburger for the dog at the diner and her water dish from my car. I’d have been here ten minutes ago if the waitress hadn’t insisted I pay cash.”
Ethan glanced at the paper bag Lainey still held. “Plus you’re feeding her greasy table food. Nice.”
Her finger stabbed into his chest. “Excuse me, Dr. Doo-little, but I ran out of dog food and there was nothing off the backwoods highway on my way in this morning.” She rolled her eyes. “In case you weren’t aware, Piggly Wiggly doesn’t open for another hour, and I need to get to the hospital.”
She whirled away. Tugging hard on the dog’s leash, she stomped toward an ancient Land Cruiser parked near the curb. He touched her arm but she shrugged him off. “Lainey, wait.”
She spun back around and shook her finger in his face.
“One more thing before you send the Humane Society after me. I said this dog was sort of mine. She’s been hanging around my house for a couple weeks. I posted reward signs all over the neighborhood but strays are pretty much the official dog of New Mexico.”
She continued wagging the finger and moving toward him until he was flattened against the diner’s brick exterior. “She stowed away in the back of my truck—not a peep until the Oklahoma state line. Too late to turn around.”
Pausing for a breath, she bit down on her lower lip. Ethan’s heart skipped a beat.
Her voice softened and she looked at the dog. “Believe me, Ethan, I am well aware I can’t even be a decent dog mom.”
He didn’t understand the sorrow that clouded her gaze. He’d bet the farm it had nothing to do with Pita, who gazed at her with the sort of unabashed adoration only dogs and teenage boys could manage. “I didn’t say—”
She flicked her hand. “I’ve been driving two solid days. I’m going to the hospital and taking the dog with me. If you think I’m that bad, find a good home for her. For now, I’m all she’s got.”
She stared at him with a mix of defiance and wariness, as if she expected him to challenge her right to the dog.
A breeze kicked up, and she pushed away a curl that escaped her ball cap. Even her face had changed. The soft roundness of youth had given way to high, defined cheekbones and an angled jaw that made her beautiful…
Meet Michelle Major, Author….
Michelle Major grew up in Ohio but dreamed of living in the mountains. Soon after graduating with a degree in Journalism, she pointed her car west and settled in Colorado. Her life and house are filled with one great husband, two beautiful kids, a few furry pets and several well-behaved reptiles. She’s grateful to have found her passion writing stories with happy endings. Michelle loves to hear from her readers at www.michellemajor.com.
Links to Michelle Major’s website, blog, books, etc.
Barnes and Noble: http://tinyurl.com/bv2b2dd
**SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Michelle will give away a copy of her book, STILL THE ONE, to one lucky reader!! Comment on either her Monday Interview and/or Wednesday’s Karen’s Killer Book Bench blogs for a chance to win. Winner will be randomly selected and announced Monday, February 25, 2013. Thanks, Michelle, for sharing your story with us!