Love Me Forever-Excerpt
Book Five: A Crystal Lake Novel
Poppy Fairbanks was having a day and it wasn’t even noon yet.
In all fairness to her current situation, things had started to head south the night before. She’d been deep in dreamland when her dog Mabel, a little brown and white girl of dubious lineage, decided to vomit all over the pillow two inches from Poppy’s head. Nothing will wake a girl faster than the sound of an animal puking.
She’d hopped out of bed so fast she lost her balance and tripped over the area rug. That’s when her cheek met the corner of the night table and now, nearly twelve hours later, she sported a nasty bruise and had a strained wrist from a lame attempt to break her fall. Coordination had never been a strong suit.
After tossing everything in the washing machine she’d eventually fallen asleep on the sofa, which meant her alarm clock was nowhere near her head at six-thirty in the morning. And that meant she woke up late and had been running to catch up ever since.
“Great,” she muttered, staring at herself in the mirror. She angled her head a bit for a better look at the damage to her face. She touched it gently and winced. It was sore and purple and yellow, but at least the swelling had gone down.
With a sigh she pushed out of the small bathroom of her boutique, Bella & Hooch, and looked at the clock on the wall by the back door. Christy, her part time employee, was twenty minutes late, which put her ahead of George and the Turkish towels Poppy was waiting to take delivery of. She had maybe half an hour before she was supposed to leave and things weren’t looking good.
The bell above the door jingled just then and she glanced up hopefully, but it was a little boy who rushed in, not Christy, and definitely not George and the Turkish towels. Poppy set down a bunch of succulents she was going to display and walked over to the boy who seemed to be mighty interested in the collection of exotic birds near the store window. All of them were fake of course, but they were colorful and perfect for a patio or back yard, and the little guy studied them intently.
He looked to be about five or so, with thick dark curls that clung to his sweaty neck, and a pair of round glasses perched on edge of his nose. His legs were gangly, his knees stained from grass and his white T-shirt was covered in dirt. He looked like any other typical kid who’d just been to the park across from the boutique, and she wondered who he belonged to.
Poppy glanced out the window but it was July third and the boardwalk, park and river were busy. She cleared her throat and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey,” she said gently. “You like the birds?”
He nodded and moved closer, pushing up his glasses and angling his head for a better look. “That one’s a cockatoo.” He pointed to another that she’d fastened to the ladder. “And that one’s a parrot.” He turned and looked at Poppy. “Does it talk?”
“No,” she replied with a smile. “It’s not real.”
“I know that,” he said, an indignant look on his face before turning back to the parrot. “But some do. My dad has one in his man cave and it says bad words.” He giggled, his smile wide open when he glanced back at Poppy. “Like the F word and the S word too.”
“That’s some kind of special Parrot,” she replied, glancing through the window. “Do you know where your dad is?” she asked.
The boy shrugged and got back to his very intense perusal of the birds. “He was talking to some lady in the park.”
“Well, he’s probably wondering where you are so maybe you should head back to him.”
“No.” The kid shook his head. “He told me to come here.”
“Did he now.”
The boy nodded. “I had to pee so he told me to come here since there was a lineup at the outside toilet.” He shrugged. “Plus I don’t like spiders and Josh told me there was a big one in it.”
Poppy spied Emily Davenport, a pretty blonde woman who’d been recently widowed, chatting with someone, but whoever it was, was hidden behind an old oak tree. Other than Emily, there were dozens of folks out there and kids running mad, but no single men that she could see.
“What’s your name?” she asked, turning back to the boy.
“Benjamin.” He stood back and scratched under his nose. “But everyone calls me Benji.” He paused and frowned. “Except my mom and my Nana.”
“Well, Benji, my name is Poppy.” She pointed toward the back. “Why don’t you follow me and I’ll show you to the bathroom.”
“I’m thirsty,” he said, following her to the back of the shop. “Do you have a Gatorade?”
“No. But I have water.”
She scooted him toward the bathroom and while he took care of business, grabbed a water bottle from the small fridge in the back. She waited for him to finish, sent him back in to wash his hands when he tried to sneak that one past her, and handed him a bottle before pointing to the door.
“Do you want to have a look and see if your dad is out there?”
“No.” Benji said, greedily drinking from the water bottle. He swiped at the corner of his mouth and pointed to a shelf above her sales counter. “What’s that?” he asked, taking a step closer to get a better look. “Is it a monster?”
“It’s called a gargoyle.” A leftover from Halloween, she’d placed the fierce creature on the shelf between several small ferns and some pottery.
“It looks like a weird lizard.”
“You’re right. It does. They were used centuries ago to ward off evil spirits.”
His eyes widened. “Cool.” He took another sip of water. “Do you know what a pterodactyl is?”
He nodded vigorously. “It could fly.” His face fell. “I wish the big meteor didn’t happen and they were still alive.” He scrunched up his nose and tugged at his glasses again. “What happened to your face?”
“I…” She laughed. “You sure do ask a lot of questions.”
“That’s what my nana says.”
“That so?” Poppy replied as she grabbed the gargoyle off the shelf and handed it to Benji.
“Yep.” He nodded. “She told me that if I’m not careful my tongue is going to run away with me.” He frowned, turning over the gargoyle. “But that doesn’t make sense.” He looked up at Poppy. “Does it?”
“No,” she said with a chuckle, shaking her head. “It doesn’t.”
“Why do grownups say things that don’t make sense?”
“I have no idea.”
“My dad says it’s because he can.”
“That sounds like a Dad answer.”
Benji shrugged. “I guess so.” He finished the water and had to reach up on his tiptoes to reach the counter where he carefully set the empty bottle down. Then he turned back to Poppy, gargoyle still clutched in his hands. “Did someone hit you? Does it hurt? I got one last year when from my friend, Teddy but it was an accident. His lacrosse stick caught me in the eye. Daddy says it that’s what happens when you don’t pay attention and look where you’re going.” He angled his head. “Did you know it’s called a hematoma? My dad had a big one two years ago—”
The bell jingled over the door and Benji turned, eyes wide, that big open smile lighting up his entire face. “Daddy!” The boy ran like a cheetah, darting around several displays and disappearing from Poppy’s line of sight. She glanced at the clock on the wall, completely miffed with Christy, and stepped out from behind the counter.
And that was when her world continued its downward spiral and her day officially fell into the toilet. Benji, had been scooped up into the arms of the one man in Crystal Lake she’d been avoiding for months.
He stood just inside her boutique, smiling at his son. Yep. All six foot four inches of him. Dressed casually in cargo shorts and a plain white T-shirt, his wide shoulders, long legs, and thick head of dark hair was hard to miss. His profile could have been carved by Michelangelo himself, and he set Benji down and gestured with his big hands, smiling down at his son in a way that still got to her.
After all this time. Dammit.
“Seriously?” she muttered to herself, “not fair.” She smoothed out an errant auburn curl that kept tweaking at her nose. Poppy remembered those hands like it was yesterday—which was sad really, considering she’d last felt them when she was sixteen. Her heated cheeks and rapid breaths told the story.
“Are you okay?”
“What?” She tore her gaze from Boone and looked down at his son, who had performed some kind of ninja move and was standing inches from her, while she’d been ogling his dad.
“You have a funny look on your face.” He scratched at his stomach. “My nana gets that look sometimes and then she cries.” He shook his head. “I don’t like crying. It makes me sad.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to cry.”
Aware that Boone had followed his son and stood a few paces behind him, she snuck a covert glance his way, relieved to see that he was busy looking at a display of cards on the rack, his brow furled in concentration as he grabbed a few to read the back.
Poppy stepped back even more, glad she’d left the six-foot pampas grass in a vase at the edge of the counter. Maybe she’d be lucky and Boone would call his son over and the two of them would leave and forget they’d ever set foot inside Bella and Hooch.
“Daddy, the lady who let me pee got punched in the face.”
Shit. Poppy inhaled sharply, her stomach in knots.
“What?” Boone frowned and yanked up his head, and his eyes found hers instantly. It didn’t take but second and she saw the moment he recognized her. His eyes widened and their deep blue depths seemed to shimmer. A slow smile touched his mouth, it was there and then gone just as quick.
A heartbeat passed…maybe two and his eyes darkened to cobalt, a question hanging between them.
In that moment, Poppy figured out a few things.
One. Boone Avery was like fine wine—age only made him more attractive—and when a guy already had a leg up in that department? Totally unfair.
Two. She’d had good reason to avoid the man for the last few months because all it took was one look and she felt like that sixteen-year-old girl, the one whose heart he’d broken. And along with that heartbreak there was something else. It was that something else she didn’t want to think about.
And three. He wasn’t walking out the door. Not this time. In fact he was coming her way.
Boone took the last few steps that brought him into her orbit, and shoved his hands into the front pockets of his shorts. Those big hands. Quarterback hands. He cleared his throat and took a moment to look her over, and by the time he reached her eyes again, she had some bit of control left.
“Hey,” he said, his voice deep and husky, washing over her like warm water. “I…” He blew out a breath and smiled. “It’s been a long time.”
“I heard you were back.” Her voice was cool and crisp, and inside Poppy high-fived herself. It was a great time for her acting skills to kick in.
“Um, yeah.” He reached one hand back behind his head, enough of a stretch to lift his shirt and expose a good expanse of taught, tanned skin. “It’s been a few months. I thought I’d run into you at the Memorial Day shindig out at Cam Booker’s place.”
“I was busy so…” Busy avoiding the hell out of Boone Avery. Poppy had come up with every excuse in the book not to go to her best friend Blue’s place for her and Cam’s big barbecue to kick off the summer. In the end the only way she could get out of it was to tell Blue everything. After that, Blue promised not to like Boone Avery and so far she’d held up her bargain.
Benjamin poked his head between them, and sniffled a bit, rubbing under his glasses. “You look weird, daddy.”
Spell broken, Boone took a step back, though he frowned a bit. “Did someone hit you?”
“No.” Poppy didn’t elaborate even though it would have been the polite thing to do. She wanted him gone. She wanted this day to end. She wanted—
The doorbell jangled yet again and this time it was her very late, oh so fired, part-time helper Christy. “Poppy, oh my God, there was an accident at the corner of Main and Whitmore and I’m so sorry I’m late because I know you have to go to your mom’s and…” Christy nearly tripped over her feet. She stood a few feet away, staring at Boone like he was the second coming…or Brad Pitt.
“You’re Boone Avery.”
He nodded and smiled.
“Oh my God.” She turned to Poppy. “It’s Boone Avery.”
Poppy had had enough. She grabbed her purse from the counter and sailed past Boone and Christy, though she paused a second. “It was nice to meet you, Benji. Keep the gargoyle safe okay? And Christy? Lock up by three this afternoon.”
Poppy pushed open the door and felt the sun on her face as she immediately took a left and headed behind her store where her bike was parked. She grabbed her helmet, yanked it onto her head and did up the strap and then jumped on, pedaling as if the hounds of hell were on her heels, though she supposed they were.
Boone Avery had been her hell back in the day. For a few weeks that fateful summer he’d taken her love, her virginity, and then he’d left without a word. Not. One. Word.
Now he was back and he’d awakened something in her that she thought was long dead. After LA, after what happened, it was a cruel twist of fate that he was the one to make her feel alive again. Nerves a jumbled mess she pedaled like a crazy person; she was mad. At the world. At Boone Avery. Most of all, at herself. She’d made a vow to hate him until the end of days and all it took was one look to annihilate that vow. Seriously.
What the hell was she going to do about it?