The following is the second excerpt from the small-town, second-chance romance What Comes After Dessert, Copyright © 2015 by Ren Benton, available November 3, 2015.
Alone at last.
Ben had spent nearly half the years of his life competing for Tally’s attention. The vast majority of the trouble he got into from kindergarten through his senior year of high school was the direct result of attempts to get Tally Castle to look at him, smile at him, talk to him, even if it was to scold.
When it worked, detention was a small price to pay. Especially on smile days. He was the grinningest delinquent detention had ever seen on smile days.
It wasn’t belching the national anthem or walking down two flights of stairs on his hands or an equivalent feat of daring or idiocy that got her to kiss him, though. Not the first time, when they were seven and he’d sprung one on her, but the second time, ten years later, when she’d sprung one on him. He had vivid sensory recall of that first warm, soft press of her lips against his chin, then his lips. The dizzy rush as if he’d never been kissed before. The way she didn’t close those big, multicolored eyes, watching her target, gauging his reaction — which had been shaking like a hypothermic Chihuahua when the tip of her tongue touched the corner of his mouth.
He remembered everything about that kiss except what he’d said or done to earn the privilege and those that followed. Either the heat exploding through his veins had incinerated the memory, or there had been no reason behind her change in temperature other than whim. He hadn’t questioned his good fortune much. As long as he’d known her, she turned slippery when questioned, and once she was in his arms, he wanted her to stay put.
And so he allowed her to dissect, diagram, and catalog him like a science project, while she remained the shadowy figure bent over him with a scalpel and unfathomable motivations.
Twelve subsequent years of experience with women hadn’t made reading this one any easier. She was staring at the door as if her last hope of salvation had just walked out through it, and he didn’t have the first clue why. Unless…
No. There was nothing going on between Tally and Officer Beaver. If a man even aspired to a woman like her, he didn’t direct lustful eyes toward her non-metaphorical cookies and let another man tap her buzzer, metaphorical or otherwise.
Then again, the man did have a pulse, so how could he not aspire? Maybe he just sucked at courtship. Maybe they’d been together long enough he didn’t think he had to court her anymore. Maybe he took for granted getting pizza delivered on her way home.
Maybe the desperation in her eyes sprang from neglect.
Maybe Ben was filling the uncomfortable silence with a lot of maybes because he couldn’t decide which of the million things he wanted to say to her to start with.
He went with one of the million things he didn’t want to say, the need to know outweighing not wanting to hear half the possible responses. “I think Shane’s sweet on you.”
Her fingers clenched the edge of the shelf she was practically sitting on.
He took another bite of spicy marshmallow comfort — to hell with eggs and responsible bread, anybody who passed up these cookies was living a shallow and joyless existence — and gave her time to calculate her reply.
Tally wasn’t a blurter. Sometimes she took so long to respond, he gave up on getting any words out of her and filled the conversational hole himself. Nothing he wanted to know had ever been worth pressuring her into squirming away.
He made it easy for her to be stingy with herself, and in the end, she’d left him empty-handed.
He couldn’t help her out with the silence this time. His mama raised him not to talk with his mouth full.
That fucking stage smile clicked back into place, and doll-blank eyes blinked at him. “Who isn’t? I’m exotic, the only woman in a twenty-mile radius who doesn’t have a perm or a mullet.”
“Hey, it takes a real woman to pull off a permullet. You’re just bitter because you weren’t man enough to get one of the Wilkins twins.”
As quickly as the saucy left eyebrow raised in challenge, a bully of a scowl pushed it back down. Reminiscing about old times with him must have been high on her not-to-do list.
You’re the one who left me, Fortress.
If he was bitter about anything, it wasn’t the ninety-seven-year-old Wilkins sisters.
Twelve years was a long time. He’d been left by other women in the interim, including one fairly recent divorce, fresher wounds that ought to sting more.
I stayed here six months, waiting for you to call.
She didn’t want to talk to him now, either? He leaned a hip against the counter and settled in for a good, long gab session. “Did Babs and Gabs ever invest in a second set of dentures?”
“Waste of money.”
They finished the familiar story in unison. “They don’t need to chew at the same time.”
He once told a woman about the Wilkins twins during the show-me-your-roots phase of a relationship. She told him to call adult protective services. He told her the twins were sharper than razor blades and somebody would get a briefcase shoved up his ass sideways if he set foot on their homestead to offer them “protection.” She told him he was a heartless, right-wing redneck asshole.
They didn’t go out again, and he spent some time sifting through his roots to find the blandest, most palatable to share rather than try to justify the talk-show craziness of a hometown too small to contain all its idiosyncrasies without the pot occasionally boiling over.
He didn’t have to explain anything to Tally because she knew. She’d been there for the Great Fourth of July Brawl of ’97, when half the adult population of Westard threw punches over a dispute about seeded hamburger buns and had to be broken up with a squirt from the fire truck. They shared a look across a corner of the town square, at the fringe of stupid, beer-fueled violence, and cracked up, conspirators in mortification.
She’d been there when Emmett Ware’s cows escaped from their pasture, walked eight miles into town, and gathered in the square during a thunderstorm, packed like sardines, all facing the same direction. She stood beside him at a window in the second-floor corridor of the school, looking down at the eerie scene, and said so quietly only he received the gift of her humor, “I hope the moo-ther ship lands before Howdy Hank comes to round them up.”
She’d been there for everything. They had a bond he’d never developed with anyone else, mutual history, wordless understanding.
Maybe that was why the wound she’d given him remained raw after all this time while others healed overnight. “How long have you been back?”
She scratched at a spot on the shelf, which looked immaculate to his eye, and inspected the work of her close-cropped fingernail. “A while.”
The lack of eye contact and enigmatic monosyllables signaled intrusion into the realm of Too Personal. He knew the terrain well from countless prior trespasses. Everyone had things they’d rather not talk about. Tally had more than most, but damned if he knew why she’d be secretive about that piece of information when he could walk out of the bakery, ask the first person he ran into, and get the date, time, mode of transportation, and weather conditions upon her return.
He called her The Fortress for good reason. He spent nearly half his life trying to breach her walls. She’d refortified since his last onslaught, but he got through once before, at least a little bit. He would be in town a week, at most, but the urge to spend it in siege was strong.
There certainly wasn’t anything else to do in Westard.
He stepped over that landmine and marched onward. “You ran out of here like you were on fire. Why did you come back?”
The last remnant of the sham smile flaked away. She locked her eyes on him, lining up crosshairs on his face.
He put the last piece of cookie in his mouth and let it melt on his tongue while he waited for her shot.
“Shouldn’t you be leaving before your mom has to get out of bed to let you in?”
“It’s barely after seven.”
“She has to be at school by six.”
He’d lived with the woman for nineteen years. He knew her habits better than anyone. She went to bed at nine sharp, which gave him plenty of time to get there.
His conscience stirred, prodded awake by the point of Tally’s glare. A guest showing up unannounced would throw off his mom’s routine. She’d insist on doing a load of laundry so he could sleep on fresh sheets. Given that her washer and dryer had been state of the art in the era when high efficiency meant slightly faster than beating your clothes on a rock, she’d be up until midnight. Not only would she be exhausted in the morning, but with him road weary and her up past her bedtime, they were guaranteed to end up fighting if they spent that much time together tonight.
Particularly when he was already in a sieging mood.
Since his conscience was up anyway, it gave him a slap on Tally’s behalf. She looked pale, harassed, clinging to that shelf like she’d been on her feet for a fourteen-hour shift and would fall over from exhaustion if the oblivious asshole in her bakery didn’t get out soon so she could lock up and go home.
Siege. Christ. He’d have gotten a warmer reception if he offered her a foot rub and eight hours of sleep.
Maybe tomorrow, when they were both less stale and he wasn’t overwhelmed at the surprise punch in the guts of seeing her again, he could get more out of talking to her than a plastic smile, a pile of unanswered questions, and a hollowed-out pain in the center of his chest.
While looking anywhere but at Ben, Tally spied a truck crawling past the window for the third time. Trucks were far from newsworthy — few denizens of Westard had never cussed at a lock before realizing they’d selected the wrong dusty, late-model pickup from the lineup — but this one’s speed made it suspicious. Motorists on Main Street either parked or pretended they hadn’t seen the 25 MPH limit painted on the asphalt every day of their lives. They crept only for parades and funerals, neither of which was scheduled for this evening and neither of which called for three trips around the block.
Either someone had gotten hopelessly lost in a town with four streets and four avenues, or someone was awaiting more favorable conditions to get up to no good.
“How much for the rest of those cookies?”
She’d gladly trade an armed robbery for Ben’s brand of no good, but it was more likely someone too proud to beg for leftovers with an audience.
Stella’s orders were to sell all inventory at cost around closing or give it away if Tally knew the customer was particularly hurting for cash.
She gave away a lot of food, to the detriment of the bakery’s bottom line.
Ben lacked the familiar hungry look of the working poor. Though she’d swear she hadn’t spent more than ten seconds looking directly at him, a sixth of a minute was sufficient to observe that a down payment on a new truck ticked away the time on his wrist. How much could a well-heeled outsider afford to spend on two dozen cookies? “Twenty dollars.”
The corners of his gorgeous mouth tilted upward. “You think highly of those cookies, huh?”
The markup was exorbitant, but like hell she’d back down after he practically made out with the one he got gratis. “Price includes the marshmallows.”
Assembling the box gave her something to do other than watch him suck sugar off his fingertips but wasn’t cognitively demanding enough to prevent her from thinking about it, which led to thinking about parts of her he’d sucked on, which led to a wash of heat reminiscent of opening a four hundred degree oven too close to her face.
She hiked up one shoulder to catch the bead of sweat slithering around her ear. She’d been in the middle of sex without thinking this much about a man touching her body, which didn’t say much for the men she’d had sex with, damn them and damn him.
And said even less for her. If her aspirations hadn’t been as far out of reach as the stars, she would have been content with what she got instead.
One especially tender cookie split along a fracture in its sugar coating when handled. She set the fragments aside in the display case. Even unwelcome customers didn’t get damaged goods.
“The price I was quoted included all of those.”
Considering the price he was quoted should have gotten him twice as many cookies, she couldn’t criticize him for being a cheapskate. “I’ll give you change. Stella doesn’t sell defective merchandise.”
“The broken ones are my favorite. Stella used to save them for me.”
She probably broke them on purpose to make sure she had his favorite in stock whenever he drifted into the shop. Ben Fielder had modest aspirations, and everyone in Westard tripped over themselves to make sure he got more and better than he expected from life.
The customer was always right when paying double retail, so he got what he wanted this time, too. Tally boxed each cookie with care to ensure they arrived at their destination without further casualties so he could eat every crumb, get fat, lose all his teeth to cavities, and erupt in acne.
She couldn’t have erotic fantasies about him being obese, toothless, and covered in zits.
Her plan to ruin him put a smile on her face while she tucked what remained of the bag of marshmallows into the vacant corner of the box.
She turned to find him holding a twenty-dollar bill clamped between his index and middle fingers in the universal sign for come over here and earn this money, sugar.
The smile withered and left her mouth prickly. “What, you want to tuck that in my underwear?”
Blue eyes widened. “Is that an option? You should put up a sign. This place would be packed, even at these prices.”
She banged the box down on the counter. No advertising necessary. Not a day passed that someone didn’t ask what she sold other than food.
And he’d come in here with those big, guileless eyes, asking questions like he didn’t know a thing about what she’d done with herself during the past twelve years. His mother no doubt updated him on every sordid detail as it happened, but there was no substitute for hearing the confession straight from the stripper’s mouth.
It had been a while since being treated like a whore prompted any feeling other than weariness. She had become so accustomed to the insult, she looked forward to the rare occasions on which someone came up with new material.
Ben managed to make condemnation hurt like an open-handed slap that bounced her brain off her skull but was too well distributed to leave a mark — a specialty of her mother’s, the breathtaking impact of which never diminished with overuse.
On the bright side, she couldn’t have erotic fantasies about a judgmental asshole, either.
She snatched the bill out of his hand and gave the cash register one of its few rings of the day. She unclenched her teeth just enough to grit out, “Thank you for your business. Have a nice day.”
By which she meant, Get out. Go to hell. Never come back.
“It’s good to see you, Tal.”
“I bet.” Some people were a joy to gawk at, even when badly dressed, sweaty, and dirty-faced.
His head tipped a little, as if suddenly too weighty for his neck to support. “See you soon.”
Please, no. She would have whined it out loud, on her knees, if it meant she never had to see him again, but her experience with begging had a lousy rate of return.
She remained on her feet, said nothing, and pretended to have some dignity left.
He picked up his overpriced cookies and walked out of the bakery.
The buzzer stuck again, bemoaning his departure.
Tally grabbed a spatula from the kitchen and swatted the buzzer. If anything, it got louder. She hit it again, and again and again, and kept hitting it until it fell silent and then a couple more whacks to make sure it understood she’d had enough shit for one day.
The sleeve she swiped under her burning eyes came away black with mascara. She should have stopped wearing the stupid stuff long ago. She looked like a raccoon by the time she got home every night. If she didn’t have so many samples from the days she’d devoted enough of her income to her face to earn big-spender perks like infinite tiny tubes of mascara from Sephora, she’d have run out ages ago and gone au naturel for lack of money to waste on luxurious lashes. She ought to purge what remained in her makeup bag and quit performing the last surviving ritual from another life that hadn’t been appreciably happier than the current one.
A wave of failures had deposited her back where she started. Her mother wasn’t around to gloat that the quest for fame and fortune had yielded only infamy and a lifetime supply of mascara samples, but Ben’s reappearance more than made up for her absence. If she ever wanted him to know what a mess she’d made of her life, she would have called him a week after she left Westard and begged him to fix it for her.
He would have tried — and missed football camp and lost his scholarship — and the time he wasted on her would have ruined the bright future he was destined for. The fabulous life he had now was made possible because she hadn’t dragged him from the path he was meant to be on.
Fourteen-hour workdays, broken buzzers, and a bottomless well of scorn were her path. Success for her consisted of making it to the end of the day without crying. She’d been losing the battle less frequently now that calluses had formed over her sore spots. She hardly felt the jabs anymore.
Burning eyes didn’t count, as long as they didn’t leak. She could still win today.
She washed the spatula and put it away, transferred the thirty-odd dollars in the cash register to the safe, and found enough polishing to kill another twenty minutes. When no one in a slow-moving pickup truck took the opportunity to hold her up or ask for a handout, she slung her backpack over her shoulder, turned out the lights, and took herself out with the trash.
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