Page 31

Author: Jill Shalvis

Love was a weakness.

Love made a guy soft.

And soft meant mistakes were made. And yet there was Chloe, looking for him. At him. And something turned over in his chest. It was his heart, exposing its soft, vulnerable underbelly. He had no idea what to do with that.

Or her.

Several days later, Chloe was manning the inn. She was sweeping the living room wood floors and watching an old Friends repeat.

Lance called. “Working hard?” he asked.

She glanced at the TV wryly. “Very.”

“Is that Friends?”

Chloe aimed the remote and turned down the volume. “If you can recognize it by sound alone, you know it too well.”

“What season?” he asked.

“Well, Chandler’s secretly doing Monica, so season five.”

Lance laughed. “If you can name the season, you know it too well.”

She snorted. “Better than being married to my PS3. Haven’t seen you in days.”

“Been busy, but not with my PS3.”

The smugness in his voice alerted her. “Ah. So how’s your nurse?”

“Good. Very good.”

“Are we ever going to all hang out?” Chloe asked.

“Hell, no.”

“Afraid I’ll tell her all your secrets and scare her off?” she teased.

“Hell, yes. Listen, we have people coming in this weekend, and they want two rooms. You up for it?”

“Depends.” Chloe turned to the front desk and brought up the B&B’s schedule on the computer. “Are they normal?”

“Define normal.”

“Viable credit card and not any of Tucker’s idiot friends.”

“You’re in luck. They’re actually my godparents and their teenage kids, and they’re nice. And they pay their bills.”

“Okay, then. I’ll book them.”

“Thanks. So what’s this I read on Facebook about you and the sheriff sending out save-the-date magnets?”

“What?” Chloe nearly fell off the chair. Righting herself, she clicked over to the Facebook page on the computer. Nothing except a Cute Guy sighting had been made in the grocery store. He’d been caught buying an expensive cut of steak, and people were wondering which woman in town he was cooking for. “You made that up!”

“Yeah,” Lance said on a rough laugh. “When did you get so easy?”

“When did you get so mean?”

“Aw, you know I love you.” Then some of the amusement faded from his voice. “And you should also know, Todd has a new crush.”

“Jesus. Amy is not interested in any of them. Tell them just because she’s new and beautiful that she—”

“You,” Lance said. “He’s crushing on you.”

“Too bad for him.”

“Yeah, well, be careful.”

“I’m handling Todd.” Mostly by ignoring him, but there wasn’t much more she could do.

“He was drunk the other night, Chloe,” Lance said. “Talking about snatching you from beneath Sawyer’s nose.”

Terrific. “I—”

A woman walked in the front door of the inn. “Gotta go,” Chloe whispered and hung up. “Hi,” she said with a welcoming smile, promptly putting the annoying Todd out of her head. “Can I help you?”

“Um, yeah. I hope so. I don’t have a reservation. Do you have any rooms available?” She was a mid-twenties blonde, pretty. And she was nervous as hell. When she clasped her hands together at her chest, her fingers were shaking.

“We do have rooms,” Chloe said. “Just you?”

“Y-yes.” She squeezed her lips together. “Just me.”

Chloe opened a registration page on the computer. “Okay…your name?”

“Um.” The woman’s gaze shifted toward the television, still turned to Friends. “Monica.”

Chloe paused. “Last name?”

“Do you really need that?”

“Well, I’ll need a driver’s license and credit card, so…”

“Oh, but I’m going to pay cash,” the woman said, eyes darting around as if someone might object. “So you don’t need an ID, right?”

“Actually, we still ask for ID.” Chloe looked at “Monica’s” luggage—a garment bag from a haute couture store in Seattle and two wrinkled plastic bags from Target. Quite the contradiction. Another was that “Monica’s” makeup was theater flawless, with her hair up in an intricate French twist that had been clearly done by a professional and yet she wore cheap, baggy sweats. On her right breast was a tiny round clear sticker with a small black S, the size hadn’t yet been removed.

And then there was the big tell—the woman’s panic was a tangible, living, breathing thing in the room, and Chloe knew right then she was going to cave. But before she could say so, Tara poked her head in from the kitchen. “I’ve got groceries to unload— Oops, sorry.”

“Excuse me for just a minute,” Chloe said to Monica and jogged after Tara into the kitchen. Maddie was just coming in the back door as well.

“Problem,” Chloe told them quietly. “We have a guest who doesn’t want to show ID.”

“We have to have a credit card on file,” Tara said.

“She’s running away from someone.” Chloe cracked the kitchen door to peek at their guest, who was pacing the living room. “I want to let her stay here.”

“You asking or telling?” Tara asked.

Chloe locked gazes with her.

“We’ve got to at least get ID,” Tara protested.

“Or we could…forget,” Maddie said softly. “Because if the poor thing is hiding, it’s for a reason, and we should help her.”

Chloe nodded her agreement on that score. “She’s scared. I’m going back out there.” Back in the living room, she smiled reassuringly at their guest. “Just one night?”

“Yes. I need to be on the road at the crack of dawn.”

“Sure.” Chloe once again bent to the computer. “So where are you headed?”

She bit her lip. “LA?”

Chloe looked up from the screen. “Okay, but tomorrow night, when you’re standing at another front desk in some other inn, don’t say it with a question mark. Own it.”

The woman winced. “Oh, God. You’re right.” She seemed to collapse in on herself. “And I don’t want to be standing at another inn tomorrow. I’ve only come from Seattle, and I’m already tired of driving. Can I just book a room here for a week and have you pretend I don’t exist?”

“A week might be harder to swing without a credit card.”

“Monica” backed to the couch and sat down hard. She was wearing white pumps with her sweats.

Pristine white pumps.

“I know what it looks like,” she said. “Like I’m an escapee from the mental hospital, but I’m not.”

“Because you’re a runaway bride?” Chloe asked softly.

She straightened and stared at Chloe in horror. “I don’t—I mean…” She bit her lower lip. “I just like white pumps, a lot. So of course, I’m not a runaway bride. Running away from my own wedding would make me a horrible person.” She covered her face. “Oh, God, I’m a horrible person! How did you know?”

“The Target sweats with the wedding pumps were a dead giveaway,” Chloe said gently, coming around the desk to sit at her side. “So was stealing Monica Geller’s identity.” She paused. “Are you okay?”

“Sure. I’ve only broken the hearts of all my family and friends and groom-to-be, who I’ve known since I was ten. But other than that, I’m terrific.” And then she burst into tears.

Chloe put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder, and she slumped against her like they were best friends and sobbed.

Chloe awkwardly patted her back while staring helplessly at the door to the kitchen. Where the hell was Maddie the Hugger when she needed her? “Um…can I call your family for you? I could tell them that you’re safe. They don’t have to know where you are, but I’m sure they’re worried sick about you.”

Maddie came out with some tea, and Tara followed with cupcakes, thank God. The three of them sat on the couch while the woman sniffled and blew her nose. “My name’s Allie.”

“Cupcake, Allie?” Maddie asked kindly.

Allie nodded and took two, one in each hand.

“Tara calls these Sugar and Spice and Anything but Nice Cupcakes,” Chloe said. “She was annoyed at her boyfriend when she baked them.”

“Yeah?” Allie shoveled in a cupcake, still occasionally hiccupping and wiping her nose. “What did he do?”

“Oh, she won’t tell us,” Chloe said. “Whatever it is happened this morning, I think, but she’s mum on the subject. He probably left his underwear on the floor. Tara’s OCD about that kind of stuff. But then again, I’m still on the fence that Ford actually wears underwear.” Chloe grinned into Tara’s narrowed eyes. Hey, maybe she’d promised to grow up, but she’d never promised to stop poking at her sisters.

“Maddie thinks maybe he’s the one who sneaked a piece of Tara’s Very Berry Pie without asking, but it wasn’t him.” She pointed at herself and mouthed “me.”

Allie eyed Tara speculatively. “You look so…with it. He had to have done something bigger than leave out his underwear, right?”

Tara gave Chloe a meaningful glare but said nothing. The Steel Magnolia wasn’t talking.

“Did you ask him how you look and he said fine without taking his eyes off the TV?” Allie asked. “Or did he ogle a woman in the frozen foods aisle at the grocery store because her nipples were hard from standing in front of the ice cream display? Did he tell you that your mother is a pain in his ass?”