Nicole threw aside the book she was reading. “That isn’t going to happen…not now, not ever. Got that?”
Christine smirked and nodded. “You keep saying that often enough, Sis, and even you’ll end up believing it.”
“Get lost, Chrissy. You know nothing. I cannot give that man another chance to ruin my life again. It’s taken me ten years to get over the last heart-breaking encounter.”
“Nicole, you’re not being fair.”
“Not being fair?” Nicole flung herself back into the chair and ran a trembling hand through her long, blonde hair, crying out as it caught in a knot halfway down. “Ouch! Even my hair recognises the pain I went through back then. Why can’t you?”
She knew her sister’s heart was in the right place and that Chrissy had always thought the world of her ex, Josh Holland, from the day she had introduced him and his charming nature to her family. Not long after that, Josh had left town, walking out on their relationship without so much as a discussion to tell her it was over between them. Chrissy was fooling herself. She’d only been privy to some of the problems Nicole and Josh had been through during their tumultuous, but passion-filled relationship. Nicole had been so damn hurt when Josh had just taken off and shut her out, and since that day she’d been determined never to let another man worm his way under her skin the way Josh had. Now, her sister was here for a visit, to share with her what she thought was exciting news: Josh was back. Back in Windy Creek.
The words had knocked the wind out of Nicole, striking absolute fear and dread into her fragile heart, the heart that had never healed. Josh doesn’t have the nerve to come knocking on my door now that he was back in town, does he? She hoped to God he wouldn’t—she had no idea how she’d react if she ever came face-to-face with him again, after all this time.
“Everyone goes through painful breakups in their teens. You can’t tell me that you’re still bearing a grudge against him after all this time, surely?”
Her sister infuriated her at times; the blasé way Chrissy managed to brush aside Nicole’s pain as if it was just a harmless bout of the common cold.
“Where? Where did you see him?” Nicole asked…and then thought, why did you ask that? You’re showing that you’re interested when you’re anything but.
Her sister was on to her. It was evident when her eyes sparkled with amusement. “He came into the store and tapped me on the shoulder. It took me a few seconds to figure out who he was. He’s turned into a real hunk, Nicole. Not that he wasn’t devastatingly handsome back then. But he’s altered—now he has a distinct air of money about him. The cut of his suit was like I’d never seen before, not on any of the so-called men around here anyway.”
Nicole put her head in her hands, frustrated with her sister’s take on this whole monstrous thing. “Like that makes a difference? You know money has never interested me. Truth and being treated like a worthwhile human being is all I crave, sister dearest. Traits that are tragically missing from the Josh Holland Divine Traits Handbook.”
Nicole crossed and uncrossed her legs as an unwelcome feeling seeped between her upper thighs. Furious that even thinking about Josh could still affect her in such a way, she jumped to her feet and paced the room in a mini circle. She looked around her house, the house her hard work as a struggling hairdresser had paid for. She had no man to thank for any of this. Hard work and determination had always been the ultimate key to her successes.
“Well, I think you’re being ridiculous—” Her sister stubbornly folded her arms and tapped her foot.
Nicole’s raised hand halted what Chrissy was about to say next. “Change of subject needed, I believe. Are you going out at the weekend?”
Reluctantly Chrissy sighed. “Friday night I’m off into town to a club, why?”
“Just wondering.” She paused and gulped down a large bubble of air. “I might come with you.”
“Really? Why? Since when do you go out nightclubbing?”
“Since this weekend.” Again she saw amusement flow into her sister’s eyes. “What?”
“Nothing, Sis. I’ll let you tag along providing I get first choice on all the hot guys we’re likely to meet.”
The two of them shook hands. Nicole grinned. “That’s a deal. Saturday night’s a date then.”
The following morning, Nicole dragged herself into the bathroom and glanced at her reflection in the oval mirror. Dark circles loomed under her eyes from lack of sleep—not an endearing feature. She splashed her face with cold water and went downstairs to the kitchen. “Strong and black for you today, young lady.”
Thankful that her nine-year-old daughter was on a sleepover for a few days with her grandma, she sipped her coffee out on the patio, contemplating the sleepless night she’d endured. Every time she tried to shut her eyes, he was there. Taunting her, messing with her head, tempting her to make contact with him. She struggled all night long to force his face from her mind, without success.
How was she supposed to be able to concentrate at work? She was booked solid at hourly intervals throughout the day. She said a silent prayer, asking for the man upstairs to prevent Josh from tracking her down. Sipping the last drop of her bitter coffee, she went back inside to shower and get ready for work. In the full-length mirror, the person looking back at her tore her to pieces and shocked her. Dowdy and unkempt summed it up nicely. How on earth had she let herself slip into such doldrums?
She arrived at the salon and switched on all the lights and the dryers before she poured another coffee. From the restroom out back, she heard the tinkle of the bell as the shop’s front door opened.
“Just a minute,” she called and quickly washed out the dark stains of coffee lining the inside of the mug. She smoothed down her skirt and went back into the salon to welcome Mrs. Slade, her first customer of the day. “Hello—” she stopped abruptly, then, “You!”
“Hello, Nicole. It’s been a long time.”
Her legs semi-buckled, and she clung to the back of the nearest chair for support. He rushed forward to help her. “Stay back. Don’t you dare touch me, ever!”
A hurt expression crossed his handsome, clean-shaven face. The face she had once loved to kiss and run her hands over. Tracing the outline of his lips, feeling the tip of his tongue searching out her finger, sending chills running up her spine, back in the day…Stop it!
His croaky voice said, “You don’t mean that.”
Recovering quickly, she pulled her shoulders back, and her eyes narrowed. “You bet I do, buster. You had your chance with me, and you blew it, big time. No one gets a second chance to mess with my emotions. Have you got that?” She had no idea where the anger came from at that moment, but if she’d had a knife in her hand, she would have run at him with it, sliced his face to shreds so his gorgeous features couldn’t trick another woman the way they had deceived her.
He appeared genuinely taken aback by her venomous outburst. He held out a shaking hand. “Nicole, please. I’ve come back. For you. We can pick up where we left off. ”
“What?” She clicked her fingers. “Just like that, you expect me to forgive you, to fall into your open arms and forget the torment, frustration, and anger you’ve put me through? What type of idiot do you think I am?”
“I’m the idiot—”
She snorted. “That much we agree on at least. Get out, Josh, and never darken my surroundings, or my life, again.”
He made no attempt to move. Nicole, who had now regained the full use of her legs, moved across the small room and picked up the phone. “You were warned.” She dialled a number, but hit the end-call button before she spoke, “Yes, police, please come quickly. Help me. There’s an intruder in my shop. He looks dangerous. Yes, I think he’s hiding a weapon and has every intention of attacking me.”
Josh’s eyes doubled in size. He shook his head and ran out of the shop. She looked out the large shop window and watched him walk away, his shoulders slumped and his hands firmly planted in his pockets. Her heart pounded out a beat she hadn’t experienced in years, not since the last time they’d slept together.
The chance to think over if she’d done the right thing—driving him away like she had—quickly passed by, because Mrs. Slade entered the shop, declaring the start of Nicole’s working day. Usually, she was extra attentive to her clients, offering them a cup of coffee while they finished off under the dryer. Today, however, her thoughts lay elsewhere. It wasn’t until Mrs. Slade paid her bill and did not leave her usual tip that Nicole realised how blatantly rude she’d been to one of her valued customers. She reached out her hand to touch Mrs. Slade’s arm gently.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Slade. Please forgive me. I’m not totally with it today.”
“I understand, sweetie. Not sure I’d be able to concentrate with that young man’s handsome smile piercing my mind. You’re forgiven.” The woman rethought the tip situation and placed a five-pound note on the counter. Before turning to the door, Mrs. Slade leaned towards her, tapped the side of her nose, and whispered, “If I were you, I’d shut up shop and go after him. Put a sign on the door saying that you’re ill or something.” She laughed and added, “You certainly look lovesick to me, child.”
Nicole’s cheeks resembled a ripe tomato by the time Mrs. Slade’s well-intended telling-off had ceased. Nicole saw the customer out and couldn’t resist dipping outside the shop, straining her neck to see if Josh was still around. He wasn’t, and something akin to disappointment swept over her.
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