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A new Stephanie Browning Romance…    

Making Up is Hard to Do

 

“Aachoo!” Nicki sneezed, blew her nose for the umpteenth time that day and tossed the soggy tissue into the wastebasket next to her desk. The year-end report she was preparing for the Bedford County Golf Club could go hang. She was going to go home, have a long, hot shower and crawl into bed.

“Ms. Hamilton?”

Nicki raised her red-rimmed, hazel eyes.

Madison Carswell, Gammage & Associates’ young receptionist, hovered in the doorway.

“Dwat?” Nicki blew her bangs out of the way.

The receptionist frowned. “Are you okay?”

“Despite the fact that I sound like a fwrog, my hair is greasy and my nose is red enough to unseat Rudolph, I’m just tickety-boo.” Nicki lobbed the half-finished report across her desk. “Dwhy, what’s up?”

“There’s this man…” with a slight twitch of the head, Madison indicated the reception area behind her, “…he’s asking for Mr. Gammage.”

Nicki sighed. She really was tired and out-of-sorts and now here was Madison, her nineteen-year-old frame practically quivering with excitement over whatever piece of male flesh waited expectantly in the outer office. “You know the drill, Madison. Tell mister whoever-he-is that Doug is on paternity leave until further notice. If the guy stills wants an accountant, he can make an appointment to see me…”

Nicki peered at the clock on the wall. It was already close to four. “Tomorrow afternoon,” she said firmly. “When I am looking…and feeling better.”

“But…”

“But, what?” Nicki shoved her knuckles underneath her glasses and scrubbed. Her eyes were incredibly itchy.

“It’s just…he’s from out-of-town.”

The old-fashioned horned-rims stopped bobbing up and down. “So am I,” muttered Nicki.

Madison’s voice fell to a whisper. “But you’ve got to see this guy. He’s perfect for you.”

The heavy frames dropped back into place. “I know this is a small town, Madison.” Nicki said carefully, “but being thirty-one and single is not a crime. At least, not where I come from. Now go back and tell him…”

She reached for her appointment book and flipped it open.

“…that I can see him…”

Nicki never did discover what made her look up just then, but as she did, Madison shifted to one side of the doorway, leaving Nicki with a clear view of the man in the outer office.

He wasn’t quite as gorgeous as her enthusiastic receptionist had suggested, but there was definitely something about the way he stood with his back to them, discreetly watching the traffic crawl along Main Street while he waited, that captured Nicki’s attention.

And held it while she took in the broad sweep of his shoulders, the crisp lines of his tan chinos and the cotton shirt he so casually wore. She pegged him at about thirty-four or five. Unlike her own salon-styled highlights, which looked fabulous when freshly washed and disastrous when not, his sandy brown hair shone as though it had been touched by the sun. It was long enough to nudge the edge of his collar, but well cut so that it stayed in line. Except for one stray curl, a tiny cowlick determined to go its own way.

Nicki felt her fingers twitch in recognition. “Psst! Madison!” she whispered hoarsely, beckoning the receptionist closer. “Did he say where he’s from?”

“Yeah. Watertown.”

“As in New York?” Nicki squeaked. Her voice sounded as though it had risen an octave.

“Uh, yeah.”

Nicki frowned. She knew the Lake Ontario town of Eastport was crawling with tourists this time of year, many of whom were American. Besides, she reminded herself, half the population of Bedford County had family and friends on both sides of the border, some of whom spent as much time in New York as they did here.

The trouble was none of them ever made her palms sweat or her heart lurch with sudden longing the way this man did.

“He didn’t happen to tell you his name, did he?”

“Um, Ruther-something, I think.”

For a split-second, Nicki felt her world go black around the edges.

Not Ruther-something. Rutherford. Jack. Born Syracuse, New York. Mother American, father Canadian. Summers spent in Bedford County. Heart given to teenaged girl. Undying love given to him in return. Three passionate letters exchanged. A dozen more sent.

And then nothing.

For fifteen long years.

Nicki blinked.

Madison was speaking to her. “What do you want me to do?”

Short of telling Jack Rutherford to go away until she could whip home, wash her hair, put her contacts back in and lose five pounds, there was nothing Madison could do.

“Give me two minutes,” Nicki said firmly. “And then show him in.”

Damn. This was not the way it was supposed to happen. She should have been sitting in a sidewalk café sipping an espresso, or strolling along the Champs-Elysées on a beautiful spring day wearing an elegant dress and a wide-brimmed hat.

It was too late now.

Nicki breathed in deeply, tucked a lank strand of hair behind one ear, and moistened her lips with her tongue. She grabbed her summary page on the golf course and tried to study it, but her hands were shaking so badly, the carefully prepared columns seemed to morph into a solid block of black ink.

And then, suddenly, Jack was there, filling the doorway to her office. He seemed taller somehow. At least six-foot-two from where she was sitting, and he’d filled out. Everywhere. In the way a man does when he earns his muscles the hard way.

“Ms. Hamilton?”

His accent had softened. From upstate New York to somewhere neither here, nor there. With great deliberation, Nicki set the papers she was holding on top of the desk, and rose to her feet. The moss-green summer suit she wore nipped in at the waist and flattered her full figure, but the skirt, which stopped just short of her knees, did nothing to hide the tremble in her legs as she walked towards him.

Jack was smiling politely, holding out his hand.

“Jack Rutherford.”

“Mr. Rutherford.” Nicki broke out in a grin. Now that he was this close she could see the tiny lines radiating from the corners of his incredible blue eyes, and she found herself wondering where the intervening years had taken him.

“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”

She stared at his hand for a moment, caught short by the formality of his greeting, and then she slipped her hand in his.

It was warm, and slightly calloused. She could feel the strength in his grip. It sent a delicious signal of familiarity to every nerve in her body. The yearnings of a sixteen-year-old girl roared to the surface of the woman she had become.

Swallowing her tears of happiness, Nicki raised her glance to his once more. He stared down at her and she started, suddenly reminded of how truly revealing the colour of Jack’s eyes could be. From sky blue to cobalt and back again depending on his mood.

A sharp chill, as cold and grey as liquid mercury, rippled through Nicki’s veins. It wiped the goofy grin from her face and sent her heart into overdrive.

Jack Rutherford, the man she had loved unconditionally for nearly half her lifetime, had no idea who she was.

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