Between the Seams
“Yo, Chase, did you hear a word of what I just said?”
Chase Roberts snapped out of his reverie and glanced over at Owen Daniels, his best friend, business partner and occasional pain in the ass. “Sure.”
Owen snorted. “No, you didn’t.”
A pretty blonde entered the building across the street, and Chase fought the overwhelming urge to follow her. “Did you see the blonde across the street just now?” He asked instead.
Owen opened the driver’s side door of his car. “I thought you’d sworn off women? Called them all second-hand groupies or something like that.”
Chase looked at the building—Mitchell’s Drug Store—one more time before climbing into the passenger seat of the low-slung Mustang. “I didn’t say they were all second-hand groupies. There just happen to be more than I would like.”
“Must be tough, being chased by hot, scantily-clad women all the time.”
Owen pulled away from the curb and Chase fought the urge to turn and watch to see if the blonde came out of the drug store.
“It is when the only reason they’re chasing after me is because of my brother.” Chase’s brother, Matt, was Mr. Baseball. The long-time ace for the Texas Wranglers, Matt was well-loved in their hometown of Del Rio, Texas. So well-loved the high school baseball fields now bore his name. Without a sponsorship. So well-loved that he had his own menu item at Francine’s Diner. So well-loved that there was a freaking Matt Roberts Day, complete with a downtown parade. In November. After the World Series and before Winter Ball started. Hell, his brother had been given keys to the damned city.
As much as Chase loved his brother, he got tired of the groupies who decided that if they couldn’t have Matt they would just settle for Chase. After one too many stories posted about him on internet message boards and questionable websites, Chase had decided about a year ago that maybe a female hiatus was in order.
Besides, he had a business to run, and even with his last name he still wanted to project the image of responsible, trustworthy businessman—not wannabe playboy.
Chase ignored Owen’s sarcasm. “Anyway. Did you happen to see her?”
“Who? The curvy blonde going into Mitchell’s?”
“Yes. That one. Apparently you did.”
Owen shrugged. “She looked like she had a nice ass.”
“She looked familiar.”
Owen turned into the parking lot of Roberts Ventures, LLC, and swung into the space next to Chase’s pickup. “Previous one-night stand?”
Chase snorted. “No. Definitely not one of those.” Hell, Chase could count on one hand the number of one-night stands he’d had over his entire lifetime. His brother’s groupies just made it sound like he was, well, a player.
They got out of Owen’s Mustang and entered the building. Chase’s executive assistant and all-around office goddess looked up and smiled at Chase. As soon as Kimberly’s gaze landed on Owen, her smile quickly turned to a frown.
Chase didn’t know why Kim didn’t like Owen, and no amount of gentle prying had managed to get the information out of her. “Good morning, Kim.”
“Mornin’, Chase. We got the Sutton contract in, and Frank Wimbly called earlier, said he found a spot out by the lake that he would like to take a look at.”
Chase nodded. “Thanks. I’ll take a look at the Sutton contract and give Frank a call back.”
He made his way to his office, shaking his head as the sound of Kim scolding Owen could be heard from down the hall.
Never a dull moment he thought as he got back to work.
Jolene Westwood was usually pretty hard to embarrass. As a high school guidance counselor, she’d heard—and discussed—some of the most embarrassing things human beings experienced. From high school crushes to missed periods to kids grappling with their sexuality, she thought she’d heard—and seen—it all.
But embarrassment was much easier to deal with when it wasn’t your own, and unfortunately she was currently knee-deep in it on this lovely evening.
She’d just been standing there, in front of the pads, tampons and Monistat cream that lined the back wall of the Del Rio Walmart, debating small pack versus value pack, when she accidentally backed up into someone.
A solid someone who radiated warmth and man.
Slowly, she turned around, her hands still paused mid-air, holding the bright yellow and blue boxes up like some sort of offering.
Or maybe as a big fat red light.
No pun intended.
Her gaze wandered up from the box of Crest toothpaste in one hand to the center of what was definitely a polo-clad male chest and up to a jaw shadowed with dark stubble. Firm lips. Slightly crooked nose. Brown eyes that made her think of warm, cinnamony Mexican chocolate. Dark eyebrows. Dark brown, almost black hair that curled out from under a blue YETI coolers ball cap.
Jo swallowed a gasp—or, more realistically, a longing-filled sigh—and took a quick step back.
Childhood best friend.
The boy she’d long ago said goodbye to.
Her stomach flip-flopped as she slowly lowered her hands and her gaze. Mentally drank him in.
Two hundred pounds.
At least, those had been his college stats. If anything, he looked like he might have gained a couple of inches, and whatever he weighed, it sure looked like it was pure muscle.
Realizing she was staring like an idiot, she mentally shook herself and somehow found her voice. “I am so sorry, Chase. I didn’t see you behind me.”
Stupid, Jolene. Of course you couldn’t see him behind you, it isn’t like you have eyes in the back of your head.
His melted chocolate gaze traveled up and down her body before settling on her face. “I’m sorry, you seem to have me at a disadvantage—you know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
Jo smiled, even though she was cringing on the inside, and she fought back the sense of disappointment his words evoked. They’d been friends for years and he didn’t remember her? Hell, her mother had tried to end his parents’ marriage, until the truth finally came out years later that Chandra Sommers had never slept with Bo Roberts. Ends up Sarah Roberts had known that for far longer than Jo had—Chandra was more than happy to let her daughter believe the worst. And he didn’t remember her?
Serves you right, for ending things the way you did.
Her voice tinged with the disappointment she apparently couldn’t hide, Jo responded. “Sorry. I’ve changed some since the last time we saw each other. Jolene Westwood.”
Chase’s brows drew together over those hot chocolate eyes. “I feel awful, but I don’t remember a Jolene Westwo—wait a second. Jo? Jo Sommers?”
Jo could feel her cheeks warming and knew she was probably beet red by now. Could this be any more awkward? “Sorry. I changed my name a few years back, after my parents died.”
“Westwood is your grandma’s name, right?”
Jolene nodded and swallowed. “Yeah.”
Lame, Jolene, lame.
Chase stood before her, a brown-eyed god with a 92 mile per hour fastball and a nasty curveball, looking for all the world like a pitcher who couldn’t understand a single one of the signals the catcher was sending him.
Jo. Jo Sommers. His childhood friend and teenage crush. The captain of the cheerleading squad and smartest girl in the room (and hell, their class).
He’d known it was her as soon as she’d turned around and allowed that sea glass gaze to travel up his body oh so slowly. He’d never be able to forget those eyes—they’d haunted him for so long they were a permanent part of his psyche at this point.
She may have changed a little bit—her blonde hair was softer, longer and wavier than he remembered, and she’d gained some curves since he’d last seen her when they were in college, but he sure as hell would never be able to forget her.
So why was he playing stupid now?
She’d fueled more than one of his teenage fantasies, even after she’d suddenly stopped talking to him their freshman year of high school. As a teen he wondered if it had to do with the health issues—and eventual scarring—he’d had as a kid and young teen. Had she been embarrassed to be around him?
As an adult, he realized there could have been other reasons, but even a cocky teenage athlete can be felled by one simple brush off from the prettiest girl in school.
“So, uh, what brings you back to town?”
Smooth, Roberts, real smooth.
Worry briefly turned those sea glass eyes stormy, but the expression was gone so fast he wondered if he’d imagined it.
“Gran had a hip replaced. She refused to go to a rehab facility, and pretty much ordered me to come take care of her.” A small grin played at the corners of Jo’s generous mouth, and for a brief second Chase was reminded of the girl she used to be. The one who’d been his playmate and confidante.
“How’s she doing?”
Jo waved her hand, and then blushed as she looked at the box she still held.
“I’m really not trying to accost you with tampons, I swear.”
Chase barely managed to choke back the laughter that threatened to escape. “Well, at least they’re not used.”
Jesus, Roberts, that was awful.
Her blush deepened, and the chuckle that had been threatening to escape somehow managed to rumble out. Jo shook her head, smiled, and tossed the box into her cart. “I’m glad to see you still have a sophomoric sense of humor, Chase.”
“At times, yes.” Unfortunately.
Their gazes met, held, and then a slow smile bloomed over Jo’s face before she, too, was laughing. “How about we try this again?” She held out her hand. “Hey, Chase! Nice to see you again.”
Chase wrapped his hand around hers, and he swore he felt tingles shoot up his arm. “Jo, it’s good to see you, too.”
Unsettled, he dropped her hand and stepped back. A look of confusion flitted across her pretty face before she once again replaced it with an odd, too-placid-to-be-real smile.
Had she felt it, too?
“Well, uh, I better get going.” She gestured to her cart, which held a small amount of groceries and toiletries. “Gran’s waiting for me to get back so I can cook supper. Can’t let her starve.”
Chase took another step back, feeling the need to put some amount of distance between them. He flexed his hand, still feeling slight tingles in his fingertips. “No, can’t let her starve.”
Jo began to push her cart away, and before he could take the words back he blurted out, “We should do lunch some time. Or supper. Catch up. For old time’s sake.”
God, he sounded like an effing idiot. Catch up for old time’s sake? Yeah, because that sounded like a brilliant idea.
An expression Chase couldn’t identify clouded Jo’s eyes before it, too, was gone almost as quickly as it came. “Um, sure.” She nodded her head once, her wavy blonde hair falling over one shoulder. “We’ll have to do that.”
Chase nodded in ascent and shoved his hands into his pockets. Jo shot him one last glance before turning from him. Chase allowed himself to enjoy the view as she walked away.
Couldn’t not appreciate it, really, as it was a damned fine view. The same damned fine view he’d seen just this morning walking into Mitchell’s Drug Store.
“Jolene, is that you?”
Jo set down her grocery bags and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Yes, Gran, it’s me.”
“Good, that rehab woman just left and I’m starving.”
Jo rolled her eyes. “I think that rehab woman has a name.”
“Yes, the Devil’s Harlot!” Gran shouted back from the living room.
Jo sighed and yelled back. “She’s not a harlot, Gran.” Who even used the word “harlot” anymore? “She works for Val Verde Regional Medical Center. Last I checked, Satan wasn’t on their payroll.”
Gran harrumphed from the living room. Jo finished putting up the groceries and walked into the living room. “Did she make you do something new today?”
Her grandmother sat in a big, somewhat comfortable chair. She waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Just a new exercise. Nothing too bad.”
“Then why the name-calling, Gran?”
Gran gestured towards the flat screen TV mounted on the wall across from her. “She was lusting after that Roberts boy. Acting like a cat in heat.”
“Roberts boy? Chase? Why was Chase on TV?” Jo’s mind went back to the embarrassing scene in Walmart, and realized it was a good thing Gran couldn’t read her thoughts. Chase Roberts all grown up was definitely worth lusting after.
Gran waved the remote. “No, not the sick one, bless his heart. The older one.”
Sick? Was Gran referring to Chase’s childhood illness, or did he only look like the picture of health? Hot, hot health.
“And we’re back at the top of the eighth inning, and Wranglers ace Matt Roberts is back out on the mound.”
Jo looked at the television and saw Chase’s older brother, Matt, readying the mound for another inning. The camera zoomed in on his face, and Jo had to admit that he was definitely attractive. Always had been. Problem was, he’d always known it, too.
While Chase had been popular and well-liked in his own right, Matt had always had that “it” factor that just drew people to him. Throw in obnoxiously good looks and talent that had scouts looking at him as a freshman, and you had a combination that was hard for any girl to resist.
“The PT was openly lusting after Matt in front of you?”
Gran pursed her lips. “The shameless hussy wouldn’t shut up about him. Went on and on about how ‘hot’ he is. Cat in heat, I tell you!”
Jo loved her Gran, she truly did, and while Jo was by no means remotely promiscuous, her grandmother’s old-fashioned views sometimes came across as a little, well, old-fashioned.
“Well, Gran, in all fairness he’s not an unattractive man.”
“Don’t you start acting like a hussy too, Jolene!”
Jo sighed. “Gran, just because a woman thinks a man is attractive, that doesn’t make her a hussy. Come on, you thought Pawpaw was handsome before you married him, didn’t you?”
Gran’s eyes misted over and a small smile tugged at her lips. “Oh, your Pawpaw was so handsome in his dress blues. He had the most beautiful eyes—that’s where you get yours, you know—and the sweetest smile. Curly black hair. Such a fine figure the first time I saw him. I knew right then I was going to marry him.”
Jo smiled. “You just proved my point, Gran.”
The older woman shrugged and absently massaged her hip. “Always been too smart for you own damned good.”
Jo leaned over and kissed her grandmother’s wrinkled cheek. “And you know you wouldn’t have it any other way, young woman.”
Gran couldn’t hide her smile. “Don’t go getting a big head, young lady. Now what’s for supper?”
Later that night, feeling restless and crampy and borderline maudlin, Jo climbed out of the full size bed in the room that had been her’s as a teen and pulled a box from the top shelf of the closet. She set it on the floor, brushed the dust off and opened it.
Inside were high school mementos.
Her Homecoming mum from her senior year, the bells still shiny but missing a glittery letter from her name. A set of royal blue and white pom poms. The corsage Billy Walther gave her for senior prom, the roses dried and in a protective plastic case, the lilac elastic band’s color still as vivid as the day he’d slid it on to her wrist. There were other pieces of flotsam and jetsam, memories of years gone by.
A newspaper article talking about how she’d made valedictorian. The notecards from her graduation speech. An old report card. Her acceptance letter to Baylor. Notes she and her best friend Jenn McDonnel had passed during algebra.
At the bottom of the box lay her senior memory book and four yearbooks. She withdrew all of them and returned to the bed, leaving the other items on the floor where she’d left them.
She wasn’t sure what had her feeling nostalgic. Maybe it was being back here in Del Rio, sleeping in the same room she’d slept in as a teen far too often when things went downhill at home. Maybe it was seeing Chase tonight. Or maybe Aunt Flo was just a mean bitch who made her do crazy things.
She opened the memory book, smiling at the memories and the thoughts of an eighteen-year-old girl hell-bent on changing the world. Or at least her little corner of it.
10 Years From Now I…
- Will be Oprah’s go-to psychologist on all of her shows
- Will own my own practice
- Will be married with two kids—boy and girl—to a gorgeous man who owns his own business, makes a lot of money and will never cheat on me
- Will be a great mom who never cheats on her husband or abandons her kids
- Will be living somewhere super cool, like New York City or Chicago or San Francisco
- Will be making a six-figure salary with no debt, a nice house and driving a BMW
- Will no longer feel the need to be perfect
- Will know what love really is
- Will be a member of the Junior League
- Will be gearing up to run for office
Funny how the only one of those things that had happened was number seven.
Jo brushed away a lone tear that rolled down her cheek, hating herself for feeling maudlin but realizing that if she was there was probably a good reason for it.
She hadn’t gone on to become Oprah’s therapist, and instead of opening her own practice had decided to help out high school kids. God knew as a high school counselor she certainly wasn’t making a six-figure salary, her student loan debt was mind-boggling and her dreams of owning a shiny new BMW had been replaced with the reality of driving a Ford Fusion. Mr. Right still hadn’t come along, and at thirty-two she was beginning to wonder if he ever would. The only guy she’d loved as an adult had been shipped off to Afghanistan, and he’d ended things before leaving the States. And she certainly wasn’t a member of the Junior League or planning on running for office any time soon. As for her current town…well, she sure hadn’t pictured herself back in Del Rio taking care of her grandmother, but she supposed her adopted town of Austin was pretty cool. At least that’s what people and dozens of weekly Top Ten lists always told her.
Jo continued to flip through the memory book, smiling at the photos and random pieces of high school life she’d glued to the pages. Towards the back, folded up and tucked underneath a photo of her, Jenn and Chase, was a lined piece of notebook paper, which she unfolded.
I’m sorry I haven’t been talking to you much. I think I’ve hurt your feelings. I never meant to do that.
But I can’t. I can’t talk to you knowing that my mom has a thing for your dad. It’s weird and gross and makes me embarrassed and ashamed.
My dad doesn’t care who she sleeps with. I think the whole town knows that by now. He probably doesn’t care if I sleep with someone, either.
But I’m not my mom. And I can’t be around you because I’m too embarrassed and hurt and afraid you’ll hate me.
You’re my best friend. You, Jenn and me. We’re the Three Amigos. I don’t want to hurt you.
I’m so sorry.
She folded the paper back up and placed it in the book again, tucked neatly under the photo of her, Jenn and Chase. They’d been going into the ninth grade, the best of friends since elementary school. Until that awful day when Jo had overheard her mom on the phone with Chase’s dad. The things her mom had said had made her hot with embarrassment and shame, and even though she didn’t think Chase’s dad would ever cheat on his wife, Jo still felt awful and as if it was somehow her fault. If she and Chase hadn’t been such good friends, her mom might not have ever met his dad. So she’d done what seemed best to a fourteen-year-old girl—she’d distanced herself from her best friend even though it had killed her.
She’d written the note to him to try to explain, but in the end had chickened out. She couldn’t. She was too embarrassed and ashamed and didn’t want Chase to think she was like her mom.
Instead, she’d folded the note and tucked it into her diary. That night, after eating supper with her parents and being told not to eat so much—that “thinness is perfection!”—by the woman everyone thought of as The Easy Mom, was the first time Jo made herself throw up.