Three Little Words

By: Susan Mallery

CHAPTER ONE


“DEATH BY LACE and tulle,” Isabel Beebe said as she waved the nozzle of the steamer.

“I’m so sorry,” Madeline told her, then winced as she studied the front of the wedding gown.

“Brides-to-be are determined.” Isabel lifted up the front layers of the white dress and carefully clipped them to the portable clothesline in the back room of the boutique. With a dress like this—multiple layers of flowing chiffon—she would start on the inside and work her way out.

Isabel focused the steam on the wrinkles. An excited bride had wanted to find out if her potential wedding dress was comfortable to sit in. So she’d sat. For half an hour while on the phone with a girlfriend. Now the sample had to be steamed back into perfection for the next interested customer.

“Should I stop them next time?” Madeline asked.

Isabel shook her head. “Would that we could. But no. Brides are fragile and emotional. As long as they’re not tossing paint on the dresses or reaching for scissors, let them sit, twirl and dance away. We are here to serve.”

She showed Madeline how to hold the chiffon so the steam flowed through evenly and then explained about the layers and the time to let the dress cool and dry before being put back with the other sample dresses.

“It helps if you think of each wedding gown as a very delicate princess,” Isabel said with a grin. “From a family with a lot of inbreeding. At any second, there could be disaster. We’re here to keep that from happening.”

Madeline had only been working at Paper Moon Wedding Gowns for three weeks, but Isabel already liked her. She showed up early for her shift and was endlessly patient with the brides and their mothers.

Isabel passed over the steamer. “Your turn.”

She watched until she was sure Madeline knew what she was doing, then returned to the front of the store. She replaced sample shoes, straightened a couple of veils, then gave in to the inevitable and admitted she was stalling. What had to be done had to be done. Putting it off wouldn’t change reality. Oh, but how she wanted it to.

After sucking in a breath for strength, she went into the small office, grabbed her purse and stepped into the workroom and smiled at Madeline. “I’ll be back in an hour.”

“Okay. See you then.”

Isabel left the shop and walked purposefully to her car. Fool’s Gold was small enough that she generally walked everywhere, but her current destination was just far enough to warrant a car. That and the fact that driving meant a faster and cleaner getaway. If things went badly, she didn’t want to have to run like a frightened bunny. Not that she could in her four-inch heels, but still. With a car, there might be a spray of gravel and she could disappear in a cloud of dust, like in the movies.

“Things are not going to go badly,” she told herself. “Things are going to go great. I’m visualizing greatness.” She nearly closed her eyes, then remembered she was driving. “I’m wearing my tiara of greatness even as I turn.”

She went left on Eighth Street, then right, and before she was ready, she found herself driving into the parking lot of CDS.

Cerberus Defense Sector was the new security firm in town. They trained bodyguards and offered classes in self-defense and other manly things. Isabel wasn’t clear on the details. She found that she and exercise

She parked next to a wicked-looking muscle car from maybe the 1960s, a large black Jeep tragically painted with flames and a monster Harley. Her Prius looked desperately out of place. Not to mention small.

Now that she wasn’t driving, it was safe for her to close her eyes. She did and tried to visualize, but her stomach was churning too much for her to do much more than worry about throwing up.

“This is stupid!” she announced and opened her eyes. “I can do it. I can have a reasonable conversation with an old friend.”

Only Ford Hendrix wasn’t an old friend and the talk was going to be about how, despite her vow to love him forever, the ten years she’d spent writing him, not to mention the pictures she’d sent, he had no reason to be afraid of her. Because she thought that he might be. Just a little.

She doubted it was anything he would admit. The man had been a SEAL. She knew that, in addition, he’d been part of a special joint task force that had been even more dangerous. She also knew he’d returned to Fool’s Gold nearly three months ago, and in all that time, they’d managed to avoid each other. But that wasn’t possible anymore.

“I am not a stalker,” she said, then groaned. Bad way to start a conversation. And not one designed to get him to believe her.

“Whatever,” she muttered and got out of her car.

She paused to smooth the front of her black dress. It was fitted without being tight and skimmed all the lumpy bits. As much as she loved clothes, a reasonable person might assume she would be obsessed with working out to fit into designer samples. But for Isabel, the call of the cookie was hard to ignore. So she was really good at draping her curves and still looking stylish. Or so she told herself.

She adjusted her sleeves, paused to brush off a bit of dust from her shoes and then prepared to face the lion in his den. Or warrior in his cave. Whichever.

She walked into CDS. No one sat at the reception desk, so she started down the hall toward the sound of music and a weird thumping noise. She saw double doors standing open and stepped through them into the biggest workout room she’d ever seen.

The ceiling had to be thirty feet high. Ropes hung from beams at one end of the room. There were all kinds of scary-looking exercise machines, boxing bags and other weights and equipment she couldn’t name. In the center of the room a petite woman with long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail was fighting a much larger man. Fighting him and maybe even winning.

They both wore protective headgear and had tape around their hands. It took her a second to recognize her friend Consuelo Ly as the woman.

Isabel watched as Consuelo swung out her leg. The guy moved, but not quick enough. Her heel caught him behind the knee and down he went. Isabel winced, but then the guy was up faster than she would have thought possible and he had the woman in a headlock. Consuelo flailed around, trying to kick him or punch him. Her elbow connected with his midsection. He grunted but didn’t let go.

“You two know what you’re doing, right?” Isabel asked. “Is someone going to get hurt? Should I call nine-one-one?”

The man turned toward her. Consuelo didn’t. One second he was standing, then next he was flat on his back and she had her foot pressed against his throat.

“Sucker,” the woman said"-1e woman and pulled off her protective headgear. She glared at her victim. “Are you that stupid on a mission?”

“Not usually.”

She held out her hand. The guy took it and she pulled him to his feet. Consuelo turned to Isabel.

“Thanks. I owe you.”

“I didn’t mean to be a distraction,” Isabel said. “You’re so small and he’s so...”

The man removed his headgear and turned to her. Isabel felt her mouth go dry, which was a much better reaction than the sudden flipping going on in her stomach. She had a feeling she’d gone either pale or red and kind of hoped for the former. It would be less embarrassing.

The man—all six feet of muscles in a T-shirt and sweatpants—was just as handsome as she remembered. His eyes were just as dark, his hair as thick. Fourteen years away had no doubt changed Ford Hendrix on the inside, but on the outside, he was better than ever.

She still remembered him standing in her parents’ living room, confronting her sister. Isabel had been told to stay in her room, but she’d crept out to listen. She remembered crouching in the hall, crying as the man she’d loved as much as her fourteen-year-old heart could allow had asked why Maeve had cheated on him and if she really loved Leonard.

Maeve had cried, too, and apologized, but said it was all true. That she was ending things with Ford, that she should have ended them weeks before. As their wedding was in less than ten days, Isabel couldn’t help agreeing. There’d been more fighting—mostly yelling on his part—then he’d stalked out.

Isabel had run after him, begging him not to go. He’d ignored her, had kept on walking. Two days later, he’d joined the navy and left Fool’s Gold. She’d declared her love in an endless stream of letters but had never come face-to-face with him again until this second.

As an aside, he hadn’t answered her letters. Not a single one.

“Hello, Ford,” she said.

“Isabel.”

Consuelo glanced between the two of them. “Okay,” she said at last. “I’m sensing tension. I’m outta here.”

Isabel shook her head slightly to try to clear her brain. “No tension. I’m tension free. I’m practically a noodle.” She pressed her lips together. Was it possible for that statement to sound more stupid? A noodle?

Consuelo gave her a look that clearly stated she thought Isabel should investigate a local mental health clinic, grabbed two towels from a stack by the mats, tossed one to Ford and walked out.

Ford wiped his face, then draped the towel over one shoulder. “What brings you here?”

An excellent question. “I thought we should talk. What with our new living arrangements.”

A single dark eyebrow rose. “Living arrangements?”

“Yes. As of last week, you’re renting the apartment over my parents’ garage. I haven’t seen you coming and going and I thought maybe it was because you were avoiding me.”

She drew in a breath. “I’m back in Fool’s Gold for a few months to manage my parents’ store while they’re traveling. They want to sell Paper Moon and I’m helping update the inventory and maybe the interior. As I’m only here temporarily and they’re on their world tour, it made sense for me to stay in the house. So I guess I’il I guessm house-sitting, too.”

Because house-sitting sounded better than being twenty-eight years old and moving back into her parents’ house.

“They told me they’d rented out the apartment above the garage but didn’t say to whom. I just found out it was to you, which is nice because you’re not a serial killer and I don’t want to live next to one.”

The other eyebrow rose as his expression changed from mild interest to confusion. Probably time for her to get to the point.

“What I’m trying to say is that I’m not fourteen anymore. I’m not that crazy kid who swore she was in love with you. I’ve moved on and you don’t have to be afraid of me.”

His eyebrows relaxed and one corner of his mouth turned up. “I wasn’t afraid.”

His voice was confident, his half smile sexy, and he looked better than any guy ever had in the history of the universe. She was sure of it. Because even as she stood there, nerves all over her body were whispering about the man so tantalizingly close. As a rule, she wasn’t one who believed in instant attraction. She had always thought that sexual interest required a meeting of the minds before there was any body-to-body contact. In this case, she might very well be wrong.

“That’s good,” she said slowly. “I don’t want you to think I’m a stalker. I’m not. I’m totally over you.”

“Damn.”

She stared at him. “Excuse me?”

The half smile turned into a grin. “I was the only guy in my unit to have a stalker. It made me famous.”

She felt instant heat on her cheeks and knew she was blushing. “No,” she breathed. “You didn’t tell people about my letters.”

The smile faded. “No, I didn’t.”

Thank God! “But you got them?”

“Yeah. I got them.”

And? And? Had he read them? Liked them? Considered them the least bit meaningful?

She waited, but he didn’t say anything.

“Okay, then,” she murmured. “So we’re clear. You’re, um, safe around me and you’re not avoiding me or anything.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, you’re not avoiding me?”

“Yes.”

Was it her or was he difficult to talk to? “I’m glad we got that cleared up. The apartment is okay? I checked it before you moved in. Not that I knew who you were, which was weird. Although now that I think about it, I wonder if my parents didn’t tell me on purpose. Because of...before.”

“You mean your promise to love me forever? The promise you broke?” He said the last part with a smirk.

“It wasn’t a real promise,” she protested.

“It was to me.”

She saw the amusement in his dark eyes. “Oh, please. You barely knew who I was. You were desperately in love with my sister and she—”

Isabel slapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”

He shrugged. “It was a long time ago.” He moved toward her. “I got over Maeve a lot faster than I should have. She might not have handled it all that great, Nothat grbut she made the right decision for both of us.”

“You’re not still in love with her?”

“Nope.” He hesitated, as if he were going to say more, then grabbed the towel and pulled it off his shoulder. “Anything else? I need to shower.”

Want help?

She was reasonably confident she didn’t ask the question out loud, but that didn’t make the inquiry any less sincere. She would bet Ford looked great in a shower. All wet and soapy. And, um, well, naked. Which was really strange, because she couldn’t remember the last time she’d speculated about a man’s body. She just wasn’t that interested in the whole naked-sex thing. She preferred quiet conversation to passion, and cuddling to groping. Of course, that went a long way toward explaining what had gone wrong between her and her ex.

“Interesting journey,” Ford said.

“Excuse me?”

“You went from imagining me naked to some other place.”

Her mouth dropped open. “I didn’t imagine you...that way. What are you saying? I’d never do that.” Heat burned hot and bright on her cheeks. “That would be rude.”

The sexy smile returned. “So’s lying. Don’t sweat it. I’ll take the compliment in the spirit you meant it.” He raised one shoulder. “It’s the danger. Knowing I’m a dark, dangerous guy makes me irresistible.”

The Ford she remembered had been funny and charming and flirty, but he’d been a kid from a small town. Untested. Unchallenged.

The man in front of her had been honed by war. He was still charming, but he was also right about his appeal. There was something indefinable that made her both want to follow him into the shower and take off running.

She managed to swallow. “You’re saying women want you?”

“All the time.”

“How that must annoy you.”

“I’m used to it. Mostly I consider taking care of them my patriotic duty.”

She felt her mouth drop open. “Your duty?”

“Patriotic duty. It would be un-American to leave a woman in need.”

Her gaze narrowed. So much for having to worry that Ford was uncomfortable around her. Or that her letters had bothered him. No doubt he’d considered them his God-given right.

“Just so we’re clear,” she said. “I’m over you.”

“You mentioned that. You’re not going to love me forever. It’s disappointing.”

“You’ll survive.”

“I don’t know. I’m surprisingly sensitive.”

“Oh, please. Like I believe that.”

He winced. “You’re mocking a hero?”

“With every fiber of my being.”

“Better not let my mother hear that. She’s still trying to convince me to let the town hold a parade in my honor. She wouldn’t like knowing you’re not appreciative of my personal sacrifice.”

“This would be the same mother who took a booth at the Fourth of July festival so she could find you a wife?”

For the first time since she’d walked into the gym, Isabel sa>Shm, Isabw a flicker of discomfort in Ford’s steady gaze.

“That would be the one,” he murmured. “Thanks for reminding me.”

“She was taking applications.”

“Yeah, she mentioned that.” He shifted and turned his head, as if searching for an exit.

Now it was her turn to smile. “Not so big and bad when it comes to your mother, are you?”

He swore under his breath. “Yeah, well, so sue me. I can’t help it. She’s my mom. Can you stand up to yours?”

“No,” she admitted. “But mine is half a world away, so I can pretend to be tough.”

“So could I, when I was on another continent. Now I’m back.”

She almost felt sorry for him. Almost. “I’ll make you a deal,” she said impulsively. “You stop talking about how you seduce women in the name of being a good soldier, and I won’t bring up your mother.”

“Done.”

They looked at each other. Isabel was still conscious of his strength and chiseled good looks, but she was a lot less nervous now. Maybe because she’d figured out his weakness. That knowledge would keep the playing field even.

“So we’re good?” she asked. “The letters, my sister, your mother, all of it?”

He nodded. “The best.” His gaze sharpened. “You didn’t apply, did you?”

She grinned. “To be your wife? No, I didn’t. Technically, I wasn’t qualified. What with me not staying in town permanently.”

“Lucky you.”

She pretended concern. “Oh, Ford, don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll find someone for you. A nice girl who appreciates your giving nature.”

“Very funny.” He paused and the grin returned. “About that shower...”

“Thanks, but no.”

She waved and started for the door. The meeting hadn’t gone at all like what she’d imagined, but she was leaving with the belief that Ford wouldn’t avoid her in the future. Assuming he ever had. And she didn’t have to worry that he thought she was stalking him.

She stepped into the hallway. Consuelo walked out of the locker room, a gym bag in one hand, her car keys in another.

“You two finished?” her friend asked.

“Order is restored.”

Consuelo was one of those petite women who always made Isabel feel as if she were all arms and legs, with massive boat-long feet. The fact that Consuelo could easily wrestle an alligator into submission should have helped Isabel feel more feminine, but oddly it didn’t. Maybe it was because on Consuelo, muscles looked sexy.

“Should I believe you?” Consuelo asked. “You’ve been avoiding Ford for most of the summer.”

“I know and it was silly of me. I should have talked with him before.”

“Uh-huh.” Consuelo sighed. “You’re not going to start following him around now, are you? Women tend to do that. They also show up in his bed without an invitation. Not that he usually sends them away.”

“I heard about that. Not the women, but that it’s his patriotic duty to satisfy them.”

“You don’t sound upset.”

em"width="“I’m not. The guy I had a crush on wasn’t this Ford. He was sweet and funny and caring. This more mature version is all that and sexy, too.”

Consuelo waited.

“Not my type,” Isabel said. “Too flashy. I like quiet guys who are thoughtful and smart. The whole sexual-attraction thing is highly overrated.”

Except for the chance at seeing Ford in the shower, she thought briefly. That would be exciting. But she was sure her interest was more about curiosity than temptation.

“You’ve had sex, right?” Consuelo asked. “More than once?”

“Of course. I was married. It’s fine.” Sort of. “But I don’t see it as a driving force in my life. Ford’s the fling guy and I’m not a fling girl. Not that he was asking.”

Consuelo looked her over. “He would have been. Eventually. He might not be your type, but you’re sure his.”

“He likes blondes?”

Consuelo’s mouth twisted. “He likes women.”

Isabel had friends in New York who were all about the thrill of the chase. Sex was important to them, which was fine. But she was different. She wanted someone she could talk to. Someone she could hang out with. Which was probably why she’d ended up with Eric, she thought sadly. They got along great, had the same interests. Their relationship had been one incredible friendship. Unfortunately, they’d both mistaken it for more.

“I have to get back to work,” Isabel said. “I have two brides coming in this afternoon to try on gowns. Let’s have lunch this week.”

“You’re on.”

* * *



FORD HENDRIX COULD disappear into the mountains of Afghanistan for months at a time. He could live within a mile of a village and no one would guess he’d ever been there. He’d traveled the world for his country, fought, killed and been wounded. More than once, he’d stared down death and won. But nothing in his fourteen-year career with the military had prepared him to have to deal with the determined, stubborn woman that was his mother.

“Are you dating?” Denise Hendrix asked as she filled a mug with fresh coffee and handed it to him.

It was barely six in the morning. Normally Ford would have been up and heading for work, but he was a civilian now and starting his day at O-dark-thirty was no longer necessary. He’d stumbled into his kitchen, only to find his mother had shown up and started coffee. Without warning.

He glanced around the small furnished upstairs apartment he’d rented and tried to make sense of it all.

“Mom, did I give you a key?”

His mother smiled and took a second mug for herself, then settled at the small table in the corner. “Marian gave me keys to the apartment and the house before she and John left on their vacation. In case something happened.”

“Like you thinking I can’t make my own coffee?”

“I’m worried about you.”

He was worried, too. Worried that coming back home had been a mistake.

idth="1em">When he’d first arrived, he’d stayed in the family home because it had been easy. Only he’d awakened more than once to find his mother hovering. What she couldn’t possibly know was that with his military training, he didn’t react well to people hovering while he slept. Sneaking around like that was a good way to get dead.

So he’d moved out and into a house with Consuelo and Angel. Only he and Angel were too competitive for that kind of arrangement, so he’d been forced to move again. Technically, Consuelo had threatened to gut him if he didn’t, but he was going to ignore that. In a fair fight, he could take her. The problem was Consuelo didn’t fight fair.

He’d found what he thought was the perfect apartment. Close to work, quiet and away from his mother.

He sat across from the woman who had given birth to him and held out his hand.

She blinked at him. “What?”

“The key.”

Denise was in her mid-fifties. Pretty, with highlighted hair and eyes. She’d survived six kids, including triplet girls, and the death of her husband. A couple of years ago, she’d fallen in love with a guy she’d known in high school. Or maybe after. His sisters had written Ford about the romance. As far as he was concerned, his mom had been a faithful widow over a decade. If she found someone else at this stage in her life, he was happy for her.

“You mean the key to the—”

“Apartment,” he finished. “Hand it over.”

“But, Ford, I’m your mother.”

“I’ve known who you are for a while now. Mom, you can’t keep doing this. Dropping in on me. You have grandkids. Go freak them out.”

Her dark eyes filled with emotion. “But you’ve been gone for so long. You almost never came home. I had to travel to other places to see you, and you didn’t even let me do that very often.”

He wanted to point out that she was the reason why. She smothered him. He knew that of the three boys, he was the youngest, but he’d grown up a long time ago.

“Mom, I was a SEAL. I know how to take care of myself. Give me the key.”

“What if you lock yourself out? What if there’s an emergency?”

He didn’t say anything. He kept his gaze steady and determined. She was no more threatening than a Kalashnikov, and he’d faced plenty of those in his day.

“Fine,” she said, her voice small. She pulled a key from her jeans pocket and dropped it into his palm. He closed his fingers around it.

The part of him that knew his family wanted to ask if she’d made a copy. He figured he would wait to see if that turned out to be a problem. For now it was enough that she wasn’t going to pop in when he least expected her.

“You probably want me to go,” she whispered.

“Mom, don’t be a martyr. I love you. I’m home. Can’t that be enough for now?”

She sniffed, then nodded. “You’re right. I’m glad you’re home and staying in Fool’s Gold. I’ll give you a couple of days to settle in, then call. We can go to lunch or you can come over to dinner. How’s that?”

“Perfect.”

She rose. He did the same. He put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. They e f head. headed for the door. She opened it and stepped onto the small landing at the top of the stairs. He’d nearly breathed the sweet air of freedom when she turned back to him.

“Did you get a chance to look at those files I sent you?” she asked. “There are several lovely girls.”

“Mom,” he began, his voice warning.

She faced him. “Honey, no. You’ve been on your own for too long. You need to get married and start a family. You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

“I love you, too,” he said, gently pushing her out the door and closing it before she could say anything else he would regret.

“I want you married, Ford,” she yelled through the closed door. “I have the applications on my computer, if you want to go through them. They’re on a spreadsheet so you can sort them by different criteria.”

She was still yelling when he reached the bedroom and closed that door, as well.

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