The Long Road Home(4)

By: H.D. Thomson

Straightening her shoulders, Clarisse inhaled deeply and opened the bedroom door. She stepped across the threshold, then stopped. John stood in the center of room. He appeared taller than she remembered, dwarfing the small living area and furniture within it.

Clearing her throat, she murmured, “Hi, John.”

He turned. Suddenly, the air grew thicker, hotter, more humid. Her gaze swept over his long legs and slim hips encased in jeans, then skimmed over his plain, white t-shirt covering his flat belly and muscled chest, to the strong tanned column of his throat. His black hair layered back from high cheekbones and a prominent, sometimes stubborn jaw. She met his guarded expression with what she hoped looked like a genuine smile.

Struggling not to limp, Clarisse fought against the pain surging through her thigh and knee as she crossed the room. She drew abreast of him and squarely met his glare. His threatening gray eyes made her think of rolling clouds and storm-tossed waves before twilight. They held her hypnotized.

Gaining control, she thrust her hand forward, and for a second, feared he would ignore her offer of a handshake. Then his fingers engulfed hers in a firm, brief grasp before he dropped his arm back to his side. The warmth of his hand lingered against her skin.

“You’re looking beautiful,” John murmured, the storm abating in his eyes. His gaze swept over her in a detached, clinical appraisal. “But then I’m not surprised. Everyone I knew wanted to photograph you. They fought to get you on their cover or ad. And I was one of them.”

Clarisse ignored the biting tone in his last words. “I’m glad to be out of such an unhealthy environment.” She shrugged, pretending it didn’t hurt just a little that today no one would pay her a dollar for a photo shoot.

She remembered how some models would do anything to enhance their looks if it meant getting on a cover. She might have done the same, if people hadn’t liked her face or figure, but that was years ago and she needed to contend with today, this second. “Please don’t blame Jennifer for manipulating you. She was trying to help me out. She knew how badly I needed a ride to California.”

“Well, you’re here and packed. It’d be petty of me to leave without you now.” His expression shifted and changed. Anger—or was it hatred—flashed in his eyes before they turned to dark, impenetrable concrete.

Spine stiffening, Clarisse realized John hadn’t forgiven her. But could she really blame him? The way she severed their relationship had been cold, almost vicious. It was a wonder he was willing to talk to her, never mind drive in the same car. He could so easily get his revenge by making this trip a hellish experience for her.

“You ready then?” he asked.

She looked at the two carrying cases by the door. Horrified at the idea of trying to tote them to the car, she turned to Jennifer, but her friend was already ahead of her. “Clarisse’s luggage is right over there.” Jennifer pointed to the front entrance. “Could you give us a hand? They’re pretty heavy.”

Swinging around, John picked the two cases up with ease and backed outside. The screen door banged shut behind him. With his departure, the tension in the room lessened.

“I think he’s carrying a couple of rain clouds around with him.” Jennifer rolled her eyes. “I hope you don’t get drenched.”

Clarisse tried to smile at her weak attempt at humor. “I think rain’s the least of my problems.”

Enfolding her in a brief hug, Jennifer murmured in her ear, “Good luck. And please try to forgive me.”

Drawing away, Clarisse arched a brow and gave her a half-smile. “I’m not going to let you off so easy.” She squeezed her best friend’s shoulders in reassurance. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. I’ll let you know how it went when I get to Laura’s.”

Outside, they found John rearranging the luggage in the back of the Explorer. His girlfriend didn’t bother to get out to help, which was just as well; Clarisse wasn’t in the mood to strike up a conversation with the woman.

“Vivian, this is Clarisse,” John called. “She’s the one who’ll be traveling with us.”