The Long Road Home(6)

By: H.D. Thomson

“I hear there will be over three hundred people at the wedding,” he drawled, his brow arching in inquiry, humor lacing his words.

Clarisse stiffened and lifted her chin. So he thought her reaction amusing, did he? “That’s right. Laura and Darren want it to be something special. Darren’s and our parents convinced them to hold off from marrying until they graduated from UCLA, so they’ve waited over four years for this day.” Clarisse looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. “Laura deserves a grand affair.”

And she deserved a good slap across her backside, Clarisse mused. She wouldn’t put it past her sister to be in cahoots with Jennifer when it came to planning this fiasco of a trip. Laura, madly in love, probably thought it only natural that Clarisse should be mooning over some man. And her best friend was just as bad. Jennifer believed a woman wasn’t quite right in the head if she didn’t have a man around.

“I know I could never wait that long to get married,” Vivian purred, clasping his hand. “I guess I like spontaneity, or maybe I’m just too impatient. I’d never be able to wait six months—never mind four years! If I got hold of a man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and he felt the same, I’d have him down that aisle so fast his head would be spinning.”

“I’m glad to hear there’s still some women out there who believe in marriage.”

At John’s barb, Clarisse clamped her jaw shut in annoyance and looked out the window, dissociating herself from the conversation. They were out of the city now. The trees and rolling hills on each side of the highway were a vibrant green, bursting with life after an unusually cold winter. She opened the window a little to let the crisp, spring breeze tease the hair along her brow and cheeks. The scent of last night’s rain still clung to the air.

I’ll at ease with the silence permeating the car, Clarisse pulled a novel from her purse and set out to read. This way she could politely avoid participating in any future conversation.

After reading three chapters, though, she put the book down and closed her eyes. The motion of the car and the hum of the tires soon had her drifting off to sleep.

The slam of the car door woke her abruptly. She jumped. Her head snapped forward, and the book on her lap tumbled to the floor.

“I thought we’d take a break for lunch,” John said directly beside her.

She started in surprise at finding him looking down at her with cool slate eyes, his hand resting along the top of her open door. Not thinking, she eased from the seat and stepped out into the parking lot of a restaurant. Her leg took half her weight. Her knee buckled, and she stumbled into John. He grasped her arms to steady her. Twisting around on one foot to get her balance, she swung her injured knee around, smacking him right between the legs.

John grunted. His hands tightened on her arms. His breath, warm and smelling of coffee and peppermint, brushed her ear and ruffled her hair.

Mortified, Clarisse arched backward and met John’s pained expression. “I’m sorry! Are you all right?”

“Give me a second,” he murmured.

She tried not to think how her nipples touched the hard wall of his chest or how the familiar scent of his aftershave made her remember...

No. She’d concentrate on his Adam’s apple and the indentations of his collarbone. No. That wouldn’t work either.

“Are you all right now?” She grew uncomfortable.

“I—yes.” He retained a grip on her arm. “What about you? You almost took a nose dive.”

She glanced away. A curtain of her blonde hair fell forward, obscuring her face and the pain she knew lay carved there.

“I guess my legs must have fallen asleep right along with everything else.”

The sound of footsteps made Clarisse turn. She found an unsmiling Vivian on their side of the truck. Guilt sent a warm blush to Clarisse’s cheeks as she and John drew away from each other. His hand dropped to his side, but the heat from his fingers still burned into her flesh.

“I—” Clarisse closed her mouth. There was no reason for her to explain, especially when there was nothing to explain. “I’ve got to check a couple of things in my bag. It might take a minute. Why don’t I meet you both inside?”