The Long Road Home(9)

By: H.D. Thomson


Vivian shrugged. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to come across bitchy.”

“That’s okay,” Clarisse said. “It’s already forgotten.”

“It’s just that he never talks about his old friends or much of anything when it comes to his past. Has he always been like that?”

Clarisse’s breathing grew shallow. Her hand gripped the counter. The last thing she wanted to do was discuss John.

“I don’t know,” Clarisse said in frustration. She stepped into the stall and closed the door to halt further discussion. When she heard the door close from Vivian, she inhaled a shaky breath and tried to calm down.

****

The rest of the day was long and tiring. After so many hours in the confines of the Explorer, even Vivian found little to talk about. Dinner turned out to be a burger from a fast food chain, which suited Clarisse. If it meant getting to San Diego sooner, then she was all for it.

It was almost eleven by the time they reached the motel for the night. Keeping her leg in one position for hours had turned her thigh and calf into a throbbing mass of raw nerves. The pain shortened her temper, and she feared any little upset would turn her into a snarling lunatic.

So it came as a great relief to discover her room next to John and Vivian’s was on the ground floor. John, ever a gentleman, carried the women’s overnight bags. After he dropped hers by her door, everyone said their good-byes and separated for the night.

Clarisse flipped on the light and closed her door. Two queen-sized beds took up most of the room. A white Formica table and two chairs sat in the corner. The place looked sterile. She dropped her night case on the floor by the closest bed and limped into the bathroom. Leaning against the cabinet sink, she splashed cold water on her face and looked in the mirror. The harsh fluorescent light from overhead magnified the dark smudges under her eyes and the pallor of her complexion. She looked like a two-day-old corpse. No wonder John and Vivian kept asking her if she was sick. She would have to slap a ton of makeup on her face tomorrow morning if she wanted to look anywhere near human.

She retrieved her nightgown from her bag. The red silk material sensually caressed her skin as it slid down over her body and fell to her ankles. She hugged herself. It had been a long time since a man had held, kissed, and caressed her. Since...

Someone knocked on her door. “It’s me, John.”

Quickly, she rummaged in the case for her dressing gown and shrugged into the sleeves. Only when she cinched the belt and insured her scarred leg was concealed, did she open the door with unsteady fingers. “Is something wrong?”

John rested a hand along the door’s jam, stretching the fabric of his shirt across the wide breadth of his chest. His gaze roamed slowly over her gown. “I’m running by the nearest grocery store. Did you need anything?”

Tugging self-consciously at the ties of her belt, Clarisse tried to ignore the double meaning of his question. Her gaze slid over the leather belt slung around his narrow hips, then up over his flat belly, to his muscular forearms and shoulders. His white t-shirt contrasted with the dark hue of his flesh. Suddenly, she recalled how he looked without clothing. She remembered the expanse of his tanned chest, all taut muscle and smooth skin. Her breathing grew shallow as she met his gray eyes.

“No.”

John nodded, but he didn’t move from the door. “I guess Vivian can’t go a day without makeup. I didn’t want her going alone. It’s too dangerous driving around at night in an unfamiliar city.”

Clarisse stiffened. For a second, she’d forgotten about Vivian and the past. “Isn’t she kind of young for you?”

“Why—starting to feel your age?”

Clarisse felt the blood drain from her face.

Thrusting his hair from his brow, John shook his head and frowned darkly across the short distance between them. “That was uncalled for, and I apologize. But I don’t have the ability to forget so easily. Today, I’ve tried to be as civil as possible. It’s been difficult. Believe me. Every time I look at you I remember the way you walked out. A damn letter—with no explanation or regret. It was waiting for me when I got back from Brazil; it told me just how much you thought of our relationship.”