Most people dream about getting out of Sharon, Nebraska, but after three years away, Lauren Barrett is coming home. There are the justifications she gives to everyone else—missing her family, losing her college scholarship. And then there’s the reason Lauren can’t admit to anyone: Rob Conrad, her best friend’s older brother.
Football prowess and jaw-dropping good looks made Rob a star in high school. Out in the real world, his job and his relationships are going nowhere. He can’t pinpoint exactly what’s missing until Lauren comes back to town, bringing old feelings and new dreams with her. But he’s the guy that women love and leave—not the one who makes them think of forever.
Though she’s terrified of opening up, Lauren’s ready to take that chance. Because the only thing more important than figuring out where you truly belong is finding the person you were meant to be with.
It would be hard to argue with anyone who called me a failure.
By twenty-one, I’d lost my college scholarship, passed up a great guy and moved back in with my mom. Who was glad to see me, but it wasn’t the glorious homecoming I’d dreamed of when I packed my bags three years ago. Still, even flavored with regret, I couldn’t deny a certain happiness about being home. Sharon, Nebraska wasn’t much, just a tiny dot on the map. The downtown had all of six stores, and there were no shopping centers at all, at least not without driving forty miles, unless you counted the Walmart. We had McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, a roadhouse, two bars and a place called Patty’s Pancakes. Not surprisingly, they specialized in pancakes. The Grove was the only fancy place, a restored historic site; none of my dates had ever taken me there. But the smallness of the town meant everybody knew you, and there was some comfort in the familiarity and the gossip.
At the moment, my life was kind of a mess—but as I unpacked the last box, I sighed in relief. No more classes, no more faking interest in my alleged future when I talked to my best friend and roommate, Nadia. It used to be hard as hell, pretending everything was okay when my life was imploding. Yet even though I couldn’t share what I’d been going through, I’d miss Nadia; she was still in Michigan while I’d returned to Sharon to start over.
My mom tapped on the open door. “I didn’t really change anything. We can paint if you want or I could make new curtains.”
“That sounds fun.” I wasn’t being sarcastic. This room hadn’t been redecorated since I was thirteen, and the lavender was a little much. Not to mention the full-on princess theme going on here, between the white and gold furniture, the fluffy purple rug, all of my stuffed animals and a bookshelf overflowing with fantasy novels featuring knights and orphaned heiresses. The floral print bedspread and curtains made me want to crawl under the ruffled bed skirt and stay there.
“What did you have in mind?” Mom asked.
She looked great; the transformation I’d noticed when I’d last seen her at Thanksgiving had continued. It was now February and she’d lost that final twenty pounds, so if anything, she was slimmer than me. That should probably agitate me, but it was so good to see her rebounding. After my dad left, I thought she was wrecked permanently.
“White on the walls, red plaid curtains?”
“Could be cute. Bedspread?”
“To match the curtains, if you can make one. Or would that be too much?”
She cocked her head, thinking about it. “Probably not, as long as you don’t do patterns on the pillows as well.”
“I didn’t plan to.”
“I’m so happy you’re here. Even if it means things didn’t work out at Mount Albion.” She was careful not to state it aloud—that I flunked out of school, came home in disgrace, or at least, that was the talk around town. The worst of the church ladies whispered that I was pregnant, too.
“Thanks.” I gave Mom a quick hug. “Can I borrow the car?” So weird to be asking that. “I need a few things.”
“Not a problem. Can you pick up milk and eggs?” Her eyes sparkled as they met mine, conveying her awareness of how many times we’d enacted this same scene when I was in high school.
“It’s the least I can do.” I paused a beat, as she expected, then added, “Wait, no, that would be nothing. But then I don’t get the car keys.”
“Right again.” She led the way downstairs and dropped them into my open palm. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
I grinned, gesturing at my messy up-do and grungy gray sweats. “It’s tough when you look like this, but I’ll try not to break any hearts.”
Mom smirked. “See you later, Lauren.”
It was half past three on Saturday afternoon as I skipped down the front steps. The house, a two-bedroom shotgun style, looked better than it had in years. Though my mom hadn’t admitted it yet, I suspected she had a guy coming around for upkeep and repairs, maybe more. She might think it would be awkward to tell me she was dating again, but in my view, it was past time. My dad had been gone for ten years, and the divorce had been final for eight. By no means could this be considered a sudden development.
I got into the old Plymouth and started it up. It made sense for me to buy my own car, but I couldn’t afford it at the moment. Ten minutes later, I pulled into the Safeway parking lot. Since I needed lotion and deodorant, I’d get milk and eggs at the same time. No reason to drive farther for more choices. As kids, we used to do crazy shit in the parking lot, mostly because there was nothing else to do. I remembered drinking behind the store and Nadia pushing me around in a shopping cart until management came out to yell at us.
The nostalgia that swept over me was deep and rich; no matter where I went, this would always be home. To a lot of people, Sharon seemed stifling, I guessed, a complete dearth of opportunities, but I hoped to get into computer science and land a job where I could telecommute. I’d always been more into fiddling with programs and apps than anyone else I knew, but I also had causes. So I tried the latter first and discovered I hated it enough to start over, even if it meant losing momentum on the academic track. Nobody knew this—and I’d never admit it—but the reason I flunked out was because I stopped trying. People always seemed to think I must be dumb, possibly because I’m blond and curvy. And that pissed me off.
Six cars in the lot–I counted them as I went inside. No need for a cart. I picked a wheeled basket instead and got the groceries before heading to the small cosmetics section. There, I found Nadia’s brother. As ever, my pulse went into overdrive and my knees went soft. I’d always had this reaction to him; too bad he treated me like an honorary sibling.
Belatedly I noticed he was deliberating the merits of two body sprays. They were both that terrible, smelly stuff that commercials claimed would make guys irresistible to the ladies but really reeked like chemical muskrat death. I mustered some normal and stopped peering around the shelf at him.
“Neither,” I said, stepping into sight. “Please? Have mercy, seriously.”
Rob glanced up in surprise. “Not good, huh?”
“Your sweat smells better, I promise.”
“That’s a weird thing to say, Lauren.” His expression was unreadable, but that was no surprise. Nadia always compared her brother to a tree stump.
I suspected he was more like one of those giant sequoias. There might be all kinds of things going on, but you’d never climb high enough to see it. The worst thing about Robert Conrad? In eighth grade, I had a killer crush on him. He was a senior in high school at the time, lettered in both football and basketball, while I was chubby little grease spot with braces and a terminal cases of the stutters, anytime he spoke to me. We’d both moved on from those awkward days, but anytime I ran into him, I felt thirteen again, nerves jangling like a car alarm.
In some cases, time was unkind to high school athletes. They lost their hair and muscle tone. But the opposite was true of Rob. He worked construction alongside his dad, and at twenty-five, his shoulders were so broad that I wanted to climb him. Not with the giggly uncertainty of junior high, either. He was all solid muscle, great guns, ripped abs and incredibly defined deltoids. When you added chiseled features, strong jaw, blue-gray eyes and dark hair, it was hard not to drool. But it was so wrong to think that way about my best friend’s brother. I had no idea if he’d noticed my crush back in the day, but if so, he was kind enough to ignore it and not tease me. I’d slept with other guys since then, enjoyed sex just fine, but I still tingled whenever he was nearby.
Yeah, I’m taking that secret to my grave.
“Sorry, I was considering some better options for you, cologne-wise, but I don’t think you’ll find anything here.”
He sighed and put the two sprays back. “Avery should buy it then. Because I have no idea what she’s talking about.”
“What did she say?”
My fist balled up, a knee-jerk reaction to hearing about his girlfriend. They’d started dating back in the fall and were still together, apparently. At Thanksgiving, I’d gone home with Nadia, who’d invited my mom and me over to Casa Conrad to eat. Watching Rob with Avery, it had been all I could do not to yank her hair out. She was so beautiful—model thin, with natural red hair, green eyes and the sort of face I’d call ethereal; she could dress up as Titania, the fairy queen, and totally pull it off. That day, he’d taken such great care of her, filling her plate, making sure she had a drink and was never just sitting, lonely. Seeing that made me ache.
“She wants me to be more upscale.”
“What are you, a trendy eatery?”
In my opinion, Rob didn’t need improving. He was rocking those Levi’s, along with a blue plaid flannel shirt and navy down vest. No, he wasn’t a GQ guy, but why the hell would any woman want that from him? Also, I kind of wanted to hug him, if he thought he could buy “upscale” at Safeway.
He laughed. “Not hardly.”
It might not be any of my business, but… “Don’t change for her, okay? You’re great the way you are.”
His eyes widened. Not for the first time, I noted that his irises were a swirl of charcoal and mist with specks of blue, fringed by ridiculously thick black lashes. In a face without such a strong nose and firm chin, those eyes would make him too pretty. When I had sleepovers at Nadia’s, back in high school, I imagined him cornering me and shoving me against the wall, overcome by his unspoken longings. That was pretty much my favorite fantasy when I was sixteen, but Rob never gave any sign he suffered from ungovernable passion.
“That’s not true,” he said quietly.
A little flicker in his eyes, a twist of his mouth, and I got the impression that he was incredibly sad. He didn’t have an expressive face, and truthfully, his at-rest look suggested he didn’t have much going on in his brain box. Behind his back, people had been calling him the quintessential dumb jock for as long as I could remember. The girl he went out with in high school dished about his body, but she never mentioned any other traits. In my rich fantasy life, I’d never wondered about his thoughts or feelings, either, and staring up at him now, a pang of remorse went through me.
“I disagree. But don’t take my word for it,” I said breezily. “I’m just the idiot who flunked out of Mount Albion.”
“Bullshit. You were always on the honor roll along with Nadia. You’re only here because you want to be.”
I was astonished into silence for a few seconds, then I rallied. “That’s a bold statement. What about the love child I’m having?”
His gaze swept down my body, quietly intense. “Nope.”
I wished I was wearing anything but sweats and that my hair wasn’t a bird’s nest. But he’d known me since I was seven, and he’d never seen me as a potential anything, so that was pointless regret. A dress or a hairstyle wouldn’t change a lifetime of indifference.
“I should get going,” I said. “My mom’s waiting for the milk and eggs.”
Clearly, I should win a prize for clever comments. But Rob nodded like I didn’t sound like a sixteen-year-old dipshit with a specialization in being weird around boys. Which was so messed up; at school, the one damn thing I excelled at was witty banter, making guys laugh. I was fucking popular at Mount Albion.
“You doing anything tonight?” he asked.
Huh? Somehow I managed not to let my jaw drop open. “Not really. I just got unpacked and most of my friends from high school are gone.”
“Avery’s visiting her cousin in Omaha this weekend, so I thought maybe you want to split a pizza. I don’t feel like cooking.”
Wow. This is definitely not a date.
“Sounds good,” I said. “What time?”
“Sure. You remember where I live?” He’d driven me home a few times when Nadia called him to rescue us from out-of-control parties, but I didn’t imagine those occasions made much impression on him.
To my surprise, he nodded. “Out on Dover Road still, right?”
“Yep, that’s the place.” With a friendly wave, I pulled my basket past him and to the checkout lane.
I kept the excitement in check until I got into my car, then I full-out screamed. My favorite high school memory involved Rob pulling up at a farmhouse, drunken teenagers all over the yard. I’d stumbled outside with a guy who was wasted enough that he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The dude pushed me against the garage, his mouth loose and wet on my neck, while I shuddered and shoved at him. In the next instant, he wasn’t touching me anymore. Rob yanked him off and took him out with one punch. Then he put a gentle hand on my shoulder and helped me to the car. He’d always protected me like a little sister, but I responded to it differently than Nadia. She was impatient over his protective streak, sharp and annoyed, while I wanted to make out with him instead of the high school boys on offer. I’d spied on him kissing his girlfriend, and it fueled my fantasies for like two years.
Telling myself not to be stupid, I drove home and put away the groceries. My mom was getting ready for a date, which proved I was right about Mr. Handyman. I propped myself in the doorway to the bathroom and watched her put on lipstick.
“So when do I get to meet him?”
She flushed. “You don’t mind?”
“Of course not. It’s good to see you happy.”
“There’s leftovers in the fridge—”
“Don’t worry about it. Rob’s picking me up in an hour.”
“Nadia’s brother?” Her brows shot up. “Isn’t he dating that awful Jacobs girl?”
Sharon didn’t have much of an upper class, but Avery Jacobs definitely belonged to it; she wore nothing but name brands and had a driver who made sure she never rode the bus. In school, her nose had been so far in the air, it was a wonder she didn’t drown during a rainstorm. Nadia had been friends with her when we were younger, but I never was, and I liked Avery less when she ditched Nadia as soon as the cliques formed in junior high.
“She’s out of town, and it’s just pizza. He probably feels sorry for me, what with my mom having a better social life and all.” I grinned to show I was teasing.
She threw a cotton ball at me. “That’s not funny. If you knew how long I waffled over telling you about Stuart…”
“So that’s his name.”
“He sells insurance,” Mom said. “You’d think that makes him boring, but he’s very sweet.”
“No need to convince me. I need a shower, though, if you’re almost done in there.”
“No problem. I can finish my makeup in the kitchen.”
Damn. She’s pulling out all the stops.
Though it wasn’t a date, I did the same. An hour later, I had on my best jeans, a blue sweater that framed my boobs perfectly, plus my favorite leather jacket. I also did my eyes to full bam, straightened my hair and put on awesome knee boots. Rob pulled into the driveway right on time, so I yelled `bye to my mom and bounded down the steps. He drove a newish red pickup, though I wasn’t into vehicles enough to be sure of the make or model.
He was still in blue flannel, but I’d expected no less. As he had when I was a drunken senior, he went around to open my door. There were no running boards, and I was short, almost a full foot smaller than him; before I could clamber up, he set his hands on my waist and lifted, setting me on the passenger seat with the sort of casual strength that stole my breath.
“Wait, sorry, I should’ve asked before manhandling you.” He seemed dead serious, worried that he’d offended.
“It’s fine.” Or it would be if these shivers would stop. I could still feel the imprint of his hands at my waist.
“You’re not as touchy as Avery,” he said as he climbed in. “I haven’t done a single thing right for her in the last month.”
Maybe she’s not the right person for you. But if I said that, it would definitely come from an ulterior motive, because I’d be hard-pressed not to follow with, Maybe you should get naked with me instead. Then I’d die from the startled, awkward silence that followed. At worst, this was pity pizza; at best, it might be better-than-eating-alone pizza.
“Is something bothering her?” I asked, more curious than I cared to admit.
He paused, his expression clouding. “Seems like it, but I can’t get her to tell me.”
Since I wasn’t the confiding type, I understood her reticence. Which sort of pissed me off. I didn’t want to empathize with Avery. “Maybe she’s afraid you’ll think less of her if she whines to you about her problems?”
“I need to tell her that’s not true.” He let out a slow breath, obviously relieved at hearing there might be a simple solution.
“Anyway, there’s nothing to be tetchy about,” I said. “I’m vertically challenged, you helped me out. It’s all good.”
That won me a smile that simultaneously brightened his eyes and crinkled them at the corners. He jogged around the truck and climbed in, stretching his arm across the back of the seats to back out of my driveway. There was essentially no traffic, so we zoomed straight to Pizza Hut. The restaurant was nearly full, mostly families and a few high school students; we were lucky to snag a two-person booth tucked in the corner back near the bathrooms. When I was in high school, it was a huge deal when they installed the tiny salad bar here.
“So what do you like?” he asked, not bothering to open the menu.
You would’ve been the obvious answer, but I hadn’t come back to Sharon to let my first crush swell back into unmanageable proportions. So I replied, “Lots of meat.”
That was apparently the best news he’d had all day. Rob gazed at me as if I’d said he was the sexiest man on earth. “Meat lovers it is. Should we get salad, too?”
I grinned. “Should and will are wildly different. I’m living dangerously tonight.”
“The training wheels are coming off, huh?” He was smiling; the faint sorrow I’d noted at the supermarket seemed to have dissipated.
For a few seconds, I forgot who he was and answered with a flirty glance and a half smile. “Oh, they’ve been off. You have no idea how well I ride these days.”
Shock made him drop his straw as I fought the urge to bang my head on the table. Then he surprised me by laughing softly. “You had me going. Well played, Lauren.”
That’s me, a laugh riot. Send in the clowns. Oh, wait, I’m already here.