Read Can't Stand the Heat? Online
Authors: Margaret Watson
Tags: #Going Back
Memories slammed into him like an unexpected fist. Apparently he hadn’t forgotten about Jen after all.
Did she even remember what she’d done to him?
As if she sensed his approach, Jen looked up and stilled. She stared at him, and he saw a jumble of emotions cross her face—shock, distress, dread.
So…she hadn’t forgotten.
We all have one thing in the past that haunts us. The thing we want to go back and change, the mistake that seems to be irreversible. There’s a wrong we committed, an error we made, a person we hurt. No one makes it through life without regrets.
We can’t rewrite history, but a few of us are lucky enough to have a chance to confront our failings again. Older and wiser, the second time around we can face the person we harmed and atone for our sins.
Jen Summers has always regretted what she did to Walker Barnes in high school. When he returns to Otter Tail for Quinn Murphy and Maddie Johnson’s wedding, she’s forced to deal with him again. Life takes a very unexpected turn for these two people, and I loved watching them maneuver through rough water.
I hope you enjoy my second visit to Otter Tail, Wisconsin. Please let me know what you think of Jen and Walker’s story at my Web site, www.margaretwatson.com, or e-mail me at [email protected]. I love hearing from readers!
When she’s not writing or spending time with her family, she practices veterinary medicine. She loves everything about her job, other than the “Hey, Dr. Watson, where’s Sherlock?” jokes, which she’s heard way too many times. She loves pets, but writing is her passion. And that’s just elementary, my dear readers.
Margaret spends as much time as possible visiting the area that inspires her books, the Door County, Wisconsin, cities of Algoma and Sturgeon Bay. When she’s not eating Door County cherries, smoked fish and cheese, she lives in a Chicago suburb with her husband, three daughters and a menagerie of pets.
1288—IN HER DEFENSE
1508—A PLACE CALLED HOME
1531—NO PLACE LIKE HOME
1554—HOME AT LAST
1608—AN UNLIKELY SETUP
The calm, beautiful notes of Bach’s “Air on a G String” floated out of the church’s sanctuary as Maddie dropped the folds of her wedding gown and straightened. “Walker,” she cried, dashing out the door to embrace him. “You made it!”
The man turned around and swept Maddie off her feet. “You think I’d miss Quinn’s wedding? Not a chance.”
Jen’s bouquet slipped out of her hands and landed on the marble floor. A red rose petal bounced onto the toe of her shoe.
That couldn’t possibly be Walker Barnes.
In high school, Walker’s face had been soft. Unfinished. The features of a kid who spent most of his time in front of a computer.
Now his face was lean and hard, as if a sculptor had carved away the excess to reveal the angles and planes.
The rest of his body matched his face.
He was talking to Maddie and smiling, and his green eyes sparkled. Jen couldn’t tear her gaze away from him. He looked happy. Relaxed.
He looked like Walker Barnes all grown up. Transformed into a handsome man with a toughness the younger Walker hadn’t had.
A Walker she didn’t recognize.
“Jen? You all right?” The other bridesmaid touched her arm.
Jen adjusted the skirt of her black silk dress as she bent to retrieve her bouquet. “I’m fine, Delaney. Nervous, I guess.” She smoothed one bent rose petal and pinched off a broken piece of baby’s breath. “I think I need a drink.” Delaney raised her eyebrows. “Of water,” Jen added hastily.
Maddie kissed Walker’s cheek and whispered something in his ear. He nodded as he disappeared out the front door of the church. Then Maddie turned to Jen and Delaney. “Are you guys ready?”
“Whenever you are,” Delaney answered.
Maddie glanced into the church and stilled. She was looking at Quinn, standing at the altar, waiting for her. “I’m ready. I’ve been ready for months,” she said softly.
Had Jen ever felt that way? As if she’d die if she couldn’t have Tony?
She had, but getting married had killed that passion. Yet she’d survived.
Delaney stepped through the doorway, the pianist began playing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and Delaney started down the aisle.
“Anything you need?” Jen whispered to Maddie, trying to focus on her friend instead of the man who had mysteriously appeared in the church. “Any last-minute fixes?”
“I need only one thing,” Maddie answered. As she moved to the door at the back of the church, she was focused only on Quinn, and her joy was blinding.
Jen swallowed the sudden lump in her throat and turned to begin her own walk down the aisle.
There was a second man standing next to Quinn now. Walker? He was in the wedding?
“Maddie. What’s Walker Barnes doing up there?”
“He and Quinn are friends,” Maddie whispered. “We weren’t sure he’d make it in time.” She nudged Jen. “Pretty hot, isn’t he? I’ll make sure we get some pictures of the two of you together so you can get reacquainted.”
Reacquainted? Oh, my God. Maddie’s perfect wedding was turning into Jen’s worst nightmare.
Delaney had nearly reached the front of the church by the time Jen took her first step into the aisle. Instead of watching where she was going, she was staring at Walker, so she didn’t miss his shock when he recognized her. She tripped on a tiny ripple in the thin carpet that had been unrolled down the aisle.
A desperate grab at the edge of a pew saved her from falling on her face. Taking a deep breath, she stared straight ahead at the minister.
It’s not about you.
Not about Walker.
Don’t spoil this for Quinn and Maddie.
She reached the front of the church and stood next to Delaney, then turned to watch the bride. The pianist shifted to “Ode To Joy,” Maddie stepped through the door and everyone rose.
Maddie was luminous. Radiant. There was no hesitation in her walk, no doubt in her expression. A tiny part of Jen was envious that Maddie had found her dream. Jen’s had shattered years ago.
The minister’s words washed over her as she listened to the traditional ceremony, the vows, the promises. Jen’s eyes blurred again, and she squeezed them shut. She didn’t cry at weddings anymore.
The church erupted in cheers, and Jen jerked her attention back to the present. Maddie and Quinn were kissing, then held hands as they walked down the aisle. Delaney stuck her arm through Paul’s, the other groomsman, and they followed the bride and groom.
Jen drew in a deep breath, then looked across at Walker. His face was expressionless, impossible to read. He stepped forward and held out his arm, and she reached to take it.
Her fingers hovered in the air as she looked into his green eyes. Nothing. She had no idea what he was thinking.
He put his other hand over hers. His fingers were warm and callused, and his arm beneath the wool suit was solid as a rock.
“Snap out of it,” he said in a harsh whisper. “Let’s go.”
She ignored the thundering of her heart beneath the black cocktail dress. Surely he could hear it. The whole church must be able to hear it.
The scent of the outdoors drifted off him and mingled with the perfume of her bouquet. She didn’t remember how he’d smelled before. She wasn’t sure she’d ever noticed.
She’d been the same height as Walker in high school. Now he towered over her as they moved down the aisle. He walked easily, as if having Jen’s hand on his arm was no big deal. Her own shoulders were tense, her muscles tight. Thank God she had an excuse to leave as soon as they reached the back of the church.
As soon as they stepped through the doors at the rear of the sanctuary, she snatched her hand away. She ducked around him, but Walker grasped her arm.
“Running away, Jen? You’re going to miss all the fun.”
She stepped out of his reach, grabbed her purse from the small office where they’d waited and left the church.
Her hands shook as she tried to start her car. She managed to shove the key into the slot, but then turned it too hard. The starter groaned, the engine revved and the car bucked as she engaged the clutch and pulled out of the parking lot.
What was going on? How had Walker Barnes ended up at Maddie and Quinn’s wedding? Jen hadn’t thought about him in years. No one ever talked about him. He’d left town ages ago, and as far as she knew, he’d never been back.
She chewed on the inside of her cheek as she drove the few blocks to the reception site. She could handle this. He’d be at the reception, but she could avoid him. She’d stay in the kitchen until Maddie needed her for pictures.
He’d want to avoid her, too. Remembered shame made her cringe. Neither one of them would want to revisit what had happened in high school. She wasn’t the same person now. And neither was Walker.
At least not physically.
And somewhere in the past fourteen years, he’d become self-assured. He’d added self-confidence to his formidable intelligence.
In any other man, it would be a killer combo.
She shuddered as she stopped beside city hall, parking next to the van she’d borrowed to deliver the food. The reception was in the ballroom on the top floor of the converted mansion. It was where most of the town’s wedding receptions were held.
She was supplying the food, and she had to forget about Walker and concentrate on her job. This was vital, she reminded herself. It was the first step in her plan.
Her eldest son, Nick, was already here, setting up. She slammed the car door and hurried into the building.
Her first catering job
go smoothly. She’d spent hours planning the smallest details.
Nick would have the chafing dishes heating, as she’d instructed. She’d take care of the finishing touches and everything would be ready when the crowd arrived.
Her stomach untwisted. It was going to be okay. She would be too busy to think about Walker. And if she was very lucky, by the time she finished in the kitchen he would have left town again.
As she hurried into the ballroom, she saw the line of chafing dishes on the white-clothed tables, just like they were supposed to be, and she relaxed some more. Okay. Good.
But she couldn’t smell any appetizing aromas. If the food was warm, she should smell it. Walking faster, she reached the tables and found that the chafing dishes hadn’t been lit. The pans of food were in place, but they were cold.
“Nick! Where are you?”
“In here,” he called from the small kitchen in the far corner.
“You didn’t light the Sterno. Nothing’s ready.”
“I couldn’t find anything to light them with.” He strolled out of the kitchen, holding his video game.
She pushed past him into the room and yanked open a drawer. “You didn’t see these?” She held up a box of matches.
“I was looking for one of those lighter things.”
She flicked on the burners of the ancient stove. “Go get those pans.”
He pushed a button twice on his video game as he stared at the screen. “Jeez. No one’s even here yet.”
“Did I interrupt you? I’m sorry.” She clamped her mouth shut and closed her eyes, reaching for patience. Sarcasm was lost on a teenager. “Start hauling the food in here, or that game unit is history.”
He rolled his eyes, but set the game on a counter and went and got a pan.
“Nick, I am
you to do this. Do you understand the concept of working to earn money?”
He plopped the pan on the stove. “God, Mom. Chill.”
Fifteen minutes later, the food was heated through and replaced in the now-lit chafing dishes. Jen was plating the spring rolls when she heard voices in the outer room.
“Nick, are the plates and silverware out?”
He didn’t look up from his spot against the counter as he played his game. “Duh, Mom. You told me to do it ten minutes ago.”
She took a deep breath. She had to calm down. “Sorry. But you need to put that away. We’re going to be busy.”
“As soon as I finish this level.” His fingers flew over the tiny buttons.
“That’s it. Give it to me.”
She held out her hand, waiting, and he scowled as he slapped it into her palm. “What do you want me to do?”
“Make sure the Sterno is still lit. Put out the serving spoons.” She shoved the game into her tote bag. “Set up the sauces in front of each pan. Then go stand out there, in case anyone wants to know what the dishes are. Do you remember what everything is?”
“You told me ten times already.”
“Just making sure.” Not only was it her first catering job, but it was her friends’ wedding. Everything had to be perfect.
The next forty-five minutes passed in a blur of cooking and serving interrupted by posing for pictures. As she watched Sarah, the woman she’d hired to help with the event, carry the last pan of artichoke-and-cheese-stuffed mushrooms to the table, Tony, her ex-husband, walked over.
“Great food, Jen. When did you learn to cook like this?”
She’d always been able to cook like this. But Tony had rarely been home to eat with them. “Here and there,” she said lightly.
“I can’t believe Walker Barnes was in the wedding. Who ever thought he’d show up in town again?”
“I noticed. Did you talk to him?”
“Barnes? Hell, no. That wasn’t the proudest moment of my life.”
Hers, either. Time to change the subject. “Nick’s working really hard,” she whispered.
“Good for him.”
“Maybe you could say something to him. Pretend like you’d noticed?” she said a little too sharply.
“Okay.” Tony sounded surprised, as if the concept of complimenting his older son for doing a good job had never occurred to him. It probably hadn’t—catering wasn’t a sport.
Why was she getting worked up? She and Tony had already had this fight. Way too often.
Time to move on. “What’s Tommy doing?”
“He’s running around with a couple of his buddies.”
Translation: Tony had no idea what his younger son was doing. “Round him up and send him over, would you? I haven’t seen him since everyone got here.”
“Sure, Jen.” Munching on a spear of tenderloin-wrapped asparagus, Tony ambled off.
“Tommy’s okay, Mom,” Nick said in a low voice. “He’s playing tag in the hall.”
“Thanks, Nick.” She smiled at him. Just when she was completely exasperated with her teenage son, he did something thoughtful and mature, like watch out for his brother. “I appreciate that you checked.”
Nick scowled. “I didn’t
on him. I saw him there through the door.”
“I still appreciate it.” She turned off the burner underneath the last pan of roasted-corn quesadillas. “Take this out to the table, will you?”
She followed him to the ballroom and bent to pick up a serving spoon that had fallen to the floor.
“Sweet shoes, man,” she heard her son say.
Crouched on the floor, hidden by the table skirt, Jen saw a pair of green-and-orange running shoes.