Miss Me Not (Page 17)

"Would you like to see inside the house?" he asked, pulling into the narrow driveway.

"Do we have time?"

"Sure, it'll only take a few minutes," he said, putting the jeep in park.

Climbing out, I stretched my cramped legs, pausing to admire the picturesque scene around me. Large trees stood tall and straight around the house, like soldiers, while every other type of Florida vegetation seemed to peek in just beyond the clearing where the house sat. Unique-looking, handmade benches sat around an oversized iron firepit in the middle of the yard. A tire swing hung from the large gnarly branch of an old oak tree off to the left of the firepit, while two swings hung from the branches of another tree. The overall appeal of the yard was every bit as magical as our tree at school. I loved everything about it from the large trees that surrounded us all the way down to the old tire swing that I yearned to try out at least once. I wanted to stay here and never leave.

"It's breathtaking," I said, turning to him with bright eyes as he joined me on my side of the vehicle.

"Yes, it is," he answered, never taking his eyes off mine as he stepped closer to me.

I had the distinct impression he wasn't talking about our surroundings like I was. My breath quickened as he gently placed his hands on my hips.

"Friends," I reminded him softly, trying not to freak at his close proximity.

"Friends do this," he teased lightly, stepping closer.

"Um, we're not friends with benefits," I said, attempting to take a step back. His hands on my hips detoured my retreat as they anchored me in place.

"You look so beautiful. Did I tell you that already? Like you belong here," he said huskily, never taking his eyes from mine. "You make this place even more special."

"I thought The Hulk ride was your special place on Earth," I teased, trying to make light of the moment.

"One of my special places. This is my home though. The place where my heart belongs. One day, I'll live here permanently," he said, dipping his head close to mine.

Mixed emotions raced through me like a runaway freight train. I couldn't handle this level of intimacy. It brought up too many bad memories and yet, I wanted to see if his lips would feel differently. I wanted to see if they could erase all the memories that never ceased to haunt me.

Dean's lips did not claim mine though. Instead, he placed them lightly on my cheek. His breath warmed my skin, sending sparks of awareness shooting through my body. Pulling back, he looked at me intently, gauging my reaction before stepping back and strutting toward the house.

Watching his retreating back, I suddenly understood his ploy. He was slowly accustoming my body to his touch, much like how he had accustomed my mind to his subtle probing questions over the last three weeks. He was earning my trust an inch at a time.

"Ready," he said, beckoning me to join him on the wooden porch that lined the front of the house.

"Sure," I answered, still reeling from my revelation. Friends my ass. He'd been playing me all along. I should be pissed that he was blatantly ignoring my demands for a platonic relationship. I wasn't angry though, I was sad. I had nothing to give in a real relationship, and he was bound to get hurt when he realized it. The kind and humane thing to do would be for me to step off the runaway train now before it was too late, but everyone knows, I'm neither kind nor humane.

Chapter sixteen

I trailed behind Dean through the house as he showed me the fruits of his labor. I didn't know much about restoration, but I could see the beauty of their work, from the wainscoting walls that had been painstakingly stripped and revarnished, to the hardwood floors that shone brightly beneath our feet. Dean led me through the rest of the house, pointing out fixtures they had replaced with antiques that coincided with the era that the house was built.

"This is my favorite room," he said, leading me through a swinging door at the back end of the house. It led into a bright kitchen, done in all yellows and whites. Long counters circled the entire space, broken up only by appliances. Low cabinets with cooking-related antiques on top of them ran the perimeter of the room. In the center of the kitchen was a large butcher-block table with six high-back chairs pushed in around it. My pulse quickened when I spotted a vase of dried daisies sitting in the center of the table. Daisies, my sunshine, sitting in the middle of the old-fashioned kitchen seemed so fitting. Stepping closer, I looked at the dried flowers, wondering if they were a sign, or a weak attempt on my behalf to convince myself I wasn't being selfish for sticking around.

"What do you think?" Dean asked, stepping up behind me and placing his hands on my arms.

"It's amazing," I answered, trying to ignore his breath, which was tickling the back of my neck. "You have some serious mad restoration skills."

"Well, my dad helped," he answered modestly.

"All it's missing is someone standing in here, making something like fried chicken or meatloaf," I joked, stepping away from him so I could focus.

"Now that you mention it, my mom cooked up a mean meatloaf the last time we were here," he said, accepting my retreat with a smile. "We better head over to my papaw's before they send out the armed services."

"Right," I said, wishing I could hide out here for the day while he celebrated the holiday with his family. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask, but I knew he'd shoot down my suggestion, so I didn't even make the effort.

The drive to the "main house," as he referred to it seemed insanely short. The dirt road we were on ended at a wide open clearing with the largest house I had ever seen smack-dab in the middle of it. Unlike the house we had just left that was seamless in its structure, the one in front of me looked like a patchwork quilt with its multiple additions. What it lacked in curb appeal, it made up for in warmth. Flowering pots sat beneath each windowsill, filled with every wild flower imaginable. One whole addition was covered in ivy that crept up the wall, giving it the illusion that the house was being eaten by greenery. It was the yard in front of the house that rendered me speechless though. Three long rows of tables lined the yard with what looked like a million chairs around them, rested in the middle of the lawn. People young and old milled around the yard, talking and laughing, while young children ran around the adults playing tag. Their laughter could be heard through the jeep's windows as Dean pulled the vehicle in between two pickup trucks that were covered in mud.

"My cousins like to go mudding," Dean said when he caught me eyeing the oversized vehicles.

"I gathered that," I answered, wrinkling up my nose distastefully.

"Hey, don't knock it until you try it," he said, climbing out of the vehicle.

"Mud, bugs and rowdy boys, no thanks," I said, reluctantly climbing from the vehicle.

Dean came around the side of the jeep and grabbed my hand. "So, I thought, I um, should give you the heads-up. My family members are huggers," Dean admitted as the throng of people on the front yard all turned at our approach.

"What?" I hissed under my breath. Surely, I'd heard him wrong. He had the nerve to bring me? Me, who hates to be touched, to a get-together with a bunch of touchers? I was going to kill him, and when I did, I would make it excruciatingly painful, so he could feel my pain. Fire ants and honey would definitely be used.

Dean's too late "I'm an asshole" warning proved to be accurate as I was immediately enveloped in a hug by an elderly woman who claimed I was the spitting image of her late sister who had passed away many years ago. My arms remained at my side as I was passed from one set of arms to the next. I willed my mind to remain numb as I focused on keeping my breathing normal. I sure as hell didn't want to further embarrass myself by passing out like I had the day Dean had touched me for the first time.

Yep, I was definitely going to kill him, I thought to myself as the hugs and greetings continued to come at me from all sides. I was in hell.

"Okay, I think Madison has been mauled enough," Dean said when a guy roughly our age stepped in to give me a second hug. "Nice try, asswipe," I heard Dean mutter to him under his breath before punching him in the arm.

"What?" the multiple offender said with mock innocence.

"Don't be a douche, Travis. I saw you give Madison a hug twenty relatives ago," Dean said, tapping Travis in the arm again to emphasize his point.

"Hey, it was worth a shot, especially since you seemed so keen on sharing her," Travis said, darting out of the way as Dean stalked him, calling him several names.

I stood rooted in the spot where Dean had left me, silently cursing him out for leaving me behind. Forget the fire ants. A pond full of alligators was a much more fitting death for him.

"Madison, I'm so glad you made it," Sarah said, coming up beside me.

I was momentarily confused until I realized she didn't mean "made it through the hug assembly line," but "made it for the holiday."

"Thanks for inviting me," I said, finally looking up. I was relieved to see I was no longer the center of attention as everyone resumed their previous conversations. Dean gave up on chasing his cousin around the yard and was headed back my way.

"We're all pleased you're here. Holidays are a special time," she said, sliding her arm across my shoulders and giving me a one-armed hug before walking away.

"Hey," Dean said, stopping in front of me.

"Hey yourself, Jock Prick," I said, still pissed.

"I'm sorry," he said sheepishly.

"For which part? Conveniently forgetting to tell me that your family is like an episode of some kid's show with their need to hug everyone in sight, or sorry you left me standing here like an idiot so you could play tag with your cousin?"

"All of the above," he said, stepping closer. "I really am sorry. I just wanted you to come today."

"No more surprises. Got me, Sport-o?" I finally consented.

"No more surprises," he promised. "Now come meet my cousins and sister," he added, grabbing my hand in his.

His cousins were on the far side of the house, roughhousing with a football in hand. Several girls were standing off to the side talking when we approached.

"Madison, this is my sister Trish," Dean said, stopping in front of the small group.

"Madison, it's a pleasure to meet you," a tall brunette that I recognized from the family tree wall said, stepping away from the group to give me my millionth hug of the day. I tried not to focus on how drop-dead gorgeous she was, and how intimidated I suddenly felt being in the presence of people my own age. Could they tell I didn't belong here? Surely, it vibrated off of me like some sonic signal.

"I feel like I've known you for years as much as D has talked about you," Trish joked, releasing me.

"Same here," I said truthfully. It had become clear after the first few days of being Dean's friend, that he shared a close relationship with his sister. Even with her away at college, he still made sure that he talked or texted her at least once a day.

"Great, Dean has a girlfriend. Can we move on so we can play some ball?" one of his cousins said snidely.

I studied him for a moment. For some reason, maybe it was his shorter, slimmer appearance, he reminded me of Perry Pervert. He just looked like a slimy weasel.

"Keep your shirt on, Pete," Dean said, shooting the guy a glare.

"Yeah, don't be a dick, Pete," Trish said, rolling her eyes at me. "He can be such an idiot," she whispered, linking her arm through mine. "I really am glad to meet you. I haven't ever seen D this happy. Try not to hurt him, okay?" she added as we joined the others.

Her words made my stomach drop like someone had poured a gallon of cement down my throat. Did she really just warn me? Her warning was too late of course. It was inevitable I would hurt him.

"Ready for some fun," Dean said, joining us.

"Uh, I think I'd rather watch," I said, realizing they wanted me to join in on their game.

"Nice try," one of the other girls said, smiling at me. "I tried that excuse the last time John brought me to one of these get-togethers," she went on, indicating a taller guy off to our left with a mess of golden locks that fell across his forehead. "I'm Courtney, by the way," she said, holding out her hand.

I shook it, grateful she wasn't a hugger. "Nice to meet you. Seriously, though, I know absolutely nothing about football."

"That excuse won't fly here. Believe me, I tried it. All you need to remember is, if anyone hands the ball to you, run for the end zone as fast as you can," she said, pointing to the far end of the field.

"Seriously?" I asked.

"Don't worry, you'll be fine. Plus, don't tell John, but it's actually a lot of fun."

"Madison, no fraternizing with the enemy," Trish said, coming over to drag me to the team I had obviously been drafted to. "You're going down boyee," she said to Courtney in an over-the-top gangsta voice.

"Whatever helps you sleep at night, Trishy. They don't call me lucky for nothing," Courtney called after us.

After joining my team, I was dismayed to learn that Dean was on the opposing team. I started to fume when I looked over at him for help and he merely winked at me. Mother of F, it was bad enough I had to play a game I knew nothing about, but being on my own sucked major ass, I thought to myself as I decided the alligators for torture were still a viable option.

I forced myself to pay attention in our huddle so I wouldn't commit some football faux pas, but all I got out of it was to run if you had the ball and block the other players if you didn't. The first play was relatively painless since Dean's team had the ball first. A couple of guys on my team tackled Dean before he had run more than a few yards with the ball he had caught. The next play was a complete disaster when I failed to tackle him, allowing him to dance into the end zone.

My teammates booed and hissed at Dean's maneuver.

"Nice, you knew I wouldn't tackle you," I hissed at Dean as he jogged over to me triumphantly.

"Have to take any advantage I can get," he said chuckling before brushing a soft kiss across my cheek.

Before I could think to respond, he was back with his teammates who all high-fived him in celebration.

"Madison, you need to make those tackles," Pete griped when I joined my team.

I merely nodded, gritting my teeth. Whatever, ass hat. I thought as I resisted the urge to give him the one-finger salute. If he wants someone tackled, he could do it himself.