Fool's Gold Series
“About last night…”
The words were softly spoken. Almost a question. Still, they were enough to make Aidan Mitchell think about pounding his head against the table. Or the wall. He was pretty sure the table was closer. Not that he was going to pick either because he honestly didn’t need any more head pain. Not with the raging hangover he’d more than earned.
“I have nothing,” he admitted, squinting into the, what seemed to him, overly bright light of Brew-haha, the local coffee place. Because when a man felt as bad as he did, coffee was the only solution. “No excuse, no explanation.”
He wanted to say more. That it hadn’t been his fault. Only it had been.
Aidan wanted to point out that he was usually a decent guy. He loved his mom, paid his taxes and ran a successful business, yet somewhere along the way, he’d become a total jerk. But why state the obvious?
The woman standing next to his table pointed to the empty seat across from his. “May I?”
He nodded, then wished he hadn’t when more pain exploded across his eyes. He reminded himself it was a small price to pay for what had happened.
He pushed aside the steady thudding in his temple and did his best to focus on his new tablemate. Shelby Gilmore was petite and blue-eyed. Delicate, he thought. Pretty enough to get a breathing man’s attention. But not for him, because he had it all figured out. No local women. Tourists were easier. And look where that had gotten him.
Her gaze was steady as she sipped her coffee. She seemed to be trying to figure something out. If it was about him, he should save her the trouble.
“Yes,” he said, aware his voice was gravelly. No doubt yet another manifestation of the alcohol probably still processing through his system. “I’m an ass. I’m sure there’s going to be a memo about it in the paper.”
Her mouth curved up. “The paper’s already out and I didn’t see anything. Of course, I generally avoid the whole ‘ass’ section. It can be depressing.”
“Humor at my expense. Go ahead. I deserve it.”
Her hair fell past her shoulders. It was straight and kind of a gold-blond color. Long bangs covered her eyebrows. He knew she had to be in her late twenties, but she looked younger.
“I like that you’re taking responsibility for what happened,” she said. “A lot of guys wouldn’t.”
“Most guys wouldn’t have gotten in trouble in the first place.” He leaned back in his chair and held in a groan. “I had it all figured out. That’s what kills me. I had a plan.”
“The road to hell?”
Despite how he felt, he managed a grin. “Yeah. That was me. The guy with good intentions.” He stopped himself a half second before he shook his head again. “Avoid entanglements. It was working for me, too.”
She held her coffee mug in both hands. “So it’s true. You dated tourists.” The corner of her mouth twitched. “I use the word dated out of general politeness. Also, it’s New Year’s Day, which is kind of a holiday.”
“Respect. I like that.” He sighed heavily. “Yes, I was the dog that picked up tourists. They were friendly and willing. Not to mention, only in town for a short time. No one’s definition of dating.”
“I can see the general outline of a plan here. You assumed that by keeping it simple and short-term, you wouldn’t have to deal with anything messy. Like a relationship. Why is that?”
He squinted against the bright light. “No offense, but do I know you?”
She laughed. “You mean beyond saying hello?” One slim shoulder rose, then lowered. “Not really. I admit that this is a very random conversation, but I’d still like you to answer the question.”
His brain was working at about two-thirds speed this morning. He felt like hell, both physically and emotionally. He was the biggest jackass around and he just wanted to crawl into a hole until he figured out how he was going to fix the problem. Which would come after he figured out what had gone wrong.
But all of that didn’t explain why Shelby Gilmore was grilling him. Maybe one of her New Year’s resolutions was to right wrongs. Sort of a seeker of justice for those whose hearts he’d accidentally broken.
He searched his memory for what he knew about her. She’d been in town maybe a couple of years. She worked in the bakery. Or possibly owned it—he couldn’t remember, exactly. He’d seen her around. He was sure she was perfectly nice, not to mention Kipling Gilmore’s sister. Kipling ran the local search-and-rescue department. Aidan knew him from that, and because it was Fool’s Gold—a town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Oh, yeah. He and Kipling were part owners of a local bar. Which explained why he was having this conversation in the first place. Or did it? He looked at her.
“What was the question?” he asked.
The smile returned. “Why tourists? You’re a good-looking guy with a successful business. Why aren’t you married?”
“I don’t want to get stuck,” he blurted before he could stop himself. “Is this a job interview?”
“No. I don’t mean to be intrusive.”
“But you’re going to keep asking questions?”
“Something like that. Stuck how?”
He finished his coffee. Before he could think about standing up to get another, Patience, the owner of Brew-haha, and about forty-seven months pregnant, waddled over with a pot.
“You look awful,” she said cheerfully. “Still hungover?”
“That’s not like you. I can’t remember the last time you got drunk.”
Aidan didn’t bother responding. There was no point. He and Patience had known each other their whole lives. One of the advantages—and disadvantages—of living in Fool’s Gold. There weren’t a lot of secrets. Which meant everyone from here to the Nicholson Ranch would soon know exactly what had happened last night.
Shelby frowned at her friend. “Why are you working? You’re due any second.”
“I know.” Patience rested her left hand on her incredibly large belly. “I’m so ready for him to be born. I thought maybe standing on my feet for a few hours would hurry things along. I’m not sleeping, so why make someone else get up early on New Year’s Day?”
Another nice woman, Aidan thought grimly. They were everywhere. He shouldn’t even be looking at her, let alone having a conversation.
“Want some aspirin?” she asked.
“No, thanks. I’ll be fine.”
Patience grinned at Shelby. “I don’t believe that, do you?”
“Not for a second, but it’s fun to let him pretend.”
They were mocking him. He was about to protest that he was sitting right there when he remembered that he deserved it. That and more.
Patience finished refilling his mug and then walked back to the counter. Before Aidan could refocus, Shelby leaned toward him.
“How would being married make you stuck?” she repeated.
She wasn’t going away. He got that. So fine. He would tell her the truth. “If you love someone, you’re stuck. You have to do things you don’t want to do.”
“You’re not talking about going to restaurants you don’t like, or taking out the trash, are you?”
“I didn’t think so.” She studied him. “So the tourists were a way to stay safe.” The smile returned. “And get laid. A twofer.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t put it like that.”
“Because it makes you a jerk?”
He thought about what had happened the previous night. “What did you hear? About the woman?”
“This and that. Tell me your version.”
He wasn’t sure if she’d been sent to make sure he got that he deserved to be punished or if this was just one of those happy accidents. Either way, he was going to spill his guts and let fate take care of the rest.
“I was hanging out at The Man Cave for their New Year’s Eve party. With friends.” He’d been drinking beer…at least at first. A hangover hadn’t been part of his master plan.
“This woman walked up to me.”
“Did you recognize her?”
“Of course.” Sort of. “I knew we’d probably hung out over the summer.”
“Hung out being a euphemism for had sex?”
He winced. “You’re a lot less delicate than you look.”
“Thank you. So she said hi, and…?”
Aidan sighed. “She didn’t say hi. She walked up to me and said she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about me. That the week we’d had together had changed her. She was hoping I felt the same way because she wanted to quit her job and move to Fool’s Gold to be with me.”
Shelby waited. He was pretty sure she knew the punch line to the joke that was his life, but hey, he could say it. In fact, saying it out loud was probably a good thing. Or at the very least, well deserved.
“It wasn’t a week,” he said firmly. “If it had been a week, I would have remembered.”
He cleared his throat. “Her name. I couldn’t remember her name. Or when she’d been here. She got that right away. She got mad and started yelling.”
The bar had gone quiet as the scorned woman had called him everything from a rat bastard to a male whore. He’d taken it because he honest to God couldn’t remember her name. He’d spent at least a couple of days with her, had talked to her, laughed with her, had sex with her and walked away without being able to remember who she was.
Which made him everything she’d called him and worse. He didn’t mind that he had had a lot of women in his life, but to not remember their names—that was bad. It was the hookup equivalent of a drunk waking up in a gutter with no recollection of how he got there. She was his rock bottom. Not that she would appreciate the fact, unless she could also bury him under said rocks.
“What happens now?” Shelby asked.
“Hell if I know. I didn’t like what I saw in her face. I’m sorry I hurt her. I’m sorry I’ve become that kind of guy. I want to do better. I have to change. I never meant to hurt anybody. That was the point. No one was supposed to get hurt.” He shook his head, held in a groan, then drank more coffee. “What does it matter? I am that guy.” He put down the mug. “Or I was.”
“You’re going to change?”
“Yeah. I have to. Not wanting to get stuck is one thing, but to be such an ass… That’s not me.”
Shelby’s gaze was steady. She looked at him for a long time before nodding. “Okay. Thanks for talking to me.”
“You gonna slap me or absolve me?”
“Neither. I was curious.”
“Whatever floats your boat.”
She laughed. “Keep hydrating, Aidan. And the next time someone offers you aspirin, you should probably take it.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
She stood and carried her mug to the counter and put it in the bin for dirty dishes. Aidan watched her shrug into her coat then walk out into the cold morning.
Pretty, he thought absently. Not that her appearance meant anything to him because he knew at least part of the solution to his problem. Swearing off women would be drastic, but it would also help make things right. Yup, that was what he had to do. Give them up completely. Forever. Starting now.