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It had been about ten years since I had been back in this tiny, little po-dunk town. I was fresh off the city air, pulling up into the woodsy, beach air of North Carolina. I hated that I had to be back here, but my momma sounded pretty desperate on the phone.

I kept in touch with my parents and I always bought them airline tickets for on the holidays, mostly because I just couldn’t bring myself to come back here. There was no way I wanted to be reminded of this place where I wasn’t anything. Some mediocre wallflower. It was almost fortunate that I floated through school mostly unnoticed, despite how it felt at the time.

I drove through town, rolling by in a rental car. Ten years had passed since I left but there weren’t any signs of it here. It was as if nothing had changed. Instead of the comfort of returning to a familiar place, it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I pulled into the mechanic shop where my daddy had toiled away for the last thirty years. Perhaps it wasn’t an ideal childhood, but we never went hungry and never went homeless.

The same wooden sign hung over the window: “Bratcher’s Mechanic Shop”. The whole garage didn’t look like it had a lick of paint since I left. I closed the door of my rental and walked up to the door, one of the garages was wide open and someone was working on their car, a man, by the size of the steel toed boots and length of jeans sticking out. Strange, my momma has said no one would be here.

“Hello?” I called.

I got a response in the form of a grunt and a clang of metal as he strained to slide out from under the dark blue, 1978 Mustang convertible. Dark curly brown hair, tousled from being under the car slipped out with deep blue eyes peering from beneath.

My breath caught for a second and I disguised it with a quick cough. Recognition slapped me like a lightning bolt. Shit.

“Hey Ellie,” he said as he stood, wiping his hands on a rag, it was that low drawl that still made my heart dip. He looked like he grew a few inches since high school, in a few ways besides up. I ran my eyes up and down his body, probably like a creep. Damn, weren’t people supposed to look worse after decade? His lean frame definitely had more muscles now than ten years ago.

He ran his hand through his hair, and said “How’ve you been? I heard you’re up in the big city working for some magazine or something.” He looked at me, “And a doctor fiancé or something.”

I sucked in a breath. Carter Hayes was still beautiful. I was surprised he was still in town. He had a full ride to New York State on a football scholarship.

I raised an eyebrow, “My momma’s been yapping your ear off.” I laughed. “I’m a lifestyle editor for the New York Times.” My smile dropped and I glanced at the floor, “Um, no, no fiancé, not anymore.” I looked at him and asked before he could respond, “How bout you? Working for my dad now?”

He laughed, “Naw, I was just giving my car a quick oil change, your dad doesn’t mind.” We locked eyes for a moment. He was so much more attractive than I remembered from high school. He had been dating my best friend for most of our senior year. Despite my loaner status, Shaylene was incredibly outgoing and popular, I never really understood why she wanted to be friends with me. Now she was somewhere in Raleigh with two kids and a husband.

“Um,” I started, not wanting to prod.

He nodded. “I have a construction business in town, I’ve just been looking after your dad’s shop while he’s out.”

“Oh.” My father had a small stroke, the doctors said he would make a full recovery, but he needed to make some changes to his diet. He also had to be off his feet for three weeks, probably why my momma had been so desperate for me to come out.

Carter’s job wasn’t the question that was burning in my heart, but it was so silly. I was only in town for a week, and to take care of my father. I wasn’t here to hook-up with my one-time crush.

I nodded, “Well I should get the papers my dad wanted, I’ll see you.” I turned and walked into the office. I found the papers under a stack of phonebooks, I silently scolded my daddy for being so disorganized. I stepped back out into the garage.

“Ellie?” I just went by Elle now, but I was too caught up in the sound of his voice. “Mhm?”

“Do you want to grab a drink later tonight?” He asked, when I didn’t respond right away he followed with, “You know, catch up and all that.” He winked at me.

I laughed and rolled my eyes, “Same old spot? The Bullseye?” There were only two bars in town. Both were incredibly divey and somewhat the same, but the Bullseye had better food.

He nodded and I waved him off as I walked back to my car. I stole one more glance at his handsome form as I pulled away and headed off to my parents.

As soon as I arrived it was much of what I expected, my momma fawning all over so excited that I was back. She was pulling at my hair and telling me I looked to thin, poking at my sides. Southern mothers.

“Momma stop it, you just saw me last month for Easter.” I pushed her little hands away, “How’s daddy?”

“The stubborn old fool, he’s upstairs.” She said not making eye-contact. I knew this had really scared her. I could only imagine the kind of shake-up this would create. They were only fifty seven.

I changed the subject, “I got those papers daddy wanted,” I pulled them out of my bag and placed them on the kitchen island. She moved to pour me a glass of her iced tea as I leaned over the counter. “I saw Carter at the shop.” I dropped in casually.

“Oh did you? I forgot he was going to be there.” She handed me the tea and gave me a swift side eye. “He’s doing real good you know, he sells some fancy old barn wood siding, “reclaimed” they call it.”

I nodded, sipping on the tea. They didn’t make southern iced tea in New York.

“He’s single too. Such a nice young man.”

“Momma!” I hadn’t even been here two minutes and she’s already plotting to marry me off. “I just got out of a relationship, I’m not interested in that.”

“Darling, it’s been a few months, no harm in looking. Besides the men around here have a little something more than those city boys you’re used to.”

“Mhm, a little more dirt under their fingernails and less attention to their hair.” I laughed. “Besides I’m going to meet up with him later anyway, see what else has changed since I left.”

Her eyes lit up real big. I spent the next few hours trying to explain the importance of the medication and new diet choices to my parents, mostly my father. Hopefully I made a dent in their somewhat stubborn habits. At around 7 pm I headed out. My momma gave me a wink and wave on the way to the car. I just shook my head.

The butterflies bumped into each other in my stomach as I made my way down the main road. It was silly to have this kind of reaction after all this time. He probably wasn’t even interested in me, just wanting to catch up after a long time. Back in high school him and I used to have some long conversations at house parties. Everyone was doing keg stands and body shots and we were just chatting about anything and everything. We were just friends and Shaylene thought it was funny that we got along so well.

I pulled up to Bullseye and walked in. I went with a simple white tank top and bootcut jeans. I wore my hair down, it was light brown and fell just over my shoulders.

Same old rusty beer signs all over the walls. This place hadn’t changed one bit. The tiny makeshift stage was packed in with some country cover band. The pool tables still squeezed in on the left, and the crowd looked like the same one as last time I was here ten years ago.

I saw Carter chatting with Jesse and Drew two other guys we went to high school with. They both looked older, the two of them were wearing fireman t-shirts. Drew sporting a bit of a beer belly nowadays. I walked over, Carter saw me first.

“Hey, Ellie, you remember Drew and Jesse.” Carter said, one hand on a beer and his leg bent as he rested his foot on a chair rung.

I nodded to Jesse and Drew, and they nodded in return.

“How’s your dad doing?” Carter asked, concern in his eyes.

“He’s doing alright, same old stubborn man as last time I saw him.” I smirked. The stroke was quite a scare, but I wasn’t the type of person to worry. I tried to approach issues with a more practical zeal and less emotional.

Carter nodded, but didn’t take his eyes off me as he took a swig of his beer. It was like he didn’t believe me. I shivered lightly. I shook it off and leaned up to the bar sliding a five dollar bill on the edge. Another familiar face walked over.

“Jamie?” I felt my voice go up a pitch. Outside of Shaylene, this guy was my confidant. We had every science class ever together and we were little goofballs most of our entire school years. He still looked thin and tall as ever, with his black hair swept up in a fashionable men’s fade haircut.

“Girl, I know you didn’t come back without hitting me up!” His eyes lit up and he walked around the bar to give me a big hug. I noticed Carter and crew watching intently out of the corner of my eye.

“Of course I was going to call you! I didn’t realize you were here!” Jamie and I still kept in close contact over social media, and he had been out to New York one time to visit me. Jamie had a barber shop up in Raleigh and avoided this town like I did.

I fought back the urge to scream like a teenage girl in a movie and asked, “What are you doing working the bar here? I thought your barber shop was doing so well?”

“Girl! Of course it is, I’m just helping out Stella.” He nodded over to a sixty something woman who was pouring drinks at the other end of the bar. Stella had run the bar back when we were in high school, she looked somewhat the same, more of her yellow blond hair had turned gold.

Jamie still had his arm around my shoulders and I definitely did catch a side glance from Carter this time, he had a bit of a frown going on. Interesting.

I turned to whisper Jamie, “You and Carter don’t get along?”

He looked up at Carter and back at me smirking, “Naw, we get along just fine, but I think he’s got eyes for you.”

My face scrunched up in confusion. Jamie chuckled and walked back behind the bar. He didn’t even ask me what I wanted just poured me my favorite: whiskey sour. He handed it to me with another chuckle. We caught up for a few minutes. Another patron needed his attention down the bar and I wandered back over to Carter.

 

Drew and Jesse looked at each other and then made their way over to two girls playing pool in the back corner. I ponied up onto the barstool he had his leg resting on. Only a sip of whiskey sour and I had found some courage.

Carter looked mildly amused as I settled in.

“So,” I started, “what have you been up to?” He chuckled.

“Well graduated from New York State with a business degree, worked in NYC finance for two years, hated it. Came back and decided to start a construction business here.”

“Well you always were good with your hands.” I blurted out without thinking. I felt a blush creep up on my cheeks. “I mean, you were in carpentry in high school and made those awesome benches.” I stared really intently at my cocktail for a moment, praying for the blush to go away.

He chuckled, “Thanks, I like it better, making something, seeing them used. It’s going alright so far.”

“Alright? I heard you’re in high demand all over the state.”

He shrugged, so modest. “What about you? Love living in New York City?”

“Best city on earth,” I said smiling. We talked a bit about all the places he missed and we realized we had been going to the same coffee shop and pizza place. Crazy.

It was almost closing time when we finally popped out of our haze. We had been talking for a few hours sipping drinks as he filled me in on all the details of his reclaimed barn wood business that was shipping all over the U.S. and how his parents were still doing the same, his mom was a writer and his dad owned the ACE hardware store in town. We were like old friends catching up, except for all the staring at each others lips (but that was normal, right?).

I filled him in on my job at NYT and how I had come home early one day to find my fiancé in bed with the fifty year old bartender from our favorite restaurant. Talk about a shot to the ego.

He shook his head and murmured how he didn’t understand how any man could do that to me. I nodded and his hand brushed against mind, making me forget all about my silly ex. Carter grabbed my hand and pulled me outside over to an old picnic table that was out back behind the bar. It was hidden in the dark. We sat on it, just like we did at some kids party back in high school.

“It always amazes me how many stars you can see from here.” I gazed up, my arms propped out behind me.  My mind hummed from the alcohol.

A firefly flew into my hair and he reached in and brushed it away. His fingers lingered on the side of my face and I just couldn’t seem to look away from his deep blue eyes. The air seemed thick with how much I wanted him. But I was about three drinks in, hopefully he didn’t think it was the alcohol talking. I leaned closer.

That was all the encouragement he needed, his other hand swept down on my hip and pulled me into him as his lips crushed down onto mine in one swift motion. I sucked in a small gasp. My hands got lost in his curly brown hair as our mouths danced together. It was the sexiest kiss I ever had (sorry not sorry ex-fiance). My heart was beating quickly and I pressed myself shamelessly against him.

We pulled apart gasping slightly. “I’ve always wondered what that would be like.” He smirked.

A horn honked and Jesse and Drew yelled out before I could ask him what he meant.

“Come on darlin, you probably shouldn’t drive.” Before I could even protest he was leading me over to their shared car where Jesse was in the driver seat, Carter and I slid into the back. I snuggled in close to him as we hit the road. His arm around me stroking my arm almost had me asleep when we pulled up to my house. Carter got out and walked me to the door. What a gentleman.

“Is this our first date? haha, walking me to the door,” I replayed that in my head and scolded myself for being awkward.

“It’s whatever you want, darling.” He said with a wink.

Feeling bold I leaned in for another kiss. It was just as scorching hot as the first time, but quick. I pulled away and walked into my house and closed the door.

My momma had left the hallway light on for me and I meandered up to my bed lost in dreamworld almost before I hit the pillow.

I woke up the next morning facing the opposite way on my bed than I remembered going to sleep in. I also was still wearing my clothes from the night before. The kisses came rushing back and I felt silly remembering how buzzed I was during last night.

I groaned and laid my head in my hands, I am so awkward. It felt like I got sucked back to that high school person I had been. I picked up my phone and glanced at all my emails from work. It was Saturday and I needed to get some work done. My heart skipped as I saw a text from an unknown number.

“Hey Ellie, this is Carter. want to grab dinner tonight?” 

Bold. But it made my heart spike up at thought of seeing him again.

“Ok.” I typed back, “When & where?”

“I’ll pick you up at 7.” Beeps back.

Well played.

The day really dragged on and on, I spent time with my parents which did pass the time a little faster. I felt bad about how much they missed me. I was an only child and I did feel guilty that I didn’t visit more often.

We enjoyed a late lunch and I was able to squeeze a few hours of work in. Mostly so my editor didn’t kill me come Tuesday. It was incredibly hard to concentrate though, thoughts of Carter’s sweet and salty lips passionately moving over mine leaked through my mind. I longed for a replay. No man had ever touched me like that, not even my so-called fiancé. The term “panty-melt” seemed more realistic than before.

I tried not to think to hard about the logistics of dating Carter Hayes. I had absolutely no intention of moving back to North Carolina. And I doubted he had any thoughts about going back to New York, not now that his business was here.

It was just hard to walk away from that click. I didn’t dare act on any feelings in high school because he was my best friend’s boyfriend. Definitely off limits. But now, when we could be something, it was hard to walk away. Especially after ten years of not feeling even an ounce of the fire I had with Carter with anyone else.

Finally, it was 7pm and I settled on a black, flowy halter neck tank top and a pair of jeans. The door bell rang and I rushed out the door before my momma could ask any questions.

Carter looked at me, amused, “Ashamed of me?” a hint of seriousness in his tone.

I laughed nervously, “Trust me, I’m trying to save you from an interrogation.”

I walked down the steps towards his truck, “I wouldn’t mind, you know.”

I looked back over my shoulder at him, “Oh, alright. If you insist.” It was kind of sweet. I went back up the steps and opened the door. Not surprisingly my momma was right there.

“Lovely to see you, Mrs. Bratcher,” Carter said.

“Oh! Carter! I thought that was you out here.” She gave him a big hug. She looked from him to me to him again, smiling so wide her face might split. “Where are you kids off to?”

I sighed, we were both almost thirty. “Just dinner, mamma. I’ll be home later.”

Carter chuckled.

“Well you have fun. Thank you again Carter for watching the shop, I know Ken appreciates it.”

“Of course, any time.” Carter said.

“And you’re always welcome to have dinner here.”

“Not tonight momma, see you later!” I called as I walked towards Carter’s truck. No eye contact.

I hopped up in Carter’s dark blue Silverado. It was surprisingly clean, not even a straw wrapper on the floor. Carter got in a few seconds later.

“I think she’s on to us.” He said smiling.

“My mother’s been pushing for grandbabies for the last eight years.” He raised an eyebrow at me. I felt that blush creep up real fast. Shit. “I mean, not that you and I…I just…she’s pushy.” I folded my arms.

He laughed, “I know what you mean, mine’s the same way.”

He pulled out of the gravel drive and started driving down the road. “So for dinner we could go to O’Reillys in the next town over, or there’s a new farm to table restaurant in Gatlin or we can go back to my place for steaks on the grill.”

“Your place.” I said. Was that too quickly? Possibly. But Carter was smiling.

We pulled up to his farmhouse and he gave me a quick tour. It was huge, but it was neat. And every single room inside had been redone and decorated like something out of a magazine. It was breathtaking.

“Wow. Just wow.” I breathed. I looked up at the wrought iron chandelier that hung in the stairway.

“Did you do all of this yourself?” I asked him.

“For the most part. I got a lot of decor help from my sister, though.” He said, “I’m glad you like it. Do you want some wine?”

“Yes, please”, I followed him back to the kitchen which opened up to a large wrap around porch with seating for eight. The deck was gorgeous and had a beautiful view of trees and fields.

“You can take a seat out here, I’ll just grab the food and be out in a few.” He said sweetly.

“Oh are you sure you don’t need any help? Now that I’ve elected to make you do all the work?” I laughed.

“No, darling, just get comfortable.” He said with a wink and headed inside.

He came back out only a few minutes later with stakes and some vegetable kabobs and something wrapped in foil.

I eyed him a little suspiciously, “If I didn’t know better, Carter Hayes, I would say you expected me to pick your place.”

“I was feeling hopeful.” He said. While he cooked on the grill, I sipped my wine and we chatted about small town life and why we were both single.

With Carter’s backed turned I could really see how amazing he looked. His butt perfectly filled out his dark Levis and his dark gray t-shirt gave a glimpse of his muscled back. He definitely kept in shape.

We sat down for dinner and enjoyed the sunset. He reached over and held my hand at different times during dinner. I couldn’t help but feel like I wanted to eat faster. The air, although relaxed and sweet was heavy with need. His eyes watched my lips and I caught him more than once glancing at my chest. I felt torn between enjoying this beautiful dinner and wanting to rip his clothes off and have him take me right here on the table.

Once we were finished he picked up the plates to do the dishes and I grabbed the glasses. He dropped the plates in the sink turned, grabbed the glasses from me and set them quickly in the sink.

In one quick move he lifted me up on the counter top and kissed me so deep and slow. He kept his hands on my ass as I wrapped my hands around his neck and pressed into him. I heard a groan leave his lips and I took that as a sign to keep going. His arms enveloped me on the kitchen counter, pulling me closer.

I was taking short shallow breaths as he trailed kisses down my neck. A tickle of shivers ran up my spine and I couldn’t get close enough to him. I needed to feel him. I reached down and pulled his shirt up, wanting to feel his skin. He pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it on the floor.

Damn. All those naughty highschool dreams I had about being naked with this man didn’t do him any justice.

I ran my hands lightly up his torso. He was a muscled god. “Whoa.”

He leaned in and pulled the tie on my halter top loose, it flapped down and exposed my chest. “God, you’re beautiful”, he said. He trailed kisses from my neck down to my chest and I arched my back to feel more. “Mmm, so good.”

“Let’s go upstairs.” He smiled at me, pulling me off the counter and I wrapped her legs around him tighter. We kissed all the way up the stairs.

Love-When-Least-Expect
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Written by Danielle