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Ty didn’t know how to act.
When he and Paisley had reconnected in Nashville, it was on neutral ground. Between chemistry and nostalgia, they hadn’t hit any weird spots. But now, as she went through the motions of getting Duke his dinner, Ty felt out of sync and out of sorts. Things were fine when he was touching her—more than fine—but when they weren’t busy spontaneously combusting, it seemed neither of them knew how to behave. How the hell could they do this causal thing when they’d once been so much more?
The idea didn’t sit well with him. Paisley deserved respect and decency and just…more. Even if he couldn’t give her promises, he could do better than treating her like the insignificant wedding fling he’d led Sebastian to believe she was. Guilt over his prevarication had driven him to suggest dinner out. Casual didn’t have to mean no dates. She’d always been a fun date. Maybe she could remind him how that worked.
Neither spoke as they headed for his truck, and it occurred to him that they’d never had this awkward first date sort of feel, even as teenagers. They’d been strangers, and then they’d just been together, as if a switch had been flipped with that first kiss under balloons and streamers at the homecoming dance. He found himself wanting to get that easiness back with her but had no idea where to start.
As he started the ignition, Paisley laid a hand on his leg. “Wait. I think I can make this less weird.”
Half turned toward her, he expected her to kiss him again. Instead, she began to punch buttons, connecting her phone to the Bluetooth stereo. A minute later, familiar beats began to spill out of the speakers.
As she shimmied her shoulders, Ty found himself fighting a grin. “I know you did not just cue up the N’Sync in my truck.”
“It’s a Top 100 playlist from our high school years. C’mon. These are the songs of our teenage selves!”
How many hours had they spent driving around in his old Ford pickup, singing along to the radio? It brought back memories of sweltering summer days and sticky summer nights, dancing to that same radio at their spot down by the river.
“If I let this keep playing, I am risking my man card.”
Her brown eyes snapped with heat. “I feel like I’m in an excellent position to defend the validity of said man card, should the need arise.”
If she kept looking at him like that, something else was going to be arising.
Apparently deciding no further discussion was necessary, Paisley buckled her seatbelt and launched into the chorus with the same bold, unselfconscious voice, he remembered. It wasn’t perfect, but she committed. Ty had always appreciated that about her.
Because he wasn’t about to let himself go back on his own suggestion of dinner in the name of getting her naked, and because nostalgia was far more comfortable for them both, he stopped fighting the grin and put the truck into gear. As N’Sync rolled into Creed, then Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks, Paisley proved she had a way better memory than he did. But there were enough lyrics floating around in his brain that he found himself jumping in on Brian McKnight’s “Back at One”. It wasn’t until he found himself singing about her being the only one for him that he realized Paisley was staring at him.
Okay, yeah, one of the love ballads he used to sing to her all the time probably wasn’t the song to have jumped in on. If he stopped singing, it would get weird again. If he kept singing, it might give her some kind of false hope that this meant something more than he just happened to remember all the words. There was only one choice. He had to commit.
When the second chorus rolled around, he injected every ounce of remembered high school melodrama, hamming it up. On a snort of laughter, Paisley joined in with harmony, so they were both belting the song at the top of their lungs as they rolled into town.
God, he really hoped he didn’t see anybody he knew. They’d think he had a personality transplant.
Whipping into a space at one end of Main Street, he turned to her. “Just to make one thing perfectly clear—that didn’t just happen.”
Her dimples winked as she leaned back against the door. “You’ve still got decent pipes.”
“So do you. But I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”
“Your secret is safe with me, Galahad.”
He liked that she waited for him to circle around and get her door. It was a little thing that made him feel a little more deserving of the nickname she’d given him years ago. As she slid out, the back of Ty’s neck prickled. Someone was watching. Instinct had him lacing his hand with Paisley’s, keeping her close as he subtly scanned their surroundings for threats. When he spotted faces pressed to the glass of the diner’s front window, he relaxed. Just the local busybodies.
Paisley peered past his shoulder. “I see Eden’s Ridge is cut from the same mold as Coopers Bend. I expect tongues are wagging already, wondering who I am and whether I’ve taken one of the town’s most eligible bachelors off the market.”
“It’s a distinct possibility. And I admit, this dinner will serve the added purpose of hopefully stopping the incessant matchmaking attempts.”
Her dimples flashed again. “Does the big, bad Ranger need protection from a bunch of gossipy old biddies?”
“Damned straight. They’re terrifying.”
She laughed and slid her arm around him, rising to her toes. “Then let’s give them something to talk about.” With a fast brush of lips, she dropped back down, releasing his hand to slide hers into his back pocket.
The easy affection fogged his brain, and the feel of her hand cupping his ass had him thinking about switching dinner to take out.
Brain on the mission, Brooks.
Draping an arm over her shoulders, as he’d done thousands of times before, he began to walk. She fit, just there, hip-to-hip with him. If it felt a little like something snapping back into place, he ignored the sense of disquiet that came with the rightness and got on with the tour.
He kept expecting to be stopped as they looked in shop windows, but though plenty of people looked, no one approached them. Ty was grateful. He knew how to play the small-town-catch-up, but it took so much more out of him now than it had before his stint in the Army.
Paisley kept up a steady, easy chatter, but Ty could tell she wasn’t a hundred percent here. Something had been off when she’d called yesterday. It didn’t seem as pronounced today, but it was still there. Her body language proved she was perfectly physically comfortable with him, so he didn’t think the distraction was about him. Probably. Which left…what? Work? Family? It bugged him that he didn’t know her well enough anymore to peg the problem. Once upon a time, he’d been able to read her like a book and, if not outright fix it, make her feel better.
He knew he could distract her, but he found himself wanting to do more. It was what friends did for each other. Maybe friends wasn’t what they’d agreed to, but he couldn’t just turn off those instincts. And, hell, maybe friendship was the thing that would allow this casual thing to work between them.
By the time they’d been shown to a table at Elvira’s Tavern and placed their order, he decided he had a decent plan of attack.
“So why are you here, exactly?”
Paisley went brows up. “I thought we established that when I called.”
“I mean, besides the naked fun time. Which, I might add, is a perfectly valid reason unto itself. But I know you. Or I used to. Something is bothering you.”
For just a moment a shadow crossed her face before she covered with a sweet smile. “Do you interrogate all your dates?”
So he wasn’t being subtle. That wasn’t always the right tack. “I’m not interrogating you. If I really wanted to drag information out of you, I’d do it while you were naked and by withholding orgasms.”
Her mouth opened in a perfect O of surprise and she had to clear her throat before speaking again. “Well, that’s just mean.”
Before he could press the issue, a hand clapped him on the back.
“Well, if it isn’t Miss Brunette from the wedding.” Sebastian stuck his hand out. “I’m Sebastian Donnelly, one of this one’s Army buddies. And you are?”
“Paisley Parish. You were one of the other groomsmen.”
“I was, indeed.”
Not fighting the scowl, Ty glared at Sebastian. “What are you doing here?”
“Picking up takeout for dinner. Laurel had meetings in Knoxville today.”
“Then I’m sure she’d appreciate you hurrying up with it.”
“Oh, the kitchen’s not quite done with our order. I’ve got a few minutes.” Sebastian turned his attention back to Paisley. “And where has our Ty been hiding you?”
“I live in Nashville.” She flicked a gaze to Ty, then back to Sebastian. “I’m a friend of Ivy’s.”
God love the woman for knowing he didn’t want to get into their past. If Sebastian got a whiff of that, there’d be no getting rid of him.
A waitress swooped in with a to go bag. “Here’s your order, Sebastian.”
The bastard actually looked disappointed. “Thanks, Trish.” He reluctantly accepted the bag and turned back to their table. “Well, seems I’ve got food to deliver to my lady. Paisley, so nice to meet you. I hope to see you again sometime.”
She nodded. “Nice to meet you, Sebastian.”
With a significant look at Ty, he gave a nod and headed for the door.
Paisley sipped at her cider. “I get the feeling that was a problem.”
“Not a problem.” He didn’t want her to think he was trying to hide her. “It just means I’m the one who’ll be interrogated later.”
She pursed her lips. “So, what I’m hearing is that it’s to your benefit if I keep you occupied and unavailable for comment?”
The sparkle in her eye had his blood beginning to simmer. “I mean, I’m perfectly capable of telling him to fuck off, but I like your way better.”
Paisley flagged down their waitress. “Can we get our order boxed up to go?”
He hadn’t gotten the answer to his question. She clearly didn’t want to talk about it, and right this second, he was far more interested in taking her up on her offer. Maybe she’d be more amenable to sharing as pillow talk later. He’d see how the weekend went. If worse came to worse, maybe interrogation by orgasm wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
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