“Nice day for a hockey game.”
Reyna Bishop would know that smooth, deep voice anywhere and, after tucking her debit card into her back pocket and accepting two steamed hot dogs from the vendor, she turned to face Brady Nash.
A ball cap with the minor league hockey team’s logo was covering his thick, dark hair, but the brim didn’t hide the blue eyes Reyna wished she didn’t find so attractive. They’d probably been in middle school when she discovered she had a thing for blue eyes and a hint of dimples, thanks to him. “Hi, Brady. I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“No reason you would,” he responded, a not-so-subtle reference to the fact they hadn’t spoken beyond polite greetings in a few years, despite having been friends since childhood.
“But half the town’s here, at least, so I probably could have guessed.”
The game tickets had been sold as a fundraiser by the eighth-grade class, which was hoping to take a trip to Washington, DC, in the spring, so she’d seen quite a few residents of Blackberry Bay in the stands. It was a long drive, but everybody loved a school fundraiser.
“A soft pretzel and a lemonade, please,” Brady told the vendor, and Reyna was about to take the opportunity to make her escape, but he looked at her again. “Who did you come with?”
Her face warmed, which was ridiculous since nothing she did was any of his business. “Lucas. My boyfriend.”
“Right. The guy you brought to the Fourth of July fireworks?”
“Yeah.” That had been their first date, but Brady probably knew that since they had a lot of mutual acquaintances. It was hard not to when you’d gone to school with a guy since kindergarten.
She leveled him a seriously? look because she knew that was his way of saying Lucas looked boring. Maybe Lucas didn’t ooze charm and sex appeal, but she was looking for a life partner, not a fling. “I’m surprised you’d recognize stability, since it’s not something you’re familiar with when it comes to dating.”
He chuckled and put his hand over his heart as if she’d wounded him, but before he could say anything else, she turned and walked away. Lucas was waiting for her, and their hot dogs were getting cold for a conversation that was only going to keep going south.
It was always awkward when she ran into Brady, but she wasn’t sure how to fix it. About four years ago—a year before Reyna’s dad passed away from cancer—she’d run into him at a bar. She’d been out with friends, and so had he. Years of chemistry and flirtation had escalated pretty quickly, and they’d both ditched their companions and left together.
Falling into bed with him had been an utter disaster and they’d avoided each other whenever possible since. Blackberry Bay, New Hampshire, was too small a town to allow for much of that, though, and somehow they’d gone from awkward avoidance to straight up not speaking to each other unless they had to.
She couldn’t really do anything to fix it since she wasn’t sure she even understood it. So he’d been too quick on the draw, she’d been unsatisfied and they’d both been embarrassed. So what? They’d known each other their entire lives and it should have been the sort of thing they could laugh off and move past. Unless he couldn’t stand the fact she knew he wasn’t the ladies’ man everybody in town believed him to be.
“No mustard?” Lucas asked when she reached the empty seat next to him and handed him his hot dog.
“Sorry, I got distracted.” She didn’t really want to tell him what—or rather, who—had made her forget condiments, so she changed the subject. “Anything interesting happen while I was gone?”
“Some raffles and then some sort of competition for little kids.” She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but she thought she heard a hint of irritation in his voice and she wondered again why he’d bothered coming with her to an event that clearly wasn’t his thing. “I was beginning to wonder if you were coming back.”
If he was that worried about how long it took to get his hot dog or not getting his mustard, he could go with her next time, instead of letting her go alone. “The line was long.”
“The game’s starting again,” he said with about as much enthusiasm as he’d announce he was making an appointment for a dental cleaning.
Reyna and Lucas had been dating for several months, so when he’d heard about the hockey fundraiser, he’d assumed they’d go together. That had surprised her, since he didn’t care about sports, but maybe he was trying to support her interests, which was nice. She’d originally planned to take her friend’s daughter, Sophie, to her first hockey game, but she’d caved and invited her boyfriend instead.
Boyfriend. She was still having some trouble wrapping her head around the word, though she supposed that’s exactly what Lucas was. She’d met his sister and she was supposed to go with him to see his parents for Thanksgiving. It was a lot for so early in their relationship, but she’d had a run of bad luck with men before she met him, so she was going with it.
He lived twenty minutes away, which worked for her. They could get together easily, but not so easily she felt suffocated by him. He was a tax accountant she’d met through a recommendation when she and her mom needed advice after her dad passed away, and he dressed nicely. His sandy-blond hair was always perfectly cut, and he had great manners. He was stable and nice and would probably be a solid family man.
That made him a strong contender for being Mr. Right. That stability that Brady mocked was one of the things she found most attractive about him because that’s what she was looking for in the father of the children she was more than ready to have. He’d be patient and help with homework—especially the math. He was the kind of man who’d make pancakes on the weekend and show up to parent-teacher conferences. He’d be the rock of their family, and when it came to men, that was a priority for her.
He was pretty much the opposite of Brady Nash, she thought as she took the last bite of her hot dog, and then she was annoyed she’d allowed him to creep into her thoughts again.
“Having fun?” she asked Lucas, wanting to distract herself.
“I always have fun when I’m with you,” he said, giving her a smile that lasted only a few seconds because the crowd was standing to cheer as a couple’s fiftieth anniversary was announced on the big screen. “It’s very loud, though.”
“That’s part of the fun.”
Everybody was clapping and cheering for the couple, so Reyna did the same. Lucas was rubbing his hands together, as if he was nervous, instead of clapping, but she didn’t think anything of it. He was probably trying to decide how long he had to stay before he could suggest they sneak out, since sports weren’t exactly his thing.
She was pondering whether she wanted popcorn or nachos next—because the junk food really was the best part of any sporting event—when she heard her name echoing around the arena and realized it had come from the PA system. Looking up, she was horrified to see her face on the giant screens suspended from the ceiling.
Yes, that was definitely her. Long red hair in a ponytail pulled through a Boston Bruins ball cap because she didn’t have a hat for the team she was watching. Her blue eyes wide and practically unblinking. And that was definitely her Bishop’s Auto Care sweatshirt.
And she was even more horrified when Lucas grinned at the camera before getting down on one knee next to her, which wasn’t easy considering how tight the seating was. Cheers from the crowd rose to a deafening level as he tugged on her hand, urging her to look at him instead of the screen.
“Please don’t do this,” she whispered, but he seemed intent on ignoring her. Or maybe he couldn’t hear her, but he should have been able to read the plea on her lips.
“Reyna Bishop, I love you. Will you marry me?” he asked as he opened a box and showed her one of the most gorgeous rings she’d ever seen.
In her peripheral vision, she saw the words flashing on the Jumbotron. Reyna, will you marry me?
“We’ve only been dating three and a half months,” she said, trying to make sense of it.
“And I knew from our very first date that you were the one for me.”
Their first date had been watching the town’s Fourth of July fireworks display, where he’d bought them each a caramel apple. It had been an odd and unsexy food choice for a first date, but he’d seemed nice, so she’d seen him again. And he’d kept on seeming nice, so she’d kept on seeing him.
She didn’t want to marry him.
Well, she did. But not yet. She was ready to settle down and start a family, but not so ready she’d rush into marriage before she really got to know him. She didn’t even know what color his toothbrush was yet.
“Please don’t do this,” she said again, louder this time, even though it was already done.
“Reyna?” Maybe if he’d sounded heartbroken or humiliated, she would have accepted the ring for the benefit of his pride and the crowd that was growing quieter by the second, and then figured it out later, when they were alone. But he was scowling, and the impatience and anger in his tone rubbed her the wrong way.
He’d been the one who’d sprung a very public marriage proposal on a woman who hadn’t even invited him home to her mother’s for Sunday dinner yet.
“No, Lucas. I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to marry you,” she said, and because the noise in the arena was ringing in her ears, she said it a lot louder than she’d intended to.
The crowd fell silent for a few seconds before the boos started. Not many, but enough to spread hot flames of embarrassment over Reyna’s pale skin.
“I can’t believe you did this,” Lucas said as he closed the ring box with a snap and shoved it into his pocket.
“I can’t believe you did this,” she shot back.
He turned and walked away from her, shoving past the people in their row, who scrambled to get out of his way. When he got to the end, he turned back.
Music started blaring through the rink as he spoke, but she had no problem reading his lips. “We’re done.”
Damn right they were done.
She looked up at the Jumbotron again, and she was relieved to see there were birthday wishes scrolling down the screen and her moment in the spotlight was over.
“That’s our Reyna. She’s hell on men, that one.”
She couldn’t place the voice. The noise level was high and whoever said it was probably several rows behind her and was yelling to be heard by her friends. One of the older women from Blackberry Bay, no doubt. It was a phrase she was familiar with, having heard it countless times since her teenage years.
She’s hell on men, that one.
No, she wasn’t. She just wasn’t very good at picking the right one. And forgive a girl—even a teenage one—for having standards.
She’d broken a few hearts in high school. But it was high school. They were all immature and none of the relationships, such as they were, lasted very long. Honestly, the adults in the town probably wouldn’t even have noticed if she hadn’t broken up with the baseball team’s best hitter and been blamed for the slump that dogged him for the rest of the season. That was the first time she heard it.
And once she was an adult, those standards just got higher and when a man wasn’t going to work out long term—whether it was antiquated gender role expectations or not clicking with her family or any other reason—she didn’t waste any more of their time. For the past few years, those standards had come to include a man’s willingness and ability to be as good a father as she’d had, and they’d all fallen short.
She’d thought Lucas was going to be the one. She’d been wrong. Again.
She didn’t want to listen to any more of it. She didn’t want to hear any clucking tongues or see the sympathetic looks. Or even worse, the looks that clearly said she was crazy for turning down such a grand and romantic gesture.
Stepping carefully over feet and half-empty containers of nachos, she made her way free of her row. But as she scanned for the red Exit sign, a face in the crowd caught her attention and she felt that hot flush across her cheeks again.
Great. Just in case her very public humiliation hadn’t been bad enough, of course he had to have witnessed the entire thing. He looked concerned for her and it looked like he might even push his way to her, but before he could, she made a beeline for the exit.
Being proposed to and broken up with on the Jumbotron had been bad enough. The last thing she needed tonight was another run-in with Brady.
Brady Nash was a glutton for punishment. It wasn’t something he would have guessed about himself, but it was the only way he could explain why he left his seat and followed Reyna as she exited the rink.
There were a lot of people from Blackberry Bay here tonight. There was no reason to think she wouldn’t ask for a ride back to town from any one of them. But he also knew she was as proud as she was private and there was a chance she’d just start walking instead.
He wasn’t wrong. She was leaving the parking lot to walk who knew where when he finally caught up to her. “Reyna!”
“Leave me alone,” she yelled without stopping.
“Where are you going?”
“It’s a long walk back to Blackberry Bay, you know.”
She stopped then, whirling to face him. Her face was red and he could see her anger in the rise and fall of her chest, but at least she wasn’t crying. “Then I’ll get an Uber or something.”
“Even if you could find one willing to make the drive, can you imagine how much it would cost? Just get in my truck and I’ll drive you home.”
She didn’t want to and he knew it, but he could see her accepting that he was right, especially about the cost. “Why?”
“Okay, so we don’t talk much anymore.” Or at all, really. Not since that night. “But we’ve known each other our whole lives—we used to be friends—and you can’t believe I’d just leave you here like this. Let me drive you home. You don’t even have to talk. You can turn the radio up and pretend I’m an Uber driver, except you don’t have to tip me.”
“I’m picking the radio station,” she said.
She was pretty bossy for a woman with so few options, but that was Reyna. “Fine, you can pick the station.”
Once they were in his truck and the arena was disappearing in the rearview mirror, she started to relax. A classic rock song she’d landed on filled the cab and she hummed along, closing her eyes as she rested her head against the headrest.
Brady glanced over at her occasionally, but she didn’t open her eyes. He had expected some angry venting or maybe even tears—though Reyna didn’t cry easily—but he would have thought she’d fallen asleep if not for the way her jaw kept flexing and the furrow between her brows. She might not be airing her emotions, but they were clear in the lines of her face and the fact her hands were balled into fists on her lap.
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he drove, overcome by a rush of anger toward Lucas whatever-his-name-was. Not only had he hurt Reyna and humiliated her in front of a crowd that included a whole lot of people she knew, but what kind of idiot let a woman like her get away?
If he hadn’t blown the one shot he’d had with her and had been lucky enough to call her his girlfriend, he would have done anything to keep her. And he definitely wouldn’t have made a public spectacle out of their relationship. He knew Reyna, and what had happened tonight had been more about Lucas’s ego and very little about the woman he claimed to love.
Miles passed before she sat up straight and turned the radio down. “I know I’m not acting like it, but I do appreciate the ride.”
“I didn’t expect you to chat about the weather or anything, so don’t worry about it. I meant it when I said you didn’t have to talk if you don’t want to. I just want to make sure you get home and that’s all.”
“There were probably dozens of people who could have given me a ride home if I’d stayed at the game,” she pointed out.
“Did you really want to stay, though? Or be trapped in a back seat with a bunch of kids? Or listen to a play-by-play of what happened?”
“No, this is definitely better.”
She pulled out her phone, and he assumed she was going to send a text to her mother or her friend Meredith, but after a couple of minutes, he heard her sharp intake of breath, and then she muttered a curse word not quite under her breath.
“There’s video. And it’s already everywhere and not just on Facebook. Hashtag she said no, apparently. What’s it been? Twenty minutes, if that?”
“Oh damn, I’m sorry. Stuff spreads fast on the internet. But something else will happen and go viral, and this will be forgotten just as quickly.”
“People I know are sharing it, Brady. Why would they do that?”
He shook his head, tapping his thumb on the wheel. “You know how Blackberry Bay is. The town is boring and they have nothing better to do, so people have to amuse themselves somehow.”
“Sally Barnard added the hashtag hell on men when she shared it.” Reyna clicked her screen off with a snort of disgust. “She’s friends with my mom, but whatever.”
He wasn’t sure about other guys, but she’d been hell on him. But it wasn’t her fault he’d been in love with her since first grade and never had the guts to tell her.
She made a low growling sound in her throat. “Why would a guy propose to a woman he’s been dating for three and a half months? Why?”
“I don’t know anything about proposing. It’s me, the official town ladies’ man, remember? Just running around dating women without ever settling down with just one.” He grinned to hide how much he hated when people said that because it was far from the truth.
But when Reyna snorted and looked out the window, the grin faded because he knew why she made that sound and it still cut him. He’d had one shot with her—they’d crossed paths at a bar and had a few drinks—and he’d been so caught up in finally having Reyna naked in his arms that his performance had been subpar. Very subpar. It hadn’t been much of a performance at all, and the awkwardness since that night had grown and settled into outright avoiding speaking to each other whenever possible.
Now she probably thought he dated around because he couldn’t satisfy a woman enough to keep her.
“Everybody in town thought he was finally the one for you,” he said after a few minutes, just to get images of that night out of his head. “He must have jumped to the same conclusion.”
“Yeah, a little prematurely,” she replied, and he winced at her word choice.
When she made a sound that sounded a lot like a strangled laugh, he glanced over to find her trying to compose her face into a look of innocence and knew she’d seen him wince.
He decided to ignore her amusement at his expense. “If he was really the one, he would have known a spectacle in front of a crowd, with the Jumbotron and everything, would be the last kind of proposal you’d want. It’s not really your kind of thing.”
“No, it’s not.” She looked at him and he could see her face illuminated by the dash lights in his peripheral vision. “How come he didn’t know that?”
He shrugged. “Guess he wasn’t the one.”
But he knew that about her and he didn’t seem to be the one either, so he decided to keep his relationship advice to himself for the rest of the ride.
Most people in Blackberry Bay knew Reyna was a private person who preferred keeping to herself, so it didn’t make him special to know she wouldn’t want will you marry me flashed on a giant screen at a hockey game. There might even have been a time in his life when he daydreamed about proposing to her and there hadn’t been a single Jumbotron involved. Or even a fancy restaurant. A picnic maybe. Or sitting on a hay bale—one of the more private ones behind the town gazebo—drinking hot cocoa after the Christmas parade.
But he’d had his shot with her and blown it so badly, he hadn’t even been able to face her for weeks afterward. And it was still awkward years later.
“Thanks again for the ride,” she said when he pulled up in front of her building. She had an apartment over Bishop’s Auto Care & Bakery, since her father had owned the building and now, presumably, Mrs. Bishop did.
“No problem. I’m sorry for what happened tonight.”
She got out of the truck and stood next to the open door. “I don’t know if I’m all that sorry Lucas and I are done, to be honest. But I really hate that he made us Blackberry Bay’s latest viral sensation. Like I need more bad press.”
He chuckled. “Well, you are hell on men.”
“Whatever. Good night, ladies’ man.” She laughed and closed his door before walking away.
He waited until she’d let herself in and the door closed before putting his truck in gear. And he chuckled to himself as he drove away.
Damn, he’d missed her.