Just the Way You Are
by Beverly Barton
The South sizzles in New York Times bestselling author Beverly Barton's sultry tale of a woman torn between two brothers...
Mary Beth Caine has always been the good girl in her small Mississippi town. But when a big, protective, shamelessly sexy stranger offers to console her on the night of her disastrous engagement party, Mary Beth lets him—only to discover that Parr Weston also happens to be the older brother of her fiancé, Bobby Joe.
Parr left Mississippi after years spent holding his family together. Now that he's back, he can't steal Bobby Joe's woman, and he sure can't offer Mary Beth the tidy happily-ever-after she deserves. But everything about the petite beauty—from her flame-gold hair to her artless sensuality—makes him crave her more. Love or lust, right or wrong, all he knows is that nothing has ever felt like this before, and walking away will be the hardest thing he's ever had to do.
“Right. But there is a question I’d like to ask.”
“Go ahead. You can say anything you like. This night couldn’t get any weirder.”
“What if I said that I needed you?”
Her lips parted with evident surprise. “Huh? You need me?”
Her startled gaze met his. Parr wished there was a surefire way to get her to understand what was on his mind. But he couldn’t quite define it himself.
“I think I do.”
“Really,” she said, her voice laced with wry amusement.
“The love of my life, whom I thought I knew, doesn’t need me at all, and a total stranger apparently does.”
“It was just a question. I’m not sure what I meant by it.”
“That makes two of us. Just the two of us.” She surveyed him warily.
Parr nodded. Just the two of us. He liked the sound of that. Maybe he hadn’t overstepped the bounds of propriety or whatever rules were in effect when rescuing a damsel in distress.
“I guess—well, it seemed to me you needed a kiss, that was all.”
“Is that something you do often? Find an unhappy woman and plant one on her?”
“No. And it wasn’t like I was looking for you.”
That tiny dimple appeared above her slight—very slight—smile. Nonetheless, Parr had a feeling she was taking him seriously, for reasons known only to herself. Maybe she was just used to men throwing themselves at her feet.
Which was all the more reason not to let her walk away. But she honestly didn’t seem outraged by his impulsively romantic gesture and she certainly didn’t seem scared of him.
So far, so good. But where did they go from here?
She put her fingertips to her temples and rubbed. “I think I need something to eat,” she said. “I feel a little dizzy.”
“Good idea.” He looked around for a waiter, not seeing a single one in the thickening crush of people. The place was jammed and the music cranked up to deafening levels. “There has to be a menu around here somewhere. I’ll grab one. Be right back.” He stopped for a second after he got up. “What’s your name? You never did say.”
“No. I didn’t. Just get a menu. Please.”
Exchanging vital information like that would just have to wait. She was grateful for a few moments alone, which she desperately needed, to think about just what the hell she was doing here. With him.
Whatever his name was.
Mary Beth sipped her Coke, which had lost most of its fizz, and watched him shoulder through the crowd.
He had to turn around once to get past an entwined couple who’d just set down their cocktails to smooch and cuddle, generating the usual friendly advice to get a room.
None of her business. She just hoped other hearts weren’t being broken.
The look on his craggy, masculine face as he eased by the oblivious pair was priceless, though.
He wasn’t really handsome. More like rugged. The waitress he asked for a menu perked up when she handed him one, obviously just as attracted to his jewel-brown eyes. Even from this distance, his eyes sparkled with devilment. She felt a tiny pang of jealousy that she instantly dismissed.
But he didn’t seem interested in the waitress once he had scored a menu. Good. She kept on studying him as he got closer, which was taking a while.
His features were too roughly hewn, his nose too hawkish for him to be considered classically goodlooking. He was a real man in every sense of the word, hard, tough, maybe even a little too masculine.
If there was such a thing, she couldn’t help thinking.
The revolving spotlights that pierced the dim atmosphere of the lounge touched his hair now and then, making it gleam darkly. She wouldn’t mind doing the same thing. That thick sable hair looked extremely touchable. She suppressed a smile of admiration when several guys stepped aside, consciously or unconsciously ceding their turf to him. He was big, so very big. The kind of man who looked as if he could carry the burdens of the world on those massive shoulders.
And he’d been bold enough to say he needed her.
Hmm. Although it was possible that it was a pickup line, it actually hadn’t sounded like one. More like a statement of fact.
But she was in no condition to judge accurately after the devastating discovery in suite 5-C. Or rather, in the storage closet next to suite 5-C. She had knocked on the door by mistake and heard a low-voiced yes at almost the same moment. And she’d opened the door.
Her fingers tightened on her cold, empty glass. All she could think was payback time. Someone richly deserved it. She couldn’t figure out how, exactly, not just yet. But she would.
The man who needed her had stopped to talk to a pal. He didn’t nod in her direction or give any indication that they were together, for which she was grateful.
She was still somewhat numb, basically unable to form a coherent thought. Or maybe stunned was a better word. The intensity of her attraction to this wellbuilt stranger was affecting her ability to reason, on top of everything else.
Raw emotion was no balm for her hurting heart.
Unless she was just experiencing a powerful physical reaction and nothing more.
She did want him that way. The feeling was new and wild. She’d never wanted a man just physically before in her whole life.
At the moment, he seemed to be unable to extricate himself from an unwanted conversation. He finally did manage a reassuring glance at her over his friend’s shoulder. He was coming back.
He cared. Good enough. If this encounter lasted a grand total of an hour, start to finish, he still cared enough to treat her right.
Mary Beth was all about doing right, first and foremost. Above all, she believed that you took care of your family and loved them best. Next to that was her work. She genuinely cared for the young students who came to talk to her in confidence. As a school social worker, she knew a lot about life that she hadn’t personally experienced.
She had convinced herself that she loved her fiancé and that she was ready to take the huge step of starting a family of her own. At least she was sure she hadn’t accepted his proposal for any of the wrong reasons. She didn’t need him to be financially secure. She didn’t have to have a man around the house just because she’d been so close—and still was—to her widowed father, Harold Caine.
No. She’d gotten engaged because it was the logical next step in her orderly life, a perfectly reasonable idea that had shattered into a million pieces when, by mistake, she opened the closet door next to the suite the guys had used to change into formal wear.
In seconds, her whole damn life had changed. There was no going back.
If one of her girlfriends should dare to tell her to get over herself, that men were just teenage boys at heart who could be expected to fool around one last time before they got dragged down the aisle—well, so much for that friendship. Mary Beth drew the line at cheating.
Though this was the first time she’d been cheated on. She amended the thought. This was the first time she knew for sure she’d been cheated on. It felt horrible.
Any woman so lacking in self-respect that she put up with crap like that even once would be doomed to a lifetime of it.
No way. Not her. But she had no Plan B. And now here she was in a noisy lounge staring at a man who made her feel like she actually mattered. And feeling flummoxed.
He’d come to her aid instantly. And held her as if he knew what had just happened when he didn’t know a thing. Tried to help. Been a gentleman the entire time, including that funny, old-fashioned kiss. She’d felt like a lady.
In that roughly tender voice, he’d claimed out of nowhere that he’d needed her and seemed as surprised by his confession as she had been.
It was impossible to tell why or how it had all happened so fast, but she still wanted him to hold her, to caress her, to love her. By all rights she should be afraid of him, but she just wasn’t. Her barely restrained desire ought to have been a warning not to get involved, but she didn’t hear any alarm bells.
Mary Beth didn’t think anyone had ever really needed her, not even her lovingly protective father. Being a widower with a growing child who was only four years old when he’d had to learn to do for himself after his wife’s death in childbirth, Howard Caine had become a very independent man who did it all, including cooking and cleaning.
It was only natural that his daughter grew up to be a strong, independent woman taking care of herself too. She had a BA and a master’s in social work, and a career she loved. She invested her own money and had been saving for a house even before she met her soon-to-be-former fiancé, that rat bastard. Life skills were par for the course: she could change a tire, and she could even hem a dishcloth, although she never did, considering that the dollar store sold perfectly good dishcloths every day of the week for ninety-nine cents plus tax.
But more than anything she wanted a real family of her own, and especially a mother-in-law who could substitute for the mother she’d lost.
She’d been so sure that her fiancé and his wonderful mother would help make her dreams a reality. There was plenty of family on his side—he was always after her to check out zillions of photos online, what with all the cousins and a big brother who lived out of state but was still the head of the family somehow.
Mary Beth had never gotten around to it. Social media wasn’t her thing and she didn’t even have a Facebook page. After long hours on the job, solving problems right and left for so many people, she wasn’t interested in posting and instant messaging or photos of what anyone’d had for lunch and carefully posed selfie shots.
Outside of meeting a few individuals at various get-togethers, she really didn’t know much about the family she’d wanted so much to be part of. Perhaps she had instinctively been aware even then that reality would never live up to her girlish fantasies. After tonight, she realized that her unfaithful boyfriend was hardly the man of her dreams.
There was no doubt whatsoever in her mind that he had secretly reconnected with his former flame on some damn Web site designed for people who wanted to do things like that. She didn’t spend a lot of time online but she had a general idea of what was out there.
Betrayal was just a click away.
Lesson learned. She wouldn’t be so naive next time.
Follow the rest of the blog tour here.