Winner of the Booksellers Best Award 2014!

Waitress Abby Gray is about to discover
knights in shining armor aren’t just for fairy tales.

The Courage to Say Yes

CHAPTER ONE

“HEY, WHERE DO you think you’re going?”

 

Pudgy fingers gripped Abby’s wrist. She froze, hating herself for her reaction. “Let go of me, Warren,”she said.
Her ex-boyfriend shook his head. “I’m not done talking to you.”
Maybe not, but Abby was done listening. “There’s nothing more to talk about.” At least nothing she hadn’t heard a dozen or three times before.
She tried to yank her arm free, but Warren held fast. “Since when do you tell me what to do?”

His fingers dug into the top of her wrist. He was going to leave a mark, dammit. “Warren, please.” The plea slipped out from habit. “The customers…”
”Screw the customers.” A couple heads turned in their direction. Abby didn’t dare look to see if Guy,her boss, had heard, too.
”This is your fault, you know?” Warren told her. “I wouldn’t have to come down to this…” he curledhis upper lip “…this diner if you weren’t being so childish.”
As though his pouting and tantrums were the height of maturity. Abby knew better than to say anything. Hard to believe she’d once considered this man the answer to life’s problems. Now he was the problem. One hundred ninety-five pounds of unshakable anger. Why couldn’t he let her go? It’d been six weeks.

When it comes to us, I make the decisions, babe. Not you. That’s what he always said. How on earth was she going to get loose this time?

“Hey, Abby.”
The sound of her name cut through the breakfast din, and made her pulse kick up yet another notch.

Abby knew the speaker immediately. The photographer. She’d been waiting on him for the past dozen days. Always sat at the back corner table and read the paper, his expensive camera resting on the chair next to him. Quiet, hassle-free. Good tipper. Hunter something or other. Abby hadn’t paid close attention. Whatever his last name, he was heading toward them, weaving his way through the tables with a graceful precision. Warren was not going to like the interruption.

“You want something?” Warren asked, before she could.

“I could use some more coffee.” Hunter directed his answer to her as though her ex had never spoken. “That is, if you can pull yourself away from your conversation.”

“Um…” She looked to Warren, gauging his reaction. After six years, she’d become an expert on reading his facial expressions. The telltale darkening of his eyes wasn’t good. On the other hand, she knew he preferred discretion, choosing to do his bullying in private.

“You heard the man. He needs fresh coffee,” Warren replied. “You don’t want to keep your customers waiting.”

Leaning forward, he placed a kiss on her cheek, a marking of territory, as much for her benefit as Hunter’s. Abby had to fight the urge to wipe the feel of his mouth from her skin. “I’ll see you later, babe.”

His promise made her stomach churn.
”Nice guy,” Hunter drawled from behind her shoulder.
”Yeah, he’s a real peach.”
She rubbed her aching wrist. What made her think she could walk away, and Warren wouldn’t try to track her down? Just because he told her repeatedly that she was a worthless piece of trash didn’t mean he was ready to give her up. Far as he was concerned, she was his property.
Warren’s car pulled away from the curb. He was gone, but not for good. He’d be back. Later today.

Tomorrow. A week from tomorrow. Ready to beg, scream, and try to drag her back home.
Oh, God, what if she wasn’t in a public place when he returned? Or if he decided to do more than beg and scream? There were all sorts of stories in the news….
Her breakfast started to rise in her throat. She grabbed the chair in front of her.

“You okay?” she heard Hunter ask.
”F-fine.” For the millionth time in six weeks, she pushed her nerves aside. Worrying would only mean Warren still had control. “I’m fine,” she repeated. “I’ll go get your coffee.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. “I’m good.”
”But you said…” She stopped as the meaning of what he’d done dawned on her. He’d interrupted on purpose.
”You’re welcome.” Hunter turned and headed for his usual table.
Abby didn’t know what to say. She should be grateful. After all, he’d just bailed her out of what could have become a very difficult situation. In all her years with Warren, no one had ever stepped up to help her before. On the other hand, she hadn’t asked for his help. He’d just assumed she needed it, as though she were a helpless little victim.

Aren’t you?

No. Not anymore. Despite what the situation looked like.

Oh, but she could just imagine what someone like the photographer thought, too. Her hand still shaking with nerves, she ran it through her hair before looking over at the back table. There sat Hunter, sipping the coffee he didn’t need refilling. With his faded field jacket and his aviator sunglasses perched atop his thick brown hair, he looked exactly the way you’d picture a photographer. If you were casting a movie, that is. One where the daredevil photojournalist dodged bullets to get the shot. To be honest, his whole outfit—faded jeans, faded henley—would seem silly on anyone who didn’t look like a movie star.

It didn’t look silly on the Hunter. He had the cheekbones and complexion to rival any actor in New York City. Might as well throw Los Angeles in there as well, Abby decided. The build, too. Whereas Warren was soft and doughy, Hunter was hard, his body defined by angles and contours. Small wonder Warren had backed off. Her ex might be a bully, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew when he was outclassed.

Too bad she couldn’t get Warren to back off so easily.

“Abby, order up!” Guy stuck his craggy head out of the order window and slapped the bell. “Get your butt in gear. You want to stand around, you can go find a street corner.”

As if this job was much better. She moved behind the counter to pick up the two plates of scrambled eggs and bacon Guy had shoved onto the shelf. “What about the home fries?”

Guy slapped a bowl of fried potatoes in front of her. “Next time, write it on the slip. And while you’re at it, tell your boyfriend if he wants to visit, he can order like everyone else. I’m not paying you to stand around talking.”

“He’s not my—never mind.” She grabbed the potatoes, wincing a little at the pressure the extra plate put on her sore wrist. No sense arguing a losing point.

“Ignore him.” Ellen, one of her fellow waitresses, said as she walked by. “He’s like a bear with a sore head this morning.”

What about the other mornings? “No change there then.” Abby went to serve her customers before Guy blew another gasket. Miserable as her boss might be, he was the only employer who’d been willing to hire an inexperienced waitress. Life with Warren hadn’t left her with too many marketable skills, unless you counted walking on eggshells and knowing how to read bad moods. This job was the only thing keeping her from complete destitution. Without it, she might actually end up standing on that street corner.
Halfway through her rounds topping up customers’ cups with fresh coffee, Abby felt the hair on the back of her neck began to rise. Someone was watching her. With more than the usual “trying to get the waitress’s attention” stare. Automatically, her head whipped to the front door. Empty.

She didn’t like being studied. In her experience, scrutiny led to one of three things: correction, punishment or a lecture. With a frown, she looked around the room until her eyes reached the back table where Hunter was sat. Sure enough, his attention was focused directly at her.

For the first time since she’d begun waiting on him, she took notice of his eyes. A weird hybrid of blue and gray, they looked almost like steel under the diner’s fluorescent lighting. She’d never seen eyes that color. Nor had she been looked at with such…approval wasn’t the right word. It definitely wasn’t the disapproval she was used to, either. She didn’t know what to call it. Whatever the name, it caused a somersault sensation in the pit of her stomach.

Finally noticing he had her attention, Hunter nodded and held up his bill.

Abby’s cheeks grew hot. Of course. Why else would he be looking for her other than to settle his bill? Warren’s visit had her brain turned backward. After all, it wasn’t as if she was the kind of woman who turned heads on a good day, let alone today. Her face was flushed and sweaty. And her hair? She’d given up trying with her hair hours ago.

She made a point of approaching his table on the fly, figuring she could grab his credit card and sweep on past. That way she could avoid any awkward conversation. Considering his intervention earlier, she doubted there could be any other kind.

Unfortunately, as soon as she reached for the plastic, his grip on the card tightened.
”Is there a problem?” she asked, when he wouldn’t let go.
”You tell me.” His eyes dropped to her wrist. To the bluish-red spots marked where Warren’s fingers had been.
Dammit. She’d hoped there wouldn’t be any evidence. Letting go of the credit card, Abby pulled the cuff of her sleeve down to her knuckles. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Do all your knishes look like eggs over easy?”
”What?” His question made no sense.
”The bill. Says I ordered blueberry knishes and rye toast.”

“Sorry. I gave you the bill from two tables over by mistake.”

“Again.”

“Again,” Abby repeated. That’s right; she’d made the same mistake with him yesterday. She wondered if she’d messed up any other tables. Guy would kill her if she did. Again.

“Happens when you’re distracted.”

“Or busy,” Abby countered, refusing to take the bait. She was trying to put Warren out of her head, and while she wasn’t having much luck, talking about him wouldn’t help.
Taking her order pad from her pocket, she flipped the pages. “Here’s yours,” she said, tearing out a new page. Eggs over easy, bacon and whole wheat toast. Same as every day. You want me to ring you up?” The sooner he settled his bill, the sooner he’d leave. Maybe then she could pretend the morning hadn’t happened.

“Please.”

Hunter noticed that this time when she reached for the card, she snatched it with her right hand, keeping her left still tucked inside her sweater. How hard did you have to squeeze someone’s wrist to leave a bruise, anyway? Pretty damn hard, he imagined. A man had to have some serious anger issues to grab a woman that tightly.

Sipping the last of his cold coffee, he watched Abby ring up his bill, the sleeve of her sweater stretched almost to her fingertips. A poor attempt at hiding the evidence.
He’d known the minute the guy walked in that he was a first-class jerk. The overly expensive leather jacket and hair plugs screamed needy self-importance. It took him by surprise, though, when the jerk approached Abby. If anyone could be considered jerkdom’s polar opposite, it was his waitress. Since his return stateside, Hunter had spent his meals at Guy’s trying to figure out what it was that had him sitting in the same section day after day. Certainly wasn’t the service, since Abby messed up his order on a regular basis.

Her looks? With her overly lean frame and angular features she wasn’t what you’d call conventionally pretty. She was, however, eye-catching. Her butterscotch-colored topknot had a mind of its own, always flopping in one direction or another, with more and more strands working their way loose as the day progressed. The color reminded him of Sicilian beaches, warm and golden. Luckily, Guy was lax about health code regulations. Be a shame to cover such a gorgeous color with an ugly hairnet.

She had fascinating eyes, too. Big brown eyes the size of dinner plates.

The bell over the front door rang. Hunter watched as she stiffened and cast a nervous look toward the entrance. Worried the jerk would return? Or that he wouldn’t? Could be either. For all Hunter knew, his butterscotch-haired waitress had a big old dark side and liked being manhandled. Nothing surprised him anymore.

Well, almost nothing. He’d managed to surprise himself this morning. Since when did he step into other people’s business?

A soft cough broke his thoughts. Looking up, he saw Abby standing there, coffeepot in her grip. Her right hand again. “Wrist sore?” he couldn’t help asking.

“No.” The answer came fast and defensively. “Why would it be?”
How about because she’d had the daylights squeezed out of it? “No reason.”

If she wasn’t interested in sharing, so be it. Wasn’t his business, anyway. “Can I have a pen? For the receipt.”

Her cheeks pinked slightly as she handed him the one from her pocket. Hunter scribbled his name and began gathering his belongings.

“Thank you.” The words reached him as he was hanging his camera strap around his neck. Spoken softly and with her back turned, they could have been for the thirty percent tip. Or not. He saved them both the embarrassment of responding.

Distracted didn’t begin to cover Abby’s mental state for the rest of the day. She spent her entire shift expecting Warren to tap her on the shoulder. By the time she finished work, she’d managed to mess up four more orders. Not all the customers were as forgiving as Hunter, either. Guy was ready to run her out the door.

“Make sure your head’s on straight tomorrow,” he groused when she clocked out.

She wanted to tell him that if her head had ever been on straight, she wouldn’t be working in a greasy spoon and dodging her ex. Common sense kept her mouth shut. No need to make a bad situation worse by adding unemployment to the mix.

To her great relief, she stepped out to an empty street to wait for her taxi. Thank goodness. How she hated being back to looking over her shoulder. After six weeks, she’d foolishly begun thinking her life might actually be her own again. Granted, it wasn’t the best of lives, but it was hers. Or rather, she’d thought so until Warren tracked her down. You’d think he’d be glad to be rid of her. Wasn’t he forever telling her how she made his life so difficult?

Letting out a breath, she leaned against the railing in front of Guy’s storefront. She hated taking a taxicab, too. Spending money earmarked for savings. It wasn’t that she was so afraid of Warren. Sure, he’d gotten physical a few times—more than a few times—but she could handle him.
Liar. Why are you taking a cab then? Just a few hours ago, she’d worried today might the day he’d go over the edge.
Breaking up with Warren was supposed to be her new beginning. The end of walking on eggshells.

Now she was stuck either leaving the one lousy job she could find, or praying that Warren had lost interest now that he’d tracked her down.

Angry tears rimmed her eyes. She sniffed them back. Warren wasn’t going to win. She wouldn’t let him.

Just then, movement caught the corner of her eye and she stiffened, hating herself even as she gripped the iron railing. Slowly, she pulled her thoughts back to her surroundings.

It was the photographer, coming down the street, camera slung around his neck. His sunglasses had migrated to his eyes, hiding their unique color. Didn’t matter. He was still looking in her direction, his attention causing her stomach to quiver with unwanted awareness.

“Everything okay?” he asked, as her taxi pulled up.

For crying out loud, couldn’t a woman buy a moment of privacy? As it was, he already knew more of her business than necessary.

She slid into the backseat without answering.

Hunter spent the next several hours shooting landmarks around the city, updating his portfolio of stock photos. By this point he had more than enough shots for his files, but the project kept him busy. Downtime and he weren’t good friends. Too much time off the job and he got antsy, a trait he’d inherited from his father. Inherited, or learned from watching. Either way, he hated being between jobs just as his father did. Only difference was Hunter didn’t have a teenage son in tow.

It was midafternoon when he returned to his apartment building. One of the things he liked about this particular piece of real estate was that his street was basically an alleyway, meaning it had less crowds and traffic than other parts of the city. This time of day, the traffic was particularly slow. Guy’s had closed, and rush hour had yet to begin.

As he rounded the corner from Seventy-Ninth Street, a familiar flash of butterscotch caught his eye. It was Abby, her angular frame bundled by a woolen coat. She was leaning against the diner’s stair rail, her face and attention a thousand miles away. Her topknot, he noticed, had transformed itself. What was left of the mass had fallen to the nape of her neck, while most of the strands had worked loose and were framing her face.

Hunter felt a stirring deep in his gut, the sensation he got whenever he found a special shot. In Abby’s case, the special element came from her posture. While she looked as exhausted as you’d expect a woman who’d spent eight hours on her feet would do, her shoulders and spine were ramrod straight. Pushing back against the weight of the world. Before she could notice his presence, he raised his camera and clicked off a half dozen frames. He managed to snap the last one as she turned, zooming in until her face filled the entire frame. That’s when he saw the unshed tears that turned her eyes into shining brown mirrors. Hunter wondered, as uploaded the shot, if he’d see himself reflected in them.

He sneaked one last photo and lowered the camera. Perfect timing, because she suddenly gripped the railing. She was still on edge from this morning, he realized. The reaction bothered him. He wasn’t used to women growing rigid in his presence.

“Everything all right?” he asked, just as a taxicab pulled up alongside her.
He didn’t expect an answer, and he wasn’t disappointed. She slipped into the backseat without a word. There was a padded shipping envelope propped atop his mailbox when Hunter finally entered his building—an advanced copy of a travel guide he’d shot earlier in the year. New Zealand, New Guinea; one of those places. He tossed the envelope, unopened, on his sofa. It landed with a puff of air, sending stray papers and a Chinese take-out menu sailing. Place had gone to pot since his assistant, Christina, had left to make her mediocre mark on the photography world. Not that she’d kept the place in great shape to begin with. She’d been far more interested in taking her photos than assisting him—a less than stellar characteristic in a photographer’s assistant.

At some point, he supposed, he should hire someone new and put this mess back in order. Unfortunately, like his last assistant, he was more interested in taking photos than in finding her replacement.

He thought about the pictures of Abby he’d just shot. He was eager to see how they’d turn out. If those eyes of hers were as riveting on paper as he suspected. When it came to photography, his instincts were rarely wrong. Then again, he’d learned through the lens of a master.

“No amount of raw talent can replace the perfect image,” his father used to tell him. Joseph Smith had spent his life chasing the perfect photograph. Hell, gave his life for the perfect shot. The rest of the world had to fall in line behind his work. A philosophy his son had learned the hard way how to embrace.

Sometimes, though, great images fell into your lap. Moving a pile of research books, he fired up the computer that doubled as his digital darkroom—one difference between his father’s brand of photography and his. Modern technology made the job faster and easier. No makeshift darkrooms set up in hotels. All Hunter needed was a laptop and a memory card.

Though he had to admit that, every once in a while, he missed the old way. There was a familiarity to the smell of chemicals. As a teenager, he’d come to think of the smells as the one constant amid continual change. There were nights when he still walked into hotel rooms expecting the aroma to greet him.

Maybe he should install a darkroom in the building. Might make the place feel less like a way station. Then again, building a darkroom was a lot like hiring an assistant. Nice in theory, but not as important as the photos themselves. Besides, nothing would make this apartment feel less like a way station— because that’s what it was. A place to sleep between assignments. No better than a hotel room, in reality. Less so, seeing how he actually spent more time in hotel rooms.

Thumbnail images lined his computer screen. He’d shot more than he realized, a luxury of digital photography. He scrolled down until he found the series he’d taken of Abby. Sure enough, her face loomed from the screen like a silent-movie actress. The emotions bearing down on her reached out beyond the flat surface. He could feel the weariness. The grit, too. Hunter could see the glint of steely resolve lurking in the depths of her big, sad eyes.

To his surprise, he felt the stirring of arousal. A testimony to the quality of the shot. Good photos should evoke physical responses.

Of course, he didn’t usually respond to his own work. He knew better than to get emotionally involved anymore. Start caring about the subject, and you set yourself up for problems. Images were illusory. The world on the other side of the lens wasn’t as welcoming as photos made it appear. On the other side of the camera was pain, disinterest, loneliness, death.

Better to stay at a distance, heart safely tucked away where the world couldn’t cause any damage. Of all the photography lessons his father had taught him, distance was the most important. Of course, at the time, he’d been too young to appreciate it, but eventually life had helped him to not just understand, but embrace the philosophy.

Yet for some reason, Hunter found himself being drawn in by a simple photo of a waitress. Seduced by the emotion he saw lurking in her eyes. So much simmering beneath the surface…

Only for a moment, though. He blinked and the distance he prided himself on returned. He was once again the observer, and Abby’s face merely another photograph. An intriguing, but ultimately meaningless, two-dimensional moment in time.

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