Strictly Business

Strictly Business

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it off like a normal person would, I went out and deliberately got myself arrested.”
    She nodded. “I went for a little drive on the turnpike, at a little beyond the speed limit. In the end the charges were speeding, verbally assaulting an officer, and resisting arrest. The cop and I had a disagreement about whether I was doing ninety or ninety-five. It was a little too much for my potential lover to accept, and he avoided me after that. I think I knew he would. I panicked with the next man. Andthe next. By the third time, I realized exactly what I was doing. The trauma of finding out my husband was cheating on me, then going through that divorce, had ruined me for any other man. The possibility of another serious relationship terrifies me so much, I unconsciously do anything I can to scare the man off. For the past year I’ve kept my dating to a very casual minimum. Until you.”
    One important fact stood out from the things she’d told him. He grinned in male pride and said, “Jess, I hate to burst your bubble, but you don’t have that problem with me.”
    “You don’t understand!” she cried. “I’m doing it now! Are you going to want to make love again, knowing I’ll be miserable afterward? I won’t be able to help myself, Nick. Look at what I’ve done so far: I’ve hidden in bathrooms, acted like an idiot in front of everyone because of something Marty said, run away from a couple of lousy kisses—”
    “They were far from lousy, Jess.”
    She waved a hand. “You see? They were terrific and I insult you. I even quit my job over some stupid reason to provoke you. I won’t realize what I’m doing until I really do drive you away.”
    Nick just smiled.
    Jess awoke to bright sunlight. She uncurled from her cramped position on the empty sofa. She remembered bursting into fresh tears last night, and Nick gathering her in his arms to let her cry it out before she’d finally fallen asleep.
    And now he was gone.
    She climbed the stairs to the main bathroom. Themirror revealed her blotchy complexion and red-rimmed eyes. She decided that if nothing else would have scared Nick off, her face would.
    He had been so patient and kind last night, she thought. And she had been so … cruel. But their lovemaking had been more than physical relief of the tension between them. She had known that immediately, and had proceeded to annihilate the threads that were beginning to bind them together. If Nick’s absence was any indication, she had done the job all too well.
    But she didn’t feel a trace of relief inside her this time. There was only pain, pain at the way he had held her when she’d started crying again, pain that she had fallen asleep in his embrace and awakened to nothing. Only now was she realizing how much he had endeared himself to her.
    She knew she’d done the right thing. Nick wouldn’t want to involve himself with an emotionally crippled woman. And that was the last thing she wanted for him.
    She felt no better after her shower, only resigned. She put on her thick robe, took a deep breath, and went downstairs to make coffee.
    She had just turned on the coffee maker when her front door opened. She watched in shock as Nick stepped inside, took a key out of the lock, and shut the door behind him. He was carrying a large bag and had a newspaper tucked under his arm.
    “I thought you were going to sleep the morning away,” he said. He tossed the key chain onto the table by the door, as if he’d been doing it for the last ten years.
    “But … but …” she stammered, then blurted out, “You were gone!”
    “Just to get breakfast.” He grinned at her as he walked to the other side of the kitchen bar. He set the bag on it. “I borrowed your keys to get back into the house. Hope you didn’t miss them.”
    “Uh … no, I—”
    “Good.” He pulled a box out of the paper bag. “I got buns and coffee. I’m not surprised you missed me, but I wanted to go to this great bakery

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