Nate looked down at his feet and rolled his shoulders. As his body gradually relaxed, he shook his head, his lips a thin line. No matter how good intentioned, his mom managed to push his buttons when she got on the topic of his love life. The problem was, she was right. It was high time he settled down, had that family he’d always wanted, little ones trailing after him, a wife waiting for him at home.
But the thought of what he could lose wound him up tighter than a Chihuahua in a crowd of strangers. Was it possible to care about a woman, live with her, have children with her, but be okay if life went south and he lost her? He couldn’t survive being dragged back down into the dark, black hole of grief he’d been living in the past few years.
When he looked up, his heart did a rapid rat-tat-tat. Well, well, well. What have we here? His cousin, Crystal, was walking toward him and at her side was one of the most drop-dead gorgeous women he’d ever seen. She was tall, with a mass of wavy platinum blonde hair tumbling around a face that was at once sweet and sexy. And talk about curves. Sensuous enough to make a man want to get down on his knees and beg her to notice him, yet sleek and classy like a high-price race horse. He shoved the anxiety he felt at being pressured about his love life back in the cubby where it belonged. Maybe today wasn’t going to suck after all.
When Crystal reached him, she gave him a quick, friendly hug, then stepped back and looked him up and down. “No obvious bruising, no blood, so it seems you escaped your mom relatively unscathed.”
Nate’s chuckle felt more like a piece of bread stuck in his throat than any humor at the situation. “You saw my mom?”
“Yes, and wisely kept my distance until she’d finished raking you over the coals. What did you do to piss her off this time?”
“She was chewing me out because I thwarted another one of her match-making attempts.” He did his best to keep his tone light, like this was no big deal, but the assessing look in the blonde’s crystal blue eyes told him he wasn’t fooling her. Empathy and understanding radiated off her like the rays of the sun. Not his usual type, but if she wasn’t looking for anything serious, he could see himself dating her and hopefully shift his mom’s focus off his relationship status.
When it appeared Crystal wasn’t going to add anything, the mystery woman discretely elbowed his cousin in the ribs. He knew it. Crystal wasn’t standing in front of him by accident. He buried the inward sigh and kept his face neutral except for his brows raised in question.
Her moment of hesitation passed and Crystal launched in to what she’d come to do. “Nate, have you met Lauren yet? She’s come to church with me a few times, but I haven’t seen you lately.”
“No, this summer’s been crazy. Animals need attention when they need it and could care less about my plans. Now that Sue Ann has gotten her license and joined the practice, things should ease up a bit and I can get out more.”
“In that case, Lauren Royall, meet Nate Kincaid.”
He stuck out his hand and felt a jolt of pure energy travel up his arm as he enfolded her soft, delicate hand in his. “Nice to meet you.”
Her voice was soft, soothing, with a drawl he couldn’t quite place. She looked him directly in the eye. This woman met life head on. Maybe dating her wouldn’t be such a good idea.
“Lauren moved here a few months ago to join a marriage and family counseling practice and hasn’t had time to meet many people,” Crystal said. “Why don’t you two find us a table and get acquainted while I grab food. I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving.” Nate reached out and pinched her ribs. “Don’t know where a little thing like you puts it all, but grab some for me while you’re at it.”
“You got it.”
Nate hooked his thumbs in his front pockets and watched his cousin bustle away. Huffing out a breath, he muttered, “Is there any female in this family who isn’t trying to hook me up?” Keeping his hands in his pockets he resisted the strange desire to go cave man and carry Lauren off somewhere. Instead, inclining his head toward the tables, he asked, “Should we find a place to sit?”
He felt her gaze on him and turned his head. The mischief dancing in her eyes made him feel alive and interested for the first time in a long time. Unease skittered across his scalp. He didn’t want to feel attraction.
“I can’t speak to Crystal’s intentions, but I spotted you as soon as we arrived and asked her to introduce us.”
“You did? Why?”
“You’re attractive.” She tilted her head and those lush lips formed a curious pout. “There’s something about you intrigues me. I want to find out what.” She shrugged. “I’ve made it a policy to let instinct guide me.”
“Isn’t that a bit risky? Acting without thinking it through?”
“Let me guess. You’re an analysis and reason guy?”
“Yeah. What’s wrong with that?” His body tightened and he stepped away. His tone sounded like a rusty hinge.
“Absolutely nothing. In fact I admire the trait. Sometimes wish I had a little more of it.” Her head bobbed side-to-side in a carefree way.
“I sense a ‘but’ at the end of your sentence.” He pulled out a chair for her at the long, folding table. Instead of sitting beside her, he moved to sit across from her. She made him skittish as a horse in a thunder storm, but an idea began percolating. He needed a fake girlfriend. She must be unattached or Crystal wouldn’t have introduced them. He’d think on that for a while. There was also something familiar about her, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“We can find ourselves facing difficult, painful, even frightening situations, whether we carefully plan our lives or fly by the seat of our pants. Life has a habit of throwing us curve balls.” She crossed her arms and lifted her shoulders. “The ‘going with my gut’ approach has worked for me, but it’s not for everyone.”
Somewhat mollified, he decided to switch topics. “Where did you move from?”
“Raleigh, North Carolina, where I went to college, but home is Charleston, South Carolina.”
“I thought I detected an accent. I like it. A different cadence than we’re used to around here.” He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Crystal said you’re a counselor. Does that mean you’re some kind of shrink or something?” Suspicion tightened his throat. Was his family sicking her on him to fix him?
He figured he’d stepped in it when she narrowed her eyes and with a quick movement shook the hair away from her face.
“Do you know how the term ‘shrink’ originated?”
He shrugged. “No, but I bet you’re going to tell me.” Yup, he’d hit a sore spot and a playful smile tugged at his lips. This playfulness was something else he hadn’t felt in a while.
“In the field’s infancy people used to think psychiatrists actually shrunk peoples’ minds and started comparing practitioners to the aboriginal tribes that shrunk heads. It was as though the process of addressing mental health issues was somehow mystical and at the same time – nefarious.”
“You don’t say.” Feisty —so unlike his fiancé’s unflappable demeanor. Sharon had been steady and he’d always known what she’d been thinking.
“I do say.” She rested her elbows on the table and propped her chin in her fists. She leveled a discerning gaze at him that made him want to squirm. “If people called you a ‘quack,’ how would you feel?”
A sharp pain stabbed him in the gut. “I wouldn’t like it. I worked hard to get the education and training I needed to be a vet and I’m proud of what I do. I’m guessing the same applies to you. So how do you describe what you do?”
“My job is to help clients develop strategies to address whatever is holding them back from being the person they want to be.”
“Basically, talking them down from the ledge?” Thoughtfully he ran his finger across his chin just below his lips and saw her eyes track the movement. She had to refocus before answering and a jolt of excitement made his breath catch.
“Sometimes the situation is critical and as you say, we talk them down.” She leaned back in her chair. “But the vast majority seek therapy because they realize something is missing in their lives, things could be better, they could be better—and they want better. My goal is to help them find it. Does that help explain what I do?”
“I think so. You help people who need someone to hold their hands, instead of sucking it up and moving on.”
“You don’t think too highly of my profession, do you?”
He shrugged. “I can’t imagine sitting around spilling my guts to a stranger.”
“So if you felt like something was missing in your life, but had no idea what it was or how to change, you wouldn’t want help trying to figure it out? You’d prefer to stay stuck?”He grunted in response and shifted in his chair. “Are you always so certain you know what’s best for other people?” She made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t like being reminded a big chunk of him was gone. He wanted the better she talked about but was he willing to risk getting it?