Her nipples tingled underneath her bra as if she had reached out to turn something on and received a static charge. It was an unexpected reaction, one she had never experienced before.
“You didn’t mind that she put you behind oatmeal cookies?”
The memory brought a shard of pain. She tried not to think of her mother anymore. The only reason she had mentioned her to Stump was that of her reaction to him holding her.
What few memories remained from her childhood had grown dimmer as the years had passed until she no longer knew if the ones that were left were true or imagined.
“No, I love them, too. I haven’t found anything to beat them either. Do you like oatmeal cookies?”
Stump took a break before going up the last floor, resting her butt on his thigh. “Not enough to think they are one of God’s finest creations.”
“You haven’t tasted one of mine.” She impishly grinned at him, unconsciously stroking the back of his neck. “I’m going to make you a batch for saving my life,” she promised.
“Usually when I save a woman’s life, they give me more than cookies,” he joked glibly.
Her eyes flew wide at the suggestive comment, mortified that she had to control the urge to keep from squirming on his thigh.
She hadn’t lived under a rock, so it wasn’t the first sexual innuendo she had heard or fielded, but it was the first time she found herself attracted to the person saying it. She was more used to men ignoring her when she was with her friends. Even when she went out alone, they would concentrate their efforts on the other females in the room before going to her as a last-ditch effort not to go home alone.
Zoey had no illusions about herself—her father had made sure of that. He had told her she was coyote ugly. When she had asked him what that meant, he had told her in graphic detail. As she grew older and away from her father’s influence, she had critically observed others when she went out. Plus, with her broadening experience as a life coach to many men who weren’t shy about confiding what they found attractive about women, she had come to the conclusion that she was a wallflower. She wasn’t pretty or ugly. She was just ordinary. She wasn’t pretty enough to stand out in a group of other women, nor ugly enough to make a man regret having sex with her enough to want to chew his arm off to escape.
“I don’t think you have any problem finding women to bake for you, whether you save their lives or not.”
“Penni and Grace been gossiping about me?” He tilted his head back as he sneered down at her.
“Actually, we don’t gossip,” she answered haughtily.
“Women were born to gossip, and men were born to fu—”
“You can’t control it, can you?”
He lifted her higher in his arms as they reached the landing of her floor. “What? Being a jerk?”
“You didn’t mind me being sexist when you asked me to carry your ass up these stairs.”
“That was my mistake.” She stopped moving her fingers along the back of his neck, upset at his attitude.
“Mine, too. I should have left you to crawl up the stairs instead of feeling sorry for you.”
His words were a painful reminder of the numerous occasions children would say that to her when they asked why she didn’t have a mother like them. Her father would use it to garner women’s sympathy. No matter how kind those women were to him, he would take advantage of her, regardless of the hole he would leave in their world when they discovered their bank accounts drained. As much as her father’s girlfriends and wives had grown to love her, Zoey experienced firsthand their feelings toward her evaporating each day when the true extent of his treachery was exposed. And it was always exposed. Each time they left a town and friends she had grown to love, it wasn’t without consequences. She had left a piece of her soul behind.
Zoey blinked back hurt tears. “Why do we always end up in an argument?” She couldn’t understand the animosity that kept arising every time they spent more than a couple of minutes together.
She tensed as he started to lower her feet to the floor, expecting him to jar her knee. She was shocked that, despite his obvious anger toward her, Stump lowered her gently, as a feather would land on a pillow.
“You want to know why?” He removed her hands that were still clasped around his neck.
“Yes! Is it the way I talk? The car I drive? My age? The way I look? I know I’m not pretty, I get the message loud and clear that you think I’m a kook, and you aren’t attracted to me, but could we please be civil until we no longer need to work together? Please… that’s all I’m asking.” Zoey didn’t care that she was making a fool of herself while giving the heartfelt plea. She genuinely wanted to get along with Stump.