“I wouldn’t mind being stuck inside an RV with a beauty like you,” said a deep voice Claire recognized.
Mark Dole, brother to Nate, Jack, Luke and Katie. A man Claire knew too well. The Doles had been neighbors of Claire’s nearly all her life. Ever since they’d been kids, Mark and Claire had fought and played like brother and sister. One day, they’d be friends making sand castles and the next, they’d be slinging mud balls at one other. Two hot-tempered people who brought out the worst in each other.
Claire turned around. “Hi, Mark.”
He had the same slightly wavy hair, dark brown she remembered, with a hint of golden highlights, like some sun god. He was athletic, muscular but not bulky, and had been blessed with brilliant blue eyes that seemed to bore right through a girl. Mark Dole was the closest thing Mercy had to a Calvin Klein cover model. A man like him-gorgeous and full of pick-up lines-should come with a warning label.
“Claire! I didn’t know that was you. I thought-” She saw him cut off the sentence before he said something stupid such as he’d mistaken her for someone he stood a chance with.
That would never happen. Once, Claire’s best friend Jenny, who was dating Nate Dole, had thought it would be fun to double with Claire and Mark. The results had been disastrous. The boy who’d dipped her ponytail in blue tempera paint in third grade hadn’t become boyfriend material. They’d clashed on everything from the movie choice to the popcorn tub size. They’d ended up with their own buckets, sitting on the far flanks of Jenny and Nate.
“What are you doing here?” Claire asked.
“I’m signing up for the competition. I’m going to outlast all the other poor suckers and win this baby for myself.” He gave the hull a self-assured pat.
He was the epitome of all the men she’d vowed to avoid. Men full of sweet lines and sexy words, but lacking considerably in substance and permanence. Men who wouldn’t just break her heart-they’d feed the pieces to a shredder.
One of Claire’s close friends, Leanne Hartford, had learned that firsthand after dating Mark for two months, falling half in love with him, and then being unceremoniously dumped just before the senior prom. Claire had never forgotten-nor forgiven-Mark’s insensitive end to the relationship.
Claire forced herself not to gag. “Poor suckers?”
“Well, the other people who signed up. There’s probably only a few anyway.”
“Try closer to, like, a million.” She did her best to mimic the cheerleader. “Only the first twenty get on.” She pointed out the sign.
He blinked. “That many?”
“A contest like this is a major deal in Mercy. Plus, it’s a chance at a free ride out of small-town life. You’d have to be nuts not to gamble on it.” Claire had done more than take a chance, but she didn’t tell Mark.
He considered that a moment, then looked at her. Those cobalt eyes had probably made a lot of women’s hearts beat faster, but Claire was not impressed. Eyes were eyes, even if they were an almost electric color. “What about you?”
“My name’s already on the list.”
“Oh.” He nodded, then flicked a thumb at the RV. “So, you think you can outlast me?”
“I know I can.”
“Want to bet?”
“Sure. Twenty bucks says I win this thing.”
“Sounds fair.” He grinned. “I bet you’re out of there on the first day.”
She let out a chuff of disbelief. “You won’t last the first night. Remember, you’ll be sharing a bathroom and a mirror.”
He clutched his heart. “Oooh, that’s low. You wound me, Claire.”
Despite everything, Claire laughed. If there was one talent Mark had always had, it was the ability to make her laugh. “Hey, if those arrows work, I have a million more, baby.” She crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight into fighter stance. “I am going to outlast you, Mark Dole. And then I’m going to drive away from this town and leave you in my dust.”
“I think you’re the one who’ll be choking on my exhaust.” He raised an eyebrow and gave her a lopsided smile. “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”
“Neither do you. Never underestimate the stubbornness of a woman.” Especially a woman with virtually everything at stake. Claire spun on her heel and started to walk away.
“Claire! You’ve forgotten one thing,” Mark called.
She stopped, pivoted back. “What?”
He pointed at her, then himself. “You. Me. Locked together in there.” He gestured toward the RV and smirked. “It could get mighty hot.”
“Yeah, I’m feeling lukewarm already.”
He stepped closer. The woodsy scent of his cologne drifted between them. On any other man, it would have been sexy, tempting, but on Mark-
“We’re not teenagers anymore, you know,” he said, the deep timbres of his voice a reminder of how far along Mark was on the male development scale. “We’re all grown up, with very grown-up desires. Knowing how stubborn both of us are, we could be in there for a very long time. Aren’t you worried such tight quarters might ah…tempt you?”
She fanned her face à la Scarlett O’Hara. “Why Mr. Dole, I do declare, you are the most seductive thing I’ve ever seen. How will I ever keep my head on straight?”
“Cute. Very cute.” He stepped back. “We’ll see who’s the last one off the fun bus there.”
“I already know that answer. Me.” She took a step closer to him, pointing at his chest. “And remember, I don’t play fair.”
“Neither do I, Claire.” His smile reached his eyes. If she’d been any other woman, it might have made her pulse skitter. “This is going to be fun.”
From the smoldering look in his gaze, she knew he wasn’t talking about the kind of fun they’d had playing Twister when they were seven. Something in Claire’s gut coiled with heat.
Nothing a cold soda wouldn’t fix, she told herself, and walked away. Well, maybe two cold sodas.