oNCE BITTEN

HEATHER GUERRE

Jules was on her knees in the back corner of the store, restocking cans of baked beans when the bell over the door jingled. Stifling a sigh, she got up, wiped her dusty hands on her jeans, and made her way to the front counter. Over the rows of metal shelving, she spied a familiar shade of vividly red hair, and her stomach sank.

Fixing her expression into calm neutrality, she slid behind the counter. “Hi, what can I—”

“Oh. My. God. Juliana Wolfe?” A gorgeous, heart-faced, petite redhead, with a toddler on her hip and another bun in the oven, regarded Jules brightly from across the counter. Her hair was the perfect shade of deepest ruby. Her skin was smooth as cream, with gentle golden freckles dappled sweetly across the bridge of her nose. Her crystalline blue eyes glowed like sapphires held up against sunlight. Those eyes were wide as saucers as they took Jules in—rumpled hair, dusty apron, deep under-eye circles, and all. 

“Oh, wow,” Jules infused her voice was false cheer. “Alicia Fischer? It’s been so long!”

Alicia Fischer had been Jules’s nemesis in high school. Nothing extreme, nothing traumatic. Just run-of-the-mill mean girl shit. But seeing Alicia like this, in the face of all Jules’s recent failures, was a gut-punch she really didn’t need.

“Well, it’s Alicia Schuh now, actually.” She gave a twinkling smile as she held her left hand out for Jules to see the glittering diamond on her finger. “Going on three years now.”

Jules glanced at the toddler on Alicia’s hip, mentally calculating the kid’s age. The gingery-blonde child stared back with Alicia’s same blue eyes. “Oh. That’s—uh. Congratulations!” she fumbled awkwardly for words. She wasn’t good at small talk at the best of times, and these were far from the best. Eric Schuh had been Jules’s all-consuming, and very unrequited, teenage crush. She’d honestly forgotten he even existed until just now, but hearing that Alicia had been the one to lock him down was just another shovelful on top of a heap of shit.

“So…” Alicia leaned on the counter, giving Jules a we’re all friends here smile. “What have you been up to? You left town, what—ten years ago? And now, all of a sudden, you’re back?”

Jules fixed her expression into one of unbothered serenity. She reached for the mental script she’d spent the last week perfecting. “Oh, yeah, you know. Went to college. Did the big city thing for a while. Got married.” She held up her bare left hand. “Got divorced.”

Alicia’s eyes glittered with prurient interest even as she forced her expression into one of sympathy. “Oh no, I’m so sorry to hear that! I can’t imagine! Eric’s just so important to me, and our children are just… everything.” She laid a protective hand over her pregnant belly, shaking her head sadly. “I could never do it. It must’ve been terrible.”

It was. “Oh. No. Just one of those things. We got married pretty young, and then time passed and we realized we’d grown into different people.” She shrugged as if she weren’t being crushed by the suffocating darkness that accompanied thoughts of her failed marriage and her ex-husband. “It was for the best.”

Alicia nodded as if she were taking that all in, but Jules could see a thousand more questions racing behind those pale, glittering eyes. “And now you’re… working at your grandma’s store?” she asked, wincing sympathetically, her tone cautious as if they were handling a delicate subject.

Apparently once a mean girl, always a mean girl. Jules didn’t miss the implied insult. She was a thirty-year-old divorcee working as a cashier at a backwoods mini mart. It was a delicate subject, though Alicia had no idea how delicate, or why. 

Jules had dropped out of college to get married and follow her then-husband to the west coast, where she’d spent the ensuing decade trying to be the perfect housewife. So, she had no degree and no work experience, which had made finding work post-divorce impossible. When she was being honest with herself, she knew, despite her discontent, that she was incredibly lucky that she had a family member who owned a business and needed help. When she had been trying to find work in Seattle right after the divorce, there wasn’t a single hiring manager out there who wanted her unemployed ass—at least, not for the cost of a living wage.

So here she was, back in rural northern Wisconsin, living with her grandmother, working the same job she’d had in high school, with nothing to show for the last twelve years of her life except for her age.

“I’m just taking a breather while I figure things out,” Jules said, putting the most positive possible spin on I have no fucking clue what to do with myself and had nowhere else to go. “And my grandma’s getting older, so I’ve been helping her manage things here.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet,” Alicia cooed brightly. “How long are you staying?”

Jules shrugged. It was hard to see past the dark cloud of her marriage, but even aside from that, she hadn’t really liked living in a big city like Seattle. And while she wasn’t thrilled to be in her current situation, a part of her had desperately missed the quiet beauty of the forests and lakes where she’d grown up.

“Not sure,” she answered, as if unbothered by the uncertainty of her future. “I’m just playing it by ear.”

Alicia gave her another sympathetic look.

“Mama,” the toddler said, wriggling impatiently. “I want juice!”

Alicia smiled indulgently. “Hold your horses, Miss Rudie-Pants. How do you ask?”

Pleeeeeease.

“Alright.” She set the girl down on the floor. “Go get one juice. And get Mama’s iced coffee, okay?”

“Okay, Mama.”

Jules frowned as she watched the little girl amble off—a kid that young was a walking hazard. To have her pulling bottled drinks out of the cases, possibly from above her head, was asking for an accident. She glanced at Alicia, uncertain if she should say something, but Alicia’s interrogation was not about to be derailed.

“So, you were married. Any kids?”

Jules’s heart clenched. “Ah, no. No. That didn’t happen for us.” 

In hindsight, she was wildly relieved. If she’d had kids with Nathan, she might never have gotten away. But during her marriage, it had felt like a moral failing on her part, even though fertility doctors had determined that the problem was on Nathan’s end. It wasn’t like he’d had no viable sperm. So the fact that Jules’s apparently fully-functional set-up couldn’t make it work with his few useful swimmers had seemed like her problem. Nathan had certainly seen it that way. He’d constantly questioned her about whether she was secretly using birth control, if she was eating the fertility-boosting foods she was supposed to, if she was drinking the fertility tea, if she was tracking her period correctly…

It wasn’t until after the marriage ended, and Jules realized how utterly miserable she’d been, that she wondered if maybe her body had somehow been protecting her—refusing to carry the child of a man who would only make them all miserable. It didn’t work that way, obviously, but it was a thought that gave her small comfort. Even during the worst of it, when she blamed herself the most, when she’d twisted herself into knots trying and failing to be who he wanted, when she’d become a shadow of her self in service to her husband’s happiness—at least a small part of her had known it was wrong. 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Alicia said with too much sympathy. “That’s too bad. I can’t imagine life without my kids.” Her hand went to her stomach again.

Before Jules could think of a response to that, the door jangled and in stepped another unwelcome blast from the past. Eric Schuh. In high school, he’d been a tall, blond, fit Adonis. He was still tall and blond, but he wasn’t a high school athlete any more, and it showed. Even so, he was still ridiculously handsome, with a square jaw and broad shoulders and a thick head of wheat-blond hair. Jules felt her cheeks heating purely from the memory of the intensity of her old crush.

“Oh, hey! Jules, uh… Wolfe, right?”

“Well, is it still Wolfe?” Alicia cut in quickly. In a low voice, she told Eric, “She just got divorced.”

“No, it’s still Wolfe. I never took my ex-husband’s name.” Before getting married, she’d told Nathan that she didn’t see why she had to change her entire identity, just because she’d fallen in love. The irony of that nineteen-year-old girl’s naive proclamation still made her cringe. Nathan had indulgently agreed with her keeping her last name, as long as their kids had his last name. In the end, Jules was still a Wolfe, but she had changed her entire identity for love. Or what she’d thought was love.

“Really?” Alicia was appalled. “You didn’t want to have the same name as your husband and kids?”

“Well I don’t have a husband or kids, so it’s kind of a moot point,” Jules said, an edge of frazzled anger sneaking into her tone.

“Babe,” Eric chided his wife gently.

Alicia huffed, but pressed her lips together, saying no more.

Jules’s former crush was defending her from his wife, who’d been a bitch to her in high school, and was apparently still at least a little bit of a bitch. And Jules just had to stand there, waiting to ring them up, in her dirty apron and dusty hands and her exhausted, unloved body.

“Anyway, looks like you’ve got gas at pump two?” she said briskly, bringing it up on the cash register. “Anything else?”

“Daddy!” their daughter’s voice crowed through the store. She came running over, a bottle of grape juice clutched in her arms. “I got juice!”

“I see that, pumpkin.” He scooped his daughter up, making her giggle and squeal, and helped her put the juice on the counter in front of Jules.

“You didn’t get Mama’s coffee?” Alicia asked, feigning affront.

“Tell Mama she drinks too much caffeine,” Eric stage-whispered to his daughter.

“Tell Daddy he doesn’t want to see what Mama’s like without her caffeine,” Alicia shot back playfully, turning on her heel to get her drink.

Jules watched the whole exchange, feeling like a weird voyeur. While they waited for Alicia to get her drink, Eric smiled awkwardly at her and she smiled just as awkwardly back.

“So, Jules, how’s life been?” he asked politely.

Not this again. “It’s had its ups and downs,” she said vaguely, swiping the juice beneath the scanner.

Mercifully, Alicia returned quickly, setting a bottle of iced coffee on the counter. Jules scanned it.

“Well,” Alicia said with heavy feeling as Eric put his card in the reader. “I’m so sorry about everything you’re going through.” That faux sympathy had been the same in high school—except her digs had been a little more artless back then. It must be so weird to be that tall. Like, you’re taller than a lot of guys are. Doesn’t that feel weird? And, You’re so confident, getting a haircut like that. I’d be too embarrassed. And, Whoa, you don’t shave your legs every day? Good for you, girl!

“I’m really fine,” Jules said as breezily as she could.

“You say that, but it’s got to be so tough—”

The door jingled again as somebody new stepped in. Jules wanted to fall to her knees and thank the heavens for this divine intervention, but as soon as she caught sight of the newcomer, her whole body went on red alert.

He was definitely not from around here. She’d have remembered somebody like him. He was tall and broad, with warm, tan skin and short, raven-black hair. A thick scruff covered his strong jaw—too dense to be stubble, not quite long enough to be a beard. Straight black eyebrows glowered over hazel-gold eyes that gleamed like a falcon’s. His features were boldly rendered, and alarmingly beautiful in a rough-hewn, rugged kind of a way. Like lightning and thunder—awe-inspiring, but dangerous.

As he caught sight of Jules, he went as still as a hunting cat, his whole body tensing, his gaze locked on her. His golden eyes widened, thick brows drawing together. 

You,” he said hoarsely, staring at her as if she were a ghost.