His Kind of Perfection

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Kale Barlow wasn’t sure at exactly what moment it happened, but sometime in the past fifteen minutes—sometime between “This won’t take very long” and “Can you hold this wrench?”—the ground had shifted beneath his feet.

He reached for his beer and took a long, cool swig, gaining a second to refocus before he spoke. “You’re breaking up with me because I’ve gained a few pounds?”

Adele tossed her head, a habit holdover from when she’d had long hair. “It’s more than a few, Kale.” Her eyes flicked to the belly protruding over his cargo shorts, and her nose wrinkled in distaste. “I was reading this article this morning, and it hit a nerve, you know?” She held up the regional newspaper and tapped a spot with her finger. “It talks about how the attraction between two people’s got to be there, and if it’s not, then something’s wrong in the relationship.” She shrugged. “It made me realize it’s just not there anymore.”

“Oh, hell, Addy.” Kale grabbed the rag from his back pocket and swiped it down his sweaty face. “You put too much stock in those dime-store psychologists. As I recall, the attraction between us was fine last night.”

She rolled her eyes. “Mr. Fit’s not a ‘dime-store’ psychologist. He’s a fitness trainer, and he makes a lot of sense.”

Kale answered with an eye roll of his own. “That’s probably a syndicated column written by a guy in Manhattan whose sole purpose in life revolves around fitting into a thirty-two-inch waistband.”

“You just don’t get it, Kale.”

“Yeah, I do.” He rammed the rag back into his pocket and shifted his weight to lean against the pontoon boat whose motor was cutting out for no apparent reason. “You’re upset that my business went from being an eight-hour shift to a sixteen-hour shift when Memorial Day came around, and suddenly I don’t have time for long romantic walks along the beach.” He waved a hand toward the marina and the parking lot where seven more boats waited on their trailers for his attention. “But it’ll take four months of this to have anything extra to pay for that January cruise to the Bahamas you’ve got your heart set on.”

Adele crossed her arms defiantly across her chest. “The cruise was your idea. I suspect you think you’ll enjoy it because you won’t be required to do anything except stuff your face around the clock.”

Kale flinched inwardly at the direct hit. Napping in the sun in a chaise longue with a never-empty beer in his hand and a snack bar or full buffet always within reach was his idea of heaven on earth. But the first week of June had just been marked off the calendar, and the winter cruise reward seemed a long time off. Noticing he was fast losing the sunlight, he breathed a heavy sigh. “Just go on home and get over your mad, Addy. I’m busier than a cat covering up shit on a concrete walk, and I don’t have time for this tonight.”

His girlfriend’s face flushed deep red. “I’m tired, too, Kale. Tired of being with somebody who thinks of sex as a spectator sport…and he’s the spectator instead of the participant.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’m tired of you lying there while I do all the grunt work.” She tossed the newspaper at his feet and stalked off. “And don’t call me,” she threw over her shoulder. “We’re done.”

Kale finished his beer as he watched her leave. “Damn it!” He so didn’t need this right now. Taking out his frustration on the can, he crunched it into a ball and aimed a jump shot into the recycle bin. “Oof!” His feet made it only a few inches off the ground. Landing hard, he felt his insides shudder. The can fell two feet short of the goal.

His concentration was completely broken now, so he hefted the cover back on the boat motor, shoved the discarded newspaper into one of his deep pockets and lumbered slowly to the beer can. Yeah, he was a little short of breath when he got there, and okay, leaning over to pick up the can was more difficult than it should have been. But, with the new business he’d leased, he didn’t have time right now to think about diets or fixing relationships. He had too much going on. He’d finally found a place he’d wanted to buy and settle down in…and the woman to do it with. He just needed enough money for a down payment and an engagement ring.

Until five minutes ago, he’d assumed the money was the hard part. Sad fishermen with boats that wouldn’t run and hungry mouths to feed were cutting back on his prospective down-payment money in a big way.

And no kid should ever have to go to bed hungry.

Kale’s throat tightened with what felt like anger, but he swallowed the emotion and let it drop down into his stomach where it would be cushioned.

So now Addy was going to throw him away like a piece of trash? Like hell, she was. They’d been together for almost a year. Things were comfortable, just like they should be, and he wasn’t about to let her go.

In fact, his mind wouldn’t even drift to the topic of starting over again…with anything.

At twenty-nine, he was well beyond those years of constantly having to reinvent himself to try to fit into whatever community his dad’s fly-by-night ventures had moved them to.

Spectator sport, huh? That was a low blow.

True, he liked to take things slow and easy in bed. A lot of women would like it that way. Hell, when had Addy decided she didn’t like it that way?

He trudged out to the gas pumps and jotted down the figures on his pad one last time for the day. On his way through the door, he switched the lighted sign from green and Open to red and Closed, locking the dead bolt to secure the front of the building for the night; then he leaned over the counter and flipped the pump switch to Off.

“And so am I,” he announced to the empty store. Passing through the snacks section, he grabbed a bag of chips, an ice cream bar and two more beers from the cooler.

His apartment at the back of the marina was a welcomed sight, although he wished Addy were there. He passed up the couch they usually shared and plopped into the well-worn recliner and raised the footrest with a sigh. Not giving the ice cream time to melt, he gobbled it down first as he used the remote to channel surf. The program choice wouldn’t make much difference anyway—his mind was on Addy.

He wanted her there with him, damn it. Wanted things back the way they had been yesterday.

He pulled the newspaper from his pocket and glanced at the article—the ridiculous drivel that had convinced her she needed to break up. The entire thing was about mutual attraction. Nowhere did it talk about beauty being only skin-deep or the eye of the beholder stuff.

The more he read, the angrier he became. Who in the hell was this Mr. Fit? And what in the hell would ever make him—or anyone—think they could give advice to people whose personal circumstances they knew nothing about? People like the school psychologists or the guidance counselors from his childhood, or the nosy teachers and coaches at the schools he’d passed through—the ones who always tried to get him “involved”? What good would starting a sport or joining a club do? He’d never been there long enough to see a year from start to finish—usually, not even through training and a season.

The frustration of his youth bubbled to the surface, fueled by the fact that Addy wasn’t there to keep him company. He snatched up his laptop and typed in the email address the newspaper provided, shooting off a message that was short and sweet, but summed up precisely how he felt at the moment.

Dear Mr. Fit, Thanks for ruining my life.

With a grunt, he set the computer back on the table beside him and picked up a beer. When he popped the top, it spewed, the cold brew drenching his bare stomach where his shirt hung open.

He grabbed a tissue from the box beside him and dried off, noticing for the first time in a long time how much more room he took up in this chair.

Losing a few pounds couldn’t hurt, he supposed.

Especially if it meant getting Addy back and returning his world to normal.

He read the calorie count on the beer. One-hundred fifty? The new light beers only had around fifty-five. That would be an easy swap without much effort.

He flexed his biceps, satisfied to see the large bulge appear. A layer of fat might cover the muscle, but the muscle was definitely there.

The ground may have shifted beneath him, but he was a strong guy.

He would simply pull it back to where it belonged.

“How can I put this delicately, Bree?”

Langston Presley leaned far enough over the desk for Bree Rice to catch a whiff of the mouthwash he’d used after his coffee. His face stopped within inches of hers—a space that had, at one time, been very natural, but now felt very weird and much too close. “You’re fired!”

The puff of air from the E-sound punched Bree in the eye.

Made you blink! Her brother Gil’s favorite taunt from childhood scampered across her memory.

Bree clenched the towel that hung around her neck with both hands and jutted her chin forward defiantly. “Oh, come on, Lang. It’s not my fault Todd Howell is a self-centered, conceited, two-timing SOB.” She eyed him levelly. “How do you think I feel…coming back to the gym to work out after hours, and catching the guy I’m dating in one of the private showers with another woman? You want to blame me that he can’t keep his urges under control?”

“I’m not blaming you for his actions. I’m blaming you for your own lack of judgment.” If it were possible, Lang’s voice hardened even more. “You knew it was a bad idea to date a client, but I overlooked your indiscretion because of our history—”

That again. Bree bristled. “You overlooked it because the client happened to be the assistant football coach, and my dating him landed a huge contract with the high school athletic department—”

“Which runs out next week and won’t be renewed according to the phone call I just received,” Lang snapped.

“Oh.” Bree straightened as the shock of that bit of news stiffened her spine. The high school athletics was the gym’s largest account. Losing it was a major loss. “I’m sorry, Lang. It won’t happen again.”

She watched his jaw muscle twitch. “You’re right. It won’t happen again. At least, not with you. I meant what I said, Bree. You’re fired. I’m not sure what made us ever think this would work, but it’s time to admit it doesn’t. Time to call it quits…for good, this time.”

The ubiquitous it Lang referred to was their continued working relationship after their broken engagement. When Lang hired Bree as a personal trainer for his gym three years ago, the attraction had been immediate and undeniable. And when she’d broken the engagement, they’d vowed to make it work. She wanted to stay in western Kentucky where she’d grown up and where her family was, and Langston Presley’s gym in Paducah was the only one of its size in the area.

But since she’d started dating the football coach, things had been stickier. Lang had been pouty and withdrawn. More than once, he’d demanded to know what Todd had that he didn’t.

The question didn’t have an answer Bree knew how to give. There was just something about the attraction between her and Lang that had gone from sizzle to fizzle. He was a great-looking guy with a physique to kill for. But something between them was off.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, her mom would quote to her and her twin brother when they were kids.

She had no doubt somebody would view Lang as a treasure. She simply wasn’t that somebody.

Bree was too angry to feel panic at the moment, but what this would mean to her career hovered at the edge of her thoughts. She gave reason another go. “You’re making a hasty decision here. It’s never a good idea to make a decision when your emotions are running high.”

“Yeah.” Another flare of anger shot from Lang’s eyes. “If I’d learned that lesson three years ago, I might not be in this mess now.”

Bree’s hackles rose at the comment. If she didn’t leave soon, things were going to escalate into a shouting match just like they had last night with Todd. She hated when her emotions made her lose control—and she certainly didn’t need any more drama in her life. Tamping down her ire, she moved toward the door. “Okay. You’ve said enough. I’ll go pack my things.”

“I’ll take back the Mr. Fit column, but you’ll need to finish up with any questions or comments from this week’s article.”

Darn! The weekly article was one of Bree’s favorite parts of the job. Working out was therapeutic, and being a personal trainer made her feel she was helping people get their lives under control and on track. But available time set limits on how many people she could help. Writing the column always made her feel as if she was helping the masses.

Making the world a better place.

She jerked open Lang’s door and stepped through it, a symbol of the opportunity that had been jerked out of her hands and left behind.

Grabbing an empty equipment crate, she stomped to her office and made quick work of packing up the few personal items from her desk and her locker, fuming silently at the injustice of it all.

The Mr. Fit fan mail would help her leave this place in a good humor…or, at least, a better one, so she saved that task until the very end.

She pulled up the messages in the account, finding only three this week. That was a bit disappointing but seemed pretty much on par with the rest of the day.

The first two were kind thank-yous about her common-sense approach to love and her uplifting message. Just as she expected, she found herself smiling at the praise she’d garnered from simply laying out her philosophy.

The third one sent her day further south.

Dear Mr. Fit, Thanks for ruining my life.

Nothing else. No explanation. No signature. Just somebody looking to pin blame on someone else.

She peered at the email address—Kaleb@…— rolling her eyes at the stylistic spelling of Caleb, which obviously belonged to some overly dramatic kid who thought the world owed him something.

Well, it was time for Mr. Fit to let Mr. Kaleb-with-a-K know he needed to suck it up.

Dear Kaleb, she typed. You’re welcome.

She hit the button, sending the message—and this chapter of her life—on its way.

Stella Rice tried using a mother look on the riding mower—one of those facial expressions that withered the disobedience right out of the errant child on sight.

Click-click, the mower answered sullenly.

She slapped her hand to its seat in frustration and stomped off to the house to allow them both some time to cool down.