Strawberry Valley, Oklahoma
Drive Slow and See Our City, Drive Fast and See Our Jail
Brook Lynn DiLLon was not a fan of mornings. Or afternoons. Or evenings. When a girl reached a certain level of exhaustion, every time of day sucked.
She’d bypassed that certain level, oh, about seven years ago when, at the tender age of eighteen, she’d begun working at Rhinestone Cowgirl. Despite what every tourist passing through town assumed, the RC wasn’t a strip club, thank you very much, but an up-and-coming jewelry store.
Her five-hour shift always kicked off at the butt crack of dawn, or as her mom used to say, before the rooster crows. Afterward she had sixty short minutes for a little R and R—the Reading and Reviewing of any new past-due notices—before working a ten-hour shift at Two Farms, the only “fine dining experience” within a fifty-mile radius. The description came directly from the owner, never mind that his idea of fine dining was using shiitake mushrooms in the beef Stroganoff instead of regular ones.
Today wouldn’t have been so bad if her sister had completed her own shift at Two Farms, but halfway to the finish line, Jessie Kay had taken off without saying goodbye, and Brook Lynn was forced to take over her tables to save both their jobs. At least her sister left a note in her locker.
Don’t stay in tonight. Go out and get drunk. Or, you know, at least pretend to be drunk. Your prudish ways are ruining our good name! XO JK
Brook Lynn had never hustled so hard for less reward. Her back and feet ached, and she wanted to go home and fall into some sort of coma even more than she wanted to win this week’s lottery. Fifteen million and counting!
But here she was. Her best friend, Kenna, had called to tell her Jessie Kay had taken her own advice and got- ten trashed, partying hard at the Glass house, acting as if the male attendees were going to die if she didn’t give them a little mouth to mouth.
When Jessie Kay had a few too many “party favors,” she became very...popular. A good-time girl. Brook Lynn, Miss Responsible, had never been a good-time anything. Too many worries balanced on her shoulders.
Tonight’s worry? Tomorrow’s possible front-page headline of the Strawberry Daily: Former Beauty Queen Turned Slacker Fails to Control Her Whoremones— Again.
Not on my watch!
Brook Lynn stepped out of her car, a one-wheel-in-the-grave beater she’d named Rusty. Like a vacuum, her pores opened up and sucked the stiflingly hot air straight into her body, and not even the sweet, addictive scent of wild strawberries and magnolias made it better. She wiped a sudden sheen of sweat from her brow and marched up the dilapidated porch steps, her gaze sweeping over one of the largest homes in the parish.
A hundred-year-old farmhouse in need of brand-new everything. White paint had chipped away, revealing rotten siding. Multiple wood slats had come loose, and the seal on several of the windows had broken, allowing moisture to pool between the panels.
Not altogether beautiful, but the fifty-two-acre spread had come with a greenhouse, a small dairy, two barns, a work shed, vegetable gardens and wild strawberry patches, all surrounded by hand-set stone walls.
Harlow Glass recently lost her family’s sprawling estate, and Lincoln West, a newcomer in town, had snapped it up. He was obviously more tech savvy than manual laborish, considering he’d done no actual work that Brook Lynn could see. Which made sense, she supposed. He’d just moved from Oklahoma City to enjoy good ole country living in Strawberry Valley, and it was common knowledge that big, bad city boys spent the bulk of their time sleeping around, coiffing their hair and posting pictures of food on the internet.
Brook Lynn had interacted with the guy on more than one occasion, and shockingly enough, she’d come to admire his dry wit and puffed-up ego. He loved to brag about his own magnificence, but the hint of humor in his tone always saved him from falling over the edge into obnoxious.
Have you ever seen a body this perfect? No. And you never will, Brook Lynn. The good Lord has an A game, and I’m proof.
For a guy who spent all day behind a computer, he certainly was buff. And because she hadn’t seen a body as perfect as his, she hadn’t been able to rebuke him. But then, she had yet to meet his two roommates. Maybe they were hotter.
Problem was, West’s friends kept to themselves. Not once had she seen them in town. Of course, that hadn’t stopped Jessie Kay, who had a habit of looking for love in all the wrong places. She had not only met the two other newcomers to Strawberry Valley—she’d also al- ready slept with one. Beck...something. Gossip claimed he was a player of players and had totally worked his way through the over-twenty-and-under-forty female population in the city before moving here, looking for fresh lady meat.
The other guy... Jase was his name, she thought. Less was known about him. To her knowledge, he hadn’t hooked up with a Strawberry Valley resident, though there had been a sighting or two and plenty of interest. Older women whispered he was “hunkalicious” while younger girls giggled nervously behind trembling hands.
A cacophony of voices seeped through the cracks around the front door. Brook Lynn wiped the dust from the upper panel of glass and peeked inside...and oh... crap. She hadn’t expected so many guests. At least thirty people congregated in the living room, drinking beer, talking and laughing, and there were indications of others in the hallway and kitchen. Most were in their mid-to-late twenties, so Jessie Kay had gone to school with them—and the rumor mill about her actions this evening had likely already started spinning. These people wouldn’t turn a blind eye to the fight to come, either.
And there would be a sister-versus-sister fight. Jessie Kay always resisted her own rescue.
Brook Lynn reached up and switched her inner ear implants to silent. The devices were a couple of years old but still deemed experimental, used to treat cases of hyperacusis as severe as hers—hearing everyday noises at such a blaring volume, it sometimes felt as if acid had been poured inside her ears. They allowed her to experience a sublime state of deafness whenever she desired. Which she did. Often.
Without bothering to knock, she stepped inside the house. Through a thick haze of cigar smoke, she saw the home’s interior hadn’t had any work done, either, and was in even more desperate need of refurbishment. Wallpaper had yellowed with age and peeled at the corners. The white shag carpet was stained and threadbare in places. In complete contrast, the furniture scattered throughout looked brand-new, flawless.
Finding no sign of Jessie Kay, she moved deeper into the house, reading lips along the way. A skill she’d honed over the years.
“—would never have guessed he was such a citidiot,” the recently divorced Charlene Burns was saying. “But after tonight’s antics?”
Citidiot. She had to be talking about West or one of his friends. They were the only city boys to move here in forever.
“I know!” Tawny Ferguson replied with a nod. “It’s so, so sad.”
“Can we really blame him, though? Smog probably putrefied already damaged brain cells. But Jessie Kay? That girl has no excuse. Trying to steal my Beck before throwing herself at Jase was such a slutty— Oh, hey, Brook Lynn.” Charlene flashed a faux-bright smile and even managed an enthusiastic wave.
Brook Lynn held up her index finger and said, “One.”
Both girls darted away as fast as their feet would carry them.
Over the years, Brook Lynn’s count of three had served her very well. The only warning anyone received before her “viper’s tongue” was unleashed. It was known for drawing blood and leaving internal injuries few could survive, all because she’d flayed Jessie Kay’s ex-boyfriend with a verbal tongue-lashing. Once! But that’s all it had taken. A legend had been born, and that legend had only grown—without any real help from her. Nowadays most folks would rather have their nose and mouth stapled shut—after being waterboarded— than clash with her.
A tap on her shoulder sent her wheeling around. “Kenna,” she exclaimed, happy to see her friend.
The lovely redhead greeted her with a much-needed hug. “I lost track of Jessie Kay, but I guarantee West knows where she is. That boy has his head on a swivel. Come on.”
Brook Lynn followed close behind and wished, not for the first time, that they could just pack up and run away together, leaving the rest of the world behind. But Kenna had a six-year-old daughter to think about. Not to mention a smoking-hot fiancé. And Brook Lynn, well, she had Jessie Kay, who would self-destruct without her.
Well, self-destruct faster.
Kenna led her through an overcrowded game room, where people hovered around a massive, elaborately carved pool table set in the frame of an old car, but no one actually played the game. Probably because a plastic sign hung from an aged chandelier, right over the center of the felt. Touch And Regret.
Another door led to a spacious kitchen. Though the walls were atrocious with an even uglier, darker yellow paper, the appliances were stainless steel and clearly fresh from the factory, the counters a lovely cream-and-rose marble. Someone had done some work in here, and her heart pinged with envy. My dream kitchen in progress.
Kenna stopped and waved her arm toward the sink... where Brook Lynn spotted West. He was in the middle of a conversation with a man she’d never met.
“I’ve got this,” she told her friend.
Kenna cupped her cheeks in an effort to gain her full attention. “You sure?”
“Very. Go back to Dane before he starts hunting for you.” Dane Michaelson, once the most sought-after bachelor in town, was now the reason Kenna breathed.
“I happen to like when he hunts me.” Kenna wiggled her brows. “Think Animal Planet goes wild.”
“You make me sick. You know that, right?”
“Don’t be jelly. Your time is coming.” Kenna kissed her forehead before taking off.
Brook Lynn’s time wasn’t even close to coming. She had zero prospects. And with that depressing thought, she focused on her quarry. As usual, the sight of West arrested her, even in profile. Not because she was attracted to him—she wasn’t—but because, on top of that ultrafine body he liked to boast about, he had a face worthy of decorating the most beloved romance-novel cover. With his shaggy dark hair and piercing, soulful eyes, every unattached female in town was ready to throw herself at him—and many already had. But though he was nice, even charming and supersmart, he could have been standing in a full swatch of sunlight, and darkness still would have clung to him.
She did not need another fixer-upper in her life, and there was no question the guy would require work.
According to Kenna, whose fiancé had the inside tract, West allowed himself to date one woman per year, for two months. No more, no less. When the clock zeroed out, he dumped the poor, dear thing for some reason or other that sounded purely made up and never spoke to her again.
How crazy was that?
The guy with West was just as spectacular in appearance, maybe more so. Masculine and muscular, yet almost pretty. His eyes were a perfect honey gold, though his hair couldn’t decide between blond and brown. Not that it mattered. The different colors blended together in beautiful harmony. Even his eyelashes started out black before curling into golden tips.
Brook Lynn read their lips to the best of her ability, considering they weren’t looking directly at her and she didn’t know their speech patterns, picking up snippets of their conversation and filling in the rest.
“It’s only been six months,” Honey-gold said.
“Yes, and I want him to survive the next six,” West said. “This is going to cause problems.”
“Not with me.” West glared at his friend. “What? What’d I say that’s so bad?”
“The fact that you don’t know makes it worse.”
West and Dane were working on some kind of project together, which meant Kenna, who was never far from Dane’s side, and Brook Lynn, who spent what little free time she had with her best friend, had interacted with him more than anyone else in town. A few days ago, she’d asked him flat out why a guy who so obviously enjoyed the fast-paced city lifestyle had moved here—other than it being the greatest place on earth, of course. He’d merely turned on the charm, saying, “Why, to make all your dreams come true. You’re welcome.”
And now she had to try to get straight answers out of him. Peachy.
Determined, she walked over and tapped West on the shoulder.
He focused on her, a rebuke clearly poised at the edge of his tongue. When her identity clicked, he switched gears and grinned in welcome. “Well, well. If it isn’t the girl I want by my side if ever zombies attack.”
“When they attack,” she corrected. It was only a matter of time. And yes, she was one of those people. A believer. “Where’s Jessie Kay?”
The two men shared a look before Honey-gold took her hand and kissed her knuckles. “Hello, beautiful. I’m Beck, and if you’ll give me thirty minutes of your time, I’ll make you forget your friend and most assuredly your name.”
Ah. The infamous Beck. Number two of the bachelors three. “Jessie Kay is my older sister, so I won’t be forgetting her, I promise you. But if you seriously possess the skill to make me forget my name, I swear I’ll find a way to marry you. Still interested in a hookup?”
Something akin to panic flashed over his features, though he managed to mask it quickly. “Forever with a beauty like you?” he said in the same easy tone. “You’re only whetting my appetite, darling.”
Women fall for that? Really? She focused on West— before she gave in to the temptation to teach Beck a lesson he’d never forget. “Where is she?”
West pushed out a breath. “You sure you want to know?”
She dropped her chin to her chest, her gaze staying on him and narrowing. “This conversation is fixing to start annoying me.”
Beck chuckled. “Fixing to start?” “Something they love to say here. Just go with it.”
West frowned and said to Brook Lynn, “You do realize I’ll be breaking all kinds of bro-code rules if I tell you.”
“Better you break the rules than I break your face.”
“Fair enough.” Looking suddenly and inexplicably irate, he said, “She’s in Jase’s bedroom.”
Jase, their other friend? Jessie Kay had turned her sights from Beck to him? Meaning Charlene Burns hadn’t been blowing smoke. Great! “Where is Jase’s bedroom?”
“Third door on the right.” West did her a favor and even pointed.
Beck slugged him in the arm. “Dude. What if they’re still busy?”
Busy? As in exactly what she suspected?
A tightness came over West’s features but he shrugged. “Her corneas will burn, but they’ll heal.”
“Dude,” Beck said again. “There is such a thing as privacy.”
Leaving the pair to their man-fit, she stalked out of the kitchen and down a hallway. The couples who’d migrated this way were pressed against the walls, making out, so no one noticed her. She came to the correct door and prepared to knock, announcing her presence... only to hesitate. If Jessie Kay was totally tee-rashed, the guy was taking advantage of her, and if Brook Lynn gave him any warning, he would stop whatever crime he was committing and hide the evidence. He needed to be caught red-handed.
Then again, if she walked in and interrupted two consenting adults while they were getting “busy,” her corneas would indeed be burned.
What was more important? Her sister or her eyes? Okay, then. Decision made. Brook Lynn turned the knob. Or would have, if it hadn’t held steady. Dang it! Locked out.
Well, too bad for Mr. Hand-in-the-Cookie-Jar. A lock wasn’t actually a problem for her. Brook Lynn’s con man of an uncle had taught her how to pick anything with a tumbler. And hustle at pool. And cheat at poker. He’d actually taken her allowance every time she’d lost during a “practice” session.
She backtracked, avoiding the kitchen, and soon came to an office with a Keep Out sign posted on the door. Please. After confiscating two paper clips from the top drawer of the desk, she returned to the bedroom door. A quick insertion and twist...yes!...and she was able to push her way inside.
The lights were on. A man stood at the far edge of the bed, pulling a black T-shirt over his head and oh... wow...wow. She caught a delectable glimpse of olive skin and a delicious eight pack that could only be made from adamantium. A maze of intriguing tattoos she would have liked to study in-depth decorated much of his chest, but unfortunately the material covered him a second later, hiding the visual feast of sexy.
One thing became very clear very fast. West and his supposed most perfect perfection could suck it. There was a new and even juicier slice of beefcake in town.
Beefcake paused when he noticed her, snaring her with the most intense green eyes she’d ever seen, making her shiver. Why? Those were not bedroom eyes; they were far too cold for that. They were frosty, practically arctic...but they were also an invitation to do whatever proved necessary to warm the guy up.
She watched as those beautiful, sensual eyes narrowed.
Mortified to be caught staring, she cleared her throat. “Are you Jase?”
He gave a clipped nod. “I am.”
Only two words, and yet she had trouble tracking the motion of his lips. They’d thinned with displeasure, his tone probably stilted and stinging.
“Who are you?” His gaze swept over her as he ran a hand through his dark hair. The strands stuck out in spikes. “How’d you get in here?”
Never admit to your crimes. Uncle Kurt’s voice reverberated through her head.
Never follow your uncle’s advice, baby girl. And there was her beloved father, just before he’d died.
Never forget lies are poison. Her cherished mother. All three, now gone. A pang in her chest.
“Maybe you forgot to lock the door?” she suggested. It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t an admission, either.
“Maybe I didn’t.” His lips were thinning again.
She shrugged. “Faulty lock? Who’s to know?”
He arched a brow. “Did you come here hoping to be spanked?”
Her heart rate kicked into overdrive, the organ pounding against her ribs, as if she’d just been shot up with enough adrenaline to revive a dead horse. “No, I didn’t, but you’re certainly welcome to try—if you want to have your balls surgically removed from your throat.” Had threats of bodily harm replaced proper meet-and-greets, and she just hadn’t gotten the memo?
“What do you want?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Was he trying to intimidate her? She studied him more intensely—and got caught up in his appeal. He wasn’t classically handsome, but then, he didn’t need to be. His features were rugged, total male, with a nose slightly out of alignment and a square jaw dusted with inky stubble, leading to a tattooed neck. Two necklaces hung just over his sternum, one an oval, one a cross. He had wide shoulders, leather cuffs anchored around his wrists and silver rings on several fingers.
He wore jeans that weren’t fastened and combat boots that weren’t tied. Clearly he’d dressed in a hurry. And he could be talking to her right now, but deaf as she currently was, she wouldn’t know it. She returned her attention to his mouth. Once again it was a hard slash.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “I need you to repeat that.”
He frowned. “Who are you?”
“Brook Lynn Dillon. I’m looking for my sister, and I was told—” Movement atop the bed drew her gaze. “She’s in here with you,” she finished. If Jase said anything else, she didn’t know and didn’t care anymore. She approached the bed.
The person beneath the covers stretched before sitting up, pale, shoulder-length hair falling into place around a sleep-soft face Brook Lynn recognized all too well. Relief blended with an irritation she didn’t understand as her sister blinked over at her.
Jessie Kay’s lips were moist and red as she clutched a sheet to her naked chest. “Brook Lynn? What are you doing in here?”
She wasn’t wasted, as Brook Lynn had feared, but she was clearly exhausted—from too much pleasure. The irritation spread and spiked.
“What do you think I’m doing?” she demanded.
“Well, the first thing that pops into my head is— annoying the crap out of me.”
A typical Jessie Kay response. “Just get dressed,” Brook Lynn said. “Let’s go home.”
“No way. You go.” Her sister settled more comfort- ably against the pillows.
“I’m good right where I am.” “Too bad. It’s late, and we have to work tomorrow.”
“Actually, you have work. I’m calling in sick.”
“No, you are not sticking me with a double two days in a row,” Brook Lynn said. “I’ll tell Mr. Calbert the truth. You know I will.”
Jessie Kay shrugged, unconcerned.
How are we related? “I’m very close to losing my temper with you.” Brook Lynn had only three goals in life: save money, buy Rhinestone Cowgirl and turn her sister into a viable human being.
Love the girl, but I don’t know how much more I can take.
Jessie Kay loved her, too, and hadn’t purposely set out to make her life hell. That was just collateral damage.
“Calm down, Warden,” her sister said. “No need to blow a gasket.”
Warden. A nickname Jessie Kay had given her at the age of fifteen. Brook Lynn gritted her teeth, saying, “Get dressed. I mean it.”
Her sister’s eyes, a darker shade of blue than her own, flashed with impatience. “I told you. I’m not going anywhere.” Jessie Kay said something else, but she’d turned away, and Brook Lynn couldn’t follow the movement of her lips.
“I’m on silent,” she interrupted. “I need to see you.”
Jessie Kay immediately turned toward her, but her gaze got caught on Jase, and she flinched. Before Brook Lynn was able to comment, her sister rushed out, “Okay. All right. I’ll get dressed. Jeez.”
Brook Lynn dared a glance at Jase. He hadn’t relocated from his spot at the end of the bed, his muscled arms still crossed over his chest. His frosty gaze was locked on her rather than the woman he’d just slept with, and she gulped.
“We’d appreciate a little privacy,” she said, praying she wasn’t breathless.
He gave a single, clipped shake of his head. “Sorry, honey, but this is my room.”
Honey? Had she misread his lips? “Well, we want to borrow it for a few minutes.”
"I doubt you could afford my rental fee.”
Depended on the currency. Shivers? Tingles? She currently had those in spades. He exuded the most potent levels of testosterone she’d ever encountered, her deepest instincts recognizing him as the kind of guy every girl should have by her side when the zombie apocalypse occurred.
After a marathon viewing of The Walking Dead, she and Kenna had even mapped out survival plans A, B and C. Glomming on to the first strong (and handsome) man they came across just happened to be the heart of B. Plan A, her personal favorite, revolved around kicking zombie butt while stealing supplies from other survivors—girls had to do what girls had to do—while C boiled down to burning the entire world to the ground.
“Can you at least pretend to be a gentleman and turn around?” she asked.
“I would—if I knew how.”
A quiver ran through her, nearly turning her muscles to jelly. She should not find his unrepentant bad-boy admission sexy. No, she definitely shouldn’t. Somehow she managed to look away from him. He’d just slept with her sister, so he was now and forever off-limits.
Jessie Kay scanned the spacious room. “Anyone seen my shorts?”
A pair of cutoffs and a tank were wadded up next to Brook Lynn’s feet. She picked up both and tossed them at her sister. “Well? Aren’t you going to apologize for missing five hours of work?”
“Uh, why would I apologize?” Jessie Kay tugged on the shirt. “I’m not sorry. Besides, I barely had any customers.”
“All of your tables were full with changeovers every hour. Meaning I had to hustle—without a break—to meet the demands of your customers as well as mine. Which was impossible! I made mistakes and lost tips.” A single penny counted when you had so few.
“I’ll make it up to you, swear,” Jessie Kay said, shimmying into the shorts while still under the covers. “Don’t worry.”
Another spark of anger burned through Brook Lynn. “Have you come into a secret inheritance, or will I be forced to dig into my savings yet again to pay your share of rent and utilities?”
“Hey! I’m totally keeping track of every cent I owe you. I’m going to pay you back.”
It may be too late then, she wanted to scream. Her future happiness had a time limit. Edna, the owner of Rhinestone Cowgirl, had given her until the end of the year to come up with the money to buy the place.
Brook Lynn might not be passionate about her creations, but owning that little jewelry shop was her only viable road to success. And that she wanted with every fiber of her being. She had already begun to make plans. She would pay to have a webpage created and sell her jewelry to people all over the state of Oklahoma, not just to the residents of Strawberry Valley and the seasonal flood of tourists. She would finally stop living day by day and actually live for tomorrow.
Her sister stood and patted her on top of the head. “Hate to break it to you, little sis, but your jewelry store is just about as useless as a cow squirting water.”
“I just don’t want you unhappy,” Jessie Kay added, throwing fuel on the fire.
The burn of simmering anger became a bomb of rage, exploding inside her. Unhappy? Unhappy! What did her sister think she was now?
“Well, maybe I don’t want you to end up like Uncle Kurt,” Brook Lynn gritted out.
Jessie Kay gasped. “Dude. That’s so harsh.”
Most definitely. Years ago, one of the massive machines at a nearby dairy farm exploded, killing half the workforce. Many Strawberry Valley residents were employed there, including their dad. He had been pronounced dead at the scene.
Their mother had done her rock-solid best to raise them, but occasionally she’d been so desperate for help she’d called her con-artist brother. And when she later drowned—God rest her precious soul—Uncle Kurt, their only remaining family, had moved to Strawberry Valley “for good” to care for them. Brook Lynn had been fifteen at the time and Jessie Kay seventeen, and though they’d been old enough to see to their own needs, they’d still required a legal guardian. But Kurt had stayed only long enough to collect the life insurance.
Jessie Kay gave her a little push, snapping her back into focus. “I’m nothing like that dirtbag. You take that back.”
“Never!” Brook Lynn returned the push. She only ever resorted to physical violence with Jessie Kay.
Her sister slapped her shoulder.
Brook Lynn delivered a slap of her own. “I’m fixing to start counting, Jessica Kay.”
“One,” her sister mocked, knowing her ways better than anyone.
“Two, three.” Forget battling with words. With a screech, Brook Lynn launched forward, crashing into Jessie Kay. They fell into the mattress and bounced to the floor, where they rolled around in a struggle for dominance. When they bumped into the nightstand, the lamp teetered...tumbled down and shattered. The damage barely registered as they continued to wrestle. Brook Lynn managed to come out on top and pin her sister’s shoulders with her knees. She forced the girl to slap her own face.
“Why are you hitting yourself, Jessie Kay? Huh? Huh? Why?”
Her sister twisted left and right, trying to dodge the blows.
Warm breath fanned the crown of Brook Lynn’s head as strong arms banded around her, and a masculine scent saturated her awareness. Jase.
“Let me go,” she demanded. “Let me go right now.”
His hold only tightened. He hefted her over his shoulder fireman-style and strode out of the room.
Jason—Jase—Hollister carted the petite bundle of fury into the backyard. She fought him every step of the way, the little wildcat, but he held on as if she were a well-deserved war prize. The party guests watched with wide grins, enjoying the show. A few even followed him, no doubt curious to see how the scene would play out.
He resented their presence, actually hated that they were here. Truth be told, he liked to keep his two friends close and everyone else at a distance. His head wasn’t screwed on right on the best of days, and today wasn’t the best of days. He hadn’t had a best day in a long time.
Behind him, the firecracker he’d just slept with shouted, “Put my sister down this instant, you over- grown Neanderthal!”
If he hadn’t already regretted sleeping with Jessie Kay before Wildcat had stormed into his bedroom—she was also known as Brook Lynn, apparently—he would have regretted it now. Before moving to Strawberry Valley a few weeks ago, he’d decided to end his sexual bender. A five-month carnal odyssey, Beck had called it, not quite realizing how right he was. It was an odyssey. Straight into hell. Jase had expected pleasure, maybe a little fun, but he’d had trouble relaxing around the women, and it had made for bad sex, great guilt and even worse memories.
Tonight had been more of the same, another regret to add to his ever-growing list. He’d had trouble focusing, constantly on alert for a sneak attack.
The nine-year habit would be hard to shake.
Besides, the move here was supposed to be his fresh start in a place that represented everything he’d never had but had always craved. Roots, permanence. Peace. Wide-open spaces and community support. A clean canvas he’d hoped to keep clean, not mar by creating a perfect storm of drama, pitting two sisters against each other.
Though he’d had no desire to s*** where he ate, so to speak, and mess everything up with a scorned lover, he’d had a few beers too many tonight, and Jessie Kay had crawled into his lap, asked if she could welcome him to town properly, and that had been that.
At least he’d had the presence of mind to make it clear there would be no repeat performances, no blooming relationship. He’d earned his freedom the hard way—and he would do anything to keep it.
Women never stuck around for the long haul anyway. His mother sure hadn’t. Countless foster moms hadn’t. Hell, even the love of his life hadn’t. Daphne had taken off without ever looking back.
Light from the porch lamps cast a golden glow over the swimming pool, illuminating the couple who’d decided to skinny-dip. They, like everyone else within a ten-mile radius, heard the commotion; they scrambled into a shadowed corner.
“Pay attention, honey,” Jase said to Brook Lynn. “This isn’t a lesson you’ll want to learn twice. You throw a tantrum in my room, you get wet.” Jase tossed the little wildcat into the deep end, hoping to calm her down.
Jessie Kay beat at his arm, screeching, “Idiot! Her implants aren’t supposed to be waterlogged. She’s sup- posed to cover them with a special adhesive.”
Please. “Implants are always better wet.” He should know. He’d handled his fair share.
“They aren’t in her boobs, you moron. They’re in her ears!”
Well, hell. I’m on silent, she’d said, the words suddenly making sense. “Way to bury the lead,” he muttered.
Brook Lynn came up sputtering. She swam to the edge of the pool and climbed out with her sister’s help, then arranged her hair over her ears before glaring up at him, reminding him of an avenging angel.
He’d hoped the impromptu dunk would lessen her appeal.
He’d hoped in vain.
Water droplets trickled down flawless skin the color of melted honey. The plain white button-up and black slacks she wore clung to her body, revealing a breathtakingly erotic frame, legs that were somehow a mile long, breasts that were a perfect handful...and nipples that were hard.
Those traits, in themselves, would have been dangerous for any man’s peace of mind. But when you paired that miracle body with that angel face—huge baby blues and heart-shaped lips no emissary from heaven should ever be allowed to have—it was almost overkill.
D***, I picked the wrong sister.
Well, what was done was done. Another piece of broken glass in his conscience. Another memory to leave a sticky film on his soul, like a spider determined to catch flies.
“I’m sorry about your hearing aids, or whatever they are,” he said, “but catfights aren’t allowed in my room. You should save all disputes for the next JELL-O Fight Night.”
She watched his lips. Her eyes narrowed, an indication she’d understood him.
Without looking away from him, she said, “Jessie Kay, get in the car. If I have to start counting again, you’ll regret it.”
For the first time that evening, her sister heeded her command and took off as though her feet were on fire. West and Beck arrived a second later and scoped out the scene: a gorgeous woman who was soaking wet, probably chilled, stood as still as a statue, her hands fisted at her sides, while Jase couldn’t seem to look away from her.
“What the hell happened?” Beck demanded, running a hand through his hair.
“This is between him and me.” Brook Lynn pointed to Jase. “You guys go inside.”
“Your hand is bleeding.” West frowned and reached for her.
“I’m not your concern.” She stepped away, avoiding contact, and would have toppled back into the pool if Jase hadn’t caught her arm.
With her sex-kitten curves, he was surprised by the slenderness of her bones. Even more shocked by the soft silk of her skin, the warmer-than-melted-honey temperature. She wasn’t chilled, after all, and the longer he held on, the more electric the contact proved to be, somehow cracking through the armor he’d spent years erecting around his emotions, until he practically vibrated with the desire to touch all of her...to hold her...
What the hell?
He released her with a jolt and widened the distance between them. His inner armor wasn’t something he maintained just for grins and giggles. It was for survival. As a boy abandoned by his parents and sometimes mistreated by fosters, he’d learned emotions were a weak- ness that could be used against him. To feel something for a person or object meant he’d placed value on it— whether for good or ill.
Feel nothing. Want nothing. Need nothing. For the most part, the motto had served him well. There had been times the armor vanished, the darkest of emotions consuming him...pushing him to do things he shouldn’t. Trouble had always followed.
Brook Lynn peered down at her wrist, as if she’d felt something she couldn’t explain, before focusing on him, her eyes narrowing once again.
To Beck and West, who’d remained after her command to leave, Jase said, “Get everyone inside. I’ll handle her.”
The two glanced between him and the girl, and he knew they wanted to protest. Tension thrummed from them both. But then, tension always thrummed from them both. They loved him, but when they looked at him, they only saw him through the dark-tinted glasses of a shared past, a trip they’d taken together through hell. Their guilt and shame always radiated below the surface.
They blamed themselves for the worst years of Jase’s life, a time he would have been far better off dead. It was the reason West had once battled a drug addiction, and Beck still refused to connect with anyone for more than an hour, maybe two if the girl was good. Whether they admitted it or not, they wanted to make themselves suffer the way Jase had suffered. The way he sometimes suffered still.
“Get everyone inside,” he repeated. The gossip vine in this town worked faster than a cable modem, and he had no desire to be the topic du jour. He guarded his privacy the way other people guarded their most valued treasures. Maybe because he had a lot more to hide.
Really, in today’s digital world, there was no such thing as a secret, and the citizens of Strawberry Valley would learn about him soon enough. He just hoped they didn’t attempt to run him off with pitchforks and torches.
“Now,” he added.
This time his friends obeyed. Once the backyard had been cleared, however, they returned to his side.
West offered Brook Lynn a towel. She failed to no- tice, her attention somewhere in the distance, where tall oaks and blooming magnolias stretched across the acreage. The wild strawberries growing along the forest floor were his favorite part of the property, vivid red fruit that sprang from flowers of the whitest white, with sunshine-yellow centers. A landscape more beautiful than anything he’d ever thought possible.
“Brook Lynn,” he said, but still she paid him no heed. Were her hearing aids ruined?
Guilt pricked at him. West tapped her on the shoulder, and she yelped.
When she noticed the towel, she accepted with a quiet “Thanks.”
“You guys head inside, too, like she said.” Jase hiked his thumb toward the house.
West put his back to Brook Lynn and said softly to Jase, “Tell me you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking.”
What? That the girl looked good—and would look even better in his arms? Too late. Just as quietly, just in case, he replied, “I’m not going to try anything with her.”
Beck gave Brook Lynn his back, as well. “Jase, you just threw her in the pool. I’d say your chances of anything but a catfight are slim. The only thing left to do is finesse the situation, and that just happens to be my forte.”
Allow Beck to finesse the delicate beauty? A bead of anger rolled through Jase, surprising him. He’d never directed his temper at his friends. The night’s activities must have screwed with his head more than usual.
“Besides,” West added, “you can’t afford trouble.”
No, he couldn’t. He’d endured his fair share already.
“What if she decides to file a complaint with the sheriff?” Beck’s gaze was grim.
Panic prickled the back of Jase’s neck.
“Whatever you guys are saying about me, stop. If you’ll figure out the cost for repairs,” Brook Lynn said, nudging West and Beck aside to peer up at Jase,
“I’ll reimburse you for the lamp and nightstand.”
After what he’d done, she thought she owed him? And get serious. As if there was any way in hell he would ever take her money. He’d heard her argument with her sister, knew the two were barely scraping by.
“Go.” He gave his friends a push toward the door. They reluctantly returned to the party, not because they thought it was the right thing to do, but because they felt they owed him. “I ruined your hearing aids, honey. How about we call it even?”
Her hands immediately went to her ears. To ensure her hair was still in place, hiding them?
The self-conscious action did something to his chest. Made it hurt.
“How about we don’t,” she said.
He ignored her, saying, “Your hand might need to be stitched.” Fat drops of crimson trickled from the cuts the lamp shards had caused.
Her chin lifted another notch. “I’ll be fine.”
“At least let me get you a bandage.”
She watched his lips, took a moment to decipher his words and shook her head. “No, thanks.”
So polite. So distant. So not worth the hassle.
He’d apologized. He’d offered to pay and had even suggested he play doctor. Now there was nothing left to do but make an exit.
“Whether you believe it or not, we are even. It was nice meeting you, Brook Lynn. Let’s do this again in never.” He turned away, fully intending to put her and her sister in the “better off avoided” category of his life.
“Wait,” she called, and for some reason, he stopped. “What are your intentions toward Jessie Kay?”
He closed his eyes. Don’t need this drama. Slowly he turned and said, “You pinned her down and made her slap herself. You seriously care?”
“I do,” she replied, fire crackling in the blue depths of her eyes.
Lying had never been his thing. “I have no intentions. Tonight was a one-and-done experience.”
The fire intensified. “So that’s it? You just screwed her, and now you’re dismissing her?”
“That about sums it up, yes.” In fact, he was pretty sure he was done with all women for a while. When things settled and a need for companionship grew, he might think about contacting Daphne. She already knew some of the horrors he’d endured as a kid, the sins he’d committed as a young man. Though she didn’t know everything he’d been through as an adult—he shuddered, recognizing soul-deep he would never discuss certain things, even with West and Beck. He could have something good with Daph, something permanent. She’d had her reasons for leaving him, and they’d been good ones.
But what could he offer her? It would be impossible to build a future on the crumbling foundation of his past.
And...looking at Brook Lynn now, his body said to hell with Daphne, take this one. The girl smoldered with life and vitality, and he experienced another unbearable urge to grab on to her and hold tight. Warmth spilled through his veins, causing his skin to prickle.
This reaction wasn’t as much of a mystery as the others. Until six months ago, he’d gone nine years without a woman. Of course his body wanted the one that was nearby.
“Jessie Kay is a person,” she said. “She has feelings.”
“So am I. So do I.”
Brook Lynn’s skin flushed to the deepest rose, the change startling, mesmerizing. Irritating.
“She also knew what she was getting into,” he added.
“I made sure of it before I ever escorted her into my bedroom.”
Brook Lynn removed one of her sensible flats, but rather than throwing it at him as he expected, she dumped out the water. “Do you do this often, then?”
“Seduce and abandon women.”
He laughed; he just couldn’t help himself. “Honey, you must not know your sister as well as you think. She came on to me.” Just a few weeks ago, she’d done the same to Beck. Not that either of them had put up much of a fight or ever complained. “At first, I even told her no.”
“Are you saying she forced you?”
He lost his grin in a hurry, dark waves of rage breaking through his armor, rushing over his mind. His hands balled into fists.
He took a deep breath. Feel nothing. Want nothing. Need nothing.
Tone flat, he said, “No. I was willing. And now, this conversation is over.” He turned before he did something he would regret—too many of those already— and once again began to walk away.
Once again she called, “Wait.”
Something must have been seriously wrong with him, because he faced her, snapping, “What?”
She stepped back, as if frightened.
“What?” he asked more gently.
“I really am sorry for the damage I caused in your room.” Her features softened, making her appear vulnerable in the most tantalizing way, rousing protective instincts he hadn’t known he possessed. “I will pay for what I broke.”
He recognized integrity when he saw it and respected the hell out of it. To so many people, words were just a means to an end. To him, words were a bond. Jase wouldn’t prevent this girl from doing what she felt was right.
“I’ll mail you a bill,” he said, deciding he wouldn’t charge her more than twenty dollars for items he’d spent well over two grand on.
“And I’ll pay for the damage to your hearing aids.” He wondered why she had them in the first place. Had she suffered with deafness all her life?
“No.” She shook her head with confidence. “I was out of line, barging in on you and Jessie Kay and then starting a fight in your room. I don’t blame you for tossing me in the pool,” she admitted, surprising him. “I can’t in good conscience allow you to pay for anything.”
He made sure she had a perfect view of his face. He wanted no misunderstandings between them. “Refusing payment isn’t going to do you a bit of good, honey.”
She peered at him for a long while, silent, before recognizing his own determination and sighing wearily. “Fine,” she said. “Whoever owes more can deduct what the other owes and pay the rest.”
“Agreed. And now...” He motioned to the back door of the house.
“Dismissed?” With a humph, she stalked around him—but didn’t head toward the house. She exited the yard through the side gate. He followed at a discreet distance to make sure she reached her vehicle safely.
She climbed into a rust bucket that couldn’t have been close to street legal.
“Are you okay?” her sister asked. “What did Jase say to—”
Jessie Kay’s voice was cut off by the slam of Brook Lynn’s door. As the engine sputtered to life and the headlights blinked on, Jase returned to the house.
West and Beck were waiting for him inside his bedroom, where they knew he couldn’t avoid them.
Beck reclined on the bed, flipping channels on the TV. West sat beside him, tossing pieces of popcorn in the air and catching them with his mouth.
“Hiding from your own party?” Jase asked.
Both glanced over at him.
“I’m the crotchety old man who doesn’t like having people in his space—after I’m done with them.” West threw several pieces of popcorn at him and missed. “I’m currently done with them.”
“Old?” Jase arched a brow. “We’re twenty-eight.”
“Physically twenty-eight. But our souls? Those are older than dirt.”
Beck grabbed the last handful of kernels and stuffed them in his mouth. “I don’t mind people in my space, but we’re currently out of fresh lady meat, and you know I never go back for seconds.”
Exasperated, Jase said, “Then why did you invite everyone over?”
They peered at him, expectant. Guiltier than usual.
“Maybe we thought you could use it,” West said, his tone thick with emotion.
“Whatever you want, you get,” Beck said. “No questions asked.”
They were trying to make up for everything he’d lost. He wished he could comfort them, reassure them, but he’d never even been able to comfort or reassure himself. “For future reference,” he said, “a party isn’t the way to make me happy. I’d rather be alone than surrounded by strangers.”
More guilt from West, sorrow from Beck. Regret from Jase.
“I wanted to move here,” he said. “We’re here. That’s enough.” Six months ago, he’d asked the two to find him a new place to live. Somewhere outside city limits, where the crowds were thinner and the pace slower. West had connections out here, and what he’d described had enthralled Jase. Trees, hills, the closest neighbors miles away. And when the isolated famansion—farm-mansion, as he’d heard it called—suffered a foreclosure a short time later, the two had uprooted their entire lives, unwilling to let him make the move on his own. True, the estate needed a little TLC, but that was something Jase excelled at and was actually enjoying doing.
Beck had lived next to a golf course and West in- side a room adjacent to their plush office suite in downtown Oklahoma. Each place had been purchased soon after they’d created and sold some kind of computer program, hitting it big, and even when they’d made far more money, investing a huge chunk for Jase, they hadn’t bought bigger and better. Change had never been easy for either man. Jase knew that well, hated change himself, but the two had been willing to move here for him.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he would have survived the past nine shudder-inducing years without them or as if he’d have any kind of life now.
“Remember when we first met?” he asked, switching topics. Anything to distract the pair.
West cracked a smile. “The fosters had no idea their request for troubled adolescent boys to guide and nurture would lead to the three of us joining forces.”
Beck snorted. “I believe the mother—what was her name?—told my social worker we were fully capable of building an actual Death Star to destroy the world.”
They’d been eight, and the ten months Jase had spent living with the boys had been the best of his life, an unbreakable bond forming. Even after the system split them up, they’d never lost touch. They’d occasionally attended the same school or lived in the same neighborhood, but at sixteen, when they were able to pool the money they’d earned doing odd jobs, they’d bought a car, and that had been that. It had been the three of them against the world. Still was.
These men were the only people in the world Jase trusted. The only people he would ever trust. They were his family.
“Hey. What’s with the reminiscing?” West asked. “You wouldn’t be trying to avoid the mention of a certain girl...Brook Lynn Dillon?”
Jase rolled his eyes, even as his body quickened with...yearning?
“I’ll take that as a hell, yes,” Beck said, his grin wide and irreverent. “He hoped to avoid.”
“Are you wanting a gossip fest? Why don’t we paint our nails and give each other back massages?” Jase asked.
“Yes,” the two deadpanned in unison.
“I call dibs on the pink polish,” Beck added.
“No fair.” West pretended to pout. “I wanted the pink.”
“You guys aren’t ridiculous and immature at all.”
“But you love us anyway,” Beck said.
He did, and they loved him. “West, go kick everyone out of the house. And if you leave any popcorn crumbs on my sheets, your blood will soon join them. Beck, haul ass to the kitchen and cook your famous morning-after special. I’m starved.”
“On it.” West flew out of the room.
“Can do.” Beck grinned as he passed, even paused to pat Jase on the shoulder. “It’s not morning, but you sure did get screwed, didn’t you.”
Two weeks after “The Dunking,” the state of Brook Lynn’s life should have improved by leaps and bounds. What was the saying? When you were at the bottom of a pit, you had nowhere to go but up.
Somehow she’d managed to burrow deeper.
After she’d gotten Jessie Kay home from the party, the implants had basically short-circuited, causing massive headaches, uncontrollable dizziness and extreme nausea. She’d had to have them replaced the very next day with a surgery that accumulated thousands of dollars in medical bills. Insurance had refused to pay, citing the devices were still experimental. A ridiculous excuse. But Jase hadn’t yet contacted her to settle their debt—thank God he’d insisted on paying his part—and she desperately needed the money.
The new implants required three days of complete bed rest to heal and attach to her canals properly. Three days without pay. As soon as she’d recovered, Jessie Kay had taken off for who-knew-where, looking for a man to console her after Jase’s rejection. For two days after that, Brook Lynn had been forced to work double shifts.
Jessie Kay had come back, only to take off again and return last night. Now Brook Lynn called her sister’s cell to tell her to keep her butt home and rested for tomorrow, but she went straight to voice mail. Dang it! The girl was off carousing again, wasn’t she?
Argh! Her sister sometimes reminded her of a mouse in a wheel, spinning, spinning, but never going anywhere. Of course, the same could be said of herself, she realized with a sigh, simply in a different way. Jessie Kay chased guys. Brook Lynn chased Jessie Kay.
Perhaps it was time for a change. Perhaps? Why was that even a question? As she began cleaning Two Farms for closing, she thought back to the “fun list” she and Kenna had created a few weeks ago. Fun—something neither of them had ever really experienced. The list of activities was supposed to spice up their lives. The plan? Try every flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, text I hid the body to a random number. Be Cinderella for a day, and eat a real Krabby Patty. Get a tattoo, TP someone’s house, solve a case with Sherlock and Watson. Ask out a boy. Throw a drink in someone’s face, gulp blue Gatorade out of a Windex bottle. Jump into a body of water with all of their clothes on. Spy on someone. Oh, and speak with a fake accent for an entire day.
The last was the only thing Brook Lynn had done. Meanwhile, Kenna the overachiever had done everything. Dane had made it his mission to ensure she checked off every item on the list.
Brook Lynn simply hadn’t had time for the others. Or, to be honest, the inclination. But...maybe she needed to start despite her lack of enthusiasm. Just pick something and go, go, go. Like...asking out a boy... even seducing one.
An image of Jase flashed through her mind. What he might have looked like minutes before she’d entered his bedroom. Naked, flat on his back and hard as a rock.
No! Oh, no. Jase? She recoiled...even as she shivered. The man had used and discarded her sister, leaving no doubt he would use and discard Brook Lynn. If he even wanted her. So, ask him out? No. Nope. Never. The guy she picked would give her what she hadn’t had since the death of her mother: security.
A long-term commitment with a nice man with a nice income and the unending patience required to deal with Jessie Kay without sleeping with her, flirting with her or hurting her feelings seemed like just the ticket.
He had to live in Strawberry Valley, be over twenty but under forty, and he had to have had steady employment for at least a year. He had to be stable, reliable and in no way a fixer-upper. So, of all the eligible men in town, that left...
A few too many, surprisingly enough. To narrow the playing field, she decided he could have zero history with Jessie Kay. Well, well. That left only one name. Brad Lintz, the supersweet owner of Lintz Automotive. He came into Rhinestone Cowgirl every so often to buy a present for his mother, sisters, an aunt, a handful of nieces, whoever happened to have a birthday, and he always said something to make Brook Lynn laugh. Once or twice she’d even suspected he wanted to ask her out.
Brook Lynn...would you do me the honor of...would you, uh...show me that necklace again?
Could she put on her big-girl panties and actually make the first move? She never had before. Part of her had always feared the slightest hint of aggression would lead the man to assume she would settle for as little as Jessie Kay did: a single night of sexual pleasure. And she wasn’t casting stones. She understood her sister. Despite what everyone thought, sex wasn’t a frivolous, sterile transaction for Jessie Kay. It was a means of finding the acceptance and affection she craved, if only for a short while. A craving that only grew every time she woke up in bed with a guy, expecting more from him, and he made her feel as if she’d committed the cardinal sin of moving too fast. Too fast, after he’d slept with her.
None of the guys heard her crying in her bedroom the next day.
Brook Lynn, too, had often wondered if a moment of comfort would be better than no comfort at all. But then she would remember doing what felt good today often led to regrets tomorrow.
Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, doing what scared her today often led to happiness tomorrow. So... Yes. For a chance at improving her life and finally having fun, she could put on her big-girl panties.
She would go see her doctor tomorrow after her shift at the RC, get on birth control—just in case—and then go to Brad’s shop. Her stomach began to twist into a thousand tiny knots of nervousness already.
“My office, Brook Lynn.” Her boss’s voice echoed through the empty restaurant, startling her from her thoughts. “Now.”
Mr. Calbert sounded gruffer than usual. Was he going to yell at her for Jessie Kay’s absence or the plates Brook Lynn had broken or the orders she had screwed up—or all three? Yeah, probably that last one. The knots in her stomach tightened. But at least the new implants were doing their job, leveling out the noises around her while allowing her to distinguish certain nuances.
“On my way,” she called. She trudged into the break room to grab her purse from her locker.
Heart hammering, she entered Mr. Calbert’s office. He was in his midfifties with thinning hair, glasses as thick as her wrist and a build that suggested he enjoyed tasting the foods he served.
His office was small, crammed with file cabinets and a desk too big for the space. He was already seated, drumming his nails impatiently. When she eased into the chair across from him, he got straight to the point.
“Your sister was a no-show. Again.”
“I know. And I’m sorry.” When Brook Lynn had seen Jessie Kay this morning, she’d been hunched over a toilet, vomiting her guts out from too much to drink, her mascara running down her bright red cheeks.
You going to be okay for work? Brook Lynn had asked.
I’ll be there. Jeez! I’m not a total slag.
Mr. Calbert shuffled papers around, saying, “Why do you put up with that girl?”
Because Jessie Kay had done whatever was necessary to keep Brook Lynn fed after Uncle Kurt had taken off. Because she’d comforted Brook Lynn when they’d lost everything. Because her sister was all she had left.
“That has no bearing on our conversation,” she said, raising her chin.
“Actually, it has everything to do with our conversation.” He propped his elbows on the desk and rested his forehead in his palms. That did not bode well. “Look. I like you. I do. I think you’re a good girl with bad problems, and that’s what makes this so difficult, but this is a business, and it has to be done.”
Dread slithered through her, a boa with every intention of choking her out. She could guess where this was leading and vehemently shook her head. “Don’t do this, Mr. Calbert. Please. I need the money.”
He lifted his head, his hazel eyes bleak. “I’m sorry, Brook Lynn. I loved your parents. They were nice people, and I respected them, but I can’t rely on you anymore. You’re too tired to work as much as you do, but I can’t cut your hours because you always beg me for more. You break things—”
“I’ll pay for them.”
“—and you get a ton of orders wrong.”
“I apologized to everyone.”
“You put peanuts instead of croutons on Mr. Crawford’s salad, and he had an allergic reaction. I have to pay his medical bill and for his mental anguish!”
“Anyone could have made that mistake.” But okay, all right. Yes, her mind had been zapped by all the extra hours and tasks she’d taken on. “At least now Mr. Crawford knows his EpiPen is working properly.”
Mr. Calbert shook his head. “I need to be able to rely on my staff.”
“I can’t rely on you or your sister. You and Jessie Kay are fired, Brook Lynn. Effective immediately.”
Jase had Just finished off his third beer of the evening, knowing it wouldn’t be his last. He had seriously dark emotions to drown, and by hell, he was going to drown them. If he failed, he’d get in his car and head into town to see her.
The new bane of his existence, Miss Brook Lynn Dillon. He hadn’t been this obsessed with a woman since Daphne.
Daphne. Yeah. He’d think about her. Unlike Brook Lynn, the thought of her actually mellowed him.
He let his mind drift to the night he and Daphne had met. They’d both been sixteen, and while he’d earned money repairing and washing cars, she’d worked at a fast-food joint. He’d gone in for a burrito and had come out with her phone number. They’d spent the next two years together, inseparable, and had been saving to rent an apartment together.
She’d represented the future. Stability. And unlike most of the foster families he’d lived with, he’d wanted her to stick.
“Want a beer?” Beck asked West.
They were congregated in the game room, their sanctuary. Beck and Jase were playing pool, while West watched. Or, more accurately, thought about something; the guy had been lost in his head for the past half hour.
“No,” West finally replied, and Beck breathed a sigh of relief.
Jase observed the entire exchange with a frown. Beck had been testing West’s resolve to remain sober more and more lately, and he couldn’t figure out why. But then, the two had a history he knew nothing about. So many years’ worth of memories made without him.
He never had a problem convincing himself he was fine with it—until moments like this.
“You aren’t an alcoholic, West,” Jase pointed out.
“But I am a recovering drug addict,” West said. “Alcohol is my gateway.”
West had gotten high for the first time nine years ago, and he’d stayed high for the next three.
Dark eyes grim...haunted, his friend admitted, “I wasn’t even feeling the temptation...until recently.”
“What changed?” Jase asked.
“What else? The time of year.”
Lightbulb. The oncoming anniversary of Tessa’s death.
Tessa had been West’s first and only girlfriend. The two had met mere days after Jase first encountered West and Beck. She’d lived down the street, and while Jase and Beck had grown to love her like a sister, West... he had grown to love her intimately, desperately. The pair had been halves that depended on each other, rather than wholes that complemented each other, and West had never recovered from her loss.
I’m never going to end up like that.
Brook Lynn’s image drifted through his head, taunting him. He gripped the edge of the table, nearly snapping the wood.
Tessa had dropped out of high school her senior year to waitress full-time and help her mom pay bills. Later, though, she’d passed her GED exam. Her deadbeat mom hadn’t cared enough to celebrate, so West had promised to throw her a party. He’d toked up instead. She’d left the apartment they’d all shared with a sad smile, saying it didn’t matter. But afterward Beck confessed he’d seen her crying as she’d driven away.
That night, she’d crashed her car into a lamppost.
Sweet, beautiful Tessa had died at the age of nineteen.
“I get it. The anniversary of Tessa’s death is three months away,” Jase said. According to some of the tales Beck had told him, West spiraled more and more, drinking, flaking on clients, even picking fights. Soon after, he picked a woman, showered her with affection and gifts and ended things in exactly two months, as if he was willing to give happiness a shot because it was what Tessa would have wanted, but he didn’t feel he deserved more than a taste.
“Yes,” West responded, head bowed, “and I’ll be fine this time. I will. I’m not going to limit what you can do because of a weakness I have.”
“For a smart man, you can be really stupid.” Jase clasped him by the nape and stared him down. “We help each other. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. What makes you think I’d want anything to do with something that bothers you?”
“You’ve lost so much already.”
Yes. More than either man knew. Jase had shared only a few of the atrocities he’d suffered—and committed— during the years of their separation. He could barely stand to think of them.
“So have you,” he said. “A scholarship to MIT, and soon after that, Tessa.”
Pain flashed in dark eyes that had already witnessed the worst the world had to offer.
“You’ve been clean six years,” Jase said. “During that time, you’ve created and sold different computer programs and games I won’t pretend to understand, and you’ve made us richer than we ever dreamed by investing the profits for us. Cut yourself some slack.”
“Put that way, I am pretty awesome,” West said, the barest hint of a smile revealed.
“Though only a close second to me,” Beck said, thumping his chest like a gorilla.
The doorbell rang before Jase could pop them both in the back of the head.
Everyone displayed different variations of dread.
“Bet it’s one of Beck’s women, coming to request seconds,” West said.
Beck lined up his shot. “Too bad. The candy store is currently closed.”
West snorted. “If only it stayed closed for maintenance. These women are upsetting my schedule.”
Jase had noticed West’s time-management and schedule-building skills had only gotten sharper over the years, though he’d done his best to relax and pretend he could roll with spontaneity. In reality, he’d always lived by a regime, preferring to have every minute planned.
Another round of ringing echoed from the walls. “Don’t everyone rush to the door at once,” Jase said.
Beck peered at West. “Do me a solid and get rid of her.”
“Happy to, but you’ll owe me.” West strode from the room.
“Like that’s anything new,” Beck called. The amused vibe vanished in a blink. He tossed Jase a look rife with concern. “He’ll come through this, but it’s going to be hard. I’m glad you’re here. It’s been rough going it alone with him these past few years.”
“Whatever I can do to help, I’ll do.”
“Just keep reminding him that you’re here and that you love him.”
As Jase got in position to drill the eight ball into the far right pocket, Beck switched gears, starting a joke. “So, an angel walked into a den of iniquity.”
The word angel made him think of Brook Lynn again, and certain parts of his body began to ache for contact. Every day since he’d met her, he’d gone into town to give her that bill she was so determined to pay and to reimburse her for the implants he’d ruined.
If he were honest, settling their debt had little to do with his frequent trips.
He’d wanted to talk to her, to find out what it would take to break through all of her stubbornness and prickly anger and make her smile. To prove she wasn’t as beautiful as he remembered...or as soft and warm. But every time he’d seen her, he’d realized she was more beautiful—and probably softer and warmer.
She worked at a jewelry shop Monday through Saturday, and while there, she wore her pale hair in some kind of intricate knot on top of her head, thick locks at her temples tumbling down to frame her exquisite face and, he was sure, to cover her ears. She usually had a pair of magnifying glasses over her eyes and a small pair of needle-nose pliers in hand. Once, as she had helped a guy with grease stains on his hands and overalls, she had talked with her hands, laughing happily at whatever he’d said to her.
Jase had experienced a wave of anger he hadn’t understood then—and didn’t understand now—and had left before Brook Lynn could spot him.
But he’d gone back again and again.
Most evenings, she worked at Two Farms, and be- cause she was usually the last to leave, she often had to walk to her car alone. Anyone could hide in the shadows, jump out and perform a grab-and-stab. Or worse. And okay, yes, she got points for carrying what looked to be pepper spray, but she lost even more for not paying attention to her surroundings. She was like a Disney princess, practically dancing and singing, “I’m so ready to be disarmed and mugged!”
Did she not realize even small towns had crime?
Case in point: he could be cited for stalking. Hence the multiple beers and his desperation to stay inside the house tonight. He would not risk a legal battle for anyone.
He sank the ball and smirked at Beck. “You going to tell me the rest of the joke?”
“Not a joke. A fact.” His friend motioned to the entrance with a tilt of his chin then wiggled his brows.
Jase looked, and yep, he had to agree. An angel had walked into a den of iniquity. Beside West stood Brook Lynn Dillon.
Hauntingly beautiful. And completely off-limits.
The urge to touch her, to hold her, bombarded him all over again, and he had to grit his teeth against it.
Feel nothing. Want nothing. Need nothing.
“Hey, Brook Lynn,” Beck called. “You’re looking mighty fine today—which can mean only one thing. You came to ask me out. Well, it’s your lucky day, pretty. I accept.”
Jase hit his friend in the arm and muttered, “Don’t flirt with her,” before he could think better of it.
Beck frowned at him. “Who was flirting? I was baring my soul.”
The conversation ceased to matter when he noticed Brook Lynn’s eyes were swollen and red, as if she’d been crying. There was a cut on her bottom lip, as if, in her despair, she’d chewed a little too hard.
He threw down his cue. If someone had hurt her— His hands fisted at his sides as he closed the distance.
Her gaze landed on him and widened. Gulping, she stepped away from him. “Do you, uh, know where Jessie Kay is?”
Had he scared her?
“No,” he said, careful to moderate his tone. “I haven’t seen or spoken to her.”
Her shoulders slumped with defeat and, if he wasn’t mistaken, a big dose of fatigue. She worked far too much, couldn’t get much more than a few hours of sleep each night. While he admired her fortitude, rarely having seen anyone push themselves so fervently, he knew she couldn’t go on like that forever. Soon she would break down. If she hadn’t already.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “How are your ears?”
Chin trembling, she said, “They’re better. I can hear.” A second later, the trembling stopped, and determination darkened her eyes. Stubborn side engaged. “By the way, I never heard from you, so I didn’t know which of us needed to deduct the money. I just took a guess at how much I owed you.” She stretched out her hand. In her palm rested three crisp one hundred dollar bills.
He jolted back as if she’d just offered nuclear waste, wondering how long she’d had to save for so little. “Hell, no. That’s way too much.” A single penny was too much, he decided. “The lamp was ugly, so you did me a favor. I should probably pay you for getting rid of it. And the nightstand has a crack, nothing more. It’s no big deal.”
Brook Lynn breathed a sigh of relief as she stuffed the money in her purse. “If you’re sure...”
“I am. Now, how much do I owe you for the implants?” he asked.
She shifted from one foot to the other. “They... weren’t cheap.”
“Like, over two thousand dollars not cheap.” She whispered the amount, as if scandalized. “If your furniture cost something similar—”
“No.” He didn’t blink. “I’ll bring the money to Rhinestone Cowgirl tomorrow. The full amount.”
She looked taken aback. “You know where I work? Never mind. Everyone knows. I don’t...I can’t accept so much...I—”
“Just say thank you and save us the trouble of arguing. You won’t win.”
She rubbed at her temples in a clear effort to ward off an oncoming ache. “Thank you.”
“And now,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “I guess there’s nothing more for us to say.”
He hated himself and his weakness for her, but he wasn’t ready to be parted from her, even though he knew better than to try to hang on to anything. The longer you had it, the more it hurt when it was taken away—and it was always taken away. “I’ll walk you out.”
“No need,” she said, turning on her heels. “I’ll be okay on my own.”
“Okay or not, I’m still walking you out.” He would not be like the double-douches at the restaurant and leave her on her own.
She’d definitely gotten the implants fixed. Without reading his lips, she had a ready reply. “If your goal is to make sure I make it to my car, feel free to watch me through the window. You do like it when women walk away from you, do you not?” She disappeared through the doorway.
“Poor Jase. Denied and burned at the same time,” Beck said, shaking his head with mock sympathy.
West grinned. “Would you like some aloe vera for your soul, Jason?”
He flipped off both of them, choosing levity over man-pouting, and raced after Brook Lynn.
The moon seemed to have withered into a small hook, its golden glow hidden by clouds. The air was fragrant with the sweet scent of the magnolias, roses and strawberries growing along the edges of the house, turning what should have been a creepy night into a time for lovers. His hands curled into fists.
Brook Lynn stiffened as he came up alongside her, but said nothing to rebuke him.
“Pepper spray,” he said, noticing she carried her weapon, at least. “That’s good.”
“Oh, this isn’t pepper spray.” She held up a tube of hand sanitizer. “I don’t want to hurt people, just germs.”
This is a joke. Has to be. “So if a mugger leaves you bleeding on the street, at least you won’t contract a case of the sniffles. Is that it?”
“A mugger?” She scoffed at him. “Where do you think we are? The city? There hasn’t been a mugging in Strawberry Valley since Wanda Potts decided to role-play with her husband and steal his virtue.”
“I don’t care what’s happened in the past. I want you armed for the future.”
“Hello. I am armed.” She waved the sanitizer in his face. “The world is going to spiral into a zombie apocalypse one day...unless we get proactive and do something. It’s called germ warfare. Look it up. I’m doing my part.”
“That’s not what germ— Never mind. You fear zombies?”
“Fear? No. That’s Kenna. I’m actually looking forward to battling the undead. I plan to collect their heads like trophies.”
Why was that so d*** sexy?
Hint: everything about her was sexy. Even the fact that she was clearly a hot mess. He’d never actually met someone who believed zombies were a real possibility.
His legs were longer than hers, his stride faster, so he reached her car first and opened the door for her. She didn’t get in right away, pausing to blink up at him. Confused by the gesture? Did she not expect the men in her life to be nice to her—or did she not expect Jase to be nice?
Either answer would have annoyed him, he was sure, so he didn’t bother asking.
“You’re headed home, right?” Knowing her—and as much time as he’d spent watching her, he was beginning to learn—there was a chance she had a third and fourth job.
“No. I have to find my sister. She and I are due to have a chat.”
Wait. He shifted, blocking Brook Lynn from sliding into the car. “You have no idea where she is. How do you know where to start looking?”
“I feel like you should already know the answer to that,” she said, a little sass to her tone. “Did you or did you not sleep with her?”
He glared, not appreciating the reminder.
“Fine.” She held up her hands, all innocence. “I’ll be starting with the bars.”
“And you’re going to...what? Go inside every one you come across between here and the city?”
He expected her to deny it. Wanted her to deny it. Instead, she softly announced, “Yes. But don’t worry. This won’t be the first time. Everyone pretty much knows me now and leaves me alone.”
Oh, hell, no. This delicate female had no idea how to protect herself from predators. Zombie or otherwise. He would stake his life on it. And yet she planned to trek through seas of drunken men who were only looking to score? Who may not take kindly to being rejected?
“I’m going with you.” The moment the statement registered, he cursed. He couldn’t help her the way she needed without finding himself in a whole lot of trouble she wouldn’t understand. He added, “West and Beck are going with us.” Problem, meet Solution.
Her surprise was immediate. Not used to anyone doing anything to help her with her sister? The idea alone made his chest throb, and he couldn’t blame coincidence this time. For some reason, this woman affected him in a way no one else ever had.
Would Daphne affect him even more deeply, now that they were adults?
“I couldn’t ask—” she began.
“You didn’t ask. I’m telling.”
Her eyes narrowed, her golden lashes nearly fusing together. She opened her mouth to snap a sharp reply, he was sure, before her shoulders sagged with defeat. “All right. Thank you.”
Determination could only carry a person so far, and she’d reached the end of hers.
He called for his friends, explained the situation; they didn’t hesitate.
“We’ll find her, no problem,” Beck said.
“Grab your keys,” Jase said to West. “We can reschedule pool time.”
“You don’t have to reschedule—” Brook Lynn began, but Jase gave her a withering glare, and she changed her tune. “I’ll drive.”
West glanced at Brook Lynn’s junkyard clunker and grimaced. “I insist we take my car.”
“I don’t want to use up your gas,” she called as he stalked back into the house.
Much better to use West’s gas than what little there had to be of hers. “Come on.” Jase helped her settle into the backseat of West’s Mercedes.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, even more confused. “You don’t like Jessie Kay, and you don’t like me, but you’re still willing to help us?”
“I never said I didn’t like you,” he informed her, moving in beside her.
As his friends claimed their spots up front, she looked at him, her lovely face illuminated by the vehicle’s interior light, her expression almost...sad. “I’ve learned that actions speak so loudly, words often don’t need to be uttered.”
“Well, I think my actions tonight are proving I like you just fine.” Liked her far too much.
As they motored down the country roads, he turned and gazed out the window—anywhere but at her—hoping to stop the now-constant ache, end the conversation and shatter his awareness of her in one fell swoop.
He accomplished only one out of three and cursed.
Brook Lynn sat so close to him, the heat of her enveloping him, the scent of her filling his nose, and both fogged his mind.
They passed through his favorite part of town, where different-colored buildings formed connecting lines on each side of the road. Some of the buildings had tin roofs, some shingles. Some were flat; some were pointed. Some of the walls were made of red brick and some of wood. But every single one had character, as if they had come straight out of a painting.
Brook Lynn shifted, rubbing her thigh against his, breaking his concentration. His hands itched for con- tact... How easy it would be to reach out and twine their fingers.
Hand-holding? What, I’m in junior high now?
“Jase,” Brook Lynn whispered and sighed warily. “I like you just fine, too. You’re actually a pretty nice guy.” Kind words. For him. The least-deserving person on earth. If she knew half the things he’d done...hell, even a tenth of the things he’d done...she would have kept her lips zipped. But she didn’t know, and he reached for her without thought, the need to connect with her stronger than the need to remain self-contained, distant.
Who am I?
The moment his hand covered hers, she visibly relaxed. He tightened his grip, actually clinging to her.
I’ve helped soothe her. Me. And maybe...maybe she’s soothing me, too. At least a little. Because even though desire for her was building, turning his body into a pressure cooker, he experienced wave after wave of peace. As if the world could catch fire and burn around him, and it wouldn’t matter. He was finally where he needed to be, doing what he needed to be doing.
Might not know who I am, but I know I need more of this.
Which was the very reason he forced himself to release her.
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