On a frigid December morning, the greatest snowpocalypse Strawberry Valley, Oklahoma, had ever experienced claimed its first victim. Jessica Kay Dillon’s pride. With a moan, the former beauty queen picked up her now-aching butt off the icy sidewalk, balanced her basket in her hands and, as bitter gusts of wind nipped at her, scanned nearby shop windows. No prying eyes watched her. Thank God!
If no one witnessed your epic fall, had it ever really happened?
Jessie Kay inched forward—careful, steady—but as she turned the corner her feet slipped and her arms flailed to no avail. Down she tumbled, landing with a hard smack. Dang it! She banged her fist into the ice- glazed concrete. She was going to die out here, and it was totally his fault. Lincoln West. One of the three owners of WOH Industries.
Stupid West and his stupid sandwich order!
She wouldn’t say she hated him, but she would maybe probably definitely unplug his life support to charge her phone. In only six months, he’d become the bane of her existence.
She should have listened to her sister and canceled today’s deliveries. Brook Lynn, the owner of You’ve Got It Coming—Busy life? Let us feed you!—believed safety came before commerce. But nooo, oh no, Jessie Kay had insisted she could do the job, even though jumping from an airplane without a parachute would have been smarter. And yeah, okay, there was a perk to venturing out: the awe-inspiring winter wonderland. The hodgepodge design of shops—plantation-style buildings, metal warehouses and whitewashed bungalows—looked as if they’d been painted with diamond dust. But honestly? Awe-inspiring sucked buckets of ass right now.
Teeth chattering, she lumbered to her feet and carried on like a good little frozen soldier. At this point, giving up and returning to her car would be a blemish on YGIC’s sterling rep. Great start, deplorable finish. No, thanks. What it wouldn’t do? Melt the ice in Jessie Kay’s veins. The heater had been busted for years, the window scraper a necessary tool for survival. And it wasn’t like going home would do any good, either. The heater there basically operated on fumes and prayers.
In a perfect world, she’d fix both today. But this was a crap world and she needed more than the usual TLC— tears, lamentations and cursing. She needed cold, hard cash. Another reason she’d opted to brave the storm.
Brook Lynn, the sweetheart, paid her a hundred dollars a week to help prepare orders and make deliveries. Money she felt guilty for taking. I owe her, not the other way around. But take it she did. She had to. Pride, the whore, never made even a token offer to pay for anything.
The funds were just enough to cover utilities and the mortgage she acquired soon after Mom died. Tips covered essentials, like three squares a day. And to be quite blunt about the matter, she’d expected people to fork over more than the usual buck or two for today’s troubles. But had they? No! She’d gotten the usual, plus a few propositions from the sleazier men.
Wanna take a break, Jessie Kay? My wife’s stuck at her sister’s and my couch is real comfy...
Come on in and have a beer, Jessie Kay. I’ll warm you up with a little body heat...
Once a bad girl, always a bad girl.
If her parents still lived—God bless their precious souls—they would have wept crocodile tears of disappointment over her jezebel rep. They’d loved her and had only wanted the best for her even though they’d both had legit reasons to hate her before they died.
She would be the first to admit she sometimes tried to forget those reasons in not-so-healthy ways.
Well, used to try to forget in not-so-healthy ways.
A few months ago, Brook Lynn—the world’s greatest everything—had almost died, and Jessie Kay—the world’s worst—had been too busy partying like a rock star to help. Talk about a wake-up call! From that day forward, she’d sworn to walk the straight and narrow. If ever her sister needed her again, she’d be there. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Amen.
Every storm begins with a single drop of rain, Momma once said. Don’t despise small beginnings.
The good girl thing, well, no one anywhere ever had ever had such a small start.
She slowly snaked around the next corner, relieved when she remained on her feet, and finally she reached the WOH offices. Despite the cold, she paused at the front window to prepare for the battle to come. And there would be a battle. There always was.
In the foyer, elementary-school-teacher-turned- receptionist Cora Higal manned her desk with military precision. There was no sign of West. Gorgeous, successful, too-smart-for-his-own-good West.
He possessed a charming wit and kind smile. For everyone but Jessie Kay.
In July, he and his two best buds slash business partners had left the big, bad city to move to her hometown. She’d drooled over the magnetic West at first sight, but when he’d shown no interest in her, she’d moved on to the suave Beck Ockley, who had.
What she hadn’t known at the time? Beck was the king of the hit and run. Well, he used to be, until he met Harlow Glass. Now he was the king of commitment. Anyway. His majesty’s “relationship” with Jessie Kay had ended after a single night.
That was fun, honey. I’ll see you around.
The rejection had stung, and she’d thrown a good old-fashioned pity party, getting drunk off her booty and sleeping with Jase, the trio’s designated hulk. But their “relationship” hadn’t gone anywhere, either. In fact, Jase hadn’t even waited until morning to get rid of her. He’d jumped ship an hour after the deed was done.
He later ended up engaged to Brook Lynn.
Apparently, all a guy had to do to find his soul mate was screw Jessie Kay.
West had to consider her sloppy thirds. A man-eater. A good-time girl. Fruit from the poisonous tree.
Well, he could suck it! Had she always made the smartest choices? No. She’d chased a sense of happiness with men rather than finding it within herself—and just how the heck was she supposed to be happy with herself? She’d also made mistakes so abysmal they be- longed in record books. Just ask her dead parents! But what right did West have to judge her?
According to Brook Lynn, who had the inside scoop, West used to dabble with self-medication, too, drinking and getting high. And his track record with women? Deplorable. He only dated one gal a year for two months, no more, no less, then dumped her for some made-up reason when the clock zeroed out...and crap, it was too cold to stall any longer.
A bell tinkled as Jessie Kay entered the building, and much-needed warmth enveloped her.
Cora glanced up from the papers she was stacking, her black bob swaying at her shoulders. “Miss Dillon.”
“Miz Higal.” She stomped her boots to dislodge clumps of snow as she studied an eclectic mix of boring and spectacular. The standard beige walls were decorated with stunningly detailed pictures of the video game characters West had designed. Tables she could have picked up at a local garage sale for less than five bucks were littered with shiny computer parts and what looked to be robotic limbs.
How cool was that? Her inner child, probably the most mature part of her, suddenly longed to play.
Cora said, “Mr. West is—”
“Not surprised you’re late.” The rugged male voice came from the back of the room, where West leaned a shoulder against the entrance to his office. “Tell me, Miss Dillon. Is making people worry a sport to you?”
Their eyes locked, and hated tingles spilled over her. For a moment, a single heartbeat, tension so intractable she couldn’t breathe thrummed between them. He was the sun she orbited, the vortex she couldn’t escape. Then he turned, revealing his back, and she was able to suck in a mouthful of air and regroup. But his image remained burned in her mind.
He stood well over six feet tall and had the lean, sexy muscle mass of a man who’d spent quality time in a gym. A fact perfectly complemented by the pin-striped suit he wore. He had dark hair and even darker eyes, the depths fathomless, mysterious and so sublimely sensual she sometimes forgot her new resolve to avoid ABBs. Adorable bad boys.
She wanted what her parents had. What Brook Lynn and Jase, Harlow and Beck had. She wanted more. And for the first time in her life, she was willing to wait for it. No more settling for scraps.
Sometimes people forget that falling in love isn’t enough. Momma, always so wise. You have to fall in like, too. Your dad...he thinks I hung the moon.
Jessie Kay had no doubts about that. When she’d helped her sister pack up to move-in with Jase, they’d found a secret panel in the closet. Stored inside were letters their dad had written their mom while the two were dating.
When you smile, my sweet Anna Grace, I see my future in your eyes.
No one had ever experienced that kind of reaction to Jessie Kay’s smile, and there was no way West would be the first. Which was one of the many reasons he wasn’t dateable, despite her crush on him. Well, not on him, but on his looks. Yes, there was a big difference. While she would love to give his face and body a tongue bath, she only wanted to give his brain the finger.
“Well, don’t just stand there drooling, Miss Dillon, go on back,” Cora said, pulling Jessie Kay from her musings.
“Thanks.” For nothing. She clutched the wicker basket closer to her chest and trudged forward.
The moment she crossed the threshold into West’s office, the temperature seemed to rise another twenty degrees, the air saturated with the heady scent of caramel. Her tingles returned and redoubled.
He’d removed his jacket and now sat at his desk, rolling the sleeves of his white button-down to his elbows, revealing strong forearms with mouthwatering sinew and a dusting of dark hair.
“Don’t pretend you were worried about me, Mr. West.”
He reclined in his chair and folded his hands over his middle, peering at her the way a snake must peer at a mouse—intent, ready to strike, hungry.
A ball of thorns grew in her throat, and she gulped. Maybe he wanted to devour her in a sexual way. A few times she’d wondered if he liked the look of her the way she liked the look of him. Or maybe he just got off on taking down an opponent.
Yeah. That one.
“Are you here to feed me or to stare at me?” His tone mocked her.
Jerk. “I’m here to correct you. You said I was late, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Breakfast orders are due to arrive between seven and nine.”
“It’s ten thirty-six.”
Oops. Was it really? “You didn’t let me finish. Break- fast orders are due to arrive between seven and nine except on ice days. I’m allowed an hour or so of leeway.”
“Again, it’s ten thirty-six.”
“I said or so.” When his expression failed to soften, she added, “Could I have picked up the pace to reach you sooner? Yes. However, falling and breaking my neck is your dream come true, not mine.”
He showed no mercy. “Since news stations have talked about nothing but this winter storm for the past week, I knew it was headed our way and did something revolutionary. I planned ahead.”
She offered him a brittle smile. The customer is always right, Brook Lynn often said. And Jessie Kay agreed...unless the customer was a douche bag, and then he was just a douche bag. “Had I planned ahead, I would have canceled your order.”
“But you didn’t. So. I’m assuming your tardiness means the food is free.”
She breathed in and out and remembered another bit of sage advice her mother had given her. You can’t control when a bird flies over your head, but you can control whether or not you let one build a nest in your hair.
In other words, she couldn’t stop certain emotions from rising up inside her, but she could stop herself from reacting to them.
And she had to, had to, had to stop herself. Brook Lynn recently challenged her to a bet. First girl to yell or throw things in a fit of temper had to let the supposedly composed sister pick her wardrobe for a week.
Knowing Brook Lynn, Jessie Kay would be wearing a nun’s habit. Shudder! She’d much rather see her sister in a bikini constructed with two pasties and a curl of ribbon.
Over the years, tormenting each other had become a very fun game.
“You’re wrong, as usual,” she told West with a sugar sweet smile. “Also, you’re too limited in your thinking. Time isn’t linear, it’s circular.”
That grabbed his attention. Intrigue brightened his eyes as he straightened, propped his elbows on the desk and linked his fingers just below his chin. “Explain.”
With pleasure. “Time has no beginning and no end. It always has been, always will be, and it never stops, which means time is an ever-continuing circle of new beginnings and new ends.”
The intrigue intensified and mixed with...admiration? “You’re implying the concept of being late is—”
“—erroneous because what is present will become what is past and what is past will become what is future. Therefore, no matter the lateness of the hour, you’re always on time.”
“I liked my description better, but yeah. And being on time in this weather means I’ve earned a bonus. Today, your sandwich is fifty dollars more than usual.”
He studied her for a long while, silent. “In terms of excuses, yours is the best I’ve ever heard. I’ll give you the extra fifty.”
She fought the urge to preen. “Should we make it an even hundred?”
“Why? Did you sprinkle the sandwich with crack?”
“No. But I did finally factor in my mental anguish.”
One corner of his mouth twitched as if—no way, just no way—he might smile. But of course, his frown deepened, and he turned his attention to his keyboard. “Leave the food. Get your money from Cora and go. I’m busy.”
Hot and cold. Sweet and sour.
He was soooo lucky Jessie Kay abandoned the dark side, or he’d be receiving special toppings on tomorrow’s order.
“I hope you—” choke “—enjoy.” She placed the bacon-and-marshmallow sandwich at the edge of his desk, in his periphery without actually broadcasting how precariously it teetered. Yes, the sandwich was protected by paper, but the floor was the floor and to a man of West’s fastidious nature, it would be utterly tainted the moment the two made contact.
Maybe she still dipped a toe in the dark side every now and then.
Just to be contrary, she said, “There’s a life outside of computers, you know.” He wanted her to go, so she would stay a little longer. “You should check it out.”
He never glanced her way. “Send me a link, and I will.”
As she watched him click clack at the keyboard, she thought that maybe...wow, this was hard to admit but... being his friend would have been kind of awesome. Except for his weird dating quirk, he’d clearly managed to get his life together. A feat she only dreamed of achieving. He could have shared his secrets for success.
“You should be nicer to me, you know. I’m Brook Lynn’s maid of honor, and you are Jase’s best man. I can make your walk down the aisle easy, or I can make you wish you were dead.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Frustrating man! Why did he hate her so much?
She vividly recalled their first meeting at the town’s annual Fourth of July barbecue. She’d noticed the trio of new man-meat standing beside a booth selling straw- berry ice cream cones. West had been the first to snag her interest, and when he’d looked over at her, she’d experienced an instant, full-body sizzle. Then he’d raked his dark gaze over her and his lips had twisted in dis- gust. Disgust! An emotion she’d easily recognized be- cause she saw it reflected back at her every morning when she looked in the mirror.
Big girl that she was, she’d tried to talk with him about it. Problem? Let’s find a solution. But he’d turned to Beck and muttered, I can’t be here, as if her presence ruined his good time.
Her already fragile self-esteem had plummeted, and she’d eagerly accepted Beck’s offer of comfort. A man who’d made her feel like the center of his world.
Until the sun had risen the next morning.
Great. Now she wanted out of this office, like, yesterday. “The lottery is up to one hundred and thirty- eight million. I should probably buy my ticket.” She tried for a breezy tone, but just sounded desperate. “See ya around, West.”
“Lotteries are a tax on people who suck at math. You know that, right?”
“Someone’s gotta win, and I’m good at getting lucky.”
A muscle jumped beneath his eye, a testament to growing anger—why anger? “Which guy are you after now?”
Was that a slut reference? “I’ll tell you which guy I’m after,” she snapped—only to remember her bet with Brook Lynn.
Right. Hide the hurt.
“Ben and Jerry, that’s who. Hope you enjoy your sandwich,” she repeated. “Or not. Yeah, probably not.” With another sugar-sweet smile, she bumped her hip into the edge of his desk. The computer parts and papers scattered along the surface rattled and shifted, and as she glided toward the door, she heard a telltale thump.
A very black curse echoed off the walls.
Without turning around, she lifted a hand and waved her fingers at him.
“I expect a new sandwich, Jessie Kay.”
“Let’s see what that expectation gets you...”
She really needed to get out of the food-service industry. But first, she needed to figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Besides gut-punching West at some point, of course.
Only one slight problem. So slight it probably wasn’t even worth mentioning. She’d barely graduated high school, had been too busy having fun to study, and she had no real skills other than tying a cherry stem with her tongue. Go me! As an aspiring millionaire, that little talent might not get her very far.
Cora clucked under her tongue as she handed over a twenty and a fifty. Ten for the sandwich and five for the delivery, plus the five he usually gave her for a tip, on top of today’s time management tip.
“Listened to our conversation through the speaker-phone, did you?” Jessie Kay asked drily.
“A good assistant must anticipate her boss’s needs. Speaking of, you should give him a break, Miss Dillon. He’s had a rough go of it lately.”
“Excuse me? Did you just say he’s had a rough go of it?” Please! “I’m an orphan schlepping a sandwich to an ungrateful bazillionaire during the new ice age. I deserve a break.”
A roll of the older woman’s eyes. “Both of his friends are now engaged.”
“So? My sister and best friend are now engaged. That’s a cause for celebration.” Except, she sometimes wanted to sob like a baby. She loved Brook Lynn and Harlow with all her heart, but sooner or later things were going to change. The girls would direct their full attention to their new families, and rightly so, while Jessie Kay, the only single gal, would become nothing but background noise.
Part of her wanted to pull away now, slowly, so it would hurt less, but the rest of her was determined to enjoy their time together while it lasted. To finally prove her love. “Just—” mind your own business “—have a nice day, Miz Higal.”
She soared through the door, cold air delivering a thousand b****-slaps of shock. How she longed for the arrival of the next season—tornado—which would lead to her favorite season—hotter than hell.
Maybe she’d text her club buddy Sunny Day and go somewhere to blow off a little steam...and what the heck was she doing, reverting to old habits? No, no, a thou- sand times no.
Daniel Porter stepped from the shadows, stopping her in her tracks.
“Move. Now.” She wasn’t putting up with insults from another man. And this one would insult her. They used to date, and they hadn’t parted on friendly terms.
“Sorry, but I’m right where I want to be.”
Stubborn to his core. But then, he was an Army Ranger, so he had to be.
He’d returned from an overseas tour a few months ago, and one of the first things he’d done was ask her out. She’d said yes so fast her tongue had practically caught fire. He was a beautiful man with dark hair and emerald eyes, the body of a warrior, and the aloof attitude that made (crazy) women dream of taming him.
It wasn’t long before she’d realized he expected to jump straight into bed, no dinner, no movie, and she’d gotten the impression he’d climb out the window the moment they finished. So, night after night she’d insisted on dinner and a movie, doing nothing more than kissing him goodbye every time they parted. Finally he’d moved on. But instead of being honest about his reasons for dumping her, he’d blamed her continued association with Jase and Beck, the men she’d once slept with. As if she’d ever go for round two with Brook Lynn and Harlow’s leftovers.
“Fine. I’ll move.” She sidestepped him, but he was used to dealing with hostiles and just sidestepped with her.
“I want to apologize for the way I treated you,” he said, and she stilled from shock alone. “For the way I ended things.”
An actual apology? That was a first. And after her interaction with West, it was also a soothing balm. Unless... “Is this a ploy to get into my pants?”
The corner of her mouth quirked up, and some of the starch faded from her shoulders. “Your honesty deserves a reward. You’re partly forgiven.”
“Good. Will you have dinner with me?”
“Dinner. With me. Afterward, I’ll walk you to your door where we will part with a handshake.”
He’d just...asked her out? On a proper date? And he wasn’t going to push her for anything more than a meal?
“I don’t... I can’t...”
“I miss you. I had fun with you, and fun isn’t something I’ve had in a long, long time. Walking away from you was a terrible mistake.”
Words every girl longed to hear. And part of her really, really wanted to say yes to his invitation. Any interaction with West tended to bruise her feminine pride, leaving her feeling battered and just a little unworthy of a happily-ever-after. A feeling she’d struggled with since her father’s death. A feeling that had only grown worse when her mother died...and as Jessie Kay made mistake after mistake. Now she had so many faults, her name should be San Andreas.
“I’m going to be fully honest with you, Daniel. I’m not interested in you romantically.” Once upon a time, she’d said yes to every guy who asked her out. She’d thought, He wants me. To him, I’m worth something. And what a high it had been. But the high had never lasted, and she’d always ended up having to chase a new one.
Better decisions, better life.
“But,” she added, “I could be convinced to become your friend.”
“I’ve never had a female friend. Especially one as hot as you.”
“Well, I’ve never had a guy friend as hot as you. We can break each other in nice and easy.”
A grin stretched from ear to ear. “All right. For you, Jessie Kay Dillon, I’m willing to give it a shot.”
For her. As if she was something special.
Ugh. Earlier she’d thought about clubbing and now she was flying high because a guy had given her a compliment. My self-worth is not dependent on others.
She raised her chin. “Great. But do us both a favor and remember we’re doing this on a trial basis. You screw it up, you get cut. In more ways than one.”