Yesterday was the release of the fourth book in the Sparks in Texas series, No Other Ways. Now here’s the good news…Whiskey Eyes, book 5, releases on November 1. So the wait for Macie’s story will be a short one! In keeping with the sneak peek theme this week, I thought I’d give y’all a first look at Whiskey Eyes.
“I want you to go out with me,” Coop said.
Macie looked out the front window and frowned in confusion. “Outside? Why? It looks like rain.”
Coop shook his head. “Out with me. On a date.”
Macie wasn’t sure how to reply, but that didn’t stop her mouth from opening and producing sound. “Seriously?”
Coop didn’t seem offended by her stupid question. “Yeah.”
She glanced around the bar, wondering if anyone could hear the exchange. Not that she cared if they could. She imagined—like her—any eavesdroppers would be floored by his request.
Hank Cooper was a regular at Sparks Barbeque. He’d come in for dinner one night shortly after his wife’s death nearly a year earlier and it was as if he’d taken up residence. Which suited Macie just fine. He was a nice guy with a quick wit. Coop got her special brand of sarcasm. She liked that about him.
And it had occurred to her that—though he was frequently in the restaurant—he was watching her more closely than usual tonight. In fact, she’d felt his intent stare on her the past couple of times he’d been in. Of course, she’d probably noticed it because she’d been watching him lately as well. It was like she couldn’t help it. Coop came in and for the rest of the night, half her attention was on her job, the other half on him.
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
Coop took a deep breath as his gaze remained locked with hers. She was used to this expression. People used it with her all the time. She called it the “praying for patience” look.
“I’m sure.” His response was gruff. Coop didn’t mince words, which seemed like an outright anomaly to her. She didn’t understand how people could say so much with so few words.
Macie loved to talk, loved the sound of her own voice as she wove fantastical, far-fetched stories. Why say something in three words when she could use four thousand and eighty-seven?
Then she figured his invitation was extended merely out of boredom or loneliness. She wasn’t a threat because they were friends, and it simply wasn’t possible for her to be any less his type.
Even so…she felt compelled to warn him. He was about to open one big-ass can of worms.
“You realize pretty much every single woman in town is ready to cast her bra into the ring the second you give them the green light to go. Right now, they’re all giving you space and time to mourn. If you and me go out, it’s open season on Hank Cooper. Is that really what you want?”
“I don’t intend to date anyone but you.”
Her eyes narrowed as she looked around the room once more. “Is this a joke? Did my dad put you up to this?”
She started to call out to her father, to give him shit for joining forces with Coop to pull her leg, but Coop grabbed her hand and squeezed it before she could speak.
“It’s not a joke, Macie.”
His tone and expression finally managed to plow through her thick skull. He seriously wanted to date her. Once again, she didn’t know what to say. So she went ahead and spoke anyway.
“You off now?”
She nodded. Her sister, Adele, had come in a few minutes earlier and gone to the back to put her things away. Once she returned, Macie had the evening off. She was planning to go home and masturbate while watching the wedding episode of Outlander for the millionth time. Jamie Fraser melted her butter.
“Get your stuff,” he said as Adele stepped behind the bar.
Macie gave Adele a quick rundown of who was drinking what and then she grabbed her purse from the storage room. Coop was waiting for her by the front door of the restaurant.
She assumed he was planning to walk her to her car, though it was a completely unnecessary gesture in Maris. Crime here was rare and what little they did have was usually of a nonviolent nature, if you didn’t count the arsonist her cousin, Evan, tracked down and apprehended not quite a year ago.
So she was surprised when he placed his hand on her back and led her to his truck.
“Where are we going?” she asked when he opened the passenger door for her.
“I told you. I’m taking you out.”
“Now?” Despite her confusion, she let Coop help her up into the truck. It wasn’t like she had much choice in the matter. The guy was damn strong and pretty good at compelling her to do things almost unintentionally.
She’d first noticed that ability of his at a barn dance out at the Mills’ place a couple months ago. Her cousin’s band, Ty’s Collective, had been performing and she never missed a chance to catch one of their shows, as they happened too few and far between now that all the band members had “real” jobs.
She hadn’t planned to step out on the floor for the slow dance because she was hot and sweaty and her feet hurt from all the crazy Texas two-stepping she’d done. But Coop had reached out a hand to her and before she knew it, she was in his arms swaying to an old George Strait song, “I Cross My Heart”. And even during the dance, there had been no denying who was in control. He twisted and turned her with ease as they glided to the easy rhythm.
She hadn’t told anyone, but the dance had made her horny. Like seriously horny. So much so, she’d gone straight home afterward and fired up her vibrator. Three different times throughout the night.
Then he had done the same thing at her cousin Sydney’s wedding last month. Just dragged her out to the dance floor and once again, she’d relinquished all control to him. Put herself in his oh-so-capable hands and enjoyed the ride.
Once Coop climbed behind the steering wheel and fired up his old Chevy, she turned to face him.
She reached for the seat belt, but the interruption didn’t distract her. “I know it’s been a long time since you’ve been out there.” She finger quoted the words out there. “But you can’t ask a woman for a date on the night you want to take her out. It doesn’t work that way.”
He glanced her way briefly before turning his attention back to the road. The corners of his mouth were tipped up in a not-quite-there grin. “Why not?”
“Because women need time to get ready. Fix their hair and makeup. Shave their legs and pits. Hell, at this point, I’d just settle for a shower. You’ve caught me at the end of an eight-hour shift behind a bar. I smell like—”
She nodded. “Yeah. I spilled some Jim Beam on my jeans.”
“I love the smell of bourbon.”
Macie couldn’t argue that. She adored the scent. “Oh my God. Me too. I’d bathe in the stuff if I thought Evan wouldn’t give me a DUI for it.”
“But even so, I need a shower with plain old water and soap. And clean clothes.”
“You smell fine.”
“Okay. Again, you’re missing the point. All I’m saying is you’re lowering your chances of getting lucky with this technique. No woman’s going to put out when she hasn’t had time to prepare.”
He didn’t respond immediately, but Macie wasn’t exactly surprised by that. Coop was a man of too few words.
“You planning to put out?” he asked at last.
She rolled her eyes. “You misinterpreted that whole conversation.”
He looked at her, holding her gaze. “Not sure I did.”
She blew out an exasperated breath, perfectly aware this wasn’t an argument she would win tonight. “Anyway. Moving on. Where are we going?”
“My place. I’m making you dinner.”
“Yes, Macie. I am.”
“Oh. Well, that’s really sweet.”
She was met with more silence, so she filled it with some general observations of the houses they passed and the people who lived inside them. Once they turned onto the highway that would lead them to Coop’s ranch, she began discussing her thoughts on politics, then how she thought all of Adele’s songs sounded the same—as did John Mayer’s, which somehow led to her feelings about the latest Star Wars movie. Through it all, Coop nodded, but apart from a word here or there, he didn’t contribute much to the conversation.
Of course, that didn’t bother Macie. Left more room for her to talk. She wrapped the conversation up when they pulled in front of his house. She’d only been to his place a few times in the past—all of them right after Coop’s wife had passed away to bring him food and to visit for a bit.
She reached for her purse and opened the door, about to step out when Coop appeared, his hand reaching to help her down.
“Thanks,” she said, touched by his thoughtfulness. He owned a huge truck, the kind that made you feel like you needed a stepladder to get in and out of it. With any other guy, she probably would have made some joke or given the fella shit for overcompensating for lacking in other areas, but it was clear that was not the case with Coop. He was large, powerful, and intimidating—but not in a scary way. It made sense for him to drive this truck. Hell, he’d look ridiculous driving anything else.
Coop didn’t back up or give her space to walk away from the vehicle once she hit land again. Instead, he leaned closer and pressed her against the side of the truck.
His actions were so unexpected, she responded on instinct, licking her lips when there was no denying he planned to kiss her.
Macie struggled to catch her breath, to keep up with him. The past thirty minutes had been one what the hell? after another.
“You asked me why I wanted to go out with you.”
She nodded. “Yeah. I did.” And he hadn’t answered.
“This is why.”
Rather than offer an explanation, he kissed her, roughly, completely, thoroughly.
Macie’s hands flew to his shoulders, not to push him away, but to hold on for dear life. Good God, the man could kiss.
Coop wasn’t gentle about it either. His hands cupped her cheeks as his lips forced hers apart and his tongue swept in for a taste. Macie tried to breathe through her nose, going light-headed from the lack of air. Too much more of this and Coop’s tongue was going to know the inside of her mouth better than hers did.
Soon, the kiss morphed into something even more. Coop pressed his body more fully against hers, letting her feel his erection against her stomach. She wasn’t a small woman. At five-eleven, she was taller than quite a few of the men in town, and she wouldn’t describe herself as thin either. Her dad liked to refer to her as “sturdy,” which annoyed the shit out of her, even if it was true.
However, with Hank Cooper, she felt like one of those tiny ballerinas, petite, fragile. He towered over her by at least half a foot and the man was built like a brick house. His muscles were made the old-fashioned way, not with weights at a gym, but through hard work, and he was very good at using them to move her exactly where he wanted her.
Which apparently—at this moment—was pushed up against his truck as he gave her the hottest kiss of the century.
When he finally released her lips, he only moved away a few inches, his hot breath tickling her face.
She peered up at him. He’d kissed her senseless, but not silent. “So, just to recap…”
Coop chuckled. “I want to date you because I’m attracted to you, Macie.”
If he hadn’t been standing so close, she would have slapped herself on the forehead. With each passing minute, she was sounding more and more like a complete idiot.
“And intellectually. Don’t want you to think I’m only after you for your body.”
She snorted. “Thanks for clearing that up.”
He took her hand and led her toward his house. Once again, she let him lead the way, offering no resistance. She was starting to wonder what she would do if he bypassed the kitchen and dragged her straight to his bedroom. Part of her feared she’d walk right into that lion’s den and drop her granny panties without question, hairy legs or not.
Fortunately, Coop didn’t put her to the test.
Tyson Sparks finds love with the girl of his dreams. And his best friend.
When Harley returns home after a year away, her best friends and bandmates, Caleb and Tyson, are there waiting for her. After all, the men have had twelve long months to worry about Harley’s real reason for leaving Maris. Shortly after her brother’s death, they made a mistake. One that haunts them and keeps them up all night, tossing and turning–with desire. They kissed her. Together.
Harley left Texas and headed to Florida to mourn her beloved brother, escape her screwed-up parents and to figure out these new feelings she has for Ty and Cal. The three of them grew up together and there was nothing on earth more precious to her than their friendship. So why is she now imagining the three of them doing the horizontal mambo. And what the hell would the guys think if she told them she wanted them both? Would they be willing to throw convention and society’s rules to the curb? Or would they force her to choose?
After years spent in limbo, Harley is ready for an adventure. And it includes love, laughter, skinny-dipping, music and the two men who make her heart dance.
Tyson glanced down at the pier. Harley had slipped off her shoes and was sitting at the end, her feet dangling in the water.
“I’m going swimming with her.”
Caleb pounded one fist on the arm of his chair. “Dammit, Ty.”
“Are you coming?”
They stared at each other for a long time before Caleb nodded. “Yeah. I am. Is there a plan?”
Tyson shook his head as they descended the stairs. “No. All I know is, I need to kiss her again. Just kiss her.”
“She plans to be naked.”
“Yeah. I might have to talk her out of that part.”
“So just a kiss,” Caleb said, as if he were trying to convince himself that he could handle that.
Tyson paused briefly. “I just have to see if…”
“I know, man. Me too. So let’s see. Maybe we’ll get lucky and figure out it was a fluke.”
That wasn’t going to happen and they both knew it.
When they stepped onto the dock, Harley stood and turned to face them. “Finally. I was starting to think you guys were going to chicken out.”
She didn’t move to take her clothes off, and Tyson realized that while she’d thrown out the dare to go skinny-dipping, she was hesitant too. They were teetering on the edge of a cliff, and it appeared each was cognizant of that fact, and hoping to come out of this unscathed.
“Leave your bra and panties on,” Caleb said.
She tilted her head curiously, but didn’t refuse.
Tyson decided to take the bull by the horns, stripping off his shirt and then dropping his lounge pants. He stood in front of her in just his boxers, and there was no hiding his erection.
He groaned softly when her gaze lingered south and she licked her lips. “Wow,” she whispered, not bothering to pretend she wasn’t enjoying the view.
“Great,” Caleb muttered. “You’re as bad as Tyson.”
She laughed. “Is that what took you so long? Debating the wisdom of this?”
“And what was the verdict?”
“Apart from the fact we’re all screwed?” Caleb asked.
Harley’s grin grew. Tyson had to hand it to the woman. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, she still found the humor in it. “Yeah. Apart from that.”
“We both want to kiss you again. Just kiss you,” Caleb added, stressing that was all.
She appeared to ponder that—and then she reached for the hem of her T-shirt. “Okay, but I should tell you now,” she added as she lifted her shirt. “I’m not wearing a bra. Or panties.”
Harley turned just as she was getting to the good part, glancing over her shoulder at them with a grin that was half-mischievous and half-sexy as hell, so that they could only see her bare back. She dropped the boxers, giving them a too-brief view of her perfect ass before she dove into the water.
He and Caleb stood there gaping like a couple of fish out of water. Then Tyson shrugged, dropped his own boxers, and walked to the edge.
“Look on the bright side, Cal. That water’s going to be frigid. Might help.”
Tyson heard Caleb mutter, “It’s not going to help,” just before Tyson dove in next to Harley.
One year earlier…
“Closing time,” Lacy Sparks said, gently tapping on Logan’s shoulder. He’d been looking down at his beer so long he had almost forgotten where he was.
“I thought maybe you’d found a way to sleep with your eyes open,” she teased.
He glanced up at her, and then let his gaze wander around the restaurant. He was surprised to find the place empty. Where the hell did everyone go?
Her cousin, Macie was behind the bar, wiping the counter and he could hear Sydney in the kitchen, washing dishes. Lacy had already cleaned the dining area and he hadn’t noticed them doing any of it.
“No problem. I’ll walk you home,” she offered.
Logan wasn’t drunk. Not even close. After all, he’d nursed the last still-full beer for over an hour. But he wasn’t going to turn down the offer of company. Especially Lacy’s. She was one of the reasons he’d returned to Sparks Barbeque tonight. He’d been here earlier with her brother, Evan. His best friend since first grade, Evan had picked him up after work and declared they were going out for happy hour. His friend had been hell-bent on cheering him up. After all, Logan had just gotten dumped. For the first time.
Logan had dated lots of girls, but in the end, he’d always been the heartbreaker because none of them had captured his affections. Until he met Jane.
He should consider himself lucky. Not many men made it too the ripe old age of thirty-three without ever having their hearts ripped out. Of course, the more he thought about it, the more he realized it wasn’t his heart Jane had just tromped all over. It was his pride. His heart had walked out of the relationship about six months ago.
He and Evan had eaten dinner, kicked back a few beers and then Evan had dropped him off at his place. Logan had taken one look around the quiet apartment and then walked the two blocks back to the restaurant. He preferred noise to silence, and there was something very soothing about Lacy’s Uncle TJ’s off-color stories, Macie’s boisterous laughter, and the sweet way Lacy kept stopping by to check on him. When you were with the Sparks family, it was easy to forget what ailed you. The pressure that had taken permanent residence on his chest since Jane moved out last week lifted when he was here.
God. He shouldn’t have bothered coming back. He was shitty company. “Sorry,” he repeated.
Lacy reached out to clasp his hand, giving it a quick, comforting squeeze. “You ready to go?”
He nodded. “Yeah, but shouldn’t I be offering to walk you home?”
She grinned. “I live five blocks from here and I walk myself home every night. Besides, your place is on my way.”
Logan reached for his wallet, but she waved off his money when he tried to pay for the beer. “It’s on me.”
Rather than fight about it, she simply pulled her jacket on and walked to the front door leaving him no choice but to follow. “Night, Macie,” she called out.
“Night, y’all,” her cousin replied wearily. It had been a busy night at the restaurant and they were obviously pooped.
Once they stepped out onto the sidewalk, Lacy obviously decided to take the bull by the horns. “I know you’re upset about Jane. If you ever need someone to talk to, I’m a pretty good listener.”
There was no debating that. While he’d been Evan’s friend growing up, once they became adults, Lacy had stopped being the kid sister and became a friend in her own right. She was one of the most upbeat people he’d ever met. An eternal optimist. Logan liked the humor and positive energy that seemed to surround her all the time.
“I’m not sure there’s much to talk about. The breakup had been coming for a while. Not like it was a total shock.”
He didn’t bother to lie. Logan nodded. “Yeah. Some old boyfriend from back home. Apparently they’ve been chatting on Facebook for nearly a year.”
“Fucking Facebook,” she said with a grin.
The joke worked. He laughed, but didn’t bother to say Jane’s flirting over social media had very little to do with what really broke up the relationship. And it certainly wasn’t anything he could explain to Lacy. Not fully anyway. God only knew what she’d say if he went into all the gory details.
“This is probably one of those things that’s best left alone. Rehashing it won’t make it better. I just need to figure out where to go from here.”
“So, I’ll change my offer. If you ever want to hang out and not talk about it, you know where to find me.”
He appreciated her kindness, but he didn’t see himself taking her up on the offer. Logan was getting out of a three-year relationship. He needed time to recover and to get his shit together. Looking at Lacy tonight, Logan felt something he didn’t want to put a word to, simply because it would be too dangerous to acknowledge.
Once they reached the front of his apartment, he paused. “I really don’t mind walking you home, Lacy.”
She smiled, and then reached up on tiptoe to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “It’s Maris, Logan. I’ll be fine. Night.”
He watched as she walked away, not turning toward his front door until she was completely out of sight.
The second Lacy was gone, the heavy feeling he’d managed to keep at bay in the restaurant, returned, along with a new one.
Fuck it. He called it by name. He felt tempted. By Lacy Sparks. It was going to be a long night.
There are only a couple of days left until the release of No Other Way. While we wait, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at the first three books in the series. Yesterday, I shared the first chapter of Waiting for You. Today, how about a glimpse of Something Sparked.
“Hey, Jeannette. Where’s my side of fries for this order?”
“Sorry, Paige. Coming right up.” Jeannette Sparks closed her eyes, wishing she could wake up a bit, find some energy.
She’d been dragging her weary ass through the last seven hours of work, listless and bored. Both feelings were fairly new to her. She usually loved her job and had a blast working with her family to keep Sparks Barbeque one of the top-ranked restaurants in Texas. For years, they’d placed number one in the travel guides as countless tourists were told to plan a stop at Sparks. Jeannette was proud of the role she’d played in putting her hometown of Maris, Texas, and her family’s business there.
However, lately, the bloom was fading on that rose. She’d had to force herself to climb out of bed and come to work this morning, and then she had basically phoned it in, slapping sandwiches and ribs on plates all damn day.
“You okay?” Sydney asked when Jeannette returned to the kitchen to grab the fries she’d just forgotten. “You’ve been quiet all day.”
“I had some trouble sleeping last night,” Jeannette lied. That was the complete opposite of her trouble. In fact, Jeannette had been falling into bed as soon as she got home every day and sleeping the sleep of the dead for ten hours—twelve on her days off—without even rolling over.
She considered paying a visit to Tyson, her cousin and the town’s resident doctor, to see if she’d caught mono somehow. Though she couldn’t imagine how she’d catch that disease. God knew she hadn’t kissed anyone in a freakishly long time. Years.
She picked up the fries and took a steadying breath. She was one hour away from quitting time. She just had to get through the lunch rush and then she was free to go home and hit the couch. She and Paige had worked the morning and lunch shifts and her cousins Sydney, Macie and Adele were covering the dinner crowd.
“One hour,” she murmured as she pressed open the swinging door between the kitchen and the main dining area.
As she turned, she caught sight of three new patrons sitting at the bar chatting with Macie—who’d come in early and taken up the reins as Mistress of Happy Hour. Two were familiar faces. Diego Rodriguez and Luc Kovach made up the sum equivalent of the Maris fire department, the only full-timers. The rest of the department was made up of volunteers.
The two dark-haired men were sexy as sin, shameless flirts, and well known around town for their propensity for threesomes. She’d heard countless rumors about Diego, Luc and whatever flavor of the month they’d managed to ensnare in their web. Not that there were many flies trying to avoid that trap. Too many of the single women in town were casting themselves upon it.
Ordinarily, Diego and Luc went out of their way to annoy her, flirting and asking her out just to make her blush and get under her skin. They knew she didn’t approve of their dating style, though apparently she was the only person in town who felt it wasn’t normal. She’d even heard her Aunt Louise and Aunt Beverly tittering about the firefighters one morning over coffee, Aunt Beverly wishing she were thirty years younger.
However, it was the third face that caught Jeannette’s attention.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” Macie said with a huge grin, pointing to the man.
Jeannette had heard Billy Mathers was back in town. For the first month or two, she had expected him to stop by to see her. Mercifully, he hadn’t. Three months had passed and she had foolishly begun to feel safe, thinking he was avoiding her, which suited her just fine.
So much for that small bit of luck. As if her life didn’t suck enough nowadays.
“Hey, Billy.” Jeannette inwardly winced at the bitterness in her tone. She’d had time to practice her response to him. She needed to do better than this.
Billy smiled at her, the same sweet smile he’d graced her with all those years ago when he’d won her heart in the tenth grade. “Hi, Nettie. Good to see you again.” Though his face had aged and his middle had widened, she could still see the boy he’d been underneath the man he had become. Unfortunately, the kind tone and greeting did nothing to calm her nerves.
“You too.” She choked out the lie awkwardly. The fact was it wasn’t good to see him. She had hoped to never see him again. Coming face-to-face with him now after all these years brought up a host of memories she’d thought were buried deep enough they would never see the light of day again. Apparently she’d been wrong about that too.
She didn’t have the energy for this. She really didn’t.
“You two know each other?” Diego asked.
Jeannette didn’t bother to answer. She didn’t need to. Macie was there, and when her vivacious cousin was in the room, it was unnecessary for Jeannette to speak. Which never really bothered Jeannette. She had always suffered from shyness, so Macie had assumed the role as her mouthpiece.
Sometimes that worked in Jeannette’s favor, allowing her to be a part of the conversation without having to put in much effort. Sometimes—like now—it wasn’t a great thing.
“Jeannette and Billy were quite the item back in high school. Dated for all of…how long was it, Nettie? Eight months? Nine?”
Jeannette shrugged. She’d dated Billy ten months, three weeks and four days. He’d been her first love. Hell, he’d been her only love.
“Quite a long run for teenagers,” Macie declared.
Jeannette could feel Billy’s eyes on her face, but she didn’t look in his direction. Instead, she focused all her attention on Macie, while trying to beat down the red flames heating her face. If she didn’t get out of here soon, she’d give herself a sunburn from the inside out.
Luc perked up and turned to Billy. “Her boyfriend, huh? Got any pointers for us sad saps she keeps refusing to go out with?”
The words were spoken in jest. Like they always were whenever Luc and Diego tried to convince her to date them. Usually, she’d just give them a warning look and walk away as they laughed, but hearing him make the joke in front of Billy made her stomach clench nervously.
“Here are your fries, Paige.” Jeannette handed them to her. “I need to clear some tables,” she announced to no one in particular as she walked away hastily, pointedly ignoring the surprised look on Macie’s face. As far as her cousin knew, Billy had been the love of Jeannette’s life, the boy who’d broken her heart, the one Jeannette had never gotten over. Clearly Macie had anticipated some conversation.
There were some parts of what her cousin believed that were true, but it was the stuff Macie didn’t know that had pretty much fucked Jeannette up.
She’d spent a lot of nights wondering how her life might have turned out differently if not for two things—the death of her parents, and Billy Mathers. While she had always suffered from shyness, she’d begun to shed some of that awkwardness in tenth grade, coming out of her shell. That was why Billy had noticed her. Jeannette had started taking more care with her looks, wearing makeup, trying to feminize the pixie cut her mother had insisted looked good on her, choosing outfits that didn’t scream convent.
That year had been the best of her life. She was gaining confidence, friends, and had gotten herself a boyfriend. She’d been on top of the world.
Then the bottom fell out. Her parents were killed in a car accident. Their deaths knocked her down hard, but not completely out. That final blow came from Billy. She had still been staggering to her feet when he’d delivered the knockout punch.
After that, she didn’t bother to stand up. She’d crawled into her shell and stayed there.
Which would be fine, if the fucking casing didn’t chafe so much.
She hoped no one was watching her as she began to clear away dirty dishes from a booth against the wall. If they were, they’d see her hands trembling.
Her Uncle TJ had been hanging out at the center table with a bunch of his cronies. As he was never one to let an awkward silence hover, he joined the conversation. “What brings you back to Maris, Billy?”
Jeannette eavesdropped as Billy explained the reason for his return. “My Uncle Roy’s been having some health issues lately, so Scott and I came back to help him keep the farm running.”
So Scott was back too. Jeannette had never been overly fond of Billy’s older brother. He’d been the poster child for bullying in school, using his larger size to intimidate anyone who was younger or smaller than he was. However, she’d never mentioned her dislike to Billy, who seemed to think his big brother hung the moon.
Everyone knew Billy and Scott would inherit Roy’s land when he passed away. The grumpy old man had never married, never had kids of his own. Like Scott, Roy was a mean son of a bitch.
Even so, Billy had been gone fifteen years. Part of Jeannette had hoped he’d simply sell his uncle’s land and split the profit with his brother, remaining far away from Maris. After all, it wasn’t like the boys had any long-standing ties to the community. They’d lived here a year and a half when they were teens after their mother had split up with stepfather number three, moving them again when she married bachelor number four.
“We moved around a lot when we were kids. I have to admit, Maris was the only place that ever felt like home,” Billy explained.
Jeannette caught a glimpse of Macie staring at her and she quickly looked away. This wasn’t good. No doubt the matchmaking wheels were already spinning madly in her cousin’s head. It wouldn’t be the first time Macie had tried to set her up with someone. Hell, it wouldn’t be the fiftieth time. Macie was relentless when it came Jeannette’s love life—or lack thereof.
“That’s great. I suspect there are a lot of folks around here who will be tickled to death to hear you’re planning to stick around,” Macie said, looking pointedly at Jeannette.
Jeannette’s chest tightened and her stomach roiled. She wouldn’t go out with Billy again. Not ever. But she couldn’t tell her cousin why. That was a secret she’d buried right along with herself a long time ago.
Billy demurred and Jeannette feared he would follow Macie’s gaze to her. She turned her back on them and forced herself to concentrate on the table, tossing the cups and dirty napkins in the bin, while returning the salt, pepper, ketchup and vinegar to the little basket that remained there.
“It’s good to see you again.”
Billy’s voice right behind her caught her unaware and she jumped, nearly dropping the tub of dirty dishes.
He reached out and helped her steady the load, his arm grazing hers. She recoiled at the touch as if he were a venomous snake, taking a quick step away from him.
Billy frowned as he studied her face, and then slowly nodded. “I should go.”
“Okay,” she said too hastily, too loudly.
“Goodbye, Nettie.” Billy turned to leave.
Jeannette gritted her teeth. She fucking hated that nickname. Her sister, Gia, had started calling her that when she was learning to talk, “Jeannette” clearly too big a mouthful for a little kid. It had been a sweet thing she’d shared with just her baby sister. Until she’d started dating Billy and he had picked it up as well, calling her Nettie at school. The name had stuck until everyone—her entire family included—began using the cursed moniker.
“I’ll walk out with you, Billy,” Uncle TJ said. “Need to check on my wife.”
Macie laughed and called out, “You need to check on Mom, or on those oatmeal raisin cookies she was baking earlier?”
TJ gave her a guilty grin. “Can’t I do both?”
Macie’s mom, Louise, and Aunt Beverly worked next door at Sparks Bakery. They made most of the desserts they served in the restaurant as well as the rolls for the sandwiches.
Macie didn’t appear to notice Jeannette’s unease when she walked behind the bar and set down the bin of dirty dishes.
“How about that?” Macie exclaimed. “Billy Mathers. Back in Maris.”
Diego glanced at Jeannette—and she realized that while Macie had been oblivious to the undercurrents flowing between her and Billy, Luc and Diego had not.
“Seems like a decent enough guy,” Diego said, fishing.
Macie grinned. “He’s a great guy. Nettie’s only boyfriend.”
Jeannette wanted to crawl under the counter as Diego and Luc digested that information. Unlike most everyone else in town, Diego and Luc were relative newcomers. They’d only been in Maris a few years, so they weren’t in possession of her long, sad life history. It set them apart because they didn’t know better than not to joke with Nervous Nettie. Rather than treating her like the leper every other guy in town gave a wide berth, Luc and Diego acted like she was a normal person.
If she really thought about it, she’d have to admit she liked that.
So she didn’t think about it.
Macie kept talking. “She was devastated when his family moved away.”
Jeannette was tempted to defend the devastated comment, but realized she couldn’t. No doubt her actions back then had resembled those of a heartbroken teenaged girl. If she objected, she’d have no way to explain her behavior, so she remained quiet.
“Roy Mathers is his uncle?” Diego asked.
Luc toyed with the label on his beer bottle. “Didn’t know Roy had any family. Seems too mean to have any real life ties. Sort of had him pegged as Satan, vacationing in Maris, tormenting people as recreation until he returned to Hell.”
Jeannette snorted, the sound escaping before she could stop it.
Luc gave her a pleased grin and winked. She quickly recovered as she narrowed her eyes in annoyance and looked away, her typical response to any and all of his attempts at charming her.
Diego and Luc were regulars in Sparks Barbeque. Hell, sometimes she thought they were there as much as she was. Neither man cooked, so it wasn’t unusual for them to eat a couple of their daily meals at the counter.
They were there often enough that the title of acquaintances had given way to that of friends. Not that they were close or anything. In fact, the only people she really considered friends were her relatives.
However, Diego and Luc were in the restaurant enough that Jeannette felt as if she had come to understand their moods. She could tell when one of them was in a foul temper, which was rare, or when they were exhausted due to a middle-of-the-night call. And she could identify those smug expressions that told her they’d had a particularly fun evening with someone of the opposite sex.
“Roy has a sister and she had Billy and Scott. They only lived here a couple of years,” Macie explained before she walked to the cash register to ring out a couple of patrons who’d risen to leave.
Jeannette tossed the dirty napkins into the trashcan, aware that Luc and Diego were looking at her a little too closely for her liking.
“Old boyfriend, huh?” Luc asked.
“It was high school. Ancient history.” She wished everyone would let the subject die.
“You know,” Macie said, once the customers had paid, “now that Billy is back—”
“No.” Jeannette raised her hand to stop anything else Macie might say. She knew exactly what her cousin was thinking and she was determined to put the brakes on before the key even hit the ignition. “I’m not interested in Billy. Period. End of sentence. Don’t even think about trying to fix us up.”
Macie opened her mouth to persist, but Jeannette shook her head vehemently. “I mean it, Macie. Absolutely not. Under no circumstances.”
Her cousin’s shoulders fell. “It’s not normal for a woman to never date.”
Jeannette grimaced, sick of this continual argument. “Why can’t you just believe me when I say I’m happy with my life as it is?”
Macie frowned. “You’re thirty-one, but you’d think you were eighty-one, the way you carry on. Don’t you think you’re a bit young to accept such a lonely life?”
Diego and Luc were listening, but neither man sought to interrupt them or interject their own opinions into the conversation. Jeannette was grateful for that. She was also slightly mortified.
“I’m not lonely, Mace. God, how could I be lonely in Maris? I can’t spit without hitting a relative, and I have Penny.”
Macie closed her eyes, a sure sign she was frustrated and perilously close to losing it. “Penny hardly counts as a life partner. It’s a damn cat!”
“She’s not an it. And I love that cat.”
Diego chucked. “How is dear Penny? Climb any trees lately?”
He was throwing her a life preserver, changing the subject to something safe.
Jeannette grabbed it. “I’d always thought that cat-stuck-in-a-tree thing was just a running joke in cartoons and old sitcoms.”
Luc rubbed the top of his hand. “Yeah, well, I got a scar from your wildcat that proves it’s not a very funny one.”
Jeannette felt compelled to defend her cat. “She was only a tiny thing. How badly could she have hurt you?”
Luc lifted his hand and, sure enough, there was a thin white line cutting across it.
“You move too fast, Luc. It’s always the same.” Diego turned his gaze to Jeannette, a wicked gleam in his eyes. “I’m forever telling him he needs to go slow, to stroke the pussy nice and easy until it’s purring.”
Macie laughed loudly at Diego’s off-color joke, but there was something in Diego’s expression and the tone of his voice that sent a different type of reaction through Jeannette. She frowned as she considered her unusual, somewhat aroused physical response. Sex wasn’t something she ever thought about or wanted. Just another way she was completely abnormal.
She’d always rejected Diego and Luc’s invitations for a date, then gone about her merry way without a regret. After all, they both wanted to date her. Both of them. She couldn’t manage to successfully spend time alone with one guy, let alone two. But for a moment, she let herself consider what that might be like.
She dismissed the thought the second she imagined being alone with Diego and Luc, because her stomach tightened and a cold sweat broke out on the back of her neck.
Yep. This was why she lived alone with a cat.
Macie called her uptight and constantly begged Jeannette to lighten up and relax, but that wasn’t something that came naturally to her. According to her grandmother, Jeannette had come out of the womb fretting and worrying and she hadn’t stopped since. Jeannette didn’t necessarily like that about herself, but she’d long ago accepted this was who she was and it didn’t seem likely to change. No matter how much she wanted it to.
“Hey, Nettie,” Rebecca called out from the corner booth. “Can I get a top up on this coffee?”
She nodded, grabbing the pot and walking over to pour. Then she returned to the bar, prepared for more of Macie’s attempted persuasion.
Four more regulars walked in, followed by Billy’s older brother, Scott. The bell over the door jingled to announce their arrival.
Wow. This day just kept getting better and better.
They were all guys Jeannette had gone to school with and, with the exception of Scott, were currently working for Sydney’s boyfriend Chas’ construction company. Something told her they were employing the five-o’clock-somewhere work ethic today, and Sparks wasn’t their first stop. She could smell beer on their breath as soon as they grabbed chairs at a table.
“Uh-oh,” Jeremiah Rogers said. “Nettie’s here, fellas. Keep all movements slow and easy. Don’t want to spook the poor little thing.”
She frowned. “Very funny, Jeremiah.”
The man was harmless, but he’d been teasing her since middle school about her shyness and tendency to jump at her own shadow. He certainly didn’t help matters, considering it was his habit to sneak up behind her and yell, “What are you doing?” loudly in her ear.
He gave her an affable grin. “You got anything good on the menu today? Boss gave us a half-day since we finished the last job on time. Thought we’d do some celebrating.”
Colby Markum leaned his elbows on the table in an attempt to steady his swaying. “Shoulda had lunch first,” he slurred.
All she’d had was one more freaking hour of work. Any other day, the lunch crowd in the restaurant would have thinned out and she could have coasted to quitting time. Today, sans energy, she was faced with two flirting firefighters, an ex-boyfriend and a bunch of drunken construction workers.
Macie offered them all coffee, but they opted for beer instead. Her cousin studied their faces, then decided they were likely more tipsy than drunk. She gave them the beer. Colby was the exception. He got the coffee. Of course, the added alcohol meant the men would only continue to get louder and more obnoxious.
She glanced at the clock. Thirty minutes left. Unfortunately, Adele wasn’t there yet, and who knew when TJ would saunter back in. Jeannette didn’t want to leave Sydney, Paige and Macie here alone to deal with the guys. It looked like she would have to clock some overtime.
So much for her nap on the couch.
She took the men’s orders, and then went back to the kitchen to warn Sydney they had their hands full.
Sydney shrugged lightly. “Those guys are all bluster and hot air. I’ll put the food together and if they start to get out of line, I’ll call Chas to come over.”
Jeannette hadn’t considered that. It was a good plan. “Oh, okay. Cool.”
Sydney studied her more closely, her eyes reflecting her concern. “Why don’t you take off, Nettie? Macie, Paige and I can handle things here. TJ’s just next door if we need him.”
The suggestion was inviting. However, despite her exhaustion, the thought of going home was suddenly no more appealing than staying here. The quiet of her house was almost as miserable as the noise in the restaurant.
Jesus, she was fucked-up. She wanted to cry, scream, sleep and punch someone all at the same time. Maybe it wasn’t Tyson she needed to see. Given her current state, she might be better off checking herself into a rubber room.
Loud laughter drifted from the dining room. Normal people having normal conversations. Having fun. Jeannette understood the concept even though the ability to have any of that herself seemed impossible. She tried to remember the last time she’d laughed. Really let go and gave in to a belly laugh, one that made her stomach hurt and tears flow.
She couldn’t recall, but she knew it had been years. She needed to get out of here.
“I think I’ll take you up on the offer.” Jeannette grabbed her purse, and then headed back to the dining room. Her car was parked out front on the street. She stepped behind the counter quickly to say goodbye to Macie.
“I’m going to sneak out a few minutes early. You okay here?”
Macie nodded. “Oh yeah. Sure. But will you at least consider going out with Billy? You really liked him back in school.”
Jeremiah perked up at Macie’s comment. “You and Mathers hooking up again? Damn, Nettie. I thought you’d given up on all men. You mean I might’ve had a shot all these years if I’d asked?”
She shook her head, fighting back tears. The man meant no harm, so her reaction was overblown, ridiculous. Even so, she turned away from them and simply threw out a haughty, “Not in a million years, Jeremiah.”
The rest of the guys laughed and she was forgotten before she’d taken two steps away from them. Or at least, she was forgotten by most.
Before she could make her escape, Scott rose from his chair and blocked her way. “Well, if it isn’t little Nettie, all grown up.”
She ignored the sneer in his voice, anxious to make her escape. “Hi, Scott.”
His gaze traveled over her in a way that made her skin crawl. “You haven’t changed much.”
He didn’t mean his words as a compliment. He’d never been particularly kind to her, teasing her when they were younger about her glasses and braces. She was used to guys ignoring her, but Scott was looking at her too closely and not bothering to hide his disdain.
“Neither have you,” she said, hating the thin, weak sound.
Macie stepped from behind the bar, clearly intent on rescuing her, but Diego and Luc beat her there.
“This guy bothering you?” Diego asked.
She shook her head, wishing Scott would just go back to his beer and leave her alone. Their little scene had caught the attention of everyone in the place, the conversations around them dying.
Scott wasn’t easily intimidated, even though he was clearly outmatched. “Just catching up with my brother’s old girlfriend.”
Belatedly, Jeannette realized Scott wasn’t merely tipsy like the other guys. He was drunk. Wasted. And it didn’t improve his personality.
“Never did understand what he s-saw in you,” Scott slurred. “Scared little mouse. All I can figure is you must’ve been one hell of a lay.”
Macie flew by her, but Jeannette had anticipated the response. She grabbed her cousin’s arm, holding her back before Macie could slap the asshole.
However, it wasn’t her cousin who needed restraint.
Diego and Luc were on the guy like white on rice. Luc twisted Scott’s arm behind his back, while Diego leaned forward, his face furious. “Apologize to her.”
Scott’s inebriated state became even more obvious as he clumsily stumbled, unable to break free of Luc’s grip.
“Now,” Diego stressed.
Scott gave her a sideways glance and spat out the least sincere “sorry” in the history of the world. Then Luc dragged him to the door.
Macie followed, yelling, “Don’t even try to show your ugly face in here again!”
“Jesus, Nettie. I’m so sorry,” Jeremiah said. “Met up with Scott at the last bar. We started reminiscing about school days and he seemed okay. I never would have invited him here with us if I’d known he would—”
“It’s okay, Jeremiah. It’s not your fault. He never was a very nice guy.”
Jeremiah seemed relieved by her easy forgiveness. “Fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess. His uncle is a Grade-A son of a bitch too.”
She nodded but didn’t reply. She needed to get the hell out of here.
Diego and Luc were settling up their tab with Macie.
“Hold up, Jeannette,” Diego said, raising his hand. “We’ll walk out with you.”
She didn’t want to wait, but didn’t know how to say no thanks after they’d just defended her. She paused as Macie gave them their change, then said goodbye.
Her car was at the end of the block, so she sped up her pace. If she could just get there, they wouldn’t have time to—
“You okay?” Diego asked.
Shit. So much for that.
Jeannette nodded. “I’m fine.”
Luc reached for her hand, pulling her to a stop. She jerked when his hand touched hers, tugging it out of his clasp. Regardless, he’d managed to turn her to face him. “Are you crying?”
His question must’ve caught Diego’s attention as the other man stepped in front of her. They were huge guys, both well over six feet tall. The height difference was rarely apparent, as her usual association with them was at the restaurant and they were sitting while she stood. Now she felt like David facing two Goliaths.
It also didn’t help that their chosen career path required they be physically strong. Their workouts at the gym added width to the height. They had broad shoulders, huge pecs and firm biceps.
In the past, big guys had always scared her, gave off this air of danger. But as she’d gotten to know Luc and Diego better, it wasn’t fear that kept her eyes averted. It was the funny feeling in her stomach she got whenever she looked at them. Attraction wasn’t normal…or particularly comfortable for her.
Diego had black hair and eyes that betrayed his Latino heritage. She’d never asked about his family, never wanted to invite that sort of closeness, but she’d heard him mention that his mother was originally from Brazil, while his father was born and bred in Jersey. Luc bore a slight resemblance to his best friend, but his hair was dark brown compared to the black of Diego’s.
Luc’s hazel eyes were framed by thick lashes that accentuated his emotions, making his laugh lines more prominent, his scowls darker, and his sadness deeper. She felt as if she could read everything he felt simply by gazing into his beautiful eyes.
Beautiful? Jesus. Get a grip, Jeannette. They’re just eyes.
Then she recalled Luc’s question and realized they were still waiting for an answer. “No, I’m not crying. It’s the pollen in the air. I have allergies.” Sometimes she was amazed at her ability to spin lies so quickly. If anyone ever asked her to list her talents, lying would be second only to cooking.
Diego frowned. “I don’t think we’ve hit that season yet. It’s only early March and still pretty chilly.”
She shrugged but didn’t respond. She’d learned that silence was also an effective way of avoiding the truth.
Diego ran one finger along her cheek. It was a friendly gesture, but it sent a spark of electricity gliding along her skin. “Don’t let that guy get to you, Jeannette. He’s a drunk prick.”
“I know that.”
“And as for those other goofballs,” Luc added, “they’re harmless, if a bit stupid.”
She grinned. “I know that too.” Jeremiah had always been the class clown, but underneath it all, he was a decent person who wouldn’t hurt her feelings for anything.
“I really am fine,” she repeated, because it was the only thing she could think of to say. In polite society, most people accepted those words at face value and walked on.
Diego didn’t seem to have a working knowledge of the concept. “Are you sure? You’ve been pretty quiet lately.”
She snorted, the sound pure derision. “How the hell can you tell that? I’m always quiet.”
Both men were taken aback by her sudden burst of anger.
“Jeannette…” Diego reached for her hand, but pulled up short as she visibly stiffened. Their gazes connected for a moment, his black eyes going dark with something that looked too much like recognition. She broke the link quickly, looking down at the sidewalk.
Fear accompanied that thought before she dismissed it. She was being silly. Paranoid.
“I’m sorry,” she spat out, desperate to escape. Her bad mood certainly wasn’t their fault and she felt terrible taking it out on them. But part of her was angry. At them and herself. As always, she’d been the victim in her own life story, letting others defend her, save her.
She was tired of being so weak, but when faced with standing up, she’d always found it easier to retreat.
Speaking of which, she needed to get out of here. “I’m just feeling out of sorts. I’ll sleep it off and hopefully tomorrow I’ll wake up on the right side of the bed.”
“Or,” Luc said, leaning closer, “you could consider going out with us tonight. Line dancing at Cruisers? And if it goes well, you could wake up in the wrong bed instead.”
“You’re relentless.” There was no heat behind her complaint.
She’d always been annoyed by their constant flirting, but lately she was starting to like it. It made her feel good. Which was bad.
Most of the guys in town were born and bred in Maris, which meant they didn’t bother to flirt with her. They all remembered the awkward, shy girl she’d been growing up, the buckteeth it had taken four years of braces to correct and the big-framed glasses she was forever pushing up. The boys from town knew that, besides Billy Mathers, she’d never dated anyone and didn’t want to.
She’d even caught wind once that there was a small contingency in town that thought she might be a lesbian. She hadn’t bothered to correct the misconception; she’d figured it would keep would-be suitors away—if there had been any.
Luc and Diego were the exception. They didn’t have the same background information that her family and most everyone else in town did. They flirted with her, asked her out regularly and actually looked at her as if she were pretty, and not some shapeless plain Jane who wore her dirty-blonde hair in an out-of-date hairstyle and whose boring brown eyes were still hidden behind glasses.
“You realize we’re going to keep asking until you give in.” Luc was one of those dangerously handsome guys who used his looks to his advantage. It was no wonder every woman in town—including her aunts—had fallen under his spell. He’d flash those puppy-dog eyes and dimples until women were tripping over their own feet to get closer.
God. She really was feeling vulnerable. Because, for the first time ever, she was tempted to throw caution to the wind and say yes. Which would be utter insanity.
“What’s holding you back?” Diego asked.
It was the first time they’d ever questioned her reasons for rejecting them. “Maybe the fact that you’re just kidding?”
Luc reared back as if she’d struck him. “Kidding? This isn’t a joke, Jeannette. Our invitation is sincere.”
She wasn’t sure how to reply to that. “Really?”
Diego threw his hands up, his eyes flying heavenward in exasperation. “Yes, really. Why in the hell would you think we were kidding?”
She shrugged, uncertain how she could explain that they were breaking an unwritten Maris code. The one that stated Jeannette Sparks was shy and standoffish and not on the market. She’d had her name jotted down in the Spinster for Life column since high school. If that had actually been a Who’s Who category, she would have won it by a unanimous vote.
Finally, stupidly, she said, “Because no one ever asks me out.”
“Why not?” Diego obviously had no intention of letting this go.
Her exhaustion gave way to an annoyance that quickly sparked to anger. “Because I don’t want them to.”
Diego opened his mouth, clearly planning to repeat the same question, and she snapped. “Why can’t you guys just fall in line like everyone else around here and accept that this is who I am?”
Diego looked over his shoulder and she felt a brief moment of victory. He was looking for an escape.
Or that was what she thought—before he grabbed her hand and began tugging her away from her car.
She dug her feet in. “I’m parked right there,” she said, pointing at her VW bug.
Luc followed behind, adding his own strength to Diego’s, with his hand on her back. They propelled her across the street and into the park at the end of the block. They didn’t stop dragging her until they’d found a quiet bench.
She’d only heard Diego use that demanding tone a handful of times, most recently with Scott in the restaurant, but he’d never spoken like that to Jeannette. She should have been afraid, but that wasn’t the response her body had. Again, she felt that annoying tingle between her legs. She pressed them together as she dropped to the bench heavily. Her anger evaporated as quickly as it had appeared.
Neither man joined her. So now they were really looming over her.
Diego crossed his arms. “You want to explain that last comment?”
She shook her head. “Not really.”
Luc took pity on her, sitting down beside her. “What is it you think we’re supposed to see?”
“Me. Nervous Nettie. The quiet Sparks girl. The awkward, shy one who doesn’t date and doesn’t have much personality. The woman most likely to grow up to be that horrible great aunt you have to invite to Christmas even though you’d rather not because she criticizes everyone and complains all the time and smells like mothballs.”
Diego scowled. “You’re joking about all of that, right?”
She shrugged. She wasn’t. Not at all.
Luc looked seriously shell-shocked by her admission. “You’re wrong, Jeannette. You’re not awkward. You’re pretty and sweet. And quiet isn’t a sin, you know. There are a lot of folks in this town who could stand to shut up a lot more.”
She laughed softly, and then she confessed something she’d never said aloud. “I don’t think it’s the town who hates me for who I am. It’s me. I want to be different. I’m tired of worrying about stupid stuff, pushing people away and being lonely as a result. I’m sick of letting other people fight my battles for me, like you guys just did, because I’m too weak to stand up for myself.”
Diego claimed the other side of her on the bench. “Then change.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah. Because that’s so simple. I’ve lived in Maris my whole life and I can tell you right now, everyone has their own pigeonholes and no one escapes them, especially not Nervous Nettie.”
Diego twisted, resting his arm along the back on the bench. “Of course you can.”
“No. I can’t.”
She considered Diego’s question and realized she didn’t have much of an answer. “Sometimes I can’t tell if people are reacting to my personality, or if my personality is driven by the way people treat me.”
Luc grasped her hand. Her heart and stomach fluttered in unison at the touch. Ordinarily she would have pulled away, but she forced herself to accept the friendly gesture.
“So you start small,” Luc suggested. “What’s the most out-of-character thing you could do? Something that would shock the town, but wouldn’t be impossible for you to carry out? Impromptu trip? New haircut? Wardrobe? Contacts?”
“A date with you guys.” The words fell out before she could reconsider them. She rushed to recover. “I’m kidding!”
Diego shook his head. “No, you aren’t. And you’re right. That would catch everyone’s attention. Shed a different light on you.”
“We’re doing it,” Luc said, with complete confidence.
Panic began to set in. “Wait. I don’t think—”
“Stop thinking. We’re picking you up Saturday night and we’re going dancing. Wear the tightest blue jeans you have, a silky blouse and leave your hair down.” Diego used that damn deep voice against her once more. It was distractingly hot.
Hot? She didn’t think of guys as hot or sexy or…anything.
Her mouth had gone dry, making it difficult to respond. “Okay.”
Both men offered her breathtaking, blindingly beautiful smiles.
Luc leaned closer. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Self-preservation kicked in. “Just dancing. Nothing else.”
Diego didn’t acknowledge her request. “We’re going with the flow, Jeannette. Nothing’s going to be taken off the table or planned ahead of time.”
“But nothing,” Diego said, grasping her other hand and helping her rise from the bench. “You want to change and we’re going to help. You can fight us in the attempt or you can accept that it’s going to happen.”
His comment sparked a realization. “Why do you guys call me Jeannette? No one else does.”
Diego shrugged. “Always got the impression you hate being called Nettie.”
She did, but no one had ever noticed that before. “I do.”
“So we’ll make that part of the change. The good people of Maris aren’t going to know what hit them when Jeannette Sparks comes to town.”
The countdown to Tuesday’s release of No Other Way, the fourth book in the Sparks in Texas series, has begun. As such, I thought it might be fun to give you some first chapter peeks at the first three books. If you haven’t started this series, now is a great time. The first book (a prequel), Sparks Fly is a free read.
Sparks in Texas, prequel
I Do is the easy part. Happily ever after? Not so much.
Evan and Annie are deeply in love, but that hasn’t stopped tension from creating cracks in their relationship. Determined not to fail his wife, Evan takes action before those cracks become craters, damaging their marriage irreparably. Over the Fourth of July weekend, he’ll reignite Annie’s passion with his own brand of fireworks.
Stand back and watch the sparks fly.
~ ~ ~
“Good morning, Gran. What brings you here so early? We usually don’t see you until lunchtime.” Sydney Sparks put a clean coffee cup down in front of Mrs. Parsons, her grandmother through self-appointed adoption, and filled it for her.
“I actually stopped by because I wanted to see you.”
Sydney rested her arms on the counter and grinned. She’d known Mrs. Parsons, Chas’ grandmother, for most of her life. Chas and Sydney had grown up together, best friends since the first day of kindergarten. His grandmother and uncle had raised Chas, so Sydney had spent a lot of time in Gran’s kitchen after school or on hot summer afternoons as she and Chas mooched homemade chocolate chip cookies or ice-cold lemonade.
“Well, that’s nice of you. But I just saw you the day before yesterday in the grocery store.”
Gran took a sip of her coffee. “Yes, but that was before I got this.” Gran slid an envelope across the counter.
Sydney recognized the handwriting instantly and her blood went cold. She’d been anticipating this moment for several weeks now. Chas had enlisted in the Marines fresh out of high school, shipping off for basic training just two weeks after graduation. Since then, he’d re-upped twice.
The time had run out on his third term of service and Sydney expected—feared—he’d continue his tour for a fourth.
Chas had spent the majority of the past decade in the Middle East. A fact that had cost Sydney—and she suspected Gran as well—countless nights of sleep. His unit had been deployed to Iraq once and he was currently finishing up a third tour in Afghanistan. He’d been shot twice, lost several friends in skirmishes with militant forces and seen horrors Sydney couldn’t even begin to imagine. Not that Chas talked about it much. Usually whenever he was home for too-brief, too-infrequent visits, he purposely didn’t discuss his experiences overseas. And Sydney didn’t press because she understood his desire to put it all away, to forget about it for a little while.
But she’d seen the truth in his eyes. They weren’t the same twinkling, mischievous sky blue they’d been when they were kids. Instead, they were now serious, haunted and she’d swear they had faded to slate gray, though she wasn’t sure if it was possible for eyes to actually change color.
Sydney looked at the envelope, but made no move to pick it up.
“Aren’t you going to read it?” Gran asked.
Sydney shook her head. “Not much point. I know what it says.”
Gran seemed surprised. “You do? He told you his plans?”
Sydney lifted one shoulder casually, hoping she could hide her disappointment but suspecting Gran wouldn’t be fooled. “I know Chas. He’ll do another four years.”
Gran grinned. “Maybe you don’t know him as well as you think.”
Sydney wasn’t sure how to respond as hope flared. “He didn’t sign on for another stint?”
Gran shook her head. “No. He’s coming home, Sydney. To stay.”
Sydney struggled to take a breath, certain she’d heard Gran wrong, that her mind was playing tricks on her and letting her hear what she wanted to hear because it simply couldn’t accept the truth.
“Home?” she whispered.
Gran rose from her stool slowly and reached out to clasp Sydney’s hand in hers, squeezing it gently. “Our boy is coming back to us.”
“But I thought…”
Gran patted Sydney’s cheek. “I thought the same. Thought he’d keep going back until he got too old. Figured he’d work until it was time to retire.” Lifting the letter, Gran slipped it into Sydney’s hand. “He’ll be back a week from Monday. He’s begged me not to plan a welcome-home party, says he doesn’t want it.”
Sydney smiled. “That sounds like Chas. He hates to be the center of attention.”
“Only kid I ever knew who pitched a fit if someone threw him a birthday party. Even so, I was hoping you’d come to the airport with Julian and me to pick him up. I think he’d be right pleased to see you there when he gets off that plane.”
Julian was Chas’ uncle, though Sydney swore the man could have been Chas’ father. She’d never seen two men look more alike. They were both tall—nearly six-five—and broad, muscular. Their size should, and did, make them intimidating…until they opened their mouths to speak. Two kinder, funnier men have never lived. Gran called them her giant teddy bears. It was an apt description.
“I’d love to come to the airport, if you’re sure you don’t mind. I don’t want to intrude on a family reunion.”
Gran waved her concern away. “You are family, Sydney. You have been since you were knee high to a grasshopper.”
The fact that Chas was coming home—really coming home—was finally starting to sink in. Sydney couldn’t have stopped smiling if her life depended on it.
“I’ll make a sign,” Sydney said. “A huge welcome home banner. And I’ll make him his favorite—red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.”
Gran stepped away from the counter. “Well, I best be going. I’ll call you later in the week with the details for our trip to the airport.”
Sydney started to hand the letter back, but Gran refused to take it. “No. That’s for you.”
Sydney couldn’t understand why Gran wanted her to have the letter, but she kept it, tucking it in the pocket of her apron as she walked around the counter to hug the woman. As big as her boys were, that’s as small as Gran was. Barely touching five feet, she was fairly petite. Sydney had noticed Gran seemed to be shrinking, but that fact didn’t diminish the woman’s strength. When Gran hugged her, Sydney felt it all the way to her bones and it made her feel warm, cherished.
“Thank you for being such a good friend to my boy. I’m glad he’s had you in his life all these years.”
Sydney felt tears form in the corners of her eyes, though she tried to hold them back. Gran was a kind woman, but she didn’t hand out a lot of compliments, nor did she talk about her feelings much. She showed her love for Chas and Julian, and by extension, Sydney, through her actions…and food. So her words felt like a precious gift to Sydney. Something she’d never forget.
Gran didn’t wait for her to respond. Instead, she released Sydney, gave her a quick wink and left. Sydney walked back to the counter, claiming the seat Gran had just vacated. Pulling the letter out of her pocket, Sydney unfolded the single sheet of paper, amazed how so few words could change so much in her life.
It simply said, Gran, I’m finished with the Marines. It’s time for me to take Uncle Julian up on that offer of a job. I’ll be home in a couple of weeks to stay. Warn Sydney. Much love and see you soon, Chas.
Warn Sydney. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
Sydney laughed and rolled her eyes. Who knew with Chas? They’d gone from rough-and-tumble friends—climbing trees, swimming in the river, and building forts in her backyard—to very brief childhood sweethearts. Chas had been her date to the senior prom when both of them found themselves faced with that option or going stag. Neither of them had dated much in high school. Chas worked after school and during the summer at his uncle Julian’s construction company, while Sydney spent a great deal of time working in the family restaurant, Sparks Barbeque.
Between work and school, the two of them typically chose to spend their down time simply hanging out watching TV or eating cheeseburgers at the local diner with a handful of Sydney’s cousins—she had a gazillion—and a few other friends.
Then prom had come along. Sydney suspected Chas had issued his invitation because Gran had either threatened or bribed him. He’d been content to skip the whole affair. Dancing wasn’t Chas’ thing. Hell, it wasn’t hers either, but she’d still desperately wanted to go to the prom. She’d been relieved when Chas asked her because she hadn’t liked the idea of showing up alone.
Sydney had actually laughed and called him James Bond, hoping to dispel some of the nervousness she’d felt when he’d shown up at her house in his uncle’s fancy sports car and dressed in a tuxedo. She’d expected him to punch her in the arm and tell her to shut up for teasing him, but instead he’d taken one look at her and said, “You’re beautiful.” His tone had been the perfect blend of awe and astonishment. Friend Sydney had wanted to call him to task for acting so freaking surprised, but the teenaged girl who’d never had a boyfriend, never had a boy tell her she was pretty, was too touched to respond.
“You look great too,” she’d said at last, hating how lame her compliment seemed when compared to his, and sorry she had laughed when she’d first seen him. The truth was he had looked incredibly hot in his tuxedo.
Then the night had gone the complete opposite of how Sydney had expected. She’d been perfectly prepared for them to find their usual crowd of friends and fast dance in a pack all night, while taking bathroom or water breaks during the slow songs. Chas clearly had different plans. He’d drawn them away from the others, his focus solely on her. It almost felt as if he couldn’t take his eyes off her. It was a heady, wonderful feeling.
When a slow song played, he pulled her into his arms and for the first time, Sydney felt that spark she’d heard other girls allude to and she was overcome with unfamiliar feelings of desire and need. She wanted him…wanted Chas.
She’d never understood what the fuss was about, never worried or wondered much about sex. Sometimes she feared that part of her was broken. Sydney had always been too practical to fall for a bunch of romantic bullshit and she was more tomboy than girly.
Chas had proven to her that she was just as capable of feeling lust as the next horny teenager. When his lips brushed her cheek, all bets were off.
They’d spent the rest of the evening sneaking seductive touches, the heat building steadily between them until midnight. They’d planned to go out for a midnight breakfast with some friends. Instead, Chas took her to a secluded spot by the lake. It was the same place they’d come to a million times as kids, swimming and diving off the rocks and dunking each other during the lazy days of summer that seemed endless and too brief all at the same time.
He grabbed a blanket from the trunk of the car, took her hand and led her down to the small, sandy cove. The place was deserted, and for a moment, Sydney could imagine they were the only two people on the planet.
He laid the blanket out and then reached for her. Sydney walked into his arms as if she belonged there, as if she’d spent a lifetime in his embrace. Neither of them spoke. She knew why they were here. It was where she wanted to be.
Chas kissed her then. Their first true kiss. His lips touched hers without hesitation. She marveled at his confidence. She knew all about Chas’ experience with kissing and other sexual things. They were best friends. They had no secrets from each other.
His knowledge was only slightly less limited than hers. He was a virgin too. Most guys wouldn’t have admitted to such a thing, but Chas didn’t seem to care. He’d always claimed there weren’t any girls in Maris, Texas, he wanted to be with and none of the other boys in their group ever gave him shit for it as far as Sydney knew. Who would? There was no one of their acquaintance who was willing to risk Chas’ wrath. He was huge and could kick all of their asses…at the same time.
Besides, Chas had always sort of been wise beyond his years. He didn’t fall victim to peer pressure or the typical teenage bullying tactics that bothered so many other kids in school. He knew who he was and what he wanted from life and everyone understood it.
The kiss went on for what had felt like ages to Sydney at the time. However, when she looked back, she cursed how quickly it had passed. Chas had unzipped her dress, carefully placing it on the blanket, then taken off his jacket and shirt. Sydney had seen him in his bathing suit more than his regular clothes over the years, but she’d never opened her eyes and really looked. He’d taken her breath away that night. And then the rest of their clothes fell away—shoes were kicked off, then her bra and panties, and his boxers were tossed onto the pile.
Sydney marveled over how free and comfortable she’d felt in that moment. There had been no shyness between them, only wonder. That younger version of herself had been much more confident in her appearance than the woman she’d become since. Sydney realized she’d never be able to stand in front of Chas these days completely naked with such ease. Not that she planned to be naked with Chas again.
Of course, she hadn’t planned it that night, either.
Chas had laid her down on the blanket, fished a condom out of his pants and then just like that, he was inside her. She’d expected pain, but there hadn’t been any. Just this amazing sensation of being filled, being whole. Chas had kissed her throughout and Sydney ran her fingers through his dark hair. She’d gripped it tightly as she wrapped her legs around his waist. She’d never wanted the night to end.
But time stops for no one, not even young lovers. Chas had held her afterwards, his gaze never leaving her face. She wasn’t sure what he’d been looking for. Regret, pain, fear? He wouldn’t have seen any of those things. The only thing she’d felt was love. Blinding, breathtaking, soul-stealing love.
Maybe that was what Chas had been looking for, because he’d kissed her and just before his lips left hers, he’d whispered, “I love you too.” She’d started to say she hadn’t uttered those words, but didn’t bother. The too was accurate.
They didn’t say anything else that night. They had remained there, staring at the sky and then, after some time had passed, Chas had taken her again. After that, they’d fallen asleep, a brief respite before Chas nudged her awake and told her they needed to go home.
For one don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it month, Chas had been hers. All hers. They’d been inseparable for four perfect weeks. And then he’d left, gone to the Marines. He’d told her he would always love her and that she would always be his best friend. Then he’d instructed her not to wait.
Sydney had started to protest, but Chas made her promise not to. He knew her too well, knew she’d never be happy living anywhere besides Maris. She’d known the ending to their story the night she had walked down to that beach with him and given him her virginity.
And if she were placed in that spot a million times over, she’d make the same choice. Every. Single. Time.
Sydney hadn’t waited for him. At least, not intentionally. The first time Chas had come home after basic training ended, she’d wondered how it would be between them. But Chas had remained true to his word. Instead of the sweet, attentive boyfriend he’d been when he’d left, her fun-loving, nothing-serious friend had returned. She’d been grateful to him for keeping things casual, for helping her make the break.
Until he’d informed her on the last night of his trip home that he was being deployed to Iraq.
Then she’d been angry and sad and terrified. He’d taken her to the lake to tell her about his placement. She’d punched him in the stomach—hurting her fist more than him—and railed at him for wasting their time together. All she could think was that he could die.
He’d taken her cursing and her punch in stride. The man was a solid wall of muscle and so emotionally stable that sometimes when they’d been younger, she’d tried to push his buttons just to get a rise out of him. It had never worked. She suspected his steady attitude would make him a wonderful Marine. He could think and react without emotions gumming up the works.
He’d let her persist with her tirade—tantrum, actually—for several minutes, then he’d gripped her upper arms and tugged her against his chest, holding her so tightly she feared she’d break.
He had kissed her forehead and tried to explain again why it was better this way. Better for her to move on without him. The words had made sense, but they hadn’t changed her feelings, hadn’t taken away the unbearable ache in her chest, the pain slicing through her heart.
Instead of telling him it was okay, she’d been cruel. Told him it only made things easier for him. Now he could fuck his way across the world without feeling any guilt.
Of all the things she’d said and done in her life, her actions on that night were still on the top of her list of regrets. Chas didn’t return home for a year after that confrontation. When he had, he was distantly polite—a favor she’d returned because she’d been too ashamed of herself and uncertain how to fix what she’d done.
It had taken two more years before they’d broken through the chill and found their way back to the friendship they’d always enjoyed. Since then, she’d written him a letter a month, and whenever he made his way back to the States, they hung out just like they had when they were kids. They’d never crossed the line into a physical relationship again and if anyone asked, Sydney assured them what she and Chas had shared had been nothing more than a high-school-sweethearts phase, then she swore it was over.
Chas’ words kept returning to her. While she was grateful he was returning home, she didn’t fool herself into believing it would be easy for her to maintain a friendship without longing for more. She tried to tell herself she’d built up that first time, that she could only recall that night of the prom with a starry-eyed teenaged girl’s too-whimsical, too-romantic memory. It couldn’t have been as perfect as she remembered.
So did he want his gran to warn her of his pending return so that she could gird her loins, strengthen her resolve and find a way to maintain the status quo?
She sighed, and then decided she’d managed to get through the last twelve years’ worth of days without him, though the fact he’d been on another continent had certainly made that simpler.
Surely she could handle a few dozen more years alone, even with him nearby.