“You ready?” Jessie hesitated, embarrassed about the collection Grandma left. She led B.J. up the hardwood stairs to the second floor. The scent of his musky cologne preceded him.
B.J. smirked. “Born that way.”
“I doubt it.” Her hand gripped the metal doorknob. When she’d inherited the Double D Ranch from her grandparents, the cache in the upstairs bedroom came as a complete shock. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, steeling herself for his reaction. The area behind the door once housed Grandma’s sewing room but now…
The mess was as awe-inspiring as it was overwhelming, which had been why she enlisted the help of the reluctantly altruistic B.J.
“Well?” he grunted, crossing his arms as he waited. A hard worker, the thirty-two-year-old man had caught her eye a year ago with a smile that lit his face. The smile disappeared, however, when his wife left him for another man. Now the handsome man scowled as a hobby.
Her hesitant fingers tightened around the smooth knob, slowly her wrist shifted, and the latch popped. The door opened a crack. “You ready?” she repeated, taking another deep breath.
He shifted his feet with impatience. “Already said I was.”
Words could do little to describe the mess or the enormity of it. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever encountered but Jessie found it embarrassing, nonetheless.
She could’ve had a cleaning party with her best friends, Kelly and Mona, but they’d heckle her to hell and back with what they’d find, plus the whole town would find out in no time. She didn’t want her grandma’s neurotic obsession, the Davidson version of the skeleton in the closet, to become known.
Then there was Josiah. He’d keep the secret. But being confined with the cowboy made it hard for Jessie to breathe. Her father trusted B.J. and laboring beside a stranger would be easier than dealing with the funny feelings bumping elbows with Josiah caused.
No, B.J. was her only option.
She swallowed then pushed the door open. The hinges creaked, filling the silence.
B.J. blinked twice. “What the hell?”
Books--thousands and thousands of paperback books, all romance novels--were stacked in neat rows from floor to ceiling. The bedroom was full save for a three by three space on the floor. It was a dark closet with book wallpaper. To say her grandmother had loved to read was an understatement.
B.J. pushed on the stacks a few times but nothing moved, it was solid. He whistled low.
The confounded man stood with hands on hips staring at the twelve-foot ceiling line. “How am I going to reach the top?”
“I planned ahead, knowing you weren’t ten feet high.” Jessie retrieved a four-foot step stool from behind the door. She unfolded it and he climbed up. In the hallway, a stack of plastic storage totes waited to be filled. She retrieved one and placed it next to the base of the ladder.
Many of the books had worn spines and dog-eared pages. Memories of Grandma flitted to mind. When Jessie was in elementary school she’d climbed into her grandma’s warm lap and asked, “Why do you read them?”
Grandma’s eyes had crinkled as she smiled. “Love, child. They are filled with love. Everyone wants to live happily ever after. Someday, Jessie, you’ll find it too.” She’d tweaked Jessie’s nose then tickled her.
“Hey, Jessie,” B.J. spoke, startling her. He glanced down from the ladder. “You’re gonna need more tubs. What the hell kind of books are these, anyway?” He stared at the cover of a scantily clad woman leaning against a bare chested man in leather pants. “Werewolves in Heat?”
“Grandma had a thing for romance novels.” Jessie shrugged, feeling her face heat.
“Honey, it was more than a thing. She hoarded the damn books.”
B.J. was right. One stack near the wall held one hundred and forty books. Some stacks had thinner books, equaling more
Jessie was grateful for the longhorn cattle ranch her grandparents left her, even if it hid her grandmother’s secret. Her grandparents each died within a year and her breath hitched thinking about them. Josiah had worked for her grandpa Don but stayed on as foreman when she inherited.
As if on cue, Josiah’s sun-kissed face peeked around the corner. The dusty tip of his boot and a stray piece of hay sent her mind reeling to the night he’d found her crying in the hayloft. The memory of his lips on her neck sent a shiver down her spine.
He pointed to B.J. who reached for more books, and mouthed, “You okay?”
Her heart tripped when she gazed into his curious eyes framed with a brow etched with concern. She gave a thumbs up then waved him off, slightly annoyed yet comforted he was checking on her.
SEX. IT HAD BEEN ON her mind way too much lately, as evidenced by the screams of her passengers, the one-finger salute of the passing sedan, and the flashing blue and red lights in the rearview mirror.
“Holy crap, Kelly!” Piper Dart yelled from the backseat. “You could’ve killed us.” Then she laughed.
Kelly Jo Greene swallowed the bile in her throat, signaled, and turned into the parking lot of the Wertz grocery. She hated that feeling of seeing police lights behind her. She pulled into an end row as far from the store as possible and shifted into park. Pressing back into her seat, she closed her eyes, hoping no one she knew would drive by. She drew in a deep breath.
“Uh oh,” Jessie Barnes said.
Kelly’s lids popped open in time to see her parents’ wide-eyed, nosy neighbor Rose Bush driving past and slip into a handicap parking slot. Kelly grimaced. Her mother would know as soon as Ms. Bush got to a phone. Ugh. She’d get a lecture from her father about insurance costs. She groaned and Jessie patted her arm.
Sometimes living in a small town sucked. Nobody could get away with anything. Most times, it was a good thing, but she was a twenty-seven-year-old woman and a full-time teacher, and she could take care of herself. A smile flitted across her lips but fell off again when she looked at the rearview mirror.
The officer in mirrored sunglasses made her heart gallop. She glanced away, hoping it wasn’t anyone she knew. But in Fortuna, Texas, that was impossible, since her sister-in-law worked at the station and her father golfed with the chief, Colin Copper. And she had gone to school with most of the younger guys.
The side mirror revealed the squad car door opening. The man approached her car. She tried to meld with the seat but couldn’t vanish. He paused next to her door, and she swallowed, lowering the window.
“Howdy, Ben,” Piper said from the backseat. She stuck her hand out Kelly’s window and waved. Ever since the officer had helped Cole, Piper’s husband, rescue her from the stalker who kidnapped her, the couple considered him a close friend.
“Good afternoon, ladies.” Ben tipped his head so Kelly could see his dark eyes over the mirrored lenses. “Kelly, do you know why I stopped you?”
No, she didn’t. Well, not really. It appeared daydreaming and driving don’t mix. Kelly may have run a stop sign, almost hit someone, and nearly killed her friends. She opened her mouth to speak, but Piper answered for her. “Kelly’s clueless. She’s been thinking about sex.”
“Again,” Jessie mumbled.
Kelly jerked her head toward her friends. Her neck ached from whiplash. “What?” Her cheeks heated, and she knew her face was the same color as her cherry red car.
Ben pushed the glasses back and leaned forward. “Ladies?”
Jessie giggled, but Piper took command of the mystery. “She’s had this brilliant smile for the last few days. It has to be a guy.”
Kelly’s face pulled tight into a high smile. She couldn’t help it. She hadn’t meant that night to happen, but it did. It had left its mark, though.
“Yes, she’s been smiling for days. It started Wednesday.” Jessie looked to Piper to confirm.
“No, that smile was there Wednesday morning. It had to have been Tuesday night, because Tuesday afternoon she wasn’t in a good mood.” Piper rolled down the back window, letting in the warm humid morning air. “Whatever happened, happened Tuesday night. It just has to be a guy.”
“Not Sawyer, either,” Jessie chimed in.
Kelly clamped her fingers around the wheel and clenched her teeth at the mention of her ex-boyfriend’s name.
“See. Look at that frown. It’s definitely not him.” Jessie pointed to Kelly’s face as Piper stuck her head between the headrests to see it.
“I saw Kelly Tuesday night,” Ben offered.
Kelly sucked in a quick breath and glanced at him with her peripheral vision. His eyes were hidden, but one side of his lips quirked up in a smirk.
Both of her friends leaned so they could better see Ben’s face, their eyes wide in expectation. “Well, it was at Hammered. I suppose she was hungry, because she sat down at the bar and ordered a burger. That was before she noticed Mona flirting with Sawyer.”
He’d said Mona with a hint of hostility. They had gone on a couple of dates before Mona decided Ben wasn’t her type. Kelly never understood why Mona wasn’t attracted to Ben.
Jessie groaned. “Not those two.”
Kelly crossed her arms and held tight. Mona used to be one of her best friends, but now that Mona had set her sights on Sawyer, Kelly felt betrayed. She couldn’t stand to be around them when they hung on each other.
“Mona came over to talk to me.” Ben glanced behind him, as if he’d find her there. “Kelly told her to take a hike. Thanks for that.” He nodded at Kelly and she shrugged.
“Mona retreated and must have boo-hooed to Sawyer because he came over next. He said some stupid things and made Kelly mad. She told him off, then got her food to go.” Ben stopped talking and straightened.
“That’s it?” Piper asked, blinking.
“I saw her leave the restaurant with her takeout.” Ben shifted.
Kelly let out a long breath and relaxed her arms. Ben didn’t say anything that her friends couldn’t already have guessed. They didn’t need to know what happened later. The smile returned.
“It’s back,” Jessie said, nudging Piper. Her brows crinkled as she inspected Kelly’s face. “It happened later on Tuesday.”
Kelly chanced a peek at the officer. His lips were pressed into a thin line, but there were creases beside his eyes indicating his amusement. Ben looked good in his uniform, his shirt pulled tight over muscled biceps. He’d graduated a few years before Kelly and Jessie. She swallowed. Her face and body grew hot even though the air was on full blast.
“There’s only so many single guys in Fortuna,” Jessie hummed, rubbing her hands together.
“Kelly said she’d had the best sex ever,” Piper prodded.
She’d said no such thing but that hadn’t stopped her friend from trying to get her to admit something. Kelly clamped her lips shut and sent a pleading look to Ben.
That was a mistake. His smile, now full-blown, shined like a beacon even though his own face had turned beet red. She wished she could see his eyes.
“Are you going to give me a ticket?” She hoped the swift subject change would divert the conversation away from her sex life. She thrust her license toward him.
Ben chuckled and took it. As he stared at the information he asked, “So are you going to see him again?”
Both Jessie and Piper giggled and reiterated the question. Kelly closed her eyes, and the smile came back. She couldn’t help it. Piper had been right—it had been the best sex ever. Kelly could have ignited, as she remembered his body next to hers. She sighed as a wave of desire rolled over her.
“She has to,” Jessie said.
“Call him, Kelly. Have him come over and make dinner for you naked,” Piper giggled again. Kelly’s eyes popped open, and she glanced at Ben. His mouth hung open.
Kelly leaned in his direction and rested her arm on the edge of the open window. “This is what happens when both your best friends are newlyweds; all they ever talk about is sex. Do you have this problem?”
Ben stared at her then shook his head. She knew he lived the bachelor life with another officer, Indigo Black. The man was just as good looking as Ben; she didn’t understand why they both weren’t married. They were dependable men with smoking hot bodies and better catches than Sawyer Hickey—that was for darn sure.
Ben cleared his throat. “You should call him.”
Encouraged, her friends joined in. “Call him. Have him make dinner.”
“Why should he make dinner?” Ben asked, leaning in to view her passengers and echoing her unaired question.
“It’s every girl’s fantasy to have a man cook for her,” Jessie said in a whimsical voice.
“Naked is better,” added Piper.
“Is this true?” Ben asked looking down at Kelly.
She smiled weakly and gave a one shoulder shrug. “It wouldn’t be a bad thing.” She wouldn’t mind anyone cooking a meal for her, let alone a sexy naked man.
There were already people who’d done jail time for acting out scenes from one or two romance books, but those had been in public places. Indecent exposure, or almost, if not caught by the police in time. One incident had saved a marriage and made that couple the talk of the town. It wasn’t long before other men were trying to please their women in a similar manner.
Ben stood straight again and handed back her license. Tingles shot up her arm from where his fingers touched hers. He put his hand on the door frame and removed his glasses as he looked in. His brown eyes were framed with long dark lashes. He grinned at Kelly and her heart jumped into her throat. “I think you should call him.”
Jessie gasped and Piper giggled. Kelly watched his snug fitting pants as he walked back to the car. “He didn’t give me a ticket,” she realized.
“I guess he values the world’s best sex,” Piper teased.
Kelly rolled her eyes and put the car into drive. They needed to get to the new store Jessie had bought. She had scheduled a contractor to meet them there. Kelly zipped into the street, noticing Ben followed for a while. She parked and watched Ben slow as he passed. He gave her a salute and winked. The smile blossomed on her lips.
“Oh, heavens be praised, look at what just walked in. Mm-hmm.” Bunny hummed, scanning Les from head to boots.
“That’s my ex,” Lynette mumbled.
“Honey, why did you let that hunk of man-meat go?” Bunny asked.
“It’s complicated. We were young for starters.” Dredging the past up was not an option. “How do you like this color?” Lynette asked, directing the discussion away from the large tattooed man hovering by the reception desk.
Lynette applied the clear coat to Bunny’s nails, then led her to the nail dryer. “Thank you for stopping by, Bunny. I enjoyed our conversation.”
“Likewise, honey.” Bunny lowered her voice, “That boy’s gaze hasn’t left your body since he came in. There might still be something there. Just sayin’.”
Lynette returned polish to the shelf, then wiped down her station. Les approached her table and stared at a bottle of polish remover.
“Not now,” Lynette mumbled. “I’m working. Can’t this wait?”
Les tensed, meeting her gaze, red-faced, and appearing constipated. “Another seven years?” He took a step closer.
Lynette couldn’t breathe. His bulk invaded her space, hogging the air. She clamped her shaking hands in her lap.
“I need to know one thing, Lyn. Why did you abandon me? Why did you give up on us?”
She studied her knuckles, tears filling her eyes. Lynette shook her head, her raven locks curtaining her face. “Please leave,” she croaked. “I can’t do this.”
“Why are you afraid to confront what you did?” he growled.
His words stabbed her heart. Lynette balled her fists, jumping to her feet. Her chair rolled across the room and slammed into the wall. White-hot anger fueled her wrath. “What I did? How about what you did? You’re the one who ruined everything by getting arrested and going to jail.”