Dedication To Maria McConnaughy You planted this seed ages ago with that chat about a business that Jake’s company ended up being based on. Thank you!
Acknowledgments As always, thank you to God for this delightfully twisted mind He’s gifted me with. HUGE thank yous and hugs to Carrie Ann Ryan, Stacey Kennedy, Avery Flynn, and Kennedy Layne for all the chats and inspiration and making the experience of putting together this series a great one! Drinks on me! A big thank you to Gwen Hayes for helping me polish Jake and Jessica’s story into something truly shiny. I couldn’t have done it without you! Thank you to Lynda Ryba for copy editing this beast to perfection! A special thanks to Danielle Barclay from Barclay Publicity for the promotional plotting, planning, and master plans! And, as always, thank you to my own personal hero, Tim. Thank you for your support, your understanding, and for kicking me out of the house on a semi-regular basis to get some kidfree writing time. Love you to the moon and back!
Cover Copy A high school reunion is about to get down and dirty and a whole lot more complicated in this new erotic romance from New York Times Bestselling Author Katee Robert. Jake Davis had it all in high school—a scholarship to his college of choice, a promising football career, and the gorgeous prom queen for a girlfriend. And then he lost it all when he was injured right after graduation. Ten years later, he’s mostly made his peace with that, and now runs a company that provides women with dates for special events. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that the ex who left him in the dust needs a fake boyfriend for their high school reunion… Jessica Jackson used to be the mean girl to end all mean girls. But life didn’t turn out like she’d thought it would, and now she’s twentyeight, single, and works as an insurance agent to A-listers instead of being the A-lister like she’d always dreamed. She can’t go back to her home town and admit just how thoroughly she’s failed, so she lets her friends set her up with a fake date for the reunion. The second Jessica realizes that her fake date
is Jake, she tries to call the whole thing off. The problem is the chemistry between them is even hotter now than it was when they were teenagers. Against her better judgment, she lets herself get drawn into Jake’s arms again— and into his bed. But time doesn’t heal all wounds—sometimes, it actually makes them worse—and if Jessica and Jake can’t learn to forgive each other, their second chance might not last the weekend.
Chapter One “I can’t do it. I won’t.” Jessica Jackson backed around the kitchen table, feeling like seven different kinds of a fool when Brooklyn Jameson followed her, waving the invitation that had caused all of this. “Stop it. You’re being ridiculous.” “No, you’re being ridiculous.” Brooklyn lunged. Jessica scrambled back, nearly taking out a chair as she did. The open and airy kitchen felt too small for the first time in the five years she’d lived here. “I’m not going. End of story.” She edged around the corner of the island, not liking the way her friend eyed the counter like it was an obstacle to be overcome. “Bullshit. It’d be one thing if you were like me, who barely went to high school enough to pass. Or Cora, with her fancy private tutors.” “I can hear you.” Cora Lander’s voice floated down from her room upstairs. Brooklyn shot a look at the open balcony and then refocused on Jessica. “You have to go.” She raised her voice. “Cora, tell her she has to go.” “You have to go.” Jessica glared and slid back a step, eyeing the French doors that led out to the beach. It
would be a perfect escape—if Brooklyn wasn’t standing in the way. “What is this? Why do you care so much if I go to some stupid reunion or not?” “Oh please.” Brooklyn huffed. “I’m a private detective, remember? Even if I wasn’t, I could detect that you want to go to this damn reunion by the longing looks you’ve been sending this invitation ever since it showed up in February—four freaking months ago. Just suck it up and go.” She wanted to, but only because it seemed she had a masochistic streak a mile wide. Jessica stopped trying to flee and threw her hands up. “You don’t get it. I was a bitch in high school—no, I was the queen bitch. I was so terrible to some of those people. How am I supposed to face them knowing some of the crap I pulled?” Brooklyn snorted and cocked her head to the side, sending her fall of auburn hair cascading over one shoulder. It was the only part of her that was girlish to the extreme. The rest of her was dressed in layers designed to make people look right through her—even in the heat of Los Angeles’s summer. She rolled her eyes. “It was high school. Everyone was a little shit in high school.” “Not like me.” Jessica had taken mean girl to
a whole new level. She’d been so sure of her place and life—and that she ranked above everyone else. Since the catastrophe that was graduation, she’d more than balanced her karmic debt. She hoped. If there was anything left to pay, going back to face her former victims would do it. “Please don’t make me go.” Brooklyn narrowed her amber eyes. “This isn’t about you being a dick. This is about him.” “No, it’s not.” She spoke too quickly and then mentally cursed herself for giving away the truth. Not that her friends were unaware of her history with Jake Davis. She’d met Cora in her third year in LA, and Brooklyn a couple months later. They’d lived together for five years. These women had seen The Breakdown of 2012, when she’d hit rock bottom so spectacularly that she’d plowed right through it to a whole new low. She’d lost the only acting job she’d been able score in five long years, lost her sorta-boyfriend, and lost her apartment in the space of a week. It was in the midst of that she’d gotten the drunkest she’d ever been in her entire life and confessed everything. About how she’d been so crazy in love with
Jake the entire time they’d dated in high school. How they’d been each other’s firsts. How they’d planned a perfect future together. And how she’d dumped him on his ass the first hiccup they had, because she was sure he was going to hold her back from her destiny. Jessica snorted. Destiny. She’d been a little twat. Knowing that now didn’t mean she was eager to face the one who got away. More like the one I kicked to the curb. “Oh, good Lord, you have that moony look in your eyes.” Brooklyn made a gagging sound. “Cora, come talk some sense into her!” Footsteps padded upstairs and then Cora’s head appeared over the balcony. Her dark eyes took in their positions—Jessica still wanting to flee and Brooklyn standing in her way—and huffed out a breath. “You’re going, end of story. If it will make you feel better, you can pretend I forced you.” Considering Cora could be downright scary when she wanted to be, there was some truth to the statement. Jessica wasn’t backing down this time. “You don’t get it.” “Wrong. Out of all of us, I know all about having to face down your past on a daily basis. I manage. You will, too.” Okay, maybe you do get it. Jessica gritted
her teeth. It didn’t matter. It was apples and oranges. “Y’all cannot seriously expect me to go face the firing squad. I’m willing to eat my humble pie when the situation calls for it, but this is just too much. I don’t have anything resembling a boyfriend. I am almost thirty years old and have two roommates. I haven’t accomplished jack all that I said I would when I blew out of town with two middle fingers in the air.” Cora smiled, her teeth perfectly white and straight against her blood red lips. “I thought your therapist said facing down your past was an important part of your journey.” “I have faced down my past. I’m reformed. That doesn’t mean I want to be thrown to the wolves so I can play a damn martyr.” Brooklyn laughed, her long brown hair swinging in its ponytail. “A martyr. You have such an inflated opinion of yourself.” “Shut it.” She turned a pleading look at Cora. “Let’s just pretend this never happened, okay?” Cora’s expression turned contemplative. “You know what your problem is? It isn’t going back to Catfish Creek. It’s going back alone.” Something like hope blossomed in Jessica’s chest. She’d seen both her parents and her brother quite a few times over the last ten
years, but she’d never been brave enough to cross the town lines. Though she was mostly too proud—even now—to admit it, she missed at least some parts of Catfish Creek. “You have an idea.” “I have a brilliant idea. Come on.” Jessica headed for the stairs, Brooklyn hot on her heels. She found Cora back in her bedroom at the desk she’d set up for when she needed to work from home. It was just as light and airy as the rest of the house, the big windows overlooking the beach giving the space plenty of natural light, and the seafoam green walls and white furniture gave the space a restful feeling. Though Jessica wasn’t feeling particularly restful at the moment. One look at Cora’s laptop had her shaking her head. “No way.” “One of my clients used the company, and they’re perfectly respectable.” Cora scrolled down, giving them an eyeful of the classy website that offered all manner of dates. Jessica caught sight of one package that included having a beautiful man show up to a residence and clean for the allotted time. “You have got to be kidding me. Escorts?” “That’s illegal in both California and Texas. No, the sex isn’t included—it’s strictly forbidden. You can’t even kiss them.” Cora
touched the screen. “There we go. This is the package Hilary went with. She had a wedding and didn’t feel like dealing with people gossiping about her cheating ex-husband, so she took a date. He charmed everyone and kept them distracted from unfortunate lines of questions, which freed her up to have a good time. That’s exactly what you need.” It sounded too good to be true. Jessica leaned forward, scanning the package Cora had brought up. She would put in her information and her basic requests—everything from looks to background—and once it was all agreed upon, her date would meet her locally and play his role for the duration of the trip. They limited these to three days, but she wouldn’t need much more than that. Get in, attend the reunion, get out. Then she noticed the price. “Oh, hell, no. I can’t afford that!” Cora rotated her chair around and considered her with unblinking dark eyes. “You need this, Jess. You need to go face him —and everyone else—so you can move on. All the therapy and self-help books in the world won’t mean a damn thing if you can’t take this step.” Jake. It all came back to Jake. The rest of her graduating class weren’t
terrible people or anything, but she didn’t feel the loss over not being in contact with them. Jake was just this gaping hole in her chest. Oh, it had scabbed over in the years since she’d seen him, but the boyfriends she’d had since then couldn’t hold a candle against the phantom of Jake. She’d never be able to have a lasting relationship if she didn’t put him firmly in the past where he belonged, and she couldn’t do that until they had a very painful and muchneeded conversation. For me, at least. He’s moved on with his life. One night a couple years ago, driven by Brooklyn egging her on and just enough tequila to drown out common sense, she’d searched him out on Facebook. His profile was only half private, so she could see a few pictures of him, but nothing else. He had looked even better at twenty-six than he had at eighteen, and that he still had his annual fishing trip with the boys, but she had no idea if he was married or had kids. The thought made her sick to her stomach. She pressed a hand there, as if the pain was a physical thing she could combat. “I don’t know.” “Too late.” Jessica spun to face Brooklyn so fast, she
almost fell on her ass. “What did you say?” Her friend didn’t look up from her phone. “You’re booked. It’s paid for. You can assist me on a couple stakeouts to pay me back.” She grabbed the phone from Brooklyn’s hand and read with dawning horror. All American guy, blond, painfully hot. Needs to be able to deal with the fact that I was a bitch in high school and so most of these people are going to hate me and be dicks. “Are you kidding me?” “What? It’s the truth.” Brooklyn snatched the phone back. “You can thank me later.” Jessica stood there as the truth came crashing down around her. She was going back to Catfish Creek. She could cancel the date, but it wouldn’t change anything because Cora and Brooklyn were right—she needed to face her past. Her hand itched with the need to call her therapist or pop a Xanax, but she resisted both urges. She’d been using crutches for far too long. Maybe it was time for her to do what was necessary to finally move on. She just hoped it wouldn’t kill her in the process. *** Jake Davis stared at the computer, wondering if he was hallucinating. That would
explain seeing goddamn Jessica fucking Jackson’s name on the newest batch of requests for Diamond Dates. He sat back and took a long drink of his coffee, but nothing changed. She was coming back for the reunion. More than that, she was obviously single if she was looking for a fake date to bring with her. Of course she was. If she was single, she wouldn’t want to face Catfish Creek—face him —alone. Jake couldn’t begin to count the number of times he’d shown up for events around town since high school and been party to pitying looks and barely concealed whispers. Nothing people loved more than a good scandal, and his ex was nothing if not a good scandal. It was when he ran into Rae Evans that things started to come together. They’d both been invited to the wedding of one of their graduating class, and agreed to go together just to avoid dealing with the nonsense. It worked. No one bothered them. There were looks, of course, but neither of them had to answer any uncomfortable questions about being single— or what their exes were up to. And so Diamond Dates was born.
He sat back in his chair and looked around, trying to get some distance on this. His office was the same as it had been since the day he moved the company here—dark gray walls, a generic sofa that could double as a bed in a pinch, and a single window overlooking the street. It wasn’t fancy, but he didn’t need fancy. Diamond Dates didn’t meet its clients face to face. They handled everything online or over the phone. If a meeting was required, he set it up in a public place. In the years since he’d started the company, he’d only had to deal with one over-zealous client, but one was more than enough. His guys trusted him to keep their personal information locked down and to keep things professional. The best way to do that was to confine the entire encounter to whatever event they were contracted for. None of that made a damn bit of difference when it came to Jessica Jackson. There would be no distance for him. Even trying for it was fucking impossible. If he was a petty asshole, he could use this application to humiliate the hell out of her. They might have graduated ten years ago, but there were still people walking around Catfish Creek with emotional scars from shit she’d pulled back in the day. They’d be like sharks
scenting blood in the water, glorying in seeing her brought to her knees with them standing witness. He stopped and really thought about it. What was the point? Hurting her now wouldn’t take him back in time and erase the pain he’d felt. Would he like to see her with some egg on her face? Sure. He wasn’t a damn saint. But that didn’t mean he could be the one to pull the trigger. She might have ripped his still-beating heart of out of his chest and ground it beneath one of her spike heels, but she’d been his first love. Fuck, she’d been his only love—being burned so spectacularly created a whole hell of a lot of trust issues, and he hadn’t bothered to get past most of them. Fuck, I’m depressing. He brought up the information that Jessica had sent in. Jake did background checks on all his potential clients. Just because the majority were women didn’t mean his guys were safe. It paid to be safe and to have his shit together before sending them out. He’d thought about checking up on her over the years, but Jake had never crossed that line. She was his ex for a reason, and she’d made it abundantly clear that she was better off without him after the injury that killed all his
college and NFL plans. It had been hard enough recovering while dealing with a broken heart. He didn’t need to get kicked in the teeth of his own volition. Now, he was practically required to look her up. Jake plugged her information into his program and then pulled up the photo she’d sent while it worked on the search. He set his coffee on the desk so he didn’t spill it on himself. She looks good. Better than good. The Jessica he knew had been all angles as harsh and unforgiving as the personality she showed the world. Whoever had taken this picture had captured the softer side of her that she’d only ever shown Jake…right up until she didn’t. She was half turned toward the camera, the sun behind her left shoulder and giving her dark hair an angelic cast as it tangled around her head in a breeze he could almost feel. With the ocean at her back and the half smile on her face, she looked…happy. She’d been hotter than hell as a blonde. With her natural dark hair, she was downright stunning. He spent one useless minute wondering if a boyfriend had taken the picture before Jake made himself set it aside. He should reject her request. She obviously didn’t know that he owned Diamond Dates or she wouldn’t have
tried to use it to book a date. If she realized, she’d be humiliated, even if he was the only person who knew it happened. While he considered his options, he scanned the info the search had brought up. A few unpaid parking tickets, an address that was right on the beach, and a job she’d worked at for five years. An insurance company. He pulled up a new tab and Googled the name, and then huffed out a laugh. He hadn’t realized that a person could insure their individual body parts. “Only in LA.” What the fuck was he going to do about this? Even as the thought crossed his mind, a plan formed. Jake shook his head, a rueful grin taking root. Apparently, he wasn’t as above petty revenge as he’d thought. He wouldn’t reject Jessica’s bid. He wouldn’t be sending one of his guys to meet her, either. Even after all this time, Jake couldn’t stand the thought of seeing her with someone else, even knowing it’d be fake. No, he’d be the one waiting for Jessica when she got off that plane. And then? Well, then they’d see how things fell out.
Chapter Two Jessica had never been so happy to be seated at the back of the plane. Sitting there while the big metal death trap emptied out gave her plenty of time to shore up her courage. At least in theory. In reality she clutched her carry-on like a life raft and spent a good ten minutes debating whether she should call Cora or Brooklyn to talk her through this. But she already knew what they’d say. Suck it up, princess. It was only three days. No one at this reunion was going to try to kill her, and anything short of that wasn’t going to do permanent damage. Not to mention the fact she probably deserved both anger and harsh words. You have a mighty high opinion of yourself, Jessica Jackson. Who’s to say anyone in Catfish Creek even remembers your name? Filing off the plane at last was a relief and a torment, all at once. Before she could talk herself out of it—again—she fished her cell phone out of her purse and called her brother. The phone rang and rang, until she was sure that it would click over to voicemail, but he finally answered with a grumpy, “Don’t you dare tell me that you’re cancelling. Mom will send me to hunt your ass down, and I don’t
have time for that shit.” “Drew.” Her voice broke, so she took a deep breath and tried again. “Drew, I don’t know if I can do this.” “Jess, I seriously don’t have time for your dramatics. You just landed. Suck it up and get your ass to Catfish Creek, and bring that date of yours with you. It’s not like you have to face down Jake and the horde of people you’ve crossed by yourself.” He must have realized how dick-like he sounded because his voice softened. “Mom is looking forward to seeing you. She has your room made up.” Just like that, her already-questionable plan took a flying leap. “I’m not staying at home.” Drew, the traitor, laughed. “Yeah, good luck with that. Y’all better hurry if you don’t want to miss dinner.” Knowing her parents—and brother—when he said dinner, he meant interrogation. Jessica sighed, her shoulders drooping. “You’re lucky you’re the only brother I have.” “Drive safe, you hear? See y’all soon.” She hung up, not sure if she felt better or worse. Lying to her family didn’t make her happy, but they sure as hell wouldn’t lie for her if they knew she was bringing a fake date to the reunion. Drew would never let her live it down, and their father was a terrible gossip.
He’d go down to the country club with his Friday night drinking buddies and by Saturday morning everyone in Catfish Creek would know. No, it had to be this way. She made a quick stop to the bathroom to clean herself up and fix her hair as best as she could. The messy bun had looked artful when she left, but now there was no saving it from being completely out of control. As least she’d gone for comfort and style with her maxi dress. The neckline plunged just low enough to show off a little cleavage, and the fabric was silky enough that it hadn’t wrinkled in travel. Good as she was going to get. Taking a fortifying breath that did nothing to fortify, she scrolled through her texts to find the number that had shown up last night. The words were short and to the point. I’ll pick you up at the airport. Nothing there to tell what kind of man she’d ended up with, and she’d been too cowardly to text back anything other than a generic agreement. Now there was nothing left to stall with. Jessica hitched her purse higher up on her shoulder and headed through security. The big red line tiled into the floor was a point of no return in so many ways. Why did I think this was a good idea?
Her mama didn’t raise a coward, though, so she lifted her chin and marched forward. No matter who this guy was, she’d faced down worse. She’d been worse. It couldn’t be more horrifying than the Miss Texas Teen USA pageant of 2005 where that little brat Misty Brennan cut holes into her dress and she didn’t realize it until she was out on stage and had her pink polka dot bra showing to the audience and God. Jessica had powered through that and walked out with second place, and she’d power through this, too. She joined the people from multiple flights crowded around the baggage claim, her body practically vibrating from nerves. The scent of too many people in too little space assaulted her, but she was more focused on the faces she didn’t recognize from the plane. Too many, all filtered in with the travelers—there was no way she’d be able to pick him out of the crowd. Her date had her picture, so he’d have to be the one to approach. What if he doesn’t? What if this is just karma giving me one last kick in the teeth? Oh, for God’s sake, stop being so dramatic. “Jessica.” A thrill shot down her spine, quickly eaten up by a dread so strong, she wished the ground would open and swallow her whole. She shot a
look at the nearest exit, but if she took off now, she’d have to admit that she fled instead of turning and facing her Number One Nightmare. Jake Davis. Praying she was wrong, she turned slowly to face him. Nope. That was definitely Jake Davis, ex-quarterback, ex-boyfriend, just all around ex when it came to Jessica. And he was definitely way better in real life than he’d been in the pictures she’d seen while she was creeping on him. Her heart picked up and her body sparked to life in a way it hadn’t in far too long. Something like ten years. She was staring. She couldn’t stop. Jessica licked her lips, her breath stalling in her lungs when his green eyes met hers. His eyes had always been one of her favorite features—a true green that brightened depending on what he was wearing, framed with thick, dark lashes that had always made her jealous when she was a teenager. Going by those eyes, Jakes would be judged downright pretty. At least until you saw the rest of his face. His hair had darkened over the years, closer to brown than blond, and his lantern jaw was covered with… “What the hell is that on your face?”
He blinked, the only outward sign that she’d surprised him. “Nice to see you too, Jessie.” He touched his scruff. “A lot’s changed since you left.” Her gaze jumped to his right shoulder. There was no outward sign of the injury that had started the end of it all, but then, he was wearing a light-weight black T-shirt, so it wasn’t like it would show. Focus, Jessica. “What are you doing here? Are you picking up someone for the reunion?” There you go. Nice and casual. “You might say that.” He kept looking at her like he could see the inside of her head. Another new trick. She glanced around, trying to be subtle. The baggage claim had started to clear out, and there weren’t any conveniently gorgeous men standing around alone. Where was her date? Now would be the perfect time for him to sweep in and do the job she’d hired him for. “I’m here with someone.” “I know.” She frowned. “What are you talking about?” On second thought, escaping Jake before she met her date was probably a better choice. She didn’t want to have to deal with meeting this new guy and trying to pretend they’d been dating forever. And how was she going to
explain how she’d magically lost him between getting off the plane and the baggage claim. Cora’s so-called perfect plan was teetering toward disaster. “Your order from Diamond Dates.” He gave her a slow, knowing grin that she felt all the way to her toes, and offered his hand. “Jessica Jackson, I’m your date for the reunion.” *** Jake thoroughly enjoyed the way Jessie’s lips parted in shock and confusion, her brown eyes going wide. She was still pretty as a picture, and a purely masculine part of him was pleased to note the way she’d filled out over the years. The Jessica he’d known was skinny to the point of being unhealthy. She didn’t seem to have that same love-hate relationship with food anymore. What else didn’t he know about the new Jessica? He was more than proof that a person could change fundamentally over the course of a decade. The cocksure little shit he’d been in high school hadn’t been a bad kid, but he’d been living in the clouds, sure that nothing bad could touch him. He wasn’t more of an asshole than any other teenager, but he’d done some stupid shit because he was sure he was
immortal. And then the car accident changed everything. A split-second decision to look at his phone instead of the road. A wheel that hit the edge of the road the wrong way. So many little things that could have stopped it from being catastrophic, but they’d all tipped the wrong way. He’d thought it’d ruined his life—taking his scholarship to college, his girlfriend, and his dreams of playing in the NFL all in one fell swoop. Now he saw it for the blessing it was. He’d needed a reality check and, while his had been more traumatizing than most, it had put him on a new and better path. Still make more than enough money and without the repeated concussions and injuries fucking my shit up. He gave her a charming grin, but she was having none of it. Jessica shook her head hard enough to dislodge the bun thing she had going with her hair. “You have got to be joking with me. What the hell kind of psychopath hooks me up with my ex-boyfriend? And what is going on with you that you’re a freaking escort?” “I wouldn’t start throwing stones, Jessie.” He decided right then and there that he wasn’t about to tell her that he was the owner and
person responsible for pairing up his guys with the jobs. The opportunity to have her squirming for the next couple days was too good to ignore. “You’re the one who booked this date. No refunds, by the way.” “I ought to tell your daddy what you’re up to.” “Dad’s dead. Heart attack two years ago.” It still ached to say it aloud. His dad had been a fundamental part of his life from birth, and losing the steadying force was a blow it would take a whole lot longer than two years to bounce back from. It was his dad who had encouraged him with football, putting in the extra hours of practice when they realized Jake had a natural talent. And it was his dad who’d kicked his ass out of his self-pitying spiral after he’d checked out of the hospital. If it wasn’t for that, he might have gone the way of addiction to those damn pain pills because they were the only thing that numbed his pain—at least for a little while. He owed everything to his old man, and Jake missed the shit out of him. “Oh.” Her face fell, the anger sliding out of the line of her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Jake. I didn’t know. He was a good guy.” His dad had loved the shit out of Jessica, and it had broken his heart nearly as much as it’d
broken Jake’s when she blew out of town. No use in telling her that, though. It would hurt her, and while he might want to mess with her a bit, he didn’t want to cause her pain. “He had a good life.” Too short, but Jake would have felt the same way if he lived to be ninety-nine. “Jake…” She seemed to reconsider what she was about to say. “This was a mistake. I’m sorry about the confusion, and I’m sure your boss will still pay you, but I can’t do this.” She motioned between them. “Plenty of time to decide. Do you have a bag?” He pointed to the baggage claim. “What? Oh, no. I just have my carry-on.” She rattled the little suitcase by her feet. That, more than anything else, set him back on his heels and drove the truth home. I don’t know Jessica Jackson anymore. He should call the whole thing off. Hell, he shouldn’t have called it on to begin with. It was too late for all of that, though. Jake held up his keys. “At least let me give you a ride. You staying with your parents?” “It looks like I don’t have a choice in the matter—either matter.” Her shoulders drooped half an inch. He didn’t give her a chance to reconsider. He grabbed the handle of her carry-on and started for the exit. Her heels clicked against the tile
as she followed him, the sound easy to pick out even with the rest of the background noise. It took a few minutes to get to his truck, and he didn’t say anything for the duration, letting her stew over the mess she was in—the mess he was responsible for. Her parents obviously thought she was bringing a date and would have prepared for it, which meant sleeping arrangements. To have her show up with Jake in tow… Fuck, he hadn’t thought about that. Jennifer and Benjamin Jackson had always hated him. No, they’d despised him. Even when he was the star quarterback and pulled decent enough grades that the combo got him a full ride scholarship, they hadn’t thought he was good enough for their precious baby girl. He came from the wrong side of town and the wrong income bracket. If they thought he and Jessie were dating again, they’d lose their shit. Too damn bad. He’d decided on this course of action, and he’d do what it took to get Jessie to go along with it. Was it a dick move? Most definitely. But he wanted to get a little more time with her, for reasons he wasn’t ready to examine too closely. Jake tucked her carry-on into the backseat of his truck and opened the passenger door for
her. Jessie looked at him like he’d grown a second head, and then she laughed. “I forgot. Jeez, how could I forget? It’s like a different world in Texas.” “It’s LA that’s the different world. Men there have forgotten how to be men.” She lifted one perfect eyebrow. “And how you would know that, Jake Davis? You interested in men now?” “If I was, it wouldn’t be any of your damn business, would it?” He regretted how harsh he sounded the second the words were out of his mouth, but by then it was too late. Her face fell, the spark that had flickered to life extinguished. “You’re right. I’m sorry. That was out of line.” Jake studied her as she climbed into the seat. For a second there, she sounded almost… broken. As if the fire that had always burned almost too brightly in her was gone. What the fuck did LA do to you, Jessie? He shut the door and walked around to the driver’s side, still puzzling over the change. She barely let him get the engine started before she spoke. “I thought you’d still be in Catfish Creek.” “I’m not.” He followed her gaze to the suitcase he’d packed. “I’m here in Dallas now.” He was staying in town for a week or two after
the reunion nonsense was finished to help his mom around her place. With his dad gone, the easy little fixes were often left untouched until they became big problems. He’d told her time and time again that he was more than happy to hire Catfish Creek’s resident handyman Richard to come check out anything that wasn’t working right, but she’d shot him down flat. Didn’t want anyone poking around her place and her business. Jake snorted. His mama was as stubborn as the day was long. Unfortunately for Jessie, that was a trait he’d inherited. “You go into this reunion without someone to distract them, and the class of ’07 is going to eat you alive.” Instead of snapping back at him, she pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I know.” “Fuck, Jessie, I was joking.” He nudged her shoulder, needing to get a reaction out of her —some kind of reaction. “Lighten up. Half of them moved away like we did, and the other half are totally different than what you remember. They aren’t going to put up a cross in a field and crucify you on it because you were kind of a bitch in high school.” “Kind of a bitch.” She shook her head. “That’s
putting it mildly, don’t you think?” Well, yeah, but he wasn’t about to admit it. Jessie had been cruel to a lot of people, even if he was the only one who knew why. It didn’t make it right, but even the most mildtempered animal would lash out when injured and cornered—and no one would have the balls to call Jessie mild tempered. “What’s really holding you back?” “I don’t get you.” She fiddled with her hair, pulling some pins out and doing something that had it looking like a professional job instead of a rat’s nest. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever you think you’re doing, you’re off the hook. I’ll survive. I’ve survived worse before and I probably will again. It’s no big deal.” It felt like a big deal. Jake backed off, watching her out of the corner of his eye as he left the airport and drove down the highway toward Catfish Creek. As the minutes ticked by, his initial plan to mess with Jessie took a hard right turn. It was one thing to screw with a spitfire who was as likely to take off his head as kiss him. It was entirely enough to kick someone while they were down, and whatever else was true about Jessie these days, she was down. You don’t owe her anything. You don’t have
to save her. She didn’t even bother to try to save you when you needed her most. And yet… None of that shit mattered. Jake was a firm believer that clinging to the past was a good way to let life pass you by. Still being pissed that Jessie dumped him ten years later was pathetic. He’d let that old hurt drive him into their current situation, but that didn’t mean he had to keep going with his original plan. Instead, he would help her—whether she wanted his help or not.
Chapter Three Jessica couldn’t believe she’d gotten herself into this mess. Oh wait—yes, she could, because Cora and Brooklyn had helped her get in over her head. They were good like that, and she couldn’t even be mad, because she’d ultimately agreed to this of her own free will. Because she made poor life decisions. She shot a look at Jake, tracing the side of his face with her gaze. Now that she’d had a little time to get used to the sight of the scruff, she could admit that it suited him. It gave him a rough look that had nothing to do with the hipster beards she saw everywhere she looked in LA. No, Jake looked like he’d be at home chopping wood out in the forest somewhere while the snow fell softly down around him. Not that she’d ever seen snow in real life, but the image still fit. She pressed her lips together and jerked her gaze forward. What was wrong with her? She liked fantasies as well as the next woman—and had a stack of romance novels to prove it—but fantasizing about Jake was strictly forbidden territory. For a number of reasons. And he was supposed to be her date. She’d never doubted that karma or the universe
required balance, but this was taking things too far. Even if he didn’t tell a single soul about it, he would know that she was pathetic and cowardly enough that she wouldn’t attend the reunion alone, and when she couldn’t dredge up a date for herself, she’d hired one. Maybe hitting rock bottom five years ago was just a precursor to what she was going to go through this weekend. Stop it. What’s going to happen will happen regardless of if you mentally flog yourself for the next three days. All you can do is keep your chin up and keep moving forward. For the first time in years, she actually missed the little brat she’d been in high school. That girl hadn’t bothered to worry about reality not lining up with the picture in her head. If life didn’t feel like cooperating, she forced things to go her way. Then again, she also hadn’t cared if people got in her way or were hurt in the process. Jessica leaned her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes. At least she’d be home soon. Maybe she could talk her brother into driving her…anywhere. If she was lucky, maybe she could convince him to let her stay with him instead of their parents. Lost cause for sure. “Jessie.”
She opened her eyes, her heart sinking at the familiar sight of the house where she’d grown up. The white paint looked brand new and the shutters were white and green, but everything was mostly the same. The same wraparound porch that her mama had picked out of a magazine. The same big Southern style that managed to communicate both country home and money at the same time. The same carefully cultivated flower beds with bright yellow and white flowers—all to create the picture of perfection. It was something her mama valued above all else. Perfection. Nothing had changed. “It’s like stepping into a time warp.” “Jessie.” She finally twisted to look at Jake. His halfsmile had her heart picking up despite herself. She swallowed hard. “What?” “I figure you owe me one.” Talk about the understatement of the century. She probably owed him more like a couple hundred. She’d never counted all the times she’d done him wrong, mostly because she was afraid of the answer. Admitting that didn’t mean she liked where this was going. “Mm-hmm.” “I’m calling it in. Right now.” His grin
widened, his green eyes twinkling. “I’m going to be your fake boyfriend for the duration of your time here, just like you planned.” What? She shot straight. “I didn’t plan on you.” “And yet I’m the one you got.” Jake moved faster than he had any right to and looped an arm around her waist, pulling her across the bench seat until she was almost in his lap. “Look infatuated, love.” She narrowed her eyes even as her skin heated. One man shouldn’t smell so freaking good—like he’d burst straight out of an Old Spice commercial. And the possessive way his hand spanned her hip put her in mind of times when he’d held her like that while they were doing other things. Her body was different now. She eyed his shoulders—his body was different—but it didn’t take much to slam her ten years into the past. The feeling was a lie. They didn’t have anything left of the intimacy they’d shared the entire time they were dating. Jake was the longest relationship she ever had, and so she was reacting on a chemical level to him. End of story. She tried to pull back, to put some muchneeded distance between them, but he held her fast. “Jessie, look at me.”
She couldn’t look at him, because if she looked at him, she’d forget all the bad stuff between them and only remember how good it had felt to be in his arms. Then she’d do something unforgiveable, like try to kiss him, and he’d politely remind her that this was just pretend and… She couldn’t. Panic welled, giving her voice a hysterical edge. “If you don’t let me go right now, I’m going to punch you in those perfect teeth.” He released her instantly, though he laughed. “Drew taught you a mean right hook.” “Yes, he did. And Brooklyn taught me the rest.” She scooted a few inches back. “What the hell are you doing, Jake? You want revenge? Fine. Have it. I won’t pretend like I don’t deserve it. But this is just…cruel.” It hurt to remember how good things had been—more than she could have anticipated. It was so easy to focus on the way things ended, but there were six years of history between them as boyfriend and girlfriend—and another six of friendship. A decade of separation couldn’t erase that. Jake touched her chin with a single finger, drawing her back to the present. “Maybe I just miss you.” “Liar.” He chuckled. “Maybe. Don’t you worry your
pretty head on the ‘why.’ See this through with me, or maybe someone will get a little too drunk down at The Grange and let it spill that Jessica Jackson had to hire a date for the reunion because she was too chickenshit to come back to Catfish Creek without a shield.” “You wouldn’t.” She narrowed her eyes and slapped his hand away. He totally would. “God, you are such a bastard.” “Not according to my mama.” Guilt rose instantly, thick enough to choke her. She bit down on another apology. She’d liked Roy Davis a whole lot. He had always been kind to her, even when she could see how sad he was after she’d made her plans to leave town. She stared at the front door of her parents’ house. I’m not ready to face them. So, she stalled. “How is your mama?” “She’s fine. Stubborn, still gossiping up a storm with the church ladies whenever she gets a chance, and she still wins first place in the bake sale every year.” He went quiet for a beat. “She misses him. We all do. But life goes on.” That was one truth no one could deny. It struck her that maybe Jake had his own reasons for wanting to play along with her madness. She could end it right then and there
and face whatever damage he was willing to deal out. It wasn’t like she hadn’t been the center of gossip before. She used to live for it. Now, the whole thing just made her tired. But if he had his own reasons for needing her as his date, then he was right—she owed him one. This was a relatively light sentence when all was said and done. This is going to be the longest three days in history. Jessica opened the door. “Fine.” “Pardon?” “Fine. You win. You can play my fake boyfriend.” She hopped out of the truck. “But not around my parents, okay?” “Jessie, if your parents don’t believe this, no one else will, either.” The sinking in her stomach said he was right. Frustration welled up, a vicious bubble inside her that she couldn’t—wouldn’t—let free. If she did, who knew what she’d do? Start screaming like a lunatic or maybe deliver the soul-crippling snarky comments she’d been so good at back in the day. Neither was an option. “Fine,” she spoke through gritted teeth. “Well, hell, Jessie. You get prettier when you’re spitting mad just like you did when we were eighteen.”
She slammed the door, resisting the urge to kick it only because she was wearing sandals, and in a competition between foot and truck, the truck always came out the winner. That didn’t stop her from snatching her carry-on from the backseat and marching for the front door without waiting for him. It opened as she climbed the steps of the covered porch, revealing Jennifer Jackson. Her mother had always been one of those women who couldn’t leave the house without being perfectly put together, from her big bottle-blonde hair to her day makeup to her perfectly pressed dress. When Jessica was living in the house, she’d been a mini-Jennifer in almost every way. She didn’t have to look in a mirror to know what her mother would think of her messy hair—now it’s natural dark brown—and the fact that she was wearing—God bless her—a maxi dress. “Hey, mama.” But her mother wasn’t looking at her. She peered out the screen door, her eyes narrowed. “Please tell me that isn’t Jake Davis I see heading this way with his suitcase.” Jessica spun around. Sure enough, he was already at the steps, suitcase in hand. There was none of the sneaky asshole he’d been just minutes ago. Now, his green eyes were wide
and guileless just like they always were around her parents. Damn him. “Afternoon, Mrs. Jackson.” “Jessica, explain this.” Her voice rose at the end, a clear indication that she was in danger of having one of her fits. This was the deciding moment. All she had to do was to make a joke or come clean and it would all be over, which would derail any potential hysterics on her mama’s part. It would all be over. That was the problem. She’d committed to this plan, for better or worse—and it was looking like they were in worse territory. “Jake and I have…reconciled.” The word tasted foul in her mouth, but she managed a smile despite it. If pageant training was good for something, it was being able to smile while you lied yourself out of uncomfortable situations, and this one was nothing if not that. “Jessica Jackson, you’re going to put me in an early grave. First you do that… that…commercial… And now you’re seeing him again.” Her mother pressed her hand to her heaving chest. She fanned herself and swayed—which was no mean feat with her clinging to the doorframe. She suddenly stopped and narrowed her eyes. “Are you on drugs? Are you smoking meth?”
For God’s sake. Jake made a sound suspiciously like a snort, but she didn’t bother looking back. Instead, she went with the tried and true method of dealing with Jennifer Jackson’s hysterics. “Mama, you look a little pale. Are you feeling faint? Do you need to go have a lie down?” “I really don’t feel well.” Her mother still hadn’t taken her gaze off Jake, like she was afraid if she blinked, he’d muscle past her into the house. Jessica couldn’t even blame it on something Jake may or may not have done in the last ten years. The truth was, her mama had always looked at him like he was dirt on the bottom of her shoe. And her daddy wasn’t much better, though he rarely bothered to show interest one way or another in either of his children. She injected some sugary sweetness into her tone. “Mama, you’re keeping us out on this porch like we’re strangers. What will the neighbors think?” That got her mother moving. She shoved off the doorframe, the back of her hand dramatically glued to her forehead. “I suppose you’ll have to come in.” This was it. They’d just shot straight past the point of no return. She lifted her chin, hoisted up her carry-on,
and walked into her parents’ home. *** Jake kept his head down and didn’t press his luck as Jessie’s mama disappeared in the direction of the master bedroom, still muttering under her breath. She paused in the hallway, frowning in a way that barely made a dent in her forehead. Rumor had it that she got Botox injected when she took her “spa days” down in Dallas. “Make yourself comfortable in your room, since apparently, you’re content to send me to an early grave.” She shook her head, her voice ratcheting up a notch. “And look at your hair. Just look at it. All the time and effort I put into making you a success and just look at you.” She wobbled a little on her feet, and a very uncharitable part of Jake wanted to shove her into her bedroom and lock the door for the duration of Jessie’s time home. If anyone was responsible for filling Jessie’s head full of stupid shit and messed up priorities, it was her mama. Ten years hadn’t changed a damn thing. Jessie took a deep breath and threw her shoulders back. “Well, I guess that’s all there is to it.” She didn’t comment on the hurt her mama’s words must have brought, and he
didn’t even know where to begin. A growing horror took the place of his earlier smugness as he followed her up the stairs. It was only when he stood in front of the door to her bedroom that he realized just how in over his head he was. “I thought your parents would have us set up in different rooms.” The few times he’d stayed overnight in this house for one reason or another, the rules had been strict—he was in Drew’s room and Jessie was safely in hers. He’d just assumed that arrangement would still stand. He’d been wrong. “I thought they would, too,” she whispered. Since she seemed to be frozen in place, he slid past her and opened the door. Her room was identical to the last time he’d seen it, and he couldn’t help looking at the bed and thinking about all the things they’d done there. Her window overlooked the side of the house, and the wraparound front porch offered the perfect place to climb onto the roof in a spot that couldn’t be seen from the front of the house. He’d snuck in here more times than he could count. Ironically, the sleepover nights had been the only innocent ones. But that was before. Jessie pushed him fully into the room and closed the door behind her. “This isn’t going to
work.” “Sure it is.” But even as he said it, he didn’t quite believe it anymore. Pretending to be her boyfriend was one thing—sleeping in the same room as she was another thing altogether. He’d lost his damn mind in the truck when he’d pulled her close. If she hadn’t told him to back off, he would have kissed her. He never had been able to trust his control around Jessica Jackson. That hadn’t changed. “No, it won’t. You can’t sleep on the floor. They’ll know. And you cannot sleep in the bed with me.” She shoved her hands through her thick dark hair, sending the hair pins flying. “This is crazy. Beyond crazy.” “Jessie—” “No, you don’t get to Jessie me and smooth this over. Maybe you can share a room with me and it doesn’t affect you, but I’m not a robot.” Heat flared through him. Before common sense could take hold, he’d stepped closer to her, crowding her back against the pretty desk that had been her grandmother’s. It was still sturdy enough to not shake when he put his hands on the edge, bracketing her in. “You want me.” “Well, duh. I mean…look at you.” She waved her hand, and then jerked it away when her
knuckles brushed his chest. He felt that tiny touch through his entire body. Jake leaned in, the clean scent of her wrapping around him and chasing away what little common sense he had left. Jessie smelled like lemons and summertime, and if memory served, she tasted just as sweet. She licked her lips, her gaze on his mouth, and if that wasn’t a clear invitation, he didn’t know what was. Jake still took his time, lifting one hand to slide it along her jaw, making his intentions clear and giving her plenty of time to tell him where to shove it. But she just leaned into his touch a little. So, he damned them both and kissed her. She opened for him at the first touch of his tongue, and he wasted no time closing that last bit of distance between them. He wrapped his other arm around her waist and hitched her up onto the desk so he could step between her thighs. They both gasped at the contact. You have to stop this shit. He didn’t want to. Fuck, he did not want to do anything to jeopardize the little movements she made with her hips, as if she was as desperate for him as he suddenly was for her. As if she couldn’t wait another second until he
was inside her. Jake stroked her tongue with his, using his hand to adjust the angle so he could take the kiss deeper. He let go of her waist long enough to slide his hand along her right ankle, bunching the fabric of her dress as he worked his way up her leg. She actually fucking quivered when he hit the sensitive skin just above her knee. You are such a fucking bastard. He didn’t even care. Jessie was a grown up. She wanted this, same as he did. If they were in quicksand and sinking fast, well at least they were going down together. He reached her hip and froze when he didn’t encounter the band of fabric he was expecting. Jake lifted his head, a small part of him noting her flushed skin and the way her eyes were too wide and her breath came too quickly—a perfect match for him. The rest of him was hyper-focused on the soft skin beneath his fingers. “You’re not wearing underwear.” She blinked and then blinked again. “I’m not.” Some awareness came back into her eyes, and she managed a smile. “I never really did, though.” He knew. Fuck, he knew that better than anyone. Jake twisted his wrist to slide between her
thighs. She was soaking wet and shaking before he pushed a finger into her. He met her gaze as he pumped slowly. “I used to live in fear that you’d do one of those fucking high kicks at a game.” “You know better.” She cupped the back of his neck and arched her back, spreading her legs wider and giving him full access. “I only took off my panties after the game. For you.” He worked her, wanting to kiss her again, but wanting not to miss the look on her face when she came. “You need to find some fucking underwear for this weekend.” He withdrew long enough to spread her wetness up and over her clit and then pushed two fingers in her while he worked her with his thumb. “Unless you want me dragging you off to every empty room we come across.” “That doesn’t sound…so bad.” “I know.” He kissed her, quick and brutal. “Come for me, Jessie.” “I—” She moaned. “Jake, please.” A knock on the door made him freeze. He had half a second to see the panic in Jessie’s face before she shoved him hard enough that he hit the bed a few feet back. He sat down hard and snatched one of the ten fucking pillows to cover the cockstand he had going on.
The door opened, revealing Jennifer Jackson. She gave them the stink eye like she suspected they’d been doing exactly what they were doing, but she’d gotten over her earlier hysterics. That had to be a new record. Normally when she retired to her bedroom, she stayed there until the next day. “Dinner’s ready.” “Thanks, Mama.” Jessie didn’t sound even winded, and he glared at her sitting so primly on the desk as if she hadn’t just been seconds from coming on his fingers. Jennifer gave them one last long look before she turned and walked back down the hall, leaving the door open. Jake flopped back onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. What a shitshow. It was his fault and he couldn’t pretend otherwise. Jessie had voiced her concerns, and he’d turned around and proven exactly how legitimate they were. He huffed out a breath and sat up. “So that was—” “If what you’re about to say doesn’t involve ‘I will totally be finishing what I started later tonight’ I don’t want to hear it.” He raised his eyebrows. “Pushy.” “Maybe.” She shrugged. “If you change your mind, that’s fine, but I suggest you get better control of yourself, because I will be
masturbating to take the edge off.” She stood, smoothed down her dress, and strode out the room, leaving him staring at her like an idiot. When he’d thought that he wanted to see some of the old Jessica again, he hadn’t put much consideration into what that would look like. Jake shook his head. If the last hour was a good indication of how things were going to go this weekend, he wasn’t sure either of them would survive the next three days.
Chapter Four Jessica barely made it through dinner. She didn’t know what she ate—something leafy and green—but she was so busy dodging her mama’s verbal swipes that she didn’t have much appetite. It didn’t help that Drew had cancelled at the last minute, so there was no one for her mama to focus on except her. Lucky Jessica. You look like you’ve gained weight. A long sigh. I just knew you couldn’t be trusted to handle your own nutrition. You always did skew hefty. And what exactly have you been up to, Jake Davis? I heard that you got fired from assistant coach for a football team. Jessica, don’t you dare eat that. You’ve had enough. Humiliation had her slouching in her seat until a sharp comment about her posture forced her to straighten. God, how did I live like this? She’d been a little firecracker more often than not, but never at home. At home, there was only room for one drama queen, and that was Jennifer Jackson. Her therapist had a field day with that. Jessica could even agree that she acted out and misplaced her rage because she was so
damn impotent in what should have been the safety of her own home. It seemed like she should be better than some rote mommy issues bullshit, but she wasn’t. Add in her distant father, and she was a mess. Her mother turned to smile at Jake, and though her voice was as sweet as honey, her eyes were as cold as a snake’s. “So, Jake Davis, how many illegitimate children are you up to these days?” Enough is enough. “Mama, stop.” She didn’t mean to yell, but her mother had crossed a line. “Jake is my boyfriend, and I love him, and you’re being unforgivably rude.” Lie, lie, truth. Mostly. She ignored her father’s reproachful look and lifted her chin. “If you can’t be polite, we’ll go get a hotel.” “Do you hear that, Benjamin? Our own daughter, threatening me.” Her chin quivered in a move that would have pulled at Jessica’s heartstrings if she hadn’t seen it a million times growing up. Her dark eyes jumped from one person at the table to the other, but no one rushed to tell Jessica to apologize. Her mother nodded, almost to herself. “I see how it is— how it’s always been. Selfish ungrateful daughter, and a selfish ungrateful husband. No one talks about the sacrifices I’ve made for this
family. No one even notices. I just work myself to the bone, and all you care about is yourself.” She stood, shaking visibly. Jessica’s first instinct was to rush to her mama’s side and apologize, but she smothered the urge with every bit of strength she had. Part of coming back to Catfish Creek was facing down her parents, and she couldn’t move on with her life if she didn’t do that. This was the first step, no matter how much it turned her stomach. Her mother nodded again. “Well, in that case, I’m going to retire for the night.” She sniffled. “I wish I could say it was nice to have you home, Jessica, but it appears you’re just going to break my heart all over again.” Jessica barely held herself in place until her mama shuffled out of the room. Then she shot to her feet. “I’m going for a run.” Jake narrowed his eyes. “You hate running.” She ignored that, because it was true. She loathed running. She always had. But it quieted the crap in her brain better than anything else did—even yoga. These days, she found better activities to do the same thing, but there wasn’t a convenient gym in Catfish Creek of the variety she preferred. Even if there was, gossip was a tedious thing, and she didn’t feel like running the gauntlet just to
burn off her excess anxiety. I know one way to burn off that anxiety. The thought brought to mind what she and Jake had been doing before her mother’s crappy timing put a stop to it all. His mouth on hers, his fingers between her thighs, her orgasm so close she could practically taste it. In that stolen moment, she hadn’t once thought about her fears surrounding the reunion or worried about dealing with her mama. There had only been Jake and her and the perfection that lay between them when their clothes and the rest of the world fell away. But she couldn’t ask him to screw her into mental silence, so running was her only option. She looked at her daddy, but he was focused on his meal. Missed you, too. She couldn’t stand it any longer, so she rushed up the stairs, barely waiting for the click of her bedroom door closing to strip out of her dress. She’d thrown some workout clothes into her suitcase on a whim, and now she was pathetically grateful for it. Jessica had just pulled on her shorts and sports bra when Jake opened the door. She threw a hand up. “Knock!” He knocked on the door and then stepped
into the room, closing it behind him. “What the hell is going on, Jessie?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Yes, you do.” He started for her. She had to get out of there. The walls were too close, and Jake filled what little space there was in the room. “Jake, please. I have to go.” If she didn’t get out of there—now—she might start screaming. Or, worse, crying. He stared, his green eyes seeing too much. “How much time do you need?” “I don’t know.” She fully intended to run until she was too tired to think. Sometimes that was a mile, sometimes it was five. Jessica had a feeling it would take at least the latter before her mother’s comments faded away. He nodded, like she’d said more than she had. “Give me two minutes and I’ll come with you.” “What? No.” “Jessie, I know you need space, but even Catfish Creek isn’t without its dangers. If it would make you feel better, I can jog behind you, but I am coming.” She glared. “No, it would not make me feel better. You jogging behind me is creepier than any stranger would be.” He waited, as if he had all the time in the world. And why not? He couldn’t possibly feel
like he was about to shred off his skin if he didn’t move. She rubbed her arms. “Fine. Yes. Whatever. You can come with me. Just…I don’t want to talk.” “Done.” He dug through his suitcase and then walked out of her room, presumably to change in the bathroom. She considered leaving without him, but Catfish Creek wasn’t exactly big, and pissing him off wasn’t currently on her to-do list. Plenty of time for that tomorrow. Despite everything, she found herself smiling. Maybe teasing the hell out of Jake Davis was exactly what she needed to get her mind off all the crap that came with their hometown. She looked at the shirt in her hands and tossed it back into her suitcase. She was covered more than most swimsuits she owned, and the heat truly was oppressive, even with the sun on the verge of setting. Any extra clothes would be an encumbrance—and it wasn’t like she could piss off her mama any more than she already had today. The rest of Catfish Creek? Well, that was a different story. Feeling like herself for the first time in far too long, she pulled her hair back into a ponytail and headed for the stairs. “Meet you outside.” Jake’s muffled acknowledgement
was all she needed to hear to keep her moving. If she had her way, there wasn’t a chance in hell that he’d keep his hands off her tonight. *** Jake stepped out onto the front porch and froze, his gaze glued to Jessie’s ass as she bent over to stretch her hamstrings. Her tiny shorts left absolutely nothing to the imagination, and he couldn’t decide if he wanted to rush back into the house to find the closest blanket to wrap her in—or fuck her right there in the grass. Get a hold of yourself, asshole. Easier said than done. Especially when she straightened and stretched her arms over her head, giving him a perfect view of her back, broken only by a few straps of her sports bra. She turned around and his mouth went dry. She might as well be naked. No, it was more than that. He’d known her body was different from when they’d been together, but he’d underestimated the impact on him. The eighteen-year-old who’d dumped him was a girl. The twenty-eight-year-old standing in front of him now was a woman. It should have gone without saying, but his eyes traced the curve of her waist, more
pronounced than before, the way her breasts filled out her bra, the softness of her stomach. This was a woman who worked hard, but still loved life. He wasn’t sure what specific thing it was that gave him that impression, but he couldn’t shake it. He took a step forward, and she shot him a grin before she turned on her heel and took off. Jakes stared after her for a long moment and then shot down the porch stairs and jogged after her. He almost caught her by the end of the drive, but slowed up so he could enjoy the view. The Jacksons lived in one of those fancy ass neighborhoods that pretended it was rural, but every single one of the lawns was manicured down to the last square foot. His parents’ neighborhood wasn’t bad by any means, but it was lower middle class. He made a mental note to check in with his mama and let it go. Right now, there was only Jessie and him and the open space of the road beneath their feet. As tempting as it was to play with her a little bit, she’d been seriously shaky when she decided she needed a run. If she needed to push herself to quiet her demons, he wouldn’t be the one to stand in her way. Jake picked up his pace until he was even with her. Neither of them said anything, and he
matched her stride easily—Jessie was only a couple inches under his six feet, and her legs were almost as long as his. He let her set their speed. He was in good shape because he required it of his employees, and he couldn’t ask it of them if he wasn’t willing to do it himself. He’d cleared the schedule this weekend so this was the only event planned. Jake liked to be able to monitor the situation when his guys were out, because even though they did their due diligence with background checks and research about whatever situation they were walking into, there was still room for shit to go sideways. They might all be badass dudes to one degree or another, but they trusted him to have their back. He couldn’t guarantee he’d be there if they called while he was occupied with Jessie. Jake didn’t realize they’d turned until the pavement gave way to dirt beneath his shoes. He blinked and looked around, a slow smile spreading over his face despite himself. He knew this spot. Surely she wasn’t… But Jessie veered down the dirt road and through the field, toward a strand of trees that he knew as well as the back of his hand. It had been their escape and hideout ever since they were ten-years-old and she’d stumbled on the
makeshift fort he’d built back there. It made him smile to think of now. She only stopped when the trees hid the rest of the world from sight. Jessie paced back and forth, and if he didn’t know better, he’d assume she was cooling down after the run. He knew better. Jake opened his mouth to… He didn’t know what. Ask her what the deal was. Tell her that he’d changed his mind about forcing the issue. Fuck, to tell her the truth about who he was to Diamond Dates and why he showed up as her date. But she turned to him, and the strange look in her dark eyes stopped him. Jake knew that look—it was one that tended to appear when she was at the end of her rope and didn’t know who to turn to…though she’d always turned to him. At least up until the end. “What do you need from me?” She blinked, as if he’d surprised her, but recovered quickly. “This can’t be…anything. I know what happened, and I know what I said, but—” But there were too many skeletons in the closet that was their past. That didn’t mean he couldn’t help her now. “I get it.” He refused to examine why he wanted to help her now. “Then…” She took a breath. “Then what I
want, Jake, is you.” *** Jessica didn’t know what she expected—for Jake to laugh her out of town, most likely—but it wasn’t for him to cross the distance between them in a single step and yank her into his arms. Earlier, their interactions had been almost teasing. There was no room for that now. The running hadn’t helped. She knew after the first mile that no matter how long she ran or how exhausted she ended up, she’d still have her mother’s voice in her head. She’d still stay up all night, worrying about how the reunion would go tomorrow. She’d convince herself of whatever worst case scenarios her brain decided to come up with at three a.m. It was always three a.m. Unless she did something about it. Jessica went up on her tiptoes and kissed Jake with everything she had. Her earlier missed orgasm had her half primed already, the edge of her pleasure so acute, it was almost pain. Jake could fix it. Jake would fix it. He took control instantly, his hands coming up to tilt her head back so he could take the kiss deeper. Jessica’s knees went a little weak,
but she wasn’t about to let that stop her. She skimmed off his shirt and dropped it on the ground. He was like some dark golden Adonis, his skin sun-kissed without bothering with tan lines, his close-cropped beard and hair more blond than it had looked in the airport. Or maybe she was just looking for the familiar with the world going topsy-turvy around her. I came back here for closure, and I’m hooking up with my ex-boyfriend inside of twelve hours. The voice of reason had no power here. The golden skin of his chest was broken by a series of scars that stretched from his shoulder down to his elbow. Jessica jerked her gaze away and kissed him again. She didn’t need the reminder of the event that had been the beginning of the end of them. Only the here and now mattered. She went for the front of his shorts, the elastic band making it easy for her to slip her hand inside. A shudder rolled through him as she stroked his cock. If she let him think too much, he’d talk them both out of this. She could tell by the way his hands tensed on her face that Jake’s noble streak hadn’t died a terrible death alongside their relationship. Jessica took one of his hands in hers. Desperation made her bold, even though in
the back of her mind she knew she’d be mortified once this was all over. She drew his hand down to where her nipples were hard enough that there was no way he’d be able to miss it. He went stock still, letting her use him to cup her right breast. But he didn’t lose control. She nipped his lip, which only earned her a slight thrust into her hand. Damn it. Well, if he wanted a clear sign of consent, she was going to give it to him. Kissing her way across his jaw and to his throat, she tasted sweat on his skin. It was good. Too freaking good. “I want you Jake.” She squeezed his cock and went for broke. “I ache for you. Please. Just…please.” “You’re using me.” She didn’t have it in her to lie. Not now. Not about this. “I think we’re both guilty of that, if for different reasons.” “Fuck.” His muttered curse was the only warning she got. One second she had her hand in his pants and her mouth against his skin, and the next he spun her around. Her running shorts hit her ankles and his big hand on her back bent her over until she had to grab the tree in front of her to maintain her balance. “This is what you want, Jessie? Me to fuck you right here like a goddamn animal?”
He speared two fingers into her, the penetration drawing a gasp from her lips. His low voice growled in her ear. “Like this. To punish you for whatever the fuck has been going on in your head since you got off that plane.” He bent over her, his bare chest again her back, his ragged breath on her neck. “You don’t want me, Jessie Jackson. You want penance.” Jake reached around with his other hand and stroked her clit, gentle despite the way he drove his other fingers deep inside her. It was too much. She couldn’t have stopped her orgasm if she wanted to, and she desperately didn’t want to. Jessica cried out as she came. Her entire body shuddered and, this time, she couldn’t keep on her feet. Jake grabbed her around the waist with one arm while he gentled his touch with the other. “Fuck, Jessie. What the fuck are we doing?” She didn’t know. She’d been in a free fall since she decided to come back, and instead of catching her, Jake had just added weights to her ankles. What the hell were you expecting? It’s not his job to catch you anymore. It was like being doused in cold water. Even after everything, a part of her had seen him at that airport and thought it was a sign. A sign
that she wasn’t as bad back then as she’d thought, that maybe she deserved a happily ever after despite everything. She should have known better. It was fate giving her a chance to drop her guard before it went in for the kill. Jessica took a breath, and then another, but all she could smell was Jake’s clean and spicy scent. He surrounded her the same way he did physically. She needed space, and she needed it now. She straightened her legs and made herself move a few shuffling steps away from him so that she could pull up her shorts. Mortification heated her entire body, and she couldn’t quite make herself meet his gaze. So she did the only thing a certified coward could do. She ran. “See you back at the house.” Jessica turned and sprinted away from the trees. Her legs were a little wobbly, but she managed. Just not fast enough to miss hearing Jake cursing her name.
Chapter Five Jake didn’t go back to the Jackson house. He was too torn up inside and he didn’t know what to do with the anger that he’d thought he was long past. It fucking sucked having Jessica all but admit that she was using him like a real-life sex toy, but what did he expect? For her to jump off the plane and declare her everlasting love? That wasn’t what he wanted. He ignored the tiny doubt that rose with that thought. What he needed was a slice of normalcy in the midst of all the crazy, so he went home. It was a good three miles, but the run gave him the time he needed to burn off the excess lust clouding his thoughts. He could still feel Jessica’s pussy tighten around his fingers as she came, and it was all too easy to imagine what it would have felt like if he’d thrown caution to the wind and fucked her like she was practically begging him to do. He cut across the potholed street and rounded the corner to his mama’s little house. Oh, it wasn’t little with three bedrooms, two baths, and fifteen-hundred square feet, but it felt like a shabby dollhouse after being in the Jackson residence. He hated that, hated how
they could make him be ashamed about the place he grew up in just because they were so damn insecure that they had to flaunt their money at every available opportunity. Jake’s father hadn’t been a fancy bank president, and his mama wouldn’t be caught dead in the Junior League. Fundamentally different. He hadn’t cared about that in high school because he and Jessie planned on leaving this all behind the first chance they got. It was only when he was forced to stay because of his injury that he’d started to realize that what he’d had in Catfish Creek wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Deep fucking thoughts, Davis. He knocked on the front door just so he didn’t scare the shit out of his mama, and then opened it. “Mama?” “Jake?” Her voice came from deeper in the house, and he followed the sound to the kitchen. She was elbow deep in flour, her dark hair pinned back like it always was when she was working. She smiled when she saw him, her entire face lighting up. “I got your message, so I wasn’t expecting to see you until after the reunion” “I had some free time.” He leaned against the doorframe. Thirty seconds in this house, and the tension riding him was already dissipating.
“What are you doing?” “Oh.” His fifty-year-old mother blushed like a teenager. “It’s Mr. Willis’s birthday tomorrow, and I thought it would be neighborly to bring him a cake.” “Neighborly.” He kept his tone mild, but her blush said more than enough. “This would be the Mr. Willis who moved in six months ago— the same one who took over for Mrs. Carey at the library.” His mama had mentioned the man in passing, but Jake hadn’t put two and two together. “The very one.” She took a breath, looking like she was about to step onto a battlefield. “Your daddy died two years ago. I miss him— we both miss him. But I’m not dead, Jake Lincoln Davis, and I’ll thank you kindly not to make me feel guilty about taking this cake to my neighbor.” He crossed the kitchen and took her hands in his. “Mama, I wouldn’t dream of it. We both miss him, but if you want to…” He didn’t even know what the right word was, and his mind shied away from the thought of his mama doing the physical acts that came along with romantic relationships. There was no replacing his dad, but Jake was twenty-eightyears-old—he wouldn’t make his mama feel bad because she was healing. God willing, she
had decades left to live, and he didn’t like to think of her living it alone. “If you want to date someone, you are more than entitled to.” He squeezed her hands. “I want you to be happy.” He knew she’d been lonely here in this house without both him and his dad. It was only a matter of time before her grief faded enough for her to move on. He understood, mostly. He also wasn’t about to let the parts of him hurt by this show on his face. “Just be safe. What do you know about this Mr. Willis?” She squeezed his hands back, and then frowned at him. “I know enough. Don’t you go being all overprotective now.” “That’s my job.” He dropped a kiss onto her cheek and retreated. “Do you want me to take a look at that leaking pipe you mentioned when we talked this weekend?” “Oh.” If anything, she blushed brighter. “Mr. Willis came over yesterday and fixed it right as rain.” Something in his chest lurched, just a little. He wanted his mama happy. He did. But it was starting to sink in that she was well and truly moving on. It was bittersweet, to say the least. “I’m happy for you, Mama. I really am.” And if it wasn’t completely true, he’d fake it for her sake until it was true.
“Thank you.” She wrinkled her nose. “You smell something fierce. Why don’t you go take a shower and change into some of the clothes you have packed away here and I’ll put you together a sandwich?” “Will do.” He wasn’t hungry, but he’d eat anyways. And he’d check out the former leaking pipe in the bathroom while he was at it. *** Jake hadn’t come back. Jessica lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. She should have known better than to push him like that. In hindsight, he was right—she was using him, just like she’d used people back in the day. It just figured that she’d lost so much of the girl she’d been, but she hadn’t lost the most negative aspect of it. She turned over and looked at her phone. She could call Brooklyn or Cora to talk this out, but it felt like too much effort. She knew what they’d say: buck up and power through. Neither of them ever had problems facing down their fears. Brooklyn ran straight toward what she was frightened of. Cora might not go that far, but that was probably because she wasn’t afraid of anything. Jessica had always felt like she was half a step behind them,
though they’d be horrified to hear that. It was her problem. Not theirs. She’d be a goddamn adult and face it down herself. A faint tapping on the window had her bolting up in bed. She twisted to see what was making the sound…and let out a choked laugh. Jake. She padded to the window. It took more muscle than she remembered to get it open, but then there was nothing between them. He crouched on the porch roof, wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt that he hadn’t had on earlier. He went home. Of course he went home. Just because she’d left Catfish Creek behind didn’t mean he did the same. She’d envied Jake’s relationship with his parents—open and loving and uncritical—so it made sense that he wanted to check in on his mama. Especially since he obviously hadn’t been ready to deal with Jessica. She wrapped her arms around herself. “Hey.” Was she supposed to apologize? There wasn’t exactly a playbook for how to act around your ex-boyfriend who was pretending to be your current boyfriend but had just given you a very real orgasm a few hours earlier. Brooklyn would be laughing her ass off if she knew. “Hey.” He didn’t make a move to climb into the room. “I was a jackass earlier.”
“No, I’m sorry.” It was like the buildup, the one that had been rising since the moment she first saw him, finally burst the dam. She gripped her arms so tightly, she distantly wondered if she was in danger of breaking into a million pieces. “I used you and that wasn’t fair, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” I was so sure I was done using people, but the first chance I get, I’m right back at it. The shadows hid his face, making it impossible to gauge his response. “Jessie.” Even his tone gave nothing away. “Let’s just forget this ever happened.” She just wanted to rewind to the day she’d agreed to this insane idea—no, to the day she got the invitation in the mail. Jessica should have thrown it away immediately. Shredded it. Maybe lit a little fire just to make sure it was gone. She couldn’t blame her slow slide back into the queen bitch of Catfish Creek. The town had never been the cause of it. She couldn’t even blame her mama, because plenty of people had mothers like hers and didn’t become utterly wretched the second they stepped out the door. Today was a vivid reminder that she wasn’t nearly as far along in her journey to being a different person as she’d thought—as she’d hoped.
“Jessica.” He leaned forward, the intensity in his green eyes rooting her in place. “You seem to be under the mistaken impression that you have some shit to atone for.” “I do.” He should know that better than anyone. Jake shook his head. “No, you don’t. Not with me.” He climbed into her room with one smooth move. “We both had a part to play, and I’m as guilty as you are when it comes to our shit going down in flames ten years ago.” She started to ask what he meant but forgot what she was saying when his hands came to rest on her hips. How had he gotten so close without her noticing? “But we’re not talking about ten years ago—we’re talking about today. And today, I was a right jackass.” She tried to focus on his words, rather than the feeling of his fingers sliding down her hips and then back up, until they dipped beneath her sleep shirt and found bare skin. She licked her lips. “You made me come. I don’t think you were too much of a jackass.” “I was punishing you for the fact that I still want you. It’s not your fault that my head is fucked up when it comes to you.” He backed her toward the bed, step by step. “We’ll talk about this, Jessica Jackson, but not right now.” She licked her lips, doing her best not to arch
against him like a cat begging to be stroked. She’d already pushed too hard earlier today. She was going to learn from her mistakes if it killed her—and with Jake’s thumbs slowly tracing back and forth over her hips bones, it might kill her. “What are we going to do now?” “Now, I’m going to strip you naked and reacquaint myself with you.” His hips bumped hers, making it impossible to miss exactly what we meant. “And when we’re both satisfied, I’m going to start again—as many times as it takes.” She couldn’t catch her breath. “Oh.” “Is your door locked?” He coasted his hands up her sides, taking her shirt with it. “I don’t know.” Jessica lifted her arms so he could slide it over her head and drop it on the floor. Then she stood before him, naked but for a pair of seriously unsexy underwear. She hadn’t been planning on wearing underwear for the most part during this trip, but she’d thrown in a few pairs to sleep in—she was going to be in her parents’ house, after all, and one did not sleep naked in one’s childhood home. Now she wished she’d thrown that stupid rule out the window. While she was debating the best way to distract Jake so she could get rid of the
underwear without him seeing, he took a step back and went to his knees in front of her. And barked out a laugh. “Shut up.” She put a hand in front of his face, trying to block his vision. “No, wait.” He grabbed her around the wrist and moved her arm. “Explain these. Is that a —” “Yes, okay. It’s a cat.” She might die of embarrassment, right there on her bedroom floor. Jessica stared at the ceiling, her skin so hot, it might as well have been on fire. “A pussy, if you will.” Jake made a choked sound. “The image very lifelike.” “It was a gag gift from Brooklyn.” At least she thought it was a gag gift. With Brooklyn, one could never tell. The underwear was cut in a boy-short style and they had an image of an angry cat plastered across the front. “We don’t have to talk about it.” “You are just full of surprises.” She jumped at the feel of his breath against the sensitive skin below her belly button. Knowing he was so close gave her the courage to look down her body. Jake met her gaze, his green eyes drinking her in. “Lie down.” Jessica shimmied out of the underwear and kicked it under the bed, his sharp inhale music
to her ears. Maybe I still have it. She slowly backed onto the bed. He watched her the entire time, his entire body tense as if trying to keep from pouncing on her. It would have been better if he did lose control. There were no illusions on who held the power in their situation. Jake. Always Jake. He pulled off his shirt and then took off his pants, his gaze never leaving her. She wanted… Jessica couldn’t put into words what she wanted. To go back in time and not be such a selfish fool. To be as brave as she used to be when she was that idiot teenager. Jake. Most of all, she wanted Jake. He climbed onto the bed and settled next to her. “Don’t move.” He placed a hand a quarter of an inch above her stomach and slowly drifted it over her body. Arms, shoulders, breasts, stomach, legs. Through it all, Jake didn’t touch her, never closed that minuscule distance. Her skin broke out in goosebumps, and her breath went ragged. It didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t touching her. “What are you doing to me?” She could barely force the words past her lips.
“Reacquainting myself.” He made it down one side of her body and started back the other, but he paused when he reached her hips. “Spread your legs for me, love. I want to see you.” She obeyed without hesitation. His hand was so close to where she needed him. All she had to do was arch up and there would be contact. Her body shook from the need. “Jake, please. Touch me.” He exhaled through clenched teeth. “Not yet.” Desire and desperation gave her more courage than she would have dreamed. “If you won’t, then I will.” She hesitated half a second, and then slid her hand between her thighs. Her fingers bumped his, but he didn’t seem inclined to move—either to stop her or help her—so she parted her folds and drew a single finger over herself. Jake caught her wrist before she could touch her clit. He lifted her hand, her finger gleaming with her wetness, and took it into his mouth. “Shit.” Jessica’s eyes slid shut despite her best efforts as he gave her finger a hard suck and then pulled away. She immediately opened them again, not wanting to miss a single second.
“Shit,” he agreed. “Fuck, Jessie, you taste even better than I remember.” His gaze dropped to where she was still exposed. “I had plans for how this was going to play out.” He moved down until he was between her thighs, his big shoulders spreading her even further. “Very specific plans.” “Was this part of them?” She couldn’t catch her breath for the anticipation tightening every muscle in her body. “Eventually.” And then his mouth was on her and there was no more room for talking. At the first lazy drag of his tongue, she had to slap a hand over her mouth to muffle her moan. Jake went still, his breath ghosting over her clit. “When’s the last time?” Several seconds passed before she found her voice, and when she did, it was hoarse with need. “You’ll have to be more specific.” “No, I won’t. You know exactly what I mean.” He flicked her clit with his tongue. “Tell me.” It just figured that she could be in the middle of one of her most secret fantasies—having sex with Jake again—and he was determined to turn even this into a way to bring her down a notch. She sighed, her desire dampened, but not completely gone. She was human, after all. “I’m not trying to be a dick.” Another slow lick. “That orgasm earlier barely took the edge
off. You’re shaking from need, and I haven’t done anything to you.” Realization struck and she almost laughed. “You want to know if it’s you or if I’m just so sex starved that anyone would do.” Heat rolled over his eyes. “We both know that no one else can compare, so don’t play that game.” Is he as nervous about this as I am? Strangely enough, that made her feel better. She managed half a smile. “It’s been awhile, but not so long that anyone would do.” A careful breath, shoring up her courage. “It’s you, Jake.” It’s always been you. She couldn’t say that last part. No matter what they were doing here and now, she was going back to LA, and he was staying in Texas. The past was too big of a stumbling block for them to ever truly get over it. She had to take what he was offering now and be satisfied with that. “I’m going to take care of you, love.” And then his mouth was on her and, this time, there was no pause, no passing Go, no collecting two hundred dollars. Even ten years later, Jake knew her body as well as she did. He started with the slow exploring licks, working his way up to her clit and back down again, until she was panting
with need. And then he played dirty. He pushed two fingers into her. A pump, two, and then he found the sensitive spot inside her and went after it with little circles of his fingertips that perfectly matched the little circles his tongue was making. Pleasure bowed her back, and she had to scramble to grab the nearest pillow to muffle her scream. It half smothered her in the process, but it was a small price to pay for the orgasm that kept going and going. By the time Jake slid his fingers out of her and lifted his head, she was a limp noodle. He removed the pillow from her face and tossed it onto the floor. “Next time you muffle your screams, it’ll be with my mouth.” “Ah…” She licked her lips and tried again. “Arrogant.” “Realistic.” He grabbed a condom from his shorts and had it on in short order. She barely got to appreciate the view before he was back between her legs. Jessica tensed, but she should have known better. Instead of just going for it, Jake settled his weight over her, the angle preventing his cock from sliding into her. She could taste herself on his lips as he kissed her. That had always turned her on like crazy. There was just something forbidden and filthy in the best way
possible about enjoying how she tasted as much as he did. She laced her fingers through his hair and wrapped her legs around his waist, kissing him with everything she had. And then he started to move. He rolled his hips, sliding his cock over her over-sensitized clit. One long drag after another. His tongue tangled with hers, the frenzy there completely at odds with the slow control of the rest of his body. Jake kissed her like he’d never get enough. Like he knew this was a limited time opportunity, and he wanted to memorize every second of it. He moved down her jaw to her neck. “You’re ready for me.” There was no question that it was true, but he seemed to be waiting for some kind of response from her. “I want you, Jake.” I think I still love you, Jake. Thank God he kissed her before those traitorous words escaped. And then his cock was at her entrance and working into her slowly, an inch at a time. Call her crazy, but she’d forgotten how big he was. Jessica instinctively tensed at the intrusion. Jake froze. “Am I hurting you?” “No.” It was the truth. It wasn’t pain…just being filled to an almost uncomfortable
degree. She wiggled a little, trying to adjust. He rolled them. One second she was focused on accommodating him, and the next she was straddling his hips, staring down at him like an idiot. Jake adjusted them, reaching down to poise his cock at her entrance again. “You’re running this show now, Jessie. Take what you need.”
Chapter Six Jake watched Jessie as she rode him. The low light of the lamp on her nightstand threw her body into stark relief against the shadows. Her breasts rose and fell with each breath, each topped with a dusky rose nipple. Unable to help himself, he leaned up and captured one in his mouth. With her pussy squeezing his cock and her little sounds slipping from between her lips, he was holding on by a thread. There was no counting the nights he’d imagined having her again—remembered all the times they’d been together in the past. This was different. She was different. He switched to the other breast, encouraging her to keep moving with his hands on her hips. “You feel good, love.” A breathless laugh and then her hands were on his shoulders, pushing him back down. “I don’t remember you talking this much when we were together before.” “A lot’s changed since then.” He’d hardly been a saint in the last ten years, and his tastes had refined as a result. It should have meant that he’d moved beyond Jessica Jackson, but he was beginning to realize that there was no
moving past Jessie. He’d have to deal with that truth at some point. Not yet, though. Not tonight. Jake reached between them and positioned his thumb over her clit so that she rubbed against it with every stroke. Her dark eyes went wide. “Jake, I can’t.” “You can. Let all the shit go, Jessie. None of it matters right here, right now.” For a second, he thought she might argue with him, but then the last of the tension melted from her body. She sobbed out a breath in what might have been relief, and then she moved. Where, before, her strokes had been something she was obviously concentrating on, now they were mindless. The most natural thing in the world. Her body knew his, the same way his knew hers. Her arms drifted over her head to twine together, the move bowing her back and giving him the view of a lifetime. Her hips rolled, taking her pleasure without worrying about his. Good. Jake kept his thumb over her clit, working to hold himself still. She crested with his name on her lips, her body going tight, her pussy milking him. He lost it. He rolled them again, using the move to
drive deeper into her. A small voice in the back of his mind warned him to slow down, but there was no room for reason here. There was just Jake and Jessica and the pleasure demanding he lose himself inside her. He took her mouth as pressure built at the bottom of his spine. It drew his balls up, turning him into a mindless animal. Through it all, one word echoed again and again and again. Mine. He came with a curse. Even then, he couldn’t move out of her. Leave this perfect moment? Not fucking likely. Jake buried his face in the curve of her neck. “A minute.” “After that, you can have two.” He laughed hoarsely. As his heartbeat worked its way back to something resembling normal, Jake had to face a few facts. Namely, getting inside Jessie again hadn’t scratched his itch in the least. He hadn’t really thought it would, but he was well-versed in this particular brand of denial. This wasn’t about putting her in her place after what she did ten years ago. It wasn’t about putting that spark back in her eyes, either. He’d done this because he couldn’t be in the same state—let alone the same house—as Jessie without losing his damn mind. Even
now, his cock was hardening for round two. It wouldn’t take the edge off any more than the first time had. I am in so much fucking trouble. Jake slid out of her and off the bed. He took the condom off and held it carefully while he yanked on his shorts. “I’ll be right back.” “Jake?” He ignored the question within a question. There wasn’t an easy answer. Hell, he didn’t have any kind of answer. Outstanding sex or not, he and Jessie didn’t fit anymore. They had too much history between them, and their futures weren’t anywhere close to being on the same track. She lived in LA. She had a career. Friends. A life that didn’t include him. He had the same in Dallas. He made it to the bathroom without running into anyone and closed and locked the door behind him. After disposing the condom, he stared at himself in the mirror. What the fuck are you doing? The man reflected back didn’t know any more. Right now, Jessie was in that room, naked and smelling of sex. If he went in there and kissed her before she could ask the question he’d seen lingering in her gaze, he could keep them both from facing any hard truths—at least until morning. But that was too close to a lie.
He walked back to her bedroom, knowing that she’d reached the same conclusion he had the second he opened the door and found her dressed in a pair of sweats and an old T-shirt instead of naked and wanting. A slow roiling anger rose, totally and completely irrational. “What are you doing?” She twisted the hem of the shirt with nervous fingers and wouldn’t quite look at him. “That was fun.” “Fun.” “Yes, fun. But I think we’re on the same page about where this is going or, rather, where it isn’t.” She finally looked at him, and he went cold at the way her eyes shone. “I can’t sleep all tangled up in you like I used to. Maybe you can, but I just…” She swiped a hand at her face. “God, look at me. I’m a total and complete mess. I’m taking a shower.” “Wait.” He stepped in front of her even as he asked himself what the hell he was doing. “Jessie, just hold on a damn minute.” “I can smell you on me.” She jerked back, and he let her go. “Jake, please. It was good. So good. But I didn’t expect it to hurt so much.” Her tone left no illusions—she wasn’t talking about physical pain. And because she wasn’t, he stepped aside and let her flee the room.
Rationally, he hadn’t done anything wrong. She was the one who made the first move earlier, and she’d been with him every step of the way. Knowing that didn’t make him feel any less like a piece of shit. That feeling was made worse by the realization that he was even more of a dick because she had no idea that he owned Diamond Dates and had orchestrated being here as her date. I’m batting a thousand when it comes to Jessica Jackson. It just went to prove some things never changed. *** Jessica hadn’t thought she’d be able to fall asleep, even after her thirty-minute shower. She’d stayed in there until the hot water went out, because she was a coward and had hoped that Jake would magically be asleep when she got back to the room. At least one thing had gone right, because that wish had been granted. It had still been too weird for words to lay next to him and listen to the steady sound of his breathing. Add to that the sheets smelled of the sex she’d just scrubbed off her body, and her mind was on a hamster wheel there was no escape from.
Exhaustion eventually had taken hold, because the next thing she knew, she opened her eyes to the sun bathing her room in morning light. She stretched and winced. Between the running and the sex, she was sore in more than a few places. She stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. The bed had gone cold on the side Jake slept on last night, and though a crazy part of her was disappointed by this, she needed the time alone to figure out what the hell she was going to do. The reunion was tonight and her entire plan —crappy, though it’d been—was in shambles. She was just going to have to deal with it. As attractive as hopping a plane back to LA was, it wasn’t really an option. She was here. Whatever would happen, would happen. Jessica closed her eyes and tried to think of at least one good thing that would come from the reunion. There had to be at least one person she was looking forward to seeing. Jake. Stop that. She’d been friendly enough with Kate Williamson in high school—or as friendly as Jessica had gotten at the time, which meant the probability of the woman considering them friends was low. God, I was a right asshole.
Most people had to have at least a couple people they looked forward to seeing at their high school reunion. Jessica had one—and even then, she’d been dreading seeing Jake as much as she’d been looking forward to it. That was it. One. A funk threatened to take hold, but she forced herself out of bed. There was nothing left to do but face her demons. It took longer than necessary to get ready, mostly because she was stalling like a coward. Jessica stared at herself in the mirror. You can do this. She looked nothing like the girl who’d moved out of this house at eighteen—the one who’d terrorized Catfish Creek High School. Back then, she’d been a bottle blonde, because her mama insisted that blondes had a higher percentage of wins in the pageant circuit. Jessica had finally looked that up when she was thirteen. Those “statistics” her mama was so fond of quoting were total crap. But then, a lot of what her mama drilled into her head growing up was crap. She hadn’t been allowed to go to school unless she was wearing full war paint. Being a cheerleader was a requirement, not an option. Though she couldn’t blame that last one totally on anyone but herself. She loved being a
cheerleader. She’d loved the energy of the crowd, being front and center at the games, the way that people’s eyes followed her when she wore her uniform. I wonder if I still have it? She wrapped the towel around herself and peeked into the hallway. All clear. Jessica hurried to her room and closed the door softly behind her. It wouldn’t be long before someone came looking for her, but she wanted to do this, first. Or maybe I’m still stalling. Shut up. She walked to her closet. It was like a blast from the past. There were half a dozen formal dresses, all packaged and sealed on their hangers. Her prom dress was still wrapped up just like she’d left it—the one she’d worn when she was named Prom Queen. It had felt like such an accomplishment at the time. She’d walked onto that stage and stood next to Jake, sure in the fact that the world was at their feet. And then it’d all gone to hell two months later. Jessica ran her finger over the plastic covering her prom dress. It was a sequined number in the mermaid tale fashion that had created curves where she hadn’t had any, and the heart-shaped bodice had done wonders for
her cleavage. And it was a startling, showstopping white. She’d never admitted it aloud to anyone, but she’d thought of that dress as her pre-wedding wedding dress. Her five-year plan had her married to Jake—after college, of course—as he accepted his draft pick into the NFL. So stupid. She’d been so focused on the status that she’d stopped seeing the man. Jessica could blame her upbringing or her mama’s voice in her head that only years of therapy had taught her to combat, but the truth was that no one had put a gun to her head and made her leave Jake. That was all her. Forcibly setting aside the past, she pushed the dresses to the side. There it was. She shot a look over her shoulder, but no one had snuck into the room while she wasn’t paying attention. Then Jessica grabbed the hangar that her cheer uniform had been draped over and took it out. The red and blue uniform had been such a status symbol when she first got it, but holding it now, she couldn’t ignore the fact that there were so many memories tied up in these two pieces of cloth. Jake’s first game starting and her first game cheering as sophomore. He’d thrown the winning touchdown with only seconds left on
the clock, and she’d about lost her voice from cheering so loud. And then they’d given their virginity to each other in the cab of his truck out at the drive-in theater. His crazy way of asking her to prom, which had involved his entire football team stealing their rival school’s mascot, and a kiss that still ranked on her top three. She’d been wearing this uniform when she went to the hospital, so twisted up inside her head with worry for Jake and the soul-deep fear that she’d turn out just like her mama if she stayed in Catfish Creek, and told him that she was destined for greatness and he no longer was. Jessica dropped the uniform like it’d burned her and shut the closet door. It all came back to that. If she hadn’t been such an idiot then… Then what? She didn’t know anything about what Jake’s life looked like now. Did he move to Dallas before or after her started working for Diamond Dates. Did he make enough as a fake date to pay his bills or did he have another job? She dressed quickly, needing to be around people and get out of her head. Even if those people were Jake and her parents. She’d found the dress while out shopping with Cora, and
Jessica had fallen instantly in love. It was cut like the old pin-up dresses—a square neckline and sleek fit that was only broken by a bow that tucked in her waist. It was sexy, but in a classy sort of way. Best of all, it was black. The party tonight was a masquerade ball, because of course. She had a feeling the woman who put the whole reunion together, Karly Stocker, had read Fifty Shades Darker a few too many times. The invitation had been explicitly clear about dressing up being a requirement of attending—the command had Karly written all over it. There was nothing left to stall with. She headed downstairs. The house was eerily quiet, and she found herself instinctively avoiding the squeaky boards. The living room was empty, everything clean and looking like a show room. It’d been like that, even growing up—both house and family ready for company at the drop of a hat. What would the neighbors think if they came by and there was something as offensive as a book laying on the couch cushion? She found her mama in the kitchen, engaged in a furious standoff with Jake. Or, rather, Mama was furiously trying to stare a hole in the side of his head. Jake was making coffee.
Her mama turned to her and her entire face fell. It would have been comical under difference circumstances. “Jessica, you cannot wear that.” Jake finally looked up. His gaze skated from the top of her head to her toes and back again. “You look good, Jessie.” “You would say that.” Mama pressed a hand to her chest like she was having a heart attack. “Jessica Jackson, go up to your room right this instant and change. You look like a hooker going to a funeral.” Enough was enough. “No.” Her mama blinked and swayed, her hand moving from her chest to her throat. “Excuse me?” It was bad enough that she was going through with the reunion, and that Jake was her date instead of some stranger who would have played his part and faded into the ether. But to come home and have her mama trying to cram her back into the girl she’d been was too much. It was a dress cut two sizes too small, ripping at the seams and choking the life out of her. Words bubbled up, words that would hurt her mama but that might be necessary all the same. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t take that final step, no matter how necessary. “We have
to go. Jake?” He hesitated, and she didn’t have to see his face to know exactly what he was thinking. He wanted her to stand up for herself. He’d always wanted her to stand up to her mama. Not now. Not like this. Not when twentyeight years of pent-up frustration and hurt meant she was likely to say something unforgivable and ugly. That wasn’t how she wanted to take back control of her life. Take back? Honey, that would mean you actually had control at one point. Without another word, she turned and walked out of the kitchen, down the hall, and out of the house. Footsteps echoed after her, the sound she knew as well as her own stride. Jake didn’t touch her. He stopped the barest inch away. “The reunion isn’t until tonight.” “I know. Isn’t there some kind of luncheon or something?” “You didn’t read up on the information?” She headed for his truck, but he got there first and opened the passenger door for her. “Jake, it’s a damn miracle that I’m here at all. So, no, I didn’t read up on the itinerary.” She flung herself into the truck. “Take me somewhere. Anywhere. Please.” “Okay, love. Let’s go.”
Chapter Seven Jake didn’t have a destination in mind when they set out from the Jackson house. They didn’t have anywhere to be until tonight, and the day stretched out in front of him, too full of possibilities and empty of plans. How many times had they done this—nearly bolted from her house, jumped into his beat up old Chevy, and driven until the shadows disappeared from Jessie’s eyes? Until he stopped worrying about whatever test was next so he could keep his GPA high enough to get the scholarship he’d been so desperate for. Until all the world narrowed down to the truck cab, the sun-warmed wheel beneath his hands, the girl next to him, usually with her feet propped up on the dash as the wind teased her honey blonde hair. So much had changed, and yet nothing had changed. He stared out the windshield. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you tell your mama ‘no’ before.” Jennifer Jackson was a force of nature, and she had centered her entire life around giving herself a second chance through her daughter. The woman had been so busy pruning Jessie so she could shove her into a box of Jennifer’s choosing that she hadn’t
stopped to ask her daughter what she wanted. He and Jessie had more than one fight over her inability to stand up for herself. She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. “We are all products of our parents, but ultimately it’s up to us to break the mold.” He snorted. “Did you read that in a self-help book?” “No, my therapist told it to me.” She opened her eyes, the spark of anger in them calling to him despite his best intentions. She held herself too rigid, as if she really were as brittle as he’d suspected. “Come on. You might as well get it out of your system.” He twisted to look at her fully. “What the hell are you talking about?” She’d made a leap of topic without bringing him along. “Therapist. Shrink. Poor, crazy Jessica Jackson.” His snort turned into a full out laugh. “Nice pity party you have going there.” The spark of anger flared brighter. “It’s not a pity party. I was a total jackass and a terrible person, and I trampled on anyone in my way while I was trying to get ahead. That’s not something you can just turn off without help.” “You keep saying that—that you were a terrible person. You weren’t.” “Yes, I was.” She gave him a look like he was
a few colors short of a rainbow. “Maybe the teenage hormones and sex have fogged your memory, but I was even worse than Regina George in high school. I made her look like a saint.” “Who’s Regina George?” She reared back, and he snickered. “Joking. Fuck, Jessie, you make it too easy. Yes, I remember that movie. You dragged me to it in theaters and then bought it the second it came out on DVD.” He took a left turn onto the highway. “And you were a bit of a bitch, but it was fucking high school. Who cares?” “I bet Leah Camacho thinks differently.” As he remembered it, Leah Camacho had given as good as she’d gotten. Neither of them had ever told Jake what went wrong in their friendship in junior high, but it had caused a spectacular feud in the way only small town drama could. “She moved away. Colorado or something. I don’t think she’s been back since.” “Probably because I traumatized her so thoroughly.” Jessie shook her head. “I hated that girl. “ “Because she was one of the only kids unwilling to kiss your ass.” He smirked. “I’m sure she got over it.” He was lying through his teeth. He clearly remembered Jessie making a
spectacle of Leah in front of the entire cafeteria. More than once. “Sure.” She slipped on a pair of sunglasses. “Look, you might have pulled some magical whatever to get past your anger at me, but I highly doubt Leah freaking Camacho is as Zen about the whole thing.” She made a face. “I don’t suppose she’s skipping the reunion?” “Word has it that she’s coming.” “Word.” She shook her head. “You don’t even live here anymore. How do you have access to the rumor mill?” Jake passed a van full of kids going ten under the speed limit. “You know very well that my mama hears everything worth hearing about Catfish Creek.” Marie Davis owned a little hair salon down on the main drag of town, and most of the female population between thirteen and eighty-five walked through those doors once a quarter. Of course, Jessie had never been a patron. Her mama dragged her to Dallas every time her bottle blonde needed a touchup. “The only difference between hair stylists and therapists is that therapists can’t talk about your conversations after the fact.” “I like your hair.” He blurted it like he was sixteen again and had no idea what he was doing. Jake took a deep breath and said in a
less abrupt way. “The brunette suits you.” “My mama cried when she saw a picture on Facebook.” Jessie twisted the end of a lock around her finger and inspected it. “She dropped what she was doing and called me right then to tell me what a terrible mistake I’d made and demand I go back to blonde.” “When was that?” “Five years ago.” She let her hair drop. “A lot of stuff happened that year—or, rather, in March of that year—and few of them were good. It threw things into perspective for me and made me realize that most of the things I thought were so important didn’t matter at all. I’ve been trying to do better since.” Trying to do better—and dragging around a ton of emotional baggage in the way of guilt. Jessie finally looked around. “Where are you taking me?” She frowned. “You aren’t going to drop me on the side of the road and make me hitchhike back into town, are you? Because I’ll end up murdered, and you’ll never forgive yourself.” Jake barked out a laugh. “One, I would never do that to you, even when I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. Two, murdered? Really?” “Yes, really.” She crossed her arms and slid further down in the seat. “My friend Brooklyn listens to true crime podcasts when she’s
stressed out—and she’s always stressed.” She shuddered. “So. Many. Murders.” She’d mentioned her friends before. “Brooklyn and Cara?” “Cora.” “Tell me about them. You’ve known each other long?” “Seven years.” A ghost of a smile pulled at her mouth. “I was in the interview process with a new client who wanted her breasts insured. Don’t give me that look—it isn’t as abnormal as you’d think. Anyway, she’s kind of a diva so she wouldn’t come into our office like a normal person.” Jessie scrunched up her nose. “Now that I think about it, even at the company I work for now, most of our clients are divas and make us jump through hoops even though they’re the ones who called us.” “I find it absolutely absurd that people insure things like breasts.” “Hmmm, when you’re an actor or athlete, your value is wrapped up in parts of the whole. There’s a football player who’s the spokesperson for a high-end hair product company, and his hair is insured for a truly outstanding amount.” “Is it—” “I can’t confirm or deny.” She grinned. “Nondisclosure, you know?”
“Of course.” He checked his rearview and changed lanes. Their turn was coming up. “So this actress…” “Right. So I made the trip up to Vancouver where they’re filming, and while I’m cooling my heels waiting for her to make time in her schedule to sign the papers, I meet Cora. She was handling this same actress’s divorce, and I recognized her.” “Recognized her?” This story was getting weirder and weirder. “Yeah, well…” Jessie looked out the window. “Cora used to be Disney famous, and things got kind of ugly a few months after she turned eighteen, but that’s neither here nor there. We ended up waiting together and talking, and from there it’s more or less history. She and Brooklyn have known each other since they were both toddlers, and a couple years later, we ended up living together.” “How does she need roommates if she’s a divorce lawyer with a client list including actresses?” “She doesn’t. None of us really do.” Jessie shrugged. “But between the three of us, we can afford a really nice beach place and none of us like to be alone, so it works out great.” There were layers within layers of what she’d just said. Jake tried to pick it apart, but their
destination appeared on the right. “We’re here.” She peered out the window, eyebrows scrunching. “LeAnne’s Spa and Relaxation Retreat. What’s going on, Jake?” *** Jessica wasn’t sure if she should be pissed or impressed or… It was too much. Her emotions tangled and swarmed inside her, too twisted to put name to. So she sat there and waited for an explanation. And waited some more. “Jake, explain.” He huffed out a breath, a red flush creeping up his tanned neck. “Don’t get pissed.” “I’m already halfway there. Just spit it out.” “Fine.” He turned the engine off and turned to face her fully. “You’re a hot mess.” “I…What?” She heard her mama’s voice in her head, telling her to close her mouth because she looked like a trout, but she couldn’t manage it. “Jake Davis, that’s downright mean.” “Damn it, no. I didn’t say that right.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, causing his sunglasses to tilt haphazardly. “Look, you’re tired and stressed out, and I’ll be the first to admit that I added to that stress by showing up
as your date. I’m trying to say I’m sorry.” He jerked a thumb at the spa. She almost asked why he’d decided to accept the date—and then forced her into going along with it—but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. Jake was her date to the reunion, end of story. “I’m fine.” Liar. “No, you’re not. You’re so brittle that if you run into Leah, one sharp word will have you falling apart.” Jessica jerked back. She hadn’t realized that she’d been so transparent. Angry words rose, an accusation that he was the reason she was teetering on the edge, but it wasn’t the full truth. She didn’t take her impotent anger out on other people anymore. Almost against her will, the sign for the spa drew her gaze. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gotten a massage… Wait, yes, she could. Cora had secured a very public, very profitable divorce for one of her A-list clients, and she’d celebrated by dragging Brooklyn and Jessica to one of LA’s premier spas for a day of massages, seaweed wraps, and mud baths. It had been heaven. Her pride threatened to choke her, but she couldn’t let this stand. “I can’t afford this. Please take me back.”
“Jessie, you’re killing me.” He started to reach for her and then seemed to think better of it. “I screwed up, which means this is on me. If I hadn’t pushed things…” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting your ass in there and relaxing.” “Only if you come with me.” The words were out before she could think better of them. What did it matter? They were playing pretend, after all, pursuing the “what if” they’d never be able to have in real life. What if we were still together? He hesitated, and then gave a short nod. “Fine.” “Good.” “Great.” She went for the door before they could keep circling. The thick Texan heat instantly had her feeling sticky and gross. Call her crazy, but she’d forgotten about the humidity—or maybe just blocked it out. Jessica gingerly touched her hair. If she wasn’t careful, it would end up as big and fluffy as her mama’s. No teasing necessary. Jake beat her to the door, but only because his legs were longer. He held it open, and she nearly gasped in relief at the frigid temperature inside the building. Maybe this wasn’t such a terrible idea.
“Wait here.” He stalked to the front desk and spent several minutes talking with the pretty receptionist there. The girl had huge blue eyes, curly blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and looked thin enough that Jessica could snap her in half over her knee. None of that bothered her. The way she watched Jake—as if she’d like to treat him to a private massage —did. Jealousy was a green-eyed beast clawing its way up her throat. Before she could think too hard about what she was doing, she walked to the front desk and slid under Jake’s arm like she had a thousand times in the past. The only difference now was that she didn’t have a right to be there. He gave her a look but didn’t say anything. “We have to fill out a bit of paperwork.” “Y’all didn’t book a couples’ massage.” The girl glared daggers at Jessica. “Karen, what are you talking about?” A woman walked out of the door leading deeper into the building. She shot a disapproving look at the receptionist. “Charles and I are sitting on our hands all day.” She turned a big smile on Jake and Jessica. “Please fill out the forms, and then we can get started.” It took less time than she would have expected to give a short medical history, and
then they were being led back to a dimly lit room with two massage beds sitting side by side and soft music playing in the background. After getting assurances that they didn’t have preferences about the gender of their masseuse, the woman—Sarah—left, closing the door softly behind her. It was only then that Jessica realized the problem. “I’m not stripping in front of you.” Jake shot her a look. “I’ve seen every inch of you.” “It’s different when we’re having sex.” He had been so distracted by the whole having sex thing, he hadn’t been likely to look at her imperfections. They might have been few when she was a teenager, but they were legion now. Five years ago, she’d given up on perfection. Being skinny and perfectly put together every second of every day hadn’t saved her from being fired. It hadn’t stopped her jerk boyfriend from dumping her at dinner in front of an entire crowd of people. And it hadn’t made a damn bit of difference when she couldn’t make rent and was evicted. So she stopped it a little bit at a time. Going brunette was the hardest—and biggest step— but after that it was as if she’d flipped a switch in her head. She’d leave the house without makeup, or eat a second slice of pizza.
Despite her mama’s dire warnings, the world didn’t end. She still worked out, but she did it because it made her happy and decreased her stress, not because she wanted to be a size four. And she ate now—mostly healthy, sure, but she’d stopped denying herself little indulgences. Between those two things and the fact she was staring thirty in the face, her body was a lot softer than it used to be. Her stomach was soft instead of taut, and… What am I doing? Sometime in the last five seconds, her internal voice had turned into her mama’s. She pressed her hands to either side of her head. Stop it right this instant. Jessica straightened and dropped her arms. Jake looked like he was going to ask her what the hell was going on, but she didn’t give him the chance. She yanked her zipper down nearly hard enough to rip the fabric. It wasn’t a smooth move to shimmy out of the dress, but she managed. She didn’t meet his gaze as she dipped her thumbs into her Spanx, silently daring him to say a single freaking word. And then she was naked and there was nowhere left to look. Jake stared at her body like he was in a desert and had just set eyes on an oasis. He
took a step toward her, but she moved to put the table between them. “Massage.” “Screw the massage.” A knock on the door interrupted them. “Just a minute,” Jake’s voice was so rough, his words were nearly indecipherable. Warmth flowed through her at the realization that she was causing this reaction. She wasn’t nearly as aloof as she wanted to be, because she stared as he pulled his shirt over his head and stripped out of his jeans. Jake was… Jake was magnificent. He’d always had a great body, but the body she’d known so well was the body of a boy. This Jake was a man, through and through. His muscles roped along his frame, no tan lines to be seen. The only break in the color were the scars on his shoulder and arm. A smattering of dark hair created a triangle designed to draw her gaze south, ever south, to where his cock was standing at attention. She pressed her thighs together, but there was no hiding her reaction any more than he could hide his. Her breasts felt larger and her nipples pebbled under his gaze. “Jake—” “Massage.” He pointed at her table and then waited for her to obey before he carefully laid face down on the other. “This was the worst
fucking idea I’ve ever had.” Jessica was inclined to agree. All of her earlier pep talks about keeping her hands off him went up in smoke. They should have just rented a hotel room far enough out of town that no one would care that they didn’t stay the night. They could have lost themselves in each other’s bodies for hours. Sarah and Charles entered and lowered the lights even further. A bright citrus scent wafted through the room. Jake must have chosen it—it was her favorite. She’d thought that relaxation would be impossible, but as Sarah got to work on her neck and shoulders, each breath took her deeper and deeper, until her mind was a still pool without a single ripple. At some point, she was maneuvered onto her back so Sarah could work her front, but she was half asleep by then. The next thing she knew, a soft touch on her jaw brought her to awareness. Jessica opened her eyes, instantly focusing on Jake. “It’s over?” “The massage is. We have an hour to spend how we’d like. They have a private steam room, sauna, and spot to shower and change once we’re done.” The heat in his gaze melted away the last of her tiredness. “I think the
steam room would do us both some good.” She sat up, relaxation the last thing on her mind. Jessica was going to have sex with Jake in that steam room.
Chapter Eight Jake had chosen this spa because it was the same place he sent his guys in between jobs. Even without having to wrangle sex, just acting as a date was a high stress situation. Burnout was a very real possibility if they didn’t take care of themselves, so he stepped in as needed to ensure they did. Kind of like he’d stepped in with Jessie. She looked better already, her walk less controlled, her expression peaceful. Or it had been until he mentioned the steam room. Now she was looking at him like he was a tree she wanted to climb. He wasn’t sure what to think about that. No, that was a goddamn lie. He was fucking thrilled that Jessie wanted him. She licked her lips, her gaze glued to his chest. “Where’s that steam room?” He led the way back to the tiny hallway that had three doors. The spa was set up for the ultimate private experience. The steam room and sauna had two doors so that they could be accessed by massage rooms on either side, but Sarah had already mentioned that there was no one in the neighboring room. They had the whole place to themselves.
The room was barely the size of a closet, a low tiled bench seat taking up the right half and a drain in the middle. Steam wisped around him as he opened the door and held it for Jessie. She gave him another long look that was a blatant invitation if he ever saw one, and then slid past him into the room. “Jake, I’m sorry.” He froze. “What are you talking about?” “I don’t think I ever said it.” She swept her hair over one shoulder and combed her fingers through it nervously. “I was a right bitch to you, and we were talking about marriage—at least eventually. What kind of wife would I have been if I couldn’t even stick it out through you getting hurt? I just… No, there’s no excuse. Leaving you like that was terrible, and I’m sorry.” A tension he had carried so long that he was barely aware of it sprang to life. Jake sank onto the bench about six inches from her and stared at the wall across from them. He didn’t want to talk about this. He’d fought long and hard to get over his bitterness about how things had fallen out with them, and he’d mostly succeeded. Or at least he’d thought he had. Being with her again, falling back into the motions that he knew better than his own
heartbeat, knowing she was in pain and he was partially the cause…it was doing a number on his head. He scrubbed a hand through his hair. Now was the time to tell her that she was forgiven. That it didn’t matter anymore, and her hanging onto it was only hurting herself. That wasn’t what came out of his mouth. “Why?” Her combing motions went faster. “I told you I don’t have an excuse.” “I want to know what went through your head when you left that hospital room the last time. What you were thinking when you bought the ticket to California. All of it, Jessie. If you want to put this behind us once and for all, that’s what it’s going to take.” Her breath shuddered out, the sound so tiny and painful that he almost relented. Jessie started talking before he could say anything else. “I was going to stay. UCLA was as much your dream as it was mine, and the thought of going there without you scared the hell out of me. You were always so big and strong and larger than life, and you were in that hospital bed with your arm and shoulder immobile, pale and weak and scared shitless. I sat in the chair next to your bed and thought I could be strong enough for both of us.” Her fingers stilled. “And as soon as I got into
my car, the doubts started pouring in. My mom set all her hopes and dreams on my dad and look how that turned out. They can barely stand each other, and she seriously messed up me and Drew by trying to fill that void. I sat in my car, and looked into the future, and all I could think was that I would turn into her if I stayed. I’d always wonder if I’d given up everything for a guy when we were barely more than kids. It was like a movie in my head. It wouldn’t start out so bad, but a couple years down the road—probably after our first kid—we’d start fighting more than we joked. I’d resent you for hobbling me, and you’d hate me for resenting you. One of us would cheat, and that would be that. Divorce. Single mom. No college education to speak of. I’d end up working at the bank with my dad as a pity job, and then I wouldn’t be able to pretend he wasn’t screwing his secretary.” Jake couldn’t catch his breath. “You should have talked to me.” “I know.” She finally lifted her head, and her eyes shone with unshed tears. “But I was a coward, and it was easier to just leave than to face the fact that I might be wrong. Every time I wavered—and there were like eleven times I almost called the whole thing off between leaving your hospital room and getting on that
plane—all I could think of was that, yeah, I might be wrong. But what if I was right?” “You weren’t. I could never hate you, love.” He tugged on her arm until she let him lift her onto his lap. The steam dampened their skin and her arm slid against his chest. He held her close despite everything. “It wouldn’t have come to that—any of it.” “Are you sure?” It was the damnedest thing. He wanted to tell her that, fuck yes, he was sure. That they never would have stooped so low, no matter how things started out after he recovered from that injury. The words wouldn’t come. They felt too much like a lie. He’d been so goddamn angry at the world when he woke up and realized that his future had been stolen from him. Then Jessie left, and it was easier to be angry at her than to deal with the true source of his rage. Jake had failed. The entire world had been within his grasp, only to be snatched away right when he’d started to believe it was a sure thing. If she’d stayed, would he have taken out that anger on her and their relationship? He couldn’t say for sure one way or another. He rested his chin on her shoulder. “No, love.
I’m not sure.” That knot of tension between his shoulder blades dissipated between one breath and the next. Like it had been waiting a full decade for him to admit it. He dragged his mouth over her shoulder and to her neck. “There’s nothing to forgive, Jessie. I can’t promise you weren’t right. I’d like to say it’s total bullshit and we’d never have gotten to that point, but I can’t because I don’t fucking know.” He nipped her earlobe. “You made the right call. The method was kind of cruel, but we were teenagers.” “Really?” “Really.” He glanced at the door, but the tiny windowpane was fully fogged. No one would interrupt them in the next hour. He shifted her so that she straddled him, and then unknotted the front of her towel. The fluffy white cloth slid down her body to pool at his hips. Fuck, she’s something else. The steam had her hair curling slightly, and her entire body had the finest sheen of sweat. It made him want to eat her up. “If you could see the way you’re looking at me.” She bit her lip and carefully set her hands on his shoulders. “Jake, what are we doing? Maybe there’s nothing left for you anymore but physical attraction, but it’s not like that for me. I don’t… What are we doing?”
He couldn’t say that he didn’t know. Not anymore. The thing he’d been working hard to avoid since he saw her across the airport was lingering on the tip of his tongue, just waiting for him to acknowledge it. I never stopped loving you, Jessie. There were a thousand reasons a future wouldn’t work between them. They only needed one reason that it would work. He slid his hands up her thighs and back down again. “It’s not just physical for me, love. It never has been.” If anything, that worried her more. “Jake—” He silenced her with a kiss. “Let me make you feel good for a little while. Let’s just get through the reunion and then we’ll talk, really talk.” He had to come clean. Holding off was selfish, but he couldn’t imagine a scenario where she wasn’t furious, and he wanted as much time as possible to show her how it could be between them if they just gave it an actual shot. *** Jessica couldn’t believe what was happening. Not that Jake had forgiven her on the spot and not that he was currently stroking her body in a way designed to set her aflame. She
swallowed hard. “This isn’t some kind of intricate revenge scheme designed to put me at ease before you go in for the kill, is it?” He huffed out a laugh. “That’s quite the imagination you have there.” “And that wasn’t an answer.” That didn’t stop her from arching against his rough palms as he touched her breasts. Despite the desire pushing her reasoning into the backseat, she shot a glance at the door. “How likely are we to be interrupted?” “Not likely.” He lightly pinched her nipples. “But if you want to stop…” “No.” If they stopped, that upped the chance of them never starting again. Even with his forgiveness ringing in her ears, there was still the reunion to weather. No matter what Jake thought, that wasn’t going to be easy. If she owed Jake an apology—and she had—then she owed one doubly to Leah. They’d never be friends again—not after all the crap Jessica had pulled, and not after the sheer animosity they held for each other, even after all these years. But she could clear the air so that maybe they could move forward without too much bitterness about the past. And maybe pigs will fly. “You’re a million miles away, love.” Jake traced a single finger down the center of her
body, past her belly button, and drew a slow circle around her clit. He gave a lazy smile. “There you are.” “Hard to be worried when you’re doing that.” She tilted her hips up, silently offering more, but he seemed content to tease her. “Jessie…” Jake shook his head. “Tell me about your life.” “What?” She gasped as he pushed his finger into her, slow and steady. “You want to talk about that now?” “Mm-hmm. I find myself interested in knowing more.” They’d already talked about her friends and her job. There wasn’t much more to say, as pathetic as that truth was. “I don’t want to talk while you’re touching me.” “Then we find ourselves in a quandary.” She pushed her hair back and glared. “You did not just say ‘quandary’ while you have a finger inside me.” “Guilty as charged.” He twisted his wrist and pushed a second finger into her, the slow slide nearly making her eyes roll back in her head. “You keep talking, I’ll keep touching.” “That’s blackmail.” “Something like that.” She desperately didn’t want him to stop. No matter what he said about figuring things out
after the reunion, the reality was they were operating on stolen time. I really need to write a nice review of that dating site when I get home. Jessica dug her fingers into his shoulders, enjoying the sheer strength of him. “I don’t know what you want me to say. It’s a life. My job is okay. I get to see some cool stuff sometimes. The pay isn’t great, but it covers the bills. I live on the beach.” She hissed out her breath as he circled her G-spot. “I love the beach.” “You always did like water.” Waking up to the sound of the waves was one of the highlights of her life. That and her friends. “Brooklyn and Cora are the best. Friday nights are our nights.” She rolled her hips, trying to force his fingers deeper, but he gripped her leg with his free hand and forced her still. She bit down a curse. “What do you do on Friday nights?” “We get drunk and watch HGTV.” He froze and then chuckled. “Tell me about those nights.” “Jake, you’re killing me.” “I’ve got you, love.” He shifted his grip to the small of her back and guided her closer until her breasts slid against his chest with each breath and his mouth found her collarbone. “Keep talking.”
“I hate you.” But, this close, she really didn’t. All it would take was for him to undo the towel tucked around his waist and he’d be inside her. She wasn’t so far gone that she was willing to ignore all common sense and have sex with Jake without protection, but Jessica would be lying if she said it wasn’t tempted all the same. “No, you don’t.” He had reason to be cocky. If he kept fucking her with his fingers like this, she’d do damn near anything he asked. She tried to focus past the pounding of her blood in her veins, the whole of the sensation centered around her core. “Uh…” “Friday nights,” he said against her skin. “What do you drink?” Right. Friday nights. “Red wine.” It struck her that she was missing this week’s girl’s night, and sadness spread through her despite everything. “Cora always has the good stuff because she helped a distributer get equal custody in his divorce, and he’s forever sending her cases in gratitude.” “Mmm.” Jake licked her throat. “Why HGTV?” “Because it’s so damn absurd.” She leaned down and kissed him, but he broke the contact and moved along her jaw and back down to the curve of her shoulder. Obviously, he
wanted more answer than that. “Sometimes it’s House Hunters, and we all get righteously pissed because no one in real life can afford that crap. Sometimes it’s Tiny Houses, and we bitch about the people bitching about the lack of space in the tiny houses. And sometimes it’s Property Brothers, and we make inappropriate comments about twincest and then plan all the things we’ll do to renovate the beach house that are totally and completely unnecessary.” “Sounds like fun.” “It is.” She didn’t know what she’d do without her friends. When she’d first arrived in LA, her weekends had been filled with partying and trying to network. About a year into it, she realized what a futile aim that was, and she’d started staying home in her crappy little apartment. She had been totally and completely alone. Cora and Brooklyn had saved her. They might not see it that way, but it was the truth. “You’re doing it again.” Wandering. Jessica gripped his hair. “I’m done talking. Kiss me.” “Yes, ma’am.” He was as good as his word. Jake took control of their kiss the same way he’d taken control of every single interaction
they’d had since she’d stepped off the plane. His tongue traced her lips, demanding they open, and she was only too happy to do so. He tasted of cinnamon, just like he always had, and right in that moment, she felt like she’d come home. He nipped her bottom lip and picked up the pace of his fingers, coaxing her closer and closer to orgasm. The insane impulse to demand he be inside her when she came rose, but Jessica kissed him hard to keep the words inside. Some things couldn’t be taken back, and she wouldn’t put either of them in that position. Her orgasm, when it came, sucked her under like a riptide. She clung to him and shook, her body already wanting more despite the release, her mind sure that everything and nothing had changed. He hasn’t come. Again. Enough was enough. Jessica moved before she could telegraph her intent. She slid down between his thighs. Well, she fell more than slid, because her body wasn’t quite working right, but she ended up in her intended place and that was all that really mattered. “What are you doing, Jessie?” “Shut up.” She sounded bitchy, but there was
no help for it. Jake was a damn shark—if he sensed weakness, he’d use it to his advantage. “I’m giving you a blowjob, so just sit there and don’t say anything to ruin it.” She hazarded a glance at his face, and found his eyebrows nearly in his hairline. Jake slowly undid his towel and parted it to reveal his cock. “By all means.” “Good choice.” She took his cock in her hands, reacquainting herself with him. It had been so long, and he hadn’t given her the chance to do much last night. She stroked him once, twice, her eyes on his face to gauge his reactions. Yeah, he likes that. She couldn’t pretend she was an expert, but she wanted to give him at least a portion of the pleasure he’d given to her, and so she slowly licked around the head of his cock. The move made the veins in his neck stand out, so she did it again. Slower. “Jessie, you’re trying to kill me.” “Maybe.” She flicked the underside of his cock with her tongue and, when he cursed, she sucked him deep. “Fuck.” That was right around the time Jessica stopped worrying about pleasing him and started enjoying herself. She took him as deep as she could manage and then eased off him
until she could brush his cock across her lips. And then she took him deep again. Over and over, only backing off when he drew her hair back, and the tension in his body telegraphed that he was almost done. “Jessie. Love. Just… Fuck.” She wanted him to come. She wanted to drink him down, to know that she was the one who caused it. So she didn’t stop, she didn’t slow down, she ignored his muttered warning. His cock jerked in her mouth, and then he was coming, spurting down the back of her throat. She swallowed him down with a little moan, taking everything he gave her. When she lifted her head, he was staring at her with a dazed expression on his face. “Damn.” “Yep.” She pushed to her feet on shaky legs and reached for her towel. “I think our hour is almost up.” “And you’re running scared again.” He tucked the towel around him in quick, efficient movements. “Not this time, Jessie.”
Chapter Nine Jake didn’t speak until they were out of the spa, showered and put together again. He held the passenger open for Jessie and stared at her profile through the window for a few seconds. It was time to face the facts. For all his hemming and hawing, he was about to throw rational thought right out the window. Jessie might have been right in her fears about how they would have ended up if she’d stayed, but she hadn’t stayed. They were in different spots now than they had been at eighteen. They could work it out if they wanted to. There wasn’t an easy answer about how they’d accomplish that, but Jake had never been afraid of a challenge—not before his accident, and sure as hell not after. The woman in his truck was nothing if not a challenge. She already looks more herself. He walked around to the driver’s side and climbed in. “You have something for the masquerade ball.” He grimaced. “I wasn’t going to dress up, but Karly Stocker called me directly and threatened not to let me through the doors if I’m not in costume.” Jessie laughed. “She sent me a pointed email.”
“That woman is as mean as a snake, and the power of organizing this event has gone to her head. Best not to tempt fate by disobeying a direct order.” “I have a costume.” She smoothed her hands over her dress. He pulled out of the parking lot and headed back in the direction of Catfish Creek. “I don’t know if I said it before, but you look mighty fine today, Jessica Jackson. I like that dress. It suits you.” “It’s silly to be rebelling against my mama at twenty-eight, but I’ll admit that knowing she’d lose her mind seeing me in black was part of the reason I chose it.” “I know.” Jessie wasn’t his pet project. It wasn’t his job to fix her. She was a person and didn’t need fixing. But it made him all kinds of happy to see her stand up to her mama. “What do you have lined up for tonight?” She grinned. “I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.” He pulled into her parents’ drive. Their house never failed to give him a kick in the gut. He hadn’t grown up with money that way the Jacksons had. Jake never went without, but his daddy had worked on a ranch and his mama did other ladies’ hair for a living. They were beneath the Jacksons, and Jessica’s
parents had never hesitated to let him know it. It didn’t matter that he could buy and sell this place ten times over now. He still felt a day late and a dollar short. “Sometimes I wish things were different.” Jake kept quiet while the truck bumped along the gravel driveway. She rewarded him by continuing her thought. “The whole beauty queen thing never made me happy.” “I know.” It was her big, dark secret that she’d confided in him when they hit middle school. She went along with her mama’s craziness because she didn’t have another choice. Somewhere around their freshman year, Jessie had decided that she’d never escape her mama’s plans, so she might as well embrace them. He hadn’t liked that much, but he knew the girl beneath the mean exterior. The one she only let him see. He stopped the truck, but didn’t turn it off. “Do you still think about interior decorating?” It had always been her dream—her dream, not her mama’s. “It’s not the most stable of markets. Hard to get into, and even harder to stay relevant.” Logical thinking. He still hated to hear it come out of her mouth. “Since when had something being tough stopped you? I swear, you became Homecoming Queen and Prom
Queen out of spite because Karly Stocker decided she had a chance.” “She gave me a run for my money.” Jessie gave a faint smile. “But you beat her in the end. There’s no reason you couldn’t be an interior designer if you wanted to.” From what she said, between her two friends’ connections—not to mention her own connections—she should have more than enough people willing to give her a shot. Hell, he had a client list of rich, bored women who would like nothing better than to have Jessie put their vision for their mansions into reality while Jake’s guys cleaned their kitchen in Speedos. He wasn’t a fan of those types of jobs, but most of the guys preferred them. It saved them the necessity of making small talk, and there were strict rules against touching that Jake had created to protect them. He had a no tolerance policy for clients who violated those rules. “Maybe.” She shrugged. “But I’m not really in a position to go back to school, and so it’ll likely never happen. “All I’m hearing are excuses.” She reached for the door. “You’re welcome to your opinion, but ultimately it’s my choice. You might have forgiven me, Jake, but that
doesn’t mean you get to start acting like my boyfriend again.” She snorted. “Even if you were my boyfriend, you still don’t get to tell me what to do with my life. I have one dad. I don’t need another one.” Considering that Benjamin Jackson probably had his secretary bent over his desk right at that moment, Jake didn’t appreciate the comparison. But that was the problem. Jessie looked at her parents’ dysfunctional relationship and assumed that she would naturally cleave to that—that it was her future set in stone. Well, he wasn’t Benjamin Jackson, and she sure as hell wasn’t her mama. Just because her fears when she was eighteen had some credibility didn’t mean the same for whatever was holding her back now. He frowned. “What are you so scared of, Jessie?” “Some days it feels like everything.” She was out of the car before he could say another word, hurrying up the walkway and into the house. Jake huffed out a breath. “That went well.” *** Jessica finished with her hair and fixed her dress for the seventh time. This whole masquerade ball had to be Karly’s revenge for
not getting Prom Queen back in the day. Or maybe I’m overestimating my importance. She’d decided to go subtle for her costume. It was a slinky strapless dress that framed her breasts to perfection and highlighted her waist and ass. The dark blue faded to black at the bottom, and the whole thing was inlaid with a subtle floral pattern that a person really had to be paying attention to see. Her mask was just as simple—a black lace that set off her creamy skin and dark hair and made the color of her eyes pop. She wasn’t trying to be the center of attention, but she was just vain enough not to want to fade into the background either. Before she could think too hard about facing the theoretical firing squad, she marched out of her room and down the stairs. Jake waited by the front door, looking downright lickable in his suit. He fiddled with a black domino mask which was a perfect complement for her mask. Even after all this time, we coordinate without trying to. She couldn’t decide if that was a good sign or a bad one. He looked up and went still. “Jessica.” She stopped at the bottom of the stairs. She couldn’t remember the last time Jake had used her full name. Resisting the temptation to turn
around and race up the stairs like some kind of Cinderella in reverse, she straightened her spine and lifted her chin. “Jake.” “You look…” He shook his head and crossed the living room in two big strides. “You look ravishing.” “There’s a ten-dollar word if I ever heard one.” “A true word.” He touched her chin with two fingers, looking for all the world like he was going to kiss her, but then Jake gave himself a shake and took a large step back. “Your mama has retired to her room again.” Disappointment soured her stomach, but she pushed the reaction back. “What was it this time?” “Something concerning Drew.” He held up a hand. “I don’t know what about, and it didn’t sound serious, but your mama took it badly.” Jessica still didn’t know why her brother had chosen to move back here after fighting so hard to get out, and the few times she’d brought it up, he’d changed the subject so blatantly, she’d have to be an idiot to keep pushing. Maybe I should have pushed anyway. It made sense that their mama had turned her sights on Jessica’s brother since she’d stopped returning her calls. Guilt tried to rise, but she shoved it down
next to the disappointment. Drew was an adult. If anything, he had always been better able to deal with their mama’s crap than Jessica was. He was the one who’d saved her when things got too tense at the dinner table, or when their mama dragged her shopping and then complained about the size of her hips or how she’d put on a few pounds. Drew excelled at drawing the fire to give Jessica a reprieve. “I should call him.” “Now?” “Yes.” She dug her phone out of her clutch. “This will just take a minute.” The phone rang and rang, and right when she was about to hang up, her brother answered. “Hey.” “What’s wrong?” “Why would you say something’s wrong?” The fact that he’d just evaded her question spoke volumes. Drew was the steady one. He didn’t dance around anything, no matter how uncomfortable the subject. Jessica swallowed hard. “Is this about Mama? Do I need to call Dr. Pepper?” He huffed out a laugh at their old S.O.S. code. “No, Jess. It’s fine. I’m just distracted.” She almost asked what had him so distracted, but she and Jake were in danger of being late, and she’d promised to keep the call short. Still, she hesitated. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? If
we did need to call Dr. Pepper.” A pause, painfully silent. “Sure. Yeah, I would.” Her brother had just lied to her. It struck Jessica that while she’d been doing the equivalent of hiding out in LA, the world of Catfish Creek had been going on without her. It seemed silly that she hadn’t really thought about it, but this town had a way of feeling stagnant. Or maybe it just felt stagnant because I was a teenager under the thumb of my mother. It wasn’t that Catfish Creek was too small. It was that she was too restless. Would it fit better now? She didn’t know. It was too much to think about—and that wasn’t even getting into the tangle that was Jake. So she forced a smile into her voice. “You have a good night, now.” “You too, Jess. Try to have fun at the reunion.” Not likely. “Mm-hmm. Bye.” She hung up and turned to find Jake watching her. “What?” “Is something wrong?” “I don’t know.” She answered before she could think too hard. “He sounded weird, but he said he was okay. I don’t know if the weird is from Mama or from something else.” Her plane ticket back to California wasn’t until
Sunday, two days from now. She’d take the time to corner her big brother and figure out what was going on before then. Tonight… Tonight was about her and Jake and making amends with her past. Easier said than done. “Should we go?” Jake nodded and offered his arm. “Yeah, let’s get this show on the road.” And with that rousing comment, they were off. *** When Jake said “show,” he meant “shitshow.” He had his own reasons for not wanting to attend the reunion. It started the second they walked through the door. Karly Stocker let loose a shriek when she saw him. “As I live and breathe! Jake Davis, you look like some kind of fancy movie star.” Her big blonde hair had enough hairspray in it to withstand a hurricane, and she’d erred on the side of 80s blue eye shadow. She handed over his nametag, which he stuck to his jacket with a grimace. What was the damn point of having a masquerade if they had nametags? “I’ll be needing one as well.” Karly’s expression did such a quick oneeighty, it was a wonder she didn’t give herself
whiplash. “Jessica Jackson. I didn’t think you were going to show up.” “The one and only.” Jessie slid up next to him, and he obligingly put his arm around her waist. He didn’t even blame her for putting on a show. Karly got under his skin like none other, and the way she’d been eyeing him made Jake feel like he was in a meat-packing facility. “I didn’t realize that y’all…” She motioned between them and then made a visible effort to recover her smile. “I’m engaged to Jason St. Dalton. Isn’t this ring just glorious?” She flashed it close enough to his face, she almost took off a piece of his nose. “Jason St. Dalton.” Jessie put a wealth of judgment into the name. Karly flashed her an ugly look. “You have something to say, might as well get it out. I can see you chewing on it, and we both know you’re not one to couch your opinions in something resembling class.” Jake tensed, but Jessie squeezed his arm and gaze her best pageant smile. “Oh, honey. Bless your sweet heart. That boy already went and had himself a marriage and a few kids. You never did manage to be first for anything worth having.” He grabbed Jessie’s nametag out of Karly’s
slack grip and towed her away before they could get kicked out. “Damn, love. Retract the claws.” “Crap. You’re right.” She pressed her lips together and glanced over her shoulder. “She just brings out the worst in me. There are a lot of things I regret about high school, but taking Karly Stocker down a notch every chance I got isn’t one of them. Bobby Fischer stumbled up to them before they made it ten steps, barely stopping before he ran into Jake. From his rank breath, he had hit The Grange before coming here. “Jake motherfucking Davis. The myth! The man! The legend!” Jake tensed even as he told himself to relax. “Hey, man. How’s it going?” He’d known he’d have to deal with the kid he used to be— superstar football player, destined for the NFL. For as many people had moved on from high school, there were just as many who saw it as the best years of their lives. Bobby was one of the latter. “Who cares about now? Do you remember that touchdown pass you threw to get us to State? And then we partied at Jeremy’s mom’s place all weekend? That was the best.” A hand lacing with his made him aware of the rest of the room. Jessie shifted closer to
him, glaring daggers at Bobby. “Robert Fischer, what a pleasure.” He sobered. “Jessica Jackson. You have some nerve showing your face here.” His gaze raked over her in a way that made Jake see red. “You’re still hot, though you got kind of fat.” Her grip tethered Jake when he would have gone for Bobby’s throat. She smiled in a way that was sugary sweet and cut right to the bone. “I’m not the only one. Or is that a keg you’ve smuggled in here?” She turned that smile on Jake. “Shall we?” “Yeah.” He nodded at Bobby. “See you around.” “I thought you got rid of that bitch. Guess some things never change—you’re still thinking with your Johnson.” Jessie towed him deeper into the gym. It had been converted into a slightly more red, blue, and gold version of itself. The lights were dimmed enough that one could almost overlook the fact that they were in a gym, rather than a ballroom. They were close enough, he could hear her muttering under her breath. “Johnson. Who the hell uses Johnson anymore? It’s a dick, or a cock if you’re going above and beyond. God, I can’t believe you hung out with that idiot.” “I’m sorry.”
She stopped. “What?” “I shouldn’t have let him talk to you like that.” “Oh, please.” Jessie rolled her eyes. “I’ve had worse things said to me on a weekly basis. I live in LA, remember? I was too ‘fat’ for them at eighteen. I’m a behemoth now.” She held up a hand. “I don’t think that about myself. You don’t think that about me. Who the hell cares what anyone else thinks?” He didn’t… But it pissed him the hell off to think that Bobby might have hurt her beneath that shiny armor she wore. He pulled her into his arms, inch by inch, and she let him. Jake rested his face against the side of hers. In her heels, she was only an inch or two shorter than he was. “You are beautiful, Jessica Jackson.” “Why thank you, Jake Davis. I think you’re pretty beautiful, too.” He chuckled. “Thanks.” “Anytime you need a pick me up, you give me a call.” She frowned. “I guess you don’t have my number anymore. Oh wait, yes you do. I put it in my paperwork.” He stroked a hand down her back. The reminder of how this whole strange second chance got started was a bucket of cold water over his head. He had to tell her the truth sooner, rather than later. It wasn’t a huge
secret that he owned Diamond Dates. He wasn’t a silent partner, but he also didn’t advertise it. The chances of there being someone at the reunion who knew was a solid fifty-fifty. A familiar voice sifted through the speakers, and he glanced up to see none other than their local celebrity—Travis Walker—singing his newest song. “Look who’s here.” “One of the few people I wasn’t dreading seeing again.” She smiled. “I love this song.” “Dance with me. Fuck the rest of them.” “You know it’s not that easy.” “Sure it is.” It was the most natural thing in the world to guide them onto the dance floor. Jessie sighed a little and melted into him. They swayed back and forth as Travis sang about love and loss. None of the other people in this building mattered. He’d figured that out a long time ago. Jessie would figure it out, too. Jake would walk over hot coals for the people in his life he cared about, but he could give two fucks what acquaintances thought of him. If they weren’t close enough to seek each other out since high school, their opinion of him was irrelevant. The woman in his arms, though? She mattered all too much. He spoke without thinking. “I don’t want this
to end after this weekend.” “What?” She tensed but didn’t stop dancing. There was no going back now. He’d planned on waiting until tomorrow to broach the subject, but now was as good a time as any. “We’ve grown up since high school. I think we might fit even better now than we did then, and I want a chance to find out.” “But… I live in California. You live here.” “We could make it work if we tried.” He had money to spare. He could fly in on weekends to see her until they reached a point where relocation was on the table. “I want to try, Jessie. I feel like I just found you again. I don’t want to miss this chance because of fifteen hundred miles.” Her spine was steel beneath his hand. “I don’t know. What if it doesn’t work out? It’d be losing you all over again.” “You can’t live your life being afraid of what you could lose. Think of what you—what we— could gain. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a hell of a time the last two days. And I’m not just talking about the sex, so don’t even start with that shit.” She laughed softly. “It’s been good. Aggravating and strange and different. But good.” “Yes.” He swayed them around in a slow
circle and let her work through it. Pushing right now would just result in her digging in her heels and telling him to fuck off. Jessie didn’t like being backed into a corner. Her mama had done it too many times over the years—would still be doing it if she hadn’t left Catfish Creek. Travis stopped singing, and the DJ picked up where he’d left off with another slow song, so they kept dancing. While she worked through whatever was going on in her head, the gym slowly started to fill around them. He’d gotten them here early on purpose to give them a chance to relax before she started running the gauntlet. Jessie could take Karly on her worst day, but facing down a crowd could be intimidating as hell—especially when she was so determined to find…whatever the hell she was looking for by coming here. Penance, maybe. The gym was full. The reprieve was over.
Chapter Ten Jessica knew eventually she had to turn and face the room, but with Jake’s arms around her, she just couldn’t dredge up the desire to do it. He wants another shot. In all the scenarios she’d run—and she’d run an endless number of them—reconciling with Jake hadn’t even been in the realm of possibilities. She still wasn’t sure it was in the realm of possibilities. The distance was the most obvious hurdle, but not the most important one. They might have talked about what happened ten years ago, but that didn’t mean he truly forgave her. Except… He said he had. Am I going to take him at his word? Or am I going to keep clinging to my guilt? Because that’s what it came down to—her guilt. She’d carried it for so long. She’d covered it up with anxiety about dealing with her former classmates, but there was only one person she’d been truly terrified to face. Jake. The only one who’d ever seen the real her. He’d seen her through thick and thin, and when things got rough, she’d left. None of these other people mattered. Not really. There was only Jake. He wants a second shot.
She wanted that, too. Desperately. So desperately, she was afraid to admit it aloud, for fear this would be some twisted revenge and he’d laugh in her face for thinking she was worth a damn. Stop it, Jessica Jackson. You knock that off right this second. She lifted her head to tell him yes, to say that she thought it was crazy, but she believed they could find a way to make it work, but Jake tensed, distracting her. She twisted to see what had caught his attention. Even in the nowcrowded gym, she instantly recognized the man standing next to a pretty Mexican woman. What the hell is Drew doing here? “That’s my brother.” “Sure looks like it.” She narrowed her eyes. She knew that woman. “That’s Leah Camacho next to my brother.” Drew hadn’t mentioned that he was coming to the reunion. He’d graduated three years ahead of her class and, sure, she and Leah had been friends once upon a time, so Leah and Drew knew each other. But their body language screamed that they knew each other—as in biblically. Oh hell no. Leah was the reason Drew was acting so weird? “Jessie.” She glared at where Jake held her arm. “Let
go of me. Right now.” “Jessie, you said you wanted to make amends.” “Who said I’m not going over there to make amends?” She was so not going over there to make amends. She wanted to know what the hell was going on with her brother and that woman. Drew hadn’t had the easiest way of things, and if Leah was taking advantage of his emotionally fragile self, Jessica would not stand for it. Jake cleared his throat. “The expression on your face says everything I need to know, love. I know you. You walk over there now, you’re going to say something you’ll regret.” “I seriously doubt that.” She jerked her arm out of his grasp. The crowd parted for her as she stalked toward her brother and Leah, kind of like it used to when she was in high school. A small part of her was horrified at how easily she slipped back into the queen bitch persona, but the rest of her was remembering the time Leah had put grape Kool-aid in the showers the cheerleaders used and dyed their hair purple right before the big game against their rival—whose school colors were purple and gold. Or the time Leah had made a snide comment about Jessica getting knocked up and turning into a whale after graduation. Or…
She could go on and on. She might not have been a saint in high school, but Leah Camacho was just as much to blame for this particular relationship gone sour. How had she forgotten that? She spent the twenty-five steps between Jake and her brother convincing herself that she would be poised and in control and wouldn’t let Leah get underneath her skin. She lived in LA, for God’s sake. She had skin like granite these days. There was also the crowd to consider. People were practically falling all over themselves to create a circle around them as she slowed a stop a few feet away. Those vultures always loved a good show. I forgot about that, too. Looks like she’d forgotten a lot of things in the last ten years. She wouldn’t give them what they wanted: drama. She was more in control of herself now. She would not lose it. But as soon as Jessica saw the flicker of guilt on her brother’s face, and the strange little smile on Leah’s, she lost it. “What the hell are you doing here with her?” She flung her hand in Leah’s direction. “Jess—” “Do not ‘Jess’ me like I’m being crazy. You knew what I wanted to do with this reunion. You know I wanted to set things right. How
could you, Drew?” “Set things right?” She glared at Leah. “No one is talking to you. Wait your turn.” She spun back to Drew, who now had his mouth set in an unforgiving line that she knew all too well. He got that expression on his face whenever he thought she was acting too much like their mama. “Don’t you dare.” “We came here to have a nice time. I told you I’d talk to you later, and I will. Unlike how you believe the world works, everything isn’t about you, and tonight sure as hell isn’t. Back off, Jess.” His gaze flickered over her head. “Jake.” Leah burst out laughing. “Oh, this is too good. Jake and Jessica, together again. What happened? Did you decide that your reputation couldn’t handle showing up here alone so you called in a favor with your old boyfriend?” “Shut up, Leah.” She ignored Jessica, her expression turning contemplative. “It makes sense. It’s what Jake’s earned his fortune with—a company catering to lonely, desperate women with more money than friends.” She grimaced. “No offense, Jake. It’s a great business model.” The rushing in Jessica’s ears drowned out room for any other thoughts. She’d assumed
that Jake worked for Diamond Dates and it had been coincidence that he’d ended up at her date. Being in his presence again after so long had muddied her instincts, and she hadn’t held still long enough to really think about the logic behind that. But if what Leah was saying was correct… She turned. “You own Diamond Dates.” Instead of denying it like she desperately wanted him to, he gave a short nod. “Yeah.” Meaning he’d seen her application. He’d read through it and probably gotten a good laugh and poor, pathetic Jessica. He decided to show up as her date, and he had seduced her into thinking that she was forgiven. That they stood a chance. She was such a damn fool. Jessica took one step away from him, and then another, her issue with her brother and Leah forgotten. The crowd around them murmuring in vicious glee didn’t matter. They’d never mattered. She’d given them too much power by wanting to make things right, and this was the fruit of her labors. Humiliation. She shot a look at the other woman, but Leah didn’t seem any happier with the realization than Jessica was. Even though all she wanted was to run out of the gym and never look back,
the Jacksons were made of sterner stuff than that. The rabble could go to hell, but if there was one person she did need to apologize to, it was Leah. She just had to open her mouth and say the words. She drew herself up. “I’m sorry. I don’t think my brother is right for you—or that you’re right for him—but I’m sorry about being an asshole in high school.” “I gave as good as I got.” “Yes. You did.” There. She’d done what she needed to do. She could leave now. Jessica turned, deftly avoided Jake reaching for her, and marched out of the gym. Whispers and laughter rose in her wake, but there was no help for it. If this whole nightmare had proven anything, it was that coming back here was a mistake. The past belonged in the past. And she belonged in LA. She pulled her phone out of her clutch as soon as she cleared the door. “Jessie, wait.” Please don’t make me do this. She kept walking, hoping Jake would take a hint, but he slid in front of her, blocking her path. “Listen to me.” The dam she’d created to hold herself together cracked and then shattered. “I bet you had a good laugh. I hand-delivered myself
to you so you could put me in my place. Your bitch ex-girlfriend broke your heart, so you decided to get back at me, make me feel a degree of the humiliation and pain you did.” She clapped mockingly. “Well, bravo. You did it.” “That’s not how it happened.” She wanted to believe him, but even after ten years, Jessica knew him well enough to know when he was lying. And Jake had just lied to her. She gripped her phone hard enough it dug into her palm. “Did you, or did you not, review my application and approve it?” “Well—” “And did you, or did you not, decide that instead of treating me like a normal client, you would personally go as my date?” He held up his hands. “Jessie—” “And did you or did you not, cross the line with me multiple times? Even though it was against policy. Even though you knew I was conflicted and feeling guilty and having a hard time. Even though I told you that I still had feelings for you.” Her throat tried to close, but she powered through. She had to get this out so she could leave and, this time, she would never come back to Catfish Creek. Hell, she’d leave Texas as a whole in her rearview, too. “Well, congratulations. You did it. You made
me fall in love with you all over again, and you’ve successfully humiliated me the same way I humiliated you when I left. We’re even. The scales are balanced. I am done.” She slashed her hand through the air. “Unless you are about to tell me that I have it one hundred percent wrong, I don’t want to hear it.” If anything, Jake looked just as furious as she felt. “It might have started like that, but it didn’t end that way.” “The cat is out of the bag. You don’t have to lie to me anymore.” Her eyes burned, but she’d be damned before she cried in front of him. “You got your turn. Now I get to talk.” He didn’t move closer, but the parking lot suddenly felt a whole lot smaller. Jake cursed. “Fuck, Jessie. I thought it’d be a little petty revenge, and that thought lasted until we got to your house, and I saw you basically curl in on yourself.” She’d thought this couldn’t get any worse. She’d been wrong. Jessica wobbled on her stupidly high heels. “So you had sex with me out of pity. Wow. Thanks.” “For God’s sake, stop jumping to the worst possible conclusion and listen to me. You didn’t trust me when we were eighteen. You need to trust me now.”
She shook her head and backed up. “You just got done telling me like three hours ago that I was right not to trust you then. Stands to reason that I’m right this time, too.” “I love you, you fool woman.” He raked his fingers through his hair, making it stand on end. “I meant what I said in there. I want to make it work. We can make it work this time if you’ll just take this leap of faith with me. I forgave you for the shit you pulled. Can’t you do the same for me?” “No.” The word fell between them, a stone into a still pool. This was the end. She hadn’t realized that all these years, she’d held out a small hope that maybe she and Jake would find their way back to each other. Now that hope was gone. “Jessie.” But she was already shaking her head. “No, Jake. Just…leave me alone. I can’t do this—any of this.” Not right now. Not ever.
Chapter Eleven Jake spent a sleepless night in his truck, and then spent the day driving aimlessly, trying to get his head on straight. He kept replaying the look of hurt and betrayal on Jessie’s face before she’d turned around and walked away from him. He hadn’t gone after her. At the time, it seemed like the worst thing to do, but now he was doubting the wisdom of letting them both stew overnight. That evening, in desperate need of a distraction, he’d texted Travis Walker to see if he wanted to grab a drink and catch up since they last talked. Jake walked into Rebels. It hadn’t changed much in ten years. He’d worked as a dishwasher there through most of high school, but he hadn’t been back since. The place reeked of stale smoke, even though the new owner, Betty had banned smoking inside when she took over fifteen years ago. Travis didn’t make him wait long. He walked into the place, saw Jake, and made a beeline toward him. He slouched against the bar, his gray T-shirt revealing full sleeve tattoos, as befitting his rocker status. “Hey.” “Hey.” He smirked. “Rough night?” “You could say that.” He looked as bad as he felt. He’d left his suitcase at Jessie’s, and
though he had some clothes at his mama’s house, he hadn’t wanted to get into that discussion, either. Jake took the stool next to him. Betty emerged from the back room. She hadn’t aged a day since he quit after his accident—which was to say, she still looked positively ancient. She squinted blue eyes at him. “As I live and breathe. Jake Davis, come back to my humble abode. I thought you were too good for this place.” “Nah, just not much of a drinker.” She snorted. “In here, we shoot whiskey. Y’all look like you could use it.” Jake knew better than to argue, and the truth was that he could use it. Still, he raised his eyebrows at the pair of shots she passed over. “Betty, these aren’t shots. You could throw some ice in here and it’d be whiskey on the rocks.” “Like I said, you could use it.” She batted her eyes at Travis. “It’ll put some hair on your chest. You need some. I bet you’re as smooth as a baby’s bottom.” Travis choked on his shot. “Ma’am.” He wheezed. “You can’t say shit like that when a man is going to shoot whiskey.” “Mm-hmm.” She eyed them both. “On the house, boys.”
Travis watched her walk away and shook his head. “She always like that?” “I think she’s mellowed in the last ten years.” “Well, then.” He lifted his half-full glass. “To Betty.” “To Betty.” “I heard that.” Her voice drifted from the back room. “Stop stalling and take your shots. My grandmammy always said men were the weaker sex, and you’re bound and determined to prove her right.” Jake chuckled, though the sound died as soon as it appeared. He swirled his whiskey, contemplating the amber liquid, and then downed the entire glass in one shot. “Damn.” Travis whistled softly. “I know that look. You have woman trouble.” “You don’t know the half of it.” Jake had never been the over-sharer type. He didn’t know what caused men to brag about the women they’d been with or to bitch about those same women being confusing and infuriating. He hadn’t been celibate since he and Jessie broke up, but he understood women. Or he thought he had. “I have some time, so talk. That’s why you asked me here, isn’t it?” “This isn’t something that can be talked
through. I fucked up. Now I just need to figure out how to fix it.” If he could fix it. That was the part that scared the shit out of him—he didn’t know if he could make this right. He loved Jessie, and he’d finally come to terms with it…right in time to fuck it up beyond all recognition. Travis rotated to look at the rest of the room and propped his elbows on the bar. “Word of advice—don’t take the safe way out—flowers and chocolates and that shit. Do something that will have special significance to her. It’ll mean more, and she might stand still long enough for you to get down on your knees and beg for forgiveness.” He wished it would be that easy. Right now, if he stood in front of Jessie, he couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t gun the engine and run his ass over. There had to be a way to do exactly what Travis had said—make her sit still long enough for him to convince her that it had been real for him, too. He’d given up Jessica Jackson once. He wasn’t about to do it again. Jake cleared his throat. “You have a lot of experience with that sort of thing—the getting down on your knees and begging bit?” Travis snorted and raked a hand through his hair. “There’s always a first time.” The whiskey warmed his stomach, pushing
him to move, to not wait any longer. Jake pushed to his feet, and then realized what a dick he was being. He turned, but Travis was already waving him off, the rock star’s attention straying to a woman who’d approached while Jake was distracted. Rae Evans. “Go get your woman.” Looks like you might have already got yours. He nodded. “Look me up next time you’re in Dallas.” He grinned. “I always do.” Jake dug out a twenty and dropped it onto the bar. He hightailed it out of there before Betty could catch him paying for a drink that was supposed to be on the house. It didn’t matter that the woman had inherited a fortune from the same brother who owned the bar before her and didn’t need the money—it was principle. The Texas heat bore down on him the moment he walked through the door. He slipped his sunglasses into place and looked around. At this point, short of kidnapping Jessie, he wasn’t going to get her to listen to him. Which meant it was time to bring in the big guns. ***
Jessica rolled out of bed at noon. She’d fallen asleep around dawn after crying herself out. The sobbing jag left her numb and exhausted despite the sleep. She needed to call Cora and let her know when Jessica was arriving the next morning. She’d considered bumping her flight to today, but she needed some time to compose herself before she faced her friends. One look at her blotchy face and red eyes, and they’d know exactly how shitty this weekend was. Brooklyn would be on the next flight over and she’d be gunning for Jake. Cora might not be as blunt as Brooklyn, but she’d still do something devious like sic the IRS on Diamond Dates or quietly sue them… No, she couldn’t call either of her friends. And she couldn’t go home today. She’d gotten herself into the mess. She could get herself out of it. Somehow. She stopped in the bathroom and splashed some water on her face. It didn’t help. Anyone who looked at her would know that she was upset and had cried recently. Oh well. She needed to eat something and figure out her next step, and that meant she couldn’t keep hiding out in her room. To be honest, she was so incredibly tired of
hiding. Going to LA hadn’t started out that way, but it’d definitely ended that way. She’d failed, and instead of trying to figure out a new plan, she’d just let the current take her. She loved her friends, but Jessica had buried her head in the sand for five years—longer, if she was going to be honest. She made it to the kitchen without running into either of her parents and started a pot of coffee. Her mama chose that moment to pounce. “You were home early last night.” Jessica stared at the coffee maker and put serious thought into crawling out the kitchen window over the sink. Running away was the very thing she was supposed to be working on, so she took a deep breath and turned to face her mother. “Oh, Jessica. You look positively awful.” “Gee, thanks, Mama.” She watched her mama rush to the refrigerator. “What are you doing?” “You need some cucumbers on those bags under your eyes. They’re horrid.” Enough was enough. “Mama, stop.” She didn’t wait for her to listen, plowing on. “You know, normal mothers would ask me what happened and why I was upset. They wouldn’t instantly jump to worrying about my looks.” “You won’t find a man to take care of you
while you look like that.” “Are you fucking kidding me?” Jessica swiped her fingers through her hair, half sure her head was about to explode. There was no backing down from this conversation now, and for once she didn’t want to. “Mama, I love you. I do. But your priorities are so off that it would be funny if it wasn’t so damaging. I am beautiful. I would be beautiful at any weight, and with any color hair, and with bags under my eyes that put George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush to shame. Why can’t you see that?” Her mama paled. “I know you’re beautiful.” Jessica had never heard her sound so subdued, but she wasn’t about to stop now that she’d gotten started. “And for that matter, stop trying to fix me and Drew. Our priorities are not your priorities. I don’t want a man to ‘take care’ of me. I want to be a strong, independent woman who can take care of herself. Any man I’m with had better respect that.” She didn’t feel much like a strong, independent woman after crying her eyes out over Jake, but that was beside the point. “You are strong. You’ve always been strong.” Just like that, her tears were back. “Mama, I don’t know what to do.” Her mama crossed the kitchen and hugged
her. For the first time in her life, instead of offering a shopping trip or to go get their nails done, she said, “Let’s get that coffee poured, and you can tell me about it. It might help. This is about that b—Jake.” “It is.” Her mama guided her to a chair and poured them each a mug of coffee. Jessica let the warmth soak into her hands and sighed. “He set me up. I thought he really wanted a second chance, but he just wanted a chance to pay me back for leaving him.” Her mama snorted. “Hardly.” “Excuse me?” Jessica shot her a dark look. “That is not a helpful thing to say, Mama.” “For goodness sake, this is as new for me as it is for you.” She tore three packets of Splenda and dumped them into her mug. “I don’t like that boy. I never have. He’s not good enough for you, and even if he’s richer than sin now, he’ll never be good enough for you.” She stirred her coffee. “But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s loved you since he set eyes on you, and still does.” “But—” “Trust your mama, Jessica. Did I or did I not predict every win you ever had just by watching the judges?” “Well…sure.” She’d always found her mama’s ability to read pageant judges to be one step
short of supernatural. “But I don’t see how that applies.” “Jake loves you. I doubt he stopped loving you these last ten years. It’s absolutely ridiculous that he let you go and didn’t track you down, but you were both so young, maybe it was for the best.” It was eerily close to what Jessica had told Jake just yesterday. She shifted in her chair. “He still lied to me.” “If we start listing the horrible things you’ve done to each other, we’ll be here all day. You played those awful little games with him in high school, and if I remember correctly, he gave as good as he got.” Yeah, he had. Because the games ended the second they were alone. Then it was just Jessica and Jake and the entire world could burn for all they cared. The games were just silly ways of feeding into her need from drama at the time—anything to help her forget the pressure of living under her parents’ roof. “This is different.” “No, it’s not. You hurt him terribly when you left him, right decision or no. Can you say what you’re feeling now is anything compared to that?” She glared, but there was no heat in it. “You’re supposed to be on my side. That’s how
this works.” “I am on your side, which is why I’m telling you that if you leave Jake Davis in your rearview mirror for the second time without giving him a chance to make it up to you, you’ll never forgive yourself.” Her mama reached across the table and covered one of Jessica’s hands with hers. “You love that boy as much as he loves you. What would one conversation hurt to figure out if this thing can really be fixed?” Jessica managed a faint smile. “You know, Mama, you’re pretty good at this kind of thing when you try.” Her mama wouldn’t quite meet her gaze. “If I promise to try… Can we talk more often? I miss you terribly when you’re gone.” Maybe it was time to repair the loose threads she’d left dangling when she blew out of Catfish Creek. “I’d like that.” She turned her hand over and gave her mama’s hand a squeeze. “I’d like that a lot.” And now it was time to find Jake and tie up this last loose thread once and for all.
Chapter Twelve Jake looked at the spread in front of him and wondered for the twelfth time in as many minutes if he was doing the right thing. His phone rang, and he frowned at the number for a few moments, but finally answered. “Jake Davis.” “Where are you?” He went hot and then cold at the sound of Jessie’s voice in his ear. “I need to apologize again.” “I think it’d be better if we talked face to face. Where are you?” There was no turning back now, even if he wanted to. He’d let Jessica Jackson get away once before, and he’d be damned before he sat back and let her walk out of his life a second time. “The old drive-in.” “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He didn’t ask how she was getting there. In the end, it didn’t matter. It was still the longest ten minutes of Jake’s life. When he saw Jennifer Jackson’s shiny silver Audi bumping along the road to where he’d parked his truck, he breathed a silent sigh of relief. Now wasn’t the time for relief, though. It was time to double down. He met Jessie as she climbed out of the car.
Her gaze went over his shoulder to the shit he’d spent the last hour setting up, but he had things to say before they got there. “I’m sorry.” “You know, we seem to be in an eternal circle of apologizing to each other.” She gave a faint smile. A smile was better than shoving him into traffic. Jake held out a hand. “I have some things to say if you’re willing to listen.” “I have some things to say, too.” She hesitantly put her hand in his. “But you can go first.” “Much obliged.” He led her to where he’d laid out something of a picnic in the bed of his truck. It was late enough in the evening that the heat had finally broken, but he still questioned the intelligence of choosing this location. “Sit here.” She let him set her on the tailgate and eyed the food. “What’s all this?” “We have a lot of history, love. Good, and bad, and even a bit ugly at times. Hard to know a person for most of your life and not have bad to salt the good.” He took her hand again, because standing so close to her without touching felt downright wrong. “I’ve loved you since I was ten years old and decided right here at this theater that one day I’d marry you.”
She laughed. “I remember. You twisted a ring out of the long grass and then tackled me when I wouldn’t wear it. My mama was all kinds of mad about the grass stains on my dress.” “We were at this very theater for our first date. I let you pick the movie even though my friends gave me a boatload of shit.” He held up his free hand when she opened her mouth. “And we were here when we fogged up the windows while we made love the first time.” “Where are you going with this, Jake?” He took a deep breath. “My point is that we have a whole lot more history that that single moment where you left—and the other moment when I lied. Catfish Creek is our past, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be in the past. I love you, Jessica Jackson. I love you so much, it makes me crazy, and I say and do the stupidest shit sometimes, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve been living half a life for the last ten years. I missed out being with you for a full fucking decade. That was just as much my fault as yours. If you give me a chance, I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to you.” Jessie looked away. “Jake.” “A chance, Jessie. That’s all I’m asking for.” “Oh, hush. You know very well that I love the holy hell out of you. I’ve admitted as much
several times in the last forty-eight hours, though maybe not in as many words. I…” She took a big breath. “I overreacted. I was embarrassed and off-center after that confrontation with Leah, and neither of those things are an excuse, but I need you to know where I was coming from. I let my temper and hurt speak for me, and I said some terrible things.” “I think it’s safe to say we both said terrible things.” He held perfectly still, determined not to interrupt her again. “As a wise woman recently pointed out to me, our relationship has been nothing but ups and downs, and that’s part of what makes it ours. And if you’re willing to forgive what I did when we were eighteen, I’d have to be some kind of special self-righteous asshole not to forgive you now.” He couldn’t draw a full breath. “What are you saying?” “I’m saying yes, Jake. Yes, to trying, to figuring this out, to us. I love you like crazy, and I think that after all we’ve been through, a little thing like a couple of states’ distance between us is a minor hurdle.” He kissed her. She framed his face with her hands and kissed him back, keeping the contact light and sweet before she leaned over
to look at the food. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Popcorn and Milk Duds. Takeout from The Hamburger Shack.” Her eyes went wide. “You recreated the food from our firsts here? Oh, my God, have I mentioned lately that I love you?” “It might have come up. We’ve had so many firsts here. I couldn’t think of a better place to take the first step into the future with you.” He stepped between her knees and wrapped his arms around her. “The rest of our lives starts now, love. And I wouldn’t want to spend it with anyone but you.
A Bad Boy Homecoming Thank you so much for reading Prom Queen! Jake and Jessica’s story is part of the fun and sexy Bad Boy Homecoming series. Each book is a complete stand-alone but we hope you’ll go through each of the romances to see your favorite characters make special appearances and see just how the reunion went down. Each book carries at least one of our favorite tropes as well as a few high school flashbacks that make us smile and shake our heads. If you enjoyed the book, we’d love if you would please leave a review to show us how much. Reviews help authors every day and we totally appreciate it. Thank you for coming to the Bad Boy Homecoming reunion and we hope you’ll not only find a romance you love, but a few authors as well. Happy Reading! The Books of Bad Boy Homecoming Dropout by Carrie Ann Ryan Trouble by Avery Flynn Prom Queen by Katee Robert Honor by Kennedy Layne Rock Star Stacey Kennedy
About Katee Robert and Her Books New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Katee Robert learned to tell her stories at her grandpa’s knee. Her 2015 title, The Marriage Contract, was a RITA finalist, and RT Book Reviews named it “a compulsively readable book with just the right amount of suspense and tension.” When not writing sexy contemporary and romantic suspense, she spends her time playing imaginary games with her children, driving her husband batty with what-if questions, and planning for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. www.kateerobert.com
The Hidden Sins Series
Book 1: The Devil’s Daughter Book 2: The Hunting Grounds The O’Malley Series Book 1: The Marriage Contract Book 2: The Wedding Pact Book 3: An Indecent Proposal Book 4: Forbidden Promises Book 5: Undercover Attraction The Foolproof Love Series Book 1: A Foolproof Love Book 2: Fool Me Once Book 3: A Fool for You Out of Uniform Series Book 1: In Bed with Mr. Wrong Book 1.5: His to Keep Book 2: Falling for His Best Friend Book 3: His Lover to Protect Book 3.5: His to Take Serve Series Book 1: Mistaken by Fate Book 2: Betting on Fate Book 3: Protecting Fate Come Undone Series Book 1: Wrong Bed, Right Guy Book 2: Chasing Mrs. Right Book 3: Two Wrongs, One Right Book 3.5: Seducing Mr. Right
Other Books Seducing the Bridesmaid Meeting His Match
HONOR by Kennedy Layne Want more Bad Boy Homecoming? Check out the next romance in our sexy reunion stand-alone series:
Chapter One “How long is it?” “It’s a twelve-letter word,” Derek Spencer replied, staring at the same crossword puzzle he’d been working on for the past two days. There had been too many interruptions, and he could only stare at the lattice of white blocks for so long before his eyes began to burn. It was better than the alternative. “Behaving or looking as though one thinks one is superior to others.” “Supercilious.” “No shit,” Derek muttered, dutifully writing down the letters in the appropriate squares while doing his best to ignore the irritating bleeps and pings coming from the various machines. He found it best to focus on the mundane puzzle rather than to look at the bundle of long tubes running to and from his father’s fragile body. It only forced him to remember that his parents weren’t invincible, but thankfully his father had beaten the odds this time. He’d live to see another day, but who would’ve thought the great Benjamin Albert Spencer could be taken out by a little heart attack? Ben wasn’t a weak man, not by any stretch of
the imagination. He owned and operated Spencer’s Meat Market, the only full service butcher shop where the residents of Catfish Creek bought their prime cuts of meat, whether it was beef, pork, or chicken. He was old school and his shop stood behind his product. He always took the time to talk with each and every customer. His father’s motto? Everyone needs a friend in the meat business. A friend provided a square deal at a reasonable price, and friends were family. A good man like him shouldn’t be lying in some hospital bed clawing away for his life, recovering from open heart surgery. “That’s a wrap.” Derek folded the newspaper that he stole from the nurse’s station yesterday, immediately reaching for this morning’s entertainment section he’d found in the cafeteria. He’d set it on the rolling tray, saving it for last. It gave him something to do to pass the time, while his father slept on and off for most of the day. “Let’s see what today’s theme is.” Derek did his best to ignore the antiseptic smell that seemed to always permeate his clothes by the end of the day. As a combat Marine, that sterile odor generally meant someone was either wounded or had gotten injured during training. More recently, it was
the equivalent to losing a man on the line…loss of combat effectiveness. It didn’t help that he hadn’t gotten the benefit of a few days’ transition to get used to his old leave and liberty clothing again after being in Afghanistan for the last four months. It wasn’t that the black T-shirt he wore was uncomfortable. It just didn’t smell right. Of course, there was also getting used to the brand new, stiff denim of his jeans that he’d had to buy since almost all his crap was still in storage back on base. Damn, he never thought he’d miss those cotton utility pants he’d worn day in and day out overseas. The thing of it was, he’d rather be over there fighting for his fellow Marines than sitting idly by to witness his father fighting for his life back in the world. “Why don’t you go and grab some lunch and leave me be?” Ben pressed for the third time that morning in between bouts of snoring. Derek pulled down one side of the newspaper and gave his father a questioning look. “You’ve been cooped up in here for four days straight. Go see some of your old friends, or take a drive by The Grange and see Frank. He just turned sixty-five, if you can believe that. It should be his old ass in this damned bed and not mine.”
The last time Derek had visited The Grange had been about two years ago, right about the time Frank had installed a hand-me-down mechanical bull one of those city nightspots had outgrown. As a former third place finalist in the National PBR Championship in 1968, the old crusty bull rider even had a plaque on the wall with the once upon a time personality who currently held the title—Frank Dallas, of course. It was hard to imagine the infamous bull rider was sixty-five years old. It was even harder to believe that Derek’s father wanted him out of this hospital room. “Spit it out.” “Spit what out?” Ben lifted the remote control he had tucked beside him, pressing the power button so that the television came to life. He’d never been a good poker player, and now was no different. “I’m most likely going to be released and heading home tomorrow morning. It’s not like you need to babysit me for your mother’s sake. I am fifty-nine years old, son. I’m hardly a basket case.” Derek studied his father, trying to decipher why he suddenly had a different opinion in the last five seconds than he’d somehow held for the last four days. His dad had welcomed his presence at first, saying over and over again how much he appreciated the buffer between
his wife and the hospital staff. Helen Spencer loved her family very much, but she tended to hover a little too much in circumstances like this—not that he or his dad would ever say that to another living soul. “Mom should be back within five or ten minutes,” Derek reminded his father, watching closely for a reaction. He folded the newspaper once more in half and used the clip of the pen to keep it that way. What exactly was his father up to? “You know that she likes to have lunch with you. She’ll probably bring me something healthy from The Hamburger Shack, not that I’ve gotten to eat anything remotely greasy since I came home. Who knew they even made salads?” “Join the club,” Ben said irritably, pressing a series of buttons on the control a little harder than necessary. “I almost attempted to bribe Tessa to sneak me in a juicy steak last night, but then I worried what your mother would do to her and I caved.” Derek tensed slightly at the mention of Tessa Daniels, still wondering why she’d gone out of her way to give him the cold shoulder ever since he’d walked into this hospital. He wasn’t so sure he could use the term cold. It was more like she appeared preoccupied or unsure.
He and Tessa had been friends back in the day, always running in the same circle, and now she was his father’s second shift nurse. She didn’t appear too inclined to talk with him in depth, except to tell him to move out of the way when she was changing his dad’s dressing or checking his father’s IV. “You don’t need to be cooped up here with me for hours on end. Live a little before they send you back over there.” His father had turned on the History Channel and appeared to settle back against his pillow. He even waved his hand toward the door, not bothering to look Derek’s way. “Go. Catch up with some of your old friends or something. Drink a cold beer. For Christ’s sake, have two.” “I have a nice change of clothes for you, Ben,” Helen said after having used her hip to open the hospital room door. Derek automatically stood and took the small duffle from his mother’s hand, also reaching for the to-go bag from The Hamburger Shack. It didn’t surprise him to catch sight of lettuce in one of the clear plastic containers. Maybe he should take his dad up on his offer to get out of the hospital for a bit. “Derek, did your father have a chance to tell you about Tessa?” Derek never broke stride as he continued to cross the sterile floor, though that gut instinct
hit him hard that he wasn’t going to like where this conversation was going. His mother always meant well, but she never left well enough alone, usually tinkering until the soup was ruined. It didn’t help that she’d been pushing the issue of him settling down and giving her grandchildren lately. No wonder his father had wanted him out of the room. Subtlety just wasn’t one of his father’s best attributes, and therefore Derek also lacked the antenna required to pick up a hint. “No, Dad didn’t mention anything,” Derek answered, setting the bag with his father’s clothes on the chair next to the side table. It didn’t go unnoticed that Ben was shaking his head at his wife, who feigned being too oblivious. Helen knew exactly what she was doing and she was proud of her straightforward manner. He needed to set the record straight. “Mom, you know that I’m only here for one more week on emergency leave. I hope you didn’t go and make any plans that I can’t keep. I have Marines in harm’s way over there and I’m responsible for them.” Derek held the to-go containers hostage, not that it mattered to his dad. One of the nurses had followed Helen into the room with a tray of food in her hand. It didn’t smell any better
than the ranch dressing in the bag he was holding. “How are you doing, Mr. Spencer?” “I’m ready to go home today. You need to tell the doctor that. There’s no reason to wait until tomorrow,” Ben grumbled, pressing the button on the remote control that maneuvered the top half of the bed upward. He ever so slowly rose it a little more, so that he could feed himself. “What have you got for me today, Jackie? It doesn’t look like a ribeye.” Jackie went on to describe a wonderful dish of cuisine that must have been kidnapped and pureed before ending back up on the tray she’d just set down on the rolling table. She arranged it so that his father would have easy access to his food, even going so far as to pour him another cup of water and setting it down on its own round slot in the tray. She flashed a smile Derek’s way—the knowing kind. It was a measure of pity dosed out for the condemned. He gritted his teeth at being the only person in the room who was currently in the dark about his mother’s forthcoming news. “Derek, were you planning on attending your ten-year high school reunion?” Jackie asked, apparently taking pity on Derek and giving him some insight as to what his mother might
have done. It only served to make him slightly nauseated and any hunger pains he might have had went by the wayside. He shot a look toward his father, who had covered his mouth with his hand. Was he laughing or gagging? “Tomorrow night is the reunion. Well, technically there have been activities throughout the week, but they decided on a masquerade ball as a main theme. It’s all the rage now, and it’s been the talk of the town for months.” Jackie Bauer had graduated a couple of years after Derek, but she’d been a cheerleader and was most likely still friends with the same general group of people he’d hung out with back in the day. Granted, he’d played high school football, but he’d been way too busy working at his father’s butcher shop to go to anything other than the after-parties with his unattached buddies. He hadn’t been the social type and hadn’t changed much in ten years. The men he’d spent time with recently were all Marines and they weren’t much for trendy themed balls. As a matter of fact, they only attended one ball each year, and that occurred on November 10th. No matter where he’d been on that date each year since his enlistment, they all had managed to gather together in farflung places to celebrate their brotherhood.
“I think I’ll pass on the ten-year high school reunion,” Derek stated, hoping his mother had heard him clearly. “I’m here to visit with my family and make sure Dad gets the rest he needs before I go back to my brothers in the Corps.” “That’s what your father and I wanted to tell you,” Helen gushed, as if she’d done Derek a favor. Ben nearly choked once again on his cherry Jell-O. Jackie took a step back, attempting to fade into the background as she crossed her arms and settled in to hear what gossip she could share with her friends. Her gaze was on his reaction, recording him as if he were on video. He didn’t recall her hanging out with Tessa back in the day, but maybe that had changed since they worked together in the same ward. He honestly didn’t want to hear what his mother may have cooked up, but there was no stopping her now that she’d gained momentum. “Tessa wasn’t going to attend either, but I suggested to her that she just had to go with you and keep you company since you didn’t have a date either. You’ve been with us every second of the day, making sure your father and I have everything we need. It’s time you go out, catch up with your old friends, and have some fun.” Two weeks. That’s the standard period of
emergency leave granted to Marines like Derek, who had received a red cross notification with occasion to take away from his post in Afghanistan. All he’d wanted to do was come home to square things away, ensure his father was in stable health, and then head back overseas to complete his mission. Focusing on his assignment was something he’d lived and breathed for the past ten years. His life had changed from what it was. He didn’t have time to go to reunions and he certainly didn’t need his mother to set him up on dates. Ben coughed, most likely covering up the laugh he’d been holding back or attempting another thinly veiled alert which Derek would almost certainly fail to interpret properly. His dad reached for the water Jackie had poured him and took a drink. He’d had every opportunity to step in and stop his wife from launching this unthinkable disaster, but he’d let her get away with it anyway—probably for his own amusement. What had he always said over and over that kept the peace during their thirty-seven years of marriage? Yes, dear. Yes, it was appeasement, but that wasn’t the point. Sun Tzu said that you should only fight the battles that you needed to win. “Mom, you’ll have to explain to Tessa that I
didn’t come here to attend a reunion.” There was no way in hell that Derek could eat lunch now, especially a salad. He reached across the lower half of the bed and handed his mother back the bag of food from The Hamburger Shack. Maybe he should head over to The Grange after all. He certainly needed some fresh air and a beer, but the crushed look on his mother’s face gave him pause. Damn it. “You know what? I’ll talk to Tessa myself. I’ll explain my situation and how I want to spend time with you and Dad before I head back to my unit. I’m sure she’ll recognize this as a simple misunderstanding.” “Mrs. Spencer,” Jackie said, putting a hand on Helen’s shoulder in comfort, “Tessa really didn’t want to go to the reunion anyway. You know that she’s been avoiding Bennett for the last three months.” Derek caught himself just in time. He’d been about to ask who this Bennett was until the name rang a bell. Bennett Harris. Who else could Jackie been talking about? Bennett was an unusual enough name that there could only be the one. He hadn’t gone to Catfish Creek High School all four years, either. He’d only attended his senior year, blending in with the crowd. The only reason Derek even remembered him was because he
used to come into the butcher shop to pick up his mom’s order. He’d apparently made a name for himself locally, considering the large billboard sign right outside the city limits. Financial advisor of some sort, wasn’t it? “Well, that takes care of that,” Derek advised, appreciating that Jackie had given both he and Tessa an excuse to back out of attending the reunion. He forced himself not to ask what issue Tessa had with Bennett, because it wasn’t any of his concern and he didn’t much care. He wasn’t a fan of idle gossip. In the Corps, they called it scuttlebutt. It wasn’t encouraged amongst the ranks. It was time for him to leave while he still had the advantage and the ability. “We wouldn’t want Tessa to endure spending an entire evening by being in the same room with someone she has issues with, whatever those may be. However, I am going to take you up on your offer regarding me catching up with some old friends. I’ll be back in around an hour. I just want something more substantial to eat. Maybe I’ll get that steak you were talking about, Dad.” After having deflected his mother’s focus, Derek didn’t waste any time heading for the door. He breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped out into the busy hallway. It was always hectic this time of day, especially when
people took advantage of their lunch hour to visit friends and family. He immediately headed off down the corridor, not wanting to get stopped by Jackie should she be right behind him. He’d dealt with enough for the day. His father’s health was improving, his mother didn’t appear to be too worried, and things were returning to normal. He had more important things to be concerned with other than social events in Small Town, USA. The next week would go by fast enough, considering Derek would be helping out around the butcher shop getting people and operations set into place until his father was back up on his feet in a couple of weeks. He didn’t mind in the slightest, but it was time to take a break, have a beer, and take stock. Afghanistan was a very dry place, and he was looking forward to his first cold taste of a refreshing American malt beverage, fresh from the tap. The Grange was calling his name.
The Marriage Contract New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Katee Robert begins a smoking-hot new series about the O’Malley family—wealthy, powerful, dangerous, and seething with scandal. The Marriage Contract Teague O’Malley hates pretty much everything associated with his family’s name. And when his father orders him to marry Callista Sheridan to create a “business” alliance, Teague’s ready to tell his dad exactly where he can stuff his millions. But then Teague actually meets his new fiancée, sees the bruises on her neck and the fight still left in her big blue eyes, and he decides he will do everything in his power to protect her. Everyone knows the O’Malleys have a dangerous reputation. But Callie wasn’t aware of just what that meant until she saw Teague, the embodiment of lethal grace and coiled power. His slightest touch sizzles through her. The closer they get, though, the more trouble they’re in. Because Callie’s keeping a dark secret—and what Teague doesn’t know could get him killed.
Find out more in The Marriage Contract. Out Now! To stay up to date on new releases and for exclusive new content, make sure to join Katee’s newsletter HERE.
The Devil’s Daughter New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Katee Robert explores the murderous secrets small town can hold in her new Hidden Sins series… The Devil’s Daughter Growing up in a small town isn’t easy, especially when you’re the daughter of a local cult leader. Ten years ago, Eden Collins left Clear Springs, Montana, and never once looked back. But when the bodies of murdered young women surface, their corpses violated and marked with tattoos worn by her mother’s followers, Eden, now an FBI agent, can’t turn a blind eye. To catch the killer, she’s going to have to return to the fold. Sheriff Zach Owens isn’t comfortable putting Eden in danger, even if she is an elite agent. And he certainly wasn’t expecting to be so attracted to her. As calm and cool as she appears, he knows this can’t be a happy homecoming. Zach wants to protect her—from her mother, the cult, and the evil that lurks behind its locked gates. But Eden is his only key to the tight-lipped group, and she may just be closer to the killer than either one of them
suspects… Find out more in The Devil’s Daughter. Out Now! To stay up to date on new releases and for exclusive new content, make sure to join Katee’s newsletter HERE.