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Gravel crunched under Sheriff Jack Walker’s boots as he exited his patrol car and headed for the cherry red sports car parked alongside the road just outside of Hope Wells. The Texas night sky twinkled above with bright stars, but on the ground his flashlight was his guide. Years of wearing a badge made him ready for anything and he knew better than to think he’d find a driver in that car, not with Wishing Wells, the town’s natural flowing hot pool just fifty feet away. Lovers and others often frequented the waters past closing time, past curfew, sometimes breaking other Texas statutes as well. His mouth cocked up at the notion. He’d broken a law or two at the wells in his younger days. But Jack didn’t rightly recognize the car and that put him on alert.
He crossed the road where gravel became wildflowers and then headed down the familiar path. As he came upon the gate, the chain link didn’t appear to be jimmied, but that didn’t mean much since the gate was more than climbable. There’d never been a need to secure Wishing Wells with anything more than a strong link fence, Hope Wells being a peaceable town for the most part.
The honeyed sweet scent of star jasmine flavored the air as he drew closer. His ears perked at a disturbance in the wells, a quiet swishing that only occurred when someone was upsetting the soothing waters.
“Who’s there? You’re trespassing at this hour. This is Sheriff Jack Walker.” Giving fair enough warning for a trespasser, he climbed over the gate. He hoped like hell he wouldn’t find two lovers going at it hot and heavy.
His flashlight illuminated the springs with a blast of brightness. Nope not two lovers at all, but one scantily clad woman.
A woman he recognized.
His eyes burned hot and his senses blurred.
He shined the light just below the soulful, baby blue eyes of the trespasser.
What was she doing here? He didn’t think he’d ever see her again. It’d been years since Jillian had washed her hands of Hope Wells… and of him. He was over her, but cool and casual wasn’t what pounded in his chest now. Instant disappointment at his reaction to her sent him back eleven years.
Her soft sultry voice filled him up with memories. “I see you’re still breaking laws, Jillian.”
A smile surfaced and the baby blues that had once done incredible things to him, seemed just as potent now. She had charm and grace to spare, a trait he’d once thought was exclusive only to him. He’d thought he’d known her mind too, but she’d proved him wrong in the end and his grief had lasted too long to admit, even to himself.
“As I recall, you helped me break more than a few, Jack.”
The moonlit waters flowed freely around Jillian’s bare shoulders. What in hell was the famous lingerie designer wearing underneath all that pooling water? A bikini? A thong? The woman ran a successful million-dollar company aptly named Barely There. Maybe Jillian wore next to nothing.
Jack drew a deep breath reminding him that Jillian wasn’t the girl from the wrong side of the tracks anymore. She wasn’t that poor misunderstood wild child that had once touched his heart and made him want to protect and cherish her. But seeing her at the wells again, unguarded, smiling up at him with a gleam in her eyes and that come-here look on her face, had him stumbling for a comeback.
She had moved on. So had he. Both had made something of themselves. It was best to let it alone. “Now I protect the law, Jillian.”
She looked away, staring out into the darkness. “And the fine people of Hope Wells.”
“One in the same.”
She stroked the water, her hands playing over the pooling liquid like a delicate instrument. “You were meant to be sheriff. It suits you.”
“Don’t see as I could be anything else, what with my father and his father before him, being sheriff. It’s in our blood, I suppose.”
“It’s a good thing, Jack. I understand you saved a little boy’s life. You’re the town hero.”
“I’m no hero, Jillian.”
His gut twisted. Visions of that fateful day tormented him still. That winter night six months ago, rain had poured down so heavily the banks couldn’t hold and the river overflowed in large gulps. The blinding deluge and a set of bad tires had the driver of a sedan skidding off the road and plunging into the raging water. Trapped inside the car was a family of three, a young boy and his parents. Jack had seen it all happen from his patrol car and hadn’t hesitated to jump into the river. Frantically, he’d searched for the passengers, hoping to help, hoping to save everyone. And then he’d seen it, the small arms of the boy flailing wildly from inside the car, his parents offering up the boy through the darkness as if to say, take him. Take him. Their faces strained in panic as they realized their fate. Jack would never forget that scene, as the swift current carried the car and the boy’s parents under and away. There wasn’t anything Jack could do for them but bring the boy to safety.
“I did what any other man would do in that situation.”
“Not every man, Jack.”
A breeze blew by and Jillian trembled. She’d been in the water too long. Typical Jillian. “I think it’s time you got out.”
“You mean I can’t make a wish in the wells?”
“Is that what you’re doing, wishing?”
She gave her head a tilt. “Maybe.”
“It’s cold tonight. You should get out.”
“Is that an order, sheriff?” A teasing smile played on her lips.
“It’s a firm suggestion.”
“Will you hand me that towel over there?”
Jack reached for the towel hanging over a tree branch and walked closer to the wells as Jillian stepped out of the waters. Dewey droplets cascaded down her body adding a glimmering sheen on tanned, healthy-looking skin. He held the towel open, dipping his gaze to take a peek of frilly black silk covering her near naked body. Male fantasy wet silk.
“Thanks,” she said, tucking herself into the towel.
“It’s late. You’d best get to wherever you’re going.” He kept his focus on her face and off the tempting swells pushing the barriers of her towel.
“I’ve already been there,” she said breathlessly, running a hand through wet hair, “and the Winslows weren’t home.”
Jack arched a brow, ignoring how the honey blonde strands fell against her bare shoulders. “You’re staying at the Winslow place?”
“Yes. They said I’m welcome anytime.”
Jack twisted his lips and shook his head. He had a thousand questions for her, but only one pounded hard in his head repeatedly. Why was she here? What brought her back to Hope Wells after all this time? “Damn, Jillian. As far as I know, they’re gone for the weekend. Won’t be back until Monday.”
Jillian shrugged. “That’s okay. I’ll get a room at the motel or something.”
Jack took his hat off and ran a hand through his hair. Leave it to Jillian not to see things through. She’d always been the impulsive one, the make-love-to-me now and damn the consequences, kind of girl. Jack had been the one to hold back, to want to wait, to do right by her. Jillian had been a temptation from the start, a girl he’d wanted above all else, but he’d been the responsible one. Sometimes, he hated that about himself.
“Doubtful. The rodeo’s in town this weekend. You won’t find a room anywhere.”
Her face fell. “Oh.”
She chewed on her lower lip and Jack’s temperature rose watching her tongue dart in and out of her mouth as she contemplated her next move. He dragged his gaze off her mouth and glanced at his watch. It was almost eleven—too late for her to go traipsing along the highway looking for a place to stay. Jack doubted she’d find a vacancy for fifty miles or so.
Another breeze blew by and she shivered. Goosebumps erupted on her arms as she hugged the towel tighter. Ah, hell. “Follow my patrol car. I know a place you can stay.”
A nervous little laugh erupted and she shook her head. “No way, Jack. I’m not staying at the jail.”
Jack didn’t hide a wicked grin. “You don’t have too many options, now do you? Get dressed. I’ll wait for you by your car.”
Jillian bounced her bottom on the bed, smoothing her hands over a soft cushy quilt. Jack hadn’t taken her to jail after all, but instead led her to a residential house in the center of town. The tree-lined street and picket-fenced house was so… Jack. He’d surprised her when they’d walked past the main house and strode to this cozy guesthouse. The three, tiny rooms could probably fit inside Jillian’s master bedroom back home in Newport Beach.
“This is wonderful, Jack. After the drive and the long time in the water, I’m beat. Can’t wait to get into bed.”
She glanced up to catch him staring. His dark expressive eyes latched on and didn’t let go. Standing broad and tall, leaning against the doorjamb and looking gorgeous in his two-toned tan uniform—he’d been a hard one to leave behind. She’d halfway wished he’d become slovenly and overweight, making her decision not to come back to Hope Wells easier to bear. Instead he was better than she remembered. His granite jaw spoke of firm commitment. His wide mouth looked delicious and appealing. Day-old stubble only made him sexier, in that lawman kind of way.
Her body hummed with awareness, the boy she’d left behind had become quite a man. On warm, sultry California nights, she’d fantasize about young Jack Walker and what her life would have been like if she’d stayed in Hope Wells.
Even more, she’d wondered what Jack would be like as a lover.
Thanks to his sense of honor, they’d never gotten that far. Little did he know that his reluctance to make love to her, only gave credence to her innermost fears that she wasn’t truly enough for him. Not tempting enough, not sweet enough, not desirable enough to make him lose his ingrained convictions and sense of righteousness for her.
The day she’d left Hope Wells, she’d cried a river of tears. Not for a town she wouldn’t miss, but for a love that would go unanswered. She had left behind the one person in the world who had truly mattered, the one boy who believed in her, who had accepted and loved her despite a rather dubious upbringing.
But she’d never found her way back to Hope Wells. She’d never found her way back to Jack. No matter her success now, to the townsfolk she’d always be the wild child with the alcoholic mother. She’d always be the girl mothers warned their sons about. She’d always be the poverty-bound girl not quite good enough for honorable, steadfast Jack Walker.
She hadn’t come back to rekindle a relationship with her one-time love. No. That would be foolish. But her memories of him hadn’t faded, as she’d hoped. If she made new memories with him, they too would linger and embrace her heart and touch her soul, long after she’d have to leave Hope Wells again.
“Sleep as long as you like. I’ve got some things to do tomorrow morning. You can stay the weekend.”
His plans for tomorrow were exactly the reason she’d shown up here earlier than she’d planned. Breaking the news to him wouldn’t be easy. But she had a problem that needed solving. And Jack might just be the only man to help her.
“Thank you, Jack. This place is great. Who used to live here?”
A scowl pulled his lips down. “My fiancée.”
Something powerful slid through her heart as she thought of Jack having a fiancée. A woman he’d planned to spend the rest of his life with. When she’d spoken with Margaret Winslow last, she’d casually mentioned Jack’s name. The woman told her Jack wasn’t married, except to his job. He took his job as sheriff seriously. Everyone in Hope Wells respected Jack Walker.
“Oh?” She glanced around the place, suddenly noting how “female” the place looked from flowery curtains and cut-glass vases to softly plaid wing chairs. The tiny kitchen area, small living space and this welcoming bedroom spoke of a woman.
He cleared his throat. “She used the place as a studio. Spent most of her time here.”
“Was she an artist?”
Jack shook his head, taking his time to answer. “Photographer.”
Jillian nodded, seeing how this lovely space could inspire someone with talent. Then a thought struck. “Would I know her?”
Jack looked away clearly uncomfortable by her question.
Then he snapped his head back, his eyes sharp. “You could say that. I was engaged to Jolene Bradford.”
Jolene Bradford? Otherwise known as Suzy Homemaker. Miss Virginity herself. The Girl Most Likely Not To. Jack had been engaged to the virtue queen of Hope Wells High. He’d planned to marry a woman so distinctly different and opposite than her that the contrast couldn’t be second-guessed or denied. An odd sensation rippled its way down to her belly. She couldn’t name it as jealousy, but perhaps envy. Envy that Jack had chosen a girl with a good family name, someone highly respected in the community, a girl that any man would be proud to take home to meet the folks.
“Can I ask what happened?”
Jillian nodded. Fair enough. She had no right to delve into his private life. It seemed Jack didn’t care to rehash the past any more than she did, but she was curious why Jack hadn’t questioned her more about her reasons for coming back. She would have thought a sheriff with investigative skills would’ve been more curious. But then, he’d find out everything he needed to know tomorrow.
Landing on his doorstep tonight hadn’t been planned, but it sure made things easier. Remorse swirled in her gut along with a heavy dose of unsettling guilt. She had reworked all of her options in her head, argued with her business associates about it, but, in the end, this solution had become the most viable, most immediate, and most effective way of setting things to right. So when the time came, she had to ask Jack a huge favor.
And it was a whopper.
Jack removed his gun belt and set it on the kitchen table. Twenty pounds of metal and leather lightened his load. He heaved a sigh and unbuttoned his shirt. With a flick of his wrist his shirt went flying onto the opposing chair. He grabbed a beer from his fridge and twisted off the cap. The brew cooled his throat and quenched his thirst. It didn’t do much to ease his mind though, as his eyes honed in on a pile of legal documents waiting for him. He spread the papers out across the table and shook his head. He’d seen hundreds of documents in his profession, but this one meant something in his life. This one was personal. This one spelled disappointment, without so many words.
His chances for adopting Beau Riley were fifty-fifty at best.
Beau’s hopeful, innocent face flashed in Jack’s mind. When he’d pulled that little guy out of the river, Beau hadn’t understood what was happening. He’d shivered and cried out of fear, but his heartbreaking loss hadn’t been wholly evident yet.
Not until the rescue team arrived on the scene, offering little as way of hope. Beau’s folks were gone. Jack had held the five-year old boy snug in his arms, rocking him in a soothing motion, keeping him warm, trying to fend off his fright. He’d tried to shelter the boy from the stunning blow by easing the truth out carefully. And once the boy grasped that his folks were gone forever, his quiet sobs had torn Jack’s heart apart. The boy was an orphan now.
Single parent adoptions were difficult, even for the man responsible for saving the child’s life. Jack had been forewarned. His chances weren’t the best, but he had to try. What he had going was a solid sure reputation in Hope Wells. He had the town’s respect, except for the abusers of justice, and he had family roots here going back nearly a century. What he didn’t have was a stable home life. He didn’t have a wife, someone to mother the child. Heck, he had no real prospects in that regard. And, at times, Jack thought to give up his quest for Beau, leaving him in the hands of the social workers to find a suitable family, a whole family, who would give the boy everything he needed.
Those heavy thoughts were outweighed by the memory of Beau clinging to him, his arms tight around Jack’s neck, his small body trembling with fear.
Beau’s innocent question seared Jack like a branding iron. “Who’s gonna be my papa now?”
Now, Jack was the frightened one – afraid to lose someone else he had come to love. He had only been four years old when his own mother left town. The divorce knocked his world sideways and Monty had won full custody of Jack when his mother failed to show up to court. His father always said, it was for the best, and Jack had grown up being a loyal son to his dad, never really knowing his mother until she was on her deathbed. He’d gone to her then, as a boy of fourteen and held her hand during her last few hours on earth. She’d been a stranger to him, but his mother nonetheless. And Jack had shed tears at her passing.
The knock at the door startled him out of his thoughts. He glanced at the kitchen clock. It was almost midnight. He hadn’t heard a car pull up so he ruled out his father, Monty, coming out for a late night visit. From the sound of the soft knock it wasn’t his cousin Trey, who was most likely tucked around his wife Maddie at 2 Hope Ranch tonight. Which meant it could only be one person behind his door.
Lord, she was a complication he didn’t need now. Jack approached the door with caution. Jillian was always up to something, forever getting in over her head. He wondered what it was this time. What in heaven brought her back to Texas after an eleven-year absence?
He opened the door and squinted, adjusting to the bright porch light. Jillian came into focus fast, standing on his doorstep wearing a delicate, crimson lace nightie. Shit. Blood pumped faster in his veins. The garment sported a tiny insignia BT on the scooped neckline – Barely There.
Hell, yeah. That much was true. There wasn’t much material covering her body. Jillian had named her company appropriately.
He drew in a deep breath and waited.
“Jack.” Her breathless voice and sexy outfit did a number on his brain. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
End of Excerpt