Authors: Erin Nicholas
Sapphire Falls book five
TJ Bennett knows one thing for certain—being in love isn’t for him. Been there, done that, has the scars to prove it.
But that’s before he meets colorful, sweet, slightly kooky Hope Daniels.
Hope is only in town temporarily. She simply wants to have a cup of coffee with the father she’s never known. That’s it. She doesn’t need to buy any Father’s Day cards or have a date for any Father-Daughter dances. She just wants to have a conversation with the man who stole her mother’s heart twenty-six summers ago in Sapphire Falls.
But when her directions lead her to TJ’s house instead, everything becomes a lot more complicated…and a lot more interesting.
Because there’s nothing like a big gruff introvert to push this extrovert’s let-me-make-it-all-better buttons.
All of TJ’s plans to stay uninvolved and out of her way evaporate quickly and before he knows it, Hope’s got him thinking differently about everything—family, home, heartbreak and maybe, just maybe, the fact that he’s never actually been in love…before now.
First, always, to my family—my husband and kids who put up with so much and yet really get it. Wow, did I get lucky with you guys. I couldn’t do it without you on my side.
And to my mom and dad who have always just wanted us to be happy—even if that means spending an inordinate amount of time with people who exist only in my head. Thank you for being the first phone call I make with good news.
And to my sister and her family who make remind me that what I do is “so cool”.
And to all of my friends who think this is all “really crazy but really awesome”.
Thank you for loving me and being proud of me.
On second thought—it’s not luck at all… I am trulyblessed.
Her bare feet had bright-pink nails and multiple toe rings. Her long, tanned legs stretched out beneath the flowing multicolored skirt that had been hiked to mid-thigh to expose the smooth skin to the sun, and various bracelets circled her ankles. Her midriff was bare below a white blousy top that was filled with a pair of luscious, firm breasts. Her silky blond hair was so light it was almost white—which made the vivid pink tips all the more noticeable—and curled tantalizingly against the one shoulder left bare by the top. A variety of bracelets wrapped around delicate wrists, multiple rings adorned slender fingers and a line of six earrings sparkled from the sexy curve of her ear.
Sexy curve of herear?
What the hell wasthat?
She looked like a damn hippie.
TJ completed the inventory of the woman who was reclining on the hood of a little yellow car attached to the tiniest camper he had ever seen. Her eyes were hidden behind a humongous pair of sunglasses, the frames also bright pink—to match her toenails and hair, evidently. Her lips were parted slightly and he thought she was maybe dozing.
Dozing on the hood of the yellow car that was parked in the half-circle drive in front of his house, under his favorite tree.
He’d been distracted by the legs and breasts and, apparently, her ear, but now TJ felt his frown forming. Who the hell was this and why was she parked under his tree?
There was a lot of…color here. He preferred brown. Maybe green. Like dirt and grass. Women with pink streaks in their hair, who wore multicolored skirts and drove yellow cars, were not his type.
He liked farm girls. Girls who wore boots and blue jeans and knew that all those bracelets and rings could be downright dangerous on a farm. There were too many things for them to get caught on, and serious injuries could occur.
So he wasnotgoing to be attracted to this woman. Whoever she was. Period.
“Can I help you?” He knew it sounded less like a question and more like a demand.
The woman rolled her head to look at him, a smile in place. Then the smile died, and she slowly pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head as she came up to a sitting position.
She looked stunned. Or something. “Holy crap.” She said it softly, almost to herself.
“Are you okay?” He put his good hand on his hip, annoyed by the arm sling yet again. He wasn’t exactly concerned about her mental health. He was concerned about getting her and her car and her camper off his property before that mental health, or possible lack thereof, became his problem.
She turned to face him and tucked her legs under her like kids did. The move made her plethora of jewelry tinkle like little bells. It also shifted the skirt over most of her legs, and TJ worked on not being disappointed about that.
Then she smiled at him. And he promptly forgot even the color of the car she’d parked under his favorite tree.
“I’m looking for Thomas John Bennett.”
“What for?” He didn’t have to be polite. She was on his property uninvited. And when she’d moved, the skirt had pulled down and her top had pulled up, and he’d noticed there was a tattoo running along the side of her torso. If his neurons weren’t firing perfectly, surely he could be forgiven?
The tattoo was a swirling pattern that, from where he stood, could be a design of some kind but could also be words in a script font. He wanted to find out which it was. Personally, up close, with his own two eyes.
He didn’t have time for this.
“It’s personal, actually,” she answered.
His gaze snapped back to her face. Which was just as distracting, frankly. She had a cute nose that went with the cute ear he’d already noticed, and she had the biggest, roundest eyes he’d ever seen. He wasn’t close enough to see the color. But he really wanted to be.
She looked like a pixie. And if that was the damnedest thing he’d ever thought, he didn’t know what was.
He wasn’t a romantic, whimsical kind of guy. Which was exactly why her jingling bracelets and flimsy skirt and pink toes and hair didnotdo it for him.
Not at all.
But she was looking for him for a personal reason? That was interesting.
And interesting was the last thing TJ wanted this woman—or any woman—to be.
His grumpy bachelorhood was firmly in place. He didn’t dopersonalanymore. Impersonal one-night stands, sure. Personal? No way.
“I can assure you he’s not buying or hiring,” he said. He needed to get rid of her. He had work to do. And his shoulder was killing him.
He’d let his mother and Delaney, his brother’s fiancée, talk him into undergoing the scope to clean up the bone spur and arthritis in his shoulder. Now he was stiff and sore and stuck in a sling and unable to take the pain medications because they made him groggy.
So he’d settled on being pissy instead.
It wasn’t that different from how he usually was, in all honesty. He liked to keep to himself most of the time anyway. Being an asshole to everyone who cared about him over the past week had ensured a lot of alone time.
Only his mother and Delaney were tough enough to put up with his crabby ass. He hadn’t even seen his brothers in days.
And now this.
A distracting woman who had clearly never set foot on a farm had her car and camper parked on his land and was looking for him forpersonalreasons.
Hereallydidn’t have the time, or temper, for this.
“So you do know him?” she asked.
He nodded without thinking.
“So you can tell me where to find him.”
“Why would I do that?” he asked. “You’re a total stranger, and I don’t know why you need to find him.”
She chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment, watching him. Actually, she was checking him out, if he wasn’t mistaken. Her gaze roamed from his ball cap to the tips of his boots. Slowly.
“Why don’t you tell me whoyouare,” she finally said.
He almost laughed at that. “No. For the same reasons.”
“I’m not here selling anything.”
She sighed. “I know an old friend of his. She just passed away and I thought he would maybe like to know.”
TJ frowned. “Who?” He couldn’t imagine who this girl might know. Most of his friends—old and new—lived right here in Sapphire Falls. But he did have some buddies who he’d met during his stint in the Army National Guard. He’d lost touch with a couple of them.
The girl swallowed. And she really was a girl. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, if that. If she was a wife or girlfriend of one of his Guard buddies, the guy had gone about seven years younger.
Didn’t sound familiar at all. “Sorry, I don’t know her.”
The pixie frowned at him. “I don’t care ifyouknow her. I’m here to talk to Thomas Bennett.”
“You’re talkin’ to him.”
Okay, so therewasanother Thomas John Bennett in town. And TJ had a bad feeling in his gut suddenly. Who was this girl? And who was Melody Daniels? She wasn’t from here. TJ knew everyone in Sapphire Falls. There were no Daniels here at all and hadn’t been in his lifetime.
Of course, there was another Thomas’s lifetime that might be important here.
The girl was giving him an irritated look now. “You can’t be Thomas Bennett.”
He shrugged. “I am. I promise you.”
“Thomas John Bennett,” she clarified.
“I go by TJ. But, yes.”
She shook her head. “But…you can’t be.” She reached behind her for a cloth bag. She lifted it into her lap and started digging through it. “Here.” She pulled something from the depths and tossed the bag back onto the hood. She slid to the ground, her bracelets all jingling like she was covered in sleigh bells.
The skirt swung down, covering her legs to her ankles, but it hung low enough from her slim hips to widen the strip of bare stomach and show more of that damn tattoo. Any hope he’d had that the top would also shift and cover more of her was dashed. Seemed the white blouse thingy was intentionally short. It fell just below her breasts and still hung off one shoulder.
TJ’s mind started to wander. How far did the tattoo extend up and down? Did she have others? Where were those and what were they of?
“This says Thomas John Bennett on the back.” She held up an old photograph.
His attention was right back on their conversation with that.
He held out a hand and she came forward on bare feet, ignoring the pair of flip-flops—pink, of course—lying next to the wheel of her car.
Green. Her eyes were green. And she had a light sprinkling of freckles on her nose.
He kept his eyes off of the tattoo. Somehow.
He took the photo from her, dreading it for some reason. Looking down, he saw a younger version of his dad and his dad’s best friend, Dan. Between them was a beautiful girl who TJ had never seen. A girl who looked a lot like the one in front of him.
The dread in his gut increased.
“Where did you get this?” he asked.
“From Melody.” She leaned in to point at the woman in the photo.
She smelled like flowers. Wild flowers. And fresh air.
TJ cleared his throat. Jesus.
“And who is Melody, exactly?” he asked.
The girl looked up at him. She crossed her arms. “You know, you’re a total stranger to me too.”
“You know my name is TJ Bennett and where I live. I’d say you’re a little ahead here.”
She sighed and took the photo back from him. “Okay, fine. Melody was my mom. I’m here to find Thomas because she…” She stopped and cleared her throat, staring down at the photo instead of looking at TJ. “She passed away recently. She used to talk about Sapphire Falls all the time. Always very fondly. And then I found this photo in her stuff. There were lots of photos, but this was the only one with a name on it. So I wanted to come and meet him.” She lifted her eyes to TJ’s. “But you’re obviously not the Thomas John I’m looking for.”
“Obviously.” The Thomas John in the photo was clearly his father. About twenty-five years ago.
Yep, that ball of dread kept getting bigger and bigger.
And she’d just lost her mom. God. Any thought of tossing her back onto the gravel road leadingawayfrom his house was gone with that. Her mom had died recently, and she was here wanting to meet his father. There was really only one conclusion to reach, but he stubbornly ignored it.
Not that it mattered.
There was a beautiful woman in need on his doorstep.Anotherbeautiful woman in need. He’d been there and had the T-shirt.
This had all the makings of a big, dramatic emotional entanglement. Exactly the last thing TJ wanted. Ever again.
“You look a lot like him though,” the woman said, studying TJ.
He shifted his weight. Fuck. He didnotwant to do this. He had work to do that would take him twice as long with one arm. He had a mother to convince that he was fine. He had grumpiness to practice.
And he wouldn’t want to do this even if he felt great and had nothing else to do.
This was trouble. He sensed it.
“He’s your dad, right?” she finally asked.
What was he going to do here? TJ nodded.
“Is he…still alive?” she asked carefully.
He actually snorted at that. “Uh, yeah. Very.” His dad was a big, tough, outgoing smart-ass. He couldn’t imagine anything taking him down. Ever.
She looked relieved at that. “And he still lives here?”
That meant she hadn’t spent much time in town. It would take her about three seconds in the gas station, diner, grocery store or bakery to find out all of that information. Or it was very possible she’d run into Thomas himself at the gas station, diner, grocery store or bakery.
Sapphire Falls was a small town with very few secrets.
Except…maybe there were a few skeletons in closets around here. He could only hope the closet wasn’t his father’s.
TJ sighed. “He still lives here. Why do you really want to find him though? Not just to reminisce about your mom, I’m guessing.”
He didn’t want to hear this.
She swallowed and looked hesitant. Those big round emerald eyes were easy to read. She recognized that he wasn’t going to like whatever she was about to say.
“What’s your name?” he asked when she hadn’t answered.
Her lack of answer was kind of answer in and of itself.
He stared at her. Hope.
Well, of course it was. Because he hadn’t had hope in a really long time. And now Hope was right in front of him and he still couldn’t have it—her—because…
“I think he might be my father.”
Hearing it was way worse than thinking it.
TJ took a step back, out of reach of her flowery scent, away from the freckles and the pixie ears and the tattoo that hestillwanted to see closer.
Things really did keep getting better and better.
He was stirred by the first woman in a long time and she might just be hissister.
The look on TJ Bennett’s face was a mix of shock, frustration and pain.
The pain, she didn’t really get.
Except that she was feeling a pain of her own.
The man was hot. Really hot. Big and solid, with an attitude that said most people listened to him and no one messed with him. He wore a ball cap instead of a cowboy hat, but otherwise he looked the part of a country boy she’d always imagined—blue jeans, T-shirt and boots. And muscles and tanned skin and scruffy jaw…and muscles.
The wordruggedsuddenly had a very visual definition.
And he might be herbrother.
It was so unfair. She hadn’t been attracted to anyone in a long time and her life had really sucked lately. The idea of spending some time in the little town that had changed her mother’s life had seemed like the perfect solution.
Hope knew she had been conceived in Sapphire Falls. She also knew this photo was the only one her mother had kept in a special place in her journal and looked at regularly. Only one man’s name was written on the back. Thomas John Bennett. He had to be the one. The guy Melody had loved. Hope’s father.
So she’d let her company know she was taking some time off, packed her mom’s stuff—her clothes, her books, her journals—into her mom’s teeny tiny camper and had headed for Sapphire Falls.
Of course, Hope hadn’t ever used the camper before, and she hadn’t realized just how teeny tiny the camper really was. Melody had been all about a minimalist lifestyle, not becoming dependent on material things, trusting the universe to bring her what she needed when she needed it.
Living like her mom, even for a summer, was going to take some getting used to.
And then there was the idea of meeting her father.
That was also going to take some getting used to.
It had always just been her and her mom. She knew that her father knew nothing about her and she’d always accepted Melody’s assertion that the universe had given Hope to Melody, not to them as a couple. The summer had changed Melody’s life, not her father’s life. It had always seemed normal and happy to have only a mother. Lots of kids she knew had unique family situations. It had never fazed Hope a bit.
Until her mom died.
Now Hope was filling the summer with things that had been important to her mom to try to understand her better. They had gone through many of the typical mother-daughter phases. Like Hope rebelling against her mother’s practices and beliefs simply because they were her mother’s practices and beliefs. They just hadn’t had a chance to get to that phase where the daughter came back around and realized how much they had in common and that her mom was a really amazing person after all.
Some of her hopes for the summer came from grief. Absolutely. But some of it was the self-awareness that Melody had possessed a wisdom and confidence and peace that Hope wanted. She’d expected once she was an adult and had experiences and adventures of her own, she and her mom would find common ground.
Now they would never get to that point.
The woman Hope had adored and who had challenged her and driven her crazy was gone.
Hope had more growing to do. She wasn’t sure she knew how to do it without her mom.
So she was living life in Melody’s footsteps this summer. Living the way Melody had and visiting the places and people who had been important to Melody in her life.
Including Hope’s dad.
“How old are you?”
Hope focused on the big man still frowning down at her.
He stood looking at her, saying nothing else.
“So…” Hope said into the silence that stretched between her and TJ Bennett. The younger Thomas John. The son of Thomas John Bennett.
Her maybe half-brother.
She’d definitely been having lusty thoughts about him. He was just so…there. No woman could ignore this guy. He took up space like he owned it, like the space molded around him, wanting to be close.
“Can you tell me where he lives?” she asked, concentrating on the thing that had brought her here from Arizona. Not big, bulging biceps, not wide shoulders, not dark-blue eyes that somehow seemed suspicious and inviting at the same time.
TJ’s eyes narrowed. “No.”
Hope felt her eyebrows arch. “No?”
It was a small town. Surely she could ask the first person she saw on the street. Of course, the lady at the bakery had been super friendly but had sent herhereinstead of to the elder Thomas. Maybe she’d misunderstood Hope when she asked where Thomas John Bennett lived. Maybe she’d assumed Hope was looking for TJ. She supposed that was possible. He was closer to her age, and she figured there were women wanting to find this Thomas all the time.
Clearly, her possible half-brother wasn’t the type to go on and on and on.
“There is no way inhellI’m letting you waltz your pretty butt up onto my dad’s front porch and screw everything up unless you knowfor surewhat happened between him and your mom.”
Her pretty butt? Those three words were so distracting that Hope had to shake her head and replay the last couple of minutes to remember that he was sayingnoto her request to meet the man who she’d traveled over a thousand miles in aFiatto meet.
A Fiat. Did TJ have any idea how small a Fiat really was?
Looking him up and down now, she realized he wouldn’t even fit in her car. Hermother’scar. Hope had a Jeep. A nice, tough, four-wheel-drive Jeep that she could take up into the hills or out into the desert with no problem.
Her mother, on the other hand, loved the tiny, colorful, fuel-efficient Fiat.
Cute. That’s what she’d called it.
Hope called it girlie.
But the bright sunshine-yellow always made her smile. It was so Melody.
She focused on TJ. “I don’t want to screw anything up for him.” She really didn’t, but she did acknowledge that learning about a twenty-five-year-old daughter might be a bit of a shock.
“My father has spent his life in this town. He and my mom have been married for thirty-three years. They have four sons, a daughter-in-law, a grandchild on the way, another soon-to-be daughter-in-law and four adopted grandsons. They are pillars of this community.” TJ shoved a hand through his hair and took a deep breath. “My grandmother is still alive,” he said.
Wow. That was a lot of people. A lot of family.
Hope didn’t really know how that stuff worked. It had always been her and her mom. She had grandparents, but she rarely saw them. Her mom had kind of been an afterthought in their relationship. Their only child, she’d been raised to be incredibly independent and self-sufficient. Melody had never said as much, but Hope got the idea that they’d done so in order to be less burdened themselves. And it had worked. Melody rarely talked to them, almost never saw them and had never ever asked them for anything.
Then it hit her—TJ had a grandmother.
“Is she your dad’s mom or your mom’s mom?”
He narrowed his eyes, as if knowing what she was thinking. He sighed and answered anyway. “My dad’s.”
She could have another grandmother. The kind that saw her grandkids. The kind that her grown grandsons loved enough to protect her from crazy women who showed up in yellow Fiats wanting to claim a branch of the family tree.
She took a deep breath. “I see.”
“I don’t think you do.” He was clearly frustrated. “You show up here, out of the blue, claiming you think my dad is your father simply because you have a photograph with his name on the back. I can’t let you stir all of this up without knowing for sure.”
Of course, she understood that her showing up like this might stir up some things for this family.
She stepped closer, wanting to see his eyes more clearly. She peered up at him, realizing that he was easily eight or nine inches taller than she was. She was an averaged-sized woman, about five-six in her mother’s flip-flops. But TJ was an above-average-sized man. He had to be six-three, maybe more. And his hands werehuge.
And her reaction to that revelation wascompletelyinappropriate.
Not only because they’d just met, but because of the whole maybe-related thing.
Since she hadn’t yet met the senior Thomas Bennett and had spent all twenty-five years of her life without a father and had turned out just fine, thank you very much, she allowed herself a moment of hoping it wasn’t true. Maybe Thomas Bennett was not her father.
That would mean her inappropriate attraction to TJ was not inappropriate at all.
TJ looked a lot like his dad. They had the same dark-brown hair, the same eyes, though TJ’s were darker. They were built alike too, from what she could see in the photo. The photo showed Thomas, Melody and the other man from about mid-thigh up. The guys had their arms around Melody’s shoulders and she had an arm around each of their waists. They were smiling widely, looking very happy.
Hope wondered if the two Thomas Bennetts shared the same smile. She definitely hadn’t seen TJ’s yet. But his father was a good-looking guy. This son had definitely taken after him in that department. And TJ had mentioned four sons. He had three brothers? Good Lord, if they were half as hot as TJ, she felt sorry for the females in Sapphire Falls. And the mother who had likely been chasing girls off for years.
But there was nothing aboutherlooks that linked her to the man in the photo. Of course, she and her mother could have been twins. Especially considering Melody had looked fifteen years younger than she was, and she’d had Hope when she’d been only nineteen.
“Okay, I get it. I need to know for sure before I introduce myself as his long-lost daughter. How do you suggest I get sure?”
TJ scrubbed his hand over his face. “I don’t have time for this,” he muttered.
She frowned. That kind of stung. But, yeah, okay, this wasn’t really his problem. She’d been directed to the wrong guy by the lady at the bakery, and Thomas was TJ’s dad, but that didn’t exactly make any of this his issue.
“Yeah, I should just go.” She turned and crossed to where her flip-flops lay in the dirt. She slipped them on and started to reach for the car door.
A big hand wrapped around her wrist.
Abig, hot, heavy hand.
She looked up at TJ, startled.
“You can’t leave.” He didn’t look happy about that. Resigned. That was the best way to describe his expression.
Honestly, the showing-up-on-a-stranger’s-doorstep thing hadn’t occurred to her as a bad idea. Her mother had talked about Sapphire Falls with a wistful affection that had Hope believing it was some magical place where everything went right, everyone was generous and kind and there was nothing to fear.
Some people might have thought that was a strange reaction for a girl who had ended up in town due to car trouble, had gotten pregnant and then had to raise the child alone. But Melody had been thrilled. She’d never thought about needing anyone else or even wanting Hope’s father involved. The universe had given her the chance to be a mother. She’d reveled in it all.
That was Melody.
Hope didn’t look at the world with quite the rose-colored glasses her mother had always worn. Melody had found bright sides and silver linings everywhere. Hope liked to think she was more realistic than that.
“You can’t… I can’t let you leave,” TJ said, still holding her wrist.
Hope’s eyes widened. She also hadn’t thought for a second that she might run into a big, hunky farmer who would physically restrain her.
Nor had she thought she would be a little turned-on by that.
Should she be afraid of TJ, or at least intimidated? Maybe. They were strangers. He lived on a farm, miles from the nearest neighbor. And no one knew she was here. There were probably acres on which he could bury a body.
But all she felt with him touching her was heat. Intense, blood-pounding heat.
Half-brother. Half-brother, she tried to remind herself. But all she really heard wasmaybe.
“You can’t let me leave?” she repeated. “Why not?”
He felt the heat too?
“Because I don’t know you. You could head straight to my dad’s house and still fuck everything up.”
Ah. Not heat. Distrust and suspicion. Got it.
“I won’t,” she said. But what would she do? She’d come a thousand miles. She really wanted to meet this guy. This might be herfatherthey were talking about here.
TJ wasn’t buying it either. “You need to stay here.”
Her eyes widened again. She glanced toward the house, then back to him. “Here?”
His gaze dropped to her mouth and he let go of her wrist quickly. “Well, nearby.”
All he’d done was look at her lips and they were tingling. Hope pressed them together and ran a hand through her hair. What was happening here? He was practically stumbling over his words. Hope had the definite impression that TJ Bennett always knew what he was going to say and always meant it. Stuttering and stammering were not his style. And she’d only known him for a few minutes.
So maybe notjustdistrust and suspicion. Though those were there too, she knew. And she couldn’t really blame him.
He looked at her camper. “You can kind of stay anywhere with that thing, right?”
She shrugged. It was not the Ritz-Carlton, but it was shelter. “Yeah, I guess.”
“So you can—” He cleared his throat. “Keep it here. Until we can get some answers.”
She could keep her camper parked here and stay until they could figure out if Thomas Bennett was her father. Huh.
“We?” she asked. “You’re going to help me?”
He sighed. “How do you thinkyou’regoing to get a DNA sample from my father?”
“You’regoing to get one?”
“Someone has to.”
His expression still clearly said he didn’t have time for this. But he was offering. And he had a point.
“We could do it with a kit. You can get them online. It’s just a swab—”
She blinked. “You do?”
“Let me handle it. But it can take a week to get the results.”
She nodded. “I read that.”
He looked her up and down. His gaze traveled from the top of her head to the tips of her toes, and he took his time on various parts in between. In fact, his attention seemed to pause on her tattoo longer than even on her breasts.
She was tingling all over by the time he was done, and again there was a flitting thought of,Please, pleasedon’t let me be related to this guy.
“You’re going to have to stay here,” he finally said.
She nodded. “I’m not going anywhere until I know one way or another.”
She wasn’t here to fill a gap in her life left by her father. She couldn’t miss something she’d never had. She’d been loved and cared for. She’d wondered about her dad from time to time, but she’d never felt a deficit in her life.
But this man had been important to her mother. Melody had spent a summer here and had remembered it fondly for twenty-five years.
Hope just wanted to meet him and experience this place.
But she understood that the news of her existence might be a bigger deal for the others involved.
So there hadn’t been a lot of thought and planning put into this trip. So what? Melody had always done things by the seat of her pants, gone with the flow, wherever the wind blew her—and any number of other clichés. Hope wanted to live her mother’s life for the summer and planning and forethought would definitely not be faithful to that experiment.
“Okay, but I mean you have to stayhere,” TJ said, his eyes finally back on her face.
“Here? As inhere, on your farm in my camper?”
He nodded. “You will…attract a lot of attention if you go anywhere else.”
A corner of her mouth curled at that. “You think so?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Uh, yeah.”
For some reason, that made her feel warm. TJ maybe hadn’t meant it as a compliment, but she took it as one. If she’d been in her own clothes, doing her own thing, being the real Hope Daniels, she would have been able to blend in. She had been raised in an unconventional lifestyle by an unconventional woman, but ever since she’dinsistedon going to public school starting in ninth grade, Hope had been very aware of howregularpeople dressed and ate and acted. Hope was still a vegetarian and loved yoga and her mother’s homemade, organic shampoos, soaps and lotions. But she also knew when to downplay her hippie-Earth-girl upbringing and habits and benormal.
But if she was going to live and act like Melody, Hope would stand out. Melody always had. It wasn’t just how she dressed, it was how shewas. How she’d looked at things, how she’d approached things, how she’d lived. She’d always had a glow about her that had drawn people to her.
It had driven Hope crazy.
Her mother had never gone anywhere without meeting someone interesting. She would strike up conversations everywhere and errands that should have taken ten minutes often turned into hour-long adventures into someone else’s life.
Looking at TJ now, Hope felt an inkling of understanding. She could see the appeal in being adventurous.
It was…strange. There was no better word for it. She didn’t know him. He didn’t really want her here. She was—potentially anyway—about to stir up some big things for his family, and he might evenbeher family, but she still had an impulse to be in his world for a bit.
Her mom would have gone for it. Impulses were signals, signs of something your soul knew it needed. God, how many times had Hope heard that? How many times had Melody used that to excuse something—quitting a job with benefits, breaking up with a great guy for another not-as-great guy, taking off at midnight for a road trip to the mountains, selling their house for a trailer because she had theimpulseto minimize her material possessions and simplify her life.
So many times.
And yet Hope had never been able to look at her mother with anything less than resigned affection. Melody had been the happiest person Hope had ever known. She’d embraced everything that had come at her as a chance to learn something and be new and better than she had been before. Her optimism had been boundless.
Not for the first time in her life, Hope wondered if her mom hadn’t actually held the secret to life, the universe and everything.
Be happy. No matter what. No matter where.
So maybe right here, right now, was Hope’s chance to just be happy. To let go of all the niggling doubts and the little voice that said this wasn’tnormaland just be for a while.
With TJ Bennett.
She shook her head.
Maybe she needed to lay off her mother’s home-blended tea she’d been drinking instead of her coffee. Coffee was good. Caffeine was good. She was still going through withdrawals obviously.
“And that’s bad?” she finally asked. “To attract attention?”
“Yes.” He said it firmly and without hesitation.
She smiled. “Why is that?”
“Because here, people don’t just look or talk behind your back. They’ll corner you, demand to know who you are, where you’re from, what you want and how long you’re staying.”
She thought about that. Sapphire Falls was a small town in Nebraska. She admittedly knew nothing about those. Sedona wasn’t a huge town, but they had millions of tourists every year. Even without the visitors, though, Sedona was almost ten times the size of Sapphire Falls.
“I’m a friendly person,” she said. On the friendly-and-interested-in-others spectrum, where her mother was a ten, Hope was about a six, but she did actually like other people. Part of her following in her mother’s footsteps this summer was embracing new situations. Learning about small-town life in the Midwest could absolutely be part of that.
“Do you have answers to those questions?” TJ asked.
She thought about the questions again—who she was, where she was from, what she wanted and how long she was staying. “Three of the four,” she said.
“I’m Hope Daniels from Sedona, Arizona, and I’m staying for the rest of the summer.”
TJ’s brows pulled together in a frown. “The rest of the summer?”
He stared at her. “Why?”
She had an answer to that too, but it was complicated. “My mother loved it here. I’d…” She took a deep breath. “I want to experience some of the things that she did, that meant a lot to her. She spent a summer here and said it was the best summer of her life.”
TJ didn’t say anything for almost a full half minute. “And you’re looking for the best summer of your life?”
Something about that question from him made her tingle. She nodded. “Definitely.”
He seemed to think about that. His gaze softened slightly. “This is a good place for having amazing summers.”
She was taken aback. That was pretty…warm of him. “Good. Amazing sounds like exactly what I need.”
And she thought maybe, just maybe, the corner of his mouth curled slightly.
“But I do understand I could be complicating some things by being here,” she added.
The softness left his eyes and mouth. “Yeah, you could.”
“I’m sorry about that,” she said sincerely. “I don’t want to upset anyone. I guess, I just want to know. Just know who he is for sure. Maybe just meet him. I’m not really looking for someone to spend holidays with or to send Father’s Day cards to.”
And she wasn’t. She knew Father’s Day was sometime in June, but she wasn’t looking for afatherexactly. She was twenty-five. She didn’t need a father for anything. She had a job with benefits and her own condo. She had no debt. She knew how to take care of herself. She’d never had fatherly advice. Hell, she’d never had a lot of motherly advice either. Her mom had taught her things, exposed her to ideas, given her expectations and then let Hope make her own decisions.
TJ didn’t look convinced that she wasn’t looking for more than she claimed, but he gave her a nod. “How about we figure out if my dad is…” he coughed, “…yours and we’ll go from there.”
She understood that this was uncomfortable. Bizarre even. And that TJ wished he hadn’t been dragged into it. But she did appreciate the offer of help.
“I’m going over there for dinner tonight. I’ll talk to him.”
“You’re going to tell him?”
“How else will I have a chance to swab his cheek?”
So TJ really did know about DNA tests. That was interesting. “What will he say?” she asked.
TJ shook his head. “I have absolutely no idea.”
“But you’re not going to tell him in front of your mom or anyone.” A sudden thought occurred to her, and she looked toward his house again. “Are you married?”
“Girlfriend?” she ventured to ask.
He arched a brow, but only said, “I’m not going to tell him in front of anyone. I’ll do it in private.” He shoved a hand through hair. “Though God knows how I’m going to bring it up.”
She pondered her next suggestion for several long seconds. Then she thought about her mom. Melody had been a kind, warm person, but she hadn’t had much of a filter. She’d worn her emotions on her sleeve, and if she had a thought, it usually made it out of her mouth without much contemplation. “Maybe I could come.”
“To dinner?” TJ asked, clearly thinking that was the worst idea he’d ever heard.
She shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe that would be enough. I could meet him. Talk with him. But he wouldn’t have to know who I was.”
“First of all, that’s crazy. I can’t just show up there with a strange woman and no good explanation,” TJ said. “And secondly, what if it’s not him?”
What if it wasn’t him?
Hope looked down at the photo in her hand. She wanted it to be him. That was absolutely the dumbest thing ever. From a photo? Really? But he looked like such a nice guy and he had raised this protective-of-his-family, help-a-stranger-out guy. That had to mean something.
She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll just pretend it’s him.”
“No.” TJ’s answer was swift and firm.
“Because then—” He bit off what he was going to say. His jaw tightened. “No. We need to know for sure.”
We? But she didn’t question that. Now that he knew there was a possibility he had a sister—oh God—maybe hedidneed to know for sure.
“Maybe I don’t,” she finally said. “I’ve lived this long without him.” And if her mom hadn’t died, she wouldn’t be here right now.
Again, TJ’s gaze softened, and Hope felt her breath catch for a millisecond. Hotandsweet? Even if it was deep, deep down underneath things? That would be a hard-to-resist combination.
Unless he was herbrother.
Okay, yeah, maybe she did need to know.
“Hope,” TJ said, his voice low. “If you’re my father’s daughter, he would want to know.”
She knew she was staring again, but damn, that was the first time TJ had used her name, and it made something hot and tight settle deep inside her. Something dangerous.
“You sure?” she managed.
He nodded. “Very.”
She believed him. She could get in her car and head back to Arizona. Or head to Texas or Florida or New York. Point being, she couldleaveand live like her mom, free on the road, taking the adventures as they came. It would be less complicated. Obviously something she could have thought through before she’d gotten here, but still—she could avoid disrupting this family.
But instead, she heard herself say, “Okay.”
“So stay here tonight. I’ll go to dinner and…figure something out.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
He looked as if he was about to say something else but thought better of it. Instead, he moved past her and her car and her camper and headed into the house.
God, please don’t let him be my brother.
Because her thoughts about how great he looked walking away in those blue jeans werenotsisterly. At all.
How had this happened?
One minute, he’d been in town picking up the pain pills he was going to try at night because he couldn’t sleep worth a shit with his shoulder throbbing, and the next, he had a gigantic pain in another part of his anatomy.
Well, two other parts.
Both below his belt. One in his ass and one…on the opposite side.
TJ stood in front of his kitchen sink, looking out the window. He could just barely see the back of the camper Hope had pulled into his yard. From this vantage point, he couldn’t see her car. Thank God. She was again reclining on the hood, reading a book, her skirt hiked up to bare her legs to the sun.
It had taken a lot of will power to drink his iced tea in the kitchen instead of in the living room, in front of the huge picture window that would have given him a perfect view.
He couldnotbe attracted to this woman. At least until he knew if his father was her father.
He couldn’t use the wordsister. It gave him the heebie-jeebies.
It was about three in the afternoon, which meant his dad was probably out in his workshop in the barn tinkering with something. TJ could head over there and start the conversation that he was both dreading and wanting to get through as soon as possible. But there was always the chance that someone would come in and overhear something.
There was also the issue of leaving Hope here alone.
She might take off and try to find some answers herself. He couldn’t have her wandering Sapphire Falls, asking every guy over the age of forty-five if he’d had a fling with a beautiful blond passing through town twenty-five years ago.
There was also the chance—a very good one, in fact—that someone might show up here unexpectedly. No one called ahead in Sapphire Falls, especially in his family. His mother and Delaney, in particular, had been stopping by on a regular basis, and sooner or later everyone else would get brave and want to see for themselves that he was okay. The minute someone drove up his lane, they would see Hope’s bright-yellow car. Not to mentionher.
And leaving a total stranger alone at his house didn’t seem like a good idea. She certainly didn’t seem like a thief or a squatter. But what did he know? She was making do with a Fiat and the tiniest camper he’d ever seen. Maybe she’d been counting on getting an invitation to stay in a big, comfortable farmhouse with a clean bed and home-cooked meals. Maybe she did this all the time. Maybe the story about trying to find her father was nothing but a story.
That didn’t explain the photo, of course.
He needed some answers. He hit speed dial number three on his phone for his dad’s cell.
“Hey, Dad, I need some help with something. You free right now?” He didn’t even feel guilty that his father would assume he needed help because of his shoulder.
“Of course. I’ll be right over.”
TJ turned away from the window and settled his butt against the counter behind him. He downed the rest of his tea and waited. His dad was about six minutes away.
Sure enough, TJ heard his truck coming a few minutes later.
TJ pushed away from the counter and headed for the front door.
Predictably, his father and Hope met before he even hit the first porch step.
They were smiling at each other. His dad looked simply friendly, like he would meeting anyone new. But Hope looked—excited and nervous.
“This is Hope.”
“Yes, we’ve been introduced.” Thomas glanced at the license plate on the front of her car. “Arizona?”
Hope nodded. “Road trip.”
“Let’s go inside,” TJ said to his dad. His gaze went to Hope.
She nodded and TJ motioned for his dad to head into the house. He started after him but turned back and said, “I just need to—”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I understand.”
He gave her a single nod and then followed his father into the house. How could he feel bad about leaving her out of this conversation? He didn’tknowher. This was his dad. He needed to protect his father first, and Thomas should have the chance to explain before it was in front of anyone else. Even his daughter.
Thomas settled at TJ’s kitchen table.
“Is everything okay?” Thomas asked as TJ took a seat.
TJ wasn’t going to lie now. “I don’t know.”
“What do you need?”
TJ’s chest tightened. Thomas would do or give anything he could to make his sons and their families happy, safe and healthy.
If he had a daughter, he would want to know. TJ knew that.
He decided to jump right in. “Does the name Melody Daniels ring a bell?”
Thomas frowned slightly. “No. Why?”
“Youdon’tknow a girl named Melody who spent a summer here twenty-six years ago?” TJ asked.
Thomas’s surprise was clear. “I do. I don’t recall her last name being Daniels. But, yes, I remember Melody.”
TJ took a deep breath. “Hope is her daughter.”
Thomas smiled. “She looks just like her. I had a flash of déjà vu when I saw her.”
“She’s twenty-five,” TJ said. “Never knew her dad. Says her mom told her he’s here in Sapphire Falls.”
Thomas sat up straighter. “Oh.”
Oh? TJ frowned. “That’s it?”
Thomas’s gaze was focused on the fridge across the room. He was clearly lost in thought.
Thomas focused on TJ again. “Yeah?”
“Dad…” TJ took a deep breath. “Is it possible that you’re her father?”
Thomas jerked at that. “What? Melody said that?”
TJ shook his head. “Melody passed away. She never told Hope her dad’s name. But she has a photograph of her mom with you and Uncle Dan. Your name is the only thing on the back.”
“And you think that meansI’mherfather?” Thomas asked.
“Hope thinks that’s what it means. Actually,” TJ said, “I think shehopesthat’s what it means.”
“TJ, I knew Melody. So did your mother. We were married with all four of you boys by then.”
“I know. But…things happen.”
“And you thought things might have happened between me and Melody?” Thomas asked with mild disbelief.
“I don’t know what to think. Hope was sitting in my front yard when I got home today, and she dumped all of this on me. She was actually looking for you and got to me by mistake.”
“And as soon as you heard she needed help, you volunteered,” Thomas said.
“No.” He was helping Hope only because it directly impacted his family. He wasn’t being suckered in by a pretty face. This time. “I wanted to keep her from showing up atyourhouse. I wanted to talk to you first. Let you decide how you wanted to handle it.”
Thomas nodded. “Well, thank you. But there’s nothing to handle.”
“What do you think of doing a paternity test?” TJ asked. “A simple cheek swab. We can do it here. No one has to know anything until we know for sure. Results take about a week.”
TJ knew more than he’d like to about how the DNA tests for paternity worked, and knew personally how long that week could feel.
“There’s no reason for that,” Thomas said. “I am not Hope’s father.”
“Dad, I know this is awkward. But we all screw up sometimes.” His father knew exactly how familiar TJ was with this kind of stuff. “I know it will take getting used to—”
“TJ,” his dad cut him off firmly. “I amnotHope’s father. I can promise you that.”
TJ pulled a breath in through his nose. His father’s word was worth the world. Integrity was one of the top three words TJ would use to describe his father if asked. Finally, he nodded. “Okay.”
He was so conflicted. He didn’t want his father to be Hope’s. It meant Thomas had not cheated and TJ didn’t have a sister he hadn’t known about for twenty-five years.
And that his crazy attraction for her was okay.
God,thatwas a relief.
In fact, his body surged with the sudden realization that everything he’d felt was perfectly fine.
He looked at his dad. “Totally one hundred percent positive?”
“One hundred percent,” Thomas said firmly. He got up from the table and headed for the front door. TJ sighed and followed. Thomas was upset that TJ had doubted him. He understood that, but he still needed his dad’s help.
“Hope,” Thomas called from the porch. “I think you should join us.”
Hope looked surprised, but she slid off of the hood of the car. “Are you sure?” Her gaze went to TJ.
TJ nodded. If his father was good with her hearing this, then TJ was. This was Thomas’s story now.
TJ and Thomas stepped back for Hope to enter the house ahead of them. Back in the kitchen, TJ offered them both iced tea. Once everyone had a glass and was seated, Thomas took over the conversation.
“Hope,” he said gently. “I knew your mom. But I’m not your father.”
Hope looked at Thomas as she processed that. Finally, she nodded. “Okay.”
“You were with mom,” TJ said. He trusted that. His parents were very much in love. They were the solid foundation of the Bennett family.
Thomas nodded, but his gaze was still on Hope. “And Dan was in love with Melody.”
TJ started at that and looked at his dad. “Really?”
Hope’s eyes widened.
Thomas nodded. “Very. So even if your mom hadn’t been a factor, I wouldn’t have so much as flirted with Melody. We were all friends. She hung out with us all summer. There are lots of other pictures, but maybe she didn’t keep them, or maybe you just haven’t found them yet,” he said to Hope. “I don’t know. But she and Dan had a fling that summer. I would wager this farm that Dan is your father.”
TJ felt a strange surge of happiness at that. He’d found Hope’s father for her and it wasn’thisfather. Dan was one of Thomas’s best friends.
Hope looked thoughtful when TJ glanced at her.
“So we’ll introduce her to Uncle Dan,” TJ said. “Do you want to give him a call or should I?”
And then she could park her camper and her pretty little butt—and long, silky hair and big green eyes and long legs, tattoo and cute ears—over there. And TJ could get on with his being pissy about his shoulder by himself. Though that was depressing suddenly.
“Neither,” Thomas said.
“Neither?” He looked at Hope again. “You think she should just go over there?”
“No,” Thomas said firmly. “Definitely not.”
“We have to introduce them,” TJ said.
“Maybe.” Thomas looked conflicted now.
“Maybe? This is herfather. She came all this way to meet him. Her mom is gone. We can’tnotlet her meet him.”
“Let me think about it,” Thomas said again.
“What’s going on?” TJ asked.
“Dan and JoEllen were also dating that summer,” Thomas said. “Dan broke up with Jo because of Melody.”
“He cheated on JoEllen?” TJ asked.
Thomas looked at Hope. “No. At least I don’t think so. I think he broke up with Jo before anything really happened with Melody,” Thomas said. “He’d asked Melody to stay. But she had no intention of that. She was almost ten years younger than we were. She had a lot of things she wanted to do. She hung out with us because Dan was the one who picked her up when her car broke down. Come to think of it,” he said, looking at Hope. “She was pulling a camper like that one.”
Hope nodded. “That’s Mom’s camper.” They were the first words she’d spoken.
Thomas smiled. “She said she loved sleeping out under the stars but that the camper would do in the rain.”
TJ got the definite impression that his father had liked Melody.
“That sounds like her,” Hope said with a smile. “It’s called a teardrop camper. There’s hardly any room inside for anything more than the bed and a bit of storage, but she only used it when the weather didn’t cooperate with sleeping outside.” She traced a finger up and down through the condensation on the side of her glass. “I’m guessing she also said something about her summer here being just one adventure of many she needed to go on.”
Thomas laughed. “Something like that.” He shook his head. “She was…different from the girls here. Sweet, kind, warm, but very…earthy,” he said. “Very into self-expression and being free and open. She dressed differently, ate differently, thought differently.” Thomas was definitely having a hard time describing Melody, and yet TJ knew what he was saying. “She introduced us to hummus and edamame andkombucha.”
TJ frowned. He knew edamame and hummus, though he’d never tried hummus. But he had no idea whatkombuchawas.
Hope laughed. “Really? Do you still drink it?”
Thomas shuddered. “No way. Couldn’t get into that.” He smiled at Hope. “You look just like her.”
Hope looked pleased at that comment. “She was a force of nature, that’s for sure.”
“I’m sorry to hear she’s gone,” Thomas said. “Are you an only child?”
TJ sat back. Well, this wasn’t all bad. He could get to know Hope better this way.
He didn’t let himself think too hard about why that was appealing.
Hope nodded. “She never married and never had any more children. It was just her and me all my life.”
“Can I ask what happened to her?” Thomas asked. His tone was warm and kind. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”
Hope took a deep breath and TJ fought the urge to cover her hand with his.
“She was hiking with a friend,” Hope said. “It was a path she’d done a million times. It was totally routine. She felt fine. Everything was great until they got to the point where they were going to turn around. Without any warning, she suddenly passed out. At least that’s what her friend thought. Turned out it was a brain aneurysm. She died instantly. It was…strange. Random, really. She had no signs or symptoms, nothing that would have alerted her to a problem. And there was nothing anyone could have done. It was just…her time.”
Hope was looking at Thomas as she told the story, but as she finished, she looked to TJ.
“So I totally wasn’t ready for her to go. And I’m here now because I want to walk in a few of her footsteps. I want to see and experience and meet people and places that were important to her.”
TJ had no idea what to say, and this time he didn’t fight the urge to cover her hand. Or maybe he did it before he even felt an urge or thought about it. It was simply an instinct.
“I understand that,” Thomas said. “And I’m glad Sapphire Falls meant something to her.”
“And Dan,” TJ said. “Obviously.”
Thomas nodded. “Yeah.”
“So we have to introduce them. Dan would want to know Hope, wouldn’t he?”
Thomas sighed. “That’s complicated.” He met Hope’s eyes. “It’s not about you personally, honey. But your mom broke Dan’s heart when she left. He’d ended a three-year relationship with the only other woman he’d ever been with for her, and when she left…it took a long time for him to get over her. In fact, I’m not sure he ever did completely. He eventually got back together with JoEllen, but it was tough, and I think deep down she also believes he’s still in love with your mom. He might want to know about you, but it will cause issues with his wife and…” Thomas looked at TJ. “They haven’t always had a perfect relationship.”
TJ felt Hope squeeze his hand, and he looked at her.
“I don’t need to tell him who I am,” she said. “I don’t want to cause trouble.”
TJ felt his heart clench. Damn. He didnotwant to get sucked into a big family drama. But he couldn’t lie to Hope either and tell her it would all be okay. Nor could he say that it was a good idea for her tonotmeet Dan. Fuck.
“Jo’s bipolar,” TJ told her. “And Dan’s an alcoholic. Not a great mix. She doesn’t take the medication she needs to regulate her disorder. Dan takes care of her. And drinks because of it. And they have a daughter. Who also gives Dan a lot of excuses to drink.”
Hope’s eyes widened. “Daughter?”
TJ nodded. Her half-sister. “Peyton. Peyton’s twenty-one. She’s…a wild child. Never thinks things through. She likes to party and maxes out her credit cards and attracts loser guys, and when she gets into trouble she calls her daddy.”
TJ glanced at his father. Dan was one of Thomas’s best friends, but all of this was common knowledge in Sapphire Falls. He wasn’t sure how Thomas would feel about TJ sharing all of Dan’s baggage, but somehow he felt Hope deserved to know. Besides, Thomas and Dan’s friendship had started a long time ago, before any of that baggage had been an issue. At one time, they’d been two peas in a pod. Now, with Dan’s drinking and marital issues, he and Thomas had very little in common.
Except their devotion to family and friends.
The men shared that and it was what kept Thomas around, helping his friend attempt to help his family.
Thomas apparently agreed that Hope needed all of the information. “Dan started drinking after Melody left,” he said. “And I really believe that he lets Jo and Peyton walk on him, even to this day, because he feels guilty about his relationship with Melody. It’s like he’s been trying to make that up to Jo all this time, so he gives in on everything. Neither of them really knows how to parent, so Peyton gets to do whatever she wants.”
Hope seemed to be taking it all in. She hardly reacted outwardly though.
TJ of course knew Dan’s wife and daughter, but he’d never known the reason behind it all. He loved Dan.
Fortunately for TJ, his own wife had left him, and his brothers had intervened to stop his drinking before it had gotten out of hand. Dan was still with his wife, and his friends’ interventions over the years hadn’t stuck.
Not that TJ blamed Dan. If he’d still been with Michelle, he and the bottle would be close.
“Finding out that Dan fathered another child, even accidentally, who has grown into a beautiful, independent, responsible woman might be a tough blow,” Thomas said. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have to face it and deal with it, but I do worry about the fallout.”
Something about that frustrated the hell out of TJ, even as he understood it. He felt like he knew Dan. Dan’s friends, including TJ’s own father, had never been through some of the stuff that drove Dan to drink and didn’t understand him completely. Their marriages were good and their children had turned out well. TJ understood why Dan stayed in the marriage, and he understood why the other man drank. He didn’t agree with it or condone it, but he understood it. At the same time, he caught himself feeling sorry for Dan and labeling him as weak. It was a tough position to be in. Especially when TJ also remembered Dan from before he’d gotten married and had Peyton. He’d just been a kid, but he remembered Dan being fun and laughing and playing practical jokes. It had been a long time since he’d seen that side of Dan.
“So what do we do?” TJ asked.
Thomas shook his head and blew out a breath. “Let me think about it.”
“I think Dan would want to know her,” TJ insisted.
“I think so too. But I don’t think Dan would want Jo and Peyton to know.”
Could Jo make Dan even more miserable than he was now? Maybe. TJ shuddered with the thought.
“So you want us to wait?” TJ asked. “For how long?”
Thomas sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll feel things out.”
“Do I get a vote?” Hope asked.
They both turned to look at her.
She pulled her hand from TJ’s and put both hands around her glass. “I need to think as well.”
“You do?” TJ asked.
“I’ll admit that coming here was a spontaneous decision. I knew that my father, whoever he was, might be surprised to meet me and maybe wouldn’t be thrilled. But it didn’t occur to me that I might not want to know him.”
TJ frowned. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t want to stir up trouble for anyone or mess with anyone’s relationships, especially one that’s already tenuous. And maybe Dan isn’t someone I need to know. I told you before that I’m not really looking for afather. I just wanted to meet the guy who was so important to my mom.” She looked at Thomas. “It’s more about knowingherbetter than it is about knowing him.”
Dan was an okay guy. He’d made some poor decisions, he handled confrontation badly, and he had let guilt and grief over Melody turn him into a doormat for his wife and daughter. But he was basically a decent guy. When he wasn’t drinking.
But, yeah, okay, maybe he wasn’t someone Hope would love getting to know. That sounded horrible, but there it was.
“You came all this way,” Thomas said. “You wanted to meet him. Let me figure out a way to make it work.”
She looked back at TJ. “Maybe he’s not the reason I was supposed to come here.”
TJ felt like he’d touched an electric fence—a hot shock burst through his body as he met her eyes.
Hope was becoming more and more thelasttype of woman he would ever get involved with. If she thought there was some kind of cosmic force at work here, that fate or some damn thing had brought her here, he was going to stay far, far away.
“Well, it’s certainly your choice if you want to meet him and get to know him or not,” Thomas said.
“I need to think about it,” she said again.
“And I’ll think of the best way to handle this with Dan,” Thomas said. “Then we can decide what to do.”
“Okay,” Hope agreed.
“And in the meantime?” TJ asked. This sounded like a lot of thinking and waiting around. Not two of his favorite past times.
“Hope should stay here. Lay low,” Thomas said.
So then he could stay as far, far away from her as his own front yard. Dammit.
“Stay here?” Hope repeated.
“If you go into town, everyone is going to notice and want to know who you are and why you’re here.”
TJ shrugged casually in spite of the chaotic mess of emotions churning in him about all of this. “Told you,” he said.
She laughed lightly and TJ felt it all the way to the soles of his feet.More. That’s all he could think.I want more of that.
“Okay, so I’ll camp out for another day or so.”
She gave him a look that was hard to decipher, and he had to wonder if she was thinking thatthiswas why she’d ended up here after all.
Fuck that fate shit. He’d been with a girl who’d given him all of that romantic crap and look how that had turned out.
He stretched to his feet, accepting the fact that he was involved, at least for a few more days. He was anxious to get those days started and over with.
“Let me know,” he said to his dad. “And,” he hesitated, “I’m sorry I thought…”
“Don’t be.” Thomas got to his feet as well. “I understand. And we’ll figure this out for Hope and Dan. Somehow.”
TJ pulled his dad into a quick hug. “You’re the best man I know,” he said gruffly.
And that was why he still felt a twinge of regret that Thomas wasnotHope’s father. Thomas was definitely a better man than Dan.
Thomas cleared his throat. “Well, I raised some pretty great men too.”
TJ blinked and nodded, turning away before he did something really uncomfortable, like cry.
He walked his dad to the front door. Thankfully, Hope stayed in the kitchen, maybe sensing that the men needed a moment alone.
“This all became your project pretty quickly,” Thomas commented as they stepped out onto the porch.
“What was I supposed to do?” TJ asked more sharply than he’d intended. “She was in my front yard telling me she thought she was my sister.”
Evidently, he could say the word now that he knew it wasn’t true.
That comment made Thomas grimace. “I didn’t even think of that.”
“I couldn’t just tell her to hit the road.”
Thomas nodded. “Of course not.”
“Iamconcerned about her getting close to Dan, now that you pointed out all of the possible complications.”
Thomas looked at him. “For Dan or for her?”
Good question. “Both.”
“It’s not your decision to make, son.”
“But we know Dan. It’s up to us to be sure that this doesn’t hurt Hope.”
“Ah, so moreher.”
“You’re getting very involved here,” Thomas said.
Yeah. He was. Unintentionally. He was going to need to be careful around this woman. With Michelle, he’d gotten involved knowing full well what he was getting into and he’d done it anyway. With Hope, it was happening accidentally. He didn’t know her, didn’t really know how this was all going to play out. Yet here he was in the middle of it.
“So the sooner we figure this out, the better,” TJ said.
“I promise I’ll figure something out as soon as I can.”
His father left and TJ headed back into the house. Now what? He and Hope were going to have to kill time together for a day or two? Sure, what could possibly go wrong in that plan?
But she was gone when he went back into the kitchen. She must have exited out the back door. TJ breathed deeply. He wasn’t disappointed she was gone. Sure, he might be even more intrigued by her now that he knew a little bit about her life, but he didn’t want any intrigue inhislife. He liked things straightforward and routine. He liked knowing what to expect. Boring was good. Welcome, even, after having Michelle around.
And clearly, Hope needed some space. That made sense. She needed to think about the new information she had as well and make some decisions. If she decided she wanted to leave everything alone andnotmeet Dan, things would be a hell of a lot easier.
At that thought, he glanced back through the living room. Her car was still parked out front, so she hadn’t snuck around the side of the house and jumped in her car at the first opportunity. Okay, that was good. Or was it? She was sticking around, at least for now. Was that a good thing?
Hell, he didn’t even know how he felt about all of this now. If she left, what difference did it make? She now knew which man in the photo was her father and that he’d been madly in love with her mom. Maybe that was enough for her.
But how could that be enough? TJ couldn’t imagine life without his family. Yes, it would be quieter and he’d have a lot less worry and frustration in his life. But he couldn’t imagine having a quiet dinner aloneeverynight. Or spending holidays without chaos and laughter. Or not having four other houses he could go to at any time and be welcomed and feel completely at home.
Hope had a trailer and a car. Presumably, she had a house or apartment back in Arizona too, but she had no family. Presumably, she also had a job, friends, maybe even a bigger car somewhere. But she still didn’t have family. Except for Dan. And Peyton.
TJ blew out a breath. It didn’t seem that straightforward and boring were in his near future.
He wanted this woman to know her family. However small and imperfect they might be, they were still hers.
TJ felt strongly about family. Always had. He’d been raised in a solid, loving home where people stood by one another no matter what. He had a lot of friends, but he knew for a fact that wasn’t the same as those bound to him by blood. Family was forever. Family was the people there long before and long after most friendships started and ended. He’d also learned a lot about friendship from being with Michelle.
Many of his friends had stood by him when things had gotten crazy and Michelle had turned his life into an episode of the Maury Povich show. Many of them had stood by him when it had all fallen apart and the most private parts of his private life had become public gossip. But with Michelle being a hometown girl—and theother guy, Colby, being from Sapphire Falls as well—their group of friends had been divided when their relationship broke apart. The only people he could count on to be there for him, no matter what happened or what was said, was his family and Dan. Dan had been there for him through all of it. They’d shared more than one bottle of whiskey during that time. Dan was a drunk, but he was a good guy.
It made TJ even more determined to figure out a way to make this work for Hope and Dan. Even with his own demons, Dan had been there for TJ, and he would be there for Hope too. And maybe Dan needed someone who would really truly be there for him, as well. God knew Thomas and others had tried. But again, family was stronger. Maybe Hope, hisdaughter,the child created from his one true love match, would give Dan a reason to put the bottle down and would give him some light in his life.
Light seemed like the right word when TJ thought of Hope. She seemed full of light.
And that ridiculous thought went right along with him thinking of pixies.
Jesus. She was making him crazy.
TJ puttered around the house for a while but found himself checking out front every few minutes to see if Hope had come back. Not that he cared. He was just curious.
But by the time an hour had passed since she’d left the house, and he was watching for her more than he was watching what he was doing inside, he knew he had to go find her.
He had stuff to do. He couldn’t go chasing her all over the countryside.
And where was she? There wasn’t anything out here but pastures and cornfields and trees and the pond.Heknew how relaxing and comforting it could be alone out here, but what was the Arizona hippie girl going to do in the middle of a cornfield? And if she’d headed the other way, she would have found the road.
She needed to stay away from the road.
If anyone drove by, they would definitely stop. He wasn’t afraid for her safety. It was more the churning of the rumor mill that would result. Even if she were wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt like most of the girls around here, anyone driving by would know she didn’t belong. Add in her swirly skirt and her long, white-blond, pink-tipped hair and jingly jewelry and bare stomach and… TJ frowned as he lost his train of thought.
Oh, yeah—she would no way go unnoticed by anyone driving the road past his house.
And if she was walking through the pasture, it would only take her about two miles to end up in Travis’s pasture that butted up against TJ’s. And if Travis met her… Well, TJ didn’t really want to think about how that might go.
That meant TJ had to find her before anyone else did.
She could be walking in the woods that bordered his property, or at the manmade pond he and Travis shared. Either was a great choice for meditative thinking, but they werehisspots. He didn’t share them.
TJ pulled a cap from the hooks by the back door and put it on as he headed out. He should just go check on her. Just to be sure she was okay and hadn’t gotten lost on her way back to the house.
The pond was only a five-minute walk from his back door and he decided to try there first. He’d built a wooden dock on his side to fish and swim from. He could also launch a small boat from the dock to fish in the middle of the pond they had stocked with bluegill, largemouth bass and catfish, but TJ preferred to fish from the dock and the big wooden chairs he’d built for that exact purpose.
As he approached the pond, he heard nothing but the birds and insects and his chairs were empty, but as he stepped up onto the wooden boards and could see over the backs of the chairs, he realized he’d guessed correctly.
Hope was at the end of his dock.
This was his spot. This was where he came to think and be alone. And nowshewas here.
Blowing in, taking over, stirring things up and soaking in to everything. Why did women always do that to him?
As he moved farther down the dock, he saw past the top of her blond head to her bare back.
Bare. She was sunbathing again. Topless this time.
He tripped over one of the wooden slats and the thunk of his boot against the dock as he caught himself got her attention. She was on her stomach, thank God, and she turned her head toward him.
“Hi,” she said with a smile.
Hi? Seriously? She was half-naked on his dock—his special, solitary spot—stretched out to soak up the sun like a damn cat.
And then all he could think about was petting her.
“I was starting to worry that you’d gotten lost,” he managed.
She started to sit up and he put his hand up.
“No!” he said loudly.
She hesitated and then gave him a grin. She’d been lying on top of her shirt, so she gathered it against her breasts as she sat and tucked her legs under her like she had on the car hood. Holding the flimsy white top against her breasts was covering herself in only the very strictest terms. Her palms cupped the mounds under the shirt, giving him a perfect image of their size and shape.
He shoved his good hand into his back pocket and resolved to stay where he was. There were at least twenty feet between them, and that didn’t seem like quite enough.
“It’s gorgeous out here,” she said.
More so nowran through his mind, but he just nodded.
“I took a walk and found this place and couldn’t make myself leave,” she said.
He felt similarly about the spot. Even before there’d been a gorgeous, half-naked woman here. Hell, partlybecausethere were no gorgeous half-naked women here. Until now.
“You’ve been gone for quite a while.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize you were keeping track.”
“Just got a little worried.”
“Well, if you go missing, I’m the first person they’re going to suspect, right?”
She laughed and he felt it like a punch to the gut.
“But no one knows I’m even here,” she pointed out.
“My dad does.”
“He’d cover for you,” she said confidently.
TJ chuckled, surprised as he did that she could make him laugh. “Yeah, he would. But now that I know you’re okay, I’ll leave you alone.” He took a step backward, knowing that he should actuallyturnas he walked away but not quite ready to lose the view.
“I’ve been thinking about everything,” she said, getting to her feet.
Damn. She wanted to talk.
Why he felt it was his responsibility to be her sounding board, he couldn’t explain, but he stopped walking.
“And?” he asked.
“I’m wondering if there’s a way for me to meet him—Dan, I mean—without telling him who I am. Maybe get to know him just a little. I’d love to simplytalkto the man who my mom fell in love with.”
TJ frowned and took a few steps forward without thinking. There were a number of things in her answer that he wanted to know more about. But for some reason, the first thing he said was, “He was madly in love with her. How do you know she was in love with him?”
“The one that has my dad’s name on the back?” TJ asked. “Why?”
“I figure she wrote your dad’s name because she was afraid she might forget it. She didn’t write Dan’s—that must mean she knew she’d always remember it. And I found it in her journal. There are other pictures in boxes and stuff, but that was the only one in her journal.”
“And all of that means she loved him?” TJ asked.
“And my last name.”
TJ took another couple steps forward. “What do you mean?”
“I didn’t figure it all out until I was about ten, I guess. I finally put it together that most kids had their dad’s last name and that my mom’s parents’ last name was Warren. I figured Daniels was my dad’s last name. When I asked mom about it, she just said that she changed her last name before I was born. She never told me it had to do with my dad, but…”
TJ shoved a hand through his hair. “Wow.”
She smiled. “My mom had boyfriends, but no one was ever serious. I think it’s because she still loved Dan. Even after all these years.”
Or that’s what Hope wanted to believe. “Then why did she leave?” he asked.
“She was a wanderer,” Hope said. “She always said that if we weren’t meant to see the world, it wouldn’t have been created so big and diverse. If everything else was just like our own backyard, she’d be content to stay put. But there was always more to see and do and try. Even if she had fallen deeply in love, she would have been grateful for the experience and for the fact that it allowed her to be a mother, but she wouldn’t have thought it meant she should stay in one place.”
TJ frowned. “It sounds to me like she used all of that to justify her doing whatever she wanted.”
He thought Hope could be offended by that observation, but instead, she laughed lightly.
“I know. Trust me, I know.”
He found himself taking a couple more steps forward. Now they were more like five feet apart. Way too close. But he couldn’t make himself back up.
Red flag, for sure.
But he’d never been real good at obeying red flags.
“You do?” he asked. “You didn’t believe all of that?”
She sighed. “I didn’t. For a long time, through my teenage years, I thought she was just coming up with excuses to keep from getting serious about anything—and not just guys. I mean, she was always changing something—where we lived, where she worked, what she ate, her hobbies. It was always something new. Do you know that she was within a few hours of finishing four different degrees? But by the time it came down to the final classes, she was bored and on to the next thing. She always said she’d learned what she needed to at that point and was ready for a new challenge.”
Hope huffed out a breath, and TJ was reminded she was simply holding her shirt up with her hands, and with one wrong move, that shirt could be floating in the middle of his pond. Not that he needed much reminding.
“She frustrated you.” It wasn’t a question. It was clear on her face. But that surprised him.
“She did.” Hope sighed. “Which is why I’m here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I spent my childhood thinking she was the coolest, most fun mom in the world. There was always something new going on. If I wanted to try something or do something or go somewhere, we did it. Life was like this big adventure.” A slight frown pulled her eyebrows together. “But when I got to be about twelve, I started to really understand that most moms weren’t like her, and instead of thinking she was cool, I thought she was weird. I started wanting to fit in, and she ended up embarrassing me. Then I got older and more responsible and her irresponsibility drove me crazy. When I was old enough, about sixteen or so, people starting coming tomewhen the bills were late or when she hadn’t shown up for work. And I started to see her as a little wacky and a lot flaky. I left for college and just kind of reveled in being away from all of that.”
TJ was even more surprised. Hope wasn’t what she seemed. That was…intriguing.
“But then I grew up even more and I saw some of the depression and cruelty and sadness in the world. I hated that. I longed to be back with my mom, who always saw the positives and truly made everyone around her happy. I decided to go home and get back in touch with some of that and open my mind up to her.”
Her voice had gotten husky, and not in a good way. In an I’m-trying-not-to-cry way. TJ instinctually stepped closer. “And did you?”
“For about a month. And then she died.”
TJ took the final two steps between them. He’d stopped trusting his instincts about two and a half years ago, but this one was too strong to resist. He wrapped his good arm around Hope and pulled her into him.
Holy crap, that felt good.
Hope was all for being touchy-feely. She’d been raised by Melody Daniels after all. But dang, touching and feeling TJ Bennett was beyond her experience.
Hot. Hard. Huge.
Those were the first three words that came to mind.
She wrapped her arms around him as well. She had, for sure, never hugged someone as big as TJ.
He was so much taller than her that her chest hit him at about belly-button level.
She breathed in the scent of his laundry detergent and the scent that was all him—a combination of fresh air and cut grass and coffee and something she’d never smelled but that made her want to get even closer.
Though that would require fewer clothes and maybe a firm surface…
“I’m going to talk to my Uncle Dan if Dad doesn’t get it done soon,” TJ said against the top of her head. “I promise.”
That was so nice. He had heard what she’d said about meeting Dan and just getting to know him. He was going to—
Suddenly, she jerked back. “Oh my God!” She covered her mouth with her hands.
Belatedly, she realized that her chest against TJ’s midsection had been what was holding her top up since her arms had been around him.
TJ’s reflexes had kept the shirt from falling, and he now clutched it against his stomach, frozen.
His gaze on her bare breasts set off fireworks in her. Her whole body got hot and felt as if it was being touched with the end of a sparkler. Especially her nipples.
She watched him swallow hard and his fist crumpled her blouse. Then he tipped his head back, focused on the sky above and sighed.
“Are you okay?” he asked. His voice sounded strangled.
She didn’t answer at first. He was studying the clouds overhead as if they were the most fascinating things he’d ever seen.
And her bare breasts were right in front of him.
She crossed her arms. She was very comfortable being naked. Not necessarily in front of everyone or even in front of one guy she’d just met. But she’d been raised in what some of her friends called anaked house. Melody had been very free with…everything. Hope didn’t have hang-ups about nudity and sex and some of the other things that most people did. It was all completely natural. Plus, she did a lot of yoga and loved kickboxing and had genetically great skin and breasts. She had no problem being naked.
She and TJ were roughly the same age, healthy, single. There was definitely chemistry between them. Him seeing her naked shouldn’t be weird. In fact, it should be a lot of fun.
“Are you okay?” he asked again, since she hadn’t answered.
He was still looking up.
At that answer, his chin came down and he looked at her. To his credit, he focused on her face. First. His gaze did drop lower again, but only for a millisecond. Then he was staring into her eyes as if they held the secrets of the universe.
She shook her head. Either he wasverymuch a gentleman or he was a monk.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
He was gripping her shirt so hard she didn’t think she’d ever get the wrinkles out.
She was pretty sure he was not a monk. There was a distinct lack of crucifixes in his house, for one thing.
She was attracted to him.Veryattracted to him. Like rub-herself-all-over-him-like-a-cat attracted to him. And she was now half-naked right in front of him. And he wasnotlooking at her half-naked right in front of him. Okay.
Hope took a step closer and TJ quickly stepped back.
She narrowed her eyes and did it again. He took a bigger step this time. He was going to step off the dock into the pond at this rate.
She was about to ask him what his problem was but then she remember her reason for pulling back in the first place. “Wait, I just realized you’re mycousin.”
And that would make sense why he was stoically looking anywherebutat her bare breasts. She covered herself with her hands.
He looked completely confused. “I’m your…” Then understanding dawned on his face. “My Uncle Dan isn’t actually my uncle. He’s my dad’s best friend from high school. We just call him uncle sometimes.”
She let those words sink in. Not really his uncle. So she was not really his cousin. So her attraction to him was…fine.
“Thank God,” she breathed. Relief flooded through her, even stronger than she would have expected. She let her hands drop. Yes, being attracted to her brother or cousin would have been very, very icky. But her relief wasn’t just about it being okay to feel attracted. Her mind—or her body perhaps—instantly recognized the fact that this meant she couldacton that attraction.
So could he.
He cocked an eyebrow. “That happy to not be related to me?”
Hope had the impression that TJ Bennett really liked and respected honesty. He’d met his dad head-on with the question about being her father, and he’d been upfront about Dan’s issues.
“Yes,” she said with a nod.
TJ hesitated for a moment. He also kept staring at her face like he’d die if his gaze wandered even a centimeter lower. She found that equally amusing and offensive.
Finally, he asked, “Why is that?”
There was something in his eyes or his tone or maybe the air between them that made her think that he knew the reason for her relief.
But if he didn’t…
“Because I’ve been fighting an attraction that would be inappropriate if we were related.”
TJ pulled a long breath in through his nose, held it, then blew it out. “I see.”
I see? That was the only reaction?
She waited. She had essentially just given him permission to look at her breasts as much as he wanted.
All at once, he thrust her shirt at her. “Here.”
A gentleman. That had to be the reason. He wasn’t a monk and they weren’t related.
Or he wasn’t attracted.
But he didn’t seem bored or unimpressed or unaware of her. He was actually acting very aware, and like he was fighting it.
So he was uptight. And that made more sense than the gentleman thing for some reason.
Naked bodies made him uncomfortable.
Yep, that was it. As soon as the thought occurred to her, Hope knew it was right.
Perception, gut instinct, empathy—whatever she called it, she was often right when she had insights about other people.
It had always been that way. But she hadn’t understood it was unusual until high school when she’d realized that no one else in her circle of friends had the kind of awareness of other people that Hope did. They also knew nothing about astrological signs or the phases of the moon or people’s energies or any of the other things her mother had made a part of her life. So Hope had kept her knowledge to herself.
Keeping it bottled up had nagged at her though. It had also been one of the things she and her mother had fought about most often. Melody had known that Hope was ignoring her insights and she hadn’t understood why Hope wouldn’t want to embrace them. Finally, when Hope was about twenty, she’d found a way to channel her empathy and need to help others by starting at the local nursing program.
And thankfully, her hypersensitivity didn’t happen with everyone. Some people, she felt nothing for.
That was not the case with TJ Bennett.
She felt him. She was drawn to him. Felt the desire to heal him somehow. She also felt that he was drawn to her. And that he was fighting it.
“I’m okay, actually,” she said, not taking the shirt from him and stepping back slightly so he could have a better view. She stood with her arms by her sides. “I don’t mind if you look at me, TJ.”
She knew the use of his name would rattle him, and she saw the way his eyes flashed and his jaw tightened.
He said nothing. And his gaze remained on her face.
“In fact, I wouldn’t mind being completely naked and having you look at me.” She reached for the tie on the side of her skirt. She meant it. Not only was she comfortable with nudity, shereallyliked the idea of TJ looking at her. Her heart began to race.
“You’re actually going to get naked out here in the middle of nowhere with a complete stranger?” he demanded. With a huge frown.
“I’m not afraid of you.”
“Don’t you think you should be?” he asked. “You don’t know me.”
That was the weird thing, the thing she couldn’t explain and that she knew would sound crazy if she said it out loud—because it had sounded crazy toherwhen her mom had said stuff like this.
“I think I do know you,” she said anyway.
He didn’t roll his eyes exactly, but everything about his expression said that he wanted to. “Really.”
She nodded. “I do. You’re a protector. It’s obvious in everything about you. You wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Everything about me?” he repeated.
“You have a positive energy about you. People are drawn to you because of your strength—not just your physical strength, but your loyalty and integrity and even your stubbornness.”
“Oh, Jesus,” he muttered.
Then he shoved his hand through his hair, muttering something she couldn’t hear other than a very clear word at the end. Crazy.
His frown eased, but his expression was not exactly happy. He looked resigned. “I suppose you think you’re psychic or something.”
“No. Just very, very intuitive,” she said, fighting a smile.
“You read auras and stuff?” What he thought ofauras and stuffwas very clear in his tone.
She smiled fully at that. She wondered what he knew about auras. “Not exactly.”
“But kind of?”
No, not really. But for some reason, the whole aura-and-stuff thing made TJ uncomfortable too, and she had a sudden flash of awareness that TJ worked really hard to keep his boat from being rocked.
Being rocked might be really good for him.
She nodded. “Kind of.” She was perceptive. That was a little like seeing auras.
He sighed again. “Look, you should know that I have a very low tolerance for crazy.”
She tipped her head to the side, completely and totally intrigued. “Wow, sounds like there are all kinds of very interesting issues I’d love to know more about.”
“I’m a grumpy asshole,” he said. “That’s all you need to know. You don’t want to be naked with me.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure that’s not true.”
Heat flashed in his eyes. Definite, singe-her-where-she-stood heat. And then it was gone.
“No.” That was his only response.
She couldn’t help her smile. “Being a grumpy asshole is a choice, not who you really are, you know.”
He frowned and tossed her shirt at her. Nottoher. Definitelyather. “Put that on. Now.”
And it became suddenly crystal clear. A woman had wrapped him tightly around her finger and then broken his heart.
Dammit. Why did someone have to have hurt him? The wounded thing got to her, no question.
Hope dropped the shirt to the dock at her feet. “You can swear, you can frown, you can be demanding and grumpy, you can even yell, TJ Bennett. But I still trust you.”
This time he didn’t look away. TJ’s gaze raked over her from the top of her head to the bright-pink nail polish on her toes. He touched on every part that was already tingling and wanting to get closer to him, but he lingered on her tattoo and then returned to it again after he’d taken stock of everything else. Hope was breathing harder and her heart was pounding by the time he was done.
“Okay, I’ve looked,” he finally said, his gaze meeting hers. “Now get dressed.”
He was very self-disciplined. Hope respected that even as she wasthisclose to begging him to now touch her with his hands the way he had with his eyes. She pulled in a deep breath.
A gust of wind blew across the dock and picked her shirt up, sliding it over the wooden planks. She started to grab for it—just as it went over the edge.
Hope moved to look over the end of the dock. Her blouse floated in the water about four feet below where she stood.
“Hold that thought,” she said to TJ as she prepared to go for a swim.
But as she was about to jump, she felt TJ grab the back of her skirt.
She looked over her shoulder. “Hey.”
“You’re just going to jump in?”
She looked back to the water. “Are there things I should be worried about in the water?”
“No. But you didn’t know that until right now.” He pulled her back from the edge and let go of her. He grabbed a big stick and got down onto his stomach, leaned over the edge, stretched with the stick and snagged her shirt. He pulled the soggy top onto the wooden slats beside him and then pushed back to his feet. And he did it all one-armed.
“See?” she said, looking up at him. “A protector. There you go, saving me and fixing things.”
“And see?” he returned. “There you go, just jumping in without any thought to consequences andneedingsomeone to fix things.”
She smiled up at him. “The benefit of growing up with a mother who thought of everything as a life lesson is that I haven’t needed someone to fix anything for me for a long time. I’ve been helping myself since I was a kid.”
He looked at her for a moment without reply. “You need to cover up.”
He grabbed the back of his shirt with one hand and pulled it over his head. Wincing as he did it, he pulled his good arm out of the sleeve and then wiggled the shirt under his shoulder sling and down his injured arm. When it was free, he handed it to her. “Put that on.”
She suddenly couldn’t remember how to do anything but stare.
Clothed, he was big and wide and hard. Without a shirt on, he was…the thing she most wanted to touch—and rub against and lick—in the world. His skin was tanned from the sun and clearly working shirtless more often than not. There was no farmer’s tan on this guy. His left shoulder, the one in the sling, had an elaborate tattoo—an ornate letter B. He also had four tiny incisions dotted around and in that B. He had dark hair sprinkled over his massive chest and deliciously defined shoulders, pecs and abs. And once her gaze focused on his lower abs and the V that formed there and dove into the waistband of his jeans, she could not pull her eyes away.
If her nipples and heart rate hadn’t responded to him before now, there wasn’t an inch of her body that she wasn’t incredibly aware of with TJ Bennett standing in front of her half-naked.
She also had the strangest urge to see his back. She knew the muscles would be equally impressive there, and she needed a new study of his fine ass. With her hands.
Was she objectifying him because he was showing more skin? Damn right she was.
And enjoying every second of it.
His firm, deep voice pulled her gaze to his face briefly. He was watching her with heat in his eyes and a tightness to his features that seemed like restraint. Restraint that was about two seconds away from snapping.
“Put the shirt on.”
She was all forhimstaying shirtless, so she complied. Plus, she suddenly wanted the shirt that was still warm from his body and smelled like him on her.
As the T-shirt settled over her, the neck gaping, the sleeves hitting her at the elbows and the hem at mid-thigh, she took a deep breath and rubbed her hands over the sleeves, sliding the soft cotton against her skin.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said.
He knew that she was getting turned-on just wearing his T-shirt? “You do?”
“You’re trying to distract me.”
“Distract you from what?”
“From realizing that you’re insinuating yourself into everything.”
He was so suspicious, and shesowanted to know why. And know everything else about him. “What am I insinuating myself into?” Because if he knew she was thinking about his bed, he was maybe a bit intuitive himself.
“My front yard,” he said. “Tiny as it is, your car and camper are taking up space. You’ve already met my dad and gotten him worked up, and now you’re on my dock. Half-naked. And willing to be more naked.” He paused and gave her a firm look. “And willing to jump into God knows what.”
She didn’t think he was talking about the pond.
He was afraid of her getting too involved in his life. He was pushing her away as quickly as possible. He was attracted and fighting it.
“And you think all of that is intentional? That I’m trying to somehow become important to you?”
He just lifted an eyebrow.
“Why do you think that?” she asked, seriously curious. She wasn’t offended by his assumptions. Clearly, someone had done a number on him.
“You’re saying it’s all a happy coincidence that you’re here right now, in this spot, suddenly attracted to me and so content on the dock on my pond?”
“You don’t think I’m actually attracted to you?” she asked. Becausethatwas ridiculous. She couldn’t fake this. And shewouldn’tfake it anyway.
“It’s convenient, don’t you think, that you’resoattracted to the man who you’re dependent on to get what you want, that you’re willing to undress and get dirty on the dock within hours of meeting him?”
Getting dirty with him did sound nice.
But there were some things to clear up first. She wanted to keep him talking. She couldn’t resist. “What I want? You mean meeting Dan?”
He gave one terse nod.
“I could quite easily find and meet Dan without you, TJ,” she said. “If I hadn’t ended up on your doorstep, it would have been your dad’s, and he would have told me everything he told us in your kitchen.”
“But you’re still here.”
“Becauseyouasked me to wait to meet Dan until your dad figures out the best way.”
“And you’re fine with that because you found out that Dan might not be the guy you were hoping he would be.”
“Also because I’m a nice person, and I believe that you want to protect him and his family, and I trust you.”
“Also convenient that you’re so trusting.”
She crossed her arms. “What do you think I was hoping for with Dan?”
“Either a big happy welcome from the father you’ve never known, or…”
She raised her eyebrows. “Or?”
“Someone who can pay off your maxed-out credit cards or fix some legal problem for you or save you from whatever other trouble you’ve gotten into.”
Whoa. There was a whole lot of something going on inside that good-looking head. “Have you ever heard of the term projection?” she asked. “As in, you’re projectingyourissues onto someone you just met and don’t know?”
He didn’t reply.
So she went on. “Obviously, there was a woman. Who somehow messed with you and manipulated you with sex,” she said.
His eyes narrowed. “Sex was one of the things she used.”
Hope was shocked that he’d admitted it that easily. “Wow, you don’t seem like the type to open up about something like that.”
“You could go have a muffin at the diner and they’d tell you all about it,” he said flatly. “It’s not a secret.”
Her eyes widened. “Wow, I really want to hear this story.”
“I don’t talk about it.”
“Then I’m suddenly in the mood for a muffin.”
The corner of his mouth curled up for just an instant. “The diner’s on Main. Avoid the coffee.”
So therewasa sense of humor there. That was encouraging.
“Listen,” he said. “You’re right.”
That was also shocking. “I am?”
“About me being a protector. In the past. But I’m over it.”
“No, you’re not.”
He sighed. “I’m trying to be over it.”
“And you’re going to practice being over it with me?”
“Definitely.” He said it quickly and firmly.
She felt her eyes widen. “That was pretty adamant.”
That was also very adamant.
“Which must mean I intrigue you a little bit too,” she said, realizing it as she said it. She smiled.
He gave a short bark of laughter at that. “Of course you do. I’m very drawn to crazy.”
She frowned. “Crazy?” She wasn’t crazy, but that might not actually be the most important—or interesting—part of this conversation.
He nodded. “Definitely.”
“Why is that?”
“I wish I knew.”
She laughed softly, not so much at his words but at the legitimately perplexed look on his face.
“I don’t know all the issues that you’re dealing with,” he said. “And frankly, I don’t want to. I’m sorry about your mom. But this isn’t my circus…and you are not my monkey.
She tipped her head. “I’m not yourmonkey?”
“Nope. Your care and feeding is someone else’s problem.”
“Yeah. Asshole, remember?”
“And where’s that come from?”
Okay, she hadn’t been expectingthat. “Wife?”
She just stared at him.
“Stop it.” He gave her a frown.
“I’m fascinated. I can’t help it.”
His frown deepened. “By what?”
“No, you’re not.”
But she was. “I’m not crazy, by the way.”
“You’ve fixated on me within only a few hours of knowing me.”
“I am not fixated.” She was intrigued. She was attracted. She wanted to know every single one of his stories and quirks. But she wasn’t fixated. Exactly.
“You said fascinated,” he pointed out.
“That’s not the same thing.”
He shrugged. “Potato, potahto.”
“I’mnotfixated.” That sounded so much…crazier than fascinated.
“You traveled over a thousand miles, alone, while grieving, to find a man to fill some gaps in your life. You’ve been thinking about him. Planning the moment you meet him. Listed your questions for him. Now you’ve found out that he might not be able to be who you need him to be. So you focus on the next guy who can help you and make you feel better and give you a place to belong.”
She could have argued. She could have told him that she hadn’t planned the trip at all. She’d found the photo of Dan and Thomas and her mom the day before she’d hit the road. She also didn’t have any gaps that needed filled. She had a great life that she loved. She did not have a list of questions and she didn’t really need Dan to be anything at all.
But there was a little bit of her that thought having concerned and attentive TJ Bennett around might be kind of nice.
Andthatwas crazy. She hadn’t truly needed anyone in longer than she could remember. And as he’d pointed out, they’d just met.
She took a deep breath. “You sound like a shrink.”
“Almost a year of therapy now.”
“And yet you’re still kind of an asshole.”
“I’m not trying to get overthat.”
“Well, I’m very well adjusted, thank you.”
“And yet you’re standing on the end of my dock willing to take your clothes off and, I’m guessing, do whatever else I ask you to do. You’re trying to get closer to me and please me, and the easiest way is through sex.”
“You have a lot of sexual energy. I was in the moment. Geez. So sorry to make you look at my boobs.” Hope couldn’t believe that her pride was feeling piqued. She was typically a live-and-let-live girl. If TJ didn’t want to have sex with her, that was his prerogative.
But it irked her.
“If you didn’t have an estranged father and plans to stay around for a while, I’d be happy to look at your boobs,” he said mildly. “But I like the boobs I get involved with to leave the next morning. You’re not going to be doing that. Are you?” He looked almost hopeful.
She frowned. “No.”
Probably not. She didn’t know. Nothing about the trip had gone according to plan so far. Which just went to show that she was already screwing up the live-like-Melody thing. Melody didn’t make plans and was a master at going with the flow.
“Then keep ’em covered up.”
“I think I know why you’re an asshole,” Hope said, crossing her arms.
“Oh?” He didn’t look particularly interested in her answer.
“It’s because you’re conflicted. Youarea protector, you do want to help me, but for some reason you’re trying to fight that.”
“Because you can’t fix crazy,” he said flatly. “I learned that the hard way. Avoiding it is the easiest thing.”
“You don’t strike me as the type to take the easy way out.”
“Let’s put it this way—I put my time in.”
“In the circus?” she asked.
He nodded. “I’ve cleaned up more than my share of monkey shit. I’m out. Someone else can worry about your cage.”
“Where’s your monkey now?” she asked, maybe a little beyond fascinated at the moment.
“Does she still make a mess once in a while?”
“That you clean up?”
He didn’t answer.
So hedidstill clean up after this monkey sometimes. That was interesting.
“She must be something.”
“She is.” His tone didn’t make it sound like it was a compliment.
“I think of monkeys as screechy things that climb all over everything and throw stuff around.”
“That’s about right.”
She smiled up at him. “If you don’t want me to be fascinated, you need to stop being interesting.”
“You’ve been on the road a long time by yourself. I’m not that interesting.”
“I drove almost straight through. It was only a couple of days. And I had a very nice conversation with an older couple at the truck-stop diner. They were interesting too. You’re not the first.” But he was the one whose lap she wanted to curl up in while he told her all of his stories.
Hmm. He might not be so far off on the crazy thing.
He frowned. “You just strike up conversations with strangers at truck stops?”
She didn’t comment on the fact that he was acting protective again, but she did absorb it. She wasn’t the type to need someone to be protective. She wasn’t used to it at all and logically thought it was very likely to make her feel claustrophobic pretty quickly.
Still, his comment made her feel warm.
“I strike up conversations with people almost everywhere I go.” She’d inherited that from her mother. “Truck stops have the most interesting mix of people to talk to.”
“That’s not safe.” He said it with exasperation.
“I don’t take candy from them,” she said with a smile. “I talk to them. I don’t tell them personal details, I don’t leave with them and I don’t give them my phone number. I just talk to them.”
“Still, they could— Whatever.” He shook his head. “Don’t care.”
He was trying not to care, she’d give him that. But she thought he was kind of failing. And that, stupidly, made her feel even warmer.
“I’ve heard some amazing stories,” she said. “I’ll tell you a few if you’re nice. I’ll tell you about the guy who taught piano lessons for almost forty years before he finally made it to Carnegie Hall. I’ll tell you about the woman I met who has lived for a year in every state in the United States. Or the couple who has run a marathon on every continent.”
“I won’t be that nice.”
She didn’t know if he meant to be funny, but he was. “You’ll find that I’m interesting too.”
“Sure. That’s one word. And I don’t want to be interested.”
“Okay.” She shrugged. “So tell me more about your monkey. Tell me she’s a big old ugly gorilla.”
“I don’t want to talk about myex-monkey.”
“I’ll keep my shirt on if you agree to tell me.”
“It’s my shirt.”
“I can put mine back on,” she offered, looking at the wet wad at their feet.
It was white. Putting it on would be like standing in front of him naked.
Clearly, he knew that.
“Why do you want to talk about her?”
Because she might be becoming a little fixated on him. “What kind of monkey is she? An orangutan? A baboon?”
The corner of his lips twitched again. “She’s whatever type of monkey Curious George is.”
Hope frowned even though his sort-of smile made her stomach flip. “He was pretty cute.”
“Yep,” TJ agreed.
Oh, great, so the ex was cute.
“And a huge troublemaker,” TJ said. “Cute only goes so far.”
She studied his face. He didn’t look heartbroken right now. He looked mildly annoyed. That meant he didn’t hate this woman. She reminded him of a cute, if somewhat troublesome little monkey. Great.
“But you’re divorced. So the cute didn’t go far enough,” Hope pointed out.
“We’re divorced because she fell in love with someone else.”
Oh. Well, shit. Still, she couldn’t help it—she wanted to keep him talking. “So why are you still cleaning up after her?”
His jaw tightened for just a moment, but then he said easily, “She calls me to piss him off.”
“Does it work?”
“Why do you keep answering?”
“Because I don’t care if he’s pissed off.”
Seriously, this was interesting. How could he not see that? “What kind of cleanup jobs are we talking here?”
“I can take this shirt right back off.” She raised the hem a couple of inches.
He rolled his eyes. “She gets into squabbles in public.”
“Squabbles? Like arguments?”
“Like someone ends up with beer dumped on their heads.”
Hope felt her eyes widen. “What else?”
“She gets stranded by herfriendsat bars, she runs out of gas, she gets lost, she runs out of money in L.A. and has no way to get home, she gets arrested for breaking into someone’s apartment because the key wouldn’t work—because she was at the wrong building. That kind of stuff.”
Hope blinked at him. Wow. That was…beyond Curious George. And there TJ was, the big protector, the big hero, no matter what he said.
“That’s quite a circus.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
She grinned in spite of herself. “You couldn’t just walk away from the monkey crap?”
“The lights, music and cotton candy kept me sucked in for a long time.”
Yeah, she wasn’t going to delve into what kind of cotton candy he was talking about. At least, not yet.
There were things swirling under the surface with TJ Bennett. Lots of things. Things Hope thought she wouldn’t mind having swirling around her.
She frowned at that thought. She was not the type of woman to get into trouble like the ex-monkey did. No way. None of that would ever happen. Which meant there would be nothing for TJ to clean up. That sounded like it would be perfect—what with his aversion to cleaning up monkey crap now. But she knew that wasn’t the case. TJ wasn’t simply the monkey keeper. He was the ringmaster. No matter what he told himself.
“So what kind of monkey am I?”
That corner of his mouth ticked again. “A capuchin. For sure.”
“Those are the ones that organ grinders use, right?”
His smile increased slightly. “Yes.”
Well, that was nice. “I’ve only ever seen them being cute and sweet,” she said with a shrug.
“Oh, they’re a pretty aggressive breed.”
“Is that right?” What did that mean?
“Yep, they’re very territorial. They pee all over to mark their space.”
She gave him a look. “And what about that reminds you of me?” Territorial, she was not. She’d never been jealous or possessive about anything she could think of.
“The noise,” he said.
“They make a lot of noise.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re quite the expert on monkeys.”
“Lots of experience.”
He said it blandly, but she got the impression he was amused. As was she. Except for the comparison with the crazy ex and the noisy monkey.
“How’d you get hooked up with your ex-monkey anyway?” She had to ask.
He didn’t answer at first, and she reached for the hem of the shirt again.
He sighed. “We were young. Met her in high school,” he said. “And she was cute. I had a crush. She needed some help, so I stepped in and we started a crazy, bad pattern.”
“What kind of help?”
He clearly didn’t want to answer, but he did anyway. “Her stepdad was abusive. He hit her, I went over and beat the crap out of him and told him if he ever touched her again, I’d make it worse. He believed me and it never happened again. She was,” he cleared his throat, “grateful.”
“She married you because she was grateful?”
“You’re nosy, you know that?”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
She again started to lift her shirt.
“She broke my heart in high school. Twice. Then came back to me when her life went to hell and she needed someone. That time she stayed. She was unpredictable, fun, wild. I was her hero. Then I realized that’s all I was. And that she fabricated about seventy-five percent of the crap she got into to keep things working between us. All we had was the victim-hero thing. She was only turned-on by me when I was swooping in to fix things. Eventually, it fizzled out.”
“Wow, you seriously are—”
“Over it,” he said firmly. “No more drama, no more craziness.”
“I am not dramatic and crazy,” Hope protested.
“Oh sure, the pretty hippie girl who showed up on my front lawn out of the blue looking for her estranged father, who’s willing to take her shirt off for me within a few hours of meeting me, who talks about auras and is already nosing into my personal life, isn’t a bit crazy. That’s all totally normal. Plus, the long-lost family you came to meet is a mess. Honey, you have drama written all over you.”
Well, at least he thought she was pretty.
She frowned. “No.” She shook her head. “I’m very self-sufficient. I don’t get caught up in drama. I’m the one who helps other people.” And she wasn’t a hippie. Exactly. That was kind of a gray area, so she let it go.
He leaned in as if he was going to tell her a secret. “The crazy ones always say that.”
She blew out a breath. “I’m not crazy and I’m not undressing just to manipulate you.”
“You did it because you want to have sex with me? After knowing me for three hours and me being an ass for two of those three?”
“Two and a half,” she said. “And, yeah.” She shrugged. “We have chemistry. I’m drawn to your positive energies and power.” There, that would make him roll his eyes.
It did. “You’re in Nebraska. You can’t go around stripping and talking about positive energies.”
She laughed. “People in Nebraska don’t know about nudity and energy?”
“Not your kind of nudity and energy.”
“What kind is that?”
He finally gave her a full smile at that. “Okay, let’s go, Looney Tunes.”
The crazy theme was gonna have to go. But TJ seemed more the show-versus-tell type of guy. “Where?”
“To the house. Enough getting your energies all over my dock.”
“Just one more thing,” she said, stepping close.
When he didn’t step away from her, she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She moved to his side. He simply watched her out of the corner of his eye. As if he was sure she was about to do something he wouldn’t like.
That might be true.
His injured shoulder was in front of her, with the four tiny scars that were freshly healed marring the otherwise beautiful tattoo. She reached up and touched one. He flinched, but she didn’t think it was from pain.
She flattened her hand and laid it on his skin. “Scope?” she asked. Clearly whatever he’d had done had been done arthroscopically versus cutting him open.
“Rotator cuff?” she asked. He was immobilized with a sling but the muscle tone of the shoulder was really good for a repair like that.
“Bone spur, some arthritis,” he said. His voice was a little rougher now.
So they’d just debrided the area, smoothing the bone and tendon where wear and tear had roughened it, causing increased friction and pain when he moved. She rubbed her hand over the tiny scars. “How long ago?” It had to be at least two weeks based on how healed the incisions were.
She frowned. “You’re still in the sling?”
“Still hurting like a bitch and doc doesn’t know what to do.”
Hope put her other hand on his shoulder too. His skin was so hot. Or maybe she just felt really hot touching him. It was a shoulder. An injured one at that. She was a nurse. She’d seen thousands of shoulders. Touched thousands. Even some attached to really good-looking guys.
Her hands had never shaken and her heart had never pounded while touching those shoulders.
They were now.
“What have you tried for pain?” she asked. She kept her eyes on his shoulder. She could feel him watching her, and for some reason, she didn’t want to meet his gaze.
Hope moved her hands over his shoulder, massaging the muscles, moving the scars.
He cleared his throat. “All the over-the-counter stuff. Ice, heat. Anything and everything.”
“Nothing stronger than ibuprofen?” she asked.
“Can’t do it,” he said. “Makes me goofy.”
She smiled at that. She’d kind of love to see him goofy.
“You think I’m a pain in the ass now?” he asked. “You should see me on morphine.”
She finally looked up. “Pain in the ass and goofy aren’t the same thing.”
He met her gaze. “I lose my inhibitions. It could go either way, depending on the situation and who you are.”
Hope licked her lips subconsciously when his gaze settled on her mouth.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt subconscious. Dang, she didn’t like that. “So you say whatever you really think?” she asked.
“Among other things.”
“Like if you thought someone reminded you of a capuchin monkey, you’d just tell that person?”
Then the most devastating thing happened. TJ Bennett grinned at her. Up close. With her hands on his body.
She almost had an orgasm right then and there.
She realized she’d spoken out loud. She shook her head. “I guess I lose a few inhibitions when you smile at me like that.”
His grin faded, but the heat in his eyes flared.
Now when his gaze went to her mouth, all she could think was,Holy hell, yes, right now.
He blinked, took a deep breath and asked, “You have inhibitions?”
Okay, so maybe not right now. She chuckled. “Not many.” She’d continued to massage his shoulder as they’d talked. “You need to get out of this sling,” she said.
“Doc says if my pain is still bothering me, I should rest it.”
She nodded. “I’m not saying you should throw hay bales around.” She tipped her head. “Do you actually throw hay bales around?”
He almost smiled again. Almost. “Yes.”
“So you shouldn’t do that right now, but you need to start moving it. That would help.”
“Actually, your hands on me seem to help.”
Her hands stopped rubbing. She didn’t take her hands off him though. “See?” she asked softly. “Maybe having me distracting you isn’t all bad.”
There was that hot flare in his eyes again. “Is that all that is? Distraction from the pain?”
She shook her head. “No. Scar tissues can penetrate deep, even from small incisions. It’s important to move them to heal everything around them.”
She didn’t miss the fact that all of that was a pretty good metaphor for emotional scars and healing too. And she was pretty sure TJ caught it as well.
She put the pad of her finger against one of the marks and moved it side-to-side, sliding the skin and the tissue underneath. “See? Moving it gently a little at a time doesn’t hurt and helps with healing.”
He was watching her when she looked up again.
“Having you move it feels good.”
Maybe he’d let her move him gently toward other healing. Keeping her gaze on his, she leaned in and put her lips against the scar. She resisted licking the letter B. Barely.
He sucked in a quick breath.
“There, that should feel better for a while,” she said.
She stepped back. TJ was a tough guy. Stubborn, sure of what he wanted and what he didn’t, protective, suspicious and wounded. If she was going to help him, she’d have to go slow and gentle. She could do that. Because not doing anything at all, just like with his shoulder, was only going to hurt him in the long-term.
She took another step back before she put her lips on skin in other places. Like those abs. Damn.
Because if she did that, TJ would think she was using sex to get something more from him. She was going to have to tamp down her urges to jump him. Because she wanted to jump him. For no other reason than the jumping.
“I have some other stuff that can help,” Hope heard herself say.
She sighed internally even as she made the offer. But she’d promised herself that she would embrace her mother’s approach to things, and that meant more than her approach to a good time in Sapphire Falls with a hot farmer.
She really was committed to giving her mom’s approach to life a try. And she couldn’t argue with a lot of it. Melody had not only been happier than anyone Hope had ever met, she’d also been healthier, physically and mentally, than the majority of the people Hope had run into. Granted, Hope was a nurse, so that meant she spent a lot of time around people with health issues of all kinds, but if she was honest about her mom—and she was really trying to be more honest about her mom—Melody had clearly had some things figured out.
Besides, TJ had been trying Hope’s form of medicine—surgery, heat, cold, rest, medications—and it wasn’t working. He was hurting and she had an intense desire to help him. Almost as intense as the desire to run her tongue over his abs. And that was very intense.
“What kind of stuff?” he asked. Again suspicious.
She rolled her eyes. She was going to get past that what-are-you-up-to wall he’d constructed so high and wide against her gender. “Some teas that can help with inflammation and healing. Some creams that can increase circulation in the tissues and help with the pain.”
If Hope could figure out what to put in the cream.
Melody had always made everything at home from scratch. Hope had her mother’s recipes, but the instructions for her concoctions were mixed into her journal along with poems, song lyrics, notes and thoughts, drawings, people’s names and seemingly random dates. Oh, and the recipes weren’t always labeled.
Still, it was cream. It’s not like she was going to have him eat it. It wouldn’thurthim and could maybe help. She knew very well that the placebo effect was a real thing. If she sold it and he believed it, he might feel better even if she messed up the mixture. And she’d gladly rub it in. At least that would feel good. To TJ too.
Melody would be so happy. She was probably dancing wherever she was, Hope thought. She and her mother had gone round and round about the body and what it took to heal. Melody’s natural methods versus Hope’s Western-medicine approach.
But no matter what, Hope couldn’t deny that she hadn’t been sick much as a kid. And when she was feeling under the weather, her mom’s soup, tea and essential oils did help.
“Do I strike you as the tea type?” TJ asked.
She smiled at him. “Do you really want to know what type you strike me as?”
She was fine with telling him that she found his uptight, distrustful and grumpy outer layer nothing but a challenge, and that she was quite a fan of him without his shirt on.
He started to reply but then apparently thought better of it. He shook his head. “Probably not.”
She chuckled. He was also kind of a chicken. She knew that he knew where her thoughts had gone.
“I’ll get some stuff together when we get back to the house,” she said. “I should have most of the ingredients in the camper.”
Her mother had any number of vials and bottles and jars in a big wooden apothecary chest that had always sat in the corner of their kitchen. It was a handmade, hand-painted box with flowers and trees and butterflies on it. It was done in a myriad of colors and it had been as much a fixture in Hope’s life as the wooden table and chairs she and her mother had used for every meal and every important project or talk in Hope’s life.
Hope hadn’t even considered not taking the box with her. The thing held eighteen small glass bottles, four big glass jars and had eight drawers. Hope was actually excited to open it up and play. She loved the hand cream and mud facial masks she made for herself and the cleaning solution her mother had made for household cleaning. How different could medicinal cream be?
“You have the ingredients in the camper?” TJ repeated, disbelief in his tone.
“Yes. Hopefully. Or I’m hoping I can find what I need here.” Her mother hadn’t traveled with the more common things like lemons or vinegar or honey since those could be fairly easily found wherever she was.
“You’re going tomakethis cream?”
She laughed. For some reason, TJ Bennett and his skepticism amused her. It wasn’t as if he was the first skeptic she’d ever come across. Hell, she’d been one of the skeptics for much of her teenage years. But she enjoyed ruffling him. Something about that felt right. She wanted to ruffle him, make him think of things in a new way, open up his mind.
Like she was opening hers to new things.
Looking at him now, with all of that hot, tanned skin and those glorious muscles, she thought that her mom really had been on to something—new adventures were all around, it was simply a question of if she was going to embark on one or not.
“I’m going to make this cream,” she said. “Nothing like homemade from scratch with plenty of TLC added in.”
His eyes narrowed. “Maybe I’m the crazy one.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m going to let a hippie girl I just met rub some mystery homemade cream all over me.”
Rub. All over.Those were nice words.
“I can definitely make a cream for that too,” she said, dropping her voice just enough that he would know exactly what she was talking about.
He didn’t look confused, that was for sure. “Massage cream for all over the body, huh?”
“There are several essential oils that act as aphrodisiacs and that can increase sexual pleasure.”
He lifted one eyebrow. “Funny, I’ve never felt the need for essential oils to have a good time.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
There was a long, heated moment between them, and for a second, Hope thought he was going to kiss her.
But again, his restraint was remarkable.
That or he was really bad at readingherenergies. Because they were sayingI’m all yours.
“Maybe we should stick to my shoulder.”
He didn’t addfor nowbut Hope decided to believe it was implied. “Hey, I’m all for rubbing whatever of yours I can get.”
He blinked and she almost regretted her words. She didn’t want to scare him off. She really did want to help him with his shoulder.
The idea that the big, tough farmer with the emotional barricade firmly in place could be scared off was amusing, but Hope definitely sensed it. He was drawn to her, but he was still sure it was a bad idea to do anything about it.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he finally said.
Now it was her turn to blink. Not only was he not scared off, he’d given a sort-of flirtatious comeback. She was making progress.
Progress toward what exactly?she asked herself. But she wasn’t sure she could, or should, specifically answer that. She wanted to help him. His shoulder hurt—she could do something about that. His heart hurt too, but what was she going to do about that? What did shewantto do about that? Maybe she wanted to fix that too.
She wasn’t hoping to become wife number two or anything, but another Melody lesson was that relationships were about people relating. Period. They didn’t have time frames, they didn’t have specific objectives. They were just about people connecting.
Could she connect with TJ Bennett beyond helping him with his shoulder pain?
Oh, yeah she could.
“You just let me know,” she said. “I’m actually a professional rubber.”
“Are you now?”
She nodded. “I have my massage therapy license.” True story. She’d done that before starting the nursing program. She’d loved massage and had kept her license active. There was nothing like human touch to restore all kinds of good things in a body.
That and aromatherapy were two things she and her motherhadseen eye to eye on. Hope loved essential oils and used them herself in any number of ways. She didn’t know as much as Melody had. Hope stuck with the basics. But she
“Makes sense why my shoulder feels so good now,” he said.
“Well, that and the fact that you like me touching you,” she said. If they were going to connect, then TJ was going to be as aware of it as she was. Even if she had to spell it all out every step of the way. “Being aroused helps decrease your pain levels.”
TJ turned to face her fully. “Is that right?”
She nodded. “Oxytocin. Leads to a release of endorphins.”
“You know all kinds of things.”
“You have no idea.” Did she sound breathless? She felt breathless.
“I think this would be a good time to go back to the house.”
Or get naked. She could really go either direction.
“Hope.” His voice was soft but firm.
She realized she was staring at his abs again. She lifted her gaze to his, reluctantly.
“Time to go.”
“You sure?” she asked.
“I’m having a hard time even remembering I have a shoulder right now.”
Good. The oxytocin was working. “So we could—”
TJ started off the dock and Hope had little choice but to follow.
She grabbed her soggy shirt and slipped into her flip-flops, then padded down the wooden slats behind him. Without him there, the dock had lost a lot of its appeal anyway.
Hope followed TJ over the grass and dirt leading away from the pond. She was treated to a very nice view of his naked back and denim-clad ass, and she realized there were advantages to having him walk away from her. But after a few yards, he slowed his long strides so that she could catch up and walk next to him.
“So how many ex monkeys do you have?” she asked in the silence.
“Is there a chance I might run into the orangutan? Or one of the other monkeys?”
“I didn’t say she was an orangutan.”
“That’s how I’m imagining her,” Hope said with a shrug.She realized she was way too interested in all of this.
“I changed my mind.”
“Orangutan is more accurate, right?”
“Aboutyou,” he said. “You’re more like one of the fluffy yippy dogs. The ones that run around your heels and bounce up and down and yap for attention.”
She frowned at him, but he didn’t even glance at her. “You should be flattered I want your attention,” she said.
“Uh huh,” was all she got in reply.
She was wondering what was next—and how she could make what was next what she wanted it to be—when they hit the side yard.
He suddenly stopped and took her upper arm. I have to know,” he said, turning her to face him.
“Know what?” What it was like to kiss her? Because she was definitely wondering about that herself.
“What this says.” He took the side of his T-shirt in his hand and tugged her closer.
She took the step without a single hesitation.
He slowly began to pull it up her body, watching her face carefully. She knew that he would stop if she told him to. But why in the hell would she stop him?
The cotton slid along her skin, but the shirt was baggy enough on her that his fingers didn’t even brush against her. Dammit.
Once the shirt slid past the end of the tattoo, he stopped. The last curl on the last letter ended just below where her bra would hit. If she were wearing one. Which she was not. And she had never been more aware of that in her life.
Going without bras and panties was another Melody thing. She hadn’t liked to be confined in any way. Hence the flowy skirts and blousy tops and flip-flops. In fact, Melody preferred to be barefoot whenever possible.
Hope had to admit it was all very freeing. She could get used to the no-panty-and-bra thing. Though when TJ was around, she wasreallyaware of her bare parts rubbing against her clothing.
His gaze went from her face to the ink that swirled up her side.
Without a word, she pulled the top of her skirt down so he could see the beginning of the letters just below her hip bone.
He swallowed hard and then read out loud, “Your life is an occasion. Rise to it.”
He looked at her again.
“Is there any chance that you know what movie that quote is from?” she asked. If he did, she just might marry him. A hot, grumpy farmer who made her melt with only a look and who was whimsical enough to know that movie would get whatever he wanted from her.
“Sorry, no.” He let go of her shirt.
She caught the shirt and held it up. “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.”
He lifted an eyebrow.
Yeah, it didn’t sound like his type of movie to her either, and she’d just met him. “My mom and I loved it. I’ve seen it probably thirty times.”
He studied the tattoo again and she felt goose bumps erupt all over her body.
“Dustin Hoffman,” she said. She definitely sounded breathless this time. “Natalie Portman. And—”
She sucked in a quick breath as TJ lifted a hand and traced his finger over the letters on her skin.
She coughed, worked on breathing and then said, “Jason Bateman.”
It was a very ornate script font and there were lots of curls and loops. The pad of his finger was rough against her skin, and every drag on every dip made her breathing speed up and her temperature rise.
One finger. That was all that was touching her, and she felt as if he was stroking her clit and nipples at the same time.
That was all the plea for more she got out before he put his big hand at the back of her neck and pulled her in as he lowered his head.
His lips were hot and greedy. He didn’t lead up to anything, didn’t tease and coax, didn’t ease in. He took over, plundered, dove right in. And nothing could have turned Hope on more.
She gripped his shoulders and lifted onto her tiptoes, needing to be closer, needing to betaller. She was too fricking short to get close enough and there was a definite lack of higher surfaces to boost herself onto out here in the middle of his yard.
TJ swept his tongue over her bottom lip and nipped the flesh lightly, making her groan and give him full access to her mouth. He stroked his tongue over hers as he slid his fingers up into her hair and tugged slightly, making her moan again as her head fell back. He dipped his knees and dragged his mouth down the length of her throat. If her eyes hadn’t been closed, they would have crossed.
A voice broke into the moment.
Hope did too, but it took a few seconds for it to sink in that someone else was here. Her whole body was humming, and all her brain synapses were firing messages like,Get closer,Take him deeper,Too many clothesandHe really is big and hard all over.
All other stimuli were coming into her consciousness very slowly.
TJ groaned and rested his forehead against hers for a moment. He slid his hand out of her hair, let her settle back onto her feet and then stepped away from her, breaking all contact.
She blinked, breathed and studied his face.
Oh, yeah, he was having some trouble getting beyond the closer, deep, hard stuff too.
Hope looked from his face toward the new arrival.
A beautiful blond was coming toward them, a covered dish in her hands and a good-looking guy with a huge grin a step behind her.
“Fuck,” TJ muttered.
There was no way these people hadn’t seen the kiss. Or couldn’t see she was wearing his T-shirt and that he was naked from the waist up.
Yeah, that would be hard to miss.
“Hope, this is my sister-in-law Delaney and my brother Tucker,” TJ said, turning toward the two people coming toward them.
“Almost-sister-in-law,” Delaney corrected with a big smile. “And you are?”
Hope licked her lips and glanced from Delaney to TJ and back again. “I’m Hope.”
Delaney seemed friendly and very, very curious. Tucker looked friendly and not curious so much as…knowing.
Delaney looked at TJ expectantly. Hope did too. Now what?
Then TJ surprised them all, including Hope—especiallyHope—by putting his arm around her and pulling her against his side.
“Hope is my girlfriend.”
TJ couldn’t believe that Delaney and Tucker were here.
They were interrupting him in the midst of doing something really stupid with a woman he’d just met.
Exactly like he had interruptedthemthe first night Delaney was in town and in the midst of an emotional crisis.
Of course, that hadn’t stopped Tucker from doing something stupid…like falling in love with her.
And it had turned out not to be all that stupid.
Which didnothelp TJ’s mental state in regards to Hope.
But they were here, and the fact that it had surprised him to see them just went to show how far gone he was with Hope around.
“Your girlfriend?” Delaney repeated.
TJ stepped forward to take the casserole dish from her hands before she dropped it. No sense wasting his mother’s cooking because he’d shocked his almost-sister-in-law.
And the dish had to be from his mother. Delaney didn’t cook. She did, however, butt into his business.
Delaney frowned up at him. “I can’t believe you have a girlfriend you haven’t told us about.”
Okay, she didn’t lookshockedexactly. But she did look annoyed.
Tucker stepped forward with a huge grin. He stuck his hand out to Hope. “Hi. Welcome. Nice to meet you.” He nudged Delaney in the back and she shook her head and smiled at Hope.
“Yes, definitely nice to meet you.”
Now TJ almost felt like he should apologize to his brother. Emotional crisis or not, stranger or not, kissing Hope had just rocked his world.
Or maybe he should bethankingTucker and Delaney. He wasn’t really a fan of having his world rocked.
“We brought dinner. Mom was worried,” Tucker said.
TJ had no idea what time it was. He and Hope had been out on the dock for a while. Half-naked. He could close his eyes and picture every inch of her, from the top of her head to the colorful skirt she wore. He knew the exact shade of her nipples. He knew the exact texture of her lips. He knew the feel of her hair.
He resolutely kept his eyes open.
“Didn’t mean to worry anyone.” Hell, he’d been worrying himself since Hope had shown up. Now he’d gotten to know her—andseeher—and he was deeply concerned.
“Well, you didn’t show for dinner, and Dad told Mom not to worry and to leave you alone. So, she got more worried,” Tucker said.
“And then Adrianne called and asked me who the girl was who had been looking for you earlier,” Delaney said. “We immediately volunteered to bring dinner over.” She gave TJ a grin.
“That’s very thoughtful of you.” He tried not to grit his teeth as he said it. Shit, Adrianne knew about Hope. Had met her. Who else had been in the bakery? Maybe half the town already knew that Hope was here.
“Well, we didn’t want Mom walking in on something she shouldn’t see,” Tucker said with a chuckle.
Yeah, this was all too familiar. TJ had volunteered to bring dessert to the two of them when Delaney and Tucker had been alone long enough to get into trouble.
“Let’s go in and have some,” Delaney said, watching Hope as if she’d just discovered a shiny new toy.
“Would you go in and get the table set?” TJ asked. “I just need to check one more thing on Hope’s camper for her.”
Delaney looked from TJ to Hope and back.
Tucker was finally the one who said, “Sure. See you in five minutes.”
“Give us ten.”
Tucker nodded with a grin. He grabbed the casserole dish from TJ with one hand and Delaney’s hand with the other, pulling her with him toward the house.
Damn, now he was definitely going to have to apologize to Tucker for interrupting him and Delaney that first night.
TJ sighed. He loved Delaney and Tucker and he fucking hated lying. But the truth about who Hope was and why she was here wasn’t his secret to tell.
And of course, all of this was already complicated and, yes, crazy. Of course, getting involved with Hope from the beginning was a bad idea. And of course, he’d realized thatafterhe’d opened his big mouth to help.
He’d thought he’d given up keeping secrets the night Michelle had walked out of his house for the last time. Secrets hurt, and they never stayed secrets.
Fuck. This was all a mess.
The minute he’d felt his dick stir, he should have known it would be.
When the front screen door bumped shut behind Tucker and Delaney, TJ turned to Hope. “I should have run the girlfriend idea by you before I said it,” he started.
Where the hell else was he going to start?I need you to leave now before things get more difficultortake your clothes off? Those were the only other things going through his mind at the moment.
“I’m surprised, but not upset,” Hope told him.
He could not look away from her lips.
He was a breast man and Hope hadverynice ones, but damn, there was something about her mouth. He was a little obsessed with it. And considering she had been using it to talk almost nonstop about things he didn’t talk about with anyone, that was nothing short of amazing.
“You’re not upset?”
“I figure you had a good reason for saying it.”
It wasthat—the confidence she seemed to have in him and the sense that she knew him—that was driving him the most nuts. How could she know him? How could she trust him already? How could she have him pegged? He knew for a fact he was hard to figure out. He’d been told so on multiple occasions by a variety of people. It was a badge of honor of sorts after having his entire private life spilled all over town.
But Hope definitely wasn’t put off by his surly, complex façade.
“And you just trust my reason?” he asked, kind of wanting to hear her say it.
“They’re your family and this is your house. I’ll follow your lead.”
“It was the easiest way to explain why you’re here and that we were…”
“Kissing,” she supplied when he trailed off.
That had been more than kissing. He’d been trying to drink her in. He’d been trying to absorb her and possess her. Given one less layer of clothing, one firm surface or three more minutes, and he would have been buried deep in her body and fucking her brains out.
He wondered what she’d think if he told her that.
But looking into her huge green eyes, he knew she would love it.
So maybe the crazy notion of her already knowing him wasn’t so crazy. He definitely felt as if he was figuring her out quickly. Maybe she didn’t have many inhibitions, but there was more to her than the hippie he saw on the outside.
That did not, however, mean she wasn’t crazy.
Hell, his intense attraction to her was the first clue that she had to be crazy. That was his type. At least that was the type he was naturally drawn to. A guy could change though.
And a guy could only be grateful he wasn’t dead, in prison or addicted to something so many times before he wised up.
Crazy girls would be the death of him if he let them.
“Yeah, the kissing,” he finally said. “Hard to explain that any other way.”
“Except that thereisanother explanation.” She moved in closer. “We are very attracted to one another, the opportunity presented itself, and it felt really good.”
That was the biggest understatement he’d heard in a very, very long time.
“That will still lead back to the question of what you’re doing here in the first place.”
“You don’t want them to know about me and Dan?”
“You and Dan are between you and Dan,” TJ said, really wishing that was true. Unfortunately, in Sapphire Falls, and particularly in the Bennett family, everything was between everyone. Dan wasn’t technically a Bennett, but he was a close family friend. Once you were important to one Bennett, you were important to all of them. And that meant your business was their business. “It’s a touchy situation. I think you and Dan need to meet and talk before anyone else gets involved. If he wants to keep Jo and Peyton out of it, then I’ll respect that. I hope you will too.”
She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and thought about that. Finally, she said, “Yes, I will. Of course I will.” She shrugged. “I don’t really have a lot of experience with family dynamics. You, on the other hand, seem to havea lot. I’ll take your advice here.”
A lot of experience with family dynamics? Yeah, that was one way of putting it.
“Thank you,” he said sincerely.
“And I don’t mind playing your girlfriend for a bit,” she said. “Especially after that kiss.”
That kiss. The kiss that was going to haunt him for days—and nights—to come. “Thanks.” But he was hesitant to be too enthusiastic. After all, the girl was crazy.
“I should warn you, though,” she said.
And here it came.
“I’m a very touchy-feely girlfriend.” Hope ran her hand over his abs and up to his chest.
He grabbed her wrist before she could do it again. As it was, his entire body was hard and pulsing with the need to be up next to—and inside of—hers.
“I’m not a very touchy-feely boyfriend though,” he said. Which wasn’t true either. Not that he’d been a boyfriend in a long time. He had a possessive streak though, and public displays of affection were a by-product of that. He also had a very healthy sex drive. Private displays of affection were a by-product ofthat.
But he was afakeboyfriend in this case, so the displays of affection would—andshould be—limited.
“That’s okay,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll follow your lead on the family stuff and the story and you can follow my lead on the touchy-feely stuff.”
And saying she was his girlfriend suddenly made the list of dumbest things he’d ever done. That was an impressive list, too.
“How about you pretend you’re shy and quiet?” he asked. “Let me do all the talking.”
He knew even as he said it that his suggestion was like asking a tornado to come and go quietly without damaging anything. It just wasn’t how nature worked.
Hope laughed. “Come on, TJ, they wouldn’t believe it if I played shy and quiet.”
“You’re not that good of an actress?” If that was true, he was actually glad. He’d had his share of women’s theatrical performances.
“They knowyoutoo well. You don’t go for shy and quiet. You go for extroverts who have a little wild streak. Or a big wild streak.”
He blinked at her. “It would be great if we could convince them that was no longer true.”
She shook her head. “It’s going to be hard enough to convince them that you’ve got a girlfriend you haven’t mentioned.”
“They don’t know everything about me,” he grumbled. But they did. They didn’t necessarily know the names of all the girls he dated—or more specifically, slept with—because he never dated anyone from Sapphire Falls. Not anymore. But they knew those women were casual affairs, on both parts. They also knew he didn’t intend to get serious about anyone again. He hadn’t been kidding about the circus and monkeys. Delaney hadn’t been there for all of that, but Tucker and the rest of his family had been. He wasn’t dragging them into anymore Big-Top shows.
“You and I both know that’s not true,” Hope said.
She turned and headed toward the camper. He followed. Like a damn puppy.
“How doyouknow it’s not true?” he asked. “You just met them.”
“There’s a vibe,” she said with a shrug.
She opened the camper door and TJ was struck again by how tiny the thing was. It held a queen-size mattress with maybe two feet of space at the front and a few cupboards and cubbies. Otherwise, the mattress was all there was room for. No one but a child could stand up inside of it. And there was no way TJ would fit in the thing. No way.
“It was there with your dad, too,” she said as she rummaged in a duffle bag on the floor of the camper. “Obviously, you’re close to your family. You wouldn’t keep a serious girlfriend from them.” She pulled a black tank top out.
He narrowed his eyes. “I thought you werenotpsychic.”
“I’m not. But I am very, very—”
“Intuitive,” he finished for her. “Yeah, okay.”
Maybe he didn’t know the full definition of that word.
Or maybe he wasn’t used to a woman being quite so focused and interested in him. That sounded stupid. He’d always had plenty of female attention, and he’d known his two most serious girlfriends—including the one who had turned into a wife—for most of his life. They knew him.
But he couldn’t shake the idea that Hopeknewhim. And wanted to know everything. And would keep studying him until she did.
That should feel creepy, especially considering they’d met today and she could have an APB out for her arrest for all he knew.
But it didn’t feel creepy. It felt nice. A lot like it had when she’d been massaging his shoulder by the pond. As if things were releasing, as if things were flowing better in him, as if he was letting go of stuff.
Which wasnothow he’d felt kissing her. That had been about things getting tight and hard and hot.
TJ shook his head. Maybe she wasn’t a psychic. Maybe she was a witch or something. Or maybe all hippies were like this.
He sighed. He’d grown up in small-town America, which meant that he had seen a lot of the same things, the same type of people, over and over. And over. But he knew that just because someone wore a lot of bracelets, it didn’t make them a hippie.
There was, however, an air about her that felt a little magical.
And that could completely be the kiss they’d shared, and that he wanted about a thousand more of.
Then she pulled his shirt off to replace it with the tank top. Just stripped the shirt off. Leaving herself naked from the waist up. Again.
Her breasts were no less spectacular this time around. Maybe more so. Because he’d kissed her. He’d broken through that no-physical-contact wall, and now his body didn’t understand why it couldn’t be up against her, wrapped around her and embedded deep inside of her right now.
Thankfully, she pulled the tank over her head and then down over her breasts and stomach. But she wasn’t wearing a bra and her sweet nipples poked against the cotton, begging him for attention.
“You don’t believe in bras?” he asked, his tone harsher than he’d meant it to be.
She shook her head. “They’re very constricting.”
“Well, you need to cover those up. My brother won’t be able to walk without tripping over his tongue.”
“Your brother who is madly in love with Delaney, you mean?” Hope asked, reaching back into the camper.
TJ didn’t question how she knew Tucker was madly in love. A person didn’t need to be psychic or even very, very intuitive to know that Tucker was head over heels for Delaney. “He’s in love, not dead.”
She shrugged into a bright-pink linen vest that hung past her butt and had sparkly beading down the front. “Better?” she asked.
He nodded. “A little.” The thing was, Hope was beautiful and very much not his typical physical type, and his brother would be as interested inthatas he would be in her breasts. Or almost as interested, anyway.
He yanked his shirt back over his head, inundated with the scent of her that had already seeped into the fabric and the warmth from her body. “You’re right,” TJ said. “Shy and quiet and sweet are not my type.” It was a good reminder forhimas well.
She frowned. “I didn’t put sweet on my list.”
“Trust me, sweet isn’t my type.”
And oh God, she felt like his type. He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter, because you’re not really my girlfriend.”
She didn’t say anything to that.
“But you’re also right that I wouldn’t keep a serious girlfriend from them, so we’re going to have to have a reason that they didn’t know about you.”
“I’ll do whatever you want me to do, TJ.”
And whether the huskiness in her voice was real or imagined, it still worked to rev TJ right back to the place he’d been when they’d been interrupted.
“Does Adrianne know you’re from Arizona?” he asked.
“At the bakery. Delaney said you met her this morning.”
“Oh, yeah, she was the one who gave me directions to your house.”
“Does she know where you’re from?”
He sighed. Of course she did. Hope probably knew all about Adrianne too. She’d probably asked Adrianne question after question, delving into the deep, dark secrets of her… Okay, Adrianne might not have personal deep, dark secrets. Or maybe she wasn’t a sucker for blonds with gorgeous breasts and big green eyes. Either way, it was possible he was the only one spilling his guts to Hope.
“How are we going to explain me knowing you if you’re from Arizona?”
He looked at her. “What?”
“We could have met on an online dating site. We got to chatting, we hit it off, I found out you had shoulder surgery and I wanted to come and take care of you.”
TJ blinked at her. Wow, that fully formed, even slightly plausible story had just rolled right out. Maybe she had more in common with the girls he was used to after all. Michelle had been able to keep track of an astonishing number of details in her lies.
He shook his head. That wasn’t fair.He’dstarted this lie, and Hope was just following his lead as he’d asked. He nodded. “Okay, fine. That will work. We can tell them we haven’t been talking to each other long—which is true—and don’t know much about each other—also true. And that’s why I haven’t mentioned you.”
“So if we haven’t been talking long, why would I just pack up and come to stay for the summer without an invitation?”
He couldn’t help the grin he felt curling his lips. “Crazy, remember?”
Her eyes narrowed again and she studied him in that way that made him certain she was reading him perfectly. Then her expression relaxed and she nodded. “You know, you might be on to something there.”
Uh oh. There was a definite twinge of trepidation in his gut at that. “What do you mean?”
“I’m thinking being a little crazy could be very freeing. And fun.”
He was thinking she was right. And that this suddenly wasn’t such a great idea.
She’d already twirled and was heading for the house.
“Hope!” he called after her.
She stopped on the top step to his porch and looked back.
“So you’re going to…”
He hoped she’d fill in the blanks.
She didn’t. She winked.
And his body reacted as if she’d stroked his cock.
“And the kiss…”
Since when was he unable to complete a full sentence?
She was messing with him. This wasn’t good.
But it had been just a kiss. And ithadbeen amazing. “Yeah?”
Her smile changed. Just slightly. Hardly at all. But something inthissmile didn’t make him smile back—it made him want her even more.
“Yeah,” she said softly.
Okay. Good. Maybe even very good. He started after her, realizing that he was already planning how to get rid of Delaney and Tucker. Quickly.
“So how did you two meet?” was the very first question out of Delaney’s mouth when they were all seated around TJ’s table.
Delaney and Tucker had already eaten so were enjoying coffee and dessert—the package of Double Stuf Oreo cookies that was a staple in TJ’s kitchen—while he and Delaney ate baked pork chops on top of mashed potatoes and roasted carrots fresh from his mother’s garden.
Or whilehedid, and while Hope pushed the food around her plate with her fork and gazed at him with a dopey smile.
“I believe the universe brought us together,” Hope said. Her tone was not dopey.
And TJ kind of wished it was. She sounded sincere, and he really hated that he couldn’t tell if this was part of her act or not. She might have agreed to go with the coo-coo story, but he knew there really was a little true coo-coo in there somewhere. What if she actually believed that fate had somehow brought her here?
He was also secretly grateful. It was a technicality, but if he wasn’t the one voicing the lies to his brother and a woman who he considered a very close friend, he felt better.
“The universe?” Tucker asked, meeting TJ’s eyes. There was humor there. Lots and lots of humor.
“Fate. Destiny,” Hope filled in. “I was meant to meet TJ.”
See, like that. That sounded so…true.
“You just threw a dart at a map and drove until you got here?” Tucker asked.
TJ lifted his glass of tea to hide his smile. His brother was definitely buying the crazy thing, judging by the look on his face. Of course, he was finding it all very amusing. And intriguing. Tucker had hardly taken his eyes off of Hope.
She seemed to have that effect on people.
“Oh, no, we started talking online.”
Delaney stopped with her cookie halfway to her mouth. “Online?” she repeated.
Hope had a huge grin on her face as she nodded. Thankfully, Delaney and Tucker didn’t know her well enough to know that her grin was more amused than kooky. TJ frowned. How didheknow that? He hadn’t known her long enough, or well enough, to know the differences in her smiles.
But, still, he could tell she thought this was funny.
“In a chat room onPerfect Pick,” Hope added.
“Perfect Pick?” Tucker asked. “The online dating site?”
TJ was surprised. “How do you know whatPerfect Pickis?” She was using the name of arealsite? A site where they could go look for his profile? And TJ knew Tucker. He’d definitely look for TJ’s profile. He’d invite Travis and a bunch of their friends over and make it a party.
“I’ve seen the commercials. I had no idea you were signed up with a site like that,” he said to TJ.
Yeah, that didn’t sound like him. At all.
“Well, he’s not anymore, of course,” Hope said, putting her hand on his thigh.
They were sitting next to one another across the table from Delaney and Tucker. TJ was regretting that choice already. Not only could he smell her fresh, flowery scent, but he was acutely aware of everything from the way she sat with one foot tucked underneath her on the chair to the fact that the six earrings that adorned her ear were made up of two stars, a moon, a butterfly, a pink gem and a tiny cross. In that order, from top to bottom.
And she’d meant the touchy-feely thing. She’d put her hand on his shoulder, brushed over the top of his hand, run her hand up and down his back and now had it resting on his thigh. And they’d been inside for no more than ten minutes.
He was wound up and ready to go, completely aware thatgoinganywhere with Hope was a bad idea, and on the verge of saying to hell with it anyway.
Old, bad patterns died hard.
“He’s not on the site anymore?” Delaney asked.
“Well, we’ve found our perfect picks,” Hope said, inching her hand higher on his thigh. “No need for us to still be looking.”
She’d instantly solved the issue of Tucker and Delaney trying to find their profiles online, but he could barely spare the brain cells to really appreciate that, considering her hand was getting ever closer to his cock. His cock was straining to be closer to her hand, too.
And none of her stroking his thigh was for show. Tucker and Delaney couldn’t even see her hand from their side of the table.
But he also couldn’t remove her hand or move away from her because Tucker and Delaney would seethat.
“And now you’re here,” Delaney said, her smile clearly forced. “How nice. It must be…serious.”
Hope turned to gaze up at TJ. “Well, once I knew TJ was hurting and needed help, there was nowhere else I could imagine being.”
There was another one of those statements he could take seriously if he wanted to. Which he didn’t, of course. But even though she’d just found out about his shoulder, shehadseemed concerned.
“Then you’ll be staying for a while,” Tucker said.
“As long as needed,” Hope answered.
“Well, you should know that TJ has a lot of people around here to help him,” Delaney said, a note of protectiveness in her tone.
TJ had to fight another smile. Delaney was the best. Even if her protectiveness was misplaced.
“I’m sure,” Hope said. “But no one can help him like I can.”
TJ’s imagination definitely tookthatfor a ride until he reined it in. Tucker’s too, it seemed, as his brother choked on his iced tea and covered with a cough.
“And TJ is saving me too.” Hope moved her hand from his thigh and looped her arm through his, leaning into his side affectionately. “We need each other. Where else would I be but right by his side?”
TJ missed her touch on his leg but was placated by the feel of her breast against his biceps.
“He’s saving you too?” Delaney asked, glancing at TJ.
He tried not to show how interestedhewas in Hope explaining that statement further as well.
“Ever since my mom passed away, I’ve been looking for…something. And I think I might just have found it here in Sapphire Falls.”
For just a flash, he thought he should be appalled that she was using her dead mother to get Tucker and Delaney’s sympathy and further the lie. But before that thought was even fully formed, he knew that wasn’t the case. How he knew that so easily and so certainly, he didn’t really want to examine, but he knew that Hope meant what she said in this case.
That also stupidly made a whole lot of protective instincts rear their heads.
The next thought that flashed through his mind was that Hope would know that. She had already pegged him as a protector. She had to know that a comment like that would make him all too ready to jump in to help her find whatever it was she was looking for. He didn’t like being so easy to read.
But he was already working on reconnecting her with her dad. That was what she meant, he was sure.
He was pretty sure anyway.
But what if there was more?
TJ gripped his tea glass and worked on taking a deep breath.
She meant her dad. That was all she meant. That was all he was going to help her with. That was complicated enough.
“Your mom passed away?”
Immediately, any skepticism Delaney might have felt in regards to Hope, and any thoughts she’d had of protecting himfromHope, clearly evaporated.
Delaney reached out and took Hope’s hand. “I’m so sorry.”
A look of sadness passed over Hope’s face, and it felt like she’d punched him in the gut. TJ had to clear his throat and consciously stay put to keep from pulling her into his lap.
“I just lost my sister and brother-in-law a few months ago,” Delaney told Hope softly. “If you need anyone to talk to, I’m here.”
Hope gave her a sincere, sweet smile, and TJ feltthatlike a punch to his gut as well.
“I’m so sorry about your loss, too,” Hope said, curling her fingers around Delaney’s.
TJ looked from one woman to the other, then at his brother. Tucker was clearly battling the same urges to comfort and shelter. Tucker’s jaw was tight, his eyes trained on Delaney, his hand rubbing her back. It was amazing seeing his brother in love, and he knew that Tucker hurt when Delaney hurt.
TJ followed Tucker’s example, moving his arm around Hope and hugging her against him.
If she thought it was strange, she didn’t show it. She didn’t hesitate to press against him as if that was where she belonged.
Of course, that could all be a part of the act too.
He was hating this whole situation more and more. It was one thing to tell a white lie to protect a couple of people’s privacy. It was another for this thing to gethisthoughts and feelings all twisted up, and for him to not know what was real and what wasn’t. That was just too familiar. Because there was no way out here either. Hope needed an ally in town while she sorted through her stuff.
TJ knew on some level that he could turn her over to Delaney or Adrianne or any of the other women. His friend Phoebe knew Dan and she was something of a schemer. She could no doubt come up with a way of getting Hope and Dan together while preserving the confidentiality of the situation.
But he wasn’t turning this over.
He knew that with a certainty that also concerned him. But there it was.
He was officially involved with another crazy girl.
“Do you have other family?” Hope asked Delaney.
“My mom and dad, but we’re not close at all. How about you?”
Hope shook her head. “Grandparents I barely know. My mom was raised to be very independent, to figure things out on her own. When she was eighteen, she left home and started traveling.” A faint smile touched Hope’s lips and TJ found himself mesmerized and wanting to know more. Wanting to know everything.
It was strange, actually. He’d only ever been seriously involved with women he’d known his whole life. He’d already known all about them and their pasts. It was simply impossible to have a history of any kind that wasn’t common knowledge in Sapphire Falls.
The notion of getting to know this woman, of hearing her stories, asking her questions, telling her his…it was all strangely…tempting. Michelle had also known him, or had thought she did, and had never asked him a question other than asking him to come get her or asking him to help with something.
Hope shook her head and it pulled TJ away from the swirling thoughts of the past.
“Anyway,” she said. “She raised me similarly. She felt like teaching me to solve my own problems did me more good than solving them for me. So I’m pretty self-reliant. I would have thought that would mean I wouldn’t miss her as much or wouldn’t…notice her being gone as much…” She shook her head. “That sounds cold. I don’t mean it like that. I’ve been living on my own, in another city. And I missed her while I was gone, but she was always just a phone call away. Now…” Hope trailed off and her smile was definitely sad this time. “Now she’s not, and itfeelsdifferent.”
TJ felt as if his insides were being pulled in a million directions. Michelle had certainly had her emotional turmoil, but he didn’t remember feeling connected to those emotions himself, as if he was being stretched tight and twisted along with her.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Delaney said. “I positively ache sometimes with how much I miss my sister and Rafe. Without them here…everything is different.”
Hope nodded. “The world changed in a heartbeat.”
TJ curled his fingers into her side where his hand rested and he cleared his throat. He wanted to make this better but was at a loss. He might need to pull Tucker aside later for some tips about comforting a woman who had lost someone close. He had experience with distraught women. One at least.
Michelle had certainly shed her share of tears. But he didn’t know what to do with a woman who had an actual problem, who’d had a true loss. Michelle had cried to get his attention, to keep him close, to be sure she was his priority and that he knew she needed him. Hope was here, in his kitchen, in hislife, because she wanted to meet her father and his happened to be the house where she’d landed. She hadn’t come to TJ specifically. She hadn’t come to Sapphire Falls for help or support or sympathy. And she wasn’t trying to wrap TJ around her finger so that she would never be alone and would never have to face her mistakes or responsibilities on her own.
Hope was not Michelle. That was a good thing.
He didn’t know what to do with a woman like Hope, because she was not like Michelle. That was probablynota good thing.
“It’s funny the things I miss,” Hope said. “Not the big things as much as hearing her singing while she gardened, her homemade lavender ice cream and the way she always got the words wrong to ‘Burning Love’. Things that didn’t seem important at the time but now…”
“‘Burning Love’?” TJ asked, desperate to take the sadness out of her voice and eyes. “The Elvis song?”
Hope smiled at him and nodded. “Yep. It was always Elvis in the garden.”
“Lavenderice cream?” Delaney asked.
“It’s so good,” Hope said, enthusiasm sneaking into her tone. “And lavender is so good for so many things. Definitely for relaxation and soothing your senses. Have you ever used it?” she asked Delaney.
“Used lavender?” Delaney asked. “I don’t think so. What do you mean?”
“How do you cope?” Hope asked Delaney. “When the sadness gets so strong or when you can’t sleep at night because of the memories? Or when you’re not sleeping because you’re worried about your responsibilities now that they’re gone?”
A flicker of surprise crossed Delaney’s face. “How did you know that?”
“Know what?” Hope asked.
“That I have responsibilities that I’m worried about since they died?”
Hope straightened and TJ saw a flash of surprise in her eyes as well. She glanced at TJ and then cleared her throat. “Um, I…sensed it.”
“Sensed what?” Tucker asked.
Hope sighed, almost as if she didn’t want to answer. TJ stroked his hand up and down her side and felt her relax.
“I sensed that she has heightened anxiety when talking about her sister and her husband not being here.”
Tucker shifted on his seat and it was clear he was agitated. “Of course she has anxiety about that. She’s sad. She lost her sister and best friend.”
Hope hesitated. She pressed her lips together and said nothing. But TJ saw concern in her eyes as she looked at Delaney. Her concern was for Delaney, not about Tucker’s reaction. But she was trying to respect Tucker as well.
That made TJ’s heart twinge. He loved Delaney. She was one of his closest friends, was making his brother incredibly happy and was the caretaker for four young boys TJ loved dearly. He wanted her to be happy, and if Hope was concerned about her, so was he.
Crazy as that seemed.
Again, he ran his hand up and down her side. “It’s okay,” he told her. He focused on Tucker. “Hope is very intuitive. Just listen.”
Tucker didn’t say anything, but his concerned frown didn’t ease much.
Delaney met Hope’s gaze. “What were you going to say?”
Hope glanced at TJ and he gave her a nod.
She took a deep breath. “I know you’re sad. And you miss them. But your emotion changes when you talk about them being gone. Not about losing them or missing them, but the idea of being without them. That’s different, right?” she asked gently.
“What do you think about when you think about them being gone?” Hope asked.
“I became the guardian to my four nephews,” she said. “I worry about them.”
TJ saw the tension in Tucker’s body and he sympathized with his brother. He knew that Tucker wanted to take care of Delaney and the boys and he wanted to believe he was making everything better for them. And he was. There was no question there. Delaney would be the first to say so. But that didn’t mean she didn’t worry. TJ got that. He knew Tucker got that. Even their own mother, who had four grown sons, all of whom were doing very well for themselves, still worried.
“Of course you do,” Hope said. “And that’s natural. You need to stop fighting it.”
Delaney’s eyes widened. “What?”
Hope nodded. “You worry. Then you fight tonotworry because you want to trust that everything is okay. You think if you’re worried, you’re not trusting. But it’s normal to worry, so ignoring it and fighting it and telling yourself that by worrying, you’re somehow failing, is tying you up.”
There were several long seconds of silence, and TJ felt a little tied up himself. He didn’t want Hope pissing Tucker off or hurting Delaney, but for some reason he didn’t want her to keep quiet either. No one had talked to him more than this woman in months. Maybe ever. Most people respected his silence and clear desire to deal with things on his own. No one kept at him after he flat-out said he didn’t want to talk about something, not even his brothers.
And yet talking wasn’t so painful with Hope. Maybe because he sensed that she truly cared and was talking to him because she was interested and wanted to help.
Maybe because he sensed she was right.
About him. And about Delaney.
Delaney was happy here, and was healthier and more at peace than when she’d arrived by far, but there were still dark circles under her eyes at times and worry lines around her eyes. He supposed that was normal in a mom of four. No matter how many other people she had helping her and supporting her.
“That’s exactly what I do,” Delaney finally said quietly.
Tucker made a soft growling sound. “Laney—”
She turned to him. “I fight it because I know that I don’t really need to worry. The boys are great. You’re amazing, Tuck. Everyone is happy and healthy and safe. But it’s like I can’t turn it off. So then I try to turn it off. I tell myself it’s stupid and I have to stop, but that almost makes it worse.”
Tucker stared at her for a long moment. Finally, he breathed out. “I worry too. And fight it.”
Delaney’s smile spread slowly but surely. “You do?”
“Of course. I worry about them and you and about you worrying about them.”
Delaney put her hand on his cheek. “I love you.”
The look that passed between them was intimate and intense and full of love and happiness, and for a moment, TJ’s heart clenched hard. He heard Hope sigh beside him and he looked at her. She was smiling at Tucker and Delaney.
Delaney finally turned back to Hope. “Why do I feel like you have a solution to my sleeplessness and worry?”
Hope shook her head. “I can’t take the worry away. Like I said, that’s normal. But I can teach you to put it into perspective and not let it rule your sleep and not let it take over. You have to stopfightingand accept it. Acknowledge it.”
“Meditation. Yoga. Some essential oils.”
Delaney looked intrigued. “Really?”
“I know nothing about essential oils.”
“I knowa lotabout essential oils,” Hope said with a light laugh. “I’m a healer. Been practicing all my life.”
There was a heartbeat where no one seemed to know what to say. TJ wantedsomeoneto ask her what she meant, but it couldn’t be him. He was supposed to know some of this about her. Wasn’t he?
“Healer?” Tucker finally asked. “You’re a doctor?”
Hope shook her head. She reached for Delaney’s hand again and turned it over, palm up. She pressed her thumb into Delaney’s hand just belowherthumb and rubbed slowly. “A nurse, actually.”
Tucker’s eyes widened and TJ worked not to react. She was a nurse? Arealnurse?
“No kidding,” Tucker replied.
Hope nodded. “Finished my nursing degree almost two years ago. I’ve been working with a company since then, taking various short-term assignments in different places.”
“In hospitals?” Delaney clarified.
“A couple of hospitals. A couple of clinics. Usually they send us to fill in temporarily in understaffed areas. I’ve been on an Indian Reservation, in rural Iowa, in the inner city in Atlanta. All over. It’s been amazing,” Hope said.
“And most recently you were back home with your mom?” Tucker asked.
TJ liked this. Like when his father had been here, this was a chance for him to learn about Hope.
She nodded, still rubbing Delaney’s hand. “I’d seen a variety conditions and situations, and I saw what our medical model can do—and what it can’t.” She took a deep breath. “My mom has always been a healer. She’s the one people come to when all else fails. Shewasthe one,” Hope corrected herself.
Delaney reached out with her other hand and squeezed Hope’s hand.
Hope looked at her. “Damn, it’s hard to get used to talking about her in the past tense.”
Delaney gave her a smile. “I still talk about Chelsea and Rafe like they’re here.”
Hope breathed deeply again and TJ worked on not digging his fingers into her as he held her. His arm wasn’t around her because she needed his comfort. It was a show. But there was no denying the urge to pull her into his lap and hold her tight.
“Anyway, my mom was a holistic healer. I grew up with the role model of helping others heal,” Hope went on. She moved Delaney’s hands so that she could press and rub on the other one. “She taught meditation and knew everything about herbs and oils and natural remedies. She was also an amazing listener. She could get anyone to open up to her about anything.”
Like mother like daughter, TJ thought.
“Holy crap, that feels so good,” Delaney said, staring at her hands. “I actually—” She looked up at Hope with a puzzled frown. “I feel less tension in my shoulders.”
Hope smiled as if that was exactly what she’d expected. “Acupressure points for stress and anxiety. I can teach you. Give me your foot.”
Delaney immediately kicked her sandals off. Hope scooted her chair back, moving closer to TJ, and patted her lap. Delany put her foot up on Hope’s leg.
Hope put the pad of her thumb on the bottom of Delaney’s foot between her second and third toes. She dragged her thumb about a third of the way down Delaney’s foot and then pressed.
Delaney moaned. “Oh my God.”
Tucker looked at her, seeming concerned and very interested at the same time. “Feel good, babe?”
Delaney’s head fell back and she closed her eyes. “So good.”
Tucker turned wide eyes to Hope. “Wow.”
Hope chuckled and continued kneading the bottom of Delaney’s foot. “Acupressure can be amazing. For a lot of things. There are points for sinus congestion, nausea, fear, quitting smoking, libido.”
“Libido?” Tucker asked. “As in sex drive?”
Hope nodded. “Definitely. Acupressure on the right points can increase the drive and can make orgasms stronger.”
“You don’t need to push on any special spots,” Delaney told him teasingly.
“Oh, I just happen to know all ofyourspecial spots,” Tucker replied easily.
“Well,” Hope said. “It won’thurtto press on a few specific places.” She gave Tucker a wink.
“You can teach me those spots?” he asked.
“Or I can teach Delaney and she can push on her own spots,” Hope said lightly.
Tucker gave her a full-blown, sincere smile. “You have that knowledge and you went into the medical field instead of acupressure and herbs and stuff?” Tucker asked.
“I, like so many people, was skeptical.” Hope motioned Tucker forward. She stood and let Tucker slide into her chair. TJ straightened, missing having her close within seconds.
Hope put Delaney’s other foot in Tucker’s lap and then guided his thumb to the same spot she’d been pressing on. “Press firmly but gently for about thirty seconds, then knead deeply. At least two minutes.”
Tucker followed her instructions exactly and they all watched Delaney turn into a wet noodle in front of their eyes.
Hope moved behind Tucker’s chair and put her hands on his ears.
TJ’s lips twitched at the look of sudden uncertainty on his brother’s face. Tucker’s eyes widened even farther as Hope began rubbing his ears, stroking down and pulling on his lobes, then repeating the pattern.
“It’s silly now as I look back,” Hope continued, as if rubbing a stranger’s ears was completely normal. “I mean, I saw the things she did work for people. But there wasn’t a lot of science and proof, and I went through a phase where I questioned everything she taught me, doubting and rebelling. But I couldn’t ignore that I felt compelled to help people, to somehow make things better around me. Nursing seemed like the perfect fit.”
“But now you don’t think so?” Delaney asked. Even her voice sounded more relaxed, and she didn’t seem to have a problem with another woman rubbing Tucker’s ears.
TJ took another look at Tucker’s face and found that his brother seemed to have no problem with it either. Tucker looked positively blissful.
Hope shook her head. “Actually, I think I have a unique opportunity to combine the two worlds I know. I understand and respect the science behind our Western medicine, but I also know that it doesn’t always work. I think there’s a place for the things my mother used too. That’s part of my journey now. I’d hoped to do it with her, but now I’m on a quest to really figure out where she was coming from, learn what she knew, live it myself.”
“So the oils and herbs and yoga are all new?” Tucker asked. His head had fallen forward and his voice was muffled slightly. “You don’t really understand it?”
Delaney nudged him with her foot. “Tucker.”
Hope laughed. “It’s okay. I’m used to people doubting. I doubted for a long time. No,” she said, addressing Tucker directly. “I do understand it. I’ve been around it all my life. But it was so commonplace that I didn’t really think about it. I used ginger when I had an upset stomach and peppermint for headaches. I meditated. I did yoga. We never had white sugar in the house. That was all just my life, our usual routine and habit, so I never reallylearnedit. Now I’m working on that. And working on seeing things the way my mom did.”
TJ pulled his eyes from Hope somehow. She was glowing, talking about all of it. There was a touch of sadness around her eyes when she talked about her mom, but there was excitement in her tone as she told them how she was going to combine her knowledge and help people going forward.
Tucker had turned into a lump of Jell-O in the chair, but Delaney was watching her with the same wonder TJ felt. As if she didn’t quite believe Hope was real and saying these things, but like she kind of wanted her words to be true.
That damn word popped into his head again.
Then Hope shocked him by taking her hands off Tucker and moving to sit on TJ’s lap. True, Tucker was occupying her chair and his empty chair was clear on the other side of the table. But it seemed she’d given it no thought. As if she’d sat in his lap a million times before.
She was a good actress.
Even so, TJ didn’t hesitate to wrap his arm around her waist and pull her back against his chest. He could play the part too. And if he looked pleased and turned-on when she rested her hands on his arm that crossed protectively in front of her, that was even better for their story.
“Want to have coffee tomorrow?” Delaney asked.
TJ shifted Hope so he could see her face. And so she wasn’t pressing quite so firmly against his cock.
She looked surprised but pleased by Delaney’s invitation. “I don’t drink coffee.”
Having apparently gathered his composure from her ear massage, Tucker asked, “And you don’t eat food?” He looked down at Hope’s still mostly full plate.
She gave him a sheepish smile. “I’m…a vegetarian.”
Of course she was. TJ resisted an eye roll.
“Ah, my mom will be…thrilled,” Tucker said.
“Yeah.” She looked a little apologetic with that. “How’s your head?” she asked Tucker.
“Great. Headache is totally gone.” He peered at her. “How did you know I had a headache?”
“You’re the new dad of four boys,” she said, lifting a shoulder. “And your body language and expressions while watching Delaney told me that you’re very concerned withherbeing happy. I’m guessing tension headaches are common. Plus, you had a tightness around your eyes and your shoulders were practically up at your ears.”
Tucker seemed unable to argue with any of that.
Delaney moved her foot from his leg and leaned in. She took his hand and lifted it to her mouth. She pressed a kiss on Tucker’s hand and said, “I’ll learn how to rub your ears.”
He gave her a smile. “Deal.”
Again, there was that sense that Delaney and Tucker had momentarily forgotten anyone else was in the room with them.
“You didn’t eat the carrots or potatoes either?” TJ asked Hope.
She glanced at him and it was clear she didn’t want to answer. “I’m actually vegan. And only eat organic produce.”
TJ sighed. Of course she was. Just when he’d started thinking this might all be okay. No one was going to actually believe he was in love with a vegan.
“The mashed potatoes were made with milk,” he acknowledged. Which meant she wouldn’t eat them either. “But it doesn’t get more organic than my mother’s garden,” he said.
“She grew the carrots?” Hope asked, her eyes lighting up.
Well, yeah, she was probably hungry. He hadn’t seen her eat anything all day.
“Yes. The garden is her pride and joy. Even above the four of us boys,” Tucker said.
Hope reached out and stabbed a carrot on her plate with her fork and bit into it. She groaned.
Her moan of pleasure shot straight through TJ to his groin and he had to shift on the chair as his cock pressed against his fly.
Hope pulled her plate closer to where she now sat.
“So how about tea tomorrow then?” Delaney asked. “At the bakery in town. I have a couple of friends who I think would love to learn about essential oils and stuff. They have kids too and are working moms. We all have the typical fatigue and stress and stuff.”
“I’d love to,” Hope said around bites of the vegetables that she was suddenly eating with enthusiasm.
TJ had the stupid urge to go get her some lettuce and tomatoes. Hell, he could get them out of his own garden except he wasn’t sure what was growing out there. He hadn’t been able to tend to it with his shoulder, and with all the things that needed done on the farm, his vegetable patch was pretty far down the priority list.
Then he frowned as he replayed Delaney’s invitation. Hope was going to meet Adrianne and Phoebe and Lauren and Kate? Because he knew those were the women that would be included in their little tea party.
“I don’t know if Hope will have time,” he said. He surreptitiously shifted his remaining carrots onto her plate.
Hope looked from the carrots to his face with a small smile. Yeah, yeah, so he was taking care of her again. Whatever. They were carrots.
She popped one of his carrots into her mouth. “Really? What am I going to be doing?”
He actually did suddenly have a few ideas. But they were all really bad, considering they would both be naked and his dick would be in charge. That was never a good thing.
Delaney and Tucker both looked at him with interest as well.
“I… He sighed in defeat. “I guess you could go have tea.”
What could that hurt? She was going to talk about yoga and oil. That was harmless.
Besides, she was clearly a very good liar. No one would catch on to anything over a teatime chat about meditation. But that thought immediately made him cringe internally. Again, the lie was his invention. And the only thing she’d said to Delaney that didn’t seem completely true was that they’d met online. The rest had seemed completely sincere.
Yoga. Meditation. Oils. Vegan. Acupressure for orgasms. Everything.
“You know what though?” Hope said, suddenly bouncing up from his lap. “I have something I can give you tonight to try,” she told Delaney as she started for the door.
“Where are you going?” TJ asked.
“To the camper. I’ll be right back.”
The back door thumped shut behind her and absolute silence filled the kitchen. The lack of noise was especially noticeable now that even Hope’s jingling bracelets were gone.
“What in thehellis going on?” Delaney finally asked.
TJ grimaced and faced his friend. “What?”
“An online girlfriend who shows up here out of the blue acting like she’s psychic and talking about essential oils and stuff?” Delaney asked.
TJ sighed. “She didn’t say she’s psychic. And essential oils are a real thing.” Of course, that was the extent of his knowledge about the topic—that they were real.
Tucker shook his head. “Hey, she’s very…interesting. And damn, my headache really is totally gone. She can rub my ears anytime,” he said in typical Tucker fashion. He simply chuckled when Delaney nudged him with her foot. He looked at TJ. “But what areyoudoing with her? She’s gotta be driving you nuts.”
Yeah, she should be. She was. Kind of. But it wasn’t how nosy she’d been about his personal life or how she’d snubbed his mother’s pork chops or her crazy talk aboutknowinghim that he thought about. Instead, it was her bright smile and the way she’d immediately been concerned about his shoulder and that she was a nurse who had been traveling and working in underserved areas that came to mind. And how she was willing to put up with all of this craziness to protect Dan and his family from the repercussions of her sudden appearance in their lives. And the way she’d taken Delaney’s hand and talked about how Delaney felt and what she needed when she had also just lost someone she loved very much.
Damn. She wasn’t driving him nuts so much as she was…driving him nuts. Getting under his skin. Wrapping him up, distracting him and making him want to spend twenty-four-seven with her just talking and kissing and…talking some more.
TJ didn’t talk. And that was about all he’d done since Hope had shown up.
But even if he hadn’t been a bitfascinatedhimself, one look at Delaney’s face would have convinced him that Hope Daniels was more than something. She was special.
Delaney and Tucker were definitely fascinated. So maybe TJ’s fascination was okay. Unavoidable even.
“I think she’s amazing and interesting,” Delaney said. “She’d got this…something.” Delaney looked at TJ. “You know what I mean?”
The something that was impossible to ignore and even more impossible to explain? Yeah, he knew what she meant. “She’s definitely something.”
“Like completely opposite from your usual type,” Tucker said. “But that’s probably not a bad thing,” he added with a shrug.
TJ wanted to laugh at that understatement. “I don’t know her that well. She just showed up today. And this is a temporary stop. Just a visit.”
Delaney was watching him closely, so TJ carefully kept his expression bland.
“And you’re sure she’s not a nut job?” Tucker asked. “All this hocus-pocus herb talk doesn’t make you worry she might pull out a dead chicken for some ritual or something?”
TJ lifted an eyebrow. “Mom pulls out dead chickens for dinner twice a week.”
“You know what I mean,” Tucker said. “And maybe it’s alivechicken for rituals.”
Delaney frowned at him. “Stop it.” Then to TJ she said, “You trust her?”
Somehow, when faced with that very direct question, he knew his answer was yes.
“I do. I’m not worried about being here with her anyway.”
“She could be a serial killer. She could have escaped from a mental institution. She could be casting a spell over your house right now,” Tucker said. His tone didn’t indicate he was truly concerned about any of that though.
She was blond and had rubbed his earlobes. Tucker was a fan of Hope’s no matter what she did with chickens.
Hope was casting a spell all right.
“Don’t be stupid,” TJ told Tucker. “She’s different. That doesn’t mean she’s dangerous.”
“You don’t think she’s a little crazy?” Tucker asked, twirling his finger near his temple.
TJ started to reply but realized he had no answer. He had thought that convincing everyone that Hope was obsessed with him and had shown up out of the blue was a good plan. That it would throw them off the scent of the real reason for her presence in Sapphire Falls, and she could covertly meet Dan and go from there. And it would give TJ a reason to keep touching and kissing her—at least when other people were around.
Touching her and kissing her when they were alone was a bad idea. Once his cock got involved, all bets were off as to how well he would handle anything about Hope being here. Once he was inside of that soft, sweet-smelling, tight body—
“TJ,” Tucker said, snapping his fingers in front of TJ’s face. “You okay?”
TJ frowned at him. “Yeah, fine.” Because hehadn’tinvolved his cock. Yet.
He was feeling crazy—turned around and inside out. But did he actually thinkHopewas crazy? No. In fact, hearing her talk about her work as a nurse, her connection to helping people and her desire to understand her mother better, he was starting to think she was one of the sanest people he knew.
That was not good.
“She’s…unconventional,” he said. “But maybe that’s what I need for a few days—something different, out of the ordinary.”
“Well, I’d say you’re gonna get that,” Tucker said with a chuckle.
“I’m going to go check on her,” TJ said, shoving back from the table. “I’ll give you two a couple of minutes to talk about us without us here.”
“Finally,” Delaney said.
TJ rolled his eyes and headed outside through the back door. He wanted a few minutes with Hope alone too. Sure, he’d get that later when Delaney and Tucker left, but he couldn’t wait. She’d been gone from him for less than ten minutes and he had to go after her.
He rounded the side of the house and found Hope standing behind the camper. The back end was propped open to reveal a countertop and sink and various drawers and cubbies. He’d wondered if she could store or prepare food with this thing. Apparently, there was a built-in tiny kitchen. Tiny being the operative word.
She had a wooden box sitting on the counter. The front of the box opened like a set of French doors, revealing a collection of glass bottles and jars inside.
“Hey.” She gave him a grin as she replaced the top on one of the jars and opened a bottle. She poured a bit of oil into the bowl she was holding.
Whatever it was smelled good. Like peppermint. “Is Tucker pretty convinced I’m crazy?”
“Tucker is…” TJ thought about how to answer that. Finally, he said, “Tucker is like everyone else in this town. We’ve seen a lot of the same things and same types over and over.”
“And I’m different.”
“And he’s suspicious of me because of that?” She stirred whatever the concoction was in the bowl as she watched TJ.
TJ shook his head. “I think he’sfascinated. Just like everyone else will be.”
She smiled at his use of her favorite word. “Everyone else?”
Meaning including him. Absolutely. “Yes. You’re going to get a lot of attention.”
She poured the mixture from the bowl into an empty bottle and pressed a stopper into the top. “But as long as I keep the attention on things like herbs and yoga and almost-psychic readings, it will keep the attentionoffmy connection with Dan and will keep JoEllen happy.”
And that irked TJ suddenly. Why was JoEllen’s happiness so much more important than Hope’s? Hope was Dan’s daughter, and she deserved to know her dad and have a family.
“For now,” he said grudgingly. “But we’ll figure that out, okay?”
She nodded and tucked the glass bottle into the pocket of her skirt and started closing the box. “I’m not worried. This girlfriend thing could work for the next couple of days and then I’ll hit the road and everything will be fine.”
Yeah, andthatirked him too. She was so prepared to just leave? She’d only gotten here today. She hadn’t even really gotten to know anyone or the town. “Thought you were talking about staying for the rest of the summer?”
“I guess in my mind I was going to have a summer like my mom did here. But,” she shrugged, “that’s not very realistic. I realize that now.”
“What do you think her summer was like?” TJ asked.
She closed the back of the camper and turned to him. “New friends, parties, new love. A carefree summer. A new adventure. A bunch of memories she carried with her for the rest of her life.” Her voice caught at the end.
“Dammit,” TJ muttered and reached for her.
He just wasn’t sure he was cursing the incessant need he felt to comfort her or the fact that she had just laid out everything she wanted and needed that summer—and he wanted to be the one to give it to her.
Hope seemed happy to be in his arms, and TJ felt her big sigh.
He stroked his hand over her hair. “Why do you think all of that is unrealistic?”
She didn’t say anything for a moment. Then softly, she said, “Sometimes magic just happens. You can’t force it. You can’t create it. That’s what makes it magical.”
Magic. That word again.
“You think your mom’s time in Sapphire Falls was magic?” He marveled that he could say that word with a straight face. That word was not a part of his normal vocabulary. But it felt completely serious right now.
“She said so herself,” Hope said against his chest. “She talked about long walks and the sky and the air. She loved nature, loved being in it. Camping out by herself just to be a part of it all was something she did a lot. Something that always amazed her was that we could all be looking at the same sky, the same stars and moon, but that everywhere she went it seemed different. Beautiful in a new way. Like looking at the same painting done by different artists.”
TJ kept stroking her hair.
“That’s what made me want to travel like she did for a while. I want to see things her way.”
“It sounds like you understood her really well and that you had a lot in common,” he said. “The oils and herbs and stuff.”
Hope laughed lightly. “I know all about it. I don’t know if I’d say Iunderstandit. That’s what I’m looking for.”
“You were both interested in healing and helping people,” he pointed out. “That must give you an understanding.”
“I understand her desire to help people. But while we were interested in the same destination, our paths were pretty different. I want to see the scenery she saw along her path,” Hope said. “My mom’s experiences were a part of who she was and the things she did. It was as if she had this scrapbook in her mind with pictures and pieces of all the places she’d been and the people she’d met. I know she had more she wanted to do, but I also know she didn’t have any regrets.”
TJ didn’t say anything. In fact, he was fighting to swallow against the tightness in his throat. Not having regrets at the end was an incredible accomplishment.
“You should stay for a little while,” TJ heard himself say after a few moments.
Hope lifted her head and looked up at him. “Stay?”
“In Sapphire Falls. Meet some new people, do some new things. Make some memories.”
What was he doing?
“You can’t force magic,” she said, her voice wistful.
“Is magic always immediately obvious?” he asked.
If anyone who knew him heard him say something like that, they would insist he check with his doctor. Right away.
Hope stood looking at him, blinking, clearly replaying his words. Then she shook her head. “Maybe not.”
She gave him a soft smile and TJ instantly felt everything in him harden and heat.
Without warning, Hope lifted onto her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his.
TJ’s body reacted as if she’d touched a flame to a fuse. His hand cupped her head and he deepened the kiss immediately, opening his mouth on hers, his tongue urging her lips to part and then stroking deep when they did.
He felt her arms go around his neck and her body melt against his.
Speaking of good times…
The sound of his back screen door slamming made TJ lift his head.
“Come here.” He took her hand and pulled her around the opposite side of the house and into the shadows. He wasn’t quite ready to share her. He pressed her back against the house and crowded close so they could whisper. He felt like he was playing hide and seek from his brother. He’d always won when they’d played as kids. Even then, he’d been good at being quiet and keeping to himself for long periods of time.
“What’s going on?” Hope asked.
TJ put a finger against her lips. “Tucker’s being nosy. He’s going to try to stall me out here while you go back inside,” TJ told her softly, certain he was right. Because that’s what he would have done if he’d been the one inside and one of his brothers was taking a long time alone with a new pretty girl.
Hope surprised him by grasping his wrist, and his fingertip. “I thought I gave him time to grill you about me when I came out here to mix the oil for Delaney,” she whispered.
He actually smiled at that. She’d understood that Tucker and Delaney would want to talk to him in private.
“You did,” he said. “But he’s planning on you going into the house ahead of me. Where Delaney is. Time for girl talk.”
Hope raised an eyebrow. “Delaney wants to talk to me?”
“I guarantee it.”
“Like about menstrual cramps and shoes sales?”
He leaned back and looked down at her feet. “I don’t see you being big on shoe sales. Or shoes. And I’m guessing you have a tea or a cream or an oil for the cramps.”
“I’m not. And I do.”
She grinned at him and TJ wanted to kiss the hell out of her. Again.
“I don’t like lying to them,” Hope said. “They’re sweet and they’re concerned about you now for no reason.”
He appreciated that she didn’t like lying. He wasn’t feeling so great about it either. “No reason?”
“Well, I’m not really some girl who just packed up and came all the way to Nebraska expecting to move in for the summer after having just met you online. They don’t actually need to worry.”
“No, you’re some girl who packed up and came all the way to Nebraska expecting to stay for the summer having never met anyone here in any way at all.”
Hope frowned at him. “Well, when you say it likethat.”
He laughed softly. “Which part of that is untrue?”
“Still, I’m not here because I have some strange infatuation with you.”
TJ braced his hand on the side of the house next to her ear. “Thought you said you were fascinated?”
Her breathing changed minutely, and if they hadn’t been standing so close, he probably wouldn’t have noticed. But he did. And he liked it. He liked affecting her.
“Sure,nowI am,” she said quietly.
“The feeling is mutual.” It must have been the hiding. Or the whispering. Or that it was very true. Whatever it was, he was surprised to hear himself say it out loud.
He was rewarded with a smile that was stunning. “I like that,” she said.
He wanted to kiss her again. “As for lying to them,” he said, forcing himself back on a safer track. “We can tell them the truth. They’ll keep your confidence. But we’ll also be asking them to lie to other people they care about.”
Hope nodded and sighed. “We can’t ask that.” She shrugged. “Besides, the kooky thing could really help Delaney out.”
TJ cocked an eyebrow. “You being kooky could helpDelaneyout?”
“Definitely. I really think I have some things that could help with her stress and confidence. A lot of people think about this stuff too hard.”
“Stuff like herbs and oils?” he clarified.
“Right. They overthink. And second guess. But if I’m just your goofy girlfriend, she’ll try this stuff to be nice to me, and then she’ll find out it actually works.”
TJ thought about that. “You really think you can help her?”
Hope said it with quiet confidence that he had to believe.
“Okay, then our secret is just our secret.” He acknowledged that even that much was a kind of bond and wondered if he was making a big mistake.
“So my conversation with Delaney will be short,” Hope said.
“Oh, I’m guessing the girl talk with Delaney will be about me,” TJ said.
Hope peered up at him. “And that’s not such a short conversation?”
“Depends on how much one of my closest friends is willing to share about me with a virtual stranger.”
Hope gave him a sly smile. “I can be very charming and persuasive.”
He finally leaned back and shook his head. “That’s what I’m worried about.”
“Are there things you don’t want me to know?”
He thought about that. “Maybe.”
“I wasn’t someone I’m proud of when I was with my…monkey.”
“Or after, I’m guessing.”
She’d surprised him again. He wondered if she was going to keep doing that.
Then he worried that she was going to keep doing that.
“Wow. Thanks,” he said dryly.
“Well, you’re not with her now but you’re still a grumpy asshole. I’m thinking those things are connected.”
She made him want to laugh. He didn’t, but he wanted to.
“People can be grumpy assholes for reasons other than a breakup.”
“TJ, I’m not going to claim to know everything about you, but I’ve gotten a look into your life. You have a gorgeous farm you’re obviously proud of and you have a great family who loves and respects you. Those are the kinds of things that make a guyhappy.” She paused and then added, “And you’re single.”
“So you’re a protector, you’re smart, you have a sense of humor, you’re good-looking and you kiss like…” She cleared her throat. “You’re a good kisser. You’re only single because you want to be.”
He wasn’t sure what to say to all of that. He did want to be single. There were women who wanted more from him. But he didn’t want anyone to want things from him anymore.
No, that wasn’t true. He wanted his family to depend on him. He wanted his friends to know he was there for them. He just didn’t want to fall in love again.
He was a very focused guy. Intense was a word often applied to him that he could agree with. When he was in love, it was one-hundred percent. If the woman was happy, he wanted to be a part of it. If she was unhappy, he wanted to fix it. He became an enabler of anything that made her feel good and he’d do anything to keep her from feeling sad, upset or worried, and he’d do anything to right any wrongs—even the ones she caused.
TJ was also intelligent, enough to know that not every woman would use and manipulate those aspects of his personality as much as Michelle had. But he was spooked now. His desire to make and keep her happy had facilitated Michelle making some very bad choices, and his need to make it all right for her after she’d messed up had screwed up some of the relationships he had with other people.
Yes, she’d also screwed up his heart. But also his ability to trust himself. Andthatwas what he couldn’t get over.
He didn’t want to be that guy again. He didn’t want to be the reason the love of his life engaged in stupid, risky behavior, and he didn’t want to be the guy making excuses and cleaning up her messes afterward.
“You’re right. I want to be single,” he finally said.
Hope nodded. “I figured.” She glanced toward the front of the house. “Delaney loves you and is protective of you. I think the direction of our conversation might be more along the lines of, ‘If you hurt him, I’ll kill you’.”
Even as the words formed on his tongue, TJ knew he shouldn’t say them. But he did anyway. “You’re not going to be able to hurt me.”
Hope’s eyes widened slightly. “Okay. Good. I don’t want you to be hurt.”
He believed her. Or at least believed thatshebelieved she felt that way at the moment.
“Because you’re not calling any shots around here,” he continued. Saying it out loud was a good reminder for him too. He needed to stay as uninvolved as possible. And in the things hewasinvolved in, he needed to maintain control over how he was going to give Hope what she needed.
Michelle had needed attention, his adoration, to know that she would always be safe and that someone would be there no matter how stupid or bitchy or irresponsible she was. It went deep and far back into her childhood, and he got that. It made it hard—impossible—to turn his back on her entirely. Even when that inability made him feel pathetic and stupid. He’d been in too deep, he’d become her hero when he was too young and too naïve to realize that she was using him and that whatheneeded out of the relationship would never matter.
He was smarter now. Cynical even. And there was no way he was going to let Hope run the show. If she needed his help, she’d have it. On his terms. His way.
“I’m going to help you, but that means I need yourtotaltrust. I need you to let me do this the way I think it needs to be done,” he said.
Hope was studying him in that way she had that made him sure she could read his thoughts. “This?”
“Helping you with what you need this summer.”
“As in, you’re going tomakethis summer great. You’re going to help me recreate the summer my mom had?”
TJ nodded. “I can do that. I’ve spent thirty-two summers here.”
She smiled up at him. “I think that’s missing the point. Part of the…magic…is letting things happen. Going with the flow. Taking each experience as it comes.”
Yeah. He couldn’t do that.
The phrase “throwing caution to the wind” made him twitchy, and he was allergic to the word impulsive. “I don’t…flow.”
Hope didn’t seem surprised. “Anymore,” she added.
“I’m guessing you flowed in the past and it didn’t go well,” she explained.
“Something like that.”
“You can…flow without me.” He hated that idea. A lot. Intensely.
Hope tipped her head to one side. “If I stick around for a while and…flow…you’ll just sit on the banks of this metaphoric river and watch me go by?”
He already had the feeling she knew what his answer would be.
Could he just let her go? Leave her alone to hang out with other guys in Sapphire Falls? Make memories in his hometown without him?
Somehow, Hope had already figured him out.
“I’d like to say yes,” he finally admitted. “I’d love to be able to put your butt in your silly little car and wave while you drive off to whatever or whoever is down the road.”
“But?” she prompted with a small, knowing smile.
“Not going to happen.”
“But you’ll be miserable if I’m doing things my way?” she asked.
He shouldn’t be. He knew that. He knew that just because Michelle had taken every advantage of him didn’t mean that Hope would. And he also knew that he should just leave her the hell alone.
Problem was, beyond connecting with Dan, she had other hopes for a summer in Sapphire Falls. And well…that was all he really needed to know to want to be a part of it.
“I prefer to be in charge,” he said. Not that he’d ever been in charge with Michelle.
“That seems like a win-win,” Hope said. “If I turn everything over to you, I can relax and let things happen, and you can do everything your way.”
TJ stood looking down at her. She seemed oblivious to the heat and desire her words stirred up—sexually and otherwise. But he still had a feeling she knew. Somehow.
He wanted that total trust. He wanted to be the one she thought back on when she remembered Sapphire Falls. But he couldnotget lost in her. He couldn’t be led around by the balls again.
He felt himself nod slowly. “Yeah. Win-win.”
He ignored the niggle in the back of his mind that said being in total control around Hope Daniels might be a pipe dream.
One simple word that TJ felt reverberate through his whole body.
However, he was cynical enough to be skeptical of her easy agreement, too. Arguing, he knew. Arguing and tears. Those he could deal with. A woman who was laid-back and trusted him to do things his way? Not so much.
“Totally my way,” he reiterated.
She nodded with a big smile. “Totally your way.”
He narrowed his eyes and gave her what he hoped was a don’t-you-dare-lie-to-me look. “You’re fine with this?”
Yeah, sure. A woman who had been raised to be fully self-sufficient, who traveled all over by herself, who was obviously very good at wrapping people around her finger within minutes of meeting them—if he and Delaney and Tucker were any indication anyway—was completely fine with him calling all the shots while she was in Sapphire Falls.
They’d see about that.
In fact, the sooner they saw about it, the better. He didn’t want to entertain too many thoughts of running the Hope Show only to find out she wasn’t going to take it. The idea of her doinganythinghe wanted was too damned tempting as it was.
“Okay, so starting now,” he said. “Talk to Delaney. Reassure her that you’re going to take really good care of me. Then get her to go home so you can work on my shoulder.” It really did feel a hell of a lot better since she’d massaged it. And to get her hands on him again, he’d put up with whatever smelly lotion stuff she was going to concoct.
“What if she asks what taking ‘really good care’ of you means?” Hope asked.
The question sounded completely innocent, and if it had been just a bit darker, he wouldn’t have been able to see the tiny sly smile that curled her lips.
And suddenly he wanted nothing more than to see her bent over his kitchen table with that flowery skirt flipped up over her gorgeous ass. “Anything I ask you to.”
There was no way Hope didn’t notice the air between them heating several degrees. She stared at him, her lips parted slightly.
“Give me ten minutes.” She spun away from him and headed for the front of the house.
He appreciated her enthusiasm. But he needed a couple of minutes on his own to gather his thoughts and calm his racing heart. He felt as if a tornado had just touched down and he was being swirled around in the storm.
Finally, he followed her, wishing he knew for sure how to keep from doing anythingshewantedhimto do.
Hope passed Tucker sitting on the front porch steps.
“How’s your head feel?” She knew she’d won him over with the massage. Her mom had done the ear thing to her easily a hundred times in her life, and she knew more than pain relief, it worked to calm and soothe. It was no wonder dogs liked having their ear rubbed.
“I feel great,” Tucker admitted, looking up at her.
“Well, let me know if you have any other aches or pains.”
“How about ass pains?” Tucker asked.
She smiled. “I’m guessing yours is pretty big and has been there a while?”
“About six-five and all my life.”
She laughed. “That might be out of my scope of practice.”
Tucker regarded her with a thoughtful look. “I don’t know, Hope. If anyone can help ease that pain, I think it might be you.”
Hope felt her eyes widen. Wow. That was nice. And…intense.
Especially from TJ’sbrother.
There were a lot of people in TJ Bennett’s life. People who were really involved and really cared. She wasn’t used to having so many people around. And interested. She’d felt so comfortable with Delaney earlier when they’d been sharing about their losses. And watching Delaney and Tucker together was enough to make even the least romantic person yearn for a little of what they had. But then they’d talked about TJ’s mom’s reaction to Hope being a vegetarian—meaning she might actually meet TJ’s mom and eat more of her food—and Delaney had invited Hope for tea and…yeah, it was all intense. Especially for a girl who was used to having only her mom, and a fairly hands-off mom at that, in her life.
She’d been here for a matter of hours and she’d already met and had deep conversations with three of his family members.
Being involved with TJ clearly meant being involved with everyone he knew.
On the other hand, if TJ Bennett needed a woman to truly appreciate him for a little while, it really might be her. Showing someone they were amazing and worth some attention and effort could be done in a moment, but the impact could last a lifetime. Look at how her mother’s memory had lingered with Dan. And vice versa.
This didn’t have to be intense with TJ. In fact, it would be a good thing if itwasn’tintense.
She got the impression that TJ took things seriously. Everything. Too seriously. She could feel him putting expectations and pressure on her already—pressure to not upset Dan’s family, pressure to not let Tucker and Delaney too close or to know the truth, pressure to not mess with his heart, and now his insistence that things needed to gohisway.
She didn’t mind. She was teaching herself to go with the flow. This was the perfect opportunity to practice. And if he wanted to boss her around in that low, gravelly voice in the bedroom, she wouldn’t put up a fight there either. It had been a long time since she’d felt as connected to someone as she did to TJ. Already.
“You think I’m his type?”
Tucker shook his head. His gaze settled on something behind her and she knew TJ had moved into the light from the porch.
“Not at all. And that’s what gives me hope.” He grinned up at her with the unintentional use of her name.
She met his smile. “What’s his usual type?”
“Hope.” TJ’s low voice interrupted before Tucker could reply. “Go inside.”
Tucker said, “In the past? Difficult and impossible to get rid of. Lately, super easy and very short-term.”
“Tucker,” TJ said warningly.
From his voice, Hope could tell he’d moved closer. She glanced over her shoulder. TJ did not look pleased. “It’s not like I’m not going to learn every one of your secrets anyway,” she told him.
Bossy. And hot.
She rolled her eyes—and made sure he saw it—then left the boys out front and headed for the kitchen. She found Delaney just finishing loading the dishes in the dishwasher.
Hope crossed to the sink and rinsed the last two bowls before handing them to Delaney.
“What did Tucker mean when he said that TJ used to like difficult women who were impossible to get rid of and now he goes for super easy and short-term?” she asked. She wasn’t really a beat-around-the-bush kind of girl.
Delaney looked at her, both eyebrows up. “Tucker said that?”
Delaney sighed as if she wished Tucker hadn’t done that. “Okay. Well, there is a woman in TJ’s past who was…difficult. And who has been in and out of his life for years.”
Hope leaned back against the sink, bracing her hands behind her. “His ex?”
Delaney turned to fully face her. “You know about Michelle?”
Michelle. So that was her name. “Yes. Is that a good thing?”
Delaney grabbed a towel to dry her hands. “It’s a surprising thing. He doesn’t like to talk about her.”
“Here’s what I know,” Hope said. “They were married, she caused him a lot of trouble, cheated on him, they broke up, but she still calls him sometimes.”
Delaney’s eyes widened. “That took me almost a month to get out of him, and Tucker still had to tell me most of the details.”
They moved to the table. Hope took a seat and folded a leg up underneath her. “And now he goes for women who are…what?”
Delaney took the chair next to her. “Women he doesn’t know well. He never dates women from Sapphire Falls. He only sees them for a short time. Never introduces them to family or friends.”
Hope thought about that. Either he was protecting himself from finding another Michelle…or he was leaving himself open in case Michelle changed her mind.
Neither was good.
“So tell me some of these details about Michelle that you’ve learned,” Hope said.
“I don’t know if I should. Shouldn’t TJ tell you?”
“He will,” Hope said with confidence. TJ already trusted her, and she loved that he did even as his head was telling him he shouldn’t. “But I want your interpretation of it. As someone who knows him and loves him.” She wouldn’t ask just anyone she ran into in town about TJ. This was personal stuff. But this was someone he was close to, and Hope was working on a short timeline here. She wanted to know TJ and knew Delaney could tell her something that would take months to get out of TJ.
Delaney took a breath and seemed to be considering that. Then she nodded. “Okay, well, I know that she doesn’t deserve the attention he gives her.”
“Why does he give it to her then?”
“I think he feels obligated. I thinkhethinks that he loves her, but I don’t think he really does.”
Hope hated that TJ thought he was in love with this woman. And it didn’t surprise her that she cared. She had a compassion for people in pain of all kinds, and adding that to her physical and emotional attraction to TJ seemed like the perfect recipe for caring—a lot.
“Tell me about her.”
“They’ve known each other all their lives. They had a relationship in high school.”
“After he protected her from her stepfather,” Hope filled in.
Delaney shook her head. “Wow, he told you that too? Tucker had to tell me that part.”
Hope shrugged. “People always tell me stuff.” Sometimes even things she didn’t want to know. “I’m easy to talk to.”
“I guess so,” Delaney agreed. “But I think it’s great. TJ doesn’t lean on people—ever. He doesn’t open up. He doesn’t let people close easily at all.”
And all of that made him even more attractive to her. Hope loved a challenge. As the temporary help on her nursing assignments, she’d often been given the tough cases—the kid scared to death of needles, the woman who heard four different voices in her head, the old man who thought any woman under the age of fifty couldn’t be trusted. And she’d won them all over.
TJ Bennett didn’t scare her.
He fascinated her.
“I’ll help him with that,” Hope said. “Tell me more about Michelle.”
Delaney looked surprised and impressed by Hope’s confident declaration. “She lives about an hour away with her husband—the guy she cheated on TJ with. But she’s from here, so she comes home a lot to visit. She’s here at least once a month. She’ll go out partying, get drunk or in a fight or a sticky situation, or all of the above, and she calls TJ.”
“And he shows up every time,” Hope said.
“Every time,” Delaney said with a nod. “He’ll go pick her up, bail her out, smooth things over and let her sleep on his couch—or I’m sure he gives her the bed and he takes the couch.”
“They don’t…do they…” Hope wasn’t sure how to ask the question that was nagging her. Or if sheshouldask. It wasn’t her business. But it felt like it was.
“They don’t sleep together,” Delaney said. “Not since she left him.”
“That’s what he told Tucker?” Hope asked.
“That’s what Michelle told her girlfriends,” Delaney said. She grimaced slightly. “This is a very small town. It’s hard to keep a secret long.”
For which Hope was grateful in that moment.
“Do her parents still live here?” Hope asked.
“Yes. And her sister.”
“So if she and TJ aren’t sleeping together, why doesn’t she sleep on her parents’ couch?”
Delaney sighed. “Because it’s TJ. It’s not his style to dump her off on someone else when she’s calledhim.It’s their very complicated, dysfunctional…thing. She loves knowing that he’ll always be there for her, and she has to test it on a regular basis.”
“Her husband doesn’t come visit with her?”
“He stays home with their son.”
A son. Okay.
“So he stays home with their kid while she goes out partying and calling up her ex,” Hope said. “I’m guessing that gets her husband’s attention too.”
“You nailed it.”
“So TJ thinks he’s still in love with her?” It didn’t exactly bother her to think that. Mostly because she was fairly certain it wasn’t actually true. But Hope really wanted to help him getoverthat.
Delaney shrugged. “Maybe. TJ will do anything for the people he loves. I can’t figure out why else he puts up with her crap. But I think he’s also afraid of what she’ll do to get his attention if he tries to ignore her or tell her no. If she calls when she’s just a little drunk and needs a ride and he goes to get her, it keeps her from doing something stupid or reckless or dangerous.”
“This also gives TJ something he needs,” Hope said thoughtfully.
Delaney leaned her elbows in on the table and looked at Hope closely. “I think you’re right.”
“Where do you think this need to help her over and over comes from?” Hope asked. Delaney seemed to really care about TJ, and if he’d opened up to her at all that meant he trusted her, at least as much as he trusted anyone.
“TJ believes that being in someone’s life means you’re always in their life, no matter what happens, for better or worse.”
That sounded nice, on the surface. Until it led to an unhealthy dedication to a woman who used him repeatedly. Hope frowned.
“It’s almost as if…” Delaney paused as if thinking through what she wanted to say. “It’s almost as if the harder it is to love someone, the more it means to him.”
Hope thought about that. Something else that sounded nice but could mean a lot of heartache. “Where’s that come from?”
“Partly his mom and dad, I think,” Delaney said. “Evidently some stuff went down in the past—I know TJ ended up in jail for beating some guy up. Because of Michelle, of course. I know he got kind of dependent on the whiskey bottle after she left. But through it all, his family was there, especially his parents.”
“I happened to meet his dad earlier,” Hope said. “He seems great.”
“He’s the best,” Delaney said with true affection in her expression and tone. “He’s the textbook father figure.”
Hope inwardly grimaced at that. It would have bothered most people to find out their father might have cheated on their mother and had a child with another woman, but by all accounts, Thomas Bennett was revered. No wonder TJ had reacted so strongly to Hope’s initial claim that Thomas was her father too.
“So TJ wants to be like his mom and dad.”
Hope froze. Dan. Was there another Dan in these peoples’ lives? “Dan?”
“Dan Wells is Thomas’s best friend. He’s like an uncle to the boys.”
Nope. Same Dan. Okay. Hope worked on not revealing anything with her expression. “You think TJ wants to be like Dan?” She was happy that she didn’t stumble over the use of her father’s name.
“Kind of,” Delaney said with a nod. “Dan only has a daughter—who also gets into a lot of trouble.”
Two daughters, actually, but Hope kept her expression carefully stoic.
“The Bennett boys are like sons to him. Especially TJ.”
TJ was like a son to Hope’s father. That was also…interesting.
She was once again grateful to the heavens that none of this was actually biologically true.
“So Dan also stuck by him through those tough times?” Hope asked. She didn’t want to push too hard to get this information, but she suddenly felt hungry to know everything Delaney did about everything related to TJ.
“Definitely,” Delaney said. “And he’s seen both his dad and Dan really prove that love means toughing things out even when the other person doesn’t seem to deserve it.”
Hope coughed lightly and cleared her throat. For some reason, that choked her up. Probably because it reminded her of her mom. Hope had rebelled against almost everything Melody believed in. They’d had a number of heated arguments about medicine and healing, and Hope had accused her mother of being out of touch and worried thatrealmedicine would cut into her livelihood. But Melody had never said a harsh word back. “How so?” she finally asked.
“Dan’s wife suffers from some pretty serious issues. A lot of depression. I know she’s attempted suicide twice.”
Hope felt her mouth fall open. Suicide?Thatmight have been worth TJ and Thomas mentioning more specifically. No wonder they were freaked out about how Dan’s wife might react to her.
“Wow,” she finally managed.
“Yeah. And their daughter, Peyton, is a challenge. She’s a lot like Michelle—loves to party and get into trouble. She has terrible taste in men. She picks losers who move in with her so they don’t have to pay rent and run up her credit cards and push her around.”
Hope felt her heart clench at that. Her sister had some issues. She had a depressed, suicidal mother and boyfriends who treated her like garbage.
The feeling of protectiveness shocked her. Hope had never felt protective of anyone in her life. Not her mother—Melody had been completely self-reliant and had never needed protection. Not her patients—she was there to care for their illnesses and injuries, but she didn’t take that on herself. Not her friends—she didn’t have many who were all that close and she tended to migrate toward people who were strong and confident.
So the idea that she wanted to take care of a little sister she hadn’t even known she had before today and that she’d never met was entirely foreign.
“And Dan’s always been there,” Delaney said. “For them both. He’s never left Jo, even though I’m sure that would have been easier. He’s toughed it out. He’s shown everyone what real love is.”
Hope was torn at that.
Part of her loved the idea that her father knew how to love deeply and had been there for Hope’s sister. Sticking by someone’s side through it all was admirable, for sure. Not that she would know firsthand exactly. She’d been pulling herself through things on her own forever.
But it didn’t feel quite right either, that love had to be hard to be real. She loved that Thomas and TJ’s mom had been there no matter how much he screwed up. She loved the idea that a man could love a woman so much that there was nothing she could do to make him walk away. But part of her resisted it at the same time. First, that loving someone had to be a chore to be strong and real. And second, that people would put their loved ones through that. Everyone was ultimately responsible for themselves—their actions, their reactions, how they handled things. Everyone had bad things happen to them. Dragging the people they loved down with them didn’t seem very…loving.
Again, Hope worked to keep her expression mild. “So TJ thinks that it’s really love with Michelle because it’s hard.”
Delaney looked at her with a little frown. “What?”
“That’s been TJ’s model of love—the hard times, toughing it out, being there no matter what.”
“Isn’t that really love?” Delaney asked. “When the person is there for you no matter how bad things get?”
“Maybe,” Hope said. Honestly, she didn’t really know. If she had decided to drink herself into a stupor over something gone wrong, her mom would have left her alone to figure out that hangovers were no fun and weren’t productive. Of course, Hope had always met things head-on. She would never have thought that whiskey was the answer. “That’s part of it, I guess. But what about the good times? What about the things to celebrate?”
“Well…they’re there for that too,” Delaney said. “This family gathers for happy occasions too. All the time. They have dinners, barbecues, birthday parties, you name it.”
“But do they say the words or do they leave quiet, grumpy TJ alone because they think that’s what he wants?” Hope asked, her thoughts spinning.
“Say what words?”
“I’m here for you, I love you, you’re amazing, I’m happy you’re happy,” Hope said. She flashed back to that morning with TJ’s dad when the men had embraced and he’d told his dad he was the best man TJ knew. That had obviously been an unusual thing for both of them.
“I, um…” Delaney pondered that. “I don’t know if anyone specifically says that to TJ. But he knows it.”
“And does anyone go out of their way to want him around when things are good?” she went on. “Or does everyone play into his belief that the only time he can showhislove is when someone is in trouble?”
Delaney’s eyes widened. Hope didn’t worry about it. They were all supposed to think that she was strange. If ranting about how they should be treating TJ was strange, then it would go right along with the plan.
“I should warn you,” Delaney said. “TJ doesn’t do drama.”
Hope studied Delaney’s eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Well, that’s not exactly true,” Delaney hedged. “He does. With his family. Like with me and the boys—there’s been some drama. A trip to the ER, for instance. And he’s there for anything we need. There’s drama with Dan and Jo and Peyton,” she went on. “And with his brothers and friends and…”
“Michelle,” Hope filled in when Delaney hesitated.
Hope couldn’t get off the thought of Dan and Jo and Peyton, though. Clearly, TJ was closer to them and more involved with them than she’d initially assumed.
“So now with women, he avoids it at all costs,” Delaney said. “The minute one of them has a fight with her best friend or her dog gets sick, he’s out of there.”
Yeah, that didn’t surprise her. He’d warned her about the monkeys. “Seems like he overreacts.”
Delaney laughed. “I agree. And I’m sure the women agree.”
Hope was still thinking about all of that when they heard the front screen door open and Tucker and TJ’s voices.
Delaney reached out and grabbed Hope’s hand, lowering her voice. “With your mom just passing away and everything, don’t be too hurt if TJ pulls back. He’s trying to protect himself. I know it isn’t really fair, but if you need someone to talk to, you can come to me. I don’t want you to get hurt trying to lean on him.”
Hope squeezed Delaney’s hand. That was really sweet of her, and Hope would love to talk with Delaney more about both of their losses. But not because shecouldn’tlean on TJ.
She wasn’t much of a leaner in the first place, and she understood that was the last thing TJ needed.
She had a better plan for him than dumping family drama on him. She didn’t know anything about family drama anyway. Melody had been her only family, and she had been the complete opposite of needy and melodramatic. Eccentric and different, definitely, but not dramatic.
Hope had set out in her mother’s car with her mother’s camper, determined to get in touch with things that had made Melody who she was. Having a magical summer fling in Sapphire Falls seemed the perfect way to connect to her mother, and now she knew it would give TJ something he needed too—some no-strings-attached fun with a woman who would appreciate him, who would care for him, make him laugh, and give him some memories that would last a lifetime.
Tucker and TJ stepped into the kitchen and Delaney rose.
“So the bakery tomorrow morning for tea,” she said to Hope as if they’d simply been making plans for the next day.
“Can’t wait.” Hope remembered the oil and pulled the jar from her pocket. “This is for you.” She handed it to Delaney. “Rub just a dab into each of your temples and at the base of your head tonight before you go to sleep. It should help you fall asleep easier and stay asleep and will bring sweet dreams.”
Tucker and Delaney left and TJ stood looking at her from the doorway.
“Sweet dreams? Oil can do that?”
Hope shrugged and gave him a smile. “If she anticipates good dreams, the chances of having them are better.”
“So the oil really has nothing to do with it.”
Hope stood. “It won’t hurt. And itwillhelp her fall asleep faster.” She moved and pointed to the chair. “I have some for you too.”
“Some sweet dreams?”
She tipped her head. “I can work on that too.”
He looked at the chair. “What did you have in mind?”
They were alone in the house. They had the whole place to themselves. And she had decided to have a fling with him. The things she had in mind would probably shock him. Instead of giving him that list, however, she said, “Sit. I’m going to work on your shoulder.”
She pulled another jar from her other pocket. He eyed it suspiciously but took a seat.
“Need your shirt off.” She opened the jar and set it on the table.
She’d given Delaney a mixture of peppermint, lavender and sweet almond oil for her stress and tension, but for TJ she’d used some of her favorite whipped coconut oil and added marjoram for his muscle pain. The whipped oil was more like a lotion and her fingers tingled with the thought of rubbing over those firm muscles again. Yes, she’d massaged his shoulder earlier to help give him some pain relief, but touching him was definitely something she didn’t mind repeating.
TJ kept his eyes on hers as he lifted his shirt, breaking eye contact only when he tugged it over his head.
“Here.” She stepped forward and unhooked the strap on his shoulder sling. “You don’t need this anymore.”
He didn’t say anything, but she felt the need to explain anyway. “You’re well past the time needed for tissue healing. The longer you keep it immobile due to pain, the stiffer it’s going to get.” She slid the brace off his arm and tossed it onto the table.
TJ finished taking his shirt off, and Hope felt her heart rate pick up. He was gorgeous. His skin was golden from the sun, smooth but for the scars and the soft fan of hair over his pecs and stomach. He also seemed to put off an incredible amount of heat. Or maybe that was her. Either way, standing close to his bare skin made the temperature of the air around them climb.
She dipped two fingers in the cream and rubbed it between her hands, warming it and lubricating her palms and fingers. She moved behind him into the best position for acupressure on some key points and put her hands on him. Not able to see his face, she couldn’t read his reaction other than to note that his body tensed when she touched him. She hoped it was good tension.
Hope stroked her hands over both of his shoulders and up and down his neck several times, gradually increasing her pressure. Slowly, she moved until both hands were on his sore shoulder. She stroked over the firm muscles, closing her eyes and feeling the tissues underneath.
Yeah, he generated a lot of heat.
She worked over the entire surface of his shoulder blade and down into his deltoid before returning to the top of his shoulder, where most of the tightness was, and settling on a couple of acupressure sites she knew would release some tension.
His head dropped forward and she heard a low groan. Hope fought to keep her hands on his skin. Sure, in her mind she’d decided that a fun summer fling could be what they both needed—a lot. But touching him, feeling his body heat soak into her hands, feeling his torso move as air flowed in and out of his lungs, feeling his muscles softening under her touch and then feeling and hearing that sound of pleasure from him, was overwhelming her.
She wanted to absorb him, wrap herself around him, press against every inch of him. She felt a hunger building unlike anything she’d ever felt before. And that made her want to pull her hands back and turn and run.
There had been something about TJ Bennett from the very first moment that had affected her. A pull, a draw, a sense that he had something she needed—and vice versa. Even growing up with Melody Daniels, where weird and wacky were everyday occurrences, hadn’t prepared Hope for meeting TJ and wantingsomethingfrom him—something that went beyond sex and physical desire or simple like and attraction. It was something much more, something that she knew she’d never had, never even knew she wanted to have.
Rubbing his shoulder at the pond had been different than this. Maybe because while it had made his shoulder feel better, he’d really just been tolerating that. This was…giving him pleasure. And that pulled at something deep inside her. She wanted to do a lot more of it.
Then it occurred to her—the reason this was different for both of them… “It was the kiss!”
TJ’s head came up and he looked over his shoulder at her. “What?”
She’d said it out loud unintentionally, but that didn’t make it any less true. “At the pond we hadn’t kissed yet.”
Heat flared in his eyes. “I’m aware.”
She couldn’t smile in the face of that heat. She could barely breathe. “That’s why touching you then was different. Now, I touch you and all of that heat and awareness and desire shoot through me and—”
“Hope.” He held her gaze.
“Yes?” The breathlessness was very unlike her.
She somehow understood what he meant. She stepped around in front of him. He put his hands on her hips, moving her between his knees as he spread them. “You said you’d let me take charge.”
“Seducing me isn’t letting me take charge.”
She gave him a half smile. “Am I seducing you?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Aren’t you?”
Hope licked her lip and was thrilled to see his gaze follow the motion closely. “I think it could be fun.”
“I told you I don’t want any drama.”
“It wouldn’t be dramatic,” she said. “I promise. Just good, hot sex. Lots of it. But no costumes or toys or…whatever you’re worried about.”
He sighed, his expression pained. “That’s not exactly what I’m worried about.”
She tipped her head. “I’m guessing that you’ve had a lot of angry sex.”
He straightened on the chair and his fingers curled into her where he still held her hips. “Excuse me?”
“With Michelle. The sex was often after she’d gotten into trouble and she was either making it up to you or you were fighting and she used it to keep you from leaving.”
His jaw tightened. “You and Delaney got a lot of talking in.”
Hope hated the tension that was now emanating from him. Acting purely on instinct, she climbed onto his lap, straddling his thighs. She took his face in her hands.
“That’s not how sex has to be, TJ. It can be passionate, but it can be fun. It can be goofy and silly. It can be adventurous. But no matter what, it should make you feel good. It should make you happy. It should be about liking the other person and wanting to pleasure them, not about manipulating their emotions or paying some emotional debt or patching something that’s dysfunctional and painful.”
He sat staring at her. He still dug his fingers into her hips and was frowning, but she saw something else in his eyes—bewilderment. That was the best word for it. He was looking at her as if he didn’t know what to do with her. But also as if hewantedto do something.
“It’s not thesexthat I’m worried will be dramatic, Sunshine.”
Sunshine. Hmm, she kind of liked that.
“Nothingwill be dramatic,” she insisted.
He lifted one eyebrow. “Honey, you’re dripping in drama.”
Well, she clearly wasn’t dripping in pheromones. She was on the guy’s lap talking about sex and he was still holding back.
“I’m not,” she told him. “I’m one of the most straightforward people you’ll meet.”
“The whole reason you’re here is all about drama and emotions.”
“I changed my mind.” She ran her hand back and forth over his jaw. His evening scruff abraded her palm, sending tingles to other parts of her that wanted to rub against other parts of him.
“You changed your mind about what?”
“Why I’m here.”
“Nope.” He pulled away from her hands as he pushed her back on his thighs. “No way.”
To avoid getting dumped on her butt on the floor, Hope scrambled to get her feet down and stand. She propped her hands on her hips. “What?”
“I’m not doing this.” TJ got to his feet, towering over her. “You’re beautiful and sweet and you smell amazing and the way you helped Delaney and Tucker made me want you even more and I can’t stop looking at your earrings, butI’m not doing this. You need to focus on why you’re here.”
She blinked a few times. He thought she was beautiful and sweet and smelled good. That was all positive. She wasn’t sure what to make of the earring comment, but she couldn’t help her smile. “I’m focused. In fact, I’mmorefocused now.”
“On me.” He didn’t look pleased.
“Yes. On you.”
He sighed. “Stop it. You want to meet your dad.”
“Yes. I’ll meet Dan. I’ll talk to him, get to know him a little bit. But I don’t need him to know who I am or what I want. No drama, TJ. Nobody gets stirred up. Nothing has to change. Dan and I will have a cup of coffee and everything will be fine.”
“All so you can have sex with me?”
She thought about that. Then gave him a big smile. “Yes.”
He shoved a hand through his hair. “I was starting to think the crazy thing was mostly an act,” he said, almost as if he was talking to himself.
“You need to have fun, hot sex with a girl who likes you. Who really justlikesyou and wants you to feel good.”
He frowned. “I like it hard and dirty.”
Her entire body went soft and hot at that. “It can be hard and dirty. You can put me up against the wall. You can say wonderful, naughty things to me. But the whole time, you’ll be having fun, and you’ll know I’m there just because Iwantto be. No agenda. And you’ll know thatyou’rethere because you like me and want me to feel good. Nothing more complicated than that.”
He stepped close, looking down at her intently. He put a fingertip against her cheek and stroked back and forth. “I’m not sleeping with you the very first day we meet, Sunshine,” he said softly
God, she really liked that Sunshine thing. And the gentle touch. And that intense look in his eyes.
“Okay then, tomorrow is good for me.”
He stood just looking at her for another moment. Then he stepped back. “You can take the room at the top of the stairs.”
He turned and was gone a second later.
Hope thought about that as she went to the camper and gathered what she’d need for the night.
He hadn’t saidnoabout the sleeping together entirely.
And he thought she was beautiful and sweet and smelled good.
And he called her Sunshine.
So far her trip to Sapphire Falls had been full of surprises. Good surprises.
Exactly like her mother’s trip had been twenty-six years ago.
TJ was pissed the next morning.
For the first time in months, his shoulder hadn’t bothered him during the night.
He should have been able to sleep the sleep of the dead and should have awakened refreshed and happy.
He’d still slept like shit. Because of a throbbing body part.
Just because it wasn’t his shoulder didn’t mean it was any less bothersome. It might have beenmorebothersome. There was no one to really blame for his shoulder pain. The surgeon had done what he could.
But there was a colorful, pixie-ish hippie girl to blame for the other throbbing.
TJ threw the empty plastic bucket against the side of the barn with exaggerated force.
The ankle bracelets and the earrings and the tattoo weren’t enough—she had to be sweet to Delaney and she had to kiss him like it was her sole purpose in life and she had to want to take care ofhim.
That shouldnotbe appealing. When his mother and sister-in-law and friends hovered and fussed, it made him cranky. When Hope said she was going to focus on him… Well, it wasn’t just his cock that responded.
Of course, her straddling his lap and looking at him with those big green eyes and smelling like something he’d like to stick his nose into for a good long time had made his cock very responsive as well.
She was avegetarian. That alone should make him steer clear. And she had pink hair, and claimed that she couldreadhim, and mixed up strange concoctions from a big wooden apothecary box in the back of her teeny tiny trailer with the Arizona license plate.
She should be the last woman he wanted anything to do with.
Instead, he’d lain awake most of the night thinking about her proposal to basically have a fun, hot fling this summer.
TJ stomped up toward the house. He needed to get things moving with her meeting up with Dan. Whether or not she told Dan who she really was, he didn’t care. He just needed her to meet Dan and have that over with. Surely once she actually met her father she would be thinking more about him and their relationship than she would be paying attention tohim.
TJ approached the front of the house with some trepidation.
That he was wary of a woman who was almost a foot shorter than him and weighed less than half of his body weight should have been funny. TJ, however, preferred to think of it as a gut feeling he should give a lot of respect.
He climbed the porch steps at half speed and took a deep breath before he pulled the door open. He’d left the house at daybreak, as usual, and hadn’t seen or heard Hope in the house. Maybe she was the sleep-’til-noon type. That would also make hernothis type. He was a farmer. There was no sleeping in. Or time off. Or snow days. No matter what was going on, his farm, especially his animals, needed him.
The house was quiet and he tread carefully across the floors that tended to creak in the middle of the hallway and just to the left of the couch.
He was practically tiptoeing. In his own house. Because of a girl who he was going to eventually have to face. And what was he so afraid of anyway? That he’d grab her and lift her up against the wall like she’d given him permission to do last night? While he talked dirty. He couldn’t forget that part. Literally. He couldnotforget that part, no matter how hard he tried.
Disgusted with himself—his lack of self-control and the fact that he was feeling anxious about being in his own damn house—TJ frowned and started stomping again.
He stomped through the living room and into the kitchen.
But the noise didn’t bring Hope running.
And as he stomped across the kitchen to the refrigerator, he saw why.
The back window in the kitchen looked out over his backyard.
Where Hope was sitting cross-legged on a purple yoga mat next to his flower garden.
And she was naked.
She was facing away from the window, but she was definitely naked.
There was a silky pool of multicolored material around her, as if she’d shed her clothes sitting right there. But her back was bare from the tops of her shoulders to the dimples at the flare of her hips.
TJ gripped the glass in his hand and was grateful it was plastic. He could have cut himself on the shards from crushing anything made of glass in his fist. As it was, the plastic bent with the pressure he applied and he almost cracked it anyway.
What the fuck was she doing sitting in his backyard naked?
It looked as if she was sitting in a yoga position. He’d dated another girl who was into yoga and he’d seen enough to recognize the mat and the pose. But Hope wasn’t just doing yoga. He was pretty sure she was also trying to make him nuts.
And, yes, he did think it was at least partially intentional.
He could easily conjure the exact shape of her breasts and the color of her nipples from the day before, and his tongue tingled with the urge to lick every inch.
He supposed he could turn around and find something else to do until she was done out there. Then again, there was a beautiful naked woman in his backyard. Turning away from the window seemed silly. If not impossible.
TJ forced his hand to relax and unbend the plastic cup before filling it with water. He drank. Refilled it and drank again. Without ever taking his eyes from the woman by his flowers.
She really did something for him.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been with beautiful women. He had as much female attention as he wanted. Her beauty and even her sweetness weren’t what called to him. Sapphire Falls and the surrounding area—hell, the entire state of Nebraska, in his opinion—was full of beautiful, sweet women. They grew them right here.
Hope shifted to cross one leg over the other and twisted her trunk the opposite direction. The position brought the side of her breast into view, and he couldn’t help but take a moment to appreciate how very, very nice that view was.
He cleared his throat and filled the glass again.
It also wasn’t Hope’s independence that called to him, though that was certainly appealing. He liked a girl who could take care of herself. He really did. No, his history did not support that theory. Michelle’s dependence on him for everything from car care to assuring her she was attractive and loved had gotten to him from minute one. But he was older and wiser now. That was not the way to sustain a long-term relationship. He knew that a healthy, solid relationship was aboutbothpeople. Theirs had always been all about Michelle. He’d made her feel safe, desired, worthy and loved. But it had never been a two-way street with Michelle. It had never been a partnership. And Hope had been completely accurate last night when she’d said that Michelle had made it all up to him with sex.
The sex had been good. Really good. From a physical perspective anyway. Michelle had been willing to do anything and was as wild and adventurous in bed as she was in every other aspect of her life. For a young guy, she’d been a dream come true. There wasn’t much they hadn’t done.
Of course, looking back now, he definitely saw that sex was the only thing she’d given him. It was the only thing shecouldgive him. She hadn’t loved him. Maybe hadn’t even cared about him all that much—at least not as much as she’d cared about herself.
So Hope’s independence was attractive. As was her confidence. She seemed to know exactly who she was, what she needed and what she wanted. He liked that. A lot. Michelle had never been sure about anything—except forhim. With him as a sure thing, she didn’thaveto know anything else for certain.
Hope shifted again, twisting her body in the other direction, and he got to check out that breast as well. Yes, very nice.
Okay, so naked yoga in his backyard wasn’t aterribleidea. If he treated it like a spectator sport, he’d be fine. He watched football but didn’t actually get on the field and get sweaty. This could be the same.
He immediately felt sleazy. He was watching a woman without her knowledge. Yes, she was inhisbackyard and she had to know that he was here somewhere. Plus, she’d been happily topless in front of him yesterday with no encouragement.
Still, he should probably say something.
She moved so that her legs were straight out in front of her and then bent forward until her head touched her knees.
And TJ simply couldn’t help but take another moment to note how flexible she was.
He shook his head. He needed to get away from the window. He also needed to set up the first meeting between her and Dan.
But then she moved again. She stood, lifting her hands to the sky, elongating her spine. He could imagine how that looked from the front as well. Her breasts high and proud, thrusting forward, the tight nipples begging for his hands…and mouth.
TJ shifted and set the glass down. Hereallyneeded to move. Or go out there. To tell her that he was here, of course. Not to join her. Not to run his hands and tongue all over that smooth, golden skin and those tight muscles. Her body would be warm from the sun and her skin would have that sweet, flowery smell he already associated with her, accented by the fresh air and actual flowers around her.Hisfresh air and flowers.
And he could not deny that the idea of something ofhisscenting her body was damn erotic and too fucking tempting.
He tossed the cup into his sink and started for the back door. Why had he thought he could resist her? The minute he’d seen her on the hood of her little yellow car, he’d been a goner.
He stepped off the back step as she shifted her pose again, this time drawing one foot up to rest against the opposite knee. Her arms were still over her head and the position of her leg opened her thighs.
TJ’s whole body reacted. He knew yoga was an incredibly healthy practice. It was a way of stretching and toning the whole body. But the poses were also very sexual. Hands down. He was not the only person who thought so. He knew he could poll a million people and a million people would agree that yoga poses were sexual.
And what had Hope said last night? Sex should be fun and should make you feel good and happy?
He was in.
She shifted again as he crossed the grass. She moved to pull her leg up behind her, balancing on the other leg and reaching back with one hand to grasp her ankle and extending her other arm out in front.
TJ almost swallowed his tongue.
He couldn’t seeeverything, but he could see enough. More than enough.
He stopped several feet from her. If he got any closer, she was going to have grass stains on all that gorgeous skin.
She held the pose but looked back at him. “Morning.”
So him watching her didn’t seem to bother her. That didn’t surprise him.
A lot of things about Hopehadsurprised him since she’d blown into his life, but he was starting to figure her out, it seemed. She was the most comfortable-in-her-skin person he’d ever met. It wasn’t that the people in Sapphire Falls were uptight—okay, some of them were uptight, definitely—but mostly they were simply…conservative. And in Sapphire Falls, the people you met and the things you experienced were wonderful, but they were…not particularly diverse.
There had been some new people coming to town over the past few years. Mason Riley, a hometown guy, had moved back and brought his world-renowned agricultural engineering company and most of its employees with him. His partner, Lauren, had come to town from the big city and married TJ’s younger brother Travis. Joe Spencer, a millionaire playboy who’d grown up in and around the nightlife in Vegas, had come to Sapphire Falls and fallen for a local girl, Phoebe. And then Joe’s brother had come from Vegas and met and fallen for another out-of-towner, Kate.