Authors: Cathie Linz
Tags: #Romance, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Pennsylvania, #Single Women, #Contemporary, #General, #Sociologists, #Fiction, #Love Stories
Gobsmacked Knob, Rock Creek, and all the people and places in this book existed only in my imagination and would have stayed there without the encouragement of a lot of people.
Fellow writer and good friend Jayne Ann Krentz, who said, “You can do it!” from day one.
My Chilebabe buddies—Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Lindsay Longford, Margaret Watson, and Suzette Vann—who have been lifesavers on more than one occasion. I’m honored and blessed to have you in my life.
Fellow writer and good friend Jennifer Greene, who shares retail therapy with me along with so many other things.
My best friend since I was five—De Patch all the way up in Alaska—for always being there for me no matter what. You are a sister to me and I love you.
All the SEPPIES online, especially Lizzie, Ann, Lynne, Lynda, Teble, Tracey, Carolyn, and Jeanna.
My family for understanding what deadline dementia really means and loving me anyway.
Special kudos to the great people at Berkley including assistant editor Leis Pederson, who never laughs at me when I beg for books; art director George Long, who gives me such awesome covers; and PR guru Julia Fleischaker, who likes my PR photo and works hard on my behalf. You all rock!
Last but never least, my readers and the hundreds of book-sellers (especially the crew at my hometown store, Anderson’s!) and librarians who spread the word about my books and make my day by e-mailing me saying how my stories have touched them. You’re the reason I write.
Riley’s arrival in her hometown of Rock Creek, Pennsylvania, was quiet and uneventful— just like her life up to that point. Emma wasn’t the kind of person who made a splash and that was okay with her.
It clearly wasn’t okay with her older sisters Sue Ellen and Leena, who were standing before her in the living room of the mobile home in which they’d all grown up. Her sisters were eyeing her outfit with varying degrees of disapproval.
“What?” Emma adjusted her glasses to look down at her khaki skirt and blue polo shirt.
“You look like a librarian,” her sister Leena, the former plus-size model, said.
Emma found nothing wrong with the comparison. “Yeah, so?”
Leena and Sue Ellen shook their heads in unison.
Emma was used to her family shaking their heads at her. Leena, the pretty one, was only two years older than Emma. Sue Ellen was the oldest. Both her sisters were getting married this summer, but that was another story.
Right now Emma was focused on other matters—like walking into the local bar in search of a man. And not just any man, but the sexiest guy in town.
“You’ll never get him to say yes wearing that,” Leena said.
“You need to show some cleavage.” Sue Ellen reached out to undo the top four buttons on the polo shirt. “And some leg. I could cut that skirt shorter—”
“Forget it.” Emma hurriedly took a few steps back. “I’m not trying to get the man to propose to me. You two are the brides-to-be.”
Emma should never have told her sisters about her plans for the afternoon, but she was so excited about her research project that she’d just had to share. Big mistake. Where she saw academic possibilities, they saw sex.
As a sociologist, Emma knew that family relationships were complicated. And her family’s dynamics were particularly thorny. Even though she was twenty-seven, her sisters still viewed her through the lens of their childhood.
“You need to walk into Nick’s Tavern from a position of power,” Leena said. “And you can do that by feeling confident about yourself.”
“Right,” Emma noted wryly. “And you two tearing down my appearance is a surefire way to boost my confidence.”
“We’re just trying to help you.”
“Well, stop it. I’ve got to go.” Emma grabbed the keys to her blue Prius and left the mobile home.
Emma had been back in town only two days, and already she was feeling the gnawing affects.
That had to stop. She knew her sisters loved her. But they didn’t get her.
Looking at her reflection in her Prius’s rearview mirror, she said, “You are a strong and capable woman.” The affirmation would have been more powerful had she not laughed at the end of it.
Emma couldn’t help it. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t seem to get the affirmation thing down pat.
Yes, she was here for professional reasons, and yes, she was here for her sisters’ weddings.
But Emma had also returned to her roots to figure out who she was. Somehow she’d gotten lost along the stressful academic fast track she’d been on for the past ten years.
There was a name for what she was feeling. Quarter-life crisis. So called because it usually hit twenty-somethings who were a quarter of the way through their life when they started doubting themselves. A boatload of fears, doubts, and insecurities had Emma second-guessing all the choices she’d made so far. Plus she was stuck with student loan debt that she often felt would take her two or three lifetimes to pay off.
While it was true that Emma loved her work, she wasn’t as sure about her actual job as an assistant professor at a very small college. Her salary was certainly nothing to brag about, and she constantly had to prove herself. Publish or perish was very much a reality for her.
Which was why this research project was so incredibly important. She had to make it work.
She’d only been teaching for a year. As the last one hired in her department, she’d be the first one laid off. The job she had was definitely preferable to no job at all.
Glancing again in the rearview mirror, Emma belatedly realized she hadn’t refastened the buttons on her polo shirt that Sue Ellen had undone. She waited until she’d pulled the Prius into a parking spot in downtown Rock Creek before fixing that. She wasn’t so desperate that she had to use what little cleavage she had to get what she wanted. At least not yet.
Even considering such a thing was very unprofessional. And Emma prided herself on being professional. Not that pride would pay off her remaining student loans.
She paused to unfasten the top two buttons on the shirt, telling herself she was only doing so because it was a warm June day.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled open the door to Nick’s Tavern and entered. The darkness inside made it difficult for Emma to see at first. The place seemed like the Batcave compared to the bright sunlight outside. Once her eyes adjusted to the change, her gaze traveled over to the bar and the man standing behind it.
She’d heard that bartender Jake Slayter was a bad boy “hottie,” but even so Emma wasn’t prepared for her reaction to him. The guy’s wow factor was clear off the charts! So was her response. Her heart beat faster, her palms became damp, and her womb tightened. All classic signs in the science of attraction.
Ordinarily she wasn’t into ogling men. There were no calendars of naked males on her bedroom walls. That was her sister Sue Ellen’s thing, not hers. Emma’s few relationships with the opposite sex had been with guys who were more geeky than hunky. The most recent had been Ted Howser, who had a master’s degree in information technology and in his spare time had edited a trivia book on the BBC television series
She and Ted had recently agreed to call things off but remain friends. The truth was that their six-month-long relationship hadn’t been all that passionate to begin with. He’d never even given her an orgasm.
Jake Slayter was the kind of man who instantly made a woman think of orgasms.
Emma drank him in—his dark brown hair, wide shoulders, and golden brown eyes.
Brooding eyes. A black T-shirt revealed a thorny tattoo on his right upper arm. Rumor had it that Jake had made a name for himself in extreme sports, but a climbing injury had put an end to that. A quick search on Google had confirmed that information. But no one knew what he was doing in Rock
Creek, and apparently no one was brave enough to ask. Until now.
“Are you going to stand there by the door all day or come on in?” he growled impatiently.
“I’m, uh . . .” Emma cleared her throat and tightened her hold on her navy blue North Face backpack. “I’m here to interview you.”
His expression instantly turned stone cold. “I don’t speak to the press.”
“I’m not a reporter.” She nudged her glasses higher on the bridge of her nose. She didn’t really need them except for reading, but she thought they made her look more serious.
Hiding behind glasses might be a cliche, but hey, it worked for her. She never claimed to be perfect. Far from it.
“I’m a sociologist. I’m interviewing all the newcomers to Rock Creek for a research project I’m doing—”
Jake cut her off. “I’m not interested.”
“But I haven’t even told you about my project yet.”
He glared at her. “What part of
do you not understand?”
Emma refused to give up. This was too important. She was a woman on a mission. Wearing smart-girl glasses. “Maybe we should start over.” She climbed up onto a bar stool, tugged her conservative khaki skirt over her knees, and then placed her backpack on the stool beside her in order to remove her ever-present laptop. “I’m evaluating the resurgence of Rock Creek over the past year. And why so many people have been drawn here recently.”
“Don’t care. Still not interested.”
Okay, the guy’s attitude was beginning to aggravate her. It’s not like she was asking for anything outrageous here. He could at least give her a fair chance. “I won’t take much of your time.”
“You’ve got that right.”
Even though Emma’s job was studying people and their behavior, she often felt awkward around them. Not that she let it show. She couldn’t afford to. “If you’d just let me explain—”
“See that?” He pointed to the NO SOLICITING sign next to the register.
“I’m not trying to sell you anything.”
He folded his muscular arms over his broad chest. “Do you want a drink or not?”
“I don’t suppose you have a nice California Riesling?”
“We don’t serve wine.”
“Right.” She paused a moment to consider her options. Not just in the drink department but in her approach to Jake. She hadn’t expected him to be so grumpy. Maybe she should try something else. Her coworker and buddy Nadine Parsen had an adolescent son who was a huge fan of Jake’s and longed for his autograph. Maybe she should have started out by asking him about that.
Eyeing his grim expression, Emma decided that topic of conversation wouldn’t be any easier to tackle. Instead she took a moment to study her surroundings. The grungy paneled walls of Nick’s Tavern had definitely seen better days. Unlike most of the rest of the town, no attempt had been made to upgrade or update anything here. Jake was by far the best looking thing in the place.
Which brought her back to the man with the incredible wow factor. She wasn’t about to give up on Jake. Not because of her intensely physical reaction to him. She needed him in order for her research study to be successful. This was strictly professional. She couldn’t afford to be a wimp.
“There must be some way I can convince you,” Emma said.
He leaned closer. “Is that an offer?”
She couldn’t reply, momentarily distracted by the fact that he had the thickest lashes and most intense eyes she’d ever seen. Dark and mysterious. Irish poet eyes. Orgasm-promising eyes.
“Go ahead. Try me,” he said huskily.
Her eyes slid to his mouth. She licked lips suddenly gone dry. Images of him bare chested and begging to pleasure her suddenly filled her mind.
Yeah, like that was ever going to happen.
But, oh, it was a powerful fantasy. Especially since her romantic reality had been so lacking lately.
“Forget about him. Try
instead,” a man drunkenly slurred in her ear as he grabbed her derriere and squeezed hard. “Or better yet, I’ll try you.”
Her gasp of outrage was instantly followed by a sinister glare from Jake. “Back off, Roy,”
“Or what, pretty boy?” Roy taunted. “What ya gonna do about it? You think you can claim every woman in this town, even the ugly ones?”