Authors: Cathie Linz
Tags: #Romance, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Pennsylvania, #Single Women, #Contemporary, #General, #Sociologists, #Fiction, #Love Stories
“That would be a good idea,” Emma agreed. She waited until her mother had actually exited the bar before telling Jake, “Forget everything she said about the wedding.”
“Why? Was she making it up?”
“No, my sisters are getting married. Two weeks apart. But that’s not your problem.”
What, Jake was suddenly turning into Dr. Phil on her now? Why was he asking her stuff like that?
“I just meant that you don’t have to worry about me taking your comment seriously.”
“Which comment exactly?”
“The one about taking me to the weddings.”
“Why do you have a problem with that?”
“I already told you. You don’t know me.”
“Taking you to your sister’s weddings is a good way of fixing that.”
“Why would you want to know me better? Never mind.” She hurriedly stuffed her laptop into her backpack. “I shouldn’t have asked that.”
“Because it was a personal question.”
“You don’t think asking me why I came to this town is a personal question?”
“Not in the same way.”
“Because I was asking you out of professional curiosity. No,
isn’t the right word.”
Come on, Em,
she told herself.
Get your act together here. Be coherent. Be precise. Be the
totally in control academic you pretend to be.
“I was asking as part of my study.” When he said nothing, she added, “What I mean is my interest in you isn’t personal.”
“What if mine is?”
She frowned in confusion. “What personal reason could you have in wanting to go to my sisters’ weddings?”
“Are a lot of people coming?”
“Then it’s a chance for me to get to know some of the citizens of Rock Creek.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “You don’t strike me as the kind of man who is a people person.”
“Bartenders have to be good with people.”
If that was the case, then why had he growled at her when she’d first walked in the bar? Not exactly the mark of a friendly extrovert.
“Why that look?” he said. “You don’t think I’m good with people?”
Far be it from her to make that judgment call. She was a bit of a social misfit herself. Okay, maybe more than a bit. She’d definitely gotten all the nerdy genes in her family. “You’re probably great with people,” she said.
“Probably?” He leaned closer and fixed those intense Irish poet eyes of his on her. “Sounds to me like you have some doubts on the matter.”
Emma was unable to reply given the fact that her tongue suddenly seemed stuck to the roof of her mouth. He was like some hottie scrambling device that messed up her internal communication system.
He raised one dark eyebrow. “If you don’t think I’m the type to be a people person, what type of guy do you think I am?”
The type to make a woman think of orgasms. Not that she could share that extremely intimate opinion with him.
“I don’t know.” That would apply to orgasms as well. She was no expert in that department.
“Aren’t you interested in finding out?”
“I, uh . . .” Could she possibly sound more tongue-tied? The problem was she absolutely was interested in finding out more about him . . . and orgasms.
“I’m interested in finding out more about you,” he said. “You definitely managed to get my attention.”
Probably because she’d kicked Roy in the bar. Dumb move on her part. She was still unsettled from that incident. Maybe that’s why she was feeling so susceptible to Jake’s sex appeal. “I don’t want your attention, I want your demographic.”
“Then accept my invitation.”
“Are you saying that if I let you come with me to the weddings, you’ll agree to participate in my research study?”
“I’ll agree to consider it.”
“Only consider it?”
“That’s my best offer. Take it or leave it.”
She desperately wanted to leave it. She couldn’t figure out Jake’s motivation in wanting to come with her. She wasn’t buying his story about wanting to meet more citizens of Rock Creek. He had a reason that had nothing to do with her. And he wasn’t about to tell her what it was.
She certainly didn’t believe that he was interested in her. Hotties like him never went for plain-Jane brains like her. No, he had some other agenda.
She was dying to ask him what made him go from not interested to a possible yes. Was he just stringing her along? Probably. But again, she didn’t have much choice here. She needed him. His participation was pivotal to her research. And he had seemed to pay attention when she’d been talking about the details of her study. Which reminded her . . .
“Listen, before I forget, my friend’s son is a big fan of yours,” she said. “You’re one of his heroes or something. Would you be willing to sign an autograph for him? His name is Liam.”
Slam. Jake’s expression closed up tighter than a drum. “I don’t do autographs.” His tone was downright rude.
“Fine.” He made her feel like pond scum for asking the question in the first place. She returned her laptop to her backpack and pointed at the five-dollar bill still on the scarred bar.
“How much do I owe you for my mom’s drink?” Her voice was almost as curt as his had been.
His expression was stone-cold. “Is this study of yours some kind of smoke screen to get me to do an interview?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “What?”
“You heard me.”
She chose her words carefully. Otherwise she’d singe his sexy eyebrows off with her anger.
“Do you want me to be completely honest with you?”
“That would be a good idea.”
“Then the truth is I’d never even heard of you before I started the research for my project.
You may be some big extreme sports guy in your world, but it’s not like you’re a quarterback for the Steelers or anything. You’re not from PA or you’d know this is football country. Liam just happens to follow that extreme sports stuff for some reason. I don’t know why. He also likes the music of The Roots and Vampire Weekend. I don’t know much about them either.”
“How do you know I’m from out of state?”
“I looked you up online. Just for the basics. You grew up in California, as I recall. I only got the bare minimum on you and then stopped, because I didn’t want any preconceived notions ruining my research. The bottom line is that I don’t care how many races you’ve won or trophies you have. I’m only interested in you in regard to Rock Creek and your reasons for being here.”
Jake had no intention of telling her his real reason for landing in Rock Creek. He was here on a personal mission—to track down his biological mother. He’d taken a temporary job as the bartender at Nick’s Tavern while trying to put together a list of likely female suspects who might have given birth to him. The only clue he had was that she’d lived in Rock Creek. The private investigator he’d hired hadn’t given him much else to go on. The adoption had been a private one, the records sealed. The agency that had handled it had gone out of business after a fire destroyed most of their records. So here he was, scrounging for information.
Trust had never been an easy deal for him. Not given his background. None of the information about him online said anything but the briefest of references to his years in the foster system, and he liked it that way. There was no mention of his running away at seventeen, of crossing the border into Mexico to work as a bartender for a summer when he turned eighteen, of his returning to the States a few months later, returning to the slopes and snowboarding.
Jake’s love of snowboarding had been ingrained in him at a young age, before those dark years in foster care. He’d had loving adoptive parents back then; his dad had given him his first snowboard when he was four. Both his parents loved the mountains around Lake Tahoe, and he’d spent his early childhood flying down those trails, the wind in his face, the exhilaration of freedom in his veins.
Those days had abruptly ended with his parents’ death in a car accident one icy night.
Snowboarding wasn’t in the foster care system’s program so he made do with a used and battered skateboard instead. But he’d always known he’d return to the mountains someday.
And he had.
He’d become the Tom Brady of extreme sports, from snowboarding to mountain biking to developing new ways to fly faster down a mountain. He’d dominated his competition. He was known as Slayter the Slayer. He was invincible, always in search of the ultimate thrill.
“Do you want me to show you my sociology degree?” Emma’s exasperated question brought him back to the present.
“Do you carry it with you?”
“No. But I have my business card. Will that do?” She slid it across the bar to him.
The card was as prim and proper as she was. So were her fingers. No fancy manicures for her. Yet there was a fire beneath that controlled exterior that made Jake wonder what she’d be like in bed.
It wouldn’t be the first time that his curiosity had gotten him into trouble. Hell, he’d wondered what climbing the southern slope of that mountain peak in the middle of the Andes would be like and he’d found out—almost losing his life in the process.
His entire life had been one big risk after another up to that point. Only after coming back from the jagged edge of death had he started questioning things in his past. His curiosity had never extended to his own background before. Until now.
Which meant he had enough on his mind without getting distracted by a woman. She was no babe on a bar stool. But she could well be his ticket into the behind-the-scenes stuff in this town.
If it cost him an autograph, so be it. No big deal. “What was that kid’s name again? Liam?”
He reached for a pad of paper near the cash register and scribbled his name. “Here.”
He could tell by her expression that she wanted to tell him to go to hell. But he suspected that she was too polite to do that. He could practically see her weighing the pros and cons—
but in the end she took the autograph as he’d known she would. She wouldn’t let her friend’s kid down. Just as she wouldn’t refuse to have him go with her to her sisters’
weddings. Because he had something she wanted. And for once, it wasn’t his body she was after. Yet.
But he could change that. And he would. Because he wanted her body, and Jake had a way of getting what he wanted.
Late that afternoon, Maxie stared at the suitcases Emma had gathered by the mobile home’s front door before giving Emma a mother-knows-best look. “Are you moving out because I asked that handsome man to accompany you to your sisters’ weddings?”
“No. I told you that I was subletting a furnished studio apartment in town.”
“I don’t remember you saying that.”
No surprise there. Her mother didn’t register half of what she said. Instead her focus was on the two upcoming weddings. Which was fine by Emma. She certainly didn’t want her mom interfering with her own personal life any more than she already had by involving Jake at the bar today.
“The apartment wasn’t available until this evening,” Emma said.
“But you don’t need it. You can stay here in the trailer with me. Sue Ellen is practically living with her fiance and so is Leena. Living with Cole, I mean, not that Sue Ellen and Leena are both living with Donny.”
Emma ignored her mom’s convoluted comment and stuck to her guns. “It’ll be easier if I have my own place for the summer.”
“That’s just it. You’ll only be here for a few months. So why waste money paying rent on an apartment?”
Because I’d suffocate if I stayed here.
“I need to work in a quiet environment,” Emma said.
“I can be quiet. It’s your sisters who are rowdy.”
“Are you talking about us behind our backs again, Mom?” Sue Ellen demanded as she walked into the trailer with several shopping bags dangling over each arm. Leena was right behind her.
“What did she say?” Leena’s voice reflected her suspicion.
“I was just commenting to your baby sister that I do know how to be quiet,” Maxie said.
Leena rolled her eyes and waited until Sue Ellen and their mom had retreated to a back bedroom before she told Emma, “Don’t believe a word she says. No way can Mom be quiet.
Did I ever tell you about the time she came to visit me on a photo shoot in Chicago? Mom swore up and down that she wouldn’t say anything. She promised me that no one would even know she was there.
And do you know what happened?”
Emma shook her head.
“She made so much trouble bossing the hair and makeup people around that she got me kicked off the photo shoot along with her.”
“She came to the bar today,” Emma said.
“She did?” Leena shook her head and gave Emma a commiserating hug. “I told Sue Ellen not to say anything about your trip, but you know how she is. She takes after Mom.”
And who do I take after?
Emma wondered. She wasn’t outgoing and rowdy like Sue Ellen.
And she wasn’t confident and feisty like Leena. Both her sisters had gotten their emotional approach to life from their mom. Maybe Emma was more like her father. Not one to wear his heart on his sleeve.
A man of few words. No, she wasn’t really like him either.
“Is Dad coming to the wedding?” Emma asked.
“Whoa, where did that question come from?”
“Well, you and Sue Ellen haven’t talked about it. Is Dad giving Sue Ellen away? Is he giving you away?”
“Look, we’re not as close to Dad as you are.”
“Because of his drinking?”
Leena shot her a look of surprise. “You knew about that?”
Emma nodded. “I have some vague memories. But Dad hasn’t had a drink in twenty years.”
“I know that. He’s just not a touchy-feely kind of guy, you know?”
“And that’s why you don’t want him giving you away at your wedding?”
“What do you mean you’re not having your father give you away?” Maxie said from the hallway as she walked toward them.
“Sorry,” Emma mouthed to her sister.
“I’m a big girl now,” Leena said. “I don’t need anyone giving me away.”
“You’ve always been a big girl,” Maxie said. “Large boned. But I don’t see how that has anything to do with your father giving you away. Are you saying that if you weren’t a size sixteen, you would have him in the ceremony?”