Julia started her car, backed out of her parking space. More vehicles entered the lot while she made her way to the exit. It appeared what had started out as a slow night at Boot Scootin’ would soon turn livelier.
Meeting a lot of people might jerk her out of her restlessness, but Julia didn’t have the energy to smile and make small talk tonight. She simply wanted to be alone.
She entered Dolly’s house through the back door into the kitchen. After putting her container of food in the refrigerator, she wandered into the living room. The sun would set soon, so she turned on a couple of lamps to fight off dusk’s gloom.
In no mood to watch television, she went to her bedroom to retrieve the book she’d started reading last night. After helping herself to a glass of white wine from the kitchen, she returned to the living room and curled up in a corner of the couch.
No more than ten minutes passed when she saw the flash of headlights through one of the windows. How odd. Dolly told her the bar closed at two a.m., so she usually didn’t get home until almost three-thirty. She shouldn’t be home for hours yet.
Deciding Dolly must have forgotten something and came home to get it, Julia turned her attention back to her book. A moment later, footsteps crossed the wooden porch, then the doorbell rang.
A shiver of fear galloped up and down her spine. Dolly lived in the country on land surrounded by trees. Julia had no idea how close a neighbor lived, or how quickly she could get help if she needed it.
Laying her book on the end table, Julia rose and walked to the front door. No peep hole. Dolly might trust everyone in Lanville, but Julia didn’t know the people here well enough to do that. She leaned close to where the door met the frame. “Who is it?”
“Hey, Julia, it’s Stephen.”
As quickly as the fear formed, it disappeared. She flipped the deadbolt and opened the door. “Hi.”
“Hi,” he said with a smile. “Am I disturbing you?”
“No, I was just reading. Is the fire out already?”
Stephen nodded. “It wasn’t very big. Someone was burning brush on his property and it got out of hand, but we caught it before it spread too much.”
She opened the door wider. “Come in.”
“I can’t. I smell like smoke.”
His comment came right before a breeze brought the scent of smoke to her from his clothing. The smell threw her back to her job in California and the many fires she’d helped fight. “I don’t mind.”
He glanced past her in the direction of the end table. “Tell you what. How about you bring your wineglass and one for me out here on the porch? Then I won’t stink up Dolly’s house.”
She liked that idea a lot. “Sure. I’ll be right out.”
Julia hurried into the kitchen, poured a second glass of Riesling, and returned to the living room. She paused before stepping over the threshold onto the porch and took a moment to admire Stephen from the back. He stood with his legs braced apart, looking out into the night. She couldn’t see his hands, so she decided he must have them in the front pockets of his jeans. Or perhaps with his thumbs hooked over the pockets. Whatever he did made the worn denim tighten over his ass.
The man had a first-class booty.
Giving her head a shake to chase away the sexy thought, she stepped behind him. “Here’s your wine.”
He faced her, accepted the glass she held out to him. “Thanks.”
Once she had a free hand, she closed the front door. It threw them into darkness, except for the bit of light shining through the windows. Julia led the way to the two chairs and small table at the edge of the porch. Unsure what to say since she didn’t know why he’d come to see her, she chose a neutral subject. “Dolly packaged Dusty’s dinner and called his wife to pick it up.”
“Good. I hated the thought of him missing out on Dolly’s enchiladas. He loves them.”
“I saw a Mexican restaurant on the main road through town when I went exploring today, but didn’t see any cars. Is it closed?”
“Only on Thursdays. Several of the restaurant owners got together and decided on their operating hours so they wouldn’t all be closed on the same days. It’s not good for tourist business if someone can’t find anything to eat. Course the fast-food places are open seven days a week, but sometimes people want something other than fast food.”
“True.” Julia sipped her wine. “Is the Mexican restaurant good?”
“Very. I haven’t eaten anywhere in town where the food isn’t good. O’Sullivan’s looks like an English pub and serves great fish and chips. It’s a block off the square. Mona’s Place is a family-style restaurant with a different plate-lunch special every day. The Purple Onion serves incredible hamburgers. It’s right off the square, too. And you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten barbecued brisket from Bunkhouse.”
It all sounded wonderful, even though she’d eaten a short while ago. “You’re making me hungry.”
“Sorry.” He swirled the wine in his glass before taking a drink. “Speaking of eating, that’s the reason I’m here. Will you have dinner with me tomorrow?”
Julia didn’t speak right away since she didn’t know how to answer his question. She liked Stephen, yet had no desire to get involved with anyone.
One date didn’t mean involvement. Stephen would be a lot of fun on a date. She had no doubt about that. “I’d like that,” she said softly.
Her eyes had adjusted to the dimness so she could see him smile. “Great. Café Crystal is the nicest place in town. I’d like to take you there.”
“I don’t need the nicest place in town, Stephen. I don’t have expensive tastes. One of those other restaurants you mentioned would be fine.”
“Hey, let a guy impress you on the first date, okay?”
She thought it sweet that he wanted to impress her. “Okay.”
“I’ll make reservations for . . . six? Six-thirty?”
“Six-thirty is good.”
A cool breeze whipped over them. Now that the sun had set, the temperature began to steadily drop. Julia was about to excuse herself to go and get her sweater when Stephen spoke again.
“My shower is calling me to get rid of this smoky smell.” He drained his glass and set it on the table between them. “I’ll pick you up a little after six.”
She started to rise when he did, but remained in her chair when he motioned for her to do so. “Enjoy your wine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She watched him walk across the porch and down the first two steps. He stopped on the third one, turned, and came back to her. Placing his hands on the arms of her chair, he leaned over and pressed his lips to hers.
His soft, warm lips moved slowly over hers, tempting, enticing. Her heart sped up, her breath hitched. She caught the scent of smoke on his skin, mixed with his masculine aroma. The flavor of the wine he’d drunk lingered on his mouth.
Julia gripped her wineglass to keep from reaching for him. He didn’t deepen the kiss, but he didn’t have to. The gentle kiss sent pleasure zipping up and down her spine.
Stephen lifted his head so their lips no longer touched, but still close enough for her to stare into his eyes. She couldn’t clearly see the emotion in them due to the dim light, but the sound of his increased breathing proved he had enjoyed their kiss as much as she.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, his voice husky. “Definitely singed.” He ran his thumb across her chin. “See you tomorrow.”
Singed? She didn’t understand what he meant by that. Turning in her chair, she watched him walk to his pickup and drive away. She lightly touched her lips with her fingertips. She didn’t think a simple kiss had ever affected her so strongly. If they ever made love, she would probably self-combust.
Her heart may not be ready for a relationship, but apparently her hormones had other ideas.
tephen checked once more to be sure his shirt was tucked into his pants before he pressed the doorbell. He fought the urge to run his hands through his hair. He didn’t want to muss it since he’d taken a lot longer with it tonight than he usually did. Normal for him meant washing it and letting it dry however it wanted to. Tonight he’d used a hair dryer and brush to tame the natural waves.
Normal also meant not bothering to shave but once or twice a week. He’d made sure to shave tonight, wanting his face to be smooth for Julia. If he kissed her after dinner—which he hoped to do, more than once—he didn’t want to leave whisker burns on her skin.
Two seconds before he rang the doorbell again, the front door opened. Stephen caught himself before his mouth dropped open. A vision from a dream stood before him. Julia wore a sleeveless white dress with splashes of purple, blue, and green in it. The V-neck gave him a hint of cleavage. The skirt hit right below her knees, letting him admire her tanned and shapely calves. Her white shoes consisted of little more than a strap across the top of her foot and around her ankle.
“Wow,” he breathed.
Delight filled her eyes, a tinge of pink colored her cheeks. “Thank you. I could say the same thing about you.”
He dipped his head to acknowledge her compliment. “Think we’ll be the best looking couple at Café Crystal tonight?” he gently teased.
She smiled, which made her look even lovelier. “I’d be willing to bet I’ll have the most handsome escort.”
“You’d better stop with the compliments or my head won’t fit through the doorway.”
Her musical laugh made him grin. “Okay, no more compliments.” She moved away from the door, returning a moment later with a small white purse hung over her shoulder and a silky-looking white wrap draped over her forearm. “I’m ready.”
Stephen waited while she closed and locked the door, then placed his hand on the small of her back to lead her toward his car. They’d taken no more than a few steps when she suddenly stopped.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You have a Mustang Fastback?” she asked with awe in her voice.
It pleased him that she recognized the model. “I do.”
She hurried over to the hood of the car. “V8 289?”
She slowly ran her hand over the smooth, black surface, similar to the way a woman would touch her lover’s skin. Stephen swallowed at the mental image of her stroking him instead of the car. “How do you know the model?”
“My best friend’s brother had one, only it was a 289 engine. It sat in the garage more than he drove it. There was always something wrong with it. I think he tinkered more than repaired.” Still touching the car, she looked at him. “All original?”
“Most of it. It took Dusty and me months to get the necessary parts because I wanted as much of it original as possible. The carpet isn’t original, but it still has the AM radio. And it works.” He walked over to her, leaned against the side of the Mustang. “Then he bought a fifty-seven T-Bird in February for us to repair. Our roofing business keeps us busy, but we hope to have the car finished by the end of summer.”
“Will it be black, too?”
“Nope. Candy-apple red. Dusty has a thing for red cars.” He leaned closer to her and lowered his voice. “Want to drive it?”
She bit her bottom lip, but he could still see her grin as she nodded.
“Can you drive a stick shift?”
He dug the keys out of his pocket, dangled them in front of her. “Then let’s go.”
With a squeal of delight, she grabbed the keys and hurried to the driver’s side door. Chuckling, Stephen rounded the car to the passenger side and settled into the seat. He’d suspected his date with Julia would be fun, but he had the feeling it would far surpass his expectations.
The inside of Stephen’s car smelled like leather mixed with the clean scent of the woodsy soap he must use. She hadn’t noticed the scent on the way to the restaurant because she’d been so excited to drive the classic muscle car. Now, in the dark and quiet, the combination of masculine smells made desire curl in her stomach.
Julia didn’t think more than five minutes passed the entire evening without her smiling. She couldn’t remember ever enjoying a date more. There hadn’t been any of those dreaded dead moments of a first date when she had no idea what to say. Conversation had flowed easily and steadily between them, almost as if they’d known each other for years instead of only a couple of days.
She looked down at the Styrofoam container sitting on her lap. She’d had to try the bread pudding drizzled with caramel sauce, but hadn’t been able to eat more than a bite after the amazing dinner of honey citrus pork chops. Stephen had polished off all of his turtle cheesecake despite the huge slice of prime rib he’d eaten and teased her about stealing her bread pudding. She’d teased right back that he wasn’t getting one bite of her dessert.
She wondered if she should invite him in for coffee and to share the rest of her dessert. If she did that, they could easily end up in her bed. After the kiss he’d given her last night, she had no doubt he wanted her. Plus, she saw awareness in his eyes every time he looked at her.
She’d never slept with a man after one date . . . not only because of morals, but because it usually took her a few dates to get to know a guy before she wanted that special closeness with him. With Stephen, she’d felt that closeness almost from the moment she’d seen him at Burger King two days ago.
“Did you enjoy your meal?” he asked.
“Very much. The food was amazing.”
He glanced at the container on her lap. “Still hoarding your bread pudding, I see.”
The dim light from the dash let her see his lips quirk. His teasing helped her make the decision about whether or not to continue their date inside Dolly’s house. “Actually, I was thinking of sharing it with you. Are you interested?”
“With or without coffee?”
“With, of course.”
He pulled into the driveway and parked to the side of the garage. By the time Julia gathered her purse from the floorboard, he’d opened her door and held out his hand to help her from the car.
Everything about Stephen screamed gentleman. She couldn’t help wondering why he wasn’t married or involved with anyone. The ladies of Lanville had to be nuts not to go after this guy. Either that, or he had something wrong with him that she hadn’t discovered yet.
He walked by her side to the porch. She’d left one lamp burning in the living room, so the muted light greeted them when she unlocked the door. “Sit down and I’ll start the coffee.”
“I’ll help you.”
Since they’d been so easy with each other all evening, Julia decided to continue to tease him as she led the way to the kitchen. “You’re following me because you’re afraid I’ll eat the pudding before you get any.”
“You got it.”
“I can’t believe you don’t trust me.”
“Not when it comes to sharing your dessert. You could change your mind while making the coffee.”
“I could.” She motioned toward the round table. “Go ahead and sit down. I promise I won’t change my mind about sharing.”
Julia started the coffee brewing, then transferred the pudding to a small plate for warming in the microwave. By the time she set the plate on the table, along with two forks and napkins, the scent of fresh coffee filled the air.
“Black, right?” she asked as she poured the hot brew into two mugs.
She carried the mugs to the table and took the chair opposite Stephen. She noticed he hadn’t picked up his fork yet. He could’ve snitched a bite of bread pudding while she poured the coffee, but didn’t.
Her admiration for him rose another notch.
She tore off a small bite with her fork, which must have given him permission to do the same. Picking up his fork, he cut into the fluffy treat. “Wow, that’s good,” he said after chewing the bite.
“Better than the turtle cheesecake?”
“Different than the turtle cheesecake.” He took another bite, licked the caramel sauce from the fork. Seeing his tongue swirl over the tines sent a jolt directly to her clit. She imagined his tongue licking her feminine folds instead of the fork....
Giving herself a mental shake, Julia sipped her coffee. She hadn’t loved Cole, but she’d cared deeply for him and still missed him. He’d been an incredible lover and she missed sex a lot. Despite what her body craved, she couldn’t see herself becoming involved with another man so quickly.
A night in bed didn’t mean a relationship.
But it did. Sex had always meant caring about the man she chose to share her bed, not simply a way to satisfy her body’s temporary needs.
“You okay?” Stephen asked after eating the last crumb of bread pudding. “You’re quiet.”
She gazed into his eyes. Her heart flipped over in her chest. Looking at Stephen gave her a great deal of pleasure because of his handsome face and hunky body, yet the attraction she felt also had a lot to do with Stephen, the man—the charming, courteous, quick-witted man.
His beard stubble and long mane of hair had given her the impression of him as a bad boy when she first saw him. She wouldn’t call him that now. He held a steady job, worked on the volunteer fire department. Everyone she’d met so far who knew Stephen had nothing but good things to say about him.
He’d shaved the stubble, letting her see the small cleft in the center of his chin. She couldn’t help but be attracted to him, yet didn’t know whether or not to act on that attraction.
She smiled to reassure him. “Sorry. I let my mind wander.”
“Someplace good, I hope.”
She thought again of his tongue between her thighs. “Yes, someplace very good.”
His eyes narrowed a bit, making her wonder if he guessed her naughty thoughts. “Tell me about it. I like good places, too.”
“Would you like more coffee?” she asked, hoping to divert him to another subject.
His eyes narrowed even more. “Why do I get the feeling you don’t want to tell me what you were thinking?”
“You’re way too suspicious, do you know that?”
“Not suspicious, just curious.” He propped his folded arms on the table and leaned forward. “So share with me. Especially if it was something dirty.”
He bobbed his eyebrows, which made Julia laugh. She had the feeling that’s exactly what he wanted her to do. “Sorry, no dirty thoughts.”
“Damn. You just burst my bubble.”
“I’m pretty sure you’ll survive.”
He gave her a devilish grin before leaning back in his chair. His relaxed position made his shoulders look even broader. “You kept steering the conversation back to me over dinner. It’s your turn to tell me all about you.”
“I thought guys like to talk about themselves.”
“I get tired of talking about myself. I want to know more about you.”
Julia glanced at his empty coffee mug. “If I’m going to bore you with my life story, you’ll need something stronger than coffee.”
“I won’t be bored, and I’ll drink whatever you’re having.”
Deciding Merlot would be appropriate for soul-baring, Julia carried their dishes to the sink and removed two wineglasses from the cabinet. Stephen appeared beside her as she removed the corkscrew from one of the drawers.
“I’ll open it for you.”
Accepting his offer, she handed the corkscrew to him before choosing a bottle from the wine rack at the corner of the counter. He looked at the label first, then proceeded to remove the cork from the bottle. She watched his hands as he did so, noting his sure, efficient movement.
He’d be an incredible lover.
Julia held the glasses while Stephen filled them half full. After she handed one glass to him, he took her hand. “I vote for getting comfortable.”
He led her from the kitchen to the living room. Julia curled up in a corner of the couch. Stephen sat and turned toward her, one leg resting on the couch. The lamp behind her cast a golden light across his face. The inside of a person mattered more than the outside, but Julia had to admit she liked Stephen’s outside very much.
“Why the Forest Service?” he asked after taking a sip of wine.
“I love the outdoors. I’d rather be outside than inside. Working for the Forest Service gave me that opportunity.” She tilted her head. “Why a roofing company?”
“Nuh-uh,” he said, waving one forefinger back and forth. “We’re talking about you now. Tell me about where you worked.”
“I worked out of the Eldorado office in Placerville. That’s about fifty miles east of Sacramento on Highway 50. It was a gorgeous area to work with lots of pine trees and rolling hills. I loved it.”
“What did you do?”
“I worked in the fire and fuels program. I studied how fire behavior affects fuel types and conditions.” She shrugged one shoulder. “Probably sounds boring.”
“Not at all. I want to know more.”
Julia doubted if he wanted a blow-by-blow account of what she’d done daily, so veered off in another direction. “My boss was a woman, but I worked with mostly men. They were a great bunch of guys.”
“If you liked your job and your coworkers, why did you leave?”
Telling him about Cole and the accident would put a huge damper on an evening she’d enjoyed very much. She didn’t want anything to destroy her and Stephen’s date. “Several reasons that added up to needing a change.”
An emotion flashed through his eyes, but it disappeared so quickly she couldn’t put a name to it. “No problem. I understand.” He swirled the wine in his glass, took a healthy sip. “So tell me something crazy you’ve done.”
Laughter bubbled past her lips before she could stop it. She appreciated the change of subject, but hadn’t expected him to say anything like that. “What?”
“Everyone has done something crazy, something they wish they hadn’t done. I know you have, too.” He stretched his arm along the back of the couch, his fingers barely an inch from her shoulder. “Tell me about it.”