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Authors: M. Leighton

Tags: #Fiction / Romance / Contemporary

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BOOK: Some Like It Wild
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FIVE:
Laney

J
ake Theopolis is bothering me. I feel like my insides are in turmoil, yet I can’t stop thinking about him long enough for them to settle down. That both frustrates and angers me.

My lack of sleep isn’t helping matters. Neither is the memory of our phone conversation.

I had to call Jake last night to tell him I’d be by around nine this morning. The call was short and he was agreeable, but there was something about his tone—something smug and satisfied and . . . teasing—that has left me feeling off-kilter. And I don’t like it.

“Why are you up so early?” my mother asks as she makes her way into the kitchen. She’s wearing the same robe she’s worn since I was a little girl—dark blue with tiny pink flowers embroidered across the chest. Her short, sandy hair is perfectly coiffed, like she didn’t just sleep eight hours on it, and her brown eyes are soft and sleepy, and as angelic as always.

I shrug, bringing the coffee mug to my lips and taking another sip. “A lot on my mind, I guess.”

“Is it all this mess with Shane? I don’t know why you can’t just forgive him and move on. It’s the Christian thing to do, no matter what he did.”

I bite back my waspish response. She has no idea. But that’s not her fault. I haven’t told my parents the details of my breakup with my fiancé, Shane Call. They just think I’m being impulsive and petulant. “Mom, I’ve told you, Shane and I are
not
getting back together.”

She shakes her head, a sad expression on her face. “I hate to see you let anything get in the way of your happiness, sweet pea.”

“Sometimes it’s not up to us, Momma.”

“It’s always up to us.”

I feel my frustration rise and realize it’s high time for a change of subject. “Do you remember Cris Theopolis?”

“Of course,” she answers, moving right along with my new direction. “He was a wonderful man. Such a tragedy, especially after what happened with Elizabeth.”

“Who’s Elizabeth?”

“Cris’s wife. She died many years ago. She was very sick. It just broke Cris’s heart. I don’t think he ever really recovered. But he always made sure to do right by those kids of his. At least he tried.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, ‘he tried’?”

“Well, it’s not an easy thing, to be a single parent and tend an orchard as large as his was. It’s no wonder—”

“Who’s a single parent?” my father asks as he strolls into the kitchen. He’s already dressed in slacks and a white button-up shirt, his dark hair still damp from the shower. His commanding presence fills any room the instant he walks into it. This one is no different.


Was
, honey. Cris Theopolis. It’s his estate Laney’s going to be working on.”

Dad pauses in his bend to kiss Mom, his brow furrowing. “Does Shane know?”

“Know what?”

“What you’re down here doing?”

“I’m not down here
doing
anything but working.”

“I mean, does he know
what
you’re working on?”

“No, it’s none of his business.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t be happy about it,” Dad says, ignoring my comment.

“Lucky for me I don’t care. I don’t have to worry about what Shane does or doesn’t like anymore. Besides, I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“No, but associating with people like the Theopolises . . .”

“Mom was just talking about what good people they are.”

“I said
Cris
was a good man,” she clarifies.

“And his kids aren’t?”

“You’re smart enough to know the answer to that, Laney,” my dad says. “You went to school with the youngest, Jenna.”

“Yes, but I didn’t really
know
her.”

Dad gives me “the look.” “No, but you know enough, young lady.”

I slide my bar stool back. “So much for not being judgmental,” I snap, walking to the sink to rinse out my half-full mug.

“Avoiding a bad element is not being judgmental. It’s being prudent.”

I turn to face my father. I hold my head high, tired of a lifetime of cowering under his disapproval. “And how, exactly, do you determine who the ‘bad element’ is then, Daddy?”

I walk out of the kitchen before he can respond. I’m sure he’ll have some valuable bit of wisdom for me. No doubt it’ll be true, too. But right now, at this point in my life, I’m not looking for wisdom. I’m not looking for prudent or safe or reasonable, any of the things I once attributed to Shane.

In fact
, I think to myself as I head up the stairs,
I might just be looking for the exact opposite
.

* * *

Having cut short my morning at the house in order to avoid my parents, I arrive at the turn to the Theopolis orchard twenty minutes early. I figure I’ll just sit in the car and start on my paperwork before knocking, just in case Jake is still asleep.

He seems like one of those up-all-night-partying-sleep-all-day-afterward types.

The thought has barely had a chance to make it through my head when I see a lean, tan, shirtless jogger just up ahead. Even if the guy wasn’t running on the long, winding Theopolis driveway I’d have no trouble identifying him—Jake. His physique and dark good looks are unmistakable, even from behind.

And my stomach reacts accordingly.

I ease my foot onto the brake, debating what to do. Go forward, turn around, stop and wait? What’s the right thing here?

Jake takes the decision out of my hands, however, when he slows to a stop and turns to look down the road at me. His eyes meet mine, and he smiles. Even from a distance, he makes me feel breathless.

For one second, I get the feeling I should turn and run. But it’s gone almost as quickly as it came when Jake starts to jog in my direction.

My foot presses harder on the brake as I watch him approach. His skin is slick with sweat and his muscles move and shift beneath it. He stops at my window and bends, laying his forearms along the opening, his face but a few inches from mine. He’s winded and his breath tickles my cheek.

“You’re early.”

“I know. I was going to do some paperwork before I woke you.”

“Woke me? I’ve been up for hours. But if you’d prefer to wake me, I’m sure I can arrange to still be in bed when you get here.” His wink tells me that he means exactly what I think he means. I want to curse my light complexion when I feel my cheeks heat up at his insinuation.

“I hardly think that will be necessary,” I reply, trying to sound unflustered, but likely doing a poor job of it. “Continue your run. I’ll just meet you at the house when you’re done. If you don’t mind me waiting there, that is.”

“I can’t think of anyone I’d rather stumble upon when I’m hot and sweaty and headed for the shower.”

Giving me his trademark cocky grin, Jake straightens and jogs off before I can respond. And it’s a good thing. I don’t even know what to say to that. For a few seconds, I watch the way his shorts cling to his tight butt as he moves. But he shakes me out of my dumbstruck state when he turns and jogs backward for a few seconds, openly laughing at me.

Ohmigod, he knows I was looking at his butt!

And, of course, I’m mortified. I push on the accelerator and swerve far away from Jake when I pass him. I keep my eyes glued on the road ahead.

When I reach the house, I park and pull my briefcase from the backseat. I take out the folder labeled
Theopolis Estate
and flip it open in my lap, but that’s as far as I get. My eyes keep straying to the rearview mirror, waiting for Jake to appear in it. It’s like my brain is stuck and won’t move forward until he does.

A flash of red catches my eye. Jake’s shorts. Moving at a steady pace, he jogs into my frame of view, moving closer and closer. Again, I admire the way he glistens in the sunlight, like a champion thoroughbred in peak physical condition.

I force my eyes back to my folder when Jake gets near the rear of my car. From the corner of my eye, I glance at the sideview mirror as he passes. He doesn’t even look down, just jogs right on by. He takes the steps two at a time and opens the unlocked front door.

I’m watching him, expecting him to disappear indoors, when he turns. He meets my eyes and tips his head toward the inside of the house before he crosses the threshold, leaving the door ajar for me.

“I guess that’s my cue,” I mumble to myself.

I gather my things, trying to keep my mind off the image of Jake stripping off those red shorts to get in the shower. Absently, I wonder if his skin is tan all over, or if he has a tan line.

Holy crap! Laney, you’ve got to stop this!
I warn myself. I won’t be able to concentrate at all if I don’t get a grip.

I focus on the list of things I need to get done and in what order as I get out and walk up the steps. Once inside, I listen for Jake. I hear nothing but muffled sounds coming from upstairs. Thankful for the short respite in which I can attempt to reset my wayward brain, I make my way into the dining room and begin spreading out my things onto the table.

Firmly back in work mode, I’m making mental lists and dividing up areas to inventory together when I hear a throat clear behind me. I whirl to find Jake lounging in the doorway, smiling as he watches me.

“I didn’t want to scare you. You looked deep in thought,” he observes.

“Thank you. I was.”

“So,” he begins, straightening away from the doorjamb, “what do I need to do?”

I can’t help but notice the way his pale yellow T-shirt clings to his still-damp skin, or the way his thick eyelashes look spiky and wet.

“Uh . . . well . . .” I stammer, struggling to get my mind back on the task at hand. I squeeze my eyes shut and then turn them to the documents spread out in front of me. “Actually, there’s nothing I really need from you at this point. It’s a matter of going through each room and inventorying what’s here. If I have any questions, I’ll make a note and ask you later.”

Now that I’ve managed a coherent sentence, I look back at Jake.

“All right, I guess I’ll just check back with you after a while then.”

“No need,” I assure him. “I’ll be fine.”

He grins, a wicked gleam lighting his amber eyes. “Regardless, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

There’s no point in arguing. I feel like the more I protest, the more it will give away my discomfort with his close proximity. Instead, I nod and give him a tight smile. “Okay. See you then.”

I pick up some random papers and study them as if they’re important when, in reality, I don’t even process what I’m looking at. It’s not until, from the corner of my eye, I see Jake leave that it registers that I’m holding them upside down.

SIX:
Jake

“I
’m taking care of it, Jenna. Would you stop worrying?”

“It just kills me to think of those two losers living in our house, destroying everything Mom and Dad worked so hard for.”

“I know, Jenna. That’s why I told you to stop worrying about it. I’d never let that happen. I’d burn this place to the ground before I let her ruin it. Now stop aggravating me about it.”

“I’m not aggravating you about it. I just feel helpless being up here in Atlanta, not able to do anything about it.”

“You couldn’t do anything about it even if you were here. I’m doing what needs to be done. Atlanta with Rusty is where you belong.” I hear her sigh. She knows I’m right. “Control freak,” I mutter teasingly.

“Asshole.”

“But you love that about me.”

“Not hardly.”

“Liar.”

I hear her light laugh. We play rough, as we always have. But if I was ever going to love someone in life, it would probably be Jenna. Guys like me, though, we’re better off without much love in our life. Keeps us focused, keeps the edge sharp. And that’s the way I like it. That’s the way it works best for me. Why change it? I get what I need without complications. End of story.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

“Fine, have at it then, dick.”

“I was going to anyway, wench.”

“Call me next week.”

“K.”

“Love you,” she says.

“You, too,” I reply. It’s all I ever say.

I stick my phone back in my pocket and turn toward the door of the barn. I stop in my tracks when I see Laney standing there. She’s backlit by the sun, making it seem as though she’s surrounded by a golden halo. She looks every bit the angel I’m sure she is. That only makes me want to corrupt her that much more.

“Please tell me you came looking for a little afternoon delight,” I tease, walking slowly toward her.

Laney squares her shoulders, clears her throat, and ignores my comment, which makes me smile. “I’m sorry to interrupt. I was just coming to tell you I’m driving into town for lunch.”

Her head is held high and her expression is as unaffected as she can make it, but still, she can’t hide from me what she’s feeling. She’s attracted to me, and disconcerted by me, whether she’ll admit it or not. I can see her nervousness in the way her fingers are fidgeting with the hem of her blouse.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay here? I’m sure I could come up with something to . . . satisfy you.”

Her cheeks turn bright red and her eyes round ever-so-slightly, making me want to pull her into my arms and kiss her senseless. But I won’t. I promised I wouldn’t until she asked me to. And I have no doubt she will. I’ll just have to make sure it’s sooner rather than later. She’s giving me an itch that I don’t want to wait to scratch.

“Thank you, but no. I’ve got some errands to run as well.” I say nothing, just shake my head as I study her. Her eyes dart away and I know she’s looking for some way to ease the tension. “So, I couldn’t help but overhear part of your conversation. If neither you nor your sister wants to stay here in Greenfield with the orchard, why not just let your aunt have it?”

I feel like sighing. Every time I think of my aunt Ellie, I get angry. And right now, in Laney’s presence, there are several other emotions I’d much rather be focusing on.

Another day . . .

“My parents wanted it with either me or Jenna. They’d roll over in their graves if we let Ellie take it.”

Mom especially. She always dreamed of her grandchildren playing in the orchard. She’s the reason I’m so determined to keep it with us, just like Dad is the reason Jenna wants to.

“Why? She’s family.”

“Not all family is the good kind.”

“And you think your aunt falls into that category?”

“Yes. She’s nothing like my mother. My mother was a kind and caring woman, and she loved this place. When my grandparents retired and moved to Florida, they left the house and the orchard to her as the oldest. We only found out after Dad died that Ellie was given a portion of the income. And now, true to the selfish person that she is, she wants it all.”

“Why now?”

“Ellie never liked the orchard to begin with. She and her husband had big plans to get out of this place and make a shitload of money. I guess she always thought the orchard money would just be extra. But things didn’t work out the way she had planned. She could never do anything about it while Dad was alive, though. But with him gone, and just me and Jenna left . . .”

“She’s contesting that she should have the right of survivorship, rather than you two,” Laney finishes.

I nod. “And that’s why you’re here, inventorying everything my family has ever owned.”

It’s Laney’s turn to nod. She casts her eyes down, like she’s afraid to meet mine. Finally she speaks. “I’m sorry, Jake. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to go through something like this right after you buried your father.”

She’s sweet. And sincere. I can feel compassion rolling off her in waves.

And it makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

So, I do what I do best, and I deflect.

I step closer to Laney, close enough to smell her perfume. It’s light and sweet. Sexy. Like sunshine and sin.

I take her chin between my fingers and wait until her eyes meet mine. “Don’t feel sorry for me. Unless you plan to do something to make me feel better.”

Her cheeks turn pink again. “You really are a bad boy, aren’t you?” she whispers, almost like she’s thinking aloud.

“I can be as good or as bad as you want me to be.”

“I’ve always wanted the good guys,” she muses. I’m not a bit surprised. I’d be willing to bet she’s never broken a rule in her entire life.

“Maybe it’s time for a change.”

“Maybe it is,” she says softly, her blue eyes flickering down to my mouth and back again.

“Tell me to kiss you,” I say quietly as I lean slowly toward her.

Like I poked her with a cattle prod, I see her eyes widen and a startled look come over her face. She steps back, as though she’s stepping away from danger. “I need to go. I’ll be back after lunch.”

And with that, she turns and walks quickly to where her car is parked, slides behind the wheel, and drives away. I step out of the barn to watch her go. And I see her watching me through her rearview mirror.

I grin at her and wink. Whether she can see it or not, it doesn’t matter.

It’s just a matter of time.

BOOK: Some Like It Wild
6.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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