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Home-Grown Husband

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Home-Grown Husband Sharon Swan HarperCollins EUR It's time you took a lover.Take a lover? Seduce her mysterious new neighbor? Tess Cameron laughed aloud at her best friend's suggestion. Then she met Jordan Trask, aforementioned neighbor. Suddenly Tess began to wonder how a homebody, single-mom gardener went about seducing a drop-dead-gorgeous, devastatingly appealing male.Attending the neighborhood barbecue? Planting flowers? Jordan knew he was in trouble. Spending time with his adorably sexy neighbor was wreaking havoc with his plan to hide out in Harmony for the summerespecially with the part where he had to leave She would win this mans attention if she had to strip down to bare skin to get the job done! Tess set her glass down on the coffee table with an audible click. She turned and aimed every bit of cleavage she had directly at Jordans chiseled profile. Dinner can wait, she said in the most come-hither whisper she could produce. Jordan turned his head then. And looked. And stared. At last he raised his gaze, inch by inch, until it finally locked with hers. Are you, by any chance, he said very softly, trying to seduce me? Tess lost her temper. Of course Im trying to seduce you! Why else would I go to all this trouble? And you have the nerve to tell me you cant wait to eat dinner! Hazel eyes wide, Jordan set his glass down with a clunk and rose. His own temper seemed to flare. Do you know how long Ive been ready? Willing, and damn eager, as a matter of fact? Now her eyes went wide. So why didnt you do something? she asked, her voice quiet. Because I thought you werent ready, Jordan replied. Tess took a deep breath. Im ready. Dear Reader, What better way to celebrate June, a month of courtship and romance, than with four new spectacular books from Harlequin American Romance? First, the always wonderful Mindy Neff inaugurates Harlequin American Romances new three-book continuity series, BRIDES OF THE DESERT ROSE, which is a follow-up to the bestselling TEXAS SHEIKHS series. In the Enemys Embrace is a sexy rivals-become-lovers story you wont want to miss. When a handsome aristocrat finds an abandoned newborn, he turns to a beautiful doctor to save the childs life. Will the adorable infant bond their hearts together and make them the perfect family? Find out in A Baby for Lord Roderick by Emily Dalton. Next, in To Love an Older Man by Debbi Rawlins, a dashing attorney vows to deny his attraction to the pregnant woman in need of his help. With love and affection, can the expectant beauty change the older mans mind? Sharon Swan launches her delightful continuing series WELCOME TO HARMONY with Home-Grown Husband, which features a single-mom gardener who looks to her mysterious and sexy new neighbor to spice up her life with some much-needed excitement and romance. This month, and every month, come home to Harlequin American Romanceand enjoy! Best, Melissa Jeglinski Associate Senior Editor Harlequin American Romance Home-Grown Husband Sharon Swan www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) For my family, the whole wonderful bunch ABOUT THE AUTHOR Born and raised in Chicago, Sharon Swan once dreamed of dancing for a living. Instead, she surrendered to lifes more practical aspects, settled for an office job, concentrated on typing and being a Chicago Bears fan. Sharon never seriously considered writing a career until she moved to the Phoenix area and met Pierce Brosnan at a local shopping mall. It was a chance meeting that changed her life because she found herself thinking, what if? What if two fictional characters had met the same way? That formed the basis for her next novel, and shes now cheerfully addicted to writing contemporary romance and playing what if? Books by Sharon Swan HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE 912COWBOYS AND CRADLES 928HOME-GROWN HUSBAND* (#litres_trial_promo) Contents Chapter One (#u8a37a118-29fc-56bc-96ae-abcfd21bc76c) Chapter Two (#u34d35990-1d96-50f5-8208-5e9149f02332) Chapter Three (#u3eb4a582-14ab-5da0-ab37-155d18714a35) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One I think its time you took a lover, one of Tess Camerons closest friends told her. And I mean now. This summer. Youre too young to let life of the more intimate sort pass you by. Tess threw her head back and laughed out loud, her blue eyes sparkling with amused surprise at the unexpected turn in the conversation. Theyd been discussing men in general over coffee at the round breakfast table set in a corner of her large, sunny kitchen. But this was a long way from general. And where do you suggest I find one? she asked, for the sake of argument more than anything. You have to admit the pickings are slim in Harmony. Not that the small city nestled in the low mountains northeast of Phoenix was all that far from Arizonas largest, Tess reflected. Still there was no denying that the majority of males in the immediate vicinity fell into one of three categories when it came to potential lovers for a widow about to turn thirty: too young, too old or too married. Slim, but not hopeless, Sally Mendoza maintained with a firm shake of her head that sent her dark shoulder-length hair swinging. You wouldnt be looking for a husband and daddy replacement, after all, which is admittedly harder to find. Deep brown eyes, slanting up at the tips, narrowed thoughtfully. At least, I assume you wouldnt. Tess sipped her coffee, well aware that shed never raved about her marriage, to Sally or anyone else. Youre right, Im in no hurry to take another walk down the aisle. Shed been in too much of a hurry the first time, she recognized in hindsight, too full of youthful ideals and boundless expectations of eternal bliss, to take a step back and consider the wisdom of leaping into a lifetime commitment. Too inexperienced in the ways of the world to know that love alone couldnt conquer all, that two people had to find some common ground, share an understanding of the path they wanted to take in life, one that satisfied them both, before they could share a happy future. Now she was older, and hopefully wiser. Not that being married to Roger had been terrible. No, that wasnt true at all. It just hadnt been terribly good after the first year. The only really wonderful thing to come out of it was their daughter, Ali. So a lover is whats needed, Sally summed up matter-of-factly. Maybe, Tesss sense of honesty had her conceding. Shed been without a man in her life for three years, and her body was increasingly reminding her of that fact. I can hardly haul one off the street, thoughprovided there was anything interesting walking around out there to begin with. Sally lifted one shoulder in a small shrug. What about Mr. Mysterious, your new next-door neighbor? Tess leaned back in a far-from-new bentwood chair. Despite its age, the faded flowered padding provided a comfortably cozy cushion for her body. Given the choice, she knew shed take comfort over style any day, even with an unlimited bank account to draw on. That was strictly her preference. The most stylish furniture on the market wouldnt have won a second glance from her, not if it didnt look comfortable. And even more important than comfort was contentment. To her, it was vital. Rather than taking her good fortune for granted, she routinely thanked her lucky stars that she was content, both with who she was as a person and with the life shed choseneven if it might be lacking in one particular area. Then again, having a man around wasnt everything, she reminded herself, although she had to admit to some current curiosity when it came to a certain member of the male species. Hes mysterious, all right, she said, cocking a light brown eyebrow. Its been almost a week since he moved in, and Ive barely glimpsed him pulling in and out of his garage. Well, sometimes you can tell a lot about people by what they drive. Sally tapped a crimson-tipped finger on the glass-topped table. Is it a sports carsomething sleek, sizzling scarlet, and sexy as sin? Tess smiled. Sorry to shatter that little fantasy, but its a fairly late model SUV, probably of the four-wheel-drive variety, and it seems to be black under all the dust. So hes not rich, Sally concluded, though not poor by any means, given the money they want for those all-terrain numbers, and hes probably been too busy lately to wash it. Or hes been waiting for the wife and six kids to show up and do the job for him, Tess tacked on dryly. Sally finished her coffee and set her mug down. Uh-uh. No wife and kiddies. Leslie Hanson told me when I ran into her at the supermarket yesterday that a single gentleman had rented the house her great-aunt left her. A short-term lease, she said. A sly grin appeared. And it just so happens that your darling child will be gone all summer, visiting her grandparents. Id say thats fate, Tess. Yeah, right. Tess made a face. He could easily wind up being the stuff womens nightmares are made of, complete with sweaty palms and a bobbing Adams apple. Or he could turn out to be your dream man, Sally countered as she got to her feet. Today her lush figure was shown to advantage by a navy halter top and walking shorts. I dont have a dream man, Tess said firmly, rising. Her yellow T-shirt and ancient jeans outlined a slender body that was, she knew, far from lush. She was content with that, as well. Most of the time, at any rate. She just had to stay away from Victorias Secret catalogs. What I have is a daughter I love more than anything in the world, a job Im crazy about, and definite plans for a good, solid future. Which is absolutely great, and Im delighted for you. But all of that still wont provide what a full-grown female needs, at least on occasion, in the middle of the night. Sally rinsed her mug out in the sink and leaned against the ivory-tile counter. A lover, on the other hand Okay, Sal, I get your drift. Then give it some consideration, said the mother of cheerfully rowdy, seven-year-old twin boys who was happily wed to a hunk of a husband she blatantly adoredand who clearly returned the favor. Theres no reason to do without certain pleasures when you dont have to. So think about it. Tess thought about it after Sally left, mulling over her friends advice as she stared out a curtained kitchen window into the brilliant sunshine so much a part of long summers in the Southwest. Certainly, she had plenty of time to think in the middle of a quiet Saturday morning with Ali away. Too quiet, it seemed, without the sound of well-used running shoes thumping up and down the stairs. Not that there werent things to do, she reminded herself. The ever-present laundry, for instance. Vacuuming and dusting, too. Or, in the real-challenge category, she could try to coax the plump cat regally tolerating her presence in her own house into unbending enough to share a companionable hour tending the flowers in the backyard. But she didnt, she had to admit, feel like tackling even the simplest of those chores. Not today. Today she feltrestless. Her body craved something it had done too long without. She couldnt deny that any more than she could magically turn the brown cap of natural curls framing her face into long, straight tresses. So how did she satisfy that craving? With a willing man, was the obvious answer. Not a husband, though. She truly didnt want marriage, not now. But she did wantintimacy, she supposed she could say. More than sex, certainly. Sex had never sent up any skyrockets, not for her. But the closeness that came with it, being held in the grip of strong arms. Yes, that she couldnt help wanting. Tess sighed, soft and low. Maybejust maybe, she thoughtit was time to take a lover. THE LAST THING HE NEEDED was a woman in his life, Jordan Trask told himself. Right now, it was the very last thing. Even thinking along those lines was a mistake. Too bad that didnt stop him from recalling the special comforts only the opposite sex could supplysomething that had been happening more and more and with greater interest, it seemed, since hed given up a job that, in a perfect world, would never have to be done. Too bad the world wasnt perfect. And too bad he was having a difficult time deciding how to deal with the future stretching out in front of him like a unmarked road to an unknown place, full of twists and turns. At the moment, that journey held a lot more questions than answers. Then again, he was lucky, he reminded himself. Damn lucky. Hed gotten out while he could still smile with genuine humor, still laugh on occasion for the sheer pleasure of it. His former profession sometimes destroyed the ability to do both, but hed survived intact. He could still feel, really feel, thank God. And, whether it was wise or not to get involved with a woman at this point, what he felt now was needthe need to touch some silky, smooth skin covering gentle curves, the need to be touched, as well. He was a healthy male in his mid-thirties, after all. So he had needs. Whether he wanted them or not at this particular time, he had them. A soft whine drew Jordans eyes across the width of a homey kitchen to a thick oak door, its upper half etched with squares of sparkling glass topped by a length of ruffled, blue-checked fabric. That the back door led to a spacious, grassy yard continued to be somewhat of a wonder. Renting a graciously aging house in a quiet neighborhood had been the first of his attempts to experience a whole new way of life. It was the sharpest contrast he could imagine to the series of modern three-room apartments in his past. Adopting a young, abandoned male basset hound just this morning at the local pound had been another. Hed never had a pet. Not so much as a goldfish, as far as he could remember. And even if he had, this brand-new arrival was a long way from a goldfish. Oddly enough, though, while the house still felt strange to him, the dog had seemed to settle right in. Jordan pushed away from the old yet sturdy refrigerator hed had one shoulder propped against and walked toward the door, making his way over speckled-blue tile. Time to go out, pal? A fast, enthusiastic wag of a skinny tail silently answered the question. Its a good thing youre housebroken, he added, meaning every word. Given the life hed been leading until now, he was far better equipped to handle a coiled rattlesnake primed to strike than a puppy in need of toilet training. He let the dog out and shoved the door shutonly to wrench it open again with a swift jerk as all hell seemed to break loose outside. The peacefulness all around him seconds earlier, broken only by birds chirping in the tall pines, dissolved in a storm of frantic barking. What in blazes was going on? He found out, in a flash, when he stood on the long, covered porch and caught sight of a fat gray cat lounging on the wide top rail of the white, slatted wood fence standing at one side of the yard. The cat gazed down with clear feline disdain as the basset hound defended home territory with a zeal that might have been admirable if it hadnt been deafening. Before Jordan could try to bring order, the cat had jumped down from the railing and effortlessly landed on the far side. The dog, in an attempt to follow, shoved a quivering black nose through a thin space between the narrow slats, then wiggled back and roamed the length of the barrier that foiled him, growling nonstop. Give it up, pal, its over, Jordan called, thinking it wasuntil the dog began to claw a path under the fence at a spot toward the rear of the yard where the ground had eroded. Jordan noticed that slight dip for the first time. And it was too late. Dirt flew. The dog squeezed through. Then all hell broke loose again. It was a womans startled cry that sent Jordan racing headlong toward the chest-high fence. He scaled it with little trouble, landed flat on booted feet with a soft thump, and steeled himself, more than half expecting to find a silver-haired matron on the verge of the vapors, dead certain hed rather deal with a hundred of the meanest rattlers ever born than a single bout of hand-flapping hysterics. It turned out he didnt need to. At least he figured as much when he found a far-from-matronly woman crouched down on jean-clad knees in the grass beside a two-story, wood-framed house very much like the one hed rented. His was painted blue. This one was white. And the woman was clearly seeing red. With gloved hands clenched at her sides, and sporting a thunderous frown, she viewed a disaster in progress right in front of her as Jordans canine companion chased a furry target straight down the middle of a long flower bed. This lady wasnt hysterical, he told himself. Or upset. Even irritated wouldnt begin to cover it. She was, in a word, furious. Still braced for action, he gave some thought to making a fast return trip over the fence and leaving the hound to face the consequences. What had prompted him to think he needed a pet, anyway, he wondered. Sheer insanity, he was beginning to believe. Then the choice to stay or retreat vanished when the cat suddenly changed course and headed straight for him, followed in a heartbeat by the dog. Both made a swift circle around him, then headed back and retraced their path through the flower bed to complete the destruction before racing off toward the far side of the house. Rather than following their progress, a sharp, clear blue gaze pinned Jordan where he stood. Hed always been a sucker for blue eyes. Usually theyd been attached to a tall, cool blonde. As the owner of these eyes surged to canvas-shod feet, he noted she was neither tall nor short. Just about average height for a full-grown woman, he decided. Her figure was neat and trim, her hair a shiny cap of honey-brown curls. Her face was more heart shaped than round. And if she wore makeup, it wasnt obvious, even in stark sunlight. The flattering color on her cheeks might be due to sheer fury, but the rosy shade of her lips seemed natural. Why he should think of wholesome to describe her, he couldnt say, especially since she looked ready to wrap her hands around someones throat. Probably his. Is that your dog? Even brisk with anger, her voice came out as soft as the grassy ground under his boots. If I say no, will you let me live? He folded his arms across his chest, grateful she wasnt shouting the place down, and tried for a wry smile. Steps away from him, Tess stilled completely for a moment. The question, and the smile, had taken her off guard. No one had a right to be that damn attractive was her first thought as she found herself staring frankly. Her second thought was that no one would ever judge this man as ordinary. Even dressed in well-worn denim, he made one heck of an impact. And no one would ever know you had a brain in your head right now was her next reflection, directed squarely at herself, as reality returned and had her blinking. So what if a broad-shouldered, lean-muscled, flat-out devastating male, the type of man shed never, by any stretch of the imagination, expected to appear in her backyard, suddenly had? So what if he was tall, dark, and not quite classically handsome, but close enough? So what if that crooked smile rattled her pulse and the hazel eyes above it seemed to bore right into hers? So what? She was supposed to be livid. Id say your survival could well hinge on getting that animal out of here, she told him, clipping the words. Ill do my best, he hastened to assure her, his voice deep and low, rough around the edges, but not at all unpleasant to the ear. I hope your cats okay. Tess let out a breath. Its your dog that will probably be in trouble when Roxy gets tired of fooling around. As if to prove that statement, a gray streak of fur came zipping around the house with a brown-and-white blur in hot pursuit. All at once, the cat spun around in midair, hissing, and swatted the hound flat on the nose with some well-placed claws. Then, to the tune of canine yelps, the victor leaped back on the fence rail and calmly stretched out, acting as if nothing unusual in the least had happened. Guess I dont have to worry about Roxy, the man muttered as the dog, head bent, trotted over to stand beside him. Had enough? he asked, looking down, and got a soft whine in reply. Once again those hazel eyes met hers. This time, Tess was ready for the jolt and managed to view him coolly. Hed never know, she thought with satisfaction, that her pulse was still none too steady. In fact, at the moment she was sure he looked a lot more uncomfortable than she did. I suppose I should introduce myself before I take the culprit away. Im Jordan Trask. I rented the place next door and moved in a few days ago. I knew someone had moved in, she offered in return. But I never anticipated anyone like you. I really am sorry about the flowers, he added, sounding as if he meant just that. Tess tossed a rueful glance over her shoulder. There was little chance to save anything, she knew. The damage was too complete. Ill have to replant, she thought out loud. Ill gladly pay for whatever you need to get the job done. And Id be willing to help, if youll let me. Tess slowly swung her head back around and took a moment to consider her options. Three quickly came to mind. She could tell Jordan Trask to just get losteven in a nice way, if she wanted to be polite. She could also accept his money and decline the assistanceagain diplomatically, if she cared to. Or she could go with the final choice and take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to get to know her new neighbor. Sure, he was drop-dead attractive. Probably no woman who could see past her nose would disagree with that judgment. But something less appetizing could still lurk under that mouthwatering exterior. And she might never find out for certain, unless Tess squared her shoulders. Im Tess Cameron. And Ill take you up on that offer. He raised a dark eyebrow. The one to reimburse you, or the one to help. Both. MAYBE HE SHOULD HAVE ADMITTED that he didnt know squat about gardening. Then again, Jordan thought as he carefully scooped rich black dirt with a small metal trowel, Tess Cameron might very well have told him thanks, but no thanks when it came to helping. For some reason, hed been determined not to let that happen, not if there was any chance he could spend more time with her. Something about the woman now crouched at his side drew him. What exactly, he was still trying to figure out. Whatever it was, physical attraction played a major part. He was dead certain of that. They were all but hip to hip, and he was fully aware of the scant space between them, right down to the barest inch. If he moved, just a little, he could touch her. And he had no business touching her, he knew. Or thinking what he was thinking. Hed be far better off keeping his mind on what he was doingor at least attempting to do. Thankfully, he hadnt been useless up to this point. No one could deny hed done a thorough job of hauling the trampled mess out of Tess Camerons flower bed and dumping it in the trash while she retrieved a fresh batch of plants. That part had been easy. Even easier was reimbursing herand noting the absence of any rings, wedding or otherwise, as she took his money with one hand and offered a receipt with the other. Now came the hard part. Jordan frowned down at the hole hed created, wondering if he should stop or keep on digging. Who knew? That needs to be a little larger, his companion pointed out, glancing over at his effort. Right. He dug a bit deeper and wider, then aimed for a casual tone. That should do it, wouldnt you say? Looks good. I think some snapdragons would go well there. She returned to her own digging then, clearly expecting him to get on with it. Great. Jordan turned his head and studied the bunched flowers in a variety of shapes and colors lined up behind him. What the hell did a snapdragon look like? He recognized the roses. Everything else was a mystery. I like lots of yellow, she added. It makes things bright and cheerful. Yellow. That might be a clue. There were two varieties of mostly yellow flowerstall, thin ones, and shorter, rounder ones. Figuring he had a fifty-fifty chance, he went with the shorter version. No, not the marigolds, she told him when he set his choice in front of him. Snapdragons. Right. He replaced his gamble with the taller yellow version and decided luck was with him this time when she offered no objection. While she reached behind her for another plant, he carefully removed his from its plastic container and placed it in the hole. He held it with one hand and cautiously spread dirt over the roots. Then he let it go and watched it fall over, toppling like a felled tree in the forest. Swallowing a curse, he slid a look at his companion out of the corner of his eye and saw a thoughtful frown form as he straightened the plant. You havent done much gardening, have you? No. Which was, he told himself, the complete truth. Her frown deepened. How much have you done? He resisted the urge to sigh. The jig was up, he knew, because he wouldnt outright lie to her. Noneuntil now, he admitted, turning to look straight at her. The frown remained. And you offered to help me anyway. Why? My dog did the damage, so its only fair that I help. Again it was the truth. Maybe not the whole truth, but his conscience wouldnt bother him about it. Gradually her frown faded as her lips curved, slowly and wryly. Then I guess its time for a lessonJordan, she said, using his name for the first time. He released a quiet breath and offered silent thanks that she was taking it well. Hed seen her fuming, and was in no hurry to repeat the experience. The curve of his mouth matched hers. Id say youre rightTess. Okay. She set aside the container of tiny blue flowers she held and bent over the plant he still supported. The trick is to pack the dirt gently but firmly around the roots. She demonstrated with gloved hands, close enough now to allow him a long whiff of a crisp, fresh fragrance he was sure came from her and not the flowers. Done with her project seconds later, and too soon, as far as everything male inside him was concerned, she leaned away again and sat back on her haunches. You can let it go now. He did, and the plant stood straight and tall. Its not difficult once you get the hang of it, she said. My eight-year-old daughter is already a pro. That news brought him up short. Your daughter? I havent seen a child around. Then again, he hadnt seen this woman either, until hed stormed over the fence. Alis spending the summer with my parents. They live in San Diego. And wheres Alis father? He didnt voice the question, yet something in his expression must have made it plain. At least he figured that was the case when she said, My husband died a few years ago. Her own expression sobered with the words. Im sorry. The reply came automatically, but he meant it, nonetheless. Roger was killed in a car crash. She hesitated, as if she could have gone on to say more, then silently picked up the spray of flowers shed put aside and began to plant them. By the time she finished, her smile, or a ghost of one, was back. We went through some tough times, Ali and I, but were doing fine now. We have a good life, and I have a job I love. What kind of job? Her smile widened as she started to dig another hole. This kind, actually. I work for Zieglers Landscaping Service. If things go as planned, Ill own the business before the year is out. Hank and Violet Ziegler, the current owners, are getting ready to retire and take things easier, and theyve offered to sell it to me. The day it becomes Cameron Landscaping, Ill be celebratingbig time. She reached around and retrieved the plant hed put back earlier. Marigolds. Jordan remembered the name even as he considered what Tess Cameron had just told him. Although shed lost her husband, this woman was clearly looking forward to the future. She couldnt be more than thirtyprobably lessyet she had her life mapped out, at least career-wise. She knew exactly where she wanted to go and fully expected to find satisfaction in the path shed chosen. He couldnt help but envy her. I take it you know all about growing things, he said in a bid to keep the conversation going. She shook her head. Not everything, not nearly, but Ive learned my share during the years Ive spent working on lawns all over the city. Leaning forward, he ignored a lone bee that buzzed by and scooped out another trowels worth of dirt. So why dont you tell me more? She did, and he in turn did his best to keep up with the flow of information. Flowers not only came in all shapes, colors and sizes, there were apparently different types, as well. Annuals. Perennials. Biennials. And hed be willing to bet none of them smelled as good as the woman beside him, he thought at one point. Still, he found himself interested, even though he knew that just yesterday, if anyone had told him hed not only be listening to a lecture on gardening, but on his knees planting roses at the same time, hed have called them flat-out crazy. Time passed swiftly, and before it seemed possible they were finished. Jordan was bending over to retrieve a shovel theyd used when his instructor said, Ive been talking about my livelihood long enough. What do you do for a living? Not anything he wanted to discuss. Although he realized he should have expected it, the question had him stilling completely for an instant as he debated how to answer. Standing beside him, Tesss gaze sharpened as she caught that sudden total lack of movement before Jordan slowly straightened. Her question had been natural enough, she told herself, but it seemed to have made an impact, however well concealed. Another second passed before she got a reply. I dont do much of anything these days, he told her in the same casual tone hed used for much of the afternoon. Exploring my options, I guess you could say. And what did you do up till now? She couldnt help wondering, thinking that whatever it was, it had surely not been a run-of-the-mill job. Sharing several companionable hours doing something as simply satisfying as flower tending hadnt changed her mind about Jordan Trask. No one would ever judge him to be ordinaryincluding her. She waited a moment for him to say more. He said nothing, so she turned and started for the garage with an armload of small garden tools. He followed, carrying a shovel in one hand and a fat sack of mulch with the other. Once inside, he glanced around him. Where do you want the sack? Against the wall, on the other side of the truck. She watched as he walked in near silence around her white pickup, asking herself if anyone could move that quietly on solid concrete unless theyd been trained in the art. For a moment, her attention was so fixed on him that she didnt even notice the short metal rake slipping from the pile she held, not until it hit the hard floor with a clatter. In a flash, the man she viewed dropped the sack and whipped around to face her, hazel eyes narrowed and broad shoulders braced for what might come next. He looked, she thought, like a shot had just been fired, rather than a tool clattering. Like a shot. All at once Tess got a good inkling of what Jordan Trask had done in the past. Her gaze locked with his. Are you ex-military, or ex-police? As he released a lengthy breath, she could all but see him forcing himself to relax. And then he spoke so softly that the words barely reached her. Neither. Im ex Border Patrol. Chapter Two Border Patrol. The words repeated in Tesss mind. It was a long way from ordinary, even quite possibly dangerous work. She didnt know any more than the average person, she supposed, about what was actually involved. But she knew that much. No wonder, she told herself. No wonder he seemed a bit larger than life, as though hed just stepped from the pages of an action novel. Hed probably seen plenty of action. And now he had apparently chosen to give it up, let it all go, for reasons she certainly had no business asking him about. Still she couldnt hold back one question. How did you wind up in Harmony? He bent to lift the sack, then met her eyes again. I saw an article in a travel magazine at a dentists office a while back. It was on bed-and-breakfasts in this area, and one of the pictures was an aerial photo of this place, with the sun shining down on it. He paused for a beat. Ive got to admit it seemed a little like heaven to me. It must have, after the sights hed no doubt seen hundreds of miles to the south. She could understand that, even though Tess knew the city shed lived in for most of her life wasnt heaven. Shed learned that the hard way when So I figured Id come and check it out, Jordan added, breaking into memories she was far from reluctant to let go. It didnt take me long to decide I wanted to spend some time here. With that, he turned away and placed the sack where shed indicated. What about the shovel? She reached down and retrieved the rake from the floor. It goes in the storage box at the back. The tools were scarcely put away when thunder rumbled in the distance. Guess I wont have to water the new plants, Tess said as they left the garage. The coming rain was hardly a surprise. Late-day, wind-whipped storms rolled in regularly during the summer months in Harmony, sometimes disappearing almost as quickly as they blew in. The thick dark hair at the nape of his neck barely brushed his shirt collar as Jordan gazed up at a sky that was quickly turning murky. Id better be going. I should probably let the dog out to do his duty before it starts coming down. Ill keep him on a leash until I make sure he cant get through the fence again and create another crisis. Tesss lips quirked in a small smile. I doubt hell be giving Roxy any more trouble. If hes smart, he wont. Is he smart? I dont know, but I expect Ill find out. Jordan brushed his palms on his Levis. We just met today. I adopted him at the pound this morning. And he didnt look all that certain hed done the wise thing, she had no trouble noting. It only made her smile widen. Whats his name? With a slight shake of his head, Jordan said, Beats me. The people at the pound thought he was abandoned because someone couldnt, or didnt want to, take care of him anymore. Then youll have to rename him. He frowned, aiming a thoughtful glance at the house hed rented, where his new pet awaited his return. Ive never named a dog before. What, ah, do you think I should call him? It was her turn to slowly shake her head. It doesnt matter what I think, not really. Hes yours now, Jordan. You should name him. Once again, his gaze met hers. Do you suppose he could come over and visit sometimeif he behaves himself? Her heart picked up a heavy beat, right along with her pulse, because she knew by the abruptly probing glint in his eye what he was really asking. She didnt even consider saying no. You can both come over, she said, and managed to keep her tone light. He grinned thenan all-out grin, not just a smileand she couldnt stop her breath from catching at the sight, couldnt help but wonder if he had any idea how knockout sexy it was. We just might take you up on that invitation, he told her, his gaze still steady on hers. She barely held on to her composure until he looked away and started toward the fence separating their yards. You can go around the front, you know, she called after him. This is just as easy, he threw back over his shoulder. And it was, for him. Within seconds, he effortlessly landed on the other side and turned to wave goodbye. The grinthat devilishly sexy grinwas still in place. TESS WATCHED through a side window of her kitchen as man and dog made their way around the yard, one holding a long black leash, the other sniffing a path over bright green grass. Without a doubt, the dog needed his owner, she thought, needed to be cared for as any pet would. For some reason, though, she was beginning to believe that this particular owner just might need what the dog could provide every bit as much. It should have seemed a little ridiculous that someone who appeared so confidently self-sufficient could genuinely benefit from some unconditional canine devotion. But it didnt seem at all ridiculous. Not to her. Not after the time spent with her new neighbor. Jordan Trask had come to Harmony seeking something. Of that, she was sure. Less clear, was exactly what he sought. Sheer peace, maybe. Some quiet time to decide what hed do next after leaving a job that would have been anything but peaceful. It might well be the case, she reflected, recalling their conversation. Hed seen a postcard-perfect photo in a magazine, and the image had come to mind at a time when hed needed to get away. Yes, that could very well be it. Not that it was any of her business, Tess reminded herself as the phone on a nearby wall jangled. She stepped back from the window and picked up the cream-toned receiver on the second ring. Her daughters voice greeted her. Hows it going, Mom? Breaking into a smile, Tess leaned against the kitchen counter. Just fine, pumpkin. What have you been up to? Lots. Grandma took me to the beach today. We had a good time, even though Grandpa didnt go. He wanted to stay home and watch a baseball game instead. Tomorrow Gram and I are going to the zoo. She asked Grandpa to go, too, but he says theres another game on TV. Ali issued a dramatic sigh. I think Grandpas turning into a couch potato. Sounds like it, Tess agreed, remembering a time when her father had loved being outdoors as much as she did now. Just between us Alis voice dropped to a confidential pitch Grandma told him when she probably thought I wasnt listening that if he keeps on acting like his butt is glued to the recliner, shes gonna get fed up one of these days and do something drastic. Tesss smile grew, because she had no trouble imagining her mother delivering those words in a familiar no-nonsense tone. Glenda Fitzgerald was a woman who could tell it like it was, and didnt hesitate to do so if she felt the occasion demanded it. What do you suppose Gram meant by something drastic, Mom? Who knows? Tess pursed her lips. Maybe cutting the cord on the TV. Or fixing fish for dinner every night. Aha, Ali said wisely. Gram and I like fish, but Grandpa doesnt. Chuckling, Tess replied, Exactly, pumpkin. Your grandfather would be making his own dinner, which probably falls in the drastic category, at least as far as hes concerned. Hed be mumbling and grumbling all over the place. Ali giggled. The sound was music to Tesss ears. Her daughter had gone through some dark days after Roger died, but the shadows had long since faded, thank heavens. Tell me what else youve been up to, she urged, and, as expected, Ali launched into an eager explanation. With a promise to call during the week, Tess hung up the phone minutes later and returned to the window. The first big drops of warm rain hit with soft pings and slid their way down the glass as she looked out at the now empty yard next door. He was gone. But not forgotten. Even a lively conversation with her much-loved child hadnt pushed her neighbor completely from her mind. No, he was still there. Those dark-lashed eyes, that chiseled mouth, the knockout grin. And the powerful body. She couldnt deny that she remembered every impressive inch of it, and she couldnt say that shed object to seeing more. Because she wouldnt. As a lover, Jordan Trask would be ideal. Even as that thought bloomed, she was struck by exactly how right it seemed. Not for just any woman, but for her. In every way she could imagine, this man fit the part to a tee. Physically, she was attracted to him. Just kneeling beside him in a flower bed was the most exciting thing shed done in years, at least as far as everything female inside her was concerned. Her pulse still hadnt returned to normal. Not quite. Not yet. She wondered how long it would take. Emotionally, he attracted her, as well. Watching him warily bond with his new pet had tugged at her heartstrings, she couldnt deny. And the fact that the dog clearly wasnt wary spoke volumes. Deep down, he was a good manone she could come to respect, given the chance. Every instinct she had said so. And, added to all of the above, one more thing about him held great appeal. Right now, at this point in her life and circumstances being what they were, it was the icing on the cake. Jordan Trask would be a temporary lover. Temporary, because she didnt for one minute believe that he would settle down in Harmony. Hed come here to find something, probably a solid strategy for what to do next, and having found it, he would move on. Men well acquainted with the thrill of danger didnt prop their boots up on a porch railing in peaceful surroundings and contentedly watch the world go by. Not for any real length of time. So he would go. And if they did become lovers, when it was over there would be no uncomfortable aftermath. That was one of the difficulties of living in a smaller city, Tess knew. If she set her sights on someone local, theyd be running into each other long after the affair had run its coursewhether they wanted to or not. Far better, she believed, to choose someone who was exciting on one level, admirable on another, andtemporary. Oh, yes. It would be ideal. He was here for the summer. Her daughter was happily occupied elsewhere. Perfect. And what made her think he would even consider it? Tess shook her head as that thought hit home, and soon chided herself for pure foolishness. Here she was, she reflected with a rueful twist of her lips, flirting with the idea of an intimate relationship with her new neighbor, when he hadnt so much as flirted with her, not really. Time for a reality check, she concluded, turning away from the window. The man in question had done nothing to launch her mind down the particular path it had taken. Nothing but grin at her and waggle an invitation to possibly come over againwhich was hardly enough to mean anything. After all, Tess told herself as she started for the laundry room, larger-than-life men hardly made a habit of getting involved with down-to-earth women. Did they? THE FLOWERS INVADED Jordans dreams that night. Rainbow-colored and brightly scented, they marched straight into his imagination, a brilliant parade of blooms in endless shapes and sizes. Roses. Snapdragons. Marigolds. And a legion more he still couldnt put a name to. In his mind, he walked in a huge garden at the height of a sultry summer day, gazing around him as he made his way down a narrow cobblestone path carved into a sea of lush green grass. The goal foremost in his thoughts was to reach a certain place, to find a certainsomething. The knowledge of exactly what, eluded him keeping a quick, enticing step ahead to remain just beyond his grasp. But he was dead sure he had to find it. So he kept on going, while birds chirped softly in the background and warm wind rustled a thousand leaves. And then he came to a sharp twist in the winding path and saw a woman seated on a plain wooden bench in a small clearing. Everything inside him clenched at the sight, because she wore nothing but a yellow rosebud tucked behind one ear. He knew that for a certainty, despite the fact that only her face was completely clear to him, as if a filmy veil cloaked the rest of her body from his gaze. She made no attempt to cover herself, showed no surprise at his appearance. Rather, her eyes welcomed him, blue as the sunlit sky above, as he approached. And all at once he realized hed found what hed been looking for. Swiftly on the heels of that knowledge came a surge of want. He wanted many things, wanted them badly and wanted them soon. But most of all at that moment, he wanted to kiss the woman who awaited him. As if well aware of his thoughts, she rose in one smooth motion, spread her arms and slid them around his neck without hesitation when he finally stood beside her. Then she pressed her lips to one side of his jaw and feathered her tongue over his cheek. He longed for her mouth under his, craved a deep, hard taste. Yet he found himself willing to wait, because what she was doing felt so good. So warm. Somoist. So arousing. Or it would have been, if something hadnt prompted him to slit an eye open. He quickly discovered that Tess Cameron was nowhere in sight. But he was indeed being licked. By a dog. What the hell! Jordan shot straight up in the brass double bed, sending the white sheet tumbling to his waist. He wore nothing beneath it, preferring bare skin to bunched pajamas when it came to nightwear. And as far as morning wake-up kisses were concerned, hed take sweet, human female over damp canine any day. Dont ever do that again, he grumbled, frowning down at his new pet. A pet still lacking a name, he reminded himself. Not that he hadnt given it his best shot. He had. But nothing seemed to fit. The dog, looking totally unrepentant, calmly returned his masters gaze, wet tongue lolling to one side and black eyes gleaming in the dim early sunlight slanting through the sheer blue bedroom curtains. It might be easier to get my point across if I had a clue what to call you. Jordan punched up a pillow and leaned back against it. Maybe I should leave the whole thing up to you. A soft pant began at that statement, appearing to agree. He shrugged. Okay, lets give it a try. How does Spot strike you? No reaction at all, not this time. No dice, huh? How about Rover? Lad? Sparky? Nothing. Buster? Rex? Fang? Zip. He lifted a hand and ran it through his sleep-mussed hair. Youd better not be too picky, pal. I may reach the end of my rope, and youll wind up with a name as plain as Smith or Jones. A sudden lively bark split the early-morning quiet and sent Jordans brows climbing. Are you telling me you want to be called something like Jones? A second bark and some fast tail wagging gave him his answer. All right, who am I to argue the point? If Jones works for youits Jones. Jordan flicked the sheet aside, rose and headed for the bathroom off the upstairs hallway. At the sound of yet another eager bark, he tossed a glance over his shoulder and found the dog now eyeing the warm spot on the bed hed just left. Dont even think about it, Jones. Sighing, Jones dropped his chin to the sea-toned carpet and placed his head on his paws. Jordans mouth curved in a satisfied smile. I see we now understand each other. But what he didnt understand, he had to admit as he stood under the showers pulsing spray and soaped himself down, was why hed had that dream. Sex had something to do with it, of course. Without the dog getting into the act, who knew where that fantasy would have ended. Maybe with two naked bodies stretched out on the grass in the middle of that garden. Yeah, his libido was involved, all right. But he doubted it was only his libido. Other aspects of the dream had been too strong. What hed wanted went beyond a willing woman, an anonymous face with a soft-skinned body. No, hed wanted one woman in particular. And hed best stay away from her until he decided where to go from here. If, that was, he decided to do anything beyond aiming a friendly wave over the fence for the rest of the summer. Logic told him he should do exactly that and concentrate on the gaping hole in his future. Too bad certain parts of him werent feeling especially logical. Then again, the woman in question might choose to toss no more than an occasional wave his way. Jordan frowned as it occurred to him that his neighbor might already have a man in her life, given the fact that shed been a widow for a few years. For some reason, that thought didnt sit well, but there it was. It would be foolish to go off half-cocked before he got a better handle on the whole thing. So, taking everything into account, he was a lot better off staying away from Tess Cameron, at least for the time being. With that conclusion, Jordan stepped from the shower and reached for a fluffy blue towel. He tried not to dwell on the fact that it all but matched the shade of the eyes belonging to the vision in his dream, tried not to imagine how her touch might feel as he rubbed his body dry. Triedand failed. SO THEN WHAT HAPPENED? He jumped back over the fence. And maybe straight out of my life. Sally, once again seated at the breakfast table in her friends kitchen, lifted a brow right along with her coffee mug. Does that mean you havent laid eyes on him since? Not exactly. I saw him on Sunday morning nailing up some plywood boards where his dog managed to get through. Tess leaned back in her chair. He, ah, didnt have a shirt on. Oh, my. Sally blew out a breath and began to fan herself with one hand. Judging by what youve already told me, that must have been quite a sight. With the vivid memory of a hair-darkened chest still firmly etched in her mind, Tess could hardly disagree. It was. She took a hefty sip of coffee. Then, that afternoon, he mowed the lawnstill minus a shirt and this time wearing denim cutoffs instead of jeans. Fanning faster, Sally said, And the lower half was as impressive as the upper, right? Right. So impressive, Tess thought, that shed been hard-pressed not to pant at the whole picture as she watched Jordan Trask through the kitchen window. His obvious effort to master the mysteries of the old-fashioned gas mower hadnt dimmed the impact one watt, even before hed solved the puzzle and proceeded to get the job done. Sally stopped fanning. And you didnt find somethinganythingto do outside so you could talk to him again? No. Why? A good question, Tess had to concede. It would have been nice to have a clear answer. As it was, she shrugged. Maybe I just wasnt ready for another chat. Or maybe, after getting an eye-widening look at that body, I felt even more foolish for so much as considering the possibility of an affair with a man whod draw drop-dead-gorgeous women like a magnet. Sallys sudden smile was sly. Do I detect the patter of cold feet? No, you do not, Tess replied briskly. If Id wanted to strike up a conversation with Jordan Trask last Sunday, I would have damn well done it. And how about the rest of the week? Tess smiled her own smug smile. I only caught glimpses of him coming and going in his car, so there was no chance to talk to him. But if he takes you up on that invitation and stops by this weekend, Sally countered, therell be no reason not to chat up a storm. Tess set down her empty mug and aimed for a breezy tone. Sure, if he shows up on my doorstep, Ill be my usual friendly, neighborly self. But it wouldnt surprise her if the man in question never showed up. And if he chose not to, she would be content with that decision, Tess told herself. Except maybe in the middle of the night, an inner voice tacked on, and she knew it had a point. At midnight, when shed already found her mind wandering to the moonlit house next door, contentment might be hard to come by. Hard, but not impossible. As intriguing as this subject is, Sally said with a soft sigh, Id better head home soon. Bens probably close to done with the yard work by now and then we have to start setting up tables for the barbecue tonight. Tess brightened at the reminder that for the coming evening at least, shed have plenty to occupy her mind. The annual party held in the sprawling backyard of the Mendoza home had become a summer tradition in Harmony. It was also good customer relations on their part. With Ben being a C.P.A. and Sally serving as his assistant, tax time had clients from all over town visiting the business they ran from their house. I can almost taste those Texas-style beef ribs now, Sal. Should I be there around seven? Uh-huh. As usual, things start when the sun goes down. Again a sly smile broke through. Youre welcome to bring a date, you know. Therell be plenty of foodeven for a big man with a major appetite. Tess shook her head, well aware of Sallys choice for the role. I believe Ill take a pass. She pushed away from the table and got to her feet. On the other hand, if you dont pass on another cup of coffee, Ben and the kids may have the tables set up by the time you get there. Excellent thinking, Sally decided. I can show up in time to supervise the decorations, which, by the way, will not include crepe paper. She shuddered. I learned my lesson last year after that thunderstorm blew through and left sopping mounds of it behind. This year, Im sticking with strictly waterproof material. Good plan. Tess started for the coffeepot on the counter, then halted in midstride when the front doorbell rang. I wonder who that can be. Sally arched a skillfully shaped brow. Maybe its him. Him. Tesss pulse picked up a beat even as she calmly shoved the bottom edge of her striped camp shirt more firmly into the waistband of her jeans. Not likely. Its probably somebody selling something. Saturday mornings are great for that kind of thing. Why dont you find out? Sally suggested, rising. Meanwhile, Ill pour us both another cup of coffee. Okay. Tess turned on the heel of one canvas sneaker, left the kitchen and walked down the hall, telling herself that it was ridiculous to feel this nervous about doing something so everyday normal as answering the door. It could well be a neighborhood kid selling candy to finance a school project, or an elderly resident seeking volunteers at the senior center. It could be anyone, she thought as she opened the door. But it wasnt anyone, she learned after one look at the person dressed in faded denim standing on the doorstep. It was him. Hello, Tess, he said in the low, rough voice she remembered all too well. We decided to take you up on that invitation. We? It took her another moment and a second, more thorough look to notice that his newly adopted pet stood beside him, long ears brushing the white slats of a narrow porch floor being eagerly sniffed. HelloJordan. She had to say more than that, she knew. She just didnt know what. Finally she settled on action and gestured a welcome. Come on in. He stepped forward with a slight tug on the dogs leash, and spoke again as Tess closed the door behind them. Is this a good time? I dont want to disturb you if youre busy. Its a great time. A soft voice drifted down the hall from the spot where Sally leaned in the kitchen doorway, mug in one hand and a wide smile curving red-shaded lips that all but matched her figure-hugging jumpsuit. We gals were just having some coffee. Why dont you join us? Tess suggested, her brain kicking in at last. His crooked smile appeared. She remembered that, too. Not to mention the thick dark hair, the keen hazel eyes and the rest of the whole potent package. She doubted shed ever totally forget it. Thats fine with me, he said, and the basset hound seemed to second the statement with a quiet woof. Sounds like Jones agrees. Jones. Tesss brows made a rapid climb. You named him Jones? Jordan held up one hand, palm out. Hey, dont look at me. He picked it himself. Tess took a stab at making sense of that statement as she reached down and offered a hand for inspection. HelloJones. The dog sniffed her fingers but shared no clues. Giving up, she gave the dog a hearty pat, then led her guests down the hall and introduced them to Sally. Glad to meet you and Jones, Jordan. Sallys smile grew to a grin as they shook hands. Its so nice to know ones neighbors. My husband, Ben, and I live a couple of blocks down the street with our two boys. I recently moved in next door. Looking up a considerable way at the man standing in front of her, Sallys brown eyes positively twinkled. I know. Well, lets get you that cup of coffee, Tess said hastily, deciding it was time to break in. The last thing she wanted was for Jordan Trask to even suspect theyd been discussing him. Which they had, of course. At length. While she retrieved another mug from a bleached-oak cabinet, her company seated themselves across from each other at the round glass table. The dog stretched out on the misty green tile near his masters feet. Tess picked up the pot. How do you like your coffee? Just black. Jordan settled back in his chair and propped one booted foot on his knee. And how do you like Harmony? Sally asked as a steaming mug was placed in front of him. It was Jordans turn to grin, and Tesss turn to fan herself. She felt the urge, at any rate. What the man could accomplish with a grin should be illegal, she thought, gazing down at him. It was positively deadly to the female half of the population. Harmonys terrific, he didnt hesitate to reply. Strangers actually introduce themselves to you on the street, even in the busier downtown areas. It took a few times for me to expect it. Then again, one elderly, silver-haired lady didnt say a word when she picked out a cantaloupe for me at the grocery. She just walked up, shook a few, handed her choice over and left with a brisk nod. Probably Hester Goodbody, Sally concluded. She tends to take charge, although in the nicest way. I think its become second nature to her. Miss Hester taught a whole lot of us how to glue shiny stars on paper in the first grade. I think it was really a lesson in sitting still. Jordan chuckled. Well, whatever the case, she certainly was friendly. Were a friendly bunch, by and large. There are some confirmed grouches around, but not too many to ignore, if we chose to. Abandoning her coffee, Sally leaned forward and propped her elbows on the table. She flicked a glance at Tess, now seated beside her, then returned her gaze to Jordan. And speaking of friendliness, she said in an offhand tone, I know weve only just met, but Ben and I are a having a backyard barbecue tonight if youd like to stop by for some ribs and a beer. Most of the neighborhood will be there. Tess froze with her mug halfway to her mouth, well aware that something was up. Not that she should be surprised, she told herself in the next breath, recalling the earlier twinkle in a pair of brown eyes. Sally wanted to get to know this man betterand she most especially wanted Tess to get to know him better. That was as clear as a neon sign in Las Vegas. At least it was to her. She could only hope it wasnt as blatantly plain to Jordan. Tess is coming, Sally added, oh-so-casually, placing her chin in the palm of one hand. If she caught the abruptly stern warning aimed from under her friends lashes, she wasted no time in dismissing it and fluttering her own. Maybe you two could come together. And maybe I could strangle you, Tess thought, tightening her fingers around the mug handle. The muscles in Jordans throat worked as he took a long swallow of his coffee. Then he turned his head and looked directly at Tess. Maybe we could, he said. Id like to go. Would you go with me? Oh, Im sure shed love to, Sally tossed in, as though the whole thing were happily settled. And now it was past time to choke her, Tess reflected grimly. No jury made up of single women with well-meaning friends would convict her. Theyd probably give her a medal. Before she could go about earning one, though, Sally pushed back her chair and all but leaped to her feet. My, how the time does fly! I have to get a move on. Theres a mountain of potato salad to make and all sorts of things to do. See you tonight, Jordan. Dont bother walking me out, Tess. With that, she made a beeline for the doorway to the hall, sandal heels tapping the way, and turned to wave a merry goodbye. Tess launched a steely, sidelong stare that silently said, Ill get you for this. To which yet another lively twinkle in Sallys eye replied, No, with any luck at all, youll thank me. Chapter Three Jordan resumed the task of finishing his coffee, aware that his question remained unanswered. Not that hed been expecting to ask his gardening teacher to go anywhere with him that night. His sole intention, as hed climbed her porch steps, was to see her again. The truth was, he hadnt been able to convince himself to stay away any longer, not after keeping a sharp eye out for male visitors over the past several evenings and failing to see any calling on Tess Cameron. The field was clear, hed presumed, an assumption just confirmed by her friends obvious effort to throw them together. She would know far better than he if another man were in the picture. Plainly, the answer was no. On one hand, he was gladprobably more than he should bethat his neighbor was free to consider his suggestion. On the other, he couldnt help noting that she wasnt jumping at the chance to take him up on it. Jordan glanced around a kitchen as homey as the one he currently called his own. Here, rainbow shades predominated and flowers ruled, covering the chair cushions and topping the windows. More flowers were strung out in a high border at the edge of the ceiling and a short glass vase holding an assortment of the real variety stood on the counter near the refrigerator. And there, he noticed, a new and entirely different element had won out. Displayed on the front of the tall refrigerator, held up by a bright mix of small magnets, were several crayon drawings, all of trains. An artist in the family? he asked with a nod at the pictures. Tesss expression softened as a quick, fond smile appeared. My daughter has her heart set on becoming a railroad engineer. Hmm. Interesting. Women did most everything these days, Jordan thought, including rocketing off into space. By the time eight-year-olds grew up, who knew what theyd be into? And I think she means business, Tess added, sounding like a proud mother. One of the first words she learned to say was choo-choo. Ali was always more delighted with the toy train chugging around our Christmas tree than the ornaments on it. Jordan waited, but she didnt go on. Finally he set his mug down with a soft clunk, deciding there was no use beating around the bush. If youd rather go alone tonight, he said, Ill certainly understand. Whatever he might have expected, it wasnt the reply he got. If youd rather go alone, Ill be the one to understand, she said bluntly. You were shanghaied into making that offer, and I intend to see that Sally gets whats coming to her. One corner of his mouth kicked up at her abruptly dire tone. Whats the plan? Boiling her in oil sounds great at the moment. Tess blew out a breath. Or I could be downright cruel and break one of her fingernails. Theyre her pride and joy. Thatll teach her. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and the dog at his feet yawned as if the movement had interrupted a nap. Thankfully, the cat was nowhere in sight. Jordan still wasnt sure that Jones had learned his lesson. Right now, hed rather not put it to the test. He had other things on his mindmainly the answer hed yet to get. Reaching down, he brushed a hand over a furry head, then sat back and returned his gaze to the woman seated beside him. Regardless of how it came about, I dont want to take back what I said earlier. Will you go with me? Another silent second passed before he finally got that reply. All right, if youd really like me to. I would, he said, and meant it. Trouble was, he was beginning to think he liked it too much. THIS IS NO BIG DEAL, Tess reminded her reflection as she viewed it in a wide dresser mirror under the watchful light eyes of the cat stretched out in full glory on her cherry-wood queen-size bed. Its not a real date, not even close. We just happen to be invited to the same party, so were going together. With that thought already firmly in mind when shed dressed for the evening, she now wore what shed planned to wear before Jordan Trask had arrived on the scene that morning. Her sleeveless white blouse edged with lace around a notched collar was comfortably suited to the warm weather, yet fancy enough for a casual party. Likewise her short coral-colored wraparound skirt and white mid-heeled sandals. Neighbors who had known her for years, even seen her grow up, would think she looked much the same as on a score of past occasions. Which was as it should be, she reflected, because there was nothing all that exceptional about tonight. And if she repeated that to herself a dozen more times, maybe the swarm of butterflies flitting around in her stomach would calm down. She could only hope. Tess was still hoping, without great success, when the doorbell rang. No big deal, she muttered under her breath as she headed down the stairs leading to the front entryway. Then she opened the door and the butterflies furiously flapped their way to new heights. It was, she had to admit, a big, big deal. Oh, not to the man who calmly gazed back at her, hazel eyes deepened to gleaming green by the jade polo shirt he wore with tan pants. Certainly not to him. But, for her, the bald truth was that this was a far-from-ordinary occasionsomething, she decided, she would try mightily to keep as her secret. To that end, she smiled a small smile and aimed for the lightest of tones. Youre right on time. He returned her smile with his own crooked version. All set to go? She nodded, switched on the porch light and pulled a house key from a side pocket of her skirt. This is all I need. Jordan watched as Tess secured the sturdy dead bolt on the door. That she had one at all surprised him a little. The house hed rented sported only a standard lock on the knob and he hadnt given it another thought, not in a place like Harmony. The crime rate was probably close to zero. Hardened criminals could well be an endangered species here, a far cry from many of the places hed known in the past. But he didnt want to think about the past. That was behind him. Hed rather consider the evening to come, although he realized it would hold some challenges. Keeping his eyes off Tess Camerons legs was the first and foremost. It wouldnt do his temperature any good to start imagining how that creamy skin would feel under his palms. No damn good at all. Jordan crossed his arms over his chest as they reached the bottom of the porch steps and started down a quiet street, side by side. He was her escort for the evening, he reminded himself, nothing more. He would take her to the party. He would see her home afterward. And he would try like blazes not to think about that dream. No garden. No fragrant breezes. No welcoming woman waiting for him, wearing nothing but a Tonight seems a little warmer than usual, Tess said. Definitely warmer, he reflected with an inner grimace. Maybe it will cool off later, he told her. He could only hope. THANKFULLY IT DID COOL OFF, the temperature dropping fairly rapidly once stars began to blink their way into the clear sky overhead. And Jordan managed to cool off, as well. Then again, he hadnt had much time during the past hour to look at Tesss legs, he had to admit. Ever since Ben Mendoza, a raven-haired, dark-eyed, big-boned man with a smile as wide as his native Texas, had pressed a cold beer bottle into Jordans hand and hauled him away for a lively game of horseshoes, the woman hed escorted had only been glimpsed in the chatty crowd milling around the spacious backyard. Now he had another beer in one hand and a pair of long steel tongs in the other, turning ribs on one of four sizzling charcoal grills set at one side of the yard near a high stone fence and trying to look like hed been doing it all his life. Probably no male in the history of mankind, starting with the first caveman to roast a leg of something over an open fire, had ever confessed to having less than total skill in the outdoor-cooking department. Jordan didnt plan on being the first. Having a good time? his hostess, all decked out in something pink and gauzy, asked as she walked up and inspected his efforts. Yes, he said, and it wasnt just to be polite. The whole flock of Harmony residents present this evening, from the youngest to the oldest and every stage in between, were clearly enjoying themselves. And so was he. How amazed would they be, he wondered, if he told them hed never attended a friendly neighbors party before this very night? Rowdy parties, yes. Plenty of them in his younger, wilder days. But none like this one. Sally took a hefty whiff of the spicy aroma rising from the grill. Smells great. You must be an expert. One corner of his mouth slid upward. Could be. Sorry I had to rush away this morning. Brown eyes sparkled as they met his. Im glad you and Tess decided to come together. The other edge of his mouth rose in the same slow slide. I figured you would be. A fleeting smile surfaced. Ah, yes. I wont pretend I didnt meddle. I did. But I only meant to help. Sometimes these things need a little nudge. Trouble is, I think Tess would like to nudge me flat off my feet and on my rear. Sally aimed a wary glance around her. Uh-oh. Here she comes. Gotta go. Ive managed to keep two steps ahead of her since she arrived packing a razor-sharp gleam in her eye. With that, Sally whipped around and fled. The gleam was there, all right. It had been trained on him just a week earlier, so he had no trouble recognizing it as Tess approached. She halted beside him, eyes narrowed and fixed on her friends retreating back. She can run, but she cant hide. Not forever. Tess blew out a breath. Im getting some good exercise, at any rate. Along with an appetite. When will the ribs be done? Soon, he replied, figuring that was a safe enough guess. As she looked his way, her gaze took on another gleam, this one of amusement. I like the outfit. He dropped a glance at the black cotton apron his host had urged on him, its bib top sporting flaming red letters that declared Real Men Do Their Smoking On The Grill. Its a fashion statement, all right. The wry remark won him a quiet chuckle. How did you wind up cooking? He shrugged. Beats me. It just sort of happened. She nodded wisely. Ben wanted to make you feel comfortable, so he put you to work. Are you? He cocked a brow. Working? Comfortable. He wasnt, not entirely. Seeing how her fine-textured skin glowed under the flickering light of a tall metal torch staked nearby had his mind bent on wandering to forbidden places. And it would take some effort to keep it in check. But he could hardly say anything of the sort. Comfortable enough, he replied, and firmly returned his gaze to the task at hand. My stomach could use some food, though. Once these ribs are ready, I plan on doing them justice. THEY BOTH DID their dinner justice as they sat at one end of a long pine picnic table, sharing it with several other people. Jordan had chosen to sit opposite Tess rather than beside her, and as the meal progressed, he gave silent thanks for his foresight. He didnt need their thighs touching, that was for sure, no matter how briefly or casually. Just watching the woman across from him lick sauce off her lips with a delicate pink tongue had his wayward thoughts considering the private merits of being licked himselfand not by a dog. What he did need, he decided as he finished the last of his ribs, was a distraction. How about some music? one of the men at the table asked, raising his voice over the low buzz of conversation. Yeah, Floyd, another chimed in. When you and the boys are done stuffing yourselves, lets hear a few tunes. That suited Jordan to a tee. Whatever he might have imagined would follow, though, it wasnt an impromptu performance by a barbershop quartet. Yet thats what he found himself listening to minutes later, when three men with varying amounts of graying hair gathered to stand shoulder-to-shoulder behind a much younger man of about twenty seated in a wheelchair. Jordan clapped along with the rest of the crowd at the end of Down By The Old Millstream. Theyre good, he told Tess, leaning in her direction over the table. Where did they come up with the idea to get together? In a barbershop. She smiled at his suddenly blank look. And thats the truth. Floyd Crenshaw, the tall man in the middle, owns the only genuine, old-time barbershop left in the downtown area. The two men standing beside him are longtime customers. My dad used to be the fourth member of the group. Now Brady, Floyds youngest son, has taken over. He won the horseshoe toss. Jordan studied the sandy-haired young man, who seemed fit enough, despite the disability. Probably not illness-related, he decided. An accident of some kind, most likely. It was a damn shame, but there it was. The guys got an arm made for throwing, and a deadly aim. Bradys tough to beat, Tess agreed as the opening strains of Lida Rose began. Hes competitive. Even more so, Id say, than before the wheelchair entered the scene three years ago. And hes a darn good singer. My dads baritone was hardly missed, though no one would wound his ego by telling him so. The song ended in another lively round of applause moments later, and once again Jordan leaned toward his companion. What did your father do here before he moved? he asked, both to further the conversation and because he was curious about how people earned a living. As pleasant as Harmony was, there was no major industry in the immediate area to produce jobs. He worked for Arizona Electric for years, Tess said, first as a lineman, then as foreman of a large crew. Now, from what Ive been hearing lately, hes mixing the joys of part-time work as an ace electrician with the hardships of watching television while sprawled in a recliner. The last came out so dryly Jordans mouth curved. What about your mother? She was, and is, a full-time homemaker. Jordan nodded. I dont suppose homemakers get to slow down much. Probably not as much as theyre entitled to in most cases, Tess agreed. Still, I was pleased when my folks decided to move to San Diego. My mom wanted to give life by the ocean a try, and Im glad she got her way. She deserved it. Tess propped her elbows on the table. The house Im living in now was theirs. I sold a smaller place not too far from here and took over their mortgage. Which made my folks happy, because Im their only child, and they loved the house and wanted it to stay in the family. She paused for a beat. How about your family? He shrugged. I dont have a lot. Only an older brother I havent seen in years. A frown formed, sobering her expression. Your parents are gone? Yeah. And it would have been nice to say he truly missed them. But he didnt, Jordan had to admit. Somehow he doubted theyd ever wanted to be parents. Certainly theyd never gone out of their way to show affection to their children. His brother had packed up and left the Trask homesteada drab apartment in a dust-clogged town on a flat stretch of southern Nevadaas soon as he could manage it, and Jordan couldnt blame him. Hed done exactly the same when hed got his chance. Another tune started up at that point, and Jordan again welcomed the distraction. Dwelling on his family had never been one of his favorite pastimes. He returned his gaze to the performers, already having noted a change in the music even before he saw that Brady Crenshaw now strummed an acoustic guitar to blend in with the smooth vocals, while a second young mananother Crenshaw by the look of himtapped a rhythmic beat on a set of bongo drums. The song was an old Sinatra standard, a bluesy ballad, and several people apparently judged it danceable enough to stand up to give it a try, including the host and hostess, who had been seated clear across the yard. If Fast-Foot Sally glides by anywhere near me, shes mine, Tess declared with grim intent. If your friend is smart, Jordan muttered under his breath, shell stay well out of reach. The woman in question seemed to heed that advice as she and her husband drifted closer and came to a halt on Jordans side of the table. They separated, smiling at each other. And then Sally was pulling Jordan to his feet. With the element of surprise in her favor, she managed it with little trouble. They were headed toward the middle of the makeshift dance floor in the center of the grassy yard before he could issue a protest. Im not much good at this, he said, which was no less than the truth. He enjoyed listening to music. Moving to it had never been his strong suit. Its a slow one, his hostess pointed out. Practicing will only make you better. Jordan gave in to his fate with the thinnest of sighs, placed an arm lightly around his partners waist and began to move, shuffling his feet. She grinned up at him. There, you see. Youre doing fine. If I stomp on your toes, dont say I didnt warn you. Gazing over her head, he saw that Tess and Ben had joined the dancers. It gave him some satisfaction to note that the big Texan wasnt demonstrating any fancier moves than he was. At least he had that small comfort, he thought. But not for long. Midway through the second chorus, Ben closed the gap between them and executed a quick spin. Legs braced to halt his own momentum, he launched his partner straight at Jordan and Sally, then reached for the hand his wife suddenly freed to extend his way, and tugged her toward him in the next breath. Tess landed in the vacant spot an instant later, completing a swift switch of partners worthy of a Broadway musical production. Jordan couldnt help but admire it, even though the outcome left him holding a somewhat breathless and thoroughly disgruntled woman. Sally put him up to it, she grumbled, hauling in air. I know it. And after that little performance, itll look ridiculous if we dont continue dancing. So we will. Jordan resumed his slow shuffle. It wont be hard to keep up with me, he told her dryly. Keep up? With him? Tess drew in more air as realization dawned. All at once every inch of her zinged to full awareness of just how close they were at that very moment. Almost chest-to-chest close. Or, rather, chest to breast. Somehow her feet kept moving and her lungs kept working. Somehow her gaze remained steady as she aimed it beyond a broad shoulder and looked up at a moonlit sky. Basic instincts had assumed control. Which was a good thing, because most of her brain seemed to be on hold. She might tell herself it was silly, that shed shared many a dance with numerous men in the past, and they hadnt all been longtime friends and neighbors. Parties during her early college days in the Phoenix area had produced a variety of young and attractive partners, and shed kicked up her high heels on more than one occasion. But she had to admit that shed never encountered anyone quite like the man who held her now, never been so physically reminded of the fact that she was female. Not even marriage and motherhood had prepared her for her bodys total and undeniable response. From the top of her head to the tips of her toes, Jordan Trask made her truly feel like a woman. Sorry Im not more of a dancer, he said, his voice a rough whisper at her ear. Youll probably be glad when this song is over. No, she wouldnt. How could she, given the wonders that came with being in this mans arms? Not especially, she murmured. Ive always liked this song. She pulled back slightly to gaze up at him and awareness soared to new heights. They were surrounded by people, yet it seemed as if, for this singular moment in time, no one existed but the two of them. It had to be her imagination, she told herself. He couldnt be feeling what she was feeling. Could he? The last notes of the music died away at that point. The song was over. And Tess decided then and there to go homebefore she started imagining who knew what. Thanks for the dance, she said with deliberate mildness. Thanks for putting up with my shuffling. He released her and took a step back. Can I get you another glass of wine? With a swift shake of her head, she said, Its getting late. I have to go. He didnt point out that it was barely ten oclock. He just said, Ill walk you home. She brushed a stray lock of hair back from her face. You dont have to, you know. You could stay and enjoy yourself. It was his turn to shake his head. Im ready to go, too, but first I suppose we should say goodbye to our hosts. Tess aimed a look around her. Somehow it doesnt amaze me that theyre nowhere in sight. Ill talk to Sally tomorrow. Okay, Jordan agreed as they started for the front of the house. Will you tell her I said thanks for inviting me? Id be glad to. Right after I tell her a few other things. THEY WERE HALFWAY HOME by the time Jordan finally decided that, with the least encouragement on her part, he would kiss the woman walking beside him when they got to her door. It was something hed been mulling over ever since hed released her after that dance and dropped his arms when he only wanted to haul her closer, because holding her had felt so damn good. But hed figured she wouldnt appreciate being swept up in full view of a crowd of onlookers and carried off into the night. Which was exactly what everything inside him had firmly urged him to do, right then and there. No, hed settle for a kiss. And not a long one, either. Just a short, small taste of those naturally rosy lips. Thats what he had in mind. Jordan snorted under his breath. Who was he kidding? His mind had little to do with it. Other parts of him were a lot more involved. They were, in fact, primed for action. But he couldand wouldkeep them in check. The question was: Would he get any encouragement? Tess hadnt said much beyond a few words since theyd left the party. Neither had he. Still there was no uneasiness in the silence between them, not that he could detect. Could be she was comfortable being alone with him despite that humming instant of up-close-and-personal eye contact during their dance. Or she might be too busy plotting revenge for her friends meddling to spare a thought for discomfort. Whatever the case, he figured it was to his advantage. If she wasnt uptight about the situation, chances were a brief good-night kiss could be taken as no more than a casual end to a pleasant evening. She didnt have to know how much he wanted a taste of her. Just a small taste, Jordan reminded himself, and repeated the inner warning for good measure when they arrived at their destination minutes later and mounted the low front steps. As they stood under the soft glow cast by the porch light overhead, her fine-grained skin again took on a golden gleam, and Jordans hands fisted in his pockets, where theyd remained during the short walk. He vowed to keep them there and off that petal-smooth skin. No matter what. Thanks for seeing me home, Tess said, finally breaking the quiet all around them. Youre welcome, he replied, stark huskiness in his tone. She drew a sharp breath, as if shed recognized what his vocal chords had revealed. It was something a man had a difficult time hiding when a female was in sight who stirred everything male in him. Hed been lucky to conceal it this long. Once again their gazes locked. Once again silence stretched between them. But this time there was nothing comfortable about it. This time, tension snapped in the calm, balmy air. Well, I suppose I should go in, Tess murmured at last. But she didnt move a muscle, just stared at him with clear blue eyes. And that turned out to be all the encouragement Jordan required. Without a word, he bent his head and put his mouth on hers, felt soft lips part slightly under his, and didnt think it was in shock. In welcome, was what he told himself, what he wanted to believe as he tilted his chin and angled his mouth for a better fit. His tongue probed gently, gradually found entry, and tasted what awaited him. Just one small taste. And all at once his whole body clenched with need and craved more. A lot more. So much more, the sudden hunger twisting through him threatened to make him growl. He needed more badly, and he needed it now. He didnt realize his hands had left his pockets until his palms cupped delicate shoulders, had no awareness of his arms tugging a slender figure closer until soft breasts brushed the solid wall of his chest. The kiss, already longer than hed bargained for, turned hard and heated in a hurry as the puzzling pull hed experienced on their first meeting made a swift return. Far stronger now, it drew him in, urged him on and wiped out any thought of bringing things to a halt. The hell with everything, he told himself. He wasnt stopping. Not yet. Tess clutched the corded forearms of the man who held her and tried to cling as tightly to her common sense. They were in clear view of the entire neighborhood, kissing each other as if their lives depended on it, as though the world would end if they so much as paused from a greedy meld of lips, teeth and tongues to take the barest breath. Thank goodness most of her neighbors were still at the party, because she was participating to the hilt in what seemed like total madness, she couldnt deny. Jordan might have initially taken her by surprise, but shed caught up quickly. Three years was a long time to go without kissing a virile male. She hadnt realized exactly how long until a firm mouth had come down on hers. Yet the bald truth was that more than mere years separated her from the heady wonders of being kissed like this, with such towering need and single-minded intensity. She had, in fact, never been kissed like this. Ever. Never had she felt as if reality were about to go up in smoke. When it did in the next instant, Tess clung even tighter to those strong arms and gave herself up to the moment. No past existed; no future waited. Only the present mattered, and pulling her mind back to full awareness of her surroundings was no longer an option. Shed already made the choice to lose herself in the pleasure this mans kiss could give her. And to enjoy every minute of it. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926434&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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