Authors: Janet Wellington
Tags: #romance novel
As though her thoughts had been said aloud, Jared reached up one hand and touched the charm at his neck and said, “By the way, just in case you wondered, Jamie's my daughter.”
A strange mixture of relief and disappointment escaped from Lacey in a quick outgoing breath. He had a daughter.
“And I'm not…I'm a…single dad. She’s with me all the time.” The words tumbled out and he stared at her, seemingly waiting for a response.
Lacey met his gaze. “Hmm…anything else I need to know?” She tried to keep her tone light, quickly building an emotional wall. “You're really an undercover spy ? Bass player impostor? Any other dark secrets?” She offered a careful, practiced smile—the one she used every day to make customers feel welcomed, but always maintaining a professional distance.
Jared visibly relaxed at her joking manner.
“I just got to thinking that I may have given you the wrong impression last week and just wanted to clear things up.”
“No problem.” She heard in her own voice something almost cool, aloof. Her instincts had kicked in. Hard. Even without the wedding ring, this guy wasn’t for her, no matter how sweet he seemed.
“Thanks again for the dance. I better get inside and set up.”
Lacey nodded, her gaze following Jared as he picked up his guitar case and hurried into the club.
No single dads.
Not after everything Dirk had put her through. She mentally reviewed her list, reminding herself of her requirements. Definitely no kids. Someone her age or younger—though Jared's graying temples were awfully attractive, she thought. And no starving musicians either.
You promised to stick to your list.
Her own scolding thoughts rattled in her head as she pivoted on her sandaled heel and made her way to the club's entrance. There, with any luck, she thought, Hank would be waiting.
It was time to get this over with.
Jared almost tripped as he stepped onto the stage, the guitar case banging painfully against his shin. He winced and softly cursed, grateful that the rest of the band was sitting at the bar and not watching him and Lacey.
She’d come after all.
And I still got the first dance.
His attraction to her still pooled in his groin, he turned his back to the dance floor hoping he could pull himself together before anyone noticed.
Tonight she looked different, much prettier than he had allowed his memory to capture. And that dress…bare armed, silky soft, sexy swirling skirt, low-necked…and some shade of light orange he assumed had some kind of delicate name. Women’s fashion eluded him, but, man, Lacey had pulled it all together and looked like a million bucks.
And her hair was different, all pulled back from her face in a braid. He'd managed to slip his hand under it while they danced so he could hold her closer, his hand caressing the bare skin on her back. Even braided, she had such soft, silky angel hair.
He was irritated with himself. Frustrated. Aroused. That was the worst part. He had not expected his body to be so out of control. He shook his head. She's not your business, he reminded himself. At least—if she’d even noticed his wedding ring before—at least now she knew…
he chided himself. That he was available? He shook his head, feeling even more frustrated. No, even if he was looking, Gloria had revealed she was a career woman, right? So, nope, she was just a disappearing fantasy. That was it.
As he checked his amplifier and each cord for good connections, he glanced at the front door. Lacey was talking with Hank, their heads close together. He saw that Hank stayed seated, giving him an obvious opportunity to look down the front of Lacey's dress. Did she even realize?
What could she possibly see in that guy?
Jared watched as Hank stood up, removed his hat with a sweeping gesture, and said loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “I'd be honored, ma'am.”
What was that all about?
Gloria's tapping foot interrupted his thoughts as she stood at the end of the stage with a tall glass of ice water. “Hey, hon', what's up?”
Jared tore his gaze from the doorway. “Gloria, do you have any idea what your hairdresser could possibly see in Hank Erickson?”
Gloria hesitated a moment. “By the tone of your voice, I'd say you really have something else on your mind.”
Jared groaned. “What I don't need is for you to analyze me every time I ask you a question.”
“Still cranky, I see. What's goin' on with you? I've never seen you this perturbed before.”
“Did you hear what they were talking about at the door just now?”
“Now, why would you care a hoot what they were discussing?”
Jared frowned at the question.
Why do I care?
Gloria handed him the glass of water. “Drink this and cool down, Mister Nosy, and I'll tell you.”
Jared drained the glass and handed it back.
“Okay. The mall where Lacey's salon is has a charity event each year. This year it's a Dream Date Bachelor Auction. They've got every line of work represented—”
“And that has exactly what to do with Hank?”
“Like I was saying,” she continued, giving him a look that said he should zip his lips. “There will be good looking and eligible firemen, construction workers, executives, policemen—get it?”
Jared nodded. “Sounds like The Village People to me.”
Gloria gave him her best you-better-hush-and-let-me-finish scowl. “And Lacey and Kandy had to come up with two cowboys. Kandy asked Luke, and Lacey just asked Hank. Happy now?”
Jared's jaw dropped. “She asked Hank?”
“What is your problem, Jared? Are you sayin' you have an interest in my hairdresser?” she teased.
Jared glared his response.
“Well, if you do, you'd better think about doin' somethin' about it other than bein’ cranky all night.” With a grin, Gloria twirled and returned her attention to the tables filling up with the first customers of the night.
Jared's glance flitted from Gloria and then to see where Lacey was sitting.
Maybe I will.
Jared's jaw ached from clenching his teeth, a byproduct of the tension that had built as he worked hard to keep his gaze on Lacey all evening. A couple times she caught his stare and flashed him a small smile. She sat at a table close to the dance floor with Kandy and the same group of women as the week before.
Unless she was dancing with Hank, that is.
Eleven. Eleven times she was in his arms. When she tried to dance with anyone else tonight, Hank quickly cut in. Jared lost his place during one of the band's easiest tunes when he saw Hank's hand drift slowly downward until his fingers touched the curve of Lacey's bottom.
His heart had soared as she’d pushed Hank away slightly, just enough to force him to reposition his hand.
Lacey disappeared with Hank only once during the band's breaks. During the rest of their breaks, Jared had positioned himself as close to her table as he could, hoping to overhear conversation. No luck. The club was too rowdy tonight for that. He spent the entire evening on pins and needles. Waiting.
After the last song, he shook his head in confusion.
Waiting for what?
Like Gloria had said, he needed to either do something or forget it.
The sound of a chair slamming against a table got his attention and he watched as Lacey allowed a very inebriated Hank to lead her outside.
It was now or never, he thought. As soon as the equipment was stowed, he would find her…and warn her, whether she wanted to hear it or not. It was the least he could do.
When Lacey walked back into the Rockin’ Ranch she saw Jared on stage, winding the last of the microphone cords. She walked straight toward him, hoping like hell he wasn’t in a hurry to leave.
“The music was good tonight,” she said, intentionally speaking slowly and deliberately, anxious to keep her voice steady, especially after what had just happened outside. Her cheeks felt flushed and hot, her wrists beginning to ache.
“Thanks. I enjoyed your dancing to it.”
She heard an unfamiliar edge in his voice. Or was she imagining it? Taking a deep calming breath, she continued. “Kind sir, are you in a position to rescue a damsel in distress?” She forced a smile, hoping her emotions weren’t showing on her face.
Jared stared at her, a flash of confusion in his eyes. “What's wrong? Flat tire?” Though his voice sounded neutral, Jared's face betrayed his concern. He looked down at the cord in his hand. “Where’s Hank? I'm sure he would be happy to—”
“I'm not really interested in having Hank's help right now,” she interrupted. She bit her lip, the only way to keep it from quivering.
Please just say yes. Don't ask what happened
Jared's eyebrows pulled together as he considered her words but didn’t respond right away. He turned and finished stowing some equipment and picked up a long, thin guitar case.
In a painful flash, the lights came on in the club accompanied by a loud shout of “last call for alcohol—drink 'em up or lose 'em.” Lacey's hands flew up to shade her eyes from the sudden glare.
When her eyes adjusted she saw Jared's gaze locked on her wrists, at the hot red rings there. Instant tears welled in her eyes, blurring her vision.
“I…well, I need a ride home…I could call a cab, I guess, but it's just that I thought you might be able to help me out and…” The words tumbled out in one breath.
Please say yes. Please say yes.
“I thought you came with Kandy.” Again his eyebrows pulled together, concern filling his gray eyes.
“She left already. She thought I was getting a ride home from—”
“Hank.” Jared finished her sentence, bridled anger in his voice, his eyes narrowing.
Lacey blinked in surprise, followed by a rush of relief. He seemed to understand and maybe he wouldn’t even ask what had happened.
“Milady, I am delighted to be of assistance,” he said, his voice soft and warm now, although it also seemed like he might be struggling to keep things light between them. “Okay if I meet you outside in five minutes? I'll say my goodbyes and settle up with the band. You can meet me out back, all right?”
Lacey nonchalantly dabbed the corner of her eye with her finger, catching a tear before it escaped. She forced a smile and nodded. “Great.”
Jared watched as Lacey walked out the back door.
Damsel in distress. He certainly didn’t like the sound of that.
And something tells me that Hank had something to do with those fresh bruises on your wrists.
If he hadn’t just promised to meet her outside in five minutes, he’d be searching the place for Hank.
With his mouth set in a determined line, he collected his pay and strode out the side door to the parking lot, determined to hear the whole story. That is, if she would tell him.
Jared found Lacey near the bottom step of the deck out back and he gave her a nod and a smile, tipping his head toward the lone truck in the back lot. She fell in step next to him and when they reached the truck, he unlocked the passenger door, slid the guitar case behind the bench seat and offered her his hand. He caught her glance for only an instant. She seemed embarrassed, but allowed him to help her into the truck.
Then he walked around the truck and climbed behind the wheel, turning the key in the ignition. “So, where to?”
Looking straight ahead she answered in a quiet voice as she gave him directions. He stared at her hands, now lying motionless in her lap. Even in the dim light he could clearly see the red edges of bruises on both wrists.
He caught her gaze again as he backed the truck out of his spot. She quickly looked away, embarrassed, he guessed.
Jared waited for several minutes before he finally cleared his throat and asked, “What happened with Hank, Lacey?” He needed to know if his suspicions were correct. He needed to know if he needed to go back to the club, find him, and kick his ass.
At a stoplight, he turned and looked at her. The dashboard lights bathed her face in a soft yellow glow. But she quickly turned her face to look out the side window, away from his scrutiny.
“I'm fine, really,” she began. “I didn't mean to…to lead him on…”
Jared winced at the confessional sound in her voice. “Let me tell you a little something about Hank. He's not who he seems. He can create the appearance of charm, all right, but he's pretty much a cretin and known to be a ladies' man.”
Lacey turned her face his direction, nodded, then tipped her head back a little and smiled. Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears.
She was a tough one. “How are your wrists?” He returned his gaze to the road and waited to see what she might say. The fact that it looked to him that Hank had grabbed her and hurt her, well, he could feel his blood boiling in his veins just thinking about it.