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Authors: Ann DeFee

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BOOK: Hill Country Hero
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Chapter Ten

Flip the pillow. Roll over. Check the clock.

Punch the pillow. Throw off the sheet. Check the clock.

Insomnia sucked! It had been a long day and CiCi was dead tired, but when she closed her eyes all she could see was Jake Culpepper’s glorious body.

Was it too late to call Mac’s cell? Eleven o’clock was marginal, but she decided to risk hearing her big sis gripe. After all, CiCi was having a minicrisis.

The phone rang half a dozen times before Mac croaked out an exasperated, “What do you want?”

“Did I wake you?”

Mac answered with a grunt. She didn’t sound too happy.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Oh, really.” Apparently, her sisters default setting was sarcasm. “Spill it.”

CiCi heard the sound of a creaking headboard and a pillow being fluffed up. “It’s Jake Culpepper.”

“And?”

“I’m confused. He’s irritating as all heck and he’s the last thing I need, but I’m still tempted to throw him down and ravage him.”

Mac giggled, then chuckled and finally broke into a hearty laugh. “
Ravage
him?”

“That’s it. I’m not calling you again.” CiCi was about to punch off.

“Hey, silly. Don’t hang up, please. I’m sorry. But you have to admit it’s funny. Miss I’m Going to Be Celibate the Rest of My Life is discussing ravaging someone.”

“It’s not
that
funny.” CiCi wanted to pout, but couldn’t quite manage it.

“Oh, but it is. And what’s wrong with being attracted to a handsome man? Is he nice?”

“Yeah, he is,” CiCi admitted, then immediately wanted to change the subject. Which was ridiculous since she’d called Mac specifically to get some advice on what to do about Jake. “Did I tell you that we floated down to the river dam for a picnic?”

“I love that place,” Mac said. “And then what happened?” She was definitely grinning.

“We divided up the campers and played tag football.” This conversation was making CiCi hungry. She rummaged through her small refrigerator, looking for a snack. A can of Mountain Dew, a carton of strawberry yogurt and half of a leftover sandwich—nope nothing looked appealing.

“Did his team win?” Mac asked. Now that she was awake, that girl could talk for hours.

“Yes, darn it. But the only reason was he had a five-foot-nothing blond cheerleader who could probably kick for the pros. She made the winning field goal.” CiCi finally settled for a glass of ice water. She made a mental note to raid the downstairs kitchen later.

“He’s single, isn’t he?” Mac was good at getting to the heart of the matter.

“I’m pretty sure he is, but I’d bet my trust fund that he has his own little harem of female fans.”

Mac was quiet for a few seconds before conceding the is sue. “I’ve heard a couple of rumors but I don’t know if
they’re true.” Like CiCi, she was intimately familiar with the problem of groupies. Her extremely handsome pro quarterback ex-husband had had women following him as if he was the Pied Piper.

“Why don’t you give him a chance?” Mac asked. “What could it hurt? All you have to do is be nice and see what happens. You certainly don’t have to marry him.”

Her sister was right. Even if they never dated, they had to get along or this was going to be the longest month ever. As long as she could keep her attraction under wraps, everything would be okay.

 

C
I
C
I WASN’T
the only person with insomnia. Jake swatted a mosquito and uttered vile curses, all related to Texas Bob’s parentage. He’d kill for a cold beer and a hot shower. Instead he had a lumpy cot and rain-forest humidity. Plus the damned bullfrogs never shut up. The air-conditioned lodge with its working shower was sounding more and more like heaven. He hadn’t been this miserable since middle school, when he’d had to share a bunk bed with Dwayne.

A drop of sweat rolled down his chest and nestled in the center of his belly button, quickly followed by a second. Would Ms. Hurst bust his chops if he went skinny-dipping? Probably. She was undoubtedly sitting up there in her air-conditioned splendor, plotting ways to zing him.

The familiar low rumble of a truck engine interrupted his mental diatribe. He jumped out of bed and into his jeans and a T-shirt, not bothering to zip his pants. Swear to God if those juvies broke the ignition on his Ram, he’d kill them with his bare hands. Without pausing for shoes, Jake roared out the door and sprinted toward the parking lot.

Sure enough, the little morons were trying to steal his truck. Rondelle was in the driver’s seat and his cohorts in crime, Javier and Schultz, were about to hop in—that is until
Jake grabbed them and held them up like a couple of fish on a hook.

“That ignition better be intact.” Jake shook his captives to emphasize his point. “Rondelle, turn off the engine and get out,” he said through gritted teeth.

Rondelle obviously knew when someone meant business. He emerged from the truck with his hands in the air. Good grief! The teen had either been busted before or he watched too much Court TV. “Hey, man, we weren’t gonna take it nowhere. We’s just havin’ a little fun.”

Jake resisted the urge to rattle the kid’s teeth. That’s what he got for being a nice guy. Did Rondelle really want to get sent back to the hood?

“You two sit right there and don’t move a muscle.” He dropped his captives. They fell to the ground, nodding like bobble-head dolls.

“And you—” he pointed at Rondelle “—assume the position. I’m going to search you for weapons.” With Rondelle’s attitude, a little scare couldn’t hurt.

By the time he finished frisking the teenager, CiCi had arrived on the scene.

“What in the world is going on out here?” Sugar Plum had followed her out and was barking and bouncing around like a Jack Russell Terrier on speed. Pretty soon everyone in the camp was going to be involved.

Jake was momentarily distracted by CiCi’s tiny tank top and pair of boxer shorts, but forced his attention back to the business at hand.

“Our buddies decided to go for a joy ride,” he told her. “In my truck!” Just then Sugar Plum sniffed his crotch. “Jeeze, I hate that.”

CiCi avoided looking at him. “Um, do you think you could do something about that?” she said, waving a hand in the
general vicinity of his jeans. “Your zipper’s…uh…it’s at half-mast.”

Jake looked down. Damn, she was right. He yanked up the zipper. How about that? A little problem like that wouldn’t bother her unless she was interested.

“Thanks. So what do we do about this? I don’t want to call the sheriff, but—” she’d moved close enough that she could whisper “—I think they need to understand the ramifications of breaking the law.”

“Ramifications of breaking the law? They were about to steal my truck. Why are you bothering to pretty it up?” Then it hit him. “You studied psychology, didn’t you?” “Yes.”

“And you think all they need is some hand-holding and a couple of stanzas of ‘Kumbaya’.” Jake really tried to keep the sneer out of his voice but knew he didn’t quite succeed.

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“So what
do
you want to do with them?”

“I, uh, I don’t exactly know.”

“Then let me take care of it. If you don’t like my methods, you can fire me.” For Jake that was a win/win situation. He reached into the truck and turned on the headlights. “You three, plop your butts right there in the light. Don’t move a muscle. Got it?”

The miscreants nodded in unison and shuffled over to where they were told.

“Let me look at something.” Most new cars were impossible to hot-wire, so how had they started it? Dammit, the key was in the ignition. Why did they have that?

Jake jerked it out of the ignition and went over to confront the little felons. “How did you get this?” Jake was ready to thump them, no matter how hard CiCi glared at him. What did she expect him to do?

Javier and Schultz turned to Rondelle but didn’t say a word.

“Rondelle!”

The teen looked sheepish, but tried to cop an attitude. “I heisted it out of your cabin.”

“Wrong answer, kid.” Jake’s voice was deadly soft. “I’ve dealt with people a lot tougher than you.”

He motioned for CiCi to go with him to the tailgate. “I am so mad I could spit nails. Stand here with me until I calm down,” Jake muttered so the boys wouldn’t hear him. “Okay.”

Jake took two deep breaths to slow his heartbeat. “I have an idea. Are you willing to play along?”

“I won’t let you hurt them.”

So much for their truce. “I have to tell you, princess, that comment pisses me off. What do you take me for?”

“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “That was uncalled for.”

Jake searched her expression but she seemed to be truthful. “Damned straight. All right, I forgive you.” He shot her the grin he’d patented in the third grade—the one that was guaranteed to get him out of trouble.

“I’m not thinking of any corporal punishment, just some old-fashioned hard work. My life of crime came to a screeching halt when old man Turner caught me trying to steal his Chevy. I worked five of the longest weeks of my life.” Jake chuckled, thinking about his summer of servitude. It hadn’t seemed funny then, but now he was grateful for the old man’s methods. “Believe me, that was when I discovered crime didn’t pay.”

“How old were you?”

“Ten.” He gently tapped her chin when her jaw dropped. “Better close your mouth. You’re gonna catch flies. There’s nothing quite as disgusting as hand mowing six acres of grass in a San Antonio summer. It gives a kid time to reflect. And I
think the irrigation system you’ve been talking about would be a good place for these guys to start.”

He leaned around the truck to look at the perpetrators again. They looked as if they were about to pee their pants. “I think these kids are retrievable. They’re just lacking supervision and a stable home life. But that’s out of our control.” From Jake’s experience, tough love was the only thing these teens would understand.

CiCi checked out the kids. “Okay, have at it. But don’t scream at them.”

“I don’t scream. My way is much more effective.” Jake grinned as Sugar Plum plopped on his bare feet. “Hey, guys, get your butts over here. I have a deal you won’t be able to refuse.”

Chapter Eleven

It was almost midnight before the camp returned to normal. Under ordinary circumstances, CiCi loved the night sounds—the cicadas, the bullfrogs and the crickets. Not tonight. She was restless and it didn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out why—Jake Culpepper. He wasn’t very sympathetic with the kids. Did that translate to all his relationships? Was this another trait he shared with her ex? Tank didn’t even know the meaning of the word
empathy.

CiCi finally gave up trying to sleep. She pulled on a pair of shorts and a tank top and wandered down to her favorite bench by the river. From that vantage point she could see the water and enjoy the sounds of summer. Here in the heart of Texas the skies seemed limitless and the stars were a glorious light show. She loved this place.

“Where I grew up the city glare blotted out the stars,” Jake said, making himself at home on the other end of the bench a few minutes after she’d settled in. “That’s one of the reasons I enjoy my ranch so much. I like to grab a cold brew and go out on the porch to watch the heavens.”

CiCi should have been surprised to see him, but she wasn’t. “You can’t see the stars in Houston, either.” She turned to face him. “Are you having a hard time sleeping?”

“The bed’s too small. My feet hang off the end,” Jake said with a laugh.

“I’m sorry. Those bunks were made for kids. I never factored in how tall you are, but you’ll be glad to know that I ordered you another bed.”

“Hey, that’s cool. You didn’t have to do that, but I appreciate it. I’ve made do with worse.”

“But you don’t need to.” She felt bad that not only had he been “sentenced” to a month at camp, he was also forced to be uncomfortable while he was there. She wasn’t exactly sure how to phrase her next comment but she gave it a go. “You’ve been a trouper. I’m impressed.”

Jake laughed. “It must not take much to impress you. Where were you when I was trying to get a prom date?”

“You think yours was bad, let me tell you about my prom.” When CiCi finished telling the tale of being ditched at the dance so her date could neck with another girl in the parking lot, they were laughing so hard she had to wipe the tears from her eyes.

“It sounds better than my date. I was going with Carmelita Schmidt and I worked my tail off to get enough money to make it a special night. But she ended up leaving the dance with her old boyfriend. It sounds a lot like your experience.”

It was obviously an embarrassing story, but Jake told it so wryly that CiCi had to giggle.

“Since then I’ve gotten better with my technique,” he added.

She’d just bet he had. Both Mia and Mama had warned her that he was a “player,” and CiCi could easily believe it. She remembered numerous pictures of him in the paper with a different woman on his arm each time. She shouldn’t—couldn’t—let herself relax around him like this. So back to her mantra—remember Tank. Remember Tank. Remember Tank.

When CiCi opened her mouth, she wasn’t prepared for
what popped out. “Did you know that I was married to Tank Tankersley?”

“Are you kidding?” Jake looked at her as if she’d grown another head.

“It’s the truth.” She knew she sounded defensive, but couldn’t help it.

“Hey, I didn’t mean anything bad, I’m just blown away. I got the feeling that you weren’t all that impressed with jocks. And Tank’s such a…tank.”

CiCi laughed at the accuracy of Jake’s description. “He left me for a librarian.”

“Are you foolin’ me?”

“Nope. It’s the honest-to-God truth. Sometimes I wonder if she’s into some kinky stuff.” CiCi didn’t know what made her share that part. That was something she hadn’t even told her sisters.

“So how long were you and Tank together?” Jake asked. His expression was uncharacteristically serious. “Six years.”

“Wow. I hadn’t heard Tank was married. He was quite a—” He must have realized he was about to stick his foot in it because he did some impressive backtracking. “Not that I was ever friends with him, or anything. In fact, I barely know him.”

“Don’t worry. I know what Tank is like. I’m fine with everything.” That wasn’t entirely true but it would have to do. “How about you?”

“I’m not married, no kids, no entanglements. I’m just a lonely soul.” He grinned at that obvious lie. “Uh-huh.”

“What time do you have?” Jake asked, holding up his watch. “Mine’s not working.” Why was that important? It wasn’t as if they had anywhere to go.

And why was he sitting so close? They weren’t on a date or
doing anything intimate. On the contrary, they were simply sitting by the river, enjoying the evening. But somehow it felt like a dangerous game of foreplay.

Jake leaned across as if to look at the face of her watch, but instead his head kept going and to her amazement he laid a feathery kiss on her bare midriff.

“Oh!” CiCi’s breath hitched as her fingers involuntarily stroked the silky hair at the nape of his neck.

When he raised his head, he had the look of a man on a mission—sensual and intent. He was so close that in the moonlight she could see flecks of blue in his green eyes.

“Jeez,” he muttered, before lowering his lips to hers.

Although the kiss was almost whisper-soft, it was the most erotic touch CiCi had ever experienced. When Jake explored the seam of her lips, her temperature spiked all the way to the Milky Way. Breathing became impossible, and that was before he deepened the kiss.

She’d known Jake less than a week and she was already on a hormonal overload. What was it about this man that she couldn’t resist? Her heart wondered if someone who could kiss like this might be worth the risk. Her head told her to run. So which was going to win—head or heart?

Before things went any further, Jake pulled back. And thank goodness he did because CiCi had totally taken leave of her senses.

“Why did you do that?” God, she hated being a shrew, especially after that kiss, but the very last thing she wanted was to be another notch on his bedpost.

“Because I wanted to.” He seemed baffled by her question, and why not? She was definitely overreacting. It was just one kiss. Not the end of the world.

“Wrong answer.” She shook her head. “This can’t happen again.”

Jocks sucked. Players sucked. Remember Tank. Jocks have groupies. Now if she could mentally run that tape when Jake was around, she’d be in business.

BOOK: Hill Country Hero
8.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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