Authors: Victoria Dahl
Tags: #Contemporary Romance, #Small Town
Welcome back to the mountains of Colorado!
For this story, we have to take a little drive over the pass to Tumble Creek’s sister city of Aspen, Colorado. I hope you don’t mind, but Jane Morgan lives and works here and dedicates her whole life to running the Jennings Architecture office with an iron fist. Jane is the very picture of perfection…but appearances can be deceiving.
I got the idea for this book while I was people-watching. This probably won’t surprise you, but I tend to make up little stories in my head about people I see when I’m out and about. Some folks seem to fit neatly into slots, but the people who don’t…these are the stories I have fun with. The punk-rock teenager at the grocery store who helps his elderly grandfather slowly down each aisle every Sunday. The conservatively dressed librarian with the tattoo that peeks above the edge of her crisp collar. Or the perfectly composed office manager who’s hiding a scandalous past behind her cool facade…
Of course you can’t judge a book by its cover, and none of us are exactly who we seem to be on the outside. But some people use their appearances to hide important truths, and my fascination with people’s secret lives is what compelled me to write Jane’s story. I hope you find her as interesting as I do!
“Is your steak all right?” he asked. “It looks a little rare.”
“No, it’s fine,” Jane insisted, and made herself cut off another piece and raise it to her lips.
“I told you to get the prawns.”
Jane chewed and told herself not to growl. In fact, he’d mentioned that grilled prawns were low fat, as if Jane needed to lose weight. That was a new development. Maybe he was feeling the strain between them, too.
Greg turned his attention back to his own food, and she stared in horror as he slipped another bite of salmon into his mouth and began to grind away. Surely his teeth worked a bit more vigorously than necessary? Lowering her gaze, she swallowed hard to get her piece of steak down.
They’d been dating for four months now, though they’d been sleeping together only a few weeks. Aspen wasn’t exactly a huge dating pool, so Jane tried to step cautiously into those waters. Now she wished she’d held off a little longer.
Before they’d slept together, Greg had been the perfect boyfriend. Smart, attentive and mildly funny…he’d even struck the perfect balance between patience and desperation during the long wait to get into her bed. But now that he
in her bed, he was becoming more proprietary every day. Sleeping over every other night. Insisting she attend every dinner and cocktail party hosted by his attention-loving boss. And now he thought he had some input into her lunch selection. Jane felt the walls were closing in around her.
Ridiculous, of course. She wanted a future with a smart, ambitious, successful man, and Greg was on the fast route toward becoming the lead assistant district attorney. But even his promising career couldn’t make her forget the fact that he made love like a rabbit.
Jane frowned at the small sound Greg made when he took a sip of water. How could a man of such keen intelligence even begin to imagine that women liked it fast and frantic and shallow?
She’d tried to let it go. She really had. A man couldn’t be judged on the depth of his thrusts alone. He was handsome, educated and only a bit vain. He loved his job and he was good at it. He’d be a good father if they ever got that serious. Greg Nunn was exactly the kind of boyfriend Jane needed. Any other woman would be holding on to him with two clenched fists. A couple of months ago Jane had been holding tight herself.
But every time she’d seen him this week, all she’d been able to think about was the absentminded way he clicked his fingernails together when he was thinking. Or his habit of humming when he drove. Not humming actual songs, just hmmmm-ing in a tuneless sigh. And now the way he chewed.
The idea that he might put that mouth on her tonight when they went to his place for dinner…The idea that they might have
Jane shuddered and set down her fork. “Greg, I’m afraid this isn’t working out,” she said without any preamble.
He picked through the grilled vegetables on his plate, pushing aside the peppers. “Hmm?”
“I’m breaking up with you.”
A pepper slid off the plate and onto the table.
“I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t be so abrupt. I just don’t think this is going anywhere.”
“But…” His eyebrows snapped together. “We’re going to Fort Collins this weekend so you can meet my parents!”
She smoothed a nervous hand down her practical gray skirt. “Yes, I know. This is really awful of me. You’re a wonderful man—”
“—but I just don’t think there’s much chemistry between us.”
“Seriously?” He looked genuinely shocked.
Jane pushed her glasses up nervously. “Well, there are sparks, of course,” she fudged. “But you aren’t in love with me.”
“Jane, we agreed from the start that we would take this slowly. I’m concentrating on my career and you didn’t want to rush into a physical relationship.” Greg leaned forward, his eyes taking on the bright expression of a lawyer sinking his teeth into an argument. “Waiting was fine with me, but I thought we both expected that we’d take it slowly emotionally, too.”
“Of course, but—”
“There’s plenty of sexual chemistry between us, and we’re perfectly suited in temperament. We’ve got the same goals in life, the same aspirations. And I respect you. I think you’re being a little hasty here.”
being hasty. But regardless of her practical nature—or maybe because of it—she could see she had no future with a man if she couldn’t bear to have sex with him just three weeks into their physical relationship. Still, there was no way she could say that to Greg, especially since the sex seemed to be just fine on his end.
“I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s…” Oh, God, was she really about to say this? Yes, she was. “Me,” she finished feebly.
Greg looked as disgusted with her as she felt with herself. “I can’t believe this.” His fork clattered against his plate. “Unbelievable. What am I supposed to tell my parents? ‘I’m a wonderful guy, but Jane decided to break it off right before the weekend she was going to meet my family’?”
“Maybe you could tell them I got sick.”
“I’m not going to try to
the fact that you’ve dumped me, Jane. It’s not that much of a goddamn blow.”
His voice was getting louder. She’d wounded his pride. Greg hated losing cases, and apparently he hated losing the girl, as well. She recognized the hot fury in his eyes, because he looked the same after a bad day in court. Actually, he’d gotten that look the time she’d canceled a date to help her boss with a project. Maybe she should’ve paid less attention to his bedroom skills and more attention to his character.
Jane glanced nervously around. Only a few sets of eyes were on them. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to help. Maybe I’d better go.”
“Maybe you’d better,” he snapped. “And don’t call me up when you get lonely in a couple of weeks. That new legal assistant’s been eyeing me for weeks. You can bet I’ll be talking to her tomorrow.”
He’d meant to hurt her, obviously, but all Jane felt was relief. And a fleeting hope that the new legal assistant preferred friction over thrust. “I’m sorry,” she said one more time as she grabbed her purse and stood. “I thought it would be better to end things before I met your parents. Do you want me to pay my half of the bill?”
“For Christ’s sake, just get the hell out!” Greg snatched up his water and took a gulp, not meeting her eyes at all.
Had he been in love with her? She didn’t think so. He looked more furious than hurt. But it didn’t matter. She couldn’t stay with a man she wasn’t attracted to. “Goodbye.”
She waited for an answer, but none came, so Jane turned and walked toward the door. Her feet wanted to run, but she wouldn’t let them. She thought she heard a muttered curse behind her—something like “frigid bitch”—but she didn’t acknowledge it. She’d been called a lot worse than that in her life. And if that was what he’d said, then good riddance.
Jane stepped out onto the street and took a deep breath. Free. Invisible ropes of tension were falling away as if she’d cut herself free with a knife. This was becoming a pattern with her. Cringing at the thought, she started her walk back to work. It was only half a mile, and she felt totally energized.
A few more hours in the office and then the whole evening stretched out before her like a promise. No sex with Greg. No discussion of opera or foreign films or constitutional law or any of those other things that helped to shape her public persona. After work, Jane was going to go home, take a bath and watch something vile on pay-per-view. Maybe a horror movie. All that and she could still get to bed early and be bright eyed for work tomorrow.
Wow. She was free.
She tried to tamp down the relief that swelled inside her. She’d be twenty-nine on Sunday. The last year of her twenties. In 368 days she’d be thirty. She wanted to marry someday, wanted the chance to have children if she decided to. And if she wanted to marry the right kind of guy, she had to stop dumping boyfriends for superficial reasons.
A woman didn’t
hot sex to live a good life. Just as she didn’t
a man with muscles. A rough guy in jeans and boots. A man who would wind his calloused hand into her hair and tell her exactly what he was going to—
“Crud.” Jane shook her head to scramble those thoughts. She wasn’t that girl anymore, and she never would be again. That girl had been a nightmare of low self-esteem and even lower expectations.
Jane Morgan was a respectable woman and she’d marry a respectable man. She had a few more years to find one, surely, but wouldn’t it take that long just to meet someone and truly know him? She was going to have to get over her boredom with safe men, fast.
Despite her stern internal lecture, Jane couldn’t stop her grin as she headed toward her office, but once she walked through the door she put on her serious face and got back to work. A half hour later her world was back to normal. The perfect quiet job in the perfect quiet office…until her cell phone rang and she glanced down to see the screen flashing “Mom.”
“Oh, no,” Jane groaned, taking a deep breath before she dared to answer it.
“Honey,” her mom said immediately, “please tell me you’ve heard from your brother.”
Alarm spiked in her blood. “Jessie? Why, is something going on?”
“He didn’t come home last night.”
Jane’s heart stopped, though not out of panic. No, her heart stopped out of sheer disbelief. “That’s why you’re calling?”
“He left at six last night, and he didn’t come home and he hasn’t called, and I don’t know what to do!”
“Mom…” She made herself take a deep breath and count to ten. “You’re being ridiculous.”
“I just…Oh, honey, I’m sure your little brother is in trouble.”
“Oh, that’s probably true,” Jane answered. “I just have no idea what that has to do with me. Jessie’s twenty-one years old, Mom. An adult, just like me.”
“Well…” Her mother sighed. “He never had the advantages you did, baby.”
Jane squeezed the phone tighter and glared at a spot of late-afternoon sunlight hitting Mr. Jennings’s door. Advantages. The woman was living in a dream world.
“He’s not as smart as you.”
A deep breath helped bring Jane’s blood pressure down. “I’ve told you not to call me at work unless it’s an emergency. This isn’t personal time for me.”
“It is an emergency!”
“No, it is not. A grown man can’t be considered missing after eighteen hours. Especially not a grown man who likes to drink and hook up with skanky barflies.”
“Now, that’s just mean!”
“Mom, I’m sorry, I have to go. Is there anything else?”
“Well, I don’t think so…Wait! Are you coming over for your birthday?”
Jane cringed. Before breaking up with Greg, she’d had the perfect excuse to miss a birthday party with her family. But now…Jane found herself wishing her mom had forgotten her only daughter’s birthday, but no such luck. Her mother had been a pretty shabby parent, but not because she lacked kindness or generosity. Just the opposite, in fact. But Jane hadn’t needed a girlfriend when she was growing up. She’d needed a mother.
“Sorry, Mom. I’m busy.”
“Oh, are you doing something with that new boyfriend?”
“You could bring him with, you know.”
Jane tried to picture Greg in her mother’s house, but the idea defied the laws of nature. He’d never have made it past the burned-out car in the front yard.
“Your dad finally hauled off the Corvair,” her mom added hopefully.
Well, then. No burned-out car in the yard, so that just left…everything else. Her family, the shop, the house and the other cast-off vehicles scattered around. Perfect. Maybe her mom had added that chicken coop she’d always wanted.
“No, thanks, Mom. I’ll call you, though.”
“Oh. Okay. All right.”
Ignoring the obvious disappointment in her voice, Jane hung up and stared at the phone as the screen faded to black. What did it say about her that she’d rather be alone on her birthday than spend time with her family? What kind of person was she?
The familiar guilt sank its claws into her heart and squeezed.
As an adult, Jane could see the mistakes her mother had made through a clearer lens. There had been no malice in her mom’s decisions, just immaturity and desperation. The life she’d subjected Jane to—the poverty and prison visits and constant moves—had been the only life her mother had ever known. And without the early intervention of her stepfather, Jane would’ve sunk straight into that life, too.
So she wasn’t truly angry with her mom anymore. She was just…uncomfortable.
Her family—her mom and stepfather and brother—knew who Jane really was. They knew the kind of girl she’d been, and they saw right through her false transformation into a conservative businesswoman.
The problem wasn’t so much her family. The problem was that Jane Morgan was a fraud. And she didn’t like being reminded of it.