Authors: Liz Talley
Tags: #Home On The Ranch
“Yeah, I remember. You need some help? I mean, you want me to help you…”
“I got it,” Jack said, lifting Nellie from beneath her arms. She allowed him to pull her to her feet and finally stood like a kitten caught in a rainstorm, tremulous and half-drowned. She turned to Kate and Jack, wishing she could just slink away, but neither was looking at her. They were staring at each other. Nellie could almost hear the lines being scratched between them on the stone terrace.
Kate crossed her arms over her tiny bikini top as she studied Jack like a territorial terrier. Her eyes narrowed as she probed, weighed, measured. Nellie knew Kate. She didn’t give control to anyone. Ever. She trusted very few people, and none of them were men.
Jack wrapped one arm about Nellie’s waist and withstood Kate’s scrutiny. Nellie wouldn’t have been surprised if the man nonchalantly inspected his fingernails just to annoy her overprotective friend. But he wasn’t budging; she could feel his claim as he squeezed her hip.
“All right,” Kate said. “It’s my turn to serve, anyway. N…Elle, if you need me, holler.”
Nellie sank against Jack as he maneuvered her toward the house. He grabbed a couple of fluffy towels from a basket on the patio and toweled her off. Her teeth chattered despite the warmth of the night. Jack peeled off his jeans, revealing a bright turquoise pair of swim trunks. His shirt followed. He wrapped both Nellie and himself in a towel and pulled her into the house.
Suddenly, she wanted to tear herself away. Tell him she didn’t need anyone to take care of her. Not Kate, not him, not even her Grandmother Tucker—not that the poor woman could anymore. She knew she was irrational, but she was tired of pretending. Tired of being something she wasn’t. Tired of everybody telling her what to do.
But she couldn’t. She wanted Jack’s strength, wanted him to touch her, heal her, make her feel she was worth something more than the winner of the Oak Stand jelly contest. She wanted to be something more than Nellie Tucker.
Nellie Tucker. The girl with homemade dresses, owllike glasses and shiny shoes. Poor little Nellie Tucker, lonely little rich girl whose mother overdosed on heroin because she couldn’t take being who she was. Poor little Nellie Tucker who lived with her crazy grandmother, who spent all day in the garden, who missed her senior prom because she couldn’t find anyone Grandma Tucker approved of to take her, who sat at home when other girls sneaked out to shack up with guys, who came back to Oak Stand, Texas, to be another eccentric Tucker.
But she wasn’t that girl anymore. Would never be that girl again. And Jack was part of the reason. She no longer wanted this to be just a fling. She wanted something more.
But everything was based on a lie.
She looked at him as they climbed the stairs. Her hand fit in his perfectly, like a key into the lock. He was made for loving her, for making her more than she ever thought she could be.
Perhaps it was the alcohol whispering this into her mind, but she didn’t think so.
Everything had been leading up to this point. She had to come clean. Then she would see where it took her.
“Now I’ve got you alone,” Jack growled playfully against her ear, jarring her out of her silent contemplation. They were in his bedroom. His hands cupped her bottom and pulled her against him. She could feel his erection pressing against her stomach, and though she’d just been sick as a dog, she couldn’t stop the warmth from creeping through her abdomen, spiraling down, delighting with its heavy need.
“Jack—” Nellie swatted at his hands. “Our friends are down there.”
“So?” he said, rubbing against her.
“Why not? I have it on the best authority that my parents conceived my sister in the bathroom at their neighbor’s Christmas party.”
“Conceived!” Nellie bleated, pulling his hands from underneath her bikini bottom.
“Well, I got us covered on that, but we can practice procreation, right?” He walked toward his bedside table, laughing.
“But first I need to brush my teeth,” she said, more to herself than to Jack. She turned toward the bathroom. Her opened bag sat inside, spilling her clothes onto the floor. “Wait. Jack, we can’t have sex while everyone else is down there. That’s weird.”
“You still don’t feel good, do you? Shit. I’m sorry, Elle. I’m a complete pig.” He closed the drawer and turned to her, his swimming trunks tented. Nellie had never seen a guy like that. Jack looked silly.
“What? Are you laughing at this?” he said in mock outrage, gesturing toward his erection. “’Cause look, lady, you did this to me.”
She stopped laughing. “Sorry. I’ve just never seen that before. It’s comical.”
His expression softened. “That’s what I like about you. You bring fresh perspective to everything.”
She swallowed and turned to the bathroom. “I’m gonna change and then we can go salvage dinner.”
Nellie closed the door, though she knew it was silly to do so. It wasn’t as if Jack hadn’t seen her in all her splendor. The man had explored every square inch of her body, for Pete’s sake. But she needed a moment to center herself. Jack had her more than off balance and it had nothing to do with the potent drinks she’d consumed.
“Elle, I wanted to talk to you. I mean, now might not be the best time, but since I can’t talk you out of your clothes…”
Elle’s lips twitched, but she refused to make eye contact with him. Instead, she rooted around in a cosmetic case and pulled out her hairbrush.
“These past few days have been incredible.”
Still no eye contact.
“Since you’re going back to Texas soon, I wanted to tell you how much this has meant to me. To be with you even when you hadn’t planned on it. Thank you for giving me a part of you.”
Elle’s hand curled around the hairbrush. He could see the white of her knuckles and the tension in her mouth as she pressed her lips together. Tears glossed her lovely green eyes.
She finally turned to him. “Yeah, it has been great. I…” She struggled for the words. Her voice was tremulous, heavy with emotion. “It has been good.”
She tore her gaze from his and spun back toward the mirror, pulling the brush through her damp hair.
“I wanted to talk about continuing this—this thing we’ve got going,” he said, walking toward her.
His gaze met hers in the mirror and he could see the surprise in her eyes. She wasn’t expecting that. She thought he was going to end it all. Jack could see it, feel it radiate off her. Damn, didn’t she know she’d captured him? Couldn’t she see it in his every move?
“Continue this?” she asked, spinning around. He caught her hips and pulled her to him.
“If you want to,” he said, lowering his eyes to study her lips. Lord, they were luscious. He could kiss them every single day. “I want you to want to, Elle.”
“You do?” she said, reaching out to stroke his hair. “How are we going to do that? I mean, I thought this was just a fling?”
“Is that what you want it to be?”
“I…don’t know. I guess I never thought about it. I mean, I thought about more than just this, but I didn’t think it would happen.”
“Why?” Jack asked, watching her closely.
“You are you. I know about you—your lifestyle, your women.” She stepped away from him, putting space between them.
“You think I’m just playing you?” he asked. He couldn’t stop the annoyance from creeping into his voice. Was that what everyone thought about him? He was some shallow playboy who lived with no repercussions? Did Elle think he tossed women away like yesterday’s newspaper?
“No, I don’t mean that.” She rubbed her eyes with one hand. Her French manicure stood out against her tanned hands, and the small heart tattoo winked from beneath her tank. It was fading.
He crossed his arms. “All I’m asking is for you to be part of a relationship, Elle. What does that have to do with my image?”
Elle flinched. He couldn’t stop the anger in his voice. This wasn’t going according to plan. In his vision, she was supposed to fall into his arms, declare she felt something more too.
“I guess I didn’t think you would want a relationship. I thought it was understood that this was just a fling. You know, one of those ‘what happens in Vegas’ things.”
He didn’t move. He couldn’t believe it, but Elle was blowing him off. She didn’t want him. She was the one who wanted a brief love affair and nothing more. He thought she’d felt the way he did. That what they had was a beginning, not an end.
“So this is it? You don’t want to continue?”
She lifted her head. Her eyes were full of pain. “I never said that. I just didn’t expect this, didn’t think you would want me.”
He felt himself reel. Not want her? Was she crazy? How could she not know how much he wanted her? “My God, Elle, don’t you know how I feel? I knew you were something special when you walked through the door of my club. I took one look at you and you had me, lady.”
She whirled around. The hairbrush clattered to the floor. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why?” He didn’t understand her reaction. He’d basically told her she had him in the palm of her hand, that he was totally under her control, that she was The One. What kind of whack job was this woman? How could she question him?
He studied her. An incredible array of emotions danced across her face. Shock, incredulity, irritation, hope, and then the most unexpected of all—amusement. Before Jack could scoop the hairbrush from the floor or Elle into his arms, the crazy, beautiful woman threw back her head and laughed.
And he couldn’t be. Because she wasn’t real.
She felt his hands on her arms. He shook her lightly. “Stop laughing.”
Nellie clasped a hand over her mouth partly because she was still a bit nauseated and partly because she couldn’t believe the situation she found herself in. One look at Jack’s wounded expression and she sobered.
“You don’t know me, Jack.”
“Of course I know you. I know you pretty well if you remember.” He ground out the words between nearly clenched teeth, unconsciously jerking his head toward the bedroom. Nellie met his eyes. He was pissed. Nice. Anger and hurt would pair perfectly with the humiliation Nellie was about to go through.
She shook her head. “You knew I was ‘the one’ the first time you saw me? So what do you mean by ‘the one’?”
He blew out his breath. “Look. Just forget about this. You’re drunk. This whole conversation is bad timing. We’ve got guests downstairs.”
“Wait!” she cried as he spun toward the open doorway. “I’m not that drunk. We need to finish this.”
Jack turned and cocked one eyebrow. Damn, but he still looked sexy when he was perturbed. Oddly, she wanted to reach out and soothe his brow, kiss the stubble beginning to sprout along his jawline, put her arms around him and pretend nothing needed to be said between them.
Just keep pretending.
But she knew she couldn’t.
“So what did you think when you saw me, Jack?”
He threw her a dubious look. But finally he sighed and settled against the doorjamb with a loose-limbed elegance that belied his obvious annoyance. Silence hung over them like a wet paper towel. Nellie watched Jack try to figure out her game.
Finally he spoke. “I thought you were the sexiest woman I’d ever seen in my entire life.”
“Yeah?” She felt her heart leap despite what she knew was coming.
“Yeah, and I felt something right here kinda break loose.” Jack placed one hand against his chest. “And I knew I had to meet you. See if there was something to it.”
Damn, those were powerful words. But they were a lie.
She slowly shook her head. “No, that’s not what you felt when you first saw me.”
He frowned. “So you’re a psychic or something? You know what people think?”
A little piece of her heart broke off. “I’m pretty sure the word ‘sexy’ didn’t come to mind the first time you saw me.”
“Oh, yeah?” He shifted so he was no longer leaning against the doorjamb. He loomed before her, crowding the bathroom with righteous male ego.
Nellie squirmed; the tile beneath her feet felt like a slab of ice. She wiggled her bare toes, trying to generate warmth. Her hands trembled so she shoved them into the back pocket of her jeans, still twitching under his scrutiny.
Jack’s eyes bored into hers, pinning her to the floor like an ant beneath a torturous magnifying glass. “So what’s the deal, Elle? What are you not saying?”
She longed to summon some anger, some outrage that this man was so shallow, so obtuse he didn’t know he’d met her before the night in Agave Blue. But she could feel only complete and utter sadness. He’d just verified what she’d known all along—their relationship was as fake as the tattoo on her shoulder.
“You remember when we went out to dinner?”
“Yeah, it was only two nights ago.”
Nellie blinked. Two nights ago? Seemed like ages. “Okay, yes. But…we talked about ourselves.”
He nodded, his eyebrows lifted in an “I’m waiting” look.
“Well, I lied.”
“I don’t live in Dallas. I’m not some fancy interior designer. I let you believe I was.”
“Really?” His lips turned up. He looked almost relieved. “Well, I kind of figured that out when I said I had a cypress ceiling and you didn’t call me on it.”
She ignored his flippancy. “I’m nothing you think I am. I live in a small town. I’m a librarian. I don’t even date.”
His eyes narrowed. “What does that mean?”
“It means I don’t date. I sit home on Friday nights. I play online poker. Eat ice cream. I can knit. I make fig preserves from my tree out back.” She couldn’t stop her voice from rising. “I don’t drink martinis and I don’t wear stupid bikinis. I go to church and make the costumes for the Christmas pageant every year. I have brown hair and glasses. Don’t you see, Jack?”
She started pacing. She didn’t even look at him or expect an answer to her question.
“I’m not this!” she yelled, sweeping her hands down her body. “This is fake! From my nails—” she held her hands up “—to my hair, to my tan, to this stupid tattoo! I’m completely made to look like something I’m not!”
“Which is?” he drawled from his corner.
“Sexy! I’m not sexy or chic or sophisticated!”
“Your boobs are real.”
She spun around. “What! Are you kidding? That’s your response?”
Jack shrugged. “Just an observation.”
Nellie was speechless. For the moment.
“Look, so what you’re saying is you got a…what do you women call it?…a makeover? That’s what this is about, sweetheart? Because it totally worked. I mean, when I first saw you, you were beyond hot.”
She knew she looked like a fish. She opened and closed her mouth without any sound issuing forth.
Jack continued before she could say anything intelligible. “But it’s not just that. You are beautiful, Elle, in every way. And I don’t really care what your job is. Hey, I dig librarians.”
He walked to her and gently chucked her chin to close her gaping mouth. “Babe, I felt it the moment I first saw you. It seared across my heart. No kidding. I know it sounds hokey, but I watched you walking through the bar, flirting and laughing, and I was a goner.”
She peered up at him. Though his words were tender, she couldn’t stop the anger burgeoning within her, welling up, simmering beneath the surface. “You’re an idiot!”
Jack flinched and dropped his arms. “That’s nice, Elle. I lay my heart out there and you stomp on it. Nice.”
She pushed him back. “Yeah? Well, guess what, buster? The first time you saw me was not in Agave Blue. It was in the airport! So what you felt is as much a lie as my hair color!”
“What?” he shouted. “I’m sick of this bullshit! What in the hell are you talking about?”
“The airport, Jack. At the bar. I spilled chardonnay in your lap. Remember?”
“The airport bar? That wasn’t you. That was some…wait.” Dawning registered in his eyes. He peered at her, his forehead crinkling. “That was you?”
Her heart slammed against her rib cage and broke into a million little pieces.
Jack looked like she had hit him in the head with a shovel. She felt as though he’d returned the favor.
She bit her lip. She wouldn’t break down. Not in front of him. She had to get out, but he was blocking the door. Instead, she dropped her cosmetic bag into her Vera Bradley duffel and zipped it. “Yeah, that was me. Hard to believe what highlights can do for a girl, huh?”
No answer came from Jack. He just stood there.
“Can I get by? I need to get my sandals.”
Her question seemed to jar him from his contemplation. “Wait a minute. Why didn’t you just tell me in the first place?”
She ignored him and tried to slink by. He grabbed her arm. “Look, Elle. You’re not leaving until we finish this.”
“Don’t call me ‘Elle.’ It’s not even my real name. Everything was fabricated. Everything. So, yeah, this is finished, Jack.”
“The hell it is. You drop something like that on me and want to waltz out?” He pushed his hand through still damp hair. It stuck up in effrontery. “No way, lady. You’re the one who lied.”
Her head snapped up. “So I lied. Big deal. This was supposed to be a fling. I didn’t want to have a relationship with you, Jack. I just wanted to sleep with you.”
His hand slipped from her arm and he stepped back. Pain flashed in his eyes. For a moment, she wanted to reach out and take the words back, but she was a wounded animal, hurt too badly to care what damage she’d inflicted on him.
Nellie couldn’t believe the words tumbling so easily from her mouth. She’d never been one for confrontation, but she was angrier than she’d ever been in her life. She wished she’d never become “Elle.” She wouldn’t be going through all this drama. And she wanted to punch Jack. Bloody his nose for making her love him, for saying she was the one. All of it based on a lie.
“Oh, I see. Double standard. Seems like I’m not the only one to judge a book by its cover, Miss Librarian.”
She shrank at the sneer in his voice, but she was pissed enough to mutter, “Screw you, Jack.”
“You already did, Elle.” His voice was low. Wounded. “Or whatever your name is.”
“Move!” She swung her bag onto her shoulder, shoving past him into his bedroom. Just before she exited she spun around. “And just so you know, my name is Nellie. Yeah, plain, old-fashioned Nellie.”
“Well, thanks for clearing that up for me. Anything else you’re hiding? A husband maybe?” he called as she stalked out the door and down the stairs they’d made love on that morning.
Jack’s voice sounded mean. He was as angry as she was. She knew she was out of control, would regret her actions tomorrow, but she was powerless to stop herself.
The party had moved back into the huge family room and everyone turned their eyes toward Nellie.
“Did you need help dressing, Elle?” Kate teased. “Took you a little while.” She set down her soda and popped up from the accountant’s lap where she’d been sitting.
“Let’s go.” Nellie turned toward the kitchen. She’d left her sandals by the back door.
She ignored Dutch’s soft woof from the laundry room and tugged on her shoes. She wanted to scream “shut up” at the stupid dog just because he belonged to Jack, but that would be moronic.
“What’s going on, Elle?” Kate had followed her into the kitchen.
She angrily wiped her cheek. “You can stop calling me that stupid name. And I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to get the hell out of here.”
“Whoa, Nellie. You’re cussing.”
“And you’re stating the obvious. You want to get the others or should I just call a cab?”
“Whoa! Chill, Nell. I’ll grab my purse.” Kate cast a puzzled look at her before spinning on one foot and flouncing back into the family room. Nellie could hear her cajoling the other two. Obviously things had gotten pretty cozy pretty fast for the single ladies swilling martinis. Nellie was pretty sure Billie was going to have to go more than halfsies on the drinks. Masculine protests joined the feminine ones.
Kate emerged from the living room. “Okay, Nell. Trish and Billie are gonna hitch a ride with O’Shea when he goes back to close Agave. It’s just me and you, sista.”
“Fine. Where’s Jack? I don’t want to see him when I go back out there.”
“He didn’t come down.”
“Good.” Nellie picked her bag up and headed back toward the foyer. Everyone in the living room stared at her, but she was too much of a chicken to meet their eyes, or maybe she was just too afraid she would start sobbing. Part of her wanted to run back up the stairs, throw herself into Jack’s arms and beg his forgiveness. He’d wanted a relationship, something more than just a memory of a woman and a weekend. She’d ruined everything.
It was over.
But the other part of Nellie, the stubborn Tucker part, marched forward, telling herself she’d been nothing but a damned fool.
She marched through the front door and down the steps before finally dropping into Kate’s powder-blue VW bug. Kate turned the key and the car revved to life. Finally, Nellie allowed the tears to fall.
“Don’t, Nellie. He’s just a stupid guy. Plus, I told you not to…”
“Don’t. Don’t say ‘I told you so.’ You know that’s the last thing I want to hear.”
Kate clamped her mouth shut. “Right. Let’s go get a cheeseburger.”
Nellie’s only response was to lean forward and hide her face in her hands.
“And cheese fries.” Kate lightly touched her back. Nellie couldn’t stop the sobs that shook her body. She wanted to pretend she was strong and could care less about Jack Darby, but she’d never been a good actress. Plus, this was Kate.
Her friend sighed, “Okay, and a double fudge brownie sundae.”
Nellie threw her head back against the headrest, ignoring the tears dripping from her chin. “With extra whipped cream?”