Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Of all the dumb things she’d ever done in her life, this one ranked right at the top of the list. How did I ever let myself be talked into it?
Okay, so this was a great article she’d been selected to write. Maybe there’d be something that would help her make the leap from writing to reporting. Not that she didn’t love her job, but she continued to look for ways to switch from magazines to news.
But career choices aside, the closer Jill Danvers got to Bluebonnet Falls, the harder butterflies tap-danced in her stomach. She hadn’t seen Gabriel Carter in ten years. Not since the summer she’d given him her virginity and her heart and he’d trampled on both by marrying someone else. After that, she’d made a conscious effort to ignore the town and any news about it. She sure didn’t want to read about how well Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Carter were doing.
Still, no matter how hard she tried, she hadn’t found a way to get him out of her system. Her secret guilty pleasure, the hot lover who invaded her dreams and left her breathless, sweaty and tangled in her sheets when she woke. Gabe Carter was the yardstick by which she measured every other man she met.
Now, in just a few minutes, she’d be face-to-face with him again. Just the memory of his hot, firm body made her nipples harden and a pulse throb between her thighs like a jungle drumbeat. The singing of the tires on the pavement was a counterpoint to the thudding of her heart.
“Get a grip,” she scolded herself. “He’s probably flabby, bald and missing half his teeth.”
She only wished. Seeing him again would be a lot easier if he were, him being someone else’s husband and all.
Yes, let’s not forget the husband part.
She wheeled her Chevy Blazer up the Interstate 10 off-ramp and turned right onto the two-lane road into Bluebonnet Falls. Five more miles and she’d be facing her personal Armageddon.
“You can do this,” she said, her words disappearing in the wind. “Smile, shake his hand, make your arrangements and get on with it.” If she was lucky, maybe her homecoming wouldn’t be a big deal to anyone. She could do her story and get away pretty much unscathed.
The notes for her Life in America assignment were tucked away in her Coach portfolio. She’d worked very hard to get where she was, scrabbling her way up the publications ladder to finally get the position at one of the country’s top magazines. Life had been running her Slice of Life series of articles on small towns and large cities and she’d seen a lot of the country.
This time, she’d be focusing on Bluebonnet Falls and its upcoming bicentennial celebration. Normally, she’d be looking forward to this type of assignment.
‘It’s a good story,’ her editor had pointed out. ‘Besides, it’s your hometown, so you ought to give it a special slant.’
Then she’d learned Gabe was chairing the bicentennial steering committee. How on earth can I handle seeing him again? Working closely with him?
“Damn it!” she shouted into the breeze. “I don’t want to do this.”
Driving down Main Street, she thought how little the place had changed. Ten years later and every stone and storefront seemed exactly the same. Time had stood still.
She pulled into a space in front of the Hoechler Building where Gabe’s office was, got out and fed coins into the parking meter.
“Jill? Jill Danvers? Is that you?”
At the sound of her name, Jill turned and squinted at the tall, willowy blonde who walked up to her. Her stomach knotted. Jennie Foster, the biggest gossip in high school.
Jennie pulled off her sunglasses and stared at Jill. “Well, this is quite a surprise. Long time, no see.”
And with good reason. “How are you? You look great.”
Jennie’s stick figure had filled out so she now had curves. Her hair, now a lustrous shade of champagne instead of dishwater dull, framed her oval face and her outfit complemented her lightly tan skin. The whole ensemble screamed money.
“Oh, thanks, but you know, it’s a constant struggle.” She laughed. “Although three kids will keep you from sitting around too much.”
“Yes, indeed.” She waved her left hand at Jill, the diamond wedding band and engagement rings flashing in the sunlight. “Married Jim Schroyer when we graduated A&M and the kids just started popping out.” She laughed again, an easy, unselfconscious sound.
“It’s good to see you,” Jill said, surprising herself.
“Same here. I’ll tell you, I wasn’t sure we’d ever see you around here again. You know, the way your aunt and uncle swept you off after your folks died.”
Jill wondered if anyone in Bluebonnet Falls had guessed the real reason she’d left and never come back. She and Gabe had kept pretty much to themselves so their big romance—or whatever it was—hadn’t been front-page news. By September, things had changed. The death of her parents had provided her with a plausible excuse to leave.
“Well,” Jennie went on, “are you planning to stay for the big celebration? It’s not for a couple of weeks yet.”
“Yes, I am. I’m doing an article about it for Life in America. I came early to do some research about the town’s history and interview some of the people involved with the event.”
“Wow! That’s just too great.” Jennie eyed her shrewdly.
“I guess you’ll be meeting with Gabe Carter about it, since he’s the chairman.”
“Yes.” With an effort, Jill kept her voice calm. “As a matter of fact, I’m on my way to see him right now.”
“Great. Good luck.”
Jennie hugged Jill briefly. “Lordy, wait ’til I tell everyone. Jill Danvers back in Bluebonnet Falls. Wow.”
Jill watched Jennie clip-clop down the street in her sandals, fishing a cell phone from her purse. The woman was busy punching in numbers and seconds later had the phone pressed to her ear.
So much for trying to keep a low profile. By tonight everyone in the Falls would know Jill Danvers was back in town. Smoothing imaginary wrinkles from her skirt with nervous fingers, she walked into the building. As she rode the elevator to the third floor, she counted to ten then twenty. Anything to calm herself.
In a minute, she would be facing the sexiest man she’d ever met. The one who still held her heart even if he didn’t know it. She had to keep reminding herself he was married to someone else and out of reach. She swallowed a sigh.
Get serious. Gabe Carter is just another man.
Yeah, right. And the Grand Canyon is just another ditch.
Then the elevator whooshed open. She walked the few steps to his suite of offices and pushed open the door. And caught her breath.
Gabe stood at the reception desk, talking to the woman seated there. At Jill’s approach, he looked up and smiled. “Hi. Can I help you?”
That deep voice rumbled from his chest and long-forgotten waves of desire washed over her.
Just her luck that after all this time he was more mouthwatering than ever. His tall, muscular body was still trim, his hair a deeper golden brown, the laugh lines on his face more prominent. The sleeves of his soft cotton dress shirt, ocean blue like the color of his eyes, were rolled back at the cuffs, exposing tan forearms with a light dusting of golden hair. Jill needed every ounce of willpower not to throw herself at him.
She swallowed against an instant panic attack and took a calming breath. “Hello, Gabe. Nice to see you again.”
His eyes widened and he stared at her with an expression close to shock. He reached out and took her hand. “Jill? My God, is that really you?”
His gaze raked her from head to toe. She knew what he saw. She was still slim but she had filled out so now she had curves, rounder breasts and hips that flared just enough. Her makeup was more sophisticated and she knew the green of her simple tailored outfit complemented her eyes and brought out the auburn highlights of her thick chestnut hair. She had taken great pains to create the image she wanted to project to him, to let him know what could have been hers.
She felt naked under his penetrating look. Ten years hadn’t put out the blaze that roared through her the minute he touched her. Maintaining her professional poise took superhuman effort. This might turn out to be a lot more difficult than I thought.
His hand was warm against hers, reminding her of the last time he’d touched her in intimate places. The last time they’d made love. She’d never forgotten the feel of those slightly roughened hands gliding over her skin, touching her in intimate places, teaching her what love was about.
“Well.” He released her hand with obvious reluctance. “You certainly have grown up, haven’t you?” He grinned, a dimple flashing at one corner of his mouth.
“Haven’t we all.” She tried to match his nonchalance.
“Christy.” He turned to the woman at the desk. “You may not remember Jill Danvers. She was a year or so ahead of you in school, I think. Jill, this is Christy Malone. The heart and soul of the office.”
Christy blushed at the compliment.
Jill smiled. “Nice to meet you.”
“Same here. Gabe’s been looking forward to seeing you again.” Her eyes flashed. “We’re all so excited you’re writing about the big event. Won’t that just put us on the map?”
“Well, that’s my intention.” So Gabe’s been looking forward to seeing me, has he? If only it were for the right reasons.
“Hold my calls until we’re done,” he told Christy. “Come on, Jill. Let’s go into my office and talk.”
His hand rested just at the small of her back as he guided her out of the reception area. Her skin burned where he touched her and images of his naked skin next to hers and his hands stroking her flashed through her mind. As memories aroused her body, her panties dampened and her nipples tightened.
With an effort she blanked her mind.
The office reflected the man well, solid and with a strong sense of masculinity. Lots of leather and wood, with rich brown carpeting to soften footsteps. Western-themed art hung on the wall and appeared to have been selected to reflect the geography of the area. But the absence of any personal photos struck her as odd. Not of Robin, or their child or the three of them as a family.
Interesting. What does that mean?
She moved toward one of the chairs in front of the desk but Gabe motioned to the couch against one wall.
“We don’t need to be so formal, do we? After all, we’re not exactly strangers.”
That’s the problem. I wish we were.
“You’re right,” she said instead. “But it has been a long time since we’ve seen each other.”
“Too long.” He flashed his gorgeous white teeth at her again. “Lord, Jill, it’s so good just to look at you.”
“You look pretty sharp yourself.” There. She had just the right tone of nonchalance. “I gather from these digs your law practice is flourishing.”
He leaned back against the couch, one leg crossed over the other, one arm thrown along the back. “I have to admit I’m happy with the way things are going.”
“And Robin? How is she these days?”
Gabe’s jaw tightened and his eyes darkened. “Robin? She’s fine, I guess. I’m sure she’ll be interested to know you asked about her.”
“Well, give her my best.” Along with a pint of hemlock.
Robin Fletcher and Gabe had been a long-standing couple through high school and college. Before That Summer. Following her graduation from the University of Texas, Robin had taken off to spend three months in Maine with relatives.
‘I think she’s in a snit,’ he’d told Jill when she’d asked.
‘We’re examining our priorities. I told her some days I feel swept along on an uncontrollable tide.’ He’d grinned. ‘A tide named Robin. She didn’t take it too well.’
So Gabe, with one semester of law school left, had been at a loose end. Without Robin in the picture, the summer had belonged to them. They’d hardly mixed with anyone at all, unwilling to share even a minute with anyone else. In those three short months Jill’s life had turned upside down. She’d fallen in love with Gabe and her parents had been killed in a highway crash.
Even after ten years, the day of the funeral was still burned into her mind—and not just because of the grief.