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I wrote this when I was living in Texas and totally in love with small Texas towns. Are the characters based on people I knew when I lived there? Hmmmm. Maybe!!!!
Ten years after—can they rekindle the heat? One hot night with Gabe Carter has haunted Jill Danvers for ten years, almost as much as his decision to marry someone else.
Now a successful journalist, she’s back in town to write about the city’s Bicentennial Celebration—and Gabe is the chairman.
This time around he’s determined not to let other people control his life where Jill’s concerned, especially his vicious, vengeful ex. It might not be possible to get past ten years of pain, but as they work together on the article and solving the mystery of the undercurrents flowing beneath the surface of the town, they might just find a way back to each other.
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 looked 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 tanned 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. Riding 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 soft 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 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.
Ten years later, the day of the funeral was still burned into her mind—and not just because of the grief.
* * * *
It seemed the whole town turned out for the Danverses’ funeral. Afterward, they filled the house to express condolences and sympathy. Jill had stood graveside between her aunt Karen and Uncle Joe, numb with despair and craving the feel of Gabe’s arms around her. When he walked into the house he gave her a brief hug, murmured soothing words and said he’d be there when everyone left.
She was in the kitchen pouring coffee for herself when she heard Robin’s mother and another woman on the other side of the door.
“I see Robin’s home.”
“Yes, just last week. We wanted her to have this summer after graduation before she starts working.”
“I guess she and Gabe will be announcing their engagement?”
“Oh, of course. I’m hoping for a December wedding. The holidays are a great time for a celebration, don’t you think? Although for some reason Robin wants a quiet one right away.”
The words ripped Jill’s heart open. How can this be true? Forgetting the coffee, she went in search of the man who’d whispered exquisite words of love and the future to her, only to find him on the patio with his arms around Robin in a lover’s embrace.
Sick at what she saw, she ran from the house, away from everyone, trying to swallow the flood of tears.
Even when he spotted her and called after her, she kept on running. So much for all Gabe’s wonderful promises. Maybe to him it had been nothing more than a way to pass the summer until Robin got back. Maybe everything was a lie, couched to get her into bed.
Gabe found her sitting on a bench in the park.
“Get away from me,” she snapped. “I hate you—you are such a liar.”
“Jill, please.” He crouched down in front of her. “There are things going on I can’t tell you.”
“Things that made you lie to me?” She spat the words out.
“They weren’t a lie.” His voice was low. “I promise you that.”
“Then why are you marrying Robin?” She managed to hold back the tears.
“You’ll find out soon enough, but I can’t tell you now. Please believe me.”
“Not any more. I believed you once. Look where it got me.” She jerked away from him and ran into the deepest part of the park. She hoped he’d follow her then hoped he wouldn’t. When she discovered she was still alone she stopped running and allowed herself the luxury of a good cry.
By the time she returned to the house, everyone was gone. Uncle Joe and Aunt Karen were waiting with worried looks and a note from Gabe that said only We have to talk. I’ll try to explain.
Explain what? He’d said he couldn’t tell her the reason.
“He’s called several times,” Aunt Karen said. “He waited for you as long as he could, but then he had to leave. He said he’d keep trying until he got you. Honey, I don’t know what’s wrong but shouldn’t you at least talk to him?”
“I did.” She stared at her hands in misery. “We have nothing left to say to each other.”
“Jill.” Aunt Karen put her arms around her. “This has been a tough week for you. Today you buried your parents. Maybe you’re blowing things out of proportion. Whatever is wrong between you and Gabe, at least give the man a hearing?”
Maybe. And maybe not. She was still crying tears of anguish for her parents, but then to see Gabe with Robin that way, to overhear the conversation…
Jill crumpled the paper and threw it into the trash. “All right. If he calls, I’ll talk to him.”
She ran upstairs and curled up on her bed, tears welling again in her eyes and choking her raw throat. Somehow exhaustion claimed her and she dozed off. When she woke, her room was filled with darkness broken only by the shaft of light from the street lamp shining through her window. She splashed cold water on her face in her bathroom, blew her nose and pulled her hair into a ponytail before going in search of her aunt and uncle. She’d made a decision and she needed to act on it before she changed her mind.
“I’m going back to San Antonio with you,” she told them when she had herself somewhat composed. “Can I stay with you until I find a place of my own?”
“Of course, honey,” Uncle Joe told her. “As long as you like. But Gabe…”
“I’ll talk to him. I said I would. But that’s all. I want to leave here.” The phone was ominously silent. So much for his need to talk to me.
She spent most of the night packing everything she could fit into her car, anxious for them all to get an early start. The faster she left Bluebonnet Falls, the faster she could get away from the pain of her parents’ death and Gabe’s betrayal.
When the doorbell rang, she figured it was her neighbor coming for the extra key. But when she pulled the door open, Gabe stood on the porch looking as if his night hadn’t been much better than hers. His clothes were rumpled and his eyes were red-rimmed and shadowed. Deep lines were carved into his face and he badly needed a shave.
“Go away.” She started to shut the door.
“Robin’s pregnant,” he blurted out. “Four months.”
Jill stared at him, the pain in her chest like a sharp sword. “Get the hell away from me.” She slammed the door and ran up the stairs, holding her hands over her ears as the doorbell rang again. “Don’t answer it,” she yelled. “Do not open that door.”
Karen stared up the stairs as the doorbell rang again and a fist pounded on the heavy wood. “What shall I tell Gabe?”
“Tell him…oh, tell him to go to hell.”
A week later, with a perverse need to enhance the pain squeezing her heart, she did an Internet search and in seconds a picture of the new Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Carter stared up at her. When a magazine offered her a job as a travel writer if she’d spend a year in Europe, she took it. The only way to keep her fragile heart from shattering altogether was to stay as far away from Gabriel Carter as she could, and never see him again.
* * * *
So, of course, here she was, hoping time and distance had changed her feelings and realizing from the first moment what a false hope she held. She prayed she wouldn’t disgrace herself by falling apart and demanding answers from him, answers she knew she didn’t want to hear.
Jill shook herself from her unpleasant reverie. Back to business.
“So,” she said in he brightest tone of voice she cosuld manage, “the Falls is having its bicentennial. And you’re the chairman.”
“That’s me. But it’s a job I’m enjoying. I love this town, you know.” He looked through the big window facing Main Street. “I took a position with a law firm in Dallas after I passed the bar, but then my dad developed some heart problems and needed to retire. He and Mom built a beautiful place over near Blanco and I came home and took over the practice. You know what they say.” He smiled. “Home’s where the heart is.”
“That’s what they say.” She pasted a smile on her face. “Didn’t quite work for me, though.”
A flash of something crossed his face. “You’ve never sold the house,” he commented.
Ah yes. The house. Where they’d made glorious love in her bedroom whenever they had the chance. “Uncle Joe thought I should hang on to it and rent it out. Said real estate was going to go way up in the Falls.”
“I’d say he’s a smart man. Available land’s pretty scarce around here. Developers are paying a fancy price for it.” He crossed and uncrossed his legs. “I notice the house is empty now. Looking for new tenants? If not, I can hook you up with one of the developers and see what he offers you.”
Renting it out would certainly be the smart thing to do. Better than what she was actually planning. She hadn’t thought she’d ever want to set foot in it again. Now some perverse devil had nudged her into staying there during her time in the town.
“Not yet. The lease was up on the last tenants and I decided to camp out there while I’m in town.”
His jaw dropped. “You’re going to live in it?”
She frowned. “Is there some reason why I shouldn’t?”
“No. Not at all.” She wasn’t sure if the look on his face was surprise or displeasure.
“All the furniture’s still there, though I’m not sure what shape it’s in.” She gave him a rueful smile. “I guess I’ll find out.”
“Don’t you think you’d be more comfortable in a motel?” he persisted.
“No. This is what I want to do.” She needed one last chance to rid her mind of all the ghosts. Her cheeks heated and her heart skipped in an erratic rhythm. She dug deep for her ‘journalist’ face. “Why don’t you tell me more about the big celebration and show me what you’ve got lined up? Then I can do some preliminary research before the event.”
“Sure. I’ve got everything ready.” The professional voice was back again.
He stood, unfolding his tall frame in a familiar way that made her heart ache, picked up a folder from his desk and brought it back to the couch. Sitting so close their thighs were touching, he spread the pages out on the coffee table.
Jill swallowed hard, feeling the heat of his body through her thin skirt, and forced her mind to focus. Remember, she told herself, don’t screw your assignment by falling into Gabe Carter’s arms again. He’s a married man. Keep that in mind.
“The historical committee has pulled together a list of the important dates in the town’s past,” he told her. “Something special’s planned to celebrate each one.” He picked up a sheet of paper. “Here’s a preliminary list.”
His hand brushed Jill’s as he handed her the schedule and she almost snatched it away.
Cool it. Remember. Poised and professional. He did what any honorable man would do, so show him you’ve been able to deal with it.
“This looks quite ambitious.” She hoped her voice didn’t sound as shaky to him as it did to her. “Will the committee be able to give me background on all of this?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, they asked to meet with you.” He pointed to the bottom of the sheet she was reading. “Ernie Hoffman is the chairman. There’s his number.”
“Okay. Good. Thanks.” The scent of Gabe’s aftershave drifted past her nose and she couldn’t seem to get more than single syllables out of her mouth.
She looked up at the exact instant Gabe turned toward her. Their eyes locked and her heart stopped beating.
“Jill.” His voice was low, seductive.
“Yes?” Don’t touch me or I’ll fall apart.
It happened so fast she had no time to think. He reached for her shoulders, the feel of his fingers on her skin like branding irons, and the room disappeared.
“Forget the celebration for a minute.” His face was close enough to count his eyelashes. “I told myself I’d keep my hands off you, but I feel as if I’ve waited forever for this. I have to find out if you still taste as good as I remember.”
He brought his mouth down to hers and she fell apart. All the resolve in the world didn’t help her. The barest touch and she was on fire for him. His lips were soft but demanding and his tongue probed the seam of her lips.
“Open for me, Jill,” he whispered.
Without thinking she opened her mouth to accept his tongue.
Ten years fell away and in her mind they weren’t on the couch but back on a blanket under the trees at Bluebonnet Lake. Hidden away in a copse, the moon their lantern sending its silver light washing over their naked bodies. Gabe’s mouth tasting her everywhere—her lips, her breasts, between her thighs. His fingers stroking her—inside her, opening her, driving her crazy.
Warning, warning! flashed in her brain. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But she was past thinking, past reasoning. All she wanted to do was feel.
She moved her tongue with his in a remembered dance. The kiss went on and on, sucking every bit of energy out of her. When he lifted his head, he shifted their bodies until her legs were draped over his lap, and looked at her eyes as if he were memorizing them.
“God, Jill.” His words shocked her. “You have no idea how much I’ve prayed that, despite every bit of bitterness you had a right to feel, you’d still walk back into my life one day.” He traced a line from her mouth to her jawline with feathery little kisses then moved to her neck and the place behind her ear that drove her crazy. As he teased the soft flesh with the tip of his tongue, he used his body to press her back against the couch, moving one hand easily to the buttons on her blouse.
I have to remember something important. What? What?
Then his hands were on her, gentle but insistent, and she lost all ability to think. Peeling away the blouse and opening the front clasp on her bra, allowed him to touch her breasts with a gentleness she’d never forgotten. He closed his mouth on a nipple, teasing it with his teeth then swirling his tongue around the hardened bud. Sensation washed over her, sparking her nerve endings, spiraling through her.
“Jesus, I’ve missed you,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “Not a night has gone by that you weren’t in my dreams.”
Jill clutched at him, feeling his powerful muscles beneath the soft cotton of his shirt, the heat searing her palms. Memories of how well their bodies had fit together played havoc with her mind and her senses. Suddenly his clothes were too much of an obstruction. With frantic movements, she tugged his shirt free from his trousers, desperate for his skin, to relearn the feel of him. The instant contact fogged her mind.
With one arm tight around her, Gabe moved his free hand in slow caresses over her body, as if he was mapping it, relearning it. He touched the familiar places, from her breasts to the curve of her stomach, down to her slim legs and up to the inside of her knees, her thighs. Beneath the thin fabric of the skirt, he used his fingertips to tease at the elastic edge of her lace panties. All the while he murmured soft words in her ear, words that inflamed her and made her writhe against him.
Without thinking she opened her legs to give him greater access. He deepened the kiss as he reached beneath the scrap of silk to the soft curls covering her mound. She felt him now, touching, probing, her breath coming in shorter and shorter gasps.
Then the painful memory of his betrayal blasted into her brain along with the reality of the situation, shocking her. What on earth is wrong with me? She had no business doing this. There was too much bad history between them. She wasn’t even sure she knew him anymore. Wrenching her mouth away from his insistent lips, she pushed at him with all her strength.
“Stop,” she gasped. “Stop, stop, stop. Let me up, Gabe. Right now.” She writhed in his grasp, trying to get free.
“What? What’s wrong?” He blinked and shook his head. “Jesus, Jill. I’m so damn sorry. I didn’t mean to grab you this way. The truth is, from the minute you walked in the door, all I could think of was making love to you.”
She shoved at him, pushing away. “We can’t do this. Please.”
He leaned forward while she adjusted herself, raking his fingers through his hair. When he spoke again, his voice was raw with passion and frustration. “Help me understand here. We’d both be lying if we said what we felt so long ago isn’t still there. Ten years haven’t made a damn bit of difference.” He drew in a sharp, ragged breath. “You may have hidden from me all this time but you can’t hide the fact you feel it too.”
She bowed her head, biting her lower lip as she struggled to fasten and rearrange her clothing. “It doesn’t matter. We can’t do this. It’s wrong.”
“Wrong?” He grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. “Tell me what’s wrong with it. It doesn’t get much more right than this. It never did.”
She knew he was going to kiss her again and she jerked her head away. “I don’t sleep with married men, Gabe.”
“Married?” He dropped his hand. “What in God’s name are you talking about? Who’s married?”
“You are.” Defiance gripped her. “To Robin Fletcher. Remember?” Her made her voice mimic his from long ago. “‘Robin’s pregnant. Four months’. Has the little scene somehow disappeared from your memory bank?”
Gabe rose from the couch and stood before her, looming over her, his expression a mixture of shock and anger. “I’m not married, Jill. Maybe if you’d bothered to keep in touch, you’d have found out. Robin and I were divorced two months after the wedding.”