Authors: Jennifer Crusie
“Hey,” Nate said, the tone of his voice suddenly no-nonsense. “What’s wrong?”
Everything, she thought. Everything was very wrong. She should have run for the state line after all.
* * *
of her gaze across the room, his muscles tensing to take action. But despite the dozens of people packed into the space, he didn’t see any reason for alarm. There was laughter and flirtation, and maybe a slightly tense conversation between the couple at the next table, but nothing that set off warning bells.
One man stood alone near the door, his long blond hair pulled into a ponytail and a goofy smile pasted on his face. Nate slid his eyes back to Jenny and looked again. Yeah, she was staring right at that guy.
“Who is he?” Nate asked.
“My ex,” she said, her mouth stiff in a way he’d never seen, not even when she’d been fighting back tears yesterday.
“Ex-boyfriend?” he pressed.
“Ex-husband,” she said. “Ellis.”
Nate blinked and looked back to the blond. “Recent?” he asked, realizing at the same moment that he’d crafted a false sense of familiarity with Jenny Stone in his mind. He knew her age and birthday and accident history. He knew she didn’t have a criminal record, and she kept her insurance up to date, and he knew where she worked. Other than her willingness to be an organ donor, what else did he know except that she smiled a lot and liked to drive fast?
She might have five ex-husbands. She might be married right now.
Following the example set by her hand, which had pulled away from its interesting closeness as soon as she’d spotted her ex, Jenny pushed her chair back from the table. “I’m sorry,” she said, eyes still on the man. “I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Wait,” Nate started, but the ex-husband was heading over now, his eyes on Jenny.
“Sorry,” she said again before moving toward the bar. The man’s trajectory changed and he followed her across the room. Nate’s neck prickled at the sight of a pursuit, even if it was a slow one, but the ex’s smile only showed friendliness. There was no edge to it. No warning. But Nate watched closely, keeping an eye on the man’s face, his shoulders, his hands, watching for any hint of suppressed violence.
The guy said something, and Jenny grabbed his arm and dragged him toward the end of the bar.
“Come on!” he said on a laugh, his voice loud enough that Nate could hear. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“What are you doing here?” she nearly shouted.
When they reached the bar, their words were no longer loud enough to hear past the crowd. Ellis seemed to be talking a lot while Jenny frowned and shook her head.
Nate cursed the ex-husband’s timing, his own slow draw on making a move, and added a few general curses for his inconvenient interest in someone as complicated as Jenny Stone. Curling his fist, he looked down at the hand she’d touched, one faint brush of her fingertips over his knuckles. It had been nothing. The pressure barely even noticeable. So why could he still feel it?
He clenched his hand hard, forcing his nerves to let go of the lingering trace of herself she’d left behind. If he could force his mind to do the same, that would be even better, but her presence was still bouncing around in there, leaving bruises in her wake.
She, on the other hand, seemed to have completely recovered from their encounter. Hands on her hips, she was now facing good old Ellis, her clenched jaw barely moving as she read him the riot act. Either that or she had a very tense style of reminiscing. Ellis maintained his loose-limbed stance, smiling indulgently at her diatribe.
“Ellis!” she yelled, throwing her hands in the air.
“It’s not like that!”
When the guy laughed, Jenny seemed to get even more frustrated, and a wild gesture caught a half-full pitcher on the bar. It slid away and shot into the air between two patrons before it crashed to the floor. A screech went up as people were splashed with cold beer.
Nate shot to his feet, already stepping forward to control the situation, but he wasn’t needed. The male bartender grabbed Ellis by the collar of his shirt to haul him out, but Jenny shook her head and tried to calm the situation down.
Whatever she said, her ex-husband moved toward the door with a smile. “I’ll come by later, Jenny!” he called, still perfectly cheerful as he left the saloon.
Nate stood there, ready for violence, adrenaline pumping through his veins as the crowd broke into scattered applause. Jenny grabbed a mop and came around the bar to clean up the spill. Once that was done, she crouched down with a rag to clean the splatter from the bar stools.
Frozen in place between two tables, Nate watched her, waiting, wondering if he should offer to help. Wondering what to say. But in the end, he didn’t say anything at all. Jenny didn’t look in his direction. She didn’t even glance up. She just stood and headed back behind the bar.
Nate slid the business card off the table and left.
to pick ’em,” Rayleen cackled from her corner table for the tenth time that night.
Jenny sighed and rolled her shoulders, determined to continue ignoring the old lady.
“He sure did have pretty hair, though. Do you give it a hundred strokes at night? That’s the recipe for a good marriage, you know.” More cackling. Rayleen was drunk.
Rayleen.” Jenny sighed. “I don’t stroke anything of his, and I haven’t in a long time.”
“Well, he’s back now. And ex sex doesn’t count, or that’s what I’ve always heard.”
Jenny finished wiping down the bar and glanced toward the last tables of lingerers. “Is that what your exes told you? Because I think that’s called an ulterior motive.”
“Ha!” The unlit cigarette clenched between her lips bounced as she spoke. “That’s what
And hell, yeah, I had a motive.”
Accustomed to the white-haired lady’s constant sex talk, Jenny just nodded as she looked at the clock. It was one, and Ellis apparently wasn’t coming back. “All right, folks!” she called. “That’s it! Closing time.”
There were a few good-hearted groans as the two tables cleared out, but they all offered friendly waves as they left. Not for the first time, Jenny was glad that pitcher night ended at one. They were open until two Thursday through Saturday, and she was sure she was too exhausted to have made it another hour. Her ex-husband was the gift that kept on giving.
He’d reappeared two months earlier, calling to say he was in town and asking if he could buy her coffee. She’d wanted to say no. Just hearing his voice had made her anxious enough that she’d immediately reached for the car keys, just to know she could run if she needed to. She hadn’t spoken to him in ten years, which was exactly how she’d preferred it. But guilt had made her say yes. Guilt that she’d run the way she had, leaving nothing but the wedding band she’d set on the table while he slept. Granted, their marriage had been brief and an idiotic idea from the start, but he hadn’t been the one to walk out. She had.
He hadn’t done well since then. She knew that much from brief snatches of gossip when old friends passed through Jackson. So she’d said yes to his invitation, heart beating with anxious regret before she even made it out the door.
She should have gone with her first instinct. Ellis hadn’t grown up at all. And she’d ended up paying for the coffee, along with two muffins and a donut he’d ordered for the two of them and then eaten by himself.
Ellis had been looking for a place to crash, but more than that, he’d needed a job. Times were tough back in small-town Idaho. He’d been out of work for a year. But it was a slow ski season in this economy, and there wasn’t enough work for the regulars who showed up every year, much less a stranger who’d just arrived.
When he’d asked about working at the saloon, with
Jenny’s heart had leaped with terror at the very idea. She’d said no before he could even finish asking.
God, she’d felt horrible about it. She still did. Like a cruel, heartless bitch. But the idea of her past and her present mixing up into one tangled mess... No. She didn’t run in circles. She ran to escape. She couldn’t do it.
But he’d really needed help. And she’d refused. And here he was again.
She’d assumed he’d gone back to Idaho, but instead, he’d apparently been hanging out with the group of losers who always surrounded Steve Tex, a guy who’d once been a promising snowboarder and was now a perpetual ne’er-do-well.
Jenny didn’t like that. She didn’t like it at all. Ellis wasn’t dumb, but he’d always been naïve. Look how quickly he’d fallen for Jenny, when she obviously hadn’t deserved that kind of trust.
Ellis was cute and easygoing. He liked everyone. And in the time she’d known him, he’d never shown an ounce of self-preservation. That was what had scared her tonight, because she knew the kinds of people who hung out with Steve Tex. Users and drifters and sneaky bastards. Steve’s house, which had once been a mansion bought with sponsor money from his snowboarding days, was now a run-down, beat-up den of feral half adults.
She couldn’t push Ellis away without making sure he understood what he’d gotten into. But damn, he’d chosen a truly inconvenient time to pop back into her life, ruining her first promising flirtation in months.
Nate had left at some point. She wasn’t sure when, because she’d been too mortified to look at him. But he’d left, and he wouldn’t be back. He’d even taken the card. But she had the first one he’d given her, and she’d call tomorrow. She’d call and she’d take that class and she’d never speed again, if only because she couldn’t bear to speak to Deputy Hendricks after that.
An ex-husband goading her into a high-tempered, beer-smashing, barroom scene was probably one of the least effective flirtation strategies she could have employed. God, she was really the picture of success. A washed-up bartender driving a car that was more suited to a teenage boy pumped up on acne meds and energy drinks. A white-trash divorcee yelling at her ex in public and knocking over drinks. Nice.
She could probably still persuade Nate to sleep with her if she really pulled out all the stops, but who wanted to have to talk a man into bed?
Then again, considering how she’d melted with excitement at just touching his hand, maybe it would be worth a little humiliation. Men talked their way into bed all the time, didn’t they? They never seemed self-conscious about it.
Groaning at her own pitiful thoughts, Jenny closed out the register and dropped the key into Rayleen’s hand. “You should really be more careful with that,” she said as Rayleen tucked the key into her bra. “Half the town probably knows you keep it between your breasts.”
She shrugged. “If I get robbed, it’ll be the most action I’ve seen in a while. Could be exciting.”
“Yeah? Does that mean there’s nothing going on with Easy?”
“Ha! I wouldn’t give that old coot the time of day.” But she blushed when she said it, her pale cheeks blooming with color. The old rancher came by at least twice a month to play gin rummy with Rayleen and engage in some verbal sparring. It was looking more and more like foreplay, and Rayleen’s blush gave her away. She’d be getting some action sooner than Jenny would, that much was obvious.
“So who was that handsome piece of work you were sitting with?”
Jenny froze in the act of reaching for her jacket. Damn. She’d thought she was going to get away clean. “Nobody,” she said automatically.
“Yeah? Hell, there’s been nobody in my bed for years. If he’s really Nobody, I’d have a damn big smile on my face every day, missy.”
“He’s a deputy,” Jenny countered quickly. “He came by to give me some information on a defensive driving class. That’s all.”
“That’s all? Then you should be ashamed of yourself. That boy has some special frisking in mind for you.”
Rayleen’s words created an unwelcome image in Jenny’s mind: her body pressed against the hood of his sheriff’s truck, him too close behind her, his hands running down her sides, then back up to cup her breasts.
“Good night, Rayleen,” she said quickly. She’d already cleaned the bar and locked up the liquor. The last two tables needed clearing and wiping, and she felt guilty passing those by, but Rayleen liked to get the last few things every night. It gave her a reason to hang out until closing.
Jenny clicked the lock button on the door before she closed it behind her. The least she could do was be sure Rayleen wasn’t robbed because Jenny had been careless. The woman only needed to walk across the parking lot to get to the little house where she lived, but Jenny still worried about her. Not in the off season when it was mostly locals, but during ski season, a lot of temporary workers came through, and Jackson felt less like a small town.
Walking through the lot, lost in worry, Jenny almost screamed when she heard a car door open just a few feet away. Her heart leaped into her throat, then slammed into a rapid beat as she backpedaled, but as the man stepped out of the truck, she realized it was Nate.
“Oh!” she gasped, her breath puffing out on a cloud in the icy air. “You scared me half to death!”
“I’m sorry.” He held up both hands as if he were approaching someone unstable. “I’m unarmed.”
His forearms looked more than strong enough to make his bare hands into lethal weapons, but she kept that thought to herself. At which point her brain came fully back online and reminded her of who he was and what had happened earlier.
Her receding panic was quickly replaced by mortification. She had no idea what her face looked like twisted between these two awful emotions, but it was bad enough to stop a seasoned cop in his tracks. He even took a step back, though his shadow stretched out to touch the toes of her shoes. Strangely, that imagined contact made her feel uncomfortable, so she took a step back, as well.
“Sorry,” he said again. “I just wanted to be sure you were okay.”
“Yes. Your ex seemed a little aggressive tonight. I was worried.”
“Ellis?” she squeaked in shock.
“Yes,” he said flatly, “Ellis.”
“Oh, no, you don’t have to worry about Ellis. He’s just...Ellis.”
“Well, I’ve never arrested him, so I guess that’s a positive sign.”
“Oh, he doesn’t live here. He’s from Idaho. He’s just visiting. Or something.”
Nate cleared his throat and took a step toward her. “Visiting you?”
“No!” she answered so loudly that she made her own nerves jump in shock. “I saw him once a couple of months ago, and then he showed up tonight. It’s been over for ten years.”
“Ten years,” he repeated, taking one more step. Now his shadow slid over her feet and all the way up to her thighs. She watched it shift over the curve of her legs and bit back a shiver. She couldn’t feel it, but she wanted to so badly that it almost felt like a touch.
“You were just a baby,” he said.
“Are you trying to flatter me? You know my birth date. I was eighteen.”
“Exactly. Just a kid.”
“Amazing that they let teenagers walk around free like actual humans, much less get a marriage license, isn’t it?”
His teeth flashed in the darkness as if he was smiling. She wished he were the one facing the light. Then she’d be able to read him and he couldn’t see the mixed-up emotions flashing over her face.
“Are you—” he seemed to hesitate, his voice growing softer “—involved with anyone right now? Married or—”
“What?” she interrupted. “No, I’m not married! Or involved. Or
“Okay. Good. Me, neither.”
He could only mean one thing by that, and her suspicion was confirmed when he took one more step. Now his shadow slipped up her body all the way to her breasts. Better than that, she could reach out and touch him if she wanted to.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said.
“You kind of checked out on me.”
“I assumed you’d want me to.”
His head cocked. “Why?”
She laughed. “Baggage. It’s so sexy.”
“Hmm. So you’d been hoping I’d think of you as sexy?”
“Oh...” She couldn’t do more than sigh that small word because his hand came up to cup her jaw. His thumb trailed over her cheek, and Jenny almost whimpered. This wasn’t the imagined touch of a shadow. And it wasn’t the brushing of hands. This was something so much more delicate and sweet and
And she’d never have imagined that Deputy Hendricks would be the one to touch her this way. A whisper of his skin against hers. Her heart trembled between beats.
“Did you?” he murmured.
“Hope I’d think that you’re sexy?”
“I...maybe. You’re very...”
He drew closer, his face only inches from hers now. “Very what? Scary?”
“No,” she breathed. Then, “Yes.”
“Yes?” Nate bent his head, and his breath whispered over her mouth. “Are you scared right now?”
“Yes.” A lie. Or not a lie, because when his lips touched hers, her pulse sped with wild alarm and her legs went weak enough that she reached for his arm.
She sighed against his lips, and he deepened the kiss until she could taste him. The heat of his mouth, the faint hint of moisture as she opened for him, and then his tongue brushing her bottom lip. Just one little taste. Then another. Just as she was leaning closer, he pulled away.
“Oh,” she whispered again, suddenly yanked from the slow heat she’d been sinking into.
“I’ve wanted to do that for a while,” he murmured.
“Have you?” She blinked up at him, still dazed.
“Yes. You...drive me a little crazy. But I knew I’d be stepping over the line.”
“A couple of lines, actually. One, I was usually giving you a ticket at the time. That’s a clear line. Another being that you didn’t even know who I was tonight. That seemed like a definite ‘Do not proceed’ signal.”
“You look a little different in jeans. And a button-down shirt.” Worried he wasn’t going to kiss her again, Jenny dared to stroke a finger along the collar of his shirt, down to where the first button was fastened. “And I’m used to looking up from about waist level.”
Now she could definitely see his smile. In fact, he grinned so wide she was pretty sure she could count every one of his white teeth. “Whatever you’re about to say,” she ordered, “don’t!”
“It’s just that—”
“If you’re more comfortable—”
“Stop! This isn’t going to be as cute as you think. Believe me, I know. I work in a bar.”
He shrugged. “It was pretty cute.”
“No, it wasn’t,” she insisted, but she was laughing. Laughing and curling her fingers around the edge of his shirt, tugging him down. She didn’t have to tug very hard. He ducked his head and kissed her again, and this time his tongue swept deeper. His arms snuck around her and she settled against his chest.
Jenny’s nipples tightened against the warmth of his body. She shivered as his fingers spread over her back. Even past her jacket, she could feel his fingertips and imagined them against her naked skin. His forearms tightening as he—