THE KNOCK BROUGHT Penn Jericho up from the couch where he’d been sitting in his dark living room, pondering the day and resting his aching muscles. His prosthetic foot clanked loudly against the wooden planks and anticipation grew wildly in him as he got closer to relief. It had been weeks since he’d found solace in the warmth of soft curves. He was long overdue.
Swinging the door open, he didn’t bother turning on the light as he reached out, grabbed a slender hand and dragged his earlier-than-expected-booty-call across the threshold. His body turned rock-solid, and he realized just how much he needed this. And because he wasn’t wearing any clothes, his cock saluted the sexy bombshell he pressed against the wall. She rewarded him with a whimper of surprise, yet he knew all too well how she liked it when he took control. Something dropped from her hand, hitting him on his ankle, but he didn’t care. Not. One. Shit. He had a one-track mind.
He nuzzled her hair, glad that she wore it straight and silky unlike her teased and fluffed style. Inhaling her scent, he paused. This wasn’t her usual smoke/alcohol combination from waiting tables at the honky tonk. No, this reminded him of a fresh batch of sugar cookies. He could eat a dozen, but for now, he’d settle on eating one delicious, wet cookie. He threaded his fingers in her soft hair and lowered his mouth, drawing his tongue along the seam of her lush lips. He tasted cherry. This was turning into a scintillating buffet for his senses. “I thought I’d go crazy waiting on you, Saucy,” he whispered close to her ear as he molded his palm to her breast.
She stiffened. Now why would she do that? He pulled back slightly, only enough to look down at her through the shadows. The room was too dark to make out her features or expression, but he got the feeling she wasn’t her usual ready-and-willing self. They were like magnets when they came together and by now, she’d be ripping her sharp nails across his skin and begging him to take her fast and without mercy. He always obliged her.
He blew out a long breath. Maybe she wanted to play the role of the innocent virgin tonight. Or maybe he’d come on too strong right off the bat, but she never complained before. “Are you playing hard to get?” No answer. “What’s wrong?” His body deflated…some.
“If I was ‘Saucy’ I’d probably be into this.” The soft voice was tinged with a seductive accent and wasn’t high-pitched like Saucy’s southern twang. Every hair on his body stood at attention. Uh-oh.
What the fuck? He used the fingers of his free hand to brush over her forehead, following the delicate line of a smooth cheek, her chin, up to eyes, but almost knocked off glasses.
Since when did she wear glasses?
Shit! He removed his hand from her breast, but not before he noticed how hard her nipple was.
He wasn’t sure who he was groping, but it wasn’t his go-to beauty, Seneca. Rubbing his hand down the wall, he found the light switch and flipped it on. He met dark eyes, blinking wildly, framed in large, black glasses. He skimmed his gaze over her bewildered features. She had the palest complexion he’d ever seen. “You’re not Seneca,” he muttered.
“No, I’m not.” One thin brow popped up as she fixed her crooked frames. “For a Jericho who prides himself on being a top notch private detective, I’m quite disappointed in your skills. Good thing I’m not a maniac wielding a weapon or you’d be a goner.”
He swept his gaze lower between their bodies that were still pressed together. Her breasts were pushed up, spilling over the white lace of her bra exposed in the scooped neckline of the top, giving him a nice view of the ample, pale mounds. Her fingers rested lightly on his chest, right over the area of his heart that was trying to beat it’s way free. “The ‘no weapon’ is covered, but I’m not ruling out the ‘maniac’ part just yet. Who the hell are you?” Clearly, she was right about his lack of diligence. He’d been thinking with something other than his brain and a man knew that was always a big mistake. In his defense, no one ever came to visit him, especially here at Second Chances Ranch, unless they were invited. This lady wasn’t invited, at least not by him. Had she come to the ranch to see one of his brothers? Probably so. Penn was a bit envious.
“Now since you see I’m not packing, please remove your,” she cleared her throat, “body from my person. I’m very flattered, really I am, but you’re not my type.”
“You have the wrong house, lady,” he snorted.
He hesitated. “Maybe.”
One corner of her mouth lifted. “I’m Harley Tate.”
His balls tightened. How had he not recognized her? With a growl, he stepped back, pushing a hand through his still-damp hair. “Why the hell are you here? And a bigger question, how the hell did you know which house is mine?” If she’d stopped at any of his brothers’ places, they would have sent her back where she came from, or at least warned Penn that she was in the vicinity.
Her cool gaze strolled down his chest, his stomach, lingering for a long moment at his erection that didn’t get the message to back off. Her smile grew as she brought her eyes to his face. “Unless you’re showing off, which is a waste of time with me, why don’t you cover up and we’ll chat. Thinking is hard, literally, with that demanding all of the attention.” Her cheeks turned rosy.
He took several steps and grabbed the first thing he came to, a throw from the couch. Wrapping it around his hips, he held the material in place with one hand. Her stare was now focused on his prosthetic leg as if she’d just realized it was fake. He gritted his teeth. After his accident, he’d gotten used to stares, random questions, and people walking on eggshells because they weren’t sure how to take the ‘new’ Penn. However, she didn’t show any sign of awkwardness—only awareness. He’d never much cared what people thought, but for some reason, he was glad she didn’t show disgust or uneasiness. And he didn’t like it that he appreciated it, not one bit. “Lady, I have an office. Make an appointment.” Best to end this as soon as possible.
She pushed off the wall, cocked one hip in the skinny jeans, then crossed her arms over her waist, tapping the toe of her shoe on the floor in irritation. “That would have worked out just fine if you would have accepted any of my calls. I was tired of getting the run-around. Thankfully, your receptionist is tired of me calling too. She was kind enough to give me your address and describe your house, down to the old truck in the driveway and the red birdhouse hanging on the tree out front. Not that I wouldn’t have found it sooner or later, but sooner is better for my timeline. I’ve found that everyone knows you and your brothers around these parts. Available bachelors, rodeo stars, community heroes…” She rolled her eyes.
“I’m no longer a rodeo star, so I don’t give impromptu autographs.” He narrowed his gaze.
She laughed. “Whatever. I’m not here for your signature. That’s of no importance to me.”
Did he detect a bit of sarcasm in her voice? He wasn’t sure because her dazzling eyes and grin drew him in. He could see how she must have manipulated poor Susie into spilling his address. And Harley was right, everyone knew everything around town so it would have been easy for her to find him. He pushed through his thoughts attempting to remember everything about her in his surveillance report. Two years ago, she’d opened a small book store on Main Street after moving here from South Carolina. She didn’t have many friends, kept to herself, and spent lots of time at her store reading—something he gathered during his week of observation. She cared for animals—she’d fed every stray one on the sidewalk in front of her store. She’d also given money to the homeless man who slept on a bench at the end of the street. It didn’t matter. She shouldn’t be here, at his house, interrupting his personal life. He made a mental note to fire Susie when he got into the office Monday. “I don’t handle business here.”
“Oh, it looks like you do.” She dropped her gaze again to his semi-flaccid cock that tented the thin blanket. He should be as limp as a noodle. He couldn’t understand why his body was responding in such a way, yet he did have a sliver of a clue. For those few moments, he’d held the brunette against him, inhaling her scent, licking her plump lips, and he had been into it—really into the sensations rushing through his body. He subtly walked his gaze down the light blue blouse that hugged her breasts, to the dark, skinny jeans that displayed her voluptuous figure, to the tips of her bright red flip flops that exposed neon pink toenails. There was nothing about her that jumped out as seductive or sensual, including the wide framed glasses that screamed bookworm, so he wasn’t quite sure why his body disagreed and his erection was now back, full-blown and making his balls ache. Hell, in his defense, he’d been expecting to be deep inside of Seneca right now—the luscious, seductive Seneca that could suck a ping pong ball through a straw. He shivered.
Shifting, he swiveled on his prosthetic leg, glad he managed it gracefully, and Harley was more openly staring. Although she still didn’t show any signs of repulsion, he’d learned long ago that most women were bothered about his disability, a term he used loosely, although many of them didn’t let on. He’d been asked once by a woman he just met, “Can you keep the leg on because I don’t think I can handle a stub.” Hell, he understood. It was human nature to be standoffish when someone was different—looked different. Curious if a man or woman could still function without a limb. Maybe even experiencing some relief that it wasn’t them in the same predicament. When he first lost his leg from the knee down, he’d been overwhelmed with all the changes to his body, what he’d have to overcome to walk again and to continue doing all the things he enjoyed. Thankfully, the state-of-the-art prosthetic gave him the maneuverability to work on the ranch and pretty much do everything he did before. Riding on the back of a bull wasn’t one of them. The insurance wouldn’t cover him and the circuit didn’t renew his contract.
“Spit it out why you’ve come, and then I want you to leave. I’m expecting company as if you didn’t already know, lady,” he grumbled the words. Enough of the peep show at the leg.
Some of the tightness in her expression relaxed, hesitating as if she needed to regroup her thoughts, or come up with a reason for him to listen. She bent down and picked up what she had dropped. An envelope. “This is all your fault.”
He blinked. “Exactly what is all my fault?” He glanced at the clock. Seneca would be arriving soon. He wanted to get this over with and get this crazy lady out of his house.
“You were hired to follow me and take pictures? I need to know exactly what he asked you to do and why.” Her expression became very serious. Her bottom lip quivered. Would she cry? Oh hell no.
He stared for a long second and then chuckled. “Lady—”
“Please stop calling me that! Harley will do just fine, thank you.” She lifted her chin slightly, and any signs of her being upset were gone, exchanged for one of bravery and strength.
“Okay, Harley. I’m guessing you’re talking about Marshall Reed?” She narrowed her gaze. “You might not understand what the procedure is, but Reed hired me, SCS Agency to be exact, which means you’re not privy to why or what he asked me to do. Simple.”
The area between her brows wrinkled. “If you tell me, I won’t tell a soul. I promise.”
Was she being serious? “I don’t care if you promise to glue your mouth shut, I won’t tell. It’s confidential information. Please don’t believe that just because Susie couldn’t stay quiet, that means we all have loose lips.” He stomped to the door, pulled it open and motioned for her to walk through. “Bye.”
She hesitated, several expressions flitting across her face before she finally stepped up to him. “You need to hear me out.” She was petite, he guessed around five-two and weighing one-twenty soaking wet. Yet her tilted chin and pensive gaze warned him that she was a force to be reckoned with. Against better judgment, he found her courage admirable. Not many women would show up at his house and demand that he listen to her.
“Make it quick.”
“I know you must think I’m a mad woman showing up here like this—”
“What would give me that impression?” He rolled his eyes.
She swallowed. “But you don’t understand. There’s more to the story. By chance, did Marshall tell you that I broke up with him six months ago?”
Penn squinted, but quickly gathered his reaction. No, Reed didn’t share that little tidbit. He’d made out that he and Harley were still a couple and he wanted to know if she was cheating. Nothing out of the ordinary.
She held out the large, manila envelope. He stared at it for a long moment, then finally accepted it. There was nothing written on either side. “What’s this?”
“I think it’s best that I let you look for yourself instead of telling you. Fact is in the proof.”
He scrubbed his jaw as his gut tightened. He hated messy situations, especially when it involved a man and woman who ended a relationship on a sour note. Yet, did relationships ever end on a positive one? “I don’t have time for this.”
“But you had time to take pictures of me for Marshall?” she snapped.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong, sweetheart. Anyone has the right to hire a PI. Anyway, I’m guessing seeing you with another man is enough to convince him to move on.”
Her frown deepened. “You’re still not understanding, Mr. Jericho. Marshall was a deceitful web that took me months to extract myself from. Unfortunately, not entirely yet. I realize he puts on a good front, manipulates people into believing he’s a good guy, but there’s a side to him, one that is dangerous, that not many see until they cross him.”
“Did you cross him?”
“Someone, everyone, eventually crosses Marshall. Too bad he doesn’t have a warning tattooed across his forehead.” She blew out a long breath. “There’s a reason why I got this.” She tapped her short, pink nail on the envelope flap. “Believe me, he’s a dangerous man.”
“I’m not the person you should be talking to. If Reed is as dangerous as you say he is, then you should go to the poli—”
She gave her head a quick shake, sending tendrils of hair smacking across her cheeks. “That shows how much you know him. He has friends at the police department. He’s made that clear.” The lines around her mouth deepened, looking stark against the otherwise flawless backdrop of her cheeks.
“Harley, why come here?”
“I guess I had hoped…” She brought her earnest gaze up to meet his, her tongue darting out to moisten her lips as if she needed to find the strength to say the words. “Maybe you’d allow me to hire you too, and help me put a stop to Marshall’s clandestine efforts to harass me.”
“He’s harassing you?”
“Odd things have been happening. Let me hire you and you’ll see.”
“I can’t do that.” He realized how thick his voice sounded.
“You said yourself anyone can hire a PI.”
He held her gaze and his stomach twisted. Her soft, concerned expression seeped into his bloodstream, making this difficult. He had an overwhelming feeling that he wouldn’t mind one bit ‘keeping an eye’ on her again. Pull yourself back, man. The golden rule of working in security was to never get emotionally involved, and especially never allow a woman to sway him with her looks, no matter how full her lips were, or convincing her eyes could be. “True, but this wouldn’t work.”
Because I might want to kiss you again. He was sinking fast. “It would be a conflict of interest. Reed has been a client of SCS since we opened.” Why did he suddenly feel like a jerk?
“Are you Jericho’s so hard up that you have to do the work for a crook?”
“You’re not convincing me,” he murmured.
She nodded and he was surprised that the defiant expression fizzled. “That’s what I thought. If you get a chance, take a look. Find out for yourself what Marshall is like. Something you should have done before you snooped into my life for him.” She darted a glance at the envelope, then she left. He stood in the doorway watching her walk down the pebbled walkway, wanting to allow his gaze to devour her sweet bottom, but hadn’t he stooped low enough already? Why did he feel so damn guilty? He hadn’t done anything wrong. So why was he still unsure?
The headlights feathered across the front of the house as she backed out and drove away. He slammed the door and looked down at the envelope. Reaching in, he pulled out a stack of photos. On top was one of the surveillance shots he’d taken of Harley in Raymond Patterson’s arms. Penn had researched and found that Patterson was an employee of Reed Oil Industries. After getting a few shots of them on the sidewalk embracing, and kissing each other inside of the bookstore, Penn had waited, but nothing else occurred between the two. At least not sexually. He’d added that in his report to Reed.
Sliding the picture aside, he came to the next photo. What he saw made his temples ache and his throat tighten.
Patterson’s head had a drawing of a knife sticking out of his head. And the next, had the same knife buried in Harley’s chest. Each picture was the same, except for the last. Their faces were cut out with the word ‘dead’ written across the top.
Someone definitely wanted to scare Harley, but was it Reed? What would he have to gain? Would he risk the aftermath? He had a reputation to uphold.
Dropping the stack of pictures onto the coffee table, they scattered and he stared. No doubt, only a man who didn’t have his head on straight would do such a thing, but Penn had learned long ago not to jump to conclusions. Not everything was as simple as it appeared.
Why the hell didn’t Harley go to the police? Penn agreed there were some corrupt men on the force, but there were damn good ones too. He knew because he had a few buddies that proved daily that they took pride in wearing a badge. He’d even lost some friends in the line of duty.
Did Harley have something to hide?
When he took the Reed/Tate case, he thought it’d be an open and closed one. Penn had been asked to meet Reed at his office, and he explained his suspicion and desire to find out who Harley was sleeping with. It had taken Penn a week of surveilling her before finally getting the shots of her with Patterson. Looking at the pictures, Penn couldn’t say that they proved that Harley and the man were romantically involved, but one could assume such a thing. Yet, if she and Reed had broken up, why did it matter?
Hell, Penn knew a lot of men and women who couldn’t seem to let go of a failed relationship—couldn’t bear the thought of someone they loved being with another. A broken heart could be lethal, making people do crazy things.
If he believed Harley, and she had broken up with Reed months ago, then why did the man lie to Penn? Well, that was obvious. SCS wouldn’t have taken the case if they’d known the true circumstances. He’d turned away many cases because exes just wanted to cause problems.
Without a doubt, the surveillance photos belonged to Reed. That was a strike against the man. Who else would have the motive to doodle knives, cut out heads on photos, and then deliver them to an ex-girlfriend? Another strike. Again, things were never how they seemed. Penn knew Reed and he didn’t seem like the man to sink to elementary tactics. The man always had a different bombshell on his arm and seemed not to spend too much time sulking over a lost relationship.
Although, Harley was different than the women Reed normally was interested in.
Penn would have Susie call Harley and give her a number to another PI. Then he’d fire the secretary. It would deserve her right after giving out his private address. What was she thinking? What had he been thinking by dragging in a woman off his porch and kissing her?
He didn’t have time to concern himself…
A soft knock came on the door, then it opened. He picked up the photos and slid them back into the envelope, dropping it into a basket on the corner of the coffee table. Seneca strolled in, her wide, crimson smile in place. Her low-cut T-shirt showed off the deep valley between her breasts, the outline of her hard nipples shadowed the thin material and he realized she wasn’t wearing a bra. She knew his triggers, but he also knew she liked the big tips she received when she flashed her tits. Still, his cock stretched the blanket as she sashayed her way over to him, stopping within inches, her bottom lip puckering, “Bad day?”
He shrugged. “You could say that.”
“Poor, baby.” She pressed against him, cupping his cheek with one hand and with the other she grabbed his shaft. “What can I do to make things better?”
His body was now throbbing. He wrapped his arm around her tiny waist and pulled her closer, waning to drive his body deep, but his gaze involuntarily found the envelope. He turned his shoulder, focusing all his attention on the woman who’d warmed his bed for the last few months—with no strings attached. They understood each other’s needs, and they never strayed from the carnal desires. He liked her enough. She was gorgeous and knew her way around a man’s body, but when the morning sun came up, she wasn’t expecting breakfast. He didn’t have an ounce of desire for a relationship, nor all the aspects and issues that came along with one. And that’s why he and Seneca got along great. She had an itch that needed scratched and Penn could give her that. They both had a raunchy side they liked bringing to the bedroom.
She slid the tip of her nail along the blanket and grasped the material in her fist, dragging it away from his body. “Looks like dessert is being served up.” Her playful smile spoke volumes. “I’ve craved a lollipop all day.”
“I’ve been waiting.”
She stood on tiptoes in cowgirl boots and kissed him on the cheek. “Care if I use the little girl’s room first? I just got off work and I’d like to wash off all of those unwanted advances.”
“Sure. You know the way.” He watched her head down the hall. His body ached to clutch her and plunge deep. Penn had been in a bar in the next county over working on a case and he’d spotted Seneca who had looked awfully good in her skimpy shirt and short skirt that hugged her tight bottom in such a way that he knew what he wanted. The next night, when he was off duty, she gave him exactly what he’d fantasized.
He plopped down on the couch and his gaze landed on the envelope, and his mind wandered to the mysterious woman, Harley Tate. Although it seemed irrational, her showing up at his place, he had a feeling she felt justified in her actions. His gut didn’t settle well. He often took cases where spouses and significant others wanted to find out if they were being cheated on. It happened all the time. In fact, that was a huge financial gain in the line of investigation, unfortunately. He guessed it was a sense of closure for people wanting to find the truth instead of just saving their money and walking away. When a man or woman had a suspicion that their partner was cheating, ninety-five percent of the time they were right.
He grabbed the envelope and dropped back into the cushions, rubbing his tight neck. He took out one of the photos. Harley and Patterson were coming out of the bookstore and she was smiling, her eyes bright. He wondered what it must be like to be the target of that smile. He also had a feeling she had a good head on her shoulders. How did a woman like her get involved with a man like Reed? Outside of the fact that he was much older, the man didn’t seem to have a warm bone in his body. Harley radiated warmth, passion, and intelligence. How could a cold man satisfy her? Maybe Penn was off track, but he doubted it.
Now, thinking back, why hadn’t he pondered the reason why Harley didn’t appear like she had anything to hide while with Patterson? Most people who were cheating left town to do their dirty work, or would go to great lengths to hide the fact that they were sleeping with someone else, not bring in the ‘lover’ to their place of business.
Maybe she didn’t have anything to hide?
Damn, had he dropped the ball on this case? There were things he could have done differently.
Stop right here. This case was over. He needed to let it go.
But why couldn’t he?
Nothing about the case was any clearer or made any sense. His keen instincts had never steered him wrong.
Okay, maybe Harley and Reed were indeed broken up when the photos were taken. Possibly he just needed proof that she’d moved on so he could have closure. That didn’t make him dangerous. As cold as he was, he seemed on the up and up. SCS had installed Reed Industries security system and had done some background checks on his employees. Nothing alerted Penn that anything was wrong—or that Reed was a crook.
So then why did Penn feel uncomfortable?
He was a good judge of character and nothing seemed strange about Harley. His brain spiraled back to their kiss. It wasn’t much of one really, yet the taste of cherry still lingered on his tongue.
“Yikes. Who would do such a thing?”
Penn brought his chin up, meeting Seneca’s disgusted expression. He realized he still held the picture. “Good question.”
“That’s like the movie I watched recently. The villain sent the pictures as a warning that he was going to chop off the man’s head.” She shivered dramatically.
Clearing his throat, he dropped the picture back in the envelope. He had no desire to talk about chopped off heads. “Now, where were we?”
Seneca’s expression softened as she climbed atop his lap, settling her knees on either side of his hips. Her large breasts with pale pink nipples were at his face level. So why wasn’t he diving in? She bent and rolled her tongue around his ear lobe, nibbling the flesh. “I brought a sex toy I’d like to try,” she whispered.
He’d always appreciated her openness for adventure in bed. Just why wasn’t his body getting hard? Aching for release?
She planted her palms against his chest, grinding her inner thighs against his cock, and Penn’s mind conjured an image of Harley’s shapely body pressed against his, how good she’d felt. How she smelled and tasted.
Seneca wrapped her hand around his semi-flaccid erection and she purred in delight. “Oh, a challenge. I love challenges.” She started to move downward and he caught her gently by the shoulders.
“I have some bad news.” Besides the fact that my body isn’t responding normally.
She looked up at him, her crimson lips lowered into a child-like frown. “What?”
“I have a job.”
“That’s exactly what I planned to do.” She giggled and started to move again, but he caught her. Her gaze narrowed. “This. Is. Getting old.”
“I meant, I have an investigation job I have to take on tonight.” Damn, he’d lost his mind.
“But you invited me here.” She sat up, her bottom lip protruding. “I drove all of the way here expecting to see you, to spend the night.” Her eyes turned sad. He had a feeling she used that expression like a weapon to get her way. Somehow it irked him instead of easing his guilt.
“I’m sorry. I really am, but it’s something that just came up.”
There was a long hesitation as if she needed to wrap her brain around his words and then she scooted from his lap. Her expression twisted. “Would this job be another woman?” She tilted her hip.
She stomped across the room, bending to pick something up from the floor. When she returned, she held out her hand showing him the diamond earring. “You might want to give her back her jewelry.”
He took the earring that looked oddly tiny in his large palm. How did women have that uncanny skill at seeing everything and anything?
She was grabbing her purse and starting for the door.
Penn stood, reaching for the blanket to cover up for the second time in the last half hour. “Seneca, it isn’t like that. Job isn’t metaphoric for sex.”
The door slammed as the last word dropped from his lips. A part of him wanted to go after her and convince her of the truth, but what would he say? She’d want him to stay, but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t be worth a damn until he looked into Harley’s accusations further.
Harley drove off the Second Chances Ranch feeling no better than she did when she arrived. Sure, it had been a crazy, impulsive action to come here to see the man who’d intruded on her life. What she hadn’t expected was for Penn Jericho to welcome her with such an enthusiastic greeting. Of course, he wasn’t expecting her, but still, she hadn’t been kissed like that since…well…ever. It had surprised her that the action happened, but also because she felt something in her core, enough to make her toes curl.
She reached up and touched her fingertips lightly to her lips, still swollen and warm like the feeling in her nipples. She gave her head a quick shake, slightly embarrassed at the rush of sensation in her body. Why didn’t she push him away? Smack his face? Instead, for a whimsical second, she’d pressed against his broad, bare chest, lingering in his muscled arms, inhaling his virile scent of leather and musk. When he’d rubbed his erection on her stomach, she’d been overcome with the desire to wrap her arms around his neck and let things happen—just go with human nature. She wasn’t desperate by any sense of the word, but it had been long enough for her that she missed intimacy.
For heaven’s sake. This wasn’t a safe train of thought.
Her intentions to rant to Penn about ‘stalking’ her hadn’t quite worked out exactly as planned. She’d wanted to give him a piece of her mind, and had instead given him a piece of her tongue.
Ugh. She was angry with him. Disgusted that he aided Marshall in his sinister activities. It didn’t matter that Penn was tall, toned and had the most amazing eyes she’d ever seen—not to mention a smile that could knock a woman’s panties off. Or that he had the biggest shaft she’d ever had the pleasure of seeing. Sweat beaded between her breasts and she pressed the button to the AC, hoping for some relief from the heat building between her inner thighs. She’d heard rumors about the Jericho brothers and their physiques through her employee, Jodi, and they were true.
Harley didn’t give one hoot how ‘long’ and ‘thick’ Penn Jericho was or that his kiss was magical. All the Jericho cowboys had a name and it wasn’t for sainthood, although they were highly respected among the townspeople. She’d had her fair share of egotistical, obnoxious men for a lifetime.
Yet, why did she ask Penn for his services? His PI services and not what he could offer with his muscled body. Asking him hadn’t been her intent, but the words had developed on her tongue before she could erase them. Probably because she had his taste and touch desensitizing her logic. Fairly, it wasn’t everyday a woman had a naked man greeting her at the door, then kissing her passionately.
Well, he’d said ‘no’ to her request, which was probably best that he hadn’t agreed to help her. That danger was eliminated. Being near him for any length of time would certainly lead to more kisses. No reason to lie to herself. He irritated and excited her all at the same time.
She was left with the same issue. Marshall. She didn’t trust him. How did an intelligent, clever, confident woman allow a spider to slip into her world? Her mother had warned her about men like him, how they could charm the pants off a statue. Marshall had been charming, true, but he hadn’t ‘charmed’ her pants off. That’s where she’d drawn the line. Not that he hadn’t asked her to sleep with him, but she’d stuck by the desire to take things slow.
Marshall had come into her bookstore, Between the Lines, looking for a rare John le Carre book. She didn’t have that particular edition, but she’d helped and found him one. The second time he’d come in, he’d asked her to dinner and she accepted. Surprisingly, they had a lot in common. He loved literature. In fact, he had a library inside of his luxurious apartment that could make a librarian salivate. He appreciated rare art and had an amazing collection. She found she could talk to him about things that mattered to her.
What should have been one date and that was all, turned into a yearlong relationship and her accepting his offer and investment to help bring her dreams to fruition. Three years ago, after receiving the trust fund from her mother’s death, Harley had added that amount to all the money she’d saved from waiting tables and decided to take the leap of a lifetime. She’d researched and found the bookstore up for sale in Colton, Texas—a small, quaint town with around three-thousand people. The area had a good number of tourists because of the events it offered, especially rodeos, held at the county fairgrounds. They’d recently commissioned a motorcycle rodeo that had brought more business to the region, including concerts with popular country singers.
She’d realized taking over the store would be a challenge, but she’d understood that to make it work she needed to modernize things, but her money was depleted after she’d signed the title. That’s where Marshall had stepped in. He’d been interested in her desire to turn the store into a café where people could sit, drink coffee, munch on treats, and read for hours. He’d also liked the idea of getting the first crack at rare edition books, and Harley and her contacts could do that for him.
Harley had wanted to set a monthly payback schedule, but Marshall had brushed off the request. Instead, he’d asked her to sign a contract, calling it a “friendly gesture”. His attorney had explained the stipulations to her, and she understood and signed the legal document.
Three months after the loan, things took a downhill spiral in her relationship with Marshall. His attitude had become volatile and he seemed wrapped up in his business. When she told him that she could no longer tolerate his behavior, he’d lost his head, telling her, “Read the contract you signed, sweetheart. Leave me and the loan is due in full.”
Later, he’d offered her a deal to buy the store, and she’d refused. She’d also been blocked from selling the business to anyone else. His attorney had handed her a legal judgement that stated she had one year to pay Marshall what she owed him.
She’d realized how foolish she’d been. His attorney had failed to mention the underlying conditions in the contract. And she’d trusted Marshall. Big mistake.
Other things had been happening too—things on a personal level. She had been receiving hang ups from unknown numbers. Always feeling as if she was being watched. Seeing shadows on the street. Even at times going home and having a gut feeling that someone had been inside her house. She couldn’t prove Marshall was behind any of these things, but she believed he was just the type of person that when he didn’t get his way, he made it known.
Then recently came the pictures on her front step. It only took a phone call to Charlene, Marshall’s secretary, who Harley had been close friends with, to find out that he’d hired Penn Jericho to ‘watch’ her. The pictures disgusted her, making it look as if she and Ray Patterson were romantically involved, when that wasn’t the case. Ray had wanted more from her, even catching her at a vulnerable time in her life, but she’d made it clear that she wasn’t interested.
What would Penn think of the altered photos? Did she really think it would change anything? Probably not, but in her desire for justification, she wanted him to see…what?
How good she kissed…?
She shook her head.
Her phone rang just as she parked on the street in front of the bookstore. Seeing the number on the screen, she hesitated, but she hadn’t spoken to her father in weeks. She finally hit ‘talk’ and brought the phone to her ear. “Hi, Dad.”
“Harley, I tried calling earlier, but you didn’t answer.”
“I was a bit tied up.” Being kissed by a naked cowboy, Dad.
“Monique’s birthday is next week. Can I look forward to you coming for the party?”
She immediately tensed. “I’ll be busy. Business has been booming.”
His sigh vibrated the line. “She’s your mother, Harley.”
She had to bite her tongue to keep from spouting a few choice words. Once upon a time she could be guilted into falling for his words, but she’d grown a steel wall. She took a deep, relaxing breath before she spoke, “Monique is not my mother.”
“She was there for you growing up. Can’t you at least respect her?”
Something broke within her and she couldn’t restrain the anger that demanded to be heard. “When will you see things for what they are? She was never there for me.”
“No. Please don’t defend her. You worked all the time and didn’t see how she treated me. Until you’re willing to see my point, I can no longer discuss this subject with you.”
“I don’t want things to be like this.”
So many things came to her, but she knew he wasn’t ready to hear her. “I’ve got to go now.” She hung up, looking through a veil of unshed tears where a mother and daughter were crossing the street. They were holding hands and the little girl was skipping happily. Harley’s heart panged as it always did when she saw a scene like this. Although her mom, Hannah, had been gone for many years, there wasn’t a day that passed when Harley didn’t think of the happier times. All her memories were that of a ten-year-old, and certainly she had forgotten a lot of things, but what never faded was the love her mother gave. She had a beautiful voice and had been in lead roles in theater. That was how Harley’s father met Monique. She and Hannah had been friends and in plays together. Monique was like Hannah in having a melodic voice, but that was where the similarities ended. Monique had always made Harley stay in her room while social events were happening downstairs, even a Christmas gathering with family. Not to mention, she was always hushed when she attempted to speak. She’d often wondered if Monique had hated her step-daughter because she was a constant reminder of Hannah, and how she’d been a bright star before she’d passed too early in life.
Pushing her thoughts aside, she left her car and stepped inside of the store. Jodi was wiping down the counter. Her blonde hair was pulled into a messy bun and she wore a colorful dress that she probably made herself. Harley realized she’d hit the jackpot when she’d hired the woman who was loyal to a fault. “Looks like you have everything finished. I’m sorry I’m late.”
Jodi lifted her chin and smiled. “I didn’t expect you back.”
“You seemed pretty bummed when you left earlier.”
Harley nodded. “I did it.”
“You actually went to his house?” Jodi stopped wiping the counter and tossed the towel to the side.
Harley dropped down into one of the overstuffed, flowered chairs and dropped her keys on the side table where several books were laid out. “I can’t believe I did it. I showed up at Penn Jericho’s house. Why didn’t you convince me how crazy the idea was?”
“Sorry, darlin’. I’m not one to talk someone out of doing something that she was bound and determined to do. That’s pretty ballsy.” Jodi grabbed the last cupcake from the glass case, poured the remaining coffee and handed both to Harley. “Your favorite, my dear. Vanilla Bean Supreme. We sold out before nine o’clock and that one was calling your name so I held it back for you in case you returned tonight.”
“How’d you know I’d need calories?”
Jodi shrugged. “What are best friends for? Tell me how it went.”
Harley bit into the cloud of fluffy, buttercream frosting and rich, moist cake, licking her lips to get every last crumble. “Best decision ever to start selling Dinah’s baked goods here. These are fantastic. And to answer your question, not as I intended.”
“I called the bakery and placed the order you wanted. Three dozen each of vanilla, chocolate, and hazelnut cupcakes. Another three dozen of fresh croissants. The delivery person also brought the turkey, salami, and buns to make sandwiches. I can stop and grab condiments on my way home. We’re almost out of mayo. Did Penn speak to you?” Jodi sat down in the closest chair.
Connecting the words ‘buns and Penn’ made Harley remember just how good his looked. “This is going to sound crazy, Jodi, but listen before you freak out. Promise?” With the other woman’s nod, Harley sighed. “I kissed him.” She watched several expressions flit across her friend’s face before settling on one of confusion.
“You kissed him?”
“Well, actually, he kissed me, but I couldn’t help myself. It felt nice.” In every part of my body.
“Okay. I’m lost.” Jodi tucked her sandaled feet up under her bottom, easing into the large chair. “You were supposed to go there and let some steam off. Show him the pictures. Prove a point. Maybe it wasn’t how you planned your visit, but sounds like things turned out pretty darn good.”
“I should have pushed him away, but his lips were so soft. His scent was exotic. And he was naked.” She bit into her cupcake and it melted in her mouth. Jodi tapped the corner of her lips and Harley laughed as she swiped away a dollop of frosting from her own.
“He was naked? Okay…I’m really confused now. And envious.”
Shrugging, Harley groaned. “He was expecting someone else. Some woman by the name of Saucy. Some nickname.” Seconds passed and finally Jodi burst into laughter. “I’m glad you find this funny.” Harley stared.
“Sorry, hun, but this is hilarious. You spent all afternoon giving yourself a pep-talk into following through, and you end up getting kissed from a naked man—not only a naked man, but a Jericho. Do you realize how many women would line up at his front door if they knew there was a possibility of this happening? The cowboy would never get any rest.” She waved her face dramatically.
“I don’t know. How many?”
Jodi shook her head in disappointment. “I often wonder how you’ve gone so long in your life without following current events. The Jericho brothers. The most wanted bachelors in Texas. Every one of them is better looking than the last. You’ve been in this town long enough to see them on occasion, although they don’t come around often.”
“I don’t have time for that stuff.” Harley got up, started to throw her half-eaten cupcake away, but thought better of it. She popped it into her mouth. “I have a business to run here,” she said around her mouthful of cake.
“Honey, when will you let me take you out? It’s not good for you to be holed up here, day in and day out. Seriously. Do this for me.”
“I’m not your charity case, and I don’t want to go to clubs. I know I’m not cool and I’m fine with that.”
Jody shrugged as if to change the subject. “So, the big question is, how does the man kiss? And what does he look like under his clothes?”
Harley concentrated on cleaning out the coffee maker and prepping it for the next day. “I’m not going to talk about this.” She couldn’t without getting all bothered again. “The fact is and remains, he was wrong by infringing upon my privacy and taking pictures, especially for a man like Marshall.”
“Sweetie, that’s Penn’s job. What part of private investigator do you not get?”
She turned and leaned against the edge of the counter. “What gives anyone, even a PI, the right to invade someone’s life? If he’d done research before he took the job, he would have seen that Marshall is just a disgruntled man.”
“Hey look, I’m not defending the guy. I’m on your side. I only worry about Marshall and his intentions for this place. You know he’s hoping you’ll cave.”
“No, my dear. He wants you to come back to him.”
“Why? He’s moved on with a blonde who has boobs that reside in two different zip codes.”
Jodi cleared her throat. “Babes, have you checked yourself out in a mirror lately?”
Harley pulled out her shirt and glanced down at her breasts. “Nope, their address is thirty-six C and they haven’t earned their own zip code.” She laughed.
“Although they are ample and perky, that’s not what I’m referring to. You’re a beautiful, smart woman. You’re probably the first female that Marshall has spent any time with who has read a book. Oh, unless you want to consider porn magazines as reading.”
Harley rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I get that he wants me to repay the loan immediately, but I don’t understand the pictures. The hang ups. And anything else he’s doing.”
“Have you thought of asking your dad for a loan?”
Harley’s stomach turned. “No.”
“Okay. I’m sorry I mentioned it.” Jodi held up her hands in defense. “I know that is a bad idea. Heard from him lately?”
“Just earlier. He wants me to show my respect for Monique by attending her birthday party.”
Harley lifted a shoulder and let it drop. “I’d rather have my privates waxed every day for a month than spend time with her snooty friends.”
“I’m sorry, Harley. I wish I could help. If I had anything in my savings I would give it to you. I shouldn’t have convinced you to go out with Marshall a second time. I-I just had no idea…”
Stepping over to Jodi, Harley patted her shoulder. “If I didn’t see the warning signs, how would you? I was the one who said yes. I’m usually a good judge of character, but on occasion people are manipulators.”
“You know I have your back. Anything you need, I’m there. I’ll follow him. I’ll sleep over at your house. You can sleep at mine.”
“You don’t have the space at your place.” Harley chuckled. “No sleeping at my house. That’d mean I’d have to deal with Carlos’s snoring.” Carlos was Jodi’s boyfriend. Harley loved the man, but he snored loud enough to wake up the neighbors. She wasn’t sure how Jodi managed to sleep through the noise.
“Hey, Carlos might be loud, but he has your back too. And he’s pretty handy with his tools.” Harley moaned. Jodi chuckled. “Hey, dirty girl. I’m referring to his plumbing tools. A plumber who doesn’t show crack and is that handy with pipes is a keeper.” She wagged her brows.
“I’m happy for you, but I also know how loud you two are behind closed doors. I’ll pass.”
“Alright. Probably for the best because I bought new lingerie I’d liked to try out tonight.”
Feeling her cheeks warm, Harley waved a hand through the air. “Why don’t you go home and let me finish up here?”
“Are you sure?”
“Go now before I change my mind.” Harley shooed her off.
When things were chaotic in her life, nothing soothed her better than being alone in her favorite place. Her bookstore. She situated herself in the comfortable chair and picked up one of the books from the table. Pride & Prejudice.