RELEASE DATE: January 3, 2017
“You know what your problem is?”
Apple Woodman smiled victoriously, glad she’d finally come close enough to Jake Stone for him to hear her from across the short stretch of sun-drenched sidewalk that now separated them in downtown Fortune, Colorado. Shuffling the bag of produce she’d just purchased during her usual after work shopping from the local Co-op, she settled the fabric straps on her shoulder and frowned at his broad, muscular back. Not that she was noticing that it was muscular or anything. “You’re not a nice person.”
There, she’d finally said it. That had been floating around inside her for weeks.
Wow, she felt so much better.
“Well that hurts my feelings.” The man had the gall to say with a blatantly fake hurt puppy expression on his handsome face.
“You know, if it weren’t against everything I’d been raised to believe in how a person conducted themselves, I’d kick you in the shins so hard right now, Jake.” Annoyance flooded Apple. Most of it was directed at the most aggravating male in the entire known universe. Probably in a few unknown galaxies, as well.
The man had mad skills when it came to driving women bat-shit crazy.
She should know. Jake Stone had been under her skin and scrambling her brains since before the last ice age. Once, just once, she’d like to have all her mental faculties fully functioning in his presence long enough to tell him exactly what she’d thought of him since kindergarten.
Or well, mostly everything.
No way would she ever admit that the there was a tiny little bit of her that was currently also annoyed at herself for considering him “handsome”. She should be so over that about him by now.
Turning her attention back to his tall, broad-shouldered form, Apple scrunched her nose against the sun and shaded her eyes with a hand just in time to see the unrighteous gleam in his eye as he taunted, “I dare you to even try that, woman. Here, I’ll even hold one for you to kick.” He raised a jean-clad leg and waggled his shin slowly at her. When she could only scowl at him because she was stuck somewhere between flabbergasted and infuriated, instead of making some fabulously pithy comeback, Jake must have taken that as a sign of defeat because a low rumble of humor came from him and he smirked, dropping his leg back down. “You couldn’t hurt a hornet if it stung you on your ass, sweetheart.”
“You don’t know that.” Apple instantly defended, dropping her hand, frowning at him. She conveniently ignored the fact that he’d just called her “sweetheart” and the responding quiver that had darted through her lower abdomen, and mentally forced herself to stay on track. It wasn’t easy.
Back to the point: simply because they’d known each other since forever didn’t mean he actually knew her. Not one single bit. If there’d been a time that she might have wished differently, that time was long past. Like, ancient as the Indus Valley past.
There was only one thing she wanted from him now—and it was purely business. One hundred percent. So on the up-and-up platonic end of things that it was beyond vanilla.
And the damned man wasn’t cooperating. Hadn’t even budged.
Which was ridiculous. It was vanilla, for crissake. Who would be afraid of that?
Jake raked a hand through his hair recently cut hair (still jarring) and sighed, his brown eyes oddly dark and restless on her before they slid away. “You’re wrong there, Apple.” His gruff voice held an edge she didn’t understand anymore than that look he’d just given her. Still, both had a shiver running across her shoulders and darting down her back. When it settled at the base of her spine and started to heat her there, she nearly gasped.
“Nice haircut, by the way.” Was the only retort she could come up with. Lame, but what else could she expect? He had a way of reducing her to juvenile, brainless behavior.
It wasn’t flattering.
“You like it?” He shot her a grin and winked, his eyes dancing with sudden humor. Angsty one minute, amused the next. She swore that man shifted moods faster than the Colorado weather. “Thought it was time for a change.”
Apple couldn’t help it. She snorted. Right out loud on Main Street with pedestrians strolling by. “Hah! Since when do you do change?” He might not know her from a hole in the wall, but she for sure knew him. Change was a dirty word in his vocabulary. For example, simply look at the women he dated. They were all exactly the same—and had been since his first girlfriend, Scarlet Floozie from way back in junior high school (Apple’s name for her. Not her actual name).
That thought had her frown deepening and something stirring uncomfortably in her stomach, throwing her further off-balance. Like she wasn’t always half sideways around him anyway, with this new proclamation of his she was nearly ready to keel over. It wasn’t fair.
Why couldn’t he just do what she wanted so she could stop harassing him? Stalking wasn’t her most flattering behavior. But darn it, the blasted man had reduced her to it. Hunting him down at every turn had become necessity.
It wouldn’t be if he’d stop holding what she needed hostage.
Jake braced his long, heavily muscled legs and crossed his arms, his biceps flexing in a rather flattering, masculine way—she supposed. She’d barely noticed. Her eyes were firmly glued to his head where the ponytail he’d worn for the past twenty years had been. Now his sun-bleached light brown hair was a lush, tousled mass that stopped just short of his shirt collar. She had to admit that it was a little shocking to see him with the short hair. If she’d thought his features rugged before, the new haircut made them even more so.
His brown eyes were locked on her, his expression unreadable. “You’d be surprised by what I can do, Apple. You’ve always underestimated me.”
“That’s because I know you.”
“Well now, that’s not nice. My feelings are back to being hurt.”
Which was a total lie. She could see his lips twitching at the corners. “I’ve been nice to you my whole life, Jake. It’s only the past four months that I’ve turned into some crazy lady. But you’ve forced me to it. You know this book contract is incredibly important to me. I can’t finish the history of Fortune without your input—what you know about your family who founded this town.” Now she was getting all riled up again. Grabbing the fabric straps of her reusable grocery bag, she hitched it back onto her shoulder in a jerky motion. “And you absolutely know that being a published writer is my dream, so it’s killing me that you won’t just sit down and talk to me. What’s so damn secretive about ancestors from a hundred and fifty years ago that you can’t share? Seriously!”
He opened his mouth to reply, face stubble glinting ancient gold in the sunlight, and then snapped it shut again. Didn’t utter a sound.
“Tell me, please.” Her voice sounded pleading even to her own years. Ouch, this was demeaning. Begging Jake to talk to her. Jesus. Most women begged him for sex. To which he readily accepted—she’d witnessed more than her fair share of exchanges over the past few months. Ever since she’d taken up residence pretty much every night in the corner booth of his brewpub hoping to wear him down by her sheer presence alone. She was nothing if not persistent. Especially when it came to achieving her dreams.
“Why can’t you finish your biography for your fancy publishing house without me? It seems to me that the town librarian ought to be able to research enough to figure it out on her own.” He honestly looked perplexed. She’d give him that.
So, like she was explaining this to an elementary school student, Apple took a breath and said in her patience librarian voice, “Because, dear Jake, I’ve looked through every public record at City Hall already, as well as searched through every old periodical still at the library. I’ve scoured the Internet. I’ve interviewed every other person whose family traced back to the second wave of Fortune’s settlers. I’ve played amateur sleuth on my own and tried to dig up any crumb of useful information about the first wave of settlers. Who, just so happen to be your family. And you and your dad are the only one’s left I have to talk to.” Belatedly she realized how insensitive that might have come across and quickly added, “I’m so sorry about your grandfather.”
Jake braced his legs further apart and shot her a look full of consternation. “You don’t have to keep apologizing, Apple. He’s been gone for a while now.”
Her shoulders slumped a little. “I know, but I still miss him. He had the best stories.”
His firm, full lips tipped into a slight grin and she smiled back, the two of them sharing a moment of remembrance for Harvey Stone, prospector and storyteller extraordinaire. Jake’s tone was soft when he said, “Remember that one he loved to tell about the gold rush of seventy-two, and the bear who stole his stash of gold?”
Her eyes lit up and she giggled. “You mean the bear that had escaped from the circus and had been caught and trained by thieving prospectors to raid other camps for nuggets?”
“That’s the one.” He replied, his slight grin blooming into a full-on smile.
She laughed outright and then had a thought. Tipping her head to the side she pondered out loud, “Do you ever wonder how many of those stories were actually true?”
“Nah. Probably less than half though, if I did have to gauge.” He shrugged when she gave him a quizzical look. “Harvey liked to tell stories. I learned when I was a kid to take them with a grain of salt. Who knows,” he added, “maybe they were true. It would be pretty nuts if they were, because some of that shit was pretty outrageous. But, we’ll never know, so I figure why bother waste time wondering?”
Apple pressed, “Wouldn’t Verle know?”
A veil seemed to drop over him and he closed up tighter than a clamshell, his eyes back to being unreadable where a moment before they been warm with memories. “My dad wouldn’t know anything at all about anything, you know that. Town drunks generally don’t.”
Now she felt bad. She hadn’t meant to upset him. Lips pressed in a firm line, Apple tried to apologize and turn the topic back to what she’d hunted him down for: her book. “I’m sorry to bring him up. But, back to why I stopped you. I’m up against deadline, Jake. I’ve already spent my advance and would really love to not have to pay it back—“
He raised a hand and frowned, stopping her mid-sentence. “Wait, explain to me how your spending habits are my problem?”
Okay, now she was insulted. “My spending habits are just fine.” She had the IRA and retirement plan to prove it. Okay, so she might have to dip into it to pay back the advance back, but . . . “And I would have turned my book in months ago if you’d have sat down and answered my questions about what you know about that first founding party—and you can’t pretend you don’t know, because I know you do—like you’d said you would. So come on, Jake, for once in your freaking life follow through on something you said you’d do.” She clenched her hands into fists and added on a rush of emotion--no thought, “Damn it, just for once commit to something. Commit to me.”
In an instant his face went pale and his eyes went dark. “Excuse me?” Then his whole body seemed to snap like a stretched wire, and he jerked, nearly stammering, “W-what did you just say?”
What had she just said? God her memory was crap. Plus, she had this unladylike quirk of blurting things out without thinking about them—especially when overwhelmed. So what were her last few words again. . . . ? Apple paused and thought for a few seconds.
She started waving her hands in front of her like an umpire calling safe, her head shaking in vehement denial. “No, no, no. I didn’t mean it like that! I just meant . . . oh, you know . . .maybe . . . spend some time with me.” God, now she was just making it worse. Mouth, shut up now.
Apple clamped it shut and promptly bit her lip. Served her right, she thought as she winced from pain. A swollen tongue ought to keep her quiet for a while and out of trouble.
But Jake didn’t answer. He just gave her the oddest look before he stretched his legs and began walking, pulling away from her. His long stride ate up the concrete. Being on the short side of five-three, her legs weren’t equipped to keep up and so he had her breaking into a run to catch up to him again. Not even once had he turned around and looked at her.
But then she caught his profile just right and saw that quick grin. And she knew he’d heard her—even if he was trying hard to pretend like she didn’t exist. For whatever reason, he simply loved to antagonize her.
All her good intentions from ten seconds ago of quietude and being demure flew out the window and she was right back at the beginning feeling irritated and with only one clear thought on her mind.
“Do you hear me, Jake Stone?” Apple planted her feet, rooting herself to the sidewalk under a shady honey locust tree as the past four months of stress and frustration came out at his back in one big rush. “You’re not a nice person!” She ended on a shout, her hands fisted at her sides.
“I beg your pardon!” A balding, elderly man who had been walking by just then spun his head toward her, looking mortified as he leaned on his cane and blinked at her from behind his slipping bifocals.
“Oh, not you, Mr. Parsons!” Reaching out a hand, Apple placed it on his frail shoulder and gave it a quick, reassuring squeeze. “You’re a doll.” She insisted with a smile. God, her stupid mouth sometimes. It was almost like Tourette’s with her.
“I was talking about that big oaf over there,” she said and tipped her head toward Jake as he opened up the door to his establishment and tossed her a wink, his brown eyes sparkling with mischief.
She forgot all about offending Mr. Parsons as she spun on her flats. “I’ll just follow you inside, you know. You can’t get away from me.”
Jake’s collar-length hair shimmered in the September sunlight as he tossed back his head and laughed, the deep sound rumbling in his chest. Then he pulled out a set of keys and jangled them together. “Wanna bet?” He threatened, one brow raised.
Apple narrowed her eyes, her blood beginning to boil. “You wouldn’t dare.” Why was it so frigging hard for him to answer some damned questions?
He smiled then, a slow turn of his lips that transformed his rugged face into something so primal, and so sexually charged that she instantly forgot her own name, her mother’s—and her current address too.
Good Lord, Jake Stone had a smile.
Suddenly feeling a little warm—though she decided to blame it on the temperature which was still hanging around the mid-eighties even though it was nearing dinner time—Apple cleared her throat and tried not to think too much about how dry her mouth had just become. And then she thought about all the time she’d spent agonizing over his lack of cooperation and she realized it was a good thing that he didn’t often bring out his smile in full force like that. It was raw sex on a platter—and it was potent enough to make her want to forgive him every transgression.
Which of course, she couldn’t.
And now she was back to frowning. “I don’t understand you.”
Placing his hand on the edge of the saloon style front door of Two Moons as she approached, he held it open for her and replied, “I’m a simple guy, Apple. There’s not much to understand.”
If he was simple, then she was a runway model. And they both knew that being petite and curvy, she wasn’t exactly the stick figure model type. She was more like the exaggerated cartoon pin-up type. And she was fine with it. The point was that she was at least honest about herself.
Jake clearly lacked objectivity.
Knowing that he was waiting for her, she moved toward him and readjusted her reading glasses as they slid down her nose. “I just wish you would talk to me. Seriously. An hour of your time and then it’s over.”
The moment she brushed past him, her shoulder gently bumped his chest and electricity darted through her body. Stopping cold, Apple looked up at him, her eyes wide. Whoa, what was that?
Jake must have felt something too because his brown eyes narrowed, searching her face, and coming to rest on her lips—which suddenly felt very, very dry. She swallowed hard as her heartbeat sped up and her breathing went shallow. The way he held his focus on her made her squirmy.
There was no way that a man who housed that kind of intensity inside could just be simple.
No way, no how.
“Interesting,” He breathed, his gaze darkening “What have we here?”
“I don’t know.” She whispered back, confused and transfixed at the same time. “What have we here what?” There was no breaking from his gaze. Just. None.
“I’ve wondered about this.” He shifted closer, just a fraction, but it sent fireworks skittering along her skin. She’d never been more aware of another person in her life. His nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply, almost like he was taking in her scent, disseminating it. Feeding off it. “There it is, right there.” His face seemed to grow more tense, his body too. “I can smell it on you.”
“What are you doing?” She squeaked softly. Smell what on her? She’d showered that morning. At least she was pretty sure she had. Right now she couldn’t remember with his big body so close to her, frying all her signals. Still, she was almost positive she didn’t stink.
He didn’t answer, but something seemed to have shifted inside him. He suddenly seemed resolved. About what, she had no idea. But he gave a quick smile of satisfaction and nodded once, decisively.
And of course he didn’t fill her in on what that was about. Nope, he just said in that low, gruff voice of his, “I won’t do your thing for free, Apple. If I give you an hour of my time, it’d better be worth it. Mutually satisfying for us both.” He had a way of speaking that made him sound like he’d just rolled out of bed after a good romp, all relaxed and gravelly--even at five in the afternoon. Still, given him and the fact that he’d been walking to work from somewhere else, that was an actual distinct possibility.
Somehow, right now that didn’t seem to irk her like it usually did. Not when that voice of his was doing funny things to her insides and her brain was scrambled sunny-side up.
Because his gaze was still locked on her mouth, she inhaled a shallow breath and licked her lips self-consciously. “What do I have that you want?” She honestly had no idea.
His eyes flashed and went dark like molten chocolate. “Why would I give you an hour of my time, Apple?” He retorted, avoiding her question entirely.
“Because I’ll make it worth your while?” The words popped right out of her mouth before she had a chance to stop them. Just. Great.
“Oh yeah?” He murmured, his expression just this side of mocking. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s in it for me?” He cocked a brow, clearly waiting to be blown away.
See? This was why having no verbal filter was a problem. Oh, the pickles it got her into.
“Something irresistible?” She finally ventured, her brain empty as a Buddhist temple. “It will be, I promise.”
His lips curled up into a quick, crooked grin so full of naughtiness that heat pooled unexpectedly in her belly and she gasped softly. It just wasn’t fair that such a pain-in-the-butt man could possess so much sex appeal. Not fair at all.
Just then, Jake’s gaze dropped and he glanced at her chest—her rather sizeable double-D chest. “I’m beginning to think it might,” he murmured quietly, almost contemplatively, his tone ripe with appreciation, before he looked away.
But it gave her an idea.
Excitement flooded her and broke the spell. Suddenly confident that she’d discovered a way to make him talk--finally--, Apple shifted and walked into the pub, her vintage sundress swishing around her knees flirtatiously. Barely noticing the brewpub’s patrons or the live band that was playing on the patio, she went straight to the bar without waiting for Jake. She wanted a few seconds to plot and get it straight in her head before blurting out her new proposition.
She was pretty darn sure she was on to something.
Jake joined her at the bar and she took a deep, steadying breath. And then she placed her elbows onto the bar, leaned forward and let her cleavage do the talking.
Of course he did. He was always scowling around her. Earlier had merely been his five-minute reprieve. “Put those away before you hurt someone.”
Now he was sounding downright grumpy too. Huh. Funny thing. “Why would I do that?” She asked and gave her girls a little squeeze with her elbows. He muttered under his breath and scowled some more. Good. “I don’t see anyone here complaining.”
Not that anyone could, really. Her back was to the tables. Jake was the only one who was getting the full display, exactly as she’d intended.
“I’m complaining.” He practically growled, yanked a white bar towel from its holder and began polishing the bar top.
He sounded surly, but Apple knew a secret about Jake, one that she was not at all ashamed to take advantage of now. He’d forced her to it. “Why? Because you’ve been trying to scam a peek at my boobs since I started growing them in sixth grade?” She tipped her head to the side and blinked all big and innocent behind her oversized reading glasses. “Are you feeling sad about that?”
He scoffed at that--after he glanced at her chest again. She totally had him. “Of what? All the cases of blue balls your rack gave me when I was fifteen?”
“What if I offered to make up for all those missed opportunities? All those Spin the Bottles and Sixty Seconds in Heaven that didn’t pan out?”
Jake stopped wiping the bar and pegged her with a look, his dark eyes filled with barely controlled skepticism. “And how would you do that, juicy fruit?” He asked, referencing her childhood nickname—the one he’d given her the year she’d come into her body.
When they were teenagers, he’d been borderline obsessed with her body. And she couldn’t blame him. He hadn’t been the only one. When all the other girls in school had barely been filling A-cups, she’d been rocking her current double-D’s by the time she was fifteen. It still made her laugh to think of all the ways Jake and some of the other boys used to try and “accidently” catch her topless. Her overdeveloped body had been the subject of a lot of attention back then, that was for sure.
Thank God some things did change.
Still, if letting Jake finally see her topless was going to get him to actually open up and tell her what she needed to know about that first settlement in Fortune, then by all means she’d take her shirt off. It was worth it to her.
More to the point, she was that desperate. Because the truth was, he wasn’t all that wrong about her “spending habits”. Not that she was a mess with finances or anything. But she didn’t make that much as the librarian and it had been a hefty advance (to which she’d paid off the last big hunk of her school loans with. Responsible. Appropriate). And now she was out of cash, out of savings—debt free, but still broke. And the penalties for pulling from her IRA were huge, even if she did have enough in it to cover the amount of her advance, which she didn’t. And beyond that, this was her opportunity. Her shot. She couldn’t bear the thought of it dying before it ever really began.
Apple needed to succeed.
Being a published author had always been her dream. And she was this close. She’d be an idiot not to flash him her goods. Only this time he wasn’t offering to pay her his hard-earned summer lawn-mowing job money—and she was no longer such an innocent little good girl. Besides, it was just Jake. They’d known each other since she was three.
Apple took a deep breath. “I’m offering a trade. If you finally tell me what happened to the original founders of Fortune, I’ll show you my breasts.”
Jake laughed at that. “What makes you think I’m still interested?”
“Because you’re a guy.” Apple gave him a level look, unfazed.
He merely shrugged, his broad, defined shoulders moving under his faded green T-shirt. Then he slid her a quick glance “Maybe I am. But you’re going to have to do better than that if you want me talking.”
Suddenly unsure, Apple replied cautiously because one just never knew with Jake, “What else do you want?” And then she thought of everything she’d tried already and felt exasperated all over again, so she added on a frustrated rush, “What’s it going to take to get you to finally spill your family’s story?”
The look he shot her had Apple slowly straightening from the bar, her pulse skittering. She’d never seen that particular gleam in his eye before. It was dark and intense and unreadable. Dangerous even.
She swallowed hard.
Then he placed his elbows on the bar and leaned toward her. He didn’t stop until they were almost nose-to-nose and she could see amber flecks in his chocolate eyes.
“Here’s the deal, all right? If you really want me to talk about my myself, my family—hell, about all my frigging secrets because I know you and you’re too damned nosy and won’t stop with just my ancestors…” He stopped suddenly and took a deep breath, his last words hanging suspended between them. But his gaze held hers steadily as one uncomfortable heartbeat, then two, passed before he continued speaking. This time he was more animated, seemingly building up steam about something.
“Shit, you won’t stop until you’ve taken up permanent residence inside my head and know things about me I don’t even care to understand. Why? Because you’re Apple Woodman and you can’t help yourself. It’s what you’ve always done. And you think caving and fulfilling some outdated PG-13-rated teenage fantasy is going to be all it’ll take to get me singing about stuff I’ve never told anybody?”
He straightened and crossed his arms, his face set in stern lines as he shook his head once—just once—with impact. “Nope. No good. There’s only one thing you can do.” He raised a hand, his long, thick index finger pointed straight in the air.
Apple eyed him warily now as she slowly inched back from the bar, feminine fear racing across her skin. Maybe this wasn’t her brightest idea, after all.
“Oh yeah, what could that be?”
Jake leaned over the bar toward her again and crooked his finger at her, urging her closer. His gaze held hers as he smiled, slow and devastating, and said the words that sent her reeling, “If you want me to talk, juicy fruit, I get to see all of you naked.”