"Good Lord, give me strength. Please keep the local firefighters away from me. Keep me out of the path of hardened abs and tall men in uniform, for they are bastards, one and all. Amen."
This had been Juliet Baker's prayer as she drove into her hometown of Riverbend, after being away for half a year. Now, as she steered her old green Jeep down Main Street, past the fire hall, she uttered it again.
It was hard enough returning home after six months in Europe, never mind having to face Kevin. Her first instinct as she cruised past the fire hall was to duck, but then the familiar anger resurfaced, and she sat up straight.
"Let him see me," she muttered. "I'm not running anymore."
Her fingers wanted to grip the wheel, spin the Jeep around, and head somewhere else. Anywhere else. But her bravado, false as it felt, kept her driving through town.
She was relieved once she made it down Main Street, relieved none of the firefighters had been loitering outside the hall. She knew she'd run into them at some point, but didn't relish a confrontation on her first day back.
Jules continued her drive into town, noting the decrepit sign announcing, "Riverbend. Population 10,000. Don't forget to stoop and scoop!" The picture of the little squatting, cartoon dog never failed to make her smile, and she felt herself relax a bit more.
"You did it," she encouraged herself. "You've made it this far. Seeing Kevin again will be a breeze."
Yeah, right, her inner voice countered. And about as pleasurable as setting yourself on fire.
She pulled into the local gas station to wipe off the dirty Jeep windows. As she reached for the squeegee, she heard a familiar voice. "Juliet Baker! Is that you, or has Audrey Hepburn just swung into town?"
She turned and her eyes crinkled with pleasure as she spied old Mr. Mitchell hobbling toward her. He had to be ninety, if he was a day, but he still single-handedly ran the town's most frequented gas station. He was a fixture in Riverbend, and she'd known him all her life.
"Hey, Mr. Mitchell. I'm back." She gave the old man a light embrace, as if anything stronger would crush him.
"Sunshine, you get prettier each time I see you. If I were sixty years younger, you'd be in trouble." He gave her cheek a pinch of affection. "What's it been, half a year?"
"Sounds about right, Mr. M." Almost exactly six months to the day. The first thirty days of which had been excruciating, with the following weeks finding her vacillating between numbness, spurts of anger and a determination to start over.
"You gonna live on the farm?"
"If by farm, you mean my new bed and breakfast, then yes. At least, that's the plan."
His cloudy eyes disappeared into his wrinkled folds as his face broke into a huge grin. "Good. Your father'd be happy to know you're keeping the old place, reviving it."
She replaced the squeegee in its holder and wiped her hands on her khaki shorts. "Yeah. Don't ask me how I'm going to do it. It'll be hard by myself, but I'm nothing if not determined."
"You always have been. Hey, what about that older sister of yours?"
"Claire?" Jules' eyes popped. "Lord, no! She's too busy with her family. I can't ask her to help me with washing linens and cleaning other people's messes. Her youngest ones are barely out of diapers."
Mr. Mitchell blew his nose in a yellowed handkerchief, as if to register his feelings on dirty diapers.
"And anyway," she continued, "Claire's already helped me out. She's convinced me to take on a boarder. It'll be extra income, which I can really use right now. She hooked me up with someone she knows. I'm expecting him tonight, so I have a whole bunch of scrubbing to do before he gets in."
Mr. Mitchell raised a skeptical white eyebrow at the mention of a boarder. "Well, it's good you're making a go of it, for your parents' sakes. But you be careful around this boarder. There are a lot of mashers out there. If you need anything, you just call me."
"Thanks." She placed a hand on his thin arm and gave him a little squeeze. The image of infirm Mr. Mitchell coming to her rescue, should the boarder turn out to be a linebacker-sized, leering maniac, was enough to make her split her side. In truth though, the idea of a boarder made her nervous too, but it was the best way to help manage the bills that would invariably follow the renovations she wanted to do. Short of selling her body, which was not an option, it was easy money.
"Boy, if your folks could only see you," Mr. Mitchell said, bringing her back to reality. "They were good people, your mom and dad. Don't you forget, Juliet. They're missed around here."
"I miss 'em too." The familiar vice-like grip tightened around her heart, the same feeling she got each time she remembered her parents. She changed the subject before her grief swept her away completely. "How about you, Mr. M.? How are you?"
He shrugged the shrug of someone who'd long since given up on pondering those kinds of questions. "Oh, you know me. If I'm breathin', it's a good day." He turned to a young, red-haired man who was hanging back at the gas station door. "Gary! Come on out! You remember my grandson, don'tcha Juliet? He's staying with Gladys and me for a while. You used to babysit him."
Gary blushed through his shy smile as he approached. "You taught me how to bake cookies and helped me with my fifth grade science project."
Jules grinned as she fiddled with the cap to her gas tank. "You're right. How are you?" As Gary stumbled for words, an idea hit her. "Hey, I could use some help with odd jobs around the farm, Gary. You're welcome to come by if your grandpa's not working you too hard."
"That's real nice of you, Juliet," Mr. Mitchell answered for the boy. "I'll send him around."
Before Gary could do more than blush again and nod, their attention was diverted by the sound of a hurting, but determined, muffler. They all watched as an old pick-up truck pulled into the gas station lot. As she pulled out the nozzle, Jules checked out the driver. And then she did a double take.
Driving the pick-up was the most scrumptious specimen of manhood she'd ever seen. He was tall and buff and had windblown blond hair. And, she noticed as her tongue dried out, he wasn't wearing a shirt. As the truck approached, she could make out the clear definition of his pecs, the muscular shoulders and arms. And as he parked his truck next to her Jeep, she took note of a strong jaw, full lips and hair that kept falling into his eyes. Tom Brady at his finest could not have looked so fine.
Jules tried very hard to pick up her jaw and not drip gas on her shoes.
Somehow, she managed to insert the nozzle into her tank and watched as Mr. Mitchell headed over to speak to the man. She'd never seen him before. There was no way he was from Riverbend. She knew everyone in town and would never have forgotten someone so ... edible.
Not that she cared. She was through with men. They no longer had anything to do with her master plan. If she wanted her B&B to be a success, she couldn't spend her time drooling.
The stranger jumped out of his truck and his eyes landed on Jules. He grinned at her and nodded, but his brown eyes narrowed, as if her appearance annoyed him in some way. Feeling flushed, and a little annoyed herself, she gave him a curt, little nod and tried to concentrate on pumping gas.
The half-naked muscle man laughed at something Mr. Mitchell said, then spoke. "I don't suppose you sell drinks in your store. I could murder a root beer right now."
His voice was soft and deep. Upon hearing him, Jules felt a low throbbing in her belly, a clenching of her womb.
Oh my God. What is going on here?
Mr. Mitchell motioned to his grandson. "Gary, fetch the man a root beer." And then he said something else, but she didn't hear it.
She was too busy watching a lone bead of sweat as it trickled slowly between the stranger's pecs. She dragged her eyes back up to his handsome face, only to find him staring at her. Grinning. His eyes knowing and seductive.
She felt her face combust, a veritable explosion of scarlet.
Mr. Mitchell's lips were moving again, even though she barely registered his words at first. "Where are my manners? I should introduce you two young people."
Feeling a sudden, overwhelming need to escape, Jules laughed nervously and got back into her Jeep. "Sorry, Mr. Mitchell. I'm late. Gotta run! Bye!"
And then, not knowing why and feeling the eyes of the blond man on her back, she fled the gas station. It was rude, she knew, but she didn't want to know the gorgeous man's name. Didn't want Mr. Mitchell introducing her to the county's next young stud. She had just made up her mind men were not going to be a part of her life. Certainly not such a hot commodity.
The stranger with the sinful bod was a prescription for heartache. Just as Kevin had been. It was best to give men like him a very wide berth.
So he might think she was a little flighty, possibly abrupt. If it helped her keep her sanity, it was worth it. What did she care what Thor thought of her anyway?
Her mind made up, and her behavior rationalized, she headed for home.
Shane Gaskill stared, confused and inexplicably miffed, at the Jeep carrying the smoking hot brunette away. The one who had just brushed him off. The one who had blasted away from an introduction to him like a rude, little fireball.
And he wondered why he was so pissed about it. Why should he care anyway?
He certainly didn't come to this town looking for lust wrapped in a curvy package of female deliciousness. Sure, he'd looked twice at her. In fact, he'd had a good, long look at her.
He'd seen her look at him, too. She liked what she saw.
It didn't matter. He was in no mind to chase surly women, even ones as annoyingly mouth-watering as the gas station brunette. Which was why, when Mr. Mitchell tried to say something else about her, Shane changed the subject.
It was best to keep some things a mystery.
A few moments later, he jumped into his beat-up truck and pulled out of the gas station, happy to have escaped with his life. He didn't think old Mr. Mitchell was ever going to let him leave. Once he found out Shane was to be the town's new fire captain, he set about regaling him with all manner of fire-related stories from the last fifty years. Shane shook his head with a laugh, and brushed away the hair that kept falling into his eyes. He might be a newcomer to town, but after hearing Mr. Mitchell he felt he was on intimate terms with Riverbend already.
Shane popped the top on his can of root beer and took a long swig. It was hot, even for August, and he wiped at the beads of sweat on his brow. Tempting as it was, he resisted the urge to keep his shirt off and drive topless to his new home. He quickly threw on the T-shirt he had stashed next to him. He was the fire captain, after all, and driving shirtless might not make the right impression on Riverbend's townsfolk.
It was probably also not the proper way to greet his new landlady.
"Don't want to scare the old girl," he joked, smiling to himself.
He started up his old truck and reviewed the directions Mr. Mitchell had given him to the Baker farm. They seemed simple enough. Straight through town on the main street, turn right at the train tracks and continue down Fourth Line. The Baker farm was apparently at the end of the street.
Shane shielded his light brown eyes against the sun, as he headed through town. It was fortunate he had heard about the sudden vacancy at the Baker farm. Good thing he'd run into that nice woman Claire at the town hall. She'd assured him the farm was exactly the sort of home he wanted: some character, near town but not too near, and not a cold apartment building. Whatever it was, it was available at a reasonable rate and saved him a lot of house hunting.
Still, he couldn't help wondering what it would be like. "Probably a doily on every possible surface," he murmured. "The landlady probably knits her own clothes and has a curfew of eight p.m."
For a moment, he considered driving back to the little motel which had been his home for the past couple of weeks, but decided against it.
He hadn't met Ms. Juliet Baker, and he had been impressed all their negotiations had been conducted via e-mail. For an old girl, she was progressive.
"How many old women even have a computer?" he wondered aloud for the tenth time.
He wasn't sure he was sold on living in this stranger's house, but he was willing to give it a try. It would most likely be a very quiet existence, which was what he was hoping for. After all the emotional upheaval of the last few years, he craved some solitude and quiet. Living with a nice, old lady was probably just the ticket. If it ended up being too much solitude, he could always find a new place.
From a distance, he spied the farm and was pleasantly surprised. It was huge, so big he'd likely never run into Ms. Baker at all. It was a nice-looking house too, with all those bright shutters and large windows. In fact, it was the sort of house you might see on a real estate poster, the sort of place you'd dream of settling down in.
Shane remembered a conversation he'd once had with Alana. They had briefly discussed buying a place like the Baker farmhouse. In fact, he had suggested it, but Alana had pooh-poohed the idea. She had never really been one for country living. She much preferred their cramped house in town...
Of course, that was another time and place.
With a deep breath and his eyes focused on the dirt road ahead, Shane relegated all thoughts of Alana to the closed, back compartment in his mind.
It was time to start over.
"It's time to meet ole Ms. Baker."