“Dear Santa, Save yourself the trip and skip my house this year. I’ve decided to join the naughty list instead.”
Grit your teeth and grin at all the fake concern about to head your way. Ashley Hughes made sure to plaster her brightest smile across her face as she followed her sister into Hurricane Harry’s.
The best local bar in La Colina, Harry’s was known for terrific live music and boasted over one-hundred beers on tap. Once upon a time, it had been one of her favorite hangouts. Tonight, however, the location for her sister’s bachelorette party became a source of hours of personal torture. A tax audit for the mob would be more fun.
No. Wait. The Christmas date auction her mother had signed her up for tomorrow might qualify as worse, if that were possible. She had come home for the holidays and her sister’s wedding… to Ashley’s ex. Granted, she’d been the one to break things off and even give them her blessing. Shouldn’t that be enough? Her qualification for sainthood should be in the bag with this situation. Why add cruel and unusual to the mix?
I shouldn’t have put this off so long.
Two years since she’d been home. Or at least, since anyone other than family had seen her. At least she looked good. As the maid of honor, she’d planned the party and had sexy black tank tops made up with sparkly red text that read “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” with “Taylor’s Last Ride” and the date underneath. Each lady paired her matching top with various sexy bottoms, mostly tight jeans. And all wore red heels to complete the ensemble.
Ashley had opted for a black velvet miniskirt, which barely covered her backside, but also had shorts built in underneath. Dancing at Harry’s meant two-stepping and a Texas version of the jitterbug, which required the shorts, or she’d be flashing her red lace undies all night. She wanted to prove to people she was fine, not get slobbered on by some drunk cowboy with plans for a romantic one-hour-stand in the back of his pickup.
An insidious little voice whispered that maybe she wasn’t fine. Ashley flicked the devil on her shoulder off. Taylor might be marrying Eric, but Ashley had been the one to see the connection between them. She’d been the one to give her permission. And, after her first year in Dallas, she could say for certain that she was over him. Even then, Taylor and Eric had needed more time, so Ashley had continued to remain in Dallas for another year. Two years alone. Two years away from her family.
She’d been certain about the breakup with Eric being the right move within the first few months. The problem was, no one else in their small Texas town believed that.
Which meant gossip. Ugh.
She’d taken the ostrich’s example and had been burying her head in the sandy hole of work up until tonight. Except, already she could feel the homesickness creeping in. But she’d made her choices. Mostly she just didn’t want to deal with the whispers and stares.
She pulled her shoulders back. Fine or not, she intended to give a damn good show for the folks at home.
She’d curled her long, dark hair, pinning the sides back from her face and applied dramatic makeup with a practiced hand. Her shoes were pure Dallas, three-inch stilettos and sparkly enough to satisfy any wicked witches out there. Too bad she couldn’t click her heels and make the public spectacle of this particular homecoming visit end.
Dutifully, she followed Taylor as they wound their way through the crowded room to a booth Ashley had reserved for their party. Even the bar was decorated for Christmas, if in a haphazard fashion. Strands of various mismatched Christmas lights had been draped all over the walls, and a Santa hat had been placed atop Bucky the mechanical bull’s head.
“What can I get you ladies?” A bartender approached the table and yelled over the din and the music. She recognized Bud, a guy who’d been several years ahead of her in school and inherited the bar from his dad a few years back.
Ashley caught his eye. “Tequila shots to start.” She handed him her credit card. “Keep the tab open.”
He gave her a salute with the card. “Yes, ma’am.”
“That’s too much,” Taylor protested.
Ashley wrapped an arm around her sister and hugged her close, a pang of regret twanging through her when Taylor tensed at the contact. The past years had done a number on their relationship, and hopefully someday that would get better. Ashely was determined it would, but they needed time. After the wedding, after things settled to normal. Maybe then she could find a way home.
So, she pretended not to notice the tension. “Not for my twin. You only get to do this once. Don’t worry about the expense. Tonight is on me and the girls.” The other ladies nodded.
Taylor bit her lip uncertainly, so Ashley leaned closer. “Don’t worry. My new job pays well.”
Plus, it turned out that when you had no life, you spent no money. Go figure.
Taylor loosened up, finally, giving Ashley a squeeze back. “Thank you.”
In short order, they downed their shots and men appeared and took each girl away for a dance. After pretending to enjoy a turn around the floor with one of them, Ashley checked their booth, which stood empty, their shot glasses littering the tabletop. Rather than sit there by herself as cowboy bait, she headed to the bar. “Hey, Bud. Can I have the IPA?”
“You got it.”
“Ashley Hughes?” a female voice squealed from her right.
Here it comes. “Mandy Walker!” Ashley could do the bubbly girl thing when required. “It’s been ages. How are you?”
The blonde valedictorian of their senior class held up her left hand sporting an obnoxiously large diamond. “Married.”
“Let me guess? Jason Hubbard?” The two had been high school sweethearts, so figuring that one out didn’t exactly require a PhD.
Mandy laughed. “Who else?”
“You look fantastic. Marriage must agree with you.”
“You look great, too.” Mandy sobered and Ashley braced herself for what she suspected was coming. “Although I expected this to be your bachelorette party.” A concerned light dulled Mandy’s green eyes and her pouty pink lips turned down. “How are you handling Taylor marrying Eric?”
I’m fine with the marriage thing. It’s the rest of my life thing that’s still a mystery.
Ashley pretended not to notice the downshift in mood, holding on to her bubbly facade. “I’m thrilled for them. They make each other so happy.” Both were true statements. The problem was no one seemed inclined to believe her about the first bit, likely made worse by her conspicuous absence all this time. Her own fault. That and a nasty bout of bronchitis.
Mandy, sweet but not the brightest bulb in the box with social cues, didn’t take the hint. “But you must be disappointed. Everyone expected you and Eric to marry. When they announced their engagement last summer, it was such a shock.”
To everyone except Ashley.
“Things were over between me and Eric long before then.” A glance across the room revealed a glowing Taylor. She’d never seen her sister so incandescently happy.
Mandy patted her arm. “Of course, honey. Way to stay strong.”
Ashley idly wondered if a bullhorn might get the message through. But, while the mental image of blowing back Mandy’s over-teased hairdo with the sound filled Ashley with wicked satisfaction, she decided against it.
Where would she find a bullhorn in a bar anyway?
Besides, a long time ago, she’d come to the conclusion that the louder one defended themselves against small-town gossip, the more people talked. Luckily, Bud chose that moment to hand her an ice-cold glass of beer. She tipped it toward the other woman. “See you around, Mandy.”
Seeking a quick escape, she spun away only to smack into a wall of muscle, her beer sloshing all over her hand.
“Sorry.” Ashley stumbled back into the bar. Muttering, she shook off her hand, and checked her outfit hadn’t suffered any damage. Satisfied she’d survived, she directed her gaze up, way up, into amused instantly recognizable blue eyes bracketed by laugh lines. Familiar eyes. The Hill family were practically identified by their eyes.
“Oh, no. Not you.” She groaned. Apparently, Lady Luck had completely abandoned her tonight.
She could deal with the stares, the pretend sympathy, and the unavoidable small-town speculation from nearly everyone else, but not from Jennings Hill. He saw too much and pushed too hard, and she wasn’t ready for that.
If anything, his teasing grin grew, casting her a careless kind of challenge she’d always found irresistible, even when they were kids. “Nice to see you too, Hughes.”
“It’s Ashley.” Not that he’d ever listened before. He’d called her by her last name for ten years. She waved her free hand as if shooing away an annoying fly. “Why don’t you go away?”
“How about a dance?”
“Did someone drop you as a baby?” Okay. Low blow. His dad had done that and still felt awful about it.
To her consternation, he plucked the beer out of her hand to set it on the bar. “Watch this for her, Bud?”
“Hey!” Ashley protested the arrogant move only to be ignored.
The bartender gave him the head nod guys used. “You got it, Jennings.”
Ignoring her grumble of protest, Jennings grabbed her hand, his ranch roughened skin warming hers, and led her to the dance floor. A slow two-step started and he pulled her into his arms. An uneasy awareness slid through her—an unwanted reaction she didn’t need right now.
Nope. Nope. Nope. I am not slow dancing with Jennings Hill.
She pulled back. “Let’s wait for the next song.”
He tugged Ashley closer, wrapping one arm around her waist and taking her hand. The beer soaked one, so, great, now he’d think she had sweaty-palm-syndrome.
He showed no sign of noticing as he started them moving. “This song is fine.”
“Why don’t you ask one of the other girls to dance?” She gestured toward the booth where several of the bachelorette party sat. “The blonde is easy. She should be just your type.”
He perked up and glanced over. “Really?”
She snorted. “Nope.”
Jennings grinned, mischief dancing in his eyes as his gaze returned to her. “Dang. And I was about to leave you all alone in the middle of the dance floor and go get her number.”
I wouldn’t put it past him.
Mostly just to mess with her. Though he’d never had a shortage of girls interested in him. All through school, his brother, Autry, was the bigger player, but Jennings was no slouch. According to rumor, that phenomenon had only increased as the promise of the man he would become was realized, and with Autry off the market now, that was probably even more true. Even Ashley couldn’t deny the appeal—especially with the languid music washing over them, his hand warm and firm at her back, and the subtle scent of his aftershave winding around her—though she tried darn hard to ignore all that.
The last thing she needed was to notice Jennings Hill as a man. Not given the situation. Not when her self-confidence was down around her ankles.
He cocked his head. “You still mad at me, Hughes? I thought we made up the last time we saw each other.”
Ashley hid a wince behind a sigh. “You were nice to me for about a second that New Year’s, Hill—”
The dimple in his chin deepened as he grinned. “So, you thought that was nice, too?”
No way in hell was she talking about a certain kiss. “That doesn’t make up for years of being a jerk.”
He grimaced. “Jerk is a bit strong—”
“Oh?” she interrupted, hiding a deeper sadness behind irritation. “You were my best friend, Jennings. But the second I got a boyfriend, you wanted nothing to do with me. When you did bother to talk to me—” She paused and shook her head.
No way would she admit how hurt she’d been at his behavior. Water under the bridge or over the levee, or whatever.
“Don’t take out your disappointment with your life choices on me. I wasn’t that bad.”
Discontent sat familiar and unwanted inside her. There he went again. She gritted her teeth. He thought he’d call her on her emotional limbo, did he? Well, the guy could stand a few home truths himself. “Do you remember our junior year in high school when you called me Eric’s groupie?”
He huffed a small laugh. “I’d forgotten—”
“Then later that year I believe you told me my rose-colored glasses were causing permanent blindness. Then, at the start of senior year when I quit Math Club, you asked if I’d lost all my brain cells. That a smart woman wouldn’t make every decision based on what her boyfriend did. Implying, of course, I was a stupid lemming.”
Jennings’s wince didn’t stop her, as the memories of every insult, every criticism through the years, came spilling out—a surprisingly cathartic experience.
“I think my favorite was at the end of senior year when you asked what school I was attending.”
“You don’t have to—”
“When I told you I wasn’t going to Rice, I believe you said I was a hopeless case, hell bent on ruining my life for a guy.”
Under her hand, his shoulders rose and fell in a silent sigh.
He placed his lips close to her ear. “When you put it like that, all together, I do sound like a total jerk. I’m sorry, Hughes.”
Ashley shivered as his warm breath caressed her ear and tried not to soften under what had been a contrite apology. Jennings must’ve had too much to drink or something. He’d never once apologized or admitted to any wrong doing.
She didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with this. Not now. She pulled her shoulders back and said nothing.
His chuckle rumbled against her chest. “Bah humbug. Is that it?”
No. Part of her wouldn’t mind having her old friend back. But given how wrong she’d been about Eric, trusting herself to get it right was not possible. When she didn’t respond, his jaw hardened, the teasing expression replaced by one of irritation. “If I were you, and I knew why the person had said all those things, I might forgive him.”
She frowned up at him. “What reasons could you possibly have had?”
An emotion she couldn’t quite place shadowed his eyes. “That’s a discussion for another time and not in a loud bar.”
Jennings adjusted his grip and Ashley found herself held even closer against his body—lean and hard from years of working on High Hill, his family’s ranch. Why’d he have to smell so dang good anyway? Nothing special, soap and aftershave and man, but delicious on him. Despite herself, Ashley’s heartbeat picked up speed.
She’d never denied Jennings easily qualified as one of the best-looking men in La Colina county. How could he not, with his perpetually disheveled dark hair, teasing blue eyes, and cowboy-strong body? Hell, his entire family fit that description. All named after country singers. Family friends, though not as much after Jennings and Ashley had fallen out. Up until two years ago, though, she’d never had eyes for anyone but her boyfriend, Eric.
Right until that awful, life-altering moment when she’d finally seen how Eric and Taylor connected on a level she’d never had with him.
Ashley blinked, pushing the memory from her head and focusing on the man still moving her around the dance floor in a sultry slide. Jennings looked particularly trouble-inducing tonight in tight jeans and a black button down rolled up at the sleeves—so maybe she had had a tiny bit of a thing for his forearms in school. Why? No clue. Something about his lean strength, which had only matured with age, like a fine wine. The man defined the word capable, with his picture in the dictionary next to the term and everything.
Awareness fizzed through her as those strong arms gathered her even closer now.
Her body ignored her command.
“So, Taylor and Eric, huh?” he murmured, breaking into her mental debate with her body.
Rather than anger, defeat dragged at her shoulders. “Don’t you start with me, too. I don’t need any more of your opinions. I left the guy, didn’t I?”
He raised his eyebrows. “What did I say?”
Jennings played up the wounded bit, using his intense, deep blue eyes so well she almost believed him. Ashley sighed. Might as well get this over with. Although, of everyone from her hometown, he was the least likely to take her at her word. “Yes, I’m happy for them. No, I don’t miss Eric. Yes, they’re a great couple. Yes, I’m thrilled to be the maid of honor at their wedding. No, he and I never discussed marriage.” Not once in eight years, but he’d proposed to her sister in less than two. What did that make Ashley? “Yes, I moved on. No, it wasn’t a surprise to me. Any other questions?”
“Thrilled, huh?” He studied her quietly until she wanted to glance away or shift uncomfortably. Not that she’d give him the satisfaction.
She stuck to her guns and smiled. “Yes, thrilled.”
Jennings had always seen past the “I have my shit together” image she liked the world to see. A fact that had made them close friends once upon a time, and bitter foes for longer than she cared to acknowledge.
The friendship she still missed. The constant barbed comments, not so much.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he finally murmured.
Ashley blinked. He was letting her get away with that? No prodding her to own up to her mixed up emotional state? No lectures about how he’d seen this coming?
“You’ve got enough speculation aimed your way, Ash. You don’t need it from me.”
Damn the guy could read minds. “I’m surprised you’re passing up on the opportunity to rile me,” she sniped.
That dimple teased her as his gaze slipped from her eyes to her lips. “I wouldn’t say that.”
She tried not to squirm at the unwelcome heat that lit inside her.
“I hear you’re a high-powered accountant in Dallas now,” he said.
Ashley took a second to catch up with the change in topic. While she’d been struggling with an unaccustomed wave of lust, apparently he’d been thinking of something polite to say, which put her firmly in her place.
She cleared her throat. “Yes.”
“You always were good at math.”
She shrugged. “Numbers make sense to me.” More than people did most of the time.
He used to tease her about it when they were kids, calling her a nerd and a weirdo. Only then, it hadn’t bothered her because he’d said all those things with affection, maybe even a small amount of respect.
He squeezed her hand. “I know.”
Ashley eyed him suspiciously, waiting for the zinger.
Jennings raised his eyebrows. “How long are you in town?”
Okay. Maybe he had changed? “Not long. I go home after the New Year.” Too bad life didn’t come with a fast-forward button, because she’d totally be using it.
Jennings cleared his throat, suddenly seeming a bit… uncertain. Very un-Jennings-like. “Do you think…”
What on earth could have him so hesitant? In the middle of a bar? “What?”
He spun them in a tight series of circles “Do you think you might be able to squeeze in time to take a look at the ranch finances?”
Again, she needed to catch up. Was that why he wanted to dance with her? Disappointment sat heavy in her stomach. “You mean as an accountant?”
His lips kicked up at the corner. “No, as a dinosaur herder.”
She ignored his sarcasm as wheels engaged in her mind. “Don’t you have an accountant?”
“Yeah.” He shrugged broad shoulders and her hand at his neck brushed against his hair, soft and silky against her fingertips. Distracting.
“Then what do you need me for?”
He glanced around, as if checking for eavesdroppers, then leaned in to whisper in her ear. “I’m afraid I’ve stumbled on a case of fraud with our current bookkeeper. I’d like a second opinion.”
His warm breath tickled her neck now, and a quiver of reaction shimmied down her spine as he drew back.
This is Jennings Hill. Reminding her body of that fact had zero effect though.
“I’ll pay you for your time, of course,” Jennings interrupted her mental battle.
Ashley bit the inside of her lip. Fraud could be tricky to prove. In these parts, where everyone knew everyone else, getting an outside opinion would mean going to a costly accountant far away. Besides, she didn’t like the thought of anyone being taken advantage of. Especially Jennings’s family. The Hills had been like a second family to her once upon a time.
However, helping Jennings also meant spending time more time with him. As if this holiday wasn’t hard enough to begin with.
“You’re lucky I have a good heart, Jennings Hill,” she groused.
He chuckled, and the warm sound tripped her heart into overdrive again. What the heck was with her tonight? It had to be the wedding-homecoming one-two punch she was grappling with. At the same time, dealing with Jennings was better than dealing with all the wedding stuff, and Sunday loomed unscheduled for her.
She sighed, already regretting what she was about to say. “Does Sunday work for you?”
His eyes lit up, but he remained serious for once, nodding slowly. “I can make it work. Noon?”
“I’ll double-check with Taylor and let you know.”
The song ended, changing to a faster two-step, and she extricated herself from his arms, happier than she should’ve been to gain some space. He let go without protest, but still escorted her back to the booth, his hand at the small of her back taking every ounce of her focus.
“Who’s your friend?” Lacy, one of Taylor’s college roommates, eyed Jennings like the last piece of chocolate in a candy story.
Teeth gritted, Ashley introduced him to Lacy and Molly, Taylor’s other roommate. All the other bridesmaids were from around here, so they already knew him. They wouldn’t mind some alone time with him either if the drooling and attention-seeking comments were anything to go by. Yup. Those rumors about Jennings being the last Hill standing and the ungettable get in town were proving to be valid.
Not surprisingly, he asked Lacy to dance—coincidentally the blonde Ashley had told him was easy, not that she was. Although the conspiratorial wink he shot Ashley as they walked away said he’d followed her train of thought all the way to the station.
Not funny. Except she had to keep her mouth from twitching.
The accompanying pang in her gut definitely was not jealously. It has to be annoyance. Forcing her gaze away, she grinned at the ladies still at the table. Taylor watched her with a speculative light in her eyes.
She pasted a bright smile to her lips. “Another round of shots, girls?”