Love is always a gamble…
Oak Groves’ most beloved bachelor, Jett Avery, lives by a simple set of rules. Getting involved with a complicated woman isn’t one of them. He learned that the hard way two years ago when he spent one of the most incredible nights of his life with Nikki Logan. But then she hightailed it out of town, never to be seen again–until now. It might be time to break one of those rules…
Picking up the pieces of her life, Nikki is back in Oak Groves, face to face with the one man she’s done her best to forget. But she has her reasons for being here–and they don’t include winding up in bed with Jett. Especially since he’ll never forgive her once he finds out the truth about why she’s back…
Nikki loosened her grip on the steering wheel and lifted her sunglasses to wipe the sweat from under her eyes. It was hot. And not just middle-of-the-summer-sticky-hot, but driving-across-the-largest-state-in-the-union, with-no-AC, middle-of-a-heat-wave hot.
At least her car stereo worked. Well, it had before the station faded out and the twangy sounds of Allen Jackson crackled in. She hated country music—too predictable. It reminded her of that bad joke: what does a country song sound like played backward? A man singing I got my dog back, got my house back, got my wife back.
Nikki pressed the scan button, and then in disgust turned the whole thing off. Before she’d made the trip, she’d had the option to either tune-up her 130,000-mile Toyota or get a new stereo. She’d chosen the latter. At the time, driving over a thousand miles across the grand state of Texas, with nothing but the bugs on her windshield and the crazy thoughts in her head, were enough for her to put down the cold, hard cash for a radio. Now, as she obsessively watched the gas gauge drop and the temperature gauge rise, she started to question her decision.
Not as if questioning herself was anything new. Her father used to tell her he’d never seen a person get stuck between a rock and a two-headed snake quicker than Nikki. Life had a way of beating her down. Life had a special way of treating a Logan.
She’d graduated from college; at least she had that going for her. That still didn’t make what she had to do any less distasteful. She was going back to her hometown, Grove Oaks. The one place she’d never really belonged. The place she’d run away from, in the middle of the night, without saying goodbye. Nikki had done better in the bigger city, where no one had known her past, her family, or her reputation. Anonymity had been a good thing.
She’d burned a lot of bridges when she’d left Grove Oaks. Set them afire and then turned her back. In retrospect, not her best decision.
A Logan never owes.
Or at least that was what her brother Cole had always said. Worked his fingers to the bone on the ranch he’d inherited when their parents died, to make sure that was true. But Nikki wasn’t like Cole. She’d never been that noble. Hence, Nikki owed. And this debt she couldn’t dismiss, couldn’t walk away from. There was red in her ledger, and it was time to go into the black.
So back she went to the town with narrow streets and even narrower minds, with nothing more than a red hatchback full of dirty clothes and a freshly printed diploma certifying she was competent enough to be someone’s accountant.
Nikki checked the passing mile marker and guessed at how much farther her tank of gas would get her. With less than twelve dollars in her wallet and enough change rolling around in her cup holder to buy a drive-thru taco, she had cut this trip close.
Twenty miles to next exit.
Yeah, maybe a bit too close. The next miles were only populated by jackrabbits and cactus. Her only contact with civilization was the mobile phone lying on the seat next to her. Of course, said phone was dead, courtesy of the phone company wanting over three months back payment before restoring service. But 9-1-1 was still free, right?
Nikki smoothed her now wet hair off her forehead, and plucked at her white tank top. The toothpick-like gauge on her dashboard rose a bit and hovered just below the red zone. Nikki sighed, then threw the heater on full blast to prevent the car from overheating. Sweat dripped down the hollow space between her breasts like an abandoned Popsicle in the sun. Nikki blew hot breath down her shirt as her car continued to eat up the double white lines that stretched across the pavement. It seemed as if she’d been chasing those parallel lines and snaking blacktop for so long, only to come back to the place she’d started—home.
Home was the wide-open spaces of south Texas. The same open spaces she’d felt closing in on her when she’d left.
Nikki watched the car ornament hanging from her rearview mirror spray colorful prisms of light across her dashboard as if on some high-speed chase.
When will you be done chasing rainbows, Nikki darling?
Her mother had always had a way with words.
I’m done, Momma. No more rainbows for me.
Yep, she was done, especially since the only rainbows left in her life were the ones that came from a dull, dusty crystal swinging from her rearview mirror.
Jett opened the door to the diner and breathed in deep at the rush of AC, the coolness a sweet reprieve from the thick humidity that sucked at the lungs and drained a person’s desire to even roll out of bed in the morning. Of course, some people wouldn’t consider one o’clock in the afternoon to still be morning. But it was hard to dredge up desire to see the eastern sunrise when he’d only made it home at half past two the previous night.
He took off his hat and hooked his sunglasses to his already dampened shirt. His eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside and made out the regulars who considered Hal’s Eats their place for breakfast or lunch, depending on who was asking. Not that Hal even owned the place—hadn’t since he’d been a kid—but that was the way it was in Grove Oaks—nothing changed.
“Hey, Jett,” called an older man, whose dark-rimmed glasses stood out in contrast to the steel wool of his hair. He waved Jett over to his table. “Did you see that game last night?”
Jett threw up his hand to stop the conversation. “Nope, Jim, and don’t you dare tell me. Didn’t get to see the game, but I have the sports section right here.” He patted the folded paper under his arm. “I’m going to read it over coffee and my omelet.”
“Okay,” Jim chuckled. “I won’t ruin it for you.”
With a smile and a handshake, Jett turned and made his way toward his booth in the back, stopping along the way to greet some of the other patrons, his brother-in-law, the school board president, and a long time neighbor. Jett hung his hat on the rack. Out of habit, he ran his hand across the polished table. Not that Greg, the current owner, didn’t run a shipshape place, but Jett liked the reassurance. One could never be too careful.
“Hi-ya, sweet cakes,” said Ginger in a sugar-laced Texas drawl.
Jett sat and threw his best smile of the day to the tightly teased, slightly blue haired waitress, whose smile pushed her skin into thin rows of wrinkles. “Ah, Ginger.”
She sighed heavily. “You keep saying my name like that and I’m gonna start thinking you’re serious about wanting me to throw over old Ted and run away with you.” The creases in the corner of her eyes did nothing to detract from their sparkle as she threw him a saucy wink.
“Name the time and the day, Ginger, and I’m there.” He threw her wink right back at her.
“You just like me because I make the best coffee.”
“Fresh?” He nodded toward the coffee pot in her hands.
“For you always, sweet cakes,” she said as she juggled his rolled silverware, cup and coffee pot with the ease only years of waitressing could bring.
Jett had grown up in Grove Oaks, never had any desire to live anywhere else. There was a reason he made his home away from the glitz and noise of the big city. He might schmooze with the movers and shakers of the political scene, all part of being a senator’s son, but that didn’t mean he had to sleep in the same town as they did. A man needed a place where he could enjoy the small things in life—a cool star-lit evening, a long slow kiss, a good cup of coffee the way it was supposed to be—no fufu cream and sugar— just black.
Ginger poured him a cup, and he took a sip. “Perfect as always.”
She exhaled a loud humph, but smiled anyway. “Greg saw you come in and has your breakfast already started.” She nodded toward the folded newspaper. “What a game, huh?”
“Ginger, hush that pretty mouth of yours. Don’t be ruining it for me, now.”
“Have it your way.” Ginger arched her penciled-in eyebrow and sashayed away with that fast walk of hers, filling up two customers along the way.
Jett smoothed out the paper and scanned the headlines for last night’s Rangers game.
“Just the man I was looking for,” said a deep voice from over his head.
Was it really so hard for him to read his paper in peace? But Jett was careful to school his features before he looked up. Public opinion mattered, and as his dad always said, treat every year like it was election year.
“Mayor.” Jett lifted his cup in greeting as the bigger man squeezed into the booth opposite him, causing the table to shift to accommodate a belly grown large on bacon, and Jett was sure, significant amounts of barley hops.
“I wasn’t sure you’d be around this weekend. I’ve heard you’ve been flying to Vegas on your father’s business.”
The trips to Vegas hadn’t been for his father, they’d been personal. But there comes a time when you have to cut your loses. Jett shook his head. “I’m not returning to Vegas anytime soon.”
“Good. Good,” the mayor said. “I’ve been hearing some real fine things about what you and your family are doing for this town. Stepping in and saving the Boys and Girls Club after the budget cuts was real good of you.” The bigger man wiped at his flushed face, pushing his comb-over back in place.
Jett nodded and smiled. Jett’s mother had wanted the donation to go to the town’s Rotary Club, but Jett had a soft spot for lost kids. Besides, there was no way this conversation was about the Boys and Girls Club, but images had to be maintained and pleasantries kept up. Such was politics. “I’m glad you approved, Mayor. My family is all about doing the best for GroveOaks.”
“Good. Good. Glad to hear that.” He bobbed his head in a brisk manner, causing the loose flesh around his face to jiggle. “Because I wanted to ask for a favor.”
Don’t they all. Jett caught Ginger’s eye as she walked over with his breakfast. He raised a finger, indicating to hold off a moment. To her credit, the older waitress didn’t bat an eye, but turned and placed his plate under the orange heat lamps.
Jett took a sip of coffee to hide his sigh. “I’m in no position to grant favors, Carl. That’s what my father was elected to do.”
His family might have been in politics for years, but for Jett the family left a sour taste in his mouth—too many late night deals and rich-man-handshakes for Jett to have kept his belief in the system. Politics were messy, and he liked to keep his life simple.
“I need access to the big charity event this weekend.”
“Barking up the wrong tree, Mayor. I don’t run those events. I just show up with a tux and a smile.” There were only a few requirements to keeping his father, and Jett’s trust fund, happy. The charming of senators and, more importantly their wives, at parties wasn’t too high a price to pay for a life of luxury and leisure.
“But you usually show up with a pretty girl on your arm. Beth’s been asking about you.”
“Beth?” But Jett knew whom Carl was referring to. The mayor’s daughter was a man-eater on two legs. She was smart, gorgeous, flawless, and blonde, with designer handbags that always matched her shoes. She would make the perfect socialite wife. The only thing was that she made Jett nervous. He had it on good authority she’d eat her young to step up to the next rung on the society latter.
Jett smiled, but only with his lips. “I’m sure Beth could get her own date to the event. Isn’t she with, what’s his name, that oilman?”
Jett knew exactly who Beth was dating—Senator Roberts, who was three times Beth’s age and married, but if her father could forget that little detail, then Jett guessed he could also.
Carl smiled. And that was the thing about Carl. When he smiled, a person saw their brother, their best friend, the neighbor across the street. Carl had the “I’m a regular Joe” so down that Jett sometimes forgot he was talking to a politician.
Something he should never forget.
Jett had learned that to survive without the devil making claims on his soul, he had to live by a simple set of rules: Only date one woman at a time and leave the married ones alone, never mix whiskey and tequila, fishing on Sunday morning was the closest any man could get to God, and never, ever, make an enemy out of a person who’d one day make a very good ally.
It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have the mayor owe him a favor; one never knew when a mayor’s kind word or sudden look in another direction would come in handy.
But hell if he’d walk into this agreement blindly. The big man wanted more than a date for his daughter, and Jett didn’t give away favors that easy. “There’s an unsaid but at the end of that sentence, Carl. Just not sure when you’re gonna get around to saying it.”
Carl nodded. It wasn’t his fault he looked like a bull; he was just built that way. Jett knew he had a neck somewhere beneath the folds of his chin and width of his shoulders. He just wasn’t sure anyone had ever seen it. “Old Harry has been bugging me for years to retire. I need to fill the sheriff’s position and was hoping an Avery could help me out.”
“Not sure my dad would give up a seat in the senate to become a sheriff.”
Carl smiled. “I was thinking more along the lines of his son.”
Jett suddenly lost interest in the conversation, his mind flashing on eggs growing cold and wheat toast going soggy. “I’ve no interest in running for office. Especially one that makes a man work so hard.”
But there must’ve been something in the way Jett delivered his “no” that had Carl doubting him. “All I’m asking is that you take Beth to the event. Listen to what she has to say. I have a knack for backing the winning horse, and I have a good feeling about you. Didn’t I say your daddy would win?”
Not waiting for an answer, the mayor slid himself off the bench as Jett lifted his coffee.
“This is gonna work out, you’ll see. Beth makes a mean banana-nut bread. I’ll tell her to drop some off at your place.” Carl hitched the wide belt buckle back up around his waist.
Jett sighed, not as optimistic as Carl. But Beth, thank goodness, had the look of her mother, making Carl’s strong-arming a bit easier to take.
With a pat on the back, Carl swaggered down the aisle and out of the diner.
Ginger hurried over with Jett’s breakfast. “Sorry, sweet cakes, I would’ve gotten Greg to make you another, but we got caught in the lunch rush.”
“Not a problem.” Cold eggs he could handle. Carl he could handle. And he sure as hell could handle Beth. There was a rule to dating women like her—hands off. No sense getting saddled with a paternity suit and court-mandated DNA testing. He’d heard of women rummaging through the hotel trash for used condoms the morning after. At one time he never would’ve been so cynical, but not anymore. Everyone wanted something.
No, he’d just take her out, keep things non-committal, and eat her banana-nut bread. He’d heard it was good, just never had the pleasure.
He bit into his once perfect egg-white omelet, now a bit dried out. The front door chimed, and from years of assessing people across both party lines, he looked up.
His fork stilled mid-path to mouth.
Unfortunately, it took him a full moment to close his jaw, swallow, and reverse his fork back to the plate. No one noticed. Everyone else was staring at the door to the diner. Or more accurately, at the person who’d breezed through like she owned the place.
Nikki Logan. Or at least a devil who sure looked a lot like Nikki. Jet-black hair streaked with copper highlights, with bangs long enough for her to blow out of her face—which she did, making him remember another completely inappropriate gesture. White tank top damp across her skin, a shadow of a black bra beneath, jean cut-offs riding low around her waist, and strong tan legs that looked ready to run a mile or squeeze a man to death.
Of course, she had a reputation for both.
Nikki dropped a duffel bag by her feet and whipped some incredibly big Hollywood-like glasses off her face. He watched her scan the star-struck crowd. All over the diner, cups were stilled, forks with fluffy eggs were suspended mid-mouth, and not a single click of a plate or clatter of a cash register broke the lull.
White trash, immoral, loose, and sexy as hell—Jett had heard them all in regard to Nikki. And he was sure she was seeing those accusations all over again in the stares of the town’s people. But to Nikki’s credit, she unabashedly smiled and nodded to every pair of eyes as she looked around the room.
“My car broke down.” She tossed her head in a perfected starlet move that he’d bet his father’s elected position she’d practiced. “I was hoping for some help.”
The silence continued. Jett considered himself a southern gentleman to the core, but even he didn’t immediately jump to her rescue as he would’ve for any other female. And he should’ve. She was his best friend’s sister; he owed Cole at least that much.
But things were never clear-cut when it came to Nikki, and there was a part of him that believed revenge was best served cold. Even if it had taken him over two years to see the fruition.
His life was clean. His life was neat. And even if he agreed with the term “car-stopper” in regard to Nikki, he had no room in his life for a walking train wreck.
Yeah, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that Nikki squirmed a bit, because he’d had first-hand experience with her and could add another adjective to the long list after her name.
Nikki, a bona fide, certifiable…heartbreaker.