Authors: Susan McBride
Jo nearly tripped as he drew her into the step-down great room with sliding doors that lead to the patio outside.
“Dad’s manning the grill, as always, but everyone else is either drinking something cold or they’re in the pool. You did bring your swimsuit?” he asked as he pushed a glass door wide and led her outside.
“I’m good to go,” Jo promised him, having worn her turquoise Vitamin A halter top and low-rise bottoms underneath her shirt and mini.
Once they’d left behind the quiet interior of the Mediterranean mansion, the noise level rose appreciably. Willie Nelson’s voice twanged loudly, though the buzz of conversation and shouts and splashes from the pool nearly drowned poor Willie out. The immense patio area swelled with bodies: mostly muscular dudes in bathing trunks, rough-housing in the pool or lounging on the sidelines swigging beers—always Shiner Bock in cans, of course, since Big Ray didn’t cotton to glass in the pool area. Even the balcony area swarmed with people. Jo made out Dillon’s mother in a group of women sipping margaritas from pink Lucite glasses, and she gave a little wave.
“Hey, Jo Lynn! Looking
a chorus of boys called out from the shallow end of the pool, and Jo blew them kisses. They grabbed at their hearts and fell backward in the water.
“This way,” Dillon fairly shouted in her ear, and tugged her toward one of the many umbrellaed tables arranged on the patio around the pool. He pulled out a chair for her, giving her no choice but to settle in and put her purse down.
“Can I get you a drink? You know my dad never invites the coaches, so there’s plenty of beer, and Mom’s got pitchers of mojitos and margaritas,” her boyfriend said, poised to take off if she said yes. But she shook her head.
“Just sit with me a minute, okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” He grabbed the next chair, pulling it nearer, and sprawled out beside her. “Nice day for this, huh? And the forecasters predicted rain. Those doughnuts never get it right. Better to just look out the window.”
“It’s a perfect day,” Jo said, reaching over to squeeze his hand. “Looks like the whole team’s present and accounted for.”
“Just about,” Dillon confirmed. “Plus, friends of Mom and Dad’s. Seems like it gets bigger every year.”
“Good thing you’ve got the space.”
Dillon laughed, leaned back in his chair, and stretched out. The sun slanted below the umbrella overhead, catching the blond hair on his chest and legs and turning them gold. “Why do you think Big Ray bought this place? The man likes to party.”
Jo figured it was more like Big Ray needed to impress people now that he didn’t have the cachet of being a pro football player to brag about, which is probably why he bragged so much on Dillon and put such emphasis on Dill becoming someone
“Your pal Avery’s here,” Dillon remarked, and Jo looked around them. “Apparently, he came alone.”
“Yeah, Camie’s pretty frosted about that.”
“I’ll bet she is.”
Without too much trouble, Jo Lynn spotted Avery across the way, sitting on the pool’s edge, his muscular legs dangling in the water, talking to some pretty brunette Jo didn’t
Has he tired of Camie already?
she wondered, eyes narrowing as she watched them flirt, splashing water on each other and laughing. Jo hated the thought of him getting itchy and drifting back to Laura Bell. The cow wasn’t near good enough for him, but Avery didn’t seem to always see what was best for him, which was where Jo came in. Maybe it was time they had another little heart-to-heart chat, so she could remind him how unpleasant things could get when he didn’t listen to her. He surely wouldn’t want the past coming back to haunt him, would he?
As if sensing her eyes on him, Avery lifted his head, looking right in her direction, and Jo stared right back. He raised a can of Shiner in mock salute.
She frowned and turned toward Dillon just as a shadow fell over the table.
“Aha, so she did show up after all,” a hoarse voice twanged, and Jo glanced up to find a very large middle-aged man hovering above her. Gray fuzz covered his head and chest, and a Texas-sized beer belly hung over his swim trunks. “How’s the prettiest gal in Texas?”
“Big Ray!” Jo jumped out of her seat, giving Dillon’s daddy a couple of dramatic air kisses. “You think I’d ever miss one of your barbecues?”
“As long as you’re datin’ this son of mine, you’d better not!” he said, and pulled her into a bear hug, rocking her back and forth, nearly smothering her with his oversized arms. He smelled like hot sauce and grill smoke. “You’re just the kind of young woman my boy needs to keep him on track,” Ray declared as he let Jo Lynn go and patted his son on the back. Dillon looked about as comfortable as a possum crossing the Katy Freeway in rush hour traffic.
“A hotshot blue-chip quarterback should have a knockout
babe on his arm,” Ray Masters stated, scratching his jaw. “Being a total package only makes his value skyrocket, ’cause everyone’s always looking for the next Broadway Joe. These days, it’s as much about your image as your arm.” He slapped Dillon again. “Am I right, or am I right?”
“It’s gotta be right if you say it is,” Dillon dutifully replied.
“Smart-ass.” Ray lovingly cuffed him. Then he rubbed his hands together. “Burgers are almost ready. It’s all Grade A sirloin, darlin’, nothing but the best,” he told Jo, giving her a wink. “Just like you, sweet pea.”
With that, he walked away, greeting others in his path, and Jo heard Dillon let out a held breath.
“Jesus, I think I know how you felt when you were doing all those pageants,” he said, running a hand over his damp hair and shaking his head. “It’s, like, not just about you, is it? What you want and how hard you work to get it doesn’t even come close to the image you project. I feel like I’m under a freaking microscope.”
Jo’s heart tugged at his confession, and she reached out to lay her palm against his cheek. For a second, he leaned into her touch. But instead of something sympathetic coming out of her mouth, she rambled on like an idiot: “I don’t even know who Broadway Joe is. Is he an actor or something?”
Dillon instantly lifted his head, drawing away again. “Are you kidding me? You’ve never heard of Joe Namath?” he asked, sounding miffed. “He’s a Hall of Famer, played QB for the New York Jets most of his career.” When Jo still drew a blank, Dillon pressed on. “He’s the first quarterback to throw more than four thousand yards in a season, for Christ’s sake. Joe’s an effing legend.”
Jo shrugged. She couldn’t have cared less about some old jock who was probably dead by now. What she wanted was to take that fleeting moment of real intimacy between them and make it permanent, like concrete. “I don’t care about Joe What’s-His-Name, Dill, because I have you here right now, and you’ll be a legend, too, one of these days. Like your daddy said, every star needs the perfect woman on his arm. Am I right, or am I right?” she said, only half teasing.
“Big Ray has you well trained,” Dillon remarked, and his mouth curved ever so slightly.
“I think I would like that drink now,” she said, and slipped her shades atop her head so she could look him in the eye. “If you don’t mind fetching one for me.”
“Big Ray would kick my ass if I didn’t.” He slapped his hands on the chair arms. “Be back in five,” he said, and started to rise, but Jo pulled him back down for a second.
“I love you,” she whispered, and leaned forward to kiss him soundly on the lips. He did a good job of responding, even reaching over to give her ass a squeeze as his tongue slipped into her mouth, expertly twisting and twirling around hers. She grabbed his shoulder, holding on tight as she tipped her head, making the kiss even deeper, earning them a shout of “Get a room, Masters!” from the guys at the next table, before Dillon drew away, looking pleased with himself.
“Now I’ll get drinks. Two margaritas, coming up,” he said, trailing a finger across her cheek before he headed off.
Jo Lynn propped her sunglasses back on her nose and watched him walk away, his broad shoulders maneuvering between crowded umbrella-topped tables. He paused to chat and slap a few backs along the way, as was his nature. At that
rate, Jo figured it’d take him fifteen minutes to deliver her margarita. So she might as well put the time to good use, right?
She retrieved her iPhone from her bag and speed-dialed, looking straight across the pool at Avery as he picked up.
“So you’re such a princess you can’t walk around the pool to come talk to me?” he said, waving at her from where he dangled his legs in the water, the brunette, who stuck to his side like fungus, looking pissed off.
“I’m waiting for Dillon to get back with our drinks.” In other words, Jo wasn’t going anywhere. Avery caught on quickly.
“Which means you want me to come to you?”
“Bingo,” she said, and hung up on him, tucking her cell back into her purse.
While she waited for him to ditch the brown-haired babe and wend his way toward her, Jo Lynn shimmied out of her T-shirt, pulling it over her head without disturbing her sunglasses; then she unzipped the mini and slid it down her legs. With only her turquoise bikini strategically covering her body, she settled back in her chair, crossing her legs and tipping her face to the sun. Behind the dark lenses of her shades, she saw Avery approach.
“You summoned?” he said as he plopped into the chair beside her.
“I thought we should chat,” Jo said coolly, noting the subtle dip of his chin, and then she caught her breasts reflected in his sunglasses, the curves barely covered by the small triangles of fabric.
“Chat about … Damn, what the eff?” His gaze dropped to his lap, and he made a face as he fished under his thigh.
“Is this yours?” he asked, pulling a cell from beneath his leg and setting it on the table.
“Thanks,” Jo said, and palmed the phone. It must’ve dropped out of Dillon’s pocket when he got up to leave.
“So, whassup?” Avery prodded, elbows on his knees, leaning forward. His perfectly toned abs rippled above the low-slung waistband of his brown Ed Hardy shorts. He looked even better now than a few years ago when Jo had been dating him. Her gaze strayed down toward his muscled thighs until she saw the skull and heart design on his shorts that read love kills slowly and her smile died.
“Why didn’t you bring Camie?” she said, getting right to the point. “You’re not breaking up with her again, are you, Av? Do you need me to remind you of why she’s right for you, as opposed to”—she hesitated and lowered her voice—“less desirable girls.”
“Less desirable, huh? According to the Gospel of Jo Lynn.” Avery’s smile tightened, and he tugged at his earlobe. “Maybe it’s time I figured out what I want all by myself. Maybe who I want isn’t who you want for me. You can’t hold the past over my head forever.”
Oh, can’t I? Jo
Lynn’s whole body tensed. “If you go back to Laura, I swear to God, I’ll—”
She stopped herself, and it was a good thing she did. Avery’s square jaw tensed, his eyes darkening to black.
Jo frowned at him. “Nothing.”
“Right.” He shook his head and stood up. “I’m not doing this today, okay? I’m not arguing with you about my love life. I’m here to chill, which is
why I didn’t bring Cam. You might want to think about relaxing too. It’s gotta
get tense running everyone’s lives all the time. God help Dillon if he ever slips.” A devilish smile took shape on his lips. “Or has he already?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jo reached for his arm, wanting him to sit back down and explain himself, but Avery wasn’t having it.
“Watch out for the sun, sweetheart,” he drawled. “It’s hot enough to burn today.” With that, he gave her a backhanded wave and strolled away.
Well, damn his stubborn hide
, she thought, unconsciously curling her fingers around Dillon’s cell phone, wanting to pound the table with it.
Probably not a good idea
. She reconsidered, and set the cell in her lap.
“God help Dillon if he ever slips … or has he already?”
What was that, a warning or just spite?
Jo stared down at Dillon’s phone in her hands and gnawed on the inside of her cheek. Dill would never betray her. Big Ray would strangle him, for one thing, and Dillon hated having his father on his ass.
Still—she flipped the cell open with a fingernail—what harm would it do if she checked who he’d been calling? It wasn’t like reading his text messages or e-mail.
She glanced around her, but no one was paying her the slightest bit of attention, and Dillon was nowhere to be seen. He’d probably had to duck inside for the drinks and gotten cornered by somebody. At the very least, she had a couple of minutes until he got back.
Her heart thudding in her chest, she quickly scanned his recent calls, checking out the numbers from this morning, which all looked benign until she got farther down the list: Coach Ben, Brody, Mike, Mom, Big Ray, Laura Bell ….
Had Dill really phoned Laura Bell at—she squinted at the time stamp—a few minutes past nine that very morning?
Jo’s stomach lurched. She had to ask him about it. Surely, he’d have a logical explanation, because there was no way he was two-timing her with that fat bitch.
He couldn’t be, could he?
It would explain why he’d been so distracted these past months and where he’d gotten that whack idea about slowing down, as in no sex for longer than Jo Lynn could remember.
, she told herself.
It’s got to be a fluke, something weird
. Someone else could have borrowed his phone, right? Maybe even Avery, just to mess with her. Well, it was possible, wasn’t it? Av and Dillon played football together, had shared the practice field and the locker room every day even if they weren’t best friends.
Jo had nearly convinced herself of that until she got into Dillon’s address book, and suddenly she couldn’t swallow. Because there it was, that name again: Laura Bell. And hideously enough, it was listed right in front of
name. Bell before Bidwell, perfectly alphabetical.