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Authors: Katherine Allred

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary

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BOOK: Sweet Revenge
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His aunt was bustling around the stove, filling a plate from different pots and pans. She glanced up and smiled when he stepped into the room.

“I thought I heard your car. Sit down. I saved you some supper.”

“Thanks, A unt Ruth.” He straddled a chair as she put a plate in front of him. “Where’s A my?”

“She was falling asleep on the couch so I let her go to bed in the spare room. You may as well leave her here tonight.”

“I appreciate you watching her.”

“It’s no trouble at all. She’s such a quiet little thing. A ll she ever does is read.” She put a glass of tea next to his plate. “Did you get your paperwork done?”

“Yeah, it’s all finished.” He dug into the food like a starving man. No one cooked roast like A unt Ruth.

Pouring another glass of tea, she settled into the chair at the end of the table. “I heard Mr. Howard’s emus got out today.” Chase barely slowed his eating. “They did. A nd headed right for the interstate. Blocked traffic for an hour before Harley and I finally chased them back into the pen.”

“I thought chickens were stupid, but those birds have them beat. Don’t know why anyone would put up with them.”

“Just another one of Mr. Howard’s get-rich-quick schemes.” He paused, fork midway to his mouth. “You haven’t heard anything about the old dance studio being sold, have you?”

She took a sip of tea. “Mrs. James’ granddaughter bought it. Ran into her at the grocery store. Lovely girl. She’s been moving into her grandmother’s house the last two days.”

His gaze went to the window, but the house directly behind his own was dark. “I don’t think I knew Mrs. James had a granddaughter.”

“Of course you did. She graduated with your class. I believe her first name is Jessie.” Suddenly he smiled. “Jessie. Jessie James.” He had to stifle the laughter that threatened to erupt from deep in his chest, and he leaned against the back of the chair weakly. It was too ironic. The first woman the sheriff had been attracted to in four years was named after an outlaw. A nd she was going to be living in the house right behind his own.

A surprising surge of excitement coiled in his stomach. With her that close, he’d get to see her, even talk to her. Maybe get to know her better.

He shook his head in stunned amazement. How could he even be thinking these thoughts about a woman he’d seen for all of five minutes? It just didn’t make any sense.

Strange that he didn’t remember her from school, though. In a town the size of Rocky Flats, classes tended to be small. His had been no different. There were only about fifty kids who had graduated with him, and he was fairly sure he would have noticed someone who looked like her, even with Becky in the picture. Her name did stir echoes of memory, but he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t just associating it with the outlaw.

Finishing off the last of his meal, he carried the dishes to the sink. “Thanks for supper, A unt Ruth. I’m going to run upstairs and check on A my before I head home.”

“I made an apple pie for dessert. Don’t you want a piece?”

Chase patted his stomach. “Too full.”

“Well, I’ll wrap it up while you look in on A my and you can take it with you.”

“Okay.” It was useless to argue with A unt Ruth when she’d made up her mind.

Moving quietly, he went up the stairs and entered the bedroom, stopping beside the bed to gaze down on his sleeping daughter. She was wrapped tightly in the blankets, only her head showing. He leaned over and brushed a lock of blonde hair away from her face before dropping a kiss on her forehead.

“Night, Pum’kin,” he whispered. “Sleep tight.”

She murmured something and shifted slightly, the movement pushing the blankets aside. There was nothing of Chase in her features.

Even at ten she looked like a shorter, plumper version of her mother.

Readjusting the covers around her, he gave her another peck then slipped from the room, stopping downstairs to collect his pie before heading home.

Like every other house in the area, his was a two-story, cracker box. They’d bought it shortly after A my was born. Becky had hated it from the beginning, but it was the best he could afford at the time. It still suited his needs and it was the only home A my had ever known.

In the familiar darkness, he made his way to the kitchen and deposited the pie in the refrigerator, noting as he did that there were now lights showing in the house behind his. In the kitchen that was a replica of his own, a shadowy form crossed in front of the closed blinds.

Why didn’t he remember her? Overcome with curiosity, he went into the living room and flipped the light switch. The walls on either side of the fireplace held built-in bookshelves, crammed to overflowing with both his and A my’s reading material. It took a few minutes, but he finally located his senior yearbook.

Carrying it to the recliner, he stretched out and began thumbing through the pages, looking for the individual pictures of the graduating seniors. When he found them, he turned immediately to the Js and there she was.

Chase smiled as he studied the picture. No wonder he hadn’t recognized her. Sometime in the last ten years she’d shed sixty pounds or more. But the eyes should have given her away. Even in those days, he’d thought she had the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen.

He seemed to remember she’d helped him with A lgebra a time or two, but the only class he’d had with her during that last year was homeroom. She’d sat directly across from him, right were he couldn’t avoid seeing her. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d been so fascinated by her eyes that he’d forgotten to listen to Mr. Weems.

With a sigh he closed the book and returned it to the shelf. A s much as his body might wish otherwise, he couldn’t and wouldn’t let himself get involved with a woman. He had his hands full with A my, and his daughter had to come first. She’d suffered enough trauma when Becky abandoned them. She shouldn’t have to feel like she was competing for his attention now.

Unbuttoning his shirt, he headed upstairs for the bathroom. Somehow, he was going to have to squash his libido where the luscious Ms.

James was concerned. A nd judging from his purely physical reaction earlier tonight, it wasn’t going to be an easy task. Even as he finished stripping and stepped into the shower, a pair of blue-green eyes filled his mind. With a deeper sigh, he set the temperature and let the heated water roll over him. Deep down he suspected he was only fooling himself. He was already trying to think up excuses to talk to her again.

Chapter Two

Jessie contemplated her wardrobe with serious intent. What did one wear to a reunion picnic in Rocky Flats? It had to be something cool, she decided. A nd casual. Comfortable would help too. Making up her mind, she slid into a pair of denim cutoffs, then pulled a white cotton Tshirt over her head and tucked it in. A fter all, it wasn’t like she was trying to impress anyone. She’d save that for the dance tomorrow night.

She completed the look by brushing her hair into a ponytail then pulling it through the opening on a ball cap with the Yankees logo on the front. Her sunglasses went into the pocket on the T-shirt.

“Jess, you about ready?” Bridget’s voice drifted in from the kitchen.

“A ll set.” She joined her and they packed the food they had prepared earlier into boxes.

“Thanks for letting me use your kitchen. Maybe now that that I’m working for you and getting a decent wage I can find somewhere to live other than Mrs. Johnson’s boarding house. She lets me cook, but she watches every move I make like she thinks I’m going to steal the china.”

“You could always move in here with me. I have plenty of room.”

Bridget smiled at her. “I appreciate the offer, but I value our friendship too much to jeopardize it. Besides, I really want a place of my own. Someplace I can pull off all my clothes and go naked if I want.”

“I know what you mean. I lived in an apartment for so long it feels strange having an entire house to myself.” She frowned as the lights flickered. “A nd I’m beginning to think there may be problems with it I never expected. I don’t think Gram spent a lot on upkeep. I keep hearing these noises at night. Really weird creaks and groans.”

“A ll houses do that.” Bridget lifted a box and headed for the door. “But if you get scared, you could always call the sheriff.” She grinned innocently.

“Ha ha. Very funny.” Jessie grabbed the second container and followed her out, letting the door slam closed behind her.

“A t least he wouldn’t have far to go.” Bridget tilted her head at the house behind Jessie’s. “Since he lives so close.” Jessie paused and surveyed the house that was almost an exact duplicate of her own. “You’re kidding. I thought he lived out in the country somewhere.”

Opening the back door of her car, Bridget put her box on the seat, then reached for Jessie’s. “That was a long time ago. A fter he married Becky they bought that house, and he’s been there ever since. What time is it?” Jessie glanced at her watch. “Few minutes before eleven. A re we in a rush for some reason?” She opened the door on the passenger side and climbed in.

A tinge of red stained Bridget’s cheeks as she slid under the steering wheel. “Kind of. There are a lot of people coming in from out of town. I can’t wait to see how much everyone has changed.”

“Everyone meaning Howard Castle?” She arched a brow at Bridget, laughing when her friend’s face turned an even deeper shade of red.

“Well, he did RSVP, and I heard he’s never married.”

“A nd he had a thing for you all during high school. Wonder if he still wears those thick black glasses,” she mused. “Not that it matters. He was one of the sweetest boys we went to school with. I never did understand why you didn’t go out with him.” Bridget sighed as she guided the car across town. “Because he never got up the nerve to ask me. I did everything but paint a huge ‘Yes’

on my chest. It didn’t help. Whenever we were within ten feet of each other we’d wind up having a blushing contest. It was traumatic for both of us.”

They joined a slow-moving parade of cars turning into the parking lot of the city park. “Looks like the entire class showed up,” Jessie observed. “I don’t remember the park being this big.”

“It wasn’t. They’ve added a lot. Put in some pavilions and restrooms, playground equipment for the kids, a Senior Citizens Center. We even have a jogging path that runs along the Trinity River. Rocky Flats has hit the big time.”

“So I see. The whole town has gotten bigger. Looks like I may have to break down and buy my first car.” Bridget glanced at her as she pulled to a stop in the first available parking space. “You mean you didn’t have one in New York?”

“No. It was too much trouble. The traffic was horrible and you could have fed a small third world country for the price of garage space. It was easier to walk, take a cab or the public transit.” She put her sunglasses on, got out, and went around the car, waiting while Bridget reached in for their supplies, her gaze scanning the crowd.

“Why do I feel like I’m volunteering to be guest of honor at the Spanish Inquisition?” she mumbled.

Bridget looked at her in surprise as she handed over the first carton. “Jess, these are the people you grew up with. You know all of them.” She shook her head. “That’s just it. I may recognize the faces, but I didn’t really know them, Bridg. You were the only real friend I had. I don’t have a clue what to say them.”

Bridget took out the other box. “Just think of it as PR for the studio. You know, if you want it to succeed you’re going to have to become part of the community. If you don’t, everyone will think you’re a snob.”

“I know. A nd I’ll do it if it kills me.” She turned toward the park, the box in her hands coming smack up against a broad male chest. Her gaze traveled upward, coming to rest on the direct blue eyes of the sheriff. He was standing between Bridget’s car and the one next to it, blocking her path. Irritation creased her brow when her heart lurched in her chest. She’d be darned if she was going to let him affect her like that.

“Ladies. Looks like you could use some help.”

Jessie’s hands clamped down tighter on her parcel. “Well, well. If it isn’t Wyatt Earp. Thanks, but we can carry our own boxes.” A wry grin lifted one corner of his mouth. “I guess you’re mad because I didn’t recognize you the other night, aren’t you?” She considered arching her eyebrow, but the effect would have been lost behind her dark glasses. “Why would I be mad? There was no reason you should have recognized me. We were never friends. We barely even spoke.” Turning sideways, she edged past him.

“We had homeroom together our senior year.” He reached for the box, turning with her.

“Really? I’d forgotten.” She hung on to her load for dear life in spite of his efforts to take it from her. The situation might have gotten comical if Bridget hadn’t intervened.

“Hey! Will you guys stop playing tug-of-war with that? There’s a cake inside and I’d like it to stay in one piece.” Reluctantly, Jessie relinquished her hold, her mouth forming a moue of displeasure. His gaze dropped to her lips and lingered there as Bridget added her box to the one he already held. Jessie barely managed to stop the shiver that ran over her. What the heck was going on here? He’d never shown any indication that he knew she was alive when they were in school. She had no reason to believe that would change now. Except that he was holding their food, waiting for her to lead the way to the picnic tables.

A bruptly, she turned her back and started toward the park, determined to ignore him the way he’d ignored her all those years ago. He fell into step beside her as Bridget brought up the rear.

“I hear you’ve been in New York since we graduated.”

“Your network of undercover operatives have certainly been doing their homework.” She glanced at him from the corner of her eyes. Why did he still have to be so darn good-looking? He was wearing jeans that hugged his long legs like they took great joy in the task. A faded, blue chambray shirt was tucked into the top of his pants, its short sleeves exposing muscled arms covered in a light down of black hair. “What else did they tell you?”

“Not much. Did you have a dance studio there, too?”

“No, Sheriff, I didn’t. I worked as a choreographer.”

“You know those music videos on MTV?” Bridget butted in. “Jessie did the choreography on at least half of them. She’s worked with lots of famous people. She’s even choreographed some Broadway plays.”

His gaze swept over her. “A nd you gave it up to come back to Rocky Flats?”

Jessie shrugged. “I wanted my own studio. When Gram died and left me the house, I decided it was time.” They had reached the pavilion and he deposited the boxes on the end of a table. “I’m sorry about your grandmother. She was a sweet lady. A my loved her, too. I think she spent more time at Mrs. James’ than she did at home.”

“A my?”

“My daughter.” He gestured toward a group of trees, his expression vaguely troubled.

Jessie turned and felt surprise sweep over her. The girl was nothing like what she would have expected his daughter to be. She was sitting alone under a tree, a book balanced on her knees. While Jessie watched, she looked over at the other children squealing and laughing on the playground, then went back to reading.

A pang of sympathy hit Jessie. In spite of the blonde hair and blue eyes, the girl could have been her eighteen years ago. She too had taken refuge from her weight in books. It was easier than listening to the names that other children called her. She’d even managed to convince herself that if she acted like she didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt as much.

“She’s very prett—”

“Jessie!” The voice was high-pitched. “Jessie James! My lands, it’s been years. I heard you were back and I’ve been meaning to drop in and pay you a visit as soon as you got settled.”

Her gaze met Chase’s and he grinned. “You remember Nancy Silus, don’t you?”

She looked back at the skinny, sharp-faced woman whose smile showed more teeth than was absolutely necessary. “Oh, sure. Hi, Nancy.

How’s it going?”

“Wonderful, just wonderful.”

Jessie had to resist the urge to dig in her feet when the woman took her arm and tugged.

“Everyone here is just dying to see you again. We heard what a success you were in New York. In case you didn’t know, I’m the director of our local theater group. We’d love to have someone with your experience join us. We were considering doing Grease for our next production. What do you think?”

Jessie shot Bridget a desperate look as she was towed toward a large group of people, but her friend was busy unpacking their contribution to the picnic. “Uh, Grease is a good play.”

“Oh, wonderful! Then you’ll help us with it?”

Nancy’s voice faded into the general hubbub of noise as Chase watched her drag Jessie into the crowd at the other end of the pavilion. He had promised himself he would keep his distance from Jessie, but the second he’d seen Bridget’s car pull in, his feet had developed a mind of their own. A nd when he’d gotten a look at her rounded bottom encased in snug denim, and those long sexy legs, other parts of his anatomy had followed suit with a vengeance that scared him.

He wasn’t used to losing control of his feelings like that, had always prided himself on his iron will. But just the warm scent of her fragrance lingering in the air had his mouth watering like Pavlov’s dog at the ringing of a bell.

Unfortunately, it didn’t look like he was going to have a chance to do anything about it. Her reception of him had been frosty enough to form icicles on the cars next to them. Bridget was still lifting food from the boxes and he studied her, his mind turning. If anyone would know what Jessie had against him, it was Bridget.

“Tell me something, Bridg. Is she this cool with all men, or is it just me?”

“Oh, it’s just you.” A bruptly, she looked up, her face going as red as her hair. “I mean, it’s not that she hates you or anything. That’s not what I meant.” She shut her eyes briefly and sighed. “Jessie is going to kill me. Can we change the subject?”

“I like this subject.” He propped a foot on the seat of the picnic table and crossed his arms on his knee. “Why is it just me? Come on,” he coaxed. “I swear I won’t tell her you told me, but I think I have a right to know what I’ve done to offend her.” Bridget snuck a look at the people gathered around Jessie, then glanced back at him. “You haven’t done anything to offend her. It’s just…” She hesitated.

“Just what?”

“Well, Jessie had this huge crush on you in high school, and you didn’t even know she existed. I guess she still kind of resents that.”

“Really.” He studied Jessie with greater interest. “Ten years is a long time to carry a grudge.” Especially if you no longer had feelings for the person in question.

“Not if you were hurt badly enough.”

He straightened, his gaze still on Jessie. He couldn’t seem to stop watching her. “In other words, if I’m interested now I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

“A re you interested?”

It was his turn to hesitate. “Yeah, I’m interested.” He glanced at A my, still sitting under the tree pretending to read. “Problem is, I feel guilty for even thinking about it. I should be concentrating on A my, not my love life.” She touched his arm. “Chase, Becky has been gone four years now. How many women have you gone out with in that time?”

“None. You know that. I’m not about to let myself get trapped that way again. A my is all the family I need.”

“I understand your paranoia on this subject, but not all women are after a husband. Jessie has big plans for her studio. A nd besides, has your lack of a social life helped A my improve any?”

He frowned. “What are you trying to say?”

“Just that maybe you’re too close to her. Everyone knows what a wonderful father you are, but sometimes that isn’t enough. It could be that A my needs a woman in her life.”

“She has women in her life.”

“Right, she has your A unt Ruth, who’s more like her grandmother. What she needs is someone younger, a woman who can be her friend and role model.”

“Someone like Jessie?” God, he had it bad. Just saying her name sent a surge of blood pounding through his body.

Bridget smiled at him. “Exactly. She loves kids, and she’s wonderful with them. They relate to her. So even if you decide not to pursue your ‘interest,’ you should encourage A my to get to know her better.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want Jessie to think that I’m using A my to get to her. A nd I sure as hell don’t want A my thinking I’m using her to get to Jessie.”

Bridget tilted her chin toward the tree. “I don’t think either one is going to be a problem.” He glanced in the direction she’d indicated just in time to see Jessie plop down on the grass next to his daughter.

BOOK: Sweet Revenge
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