Authors: Liz Talley
Tags: #Home On The Ranch
But he was a man, after all.
Men. Who could understand them? She had such little experience with them. Was Bubba right? Did Jack have a plan? And did it involve wanting her?
Time to cast her line and see what happened.
She’d sat there like a wart on a toad. Okay, she looked better than a wart on a toad, way better. And she did seem a little panicked. But he saw no affection, no sign of gratitude, no glimmer of love. Shouldn’t she have done
Acknowledged they knew each other? Marvel he was there? Nope, she sat like a corpse, pressing her lips together in a tight-assed smile. And then when he’d confronted her, she’d been so perturbed. Not what he’d expected at all.
“Okay, what the devil’s going on?” Dawn slid into the truck with two greasy bags. Damn, he knew the awkward exchange wouldn’t go right over his sister’s head. She had eagle eyes and a nose for trouble. Lord knows she’d gotten herself in a good bit of it over the years.
He glared at her. “Nothing’s going on.”
“The hell it isn’t,” she said, returning the glare and slamming the truck door. She stabbed one finger at the Dairy Barn. “That in there was something going on.”
He said nothing, just fired up the engine and pulled away from the diner. He didn’t have to explain anything to Dawn. He wanted her here to help him with the house, not repair his love life. After all, she’d done a bang-up job on her own, marrying the ass who’d knocked her up then spending the next thirteen years of her life pretending he wasn’t a worthless excuse for skin.
He could feel his sister studying him. Women. They just couldn’t let it go.
“She’s why you’re here,” Dawn said. He could hear the astonishment in her voice. “Oh. My. God. You’re in love with her!”
Jack swung around the square, switching lanes so he could turn north. He shot Dawn a don’t-go-there look and gritted his teeth. She thought this was amusing.
Case in point—she started laughing. “I wondered why you picked this town. I thought you and Dad had settled on somewhere closer to Houston. Now I get it.”
He remained silent.
She stopped laughing. Jack could tell she was chewing on the situation. A few seconds passed.
“She didn’t know you were coming,” she said at last. “I mean, I could tell she was stunned. You came here and didn’t even call her?” Dawn’s mouth fell open as she studied him in the scant light of the streetlamps. “Oh, wow. You don’t have a plan, do you? I mean, that was awkward.”
He gripped the steering wheel so hard he thought it might shatter. He wanted to tell Dawn to shut her mouth and get out of his truck, but she was right. Man, did he hate it when his sister was right. So he simply nodded his head.
“Oh, Jack, what have you done?”
“What have I done? I rearranged my whole life for her. I left Vegas and moved to a town I don’t know squat about for her. I rolled the dice for her.” Jack spit the words out. Even as he said them, Dawn shook her head.
“Now what?” she asked, rooting through the paper bag and snagging an onion ring. She popped it in her mouth and then offered him one.
He took it. “I don’t know. Something.”
“Good plan. I always thought ‘something’ was underrated.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass.”
She laughed. “Can’t help it. I am my mother’s daughter.”
“Amen,” he said.
“Well, I’ll tell you this, Jack. I would give my right arm for a man to do for me what you’ve done for her. She’d be the stupidest woman in the world to turn down someone like you. And I don’t say that because you are my yucky little brother.” She leaned over and smacked a kiss on his cheek.
“Bluck! Sister germs.”
She laughed. “Don’t wipe it away or I’ll give you another.”
A comfortable silence settled as he tore through the city limits sign heading for his new place. Andrew, who hadn’t made it to his dad’s for the weekend, waited on them, probably not patiently, to deliver his chicken sandwich and Tater Tots. Jack and Dawn had agreed to leave him so he could program the newly installed satellite system. God willing, Jack would be able to catch Sports Center that night. Thank goodness for teenagers and their vast knowledge of all things electronic.
Jack made the turn into his pitiful excuse for a driveway. He had to think about how he would handle Nellie. How did someone shake things up in this town? Climb the water tower and spray paint I love Nellie onto the side? Throw rocks at her window until she appeared like some celestial creature? Of course, he had the perfect weapon tucked deep in the pocket of his suitcase, but that would be sophomoric.
Yet it would provoke a response.
Jack looked over at Dawn. She looked like a bobble-head. He had to get those potholes fixed. He’d get Bubba on that Monday before he shattered every tooth in his head. And he wasn’t paying for his sister’s dental work.
“I may have a plan.”
“Heaven help that girl” was Dawn’s only response.
It was because the devil himself, along with his sister and a teenage boy, sat in the second pew. In her spot. The spot where the Tuckers had sat for generations.
Didn’t he know visitors sat in the back of the church?
Nellie tried to tamp down her grumpiness. It wasn’t very Christian after all. But where in the devil was she supposed to sit? She couldn’t sit next to him. And what about Cousin Ned? Her cousin only came twice a year—Christmas and Easter—but if he did get a sudden case of religion, he was out of luck too.
Nellie glanced around. Several people gave her a shrug. It wasn’t as if they could explain to a visitor that the second pew belonged to the Tucker family. Because it really didn’t. It was just an unspoken rule.
Nellie slid into the back pew next to Shirley Fisher, who had bladder problems.
As the service began, she tried to focus on the announcements and prayer requests, but it was difficult with Jack’s head in her line of vision. The man had been on her mind all night and she hadn’t gotten much sleep. Fortunately the dark circles beneath her eyes happened to match her gray dress.
Not only had the man invaded her thoughts and dreams, he’d invaded her world.
And just to prove the point, he turned around as everyone stood to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and winked at her.
He might as well have been holding a pitchfork.
The action didn’t escape the notice of a few members in the congregation. Virgil Walker turned and raised his bushy eyebrows at her. She shrugged, tore her gaze from Jack Darby and focused on the lyrics to the hymn.
During the actual sermon on “Resisting Temptation Thrown in the Path of Righteousness,” she’d wriggled more than the three-year-old in the pew in front of her. Talk about hitting below the belt. At one point during the impassioned sermon, Nellie expected someone in the congregation to hop onto a pew, point at Jack, and scream, “That’s him right there. The devil’s temptation!”
Then turn a finger on Nellie and shout, “And she hath partaken!”
But that wouldn’t happen.
Because Oak Stand Bapist was genteel and didn’t stand for caterwaulin’ by its congregation. And Oak Stand wasn’t Salem. Though at times, for Nellie, the town had felt that way.
And it wasn’t Jack’s fault he was so tempting. Just to prove the point, Mary Jo Danvers, who sat right behind him, fanned herself…and Nellie knew it wasn’t because the preschool teacher was overdressed or the sanctuary was warm.
Try as she may, Nellie couldn’t focus on much of anything, so when the benediction came, she grabbed her purse and headed for the double doors. One of the ushers frowned at her, but she kept going. Even when she heard her name.
“Nellie.” She knew it was Jack. The man had gotten up and let everyone see him follow her out of church. Great.
She hurried down the wooden steps as if she had the hounds of hell on her high heels. On the last step, she felt his hand on her elbow.
“Wait a sec,” he said.
Nellie spun around. “You were sitting in my spot.”
His forehead wrinkled. “What?”
“My spot,” she said, gesturing at the church. A few people had slipped out, and one or two threw them an interested look. “That’s my regular spot. Second pew.”
“You could’ve sat with us,” he said, shoving his hands into his khaki trousers. He wore an orange golf shirt with an alligator on the pocket. His hair had been moussed and his loafers probably cost more than the pastor’s weekly salary. Jack Darby looked exactly like what he was. Out of place.
The church bells tolled and the doors flew open, spilling forth chattering women, screeching children and men calling out tee times.
“I’m sorry,” he said, waving over her shoulder at someone. She heard a giggle but refused to turn around.
“No problem.” Nellie saw Dawn and Andrew trot down the steps toward them. She really didn’t want to make small talk, especially with Jack’s family. She wanted to heat up her Lean Cuisine and pretend everything was as it used to be.
Before Jack Darby.
Before she fell in love.
Because the Vegas playboy coming to Oak Stand had scared her. The thought of him lurking around every corner made her skin itch and feel too small for her body. She hadn’t asked him to come. He was supposed to stay behind. Be her one indiscretion. Her one fantasy come true. Why had he assumed she would want him here when he so obviously didn’t belong?
“What is wrong with you?” he asked.
Nellie shook her head. “I don’t know.”
She felt moisture in her eyes so she turned on one heel and walked away.
She set to work, only stopping when a stubborn root blocked the hole she’d just dug. The darned thing wouldn’t come loose. She tugged, but instead of ripping it from the ground, she lost her grip, sprayed herself with loose soil and plopped onto her bottom in the damp grass.
“Great,” she said, blowing an errant piece of hair from her sweaty forehead. She dropped her head to her arms. Besides dealing with Jack around every corner, the Oak Stand Garden Club’s Tour of Homes was a week away. She still needed to weed the bed beside the brick path out back, wash the outer windows and replace the perennials in the side bed.
Nellie looked up.
Hunter Todd Avery stood in front of her, his bare toes wiggling in the grass. “Mom said I could come over. Whatcha doin’? Your hair looks pretty. Want me to help?”
Nellie smiled. The last time Hunter Todd had “helped,” he’d trampled a couple of daylilies. “Nope. This can wait. What color do you want?”
She scrambled to her feet and brushed her hands off. “Okay. Wait for me on the porch. No swinging till I get there.”
Nellie headed around to the front of the house, trotted up the steps, washed her hands and fetched Hunter Todd’s favorite color. The front door hadn’t closed before he held out one abysmally dirty hand, demanding his treat. Nellie started to make him go wash up, but then mentally shook her head. She wasn’t the child’s mother.
“Here you go. One blue Popsicle.”
The treat hit the child’s mouth before he could mutter “Thank you.” He did, of course, say thanks, or at least she thought he did. It came out garbled.
Nellie peeled her own Popsicle and joined the child on the porch swing, kicking them into motion. Nothing like orange sugar and the chatter of a four-year-old to make her feel better. The swing creaked as they sailed as high as it would allow. The porch groaned a bit, but Nellie knew the sturdy beams would hold. Her great-grandfather had made sure of it.
“Why don’t you have any kids?”
Nellie sighed. “I told you already. I’m not married.”
Hunter Todd’s earnest brown eyes met hers. “You ain’t got to be married to have kids. My aunt Stacy has one and she ain’t married. It throws up all over everything. Gross.”
Nellie laughed and wondered why it felt rusty to do so. “You’re right, I guess.”
Hunter stuck his Popsicle back into his mouth, which by now had a nice blue ring around it. His little feet dangled, brushing against hers as the swing slowed to a gentler rhythm. Something about the way he leaned trustingly into her warmed her, like her grandmother blowing on a scraped knee after putting on Mercurochrome.
“So, you gonna get married then?”
Nellie stopped an orange rivulet of syrup from trailing down her hand. The direct question felt like a solid punch. Kids. They didn’t hold back.
“I don’t know.”
“My uncle Jimmy can be your husband. He’s got a tattoo. It’s real cool—a skeleton head. And he rides a motorcycle. My mawmaw says he shouldn’t ’cause the last time he had a crash and got a suit. Now he lives with Mawmaw. He ain’t got a wife.”
Nellie stifled a smile. Jimmy Newsom had gotten drunk, hit a seventy-three-year-old-postal worker who had promptly gotten out of her Buick and beaten him senseless with her umbrella, then he’d spent the weekend in a correctional facility. After a nasty lawsuit, he’d been forced to sell his house and move in with his mother. No thanks. “He sounds like a prince, Hunter.”
“He ain’t a stupid prince. I hate those dumb guys. I like Transformers. They’re awesome.”
Nellie stopped the swing with the toe of her shoe. “So true. Look, I gotta get back to my flower bed. You can stay here and swing. Just don’t let Beau out of the house. Okay?”
“Okay, but he likes to play with me.” Hunter Todd held the conviction her cat Beau loved to play chase with him. Beau did not like Hunter Todd, and he darned sure didn’t want the four-year-old to chase him.
Nellie patted the boy’s leg and rose. She brushed some dirt from her old denim shorts—shorts that had definitely seen better days. The hem had fallen out on one side and bleach spots dotted the front. The T-shirt she wore had a faded heart on it. She’d pulled her hair back, but it had come loose, falling in bedraggled clumps around her face. Her spare set of glasses perched on her nose, because as soon as she’d gotten home, she’d longed to go back to her former self.
Nellie picked up the trowel she’d dropped earlier. She had a lot to get done before the sun sank into the East Texas horizon.
So she set to work.
But before too long, she heard Hunter Todd carrying on a conversation. Dang. He’d let Beau out.
Nellie struggled to her feet and headed back around the corner. But Hunter Todd wasn’t talking to Beau. He was talking to Jack.
She nearly skidded to a stop and lunged behind the sweet olive bush. But she didn’t. She just took in the sight of Jack sitting on the top step, holding an action figure and listening to the four-year-old explain how the slime would come out of its eyes.
Hunter Todd spied her. “Hey, Nellie. Look—I found you a husband!”