February, 2008 - ISBN 978-1-59426-849-6
$6 eBook (five formats) - Buy Now!
New Phaze Author!
The roar of a gasoline engine drew Linda's attention from the crossword puzzle. She glanced through the french doors of the breakfast room, and her mouth gaped in disbelief. Was that Wade Preston driving a riding mower across the emerald green sea of her father's back lawn?
How long had it been since she'd stared out this very window at the boy all the girls at Harperville High had a crush on? Seven years? Eight?
Sensing movement behind her, she turned and saw Mrs. Mills picking up the luncheon dishes.
"Why is Wade Preston mowing our lawn?" Linda asked.
The housekeeper stopped on her way back to the kitchen and looked out the french doors. "Don't know. A Mexican man usually does it."
"Surely, after all these years, Wade's doing something besides cutting grass?"
"Calls hisself a landscaper and does yards all over town. Got other men working for him."
"Well, at least he's expanded since he was in high school."
Mrs. Mills shrugged and continued on her way to the kitchen.
The steady drone of the mower's engine lured Linda to step over to the window for a closer look. In the heat of early afternoon, Wade had removed his shirt, and his sweaty pecs glistened in the sunlight. As he slowly passed in front of her, he removed his billed cap and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. His bicep flexed. Manual labor did a lot for a man's physique.
He reached the far side of the lawn and turned the steering wheel of the mower. For a moment, all she could see was his broad back and more rippling muscles. God. He'd really filled out since their summer together. Had being in the Marine Corps done that? He completed his turn and came toward her, his straight nose and strong chin outlined by the sunshine.
Not wanting him to see her, she stepped away from the window. It wouldn't do for the lawn-service guy to think B.J. Harper's daughter still had the hots for him, especially not after the way he'd dumped her. She couldn't help feeling satisfaction over the fact he'd ended up back in Harperville, still mowing lawns.
When they were dating, he'd been full of plans to leave this town and make something of himself. Apparently, Mr. Hot Shot wasn't as hot as he'd thought he was.
As Linda stared into the shady interior of the breakfast room, a flood of memories about the summer after they'd graduated from Harperville High came back to her. Then Wade had been hot enough to tempt her into dating him. Knowing her father wouldn't approve, she'd kept their meetings secret and slipped away at every opportunity to see Wade. He'd been her first love, her first lover. No passion since had burned so brightly.
But people remember the first anything as being special. What she and Wade had shared hadn't been real love. They'd just been a couple of teenagers swept away on a sea of hormones. So why did the fact he'd turned his back on her still rankle?
She moved back to the window. For a moment, the mower disappeared behind the pump house and trellis that flanked the swimming pool. When it reappeared, Linda compared the man to the boy she had known. While he'd been well built as a high school football player, the muscles that now formed his shoulders and chest were larger and harder. His back was straighter; his jaw had a more determined line.
What else had changed about him? Had failure to make it outside Harperville humbled or embittered him? Had he married? She doubted it. Meredith, the one friend she still had in town, knew about her past relationship with Wade. She would have passed on any wedding news. But why hadn't she mentioned Wade was back in town?
So many questions and only one way to get quick answers. She pulled off the scrunchie that held her hair off her neck. Watching her reflection in one of the glass panes in the door, she ran her fingers through her hair until it flipped up around her shoulders.
Her hand hesitated on the latch, and a smile tugged at her lips. She was looking forward to letting Wade know she was well on her way to achieving her goals in life. He'd walked away from her because she wasn't willing to be his sex toy. Now she was a law school graduate, and he was still cutting grass.
The green John Deere chugged past the french doors again, and she stepped out onto the stone patio bordering the back of the house. The scent of freshly cut grass enhanced her feeling of déjá vu.
* * * *
As the mower approached the pine grove that edged the yard, Wade caught sight of movement on the patio. A woman. A blonde. Linda. He'd seen a sporty little BMW in the driveway and wondered if it might be hers. Then he remembered the pine trees and snapped his attention back to the mower in time to avoid hitting one. Linda still rattled his cage.
Once he'd safely turned the mower, he checked her out as he drove toward the patio. She stood with one hand on her hip, obviously waiting to speak to him. She'd lost the coltish look of a teenager. Her honey-colored hair fell against her shoulders instead of the middle of her back as it once had. But even in shorts and a T-shirt, she still managed to look like the richest girl in town.
As he approached, she inspected him as openly as he did her. Her direct gaze, the forward thrust of her hips and her sly smile told him she was a woman on the prowl. The rich girl must be bored. He ought to snub her just for the hell of it. But he couldn't resist seeing what kind of woman she'd grown into.
He brought the mower to a stop at the edge of the terrace and cut off the engine. Tipping his billed cap, he said, "Howdy, Miss Linda. I didn't know you had returned to the old plantation."
She smirked, obviously remembering the jokes he used to make about her father's house looking like an old Southern plantation. "Just here for a little vacation after taking the bar exam," she said in a snooty voice.
"So you're a lawyer now. Congratulations."
She looked a little miffed by his good wishes. "Not quite. I have to wait for the exam results."
"I'm sure you passed."
He was getting mixed messages. Was she coming on to him or looking for a fight? "You were the smartest one in our class."
Linda shrugged. "That's not saying much."
That was definitely meant as a cut. Wade clutched his chest as if in pain. "Ouch."
She lost a bit of her snootiness. "I - I meant Harperville High was a small-town school,not noted for its educational excellence."
He nodded. "Yeah, I always wondered why your old man didn't send you to some fancy private school."
"He suggested it, but I talked him out of it."
"Since you're so fond of Harperville, are you going to live here now that you've finished school?"
The question seemed to surprise her. "Of course not. I've accepted a position from a very prestigious firm in Raleigh. But first I'm taking a month off for a little R&R."
Was that an invitation to join her? He deliberately checked out her long legs. The thighs were fuller than he remembered, but shockingly white. She'd been in the schoolroom too long and needed to come out into the sunshine. But he'd be a damn fool to get mixed up with Linda Harper again.
The memory of that long-ago summer, when they'd been lovers, still haunted him. Could they recreate the sexual skyrockets they once had? Why not give it a shot? He was no longer a teenager with his heart on his sleeve. She couldn't hurt him now.
He gave her his warmest smile. "After all the studying you've done, you deserve a little fun. Let me get the ball rolling by taking you to dinner tonight."
She seemed stunned by the invitation. Had he mistaken her intentions or was he moving too fast? "Well…I…have plans for dinner." She glanced nervously back at the house.
Suddenly he understood and felt his smile slide into a smirk. "Oh, is Daddy still calling the shots? I thought maybe you'd grown up by now."
She frowned at him. "Since this is my first night home, my father and I are having dinner together."
Of course, Daddy always came first with her. Without altering his smirk, he nodded. "Sure, I understand." He reached for the mower's ignition.
He was going to leave. Linda felt a moment of panic. There was so much left unsaid between them. "I'll probably be free later," she added hurriedly.
His hand released the switch, and he leaned forward, bracing one arm across the mower's steering wheel. His eyelids lowered slightly as he stared at her. "Then how about drinks at my place? We can talk over old times."
Linda felt her lips twitch with indecision. Could two people who'd once had an incredibly hot sexual relationship get together in an apartment late at night and just talk? And what did she want to talk about? Would she tell him no one had ever rung her bell like he had? Finally, she asked, "Where do you live?"
He smiled. "In those brick apartments on Monroe Street, across from the fire station. My door is at the far end of the building. Very private. You can come down the driveway and park next to the red pickup. What time?"
He sounded entirely too sure of himself. "I haven't said I'd come, yet."
"You wouldn't be asking directions if you weren't considering it. I'm just trying to close the deal."
"You make it sound like a business appointment."
He shook his head. "Oh, no, I'm just offering you a little fun on your vacation."
"Linda?" The sound of her father's voice coming from inside the house made Linda blanch. Had he heard what she and Wade were talking about? What difference did it make? She was no longer a teenager who needed his approval of her dates.
B.J. Harper stepped onto the patio wearing softly tailored slacks and a subdued sport shirt, the picture of an urbane gentleman relaxing at home. His startled expression on seeing Wade told her he had not overheard them. "Oh, hello, Preston. Having to do the mowing yourself these days?"
"One of my crew's sick," Wade replied.
With a uninterested nod, her father turned back to Linda. "Can we have dinner an hour earlier tonight? A councilman is insisting on talking with me before tomorrow's meeting. I told him I could meet him at my office by nine."
Linda felt a sting of irritation. Although semi-retired, her father still could not find time just for her. Well, she didn't have to spend the evening alone. Looking over his shoulder and into Wade's eyes, she said, "That's fine with me. I'm sure you can be there by nine."
Wade's brief nod showed he'd gotten her message. "If you folks will excuse me, I have to get back to work." The mower started with a roar, stopping all conversation until it moved away.
Linda instantly regretted her decision. Wade would undoubtedly expect more than talk if she went to his apartment tonight. Did she want to risk having another fight with him, or worse yet, risk stirring the coals of their long-ago love affair?
What if they did have sex? She'd only be here for a month, and she was no longer an inexperienced girl. Surely she could have a fling with the yard man and then walk away unscathed.
Besides, she'd never forgotten those sweaty trysts they'd had in the back seat of his mother's old Chevy. The sex couldn't have been as good as she remembered. This might be the perfect opportunity to put those old memories to rest.
"A shame about Preston," her father muttered.
"What?" Linda asked.
"He was such a promising athlete when you two were in high school together, and now look at him."
Seeing the lazy smile on Wade's face as he made another pass across the lawn, Linda shrugged and said, "He seems happy with his lot in life."
She and her father went back into the house. After closing the door against the summer heat, he said, "I've got an errand to run this afternoon, but I'll be home by six."
She nodded, and after he left, she picked up the placemats still on the dining table. She carried them into the kitchen to prove to Mrs. Mills she intended to help while she was at home. "Where do you want these?"
Mrs. Mills pointed to a counter top. "Just put 'em there."
"Did Dad tell you we'd want dinner early?"
Mrs. Mills no longer worked the long hours she once had, and Linda didn't want to be a burden while here. "If you want to leave early, I'll clean up after the meal."
"Just load the dishwasher," Mrs. Mills said, without a trace of gratitude. Then she looked at Linda as she had when lecturing a teenager. "You better leave that man alone."
"I saw you out there talking to him. He's no good for you."
How dare the woman tell her what to do or who to talk to? She was an adult. She wasn't about to be lectured by the housekeeper. "For pity's sake, he's just an old friend from high school. Why shouldn't I talk to him?"
"I know something went on between you two the summer after you graduated. Your daddy woulda had a fit if he'd known."
For a moment, all Linda could do was stare openmouthed. Mrs. Mills had been a leader in the black community in Harperville until her husband had died of a sudden heart attack and left her with two teenaged children to support. She had come to work as the housekeeper at Wisteria Hill a few months before Linda's mother died and had stayed on to supervise Linda's activities during her father's many absences. But she had never been the loving mammy type. Instead, she'd nagged Linda about everything from her homework to how much makeup she wore.
Linda didn't believe Mrs. Mills had known the full extent of her involvement with Wade or she would have made trouble. No, she'd just seen two teenagers flirting and had disapproved because Mrs. Mills's status depended on the status of the Harper family, and she hadn't wanted Linda to do anything that would detract from it.
Hoping her superior height would help make her point, Linda stood very straight and looked down at the woman. "Mrs. Mills, I'm twenty-five years old. I assure you I can manage my own social relationships."
Mrs. Mills shook her head as though she pitied Linda. "Don't be so sure. People say Wade Preston's been under a lot of skirts in this town."
Oh, great. Wade had become the town Casanova, and she'd just agreed to go to his apartment tonight. Of course, she didn't have to go, but she had this nagging feeling the door between them had never closed completely. She was about to start the most important phase of her life and needed to be free of any doubts that might distract her.