Freedom waited while Jillian Wilson posted the closed sign in the window of her hardware store. She smiled at the neighboring storeowner, Mr. Jenkins who sat in a rocker on the wooden sidewalk that connected their establishments.
Immediately, she realized her mistake when he signaled for her to come outside.
Opening the door, she leaned out and felt the warm afternoon heat from a Texas spring day. Soft wisps of cotton clouds dotted a bright blue sky.
“Hi, Mr. Jenkins, I don’t have a lot of time. I was just about to close for the weekend.”
He eyed her with a fatherly frown of disapproval. “Yes, I know. Several people have mentioned that you’re headed out of town.” He shook his head, “Don’t rightly remember your father ever taking a vacation when he didn’t have a backup for the store.”
“I know, but Michael wasn’t available.”
“Hot-rodding around in his new car.” The old man continued to give his opinion on the situation. “That brother of yours should help. You could be losing a lot of money with it being the weekend after the East Texas Gusher events. People will be wanting to do chores around their houses.”
The wrinkles on Mr. Jenkin’s weathered face grew deeper. “Not good for the town’s hardware store to be closed.”
“I’ve given everyone plenty of warning.”
“Still, I don’t think your father would’ve liked it.”
Jillian didn’t voice her irritation. After all, Mr. Jenkins had been butting into her business from the time she was two. Stepping out of the door and over to Mr. Jenkins, she patted his arthritic hand. The man worried about her just like he was her father.
“That’s true, but with Daddy gone and Mike unwilling to help, there’s no chance for me to have a wild weekend unless I close the store.” She winked at him. “A girl’s got to have a little fun.”
Stepping back, she continued. “I know I can count on my nice neighbor to keep an eye on the store.” She nudged him. “Can’t I? You don’t want me to be alone the rest of my life?”
“Hell no, but there’s plenty of men around here you could hook up with.” He shook his crooked finger at her. “Why just the other day that Hawkins boy was in my shop. He’d make a nice husband for you.”
Jillian smiled and edged closer to the door of her shop. “Yes, well, that might be true, but I think I’ll wait until he graduates high school first.”
Mr. Jenkins frowned. “Oh yeah, but the boy can play a mean game of football. Did you see him last season? He has a wicked arm.”
“That he does.” Jillian entered her store and turned. “I’m sorry Mr. Jenkins, I have to go. But you’ll watch the store for me, right? If there’s any problems just call my cell phone.”
She closed the door on his reply with a friendly wave of her hand. Then she pulled down the shade. Turning the lock, she took a breath, anxious to get out of town.
Wilson’s Hardware store would survive a weekend without her, and Gladewater, Texas would never miss her.
Look out Dallas, here I come.
Derek entered the condo exhausted from a day at the lake. He wanted a cold beer and a hot shower, in that order.
Good thing he’d strong armed his brother into taking Kelly away for the weekend. It gave him the place to himself, and Jason and Kelly could use the relief from the stress of planning their wedding.
Removing his sweaty shirt, he threw it over his shoulder, opened the refrigerator and pulled out a Bud. He opened it with a quick twist of his wrist, then poured the cold liquid down his throat.
Now the shower.
He stepped around the bar that separated the kitchen from the dining area, saw the light on the answering machine blink, and hit the button.
“Uh, Jason, it’s Jillian.”
A picture of a shapely woman flashed through Derek’s mind.
“I don’t want you to worry. I’m not pregnant...”
“Holy shit!” Every big-brother, over-protective gene in his body kicked into gear.
The rest of the message was obliterated by the sound of Derek’s beer bottle shattering on the floor when his fist connected with the wall.
Was this the reason Kelly was having second thoughts about marrying Jason?
Peace greeted Jillian when she slid the key card into the slot of her hotel room door.
She pulled her luggage over the threshold and gave the door a nudge with her hip, then listened for the click of the lock as she stowed her bags in the closet.
A king-size bed adorned the middle of the hotel room, draped in a burgundy and green floral bedspread. Next to the window sat a table with two chairs. On the dresser stood a lamp and a television. All the normal amenities lay on the vanity in the dressing area.
Thrilled and excited at being released from the chains of responsibility binding her, Jillian sat down on the bed.
She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes. The heavy emotional burdens she’d carried around for the last few weeks lightened. No one here knew her or expected anything from her. There was nothing to prove, and no one to give her any friendly advice.
She stretched her arms above her head. Finally, she could fly away from the grief that shadowed her every move.
A knock sounded on the door.
“Who can that be?” Jillian murmured as she sat up.
Through the security peephole, she saw a tall, darkhaired man, his features slightly blurred by the fisheye view.
She took a quick breath and looked again.
“Damn.” She didn’t want to open the door, not with Derek on the other side, not to more heartache.
“What do you want?”
“Open the door, I want to talk to you,” he said in his stern military voice. The one she remembered hating.
Jillian stared at the man through the peephole. How had he known she was here?
Then her mind fit the pieces together. The message she’d left Jason. But why would he tell his brother she was going to be here? He knew Derek didn’t want anything to do with her.
Their relationship hadn’t worked out. A few dates, no calls, no emails, no communication. A year was long enough to get the message that he wasn’t interested.
So why was he at her door?
This time the knock was louder.
“Come on, Jillian, open up.”
With a quick brush of her hands through her hair, Jillian took a deep fortifying breath and opened the door.
“Hey, Derek, what’s up?” She spoke into his broad chest. His height made her eyes travel over the crisp curl hairs visible through the dip in his shirt, to his clean shaven face. Again, Jillian was struck by the difference between the two brothers. Their hair color might be the same, but every other feature was different.
Jason was lean, where Derek was linebacker big. Jason had beautiful deep brown eyes and a photo-perfect face, while Derek’s eyes were steel gray. Piercing and cold, they stared at her. His face looked like it was carved from stone.
Jillian noticed a dark curl arrogantly standing up on his head. Her hand lifted.
“Are you going to invite me in?” Derek stepped forward.
“No.” Her hand landed on his chest, blocking his entrance. “Did Jason send you?”
“You might say that.” His large body pushed closer, crowding her. “Do you want to have our conversation in the hall?”
Singed by heat radiating from his body, Jillian decided she better let him in. She stepped back and watched him enter the room.
“Look, Derek...” She shut the door. “I don’t need you checking up on me. I’m fine. If Jason got my message, he knows that.”
Derek’s intelligent eyes examined her with hard intensity. “He didn’t get it. I did.”
Jillian looked at the rigid set of his jaw. Even though he appeared calm, she could sense the intense emotions consuming him.
She shook her head. “But Jason has been worried. Why wouldn’t you give him the message?”
“Jason is already involved with someone.” Suspicion darkened Derek’s eyes. His whole manner reflected restrained anger, a kettle ready to boil over. His gaze burned.
“I know. He and Kelly have been dating for awhile now.”
“If you know, then why the hell are you sleeping with him? You barely let me kiss you good night when we were dating.” He stepped forward, glaring into her face. The lid of his temper lifted, she felt the steam.
“What?” Caught off guard by his accusation and his closeness, Jillian stared at him in disbelief. Was he nuts? Did he really think she was having sex with Jason?
Her eyes widened. Now it made sense. Her message.
Derek must think—Oh my!
In his normal overprotective fashion, he was here to put a stop to it.
The idea was absurd. Jillian couldn’t stop the giggles that bubbled up in her chest. She crumbled past him in a fit of laughter.
He grabbed her by the arm, spinning her around. “I’m glad you think this is funny. But I don’t. I know you’ve always had a thing for Jason, but he is involved with someone else.” The angry set of his mouth reflected how seriously he viewed the matter, and his steely eyes nailed her with stern disgust. “I won’t let you ruin his happiness.”
His unyielding look made Jillian laugh that much harder. How could anyone seriously think she could steal Jason away from Kelly? The lady was absolutely gorgeous and brilliant as well. The notion delighted her, but when she glanced again at Derek, she sensed the danger. He wanted blood, and the blood he wanted was hers.
She pulled away from him, and sat down on the corner of the bed. Her composure melted every time she ventured a look at Derek.
Hands on his hips, feet slightly apart, and his face void of expression, he was ready to attack. “Jillian, this is not funny. I don’t want you messing around with Jason. Don’t take your anger at me out on him.”
A cold shower of emotion washed over her killing her amusement.
“Look, Derek, I realize that this looks kind of strange. But...” Jillian tried to banish the hurt while she worked to gather her thoughts. “There is nothing going on between Jason and me. He’s an old friend, my brother’s best friend. I’m not trying to get back at you. This has nothing to do with you.”
Derek sat down right next to her. His thigh brushed against hers. Physical awareness shot through her, releasing a small army of shudders to march up and down her spine.
“Then why did Jason want to know if you were pregnant?” Derek commanded.
“Because of a conversation we had after my father’s funeral.” She reached out and patted Derek’s arm. “He’s just concerned that I’m going to do something stupid.”
Jillian pulled back, and stood up. This was a subject she didn’t want to discuss with him. “Look, Derek, this is really none of your business. I’m not sleeping with your brother and I’m not pregnant with his child. That’s all you really need to know.”
To put some distance between them, she walked over to the dresser. His nearness and arrogant attitude made her nervous. Her reflection in the mirror showed cheeks that were fire engine red. Her brown eyes were bright with unshed tears of mirth. Her body tingled under her white button-down oxford shirt.
Nervously, Jillian twisted her index finger around a strand of hair and glanced at Derek’s reflection in the mirror. His eyes narrowed.
“I don’t like this, Jillian. I think you’d better explain.”
If he didn’t look so serious, she would have thought this whole conversation was ludicrous. But Derek’s whole body radiated a volatile energy that told her he didn’t find this set of circumstances humorous. Jason had warned her many times not to fool around with Derek’s temper. She took note of the fierce, fighting warrior under the soft knit sweater and faded jeans, and decided the best course of action would be a diversion.
“Okay look. I just got into town and I’m starving. Why don’t I order us a pizza? Then if you’ll behave and quit trying to bully me, I’ll give you the details of my discussion with Jason.” At his nod, she walked over and pulled the phone book out of the nightstand. “What do you like on your pizza?” Jillian looked for the number of the pizza place she liked that wasn’t far from the hotel. When she found it she glanced up, waiting for Derek’s answer. He seemed to consider the question very carefully.
“Personally, I like an all meat pizza. But whatever you want will be fine.” His eyes narrowed as if he expected an argument. A carnivore. It’d figures he’d want all meat. The sexual energy burning from him made the hairs on her arms stand at attention and her pulse dance a cotton-eyed-joe.
Jillian finished the call, then turned to see Derek propped on his elbow behind her. An old fantasy flashed across her mind. What would it be like to have that powerful body under hers? His body looked ready, willing and able to please her.
Shaking her head to redirect her thoughts, her eyes lit on the ice bucket. They could use something to cool them down.
“Why don’t you go get us some ice for our drinks?” Jillian hoped to gain some time alone to gather her thoughts.
“Trying to get rid of me?” He got off the bed and reached for the ice bucket on the dresser.
Jillian watched as he walked across the room toward the door. He moved silently like a panther, a rarity for a man of his size. Most men sounded like a herd of elephants. “Would it work if I did?”
“No, but I can’t blame you for trying.” Derek opened the door and left. The door stood ajar for his return.
Derek reached the ice machine, shoved the bucket under the dispenser, and pushed the button. The loud thunk of the ice cubes hitting the plastic container barely registered while he reviewed the situation.
Jillian wasn’t pregnant. He already knew that from her message, but she claimed she wasn’t sleeping with Jason either. And that, he still wasn’t sure he believed. He’d always suspected Jillian had a thing for Jason.
Derek should have called Jason. Why hadn’t he?
Instead, as soon as Derek had gotten the message he’d rushed over here.
Then he pictured the curve of her hips, the cute tilt of her eyes when she laughed, the blush of her cheeks. He remembered the feel of her pulse racing beneath his fingers when he’d grabbed her wrist.
Ice hit Derek’s fingers and he released the button, then stared at the frozen cubes.
Jillian Wilson was hot.
He remembered the first time he’d met her at his brother’s birthday party. One look at the tight fit of her jeans and the twinkle in her eyes and he was hooked. He wanted the lady.
Of course that was until Jason and Michael had reminded him that his dangerous job and Jillian’s oldfashion values were good reasons to stay clear of her.
And they’d been right. While they’d dated, Jillian had been unbending in the “marriage before sex” department. Which made the current situation even more perplexing.
Why did Jason think she was sleeping around?
Then his mind shifted. Was she here to meet a man?
That thought sent him into a tail spin.
His determination stiffened.
When he arrived at her hotel room earlier, he’d been ready to tear her apart for playing around with his brother. Then when she’d opened the door, he’d taken one look, and his thoughts of tackling her had turned to lust rather than anger. Her doe-brown eyes had greeted him with suspicion. Her body displayed an off-limits sign. Yet her sassy red lips and curvy hips teased him with unfulfilled promises. He’d wanted more than just answers. He wanted her soft and willing underneath him.
If Jillian Wilson needs a man, I’ll be more than happy to apply for the job.
“Shut the door and lock it,” screamed Jillian’s survival’s instincts.
But she knew she couldn’t get rid of Derek that easily. The conversation she’d had with Jason six weeks ago had made sense, but that night she’d felt lost and alone. Now it was different. Derek would think she’d lost her mind.
Wrestling with her conflicted emotions, she tried to sort through all the “should dos” from what she wanted to do. She came to the conclusion that she didn’t care. He’d dumped her over a year ago anyway. Who cared if he thought she was crazy? She didn’t need his approval. Wasn’t she old enough to do what she wanted?
She got up to retrieve the cups from the vanity in the bathroom. The flushed face that stared back at her from the bathroom mirror made her wonder if she would get through the evening with any dignity left.
She walked out of the bathroom. “Did you think I flew the coop?”
He turned and set the ice on the dresser. She handed him a cup.
“Well, the thought did cross my mind.” Derek’s hand briefly touched hers, and they both pulled away.
Jillian edged past him. The room had shrunk with his return. “Look, Derek, I told you I would explain and I will.” She filled her cup with ice and turned to get some water from the bathroom.
Derek blocked her path.
“Okay, why don’t you get started?” He covered her hand with one of his and removed her fingers from her cup and gave her his instead. Examining his long fingers, she wondered how those hands would feel on other parts of her anatomy.
When he released her, Jillian took a deep breath and looked up into Derek’s eyes. Something dark was reflected in their depths. Not anger, yet something just as dangerous. She shivered. “What do you want to know?”
His left eyebrow arched. “Why don’t we start with the conversation you had with Jason several weeks ago?”
He turned and moved toward the bathroom. She filled the empty cup in her hand with ice. “Well, as you know, my dad died several weeks ago from a heart attack. Jason came to the funeral.”
“Yes, he told me about it. I’m sorry, Jillian. I really liked your father.”
“Yes, well, after the funeral, I was tired of being surrounded by people and I needed to get away. Michael had a reservation at the local motel because we had so many overnight guests staying at our house.” Emotions bombarded her as she remembered that day’s events. The house had been full of people, yet the one voice she had wanted to hear had been absent.
“Anyway, Michael suggested that I use his room so that I could get away. Jason had a room at the same motel, so I rode over with him.”
She turned. “Michael’s room was right next door to Jason’s.”
Derek sat on the bed a few feet away from her.
“The two rooms had a connecting door.” Jillian passed him on her way to the bathroom to fill her cup. She continued with the explanation as she came out. “When we got there, I decided I didn’t really want to be alone so we opened the door between the two rooms. I went into Jason’s room to talk.”
Jillian walked across the tan carpet until she reached the far wall. Gazing out the large picture window, she saw the thick traffic on LBJ. Each car held a lone individual encased within its shell. The drivers were captured, their wants and needs hidden by the shiny metal of the car’s exterior. Their neighbors were oblivious to their pain. Stuck in suspended animation, stifled by pressure from every direction, each was stranded in the knot of passage.
Jillian closed her eyes as she remembered she’d never hear her father’s laughter again. Her voice cracked as she continued. “We talked about the future, what we wanted out of life. Jason told me about how he planned to ask Kelly to marry him, where they would live, and how many kids they would have.” Jillian glanced at Derek to see if he understood. “You know the kind of stuff that people talk about when they plan their future?”
He watched her intently. Then nodded his agreement, but he didn’t say anything.
“Anyway, that got me started, and by the end of the night, I had created a resolution to my personal problem which I called my pregnancy plan.”
She stopped and looked back out the window. How was she going to explain her plan? It had been developed in the heat of the moment. The plan was based on solid logic, but the subject matter was not easy to discuss or accept.
“A pregnancy plan?” Derek’s words came from directly behind her. She could feel his breath on her neck, his eyes boring into her back.
“Yes, a plan on how to get pregnant.” The frustration and anger began to build within her just like they had that night. Jillian gathered her shaking hands around her cup and willed them to be still. “Look, Derek, I don’t mean to sound rude, but it really is none of your business what I do. I’m not involved with Jason.”
She saw his unwillingness to cooperate by the slight narrowing of his eyes. “You can rest assured that I am not going to break up Jason and Kelly.” Jillian glanced back out the window and took a sip from her drink. “And my plan is none of your concern.”
She jumped when she felt Derek’s hand on her shoulder. “What is it you’re afraid of?”
Jillian turned and pushed past him. She didn’t want nor need his sympathy. Out of space with the door in front of her, she pivoted on the heels of her Nikes. “I’m not afraid of anything. I know what I want and I have come up with a plan to get it.”