“Can I slide down your pole?”
“No. But your teacher can.”
I was jerked from my inappropriate daydreams when twenty-four heads spun in my direction, the five-year-olds in my class peering at me hopefully—as if I’d actually do such a thing.
The comment caught me off guard, since I’d tried to stop listening a few minutes earlier. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in what was being said.
In truth, my problem had everything to do with the way it was being said. In a slow, deep, rich timbre that had my nipples hard and my panties wet.
To try to counteract it, I’d been looking around the fire station, feigning interest in the trucks, equipment, uniforms, hoses. Basically anything that might distract me from staring into the crystal clear, bright blue eyes of Jake “Big Hose” Garrett.
Then I realized everyone was still looking at me, waiting for a response.
“I hardly think I’m dressed for that,” I said, gesturing to my aquamarine, gypsy-style maxi skirt.
Jake’s gorgeous baby blues slid leisurely down from my very basic, very proper white T-shirt from Target to my brown ankle-strap sandals, taking in everything in between.
I wasn’t a prude or shy, but when Jake’s gaze returned to my face, deep dimples framed his face and drew my attention to his lips as he gave me the world’s most lethal grin.
I never blushed, but the heat in my cheeks grew even hotter when he said, “I think you’re dressed just right.”
I shot him a narrow-eyed gaze, silently chastising him for his completely inappropriate sexual innuendos. Not that the kindergartners had a clue this conversation had absolutely nothing to do with me, their teacher, Ms. Connor, sliding down that pole in the corner.
Jake was flirting. Something I’d been warned would happen.
I had moved to Bootlick, Kansas, from Harrisonburg, Virginia, exactly a month ago, after landing my first teaching job in the small town. I was the only kindergarten teacher at Earhart Elementary School.
I hadn’t known a soul in town when I pulled up to the rental home I’d found online, every single thing I possessed in my Volkswagen Jetta and the small U-Haul I’d towed halfway across the country. I’d been a late hire, which meant the majority of my things were still in boxes scattered around mostly empty rooms. I’d started work two days after arriving in town and I hadn’t had time to unpack properly or even assemble the new furniture I’d purchased, every spare moment at home spent planning lessons for the next day.
The short time between move and work had actually been a blessing in one regard. Bootlick wasn’t much bigger than a cigar box and it had become apparent, fairly early on, that my best chance of meeting people was at school. The school nurse, Ada, had introduced herself the first day and taken pity on me. She was a born and bred Bootlicker—a name she’d disturbingly given herself—and she had taken me under her wing, filling me in on who was who and what was where.
So it was Ada who’d warned me when my field trip to the fire station was approved that Jake Garrett was the hottest commodity in town, as well as the resident bad boy. She said he would lay on the charm, with the single goal of getting into my pants.
Like a jackass, I’d assured Ada I was in no danger.
Then Jake had sauntered out of the open garage door, in a navy-blue T-shirt that had been washed twelve too many times and faded jeans that accentuated every curve, every muscle, every drool-worthy inch of his chiseled body.
I had looked too far south again. My eyes flew to his face and Jake shot me a wink that let me know he’d caught me staring at his ass. Then he continued talking about all the things a firefighter wore, grabbing a large fire helmet off a nearby counter and plopping it down on Layla Saunders’ blonde head, to everyone’s amusement.
This wasn’t good.
I knew Jake’s type—intimately. Knew it well enough that I could recite—chapter and verse—all the reasons why I was not going to fall into bed with someone like him.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…
I searched the faces of the children who surrounded Jake, all of whom were hanging on his every word, and found him.
My number one reason for resisting the playboy firefighter pulling out all the flirting stops, with his “look how great I am with kids” grin and the subtle flexing of his biceps as he lifted himself up on the side of the firetruck to point out the tower ladder.
Unfortunately, looking at George didn’t help because my son was staring at Jake like he was a flipping Avenger, the god of thunder, and the fire ax Jake had slung over his shoulder was Thor’s goddamn hammer.
George wanted a dad. I knew that. The poor kid practically salivated when it came to male attention.
The problem with giving the kid what he wanted meant I had to find a way to resist guys like Jake and seek out a decent, respectable man.
I’d gone so far as to make a list of attributes for this—so-far—unspecified man. I needed someone who was serious about his career, responsible with money, and loved George.
I realized there probably should have been more on that list—something to do with my attraction to the guy, but every other thing I added tended to fall into a category that had less to do with finding George a good dad and more to do with me having a good time in bed.
Bad boys were my kryptonite.
Jake hopped down from the truck, landing right next to me. It was the closest he’d gotten to me since we’d arrived.
He smelled good. Some faint musk cologne mingled with peppermint. I’d seen the dish of sweets on a counter against the back wall when we’d arrived and had to shoo half the class away. Kids must be born with some sort of candy radar.
Tempted to lean closer, I cleared my throat and looked at the kids. “Anybody else have a question for Jake before snack time?”
I added snack time because I’d learned on the first day of school, kindergarteners always have more questions. And none of them have a damn thing to do with the lesson. I hoped the promise of food would stifle that desire.
No such luck.
Six hands shot up. “Amy,” I called out.
“Are you going to have another sleepover with my mommy?”
I was mortified, but Jake just laughed.
“Well,” he started.
“No more questions,” I said before Jake could answer or God forbid, anyone else make the same inquiry. “Let’s head outside and have our snack. Then we need to say goodbye to Jake and get back to school.”
Food was a great distractor when it came to five-year-olds, so I had to hustle to keep up as they swarmed the picnic table behind the fire station. I pulled out the small bags of animal crackers, while Jake opened the cooler of drinks, handing each kid a juice box.
Once they were all settled, I opened up my own pack of crackers. Before I could pull one out, another hand was sneaking into my bag.
“So, Mrs.” Jake reached down, pulling my left hand up to inspect my ring finger. “Miss Connor,” he corrected with a grin that reminded I’d failed to slip on my fake engagement ring. I stifled a grimace. That ring was my key defense against guys like Jake. “How are you liking Bootlick?”
The town was small enough that a new teacher moving in was actually considered interesting news. “It’s very nice. I’ve only been here a month, so I’m afraid I haven’t had much time to explore.”
“I could show you around. Give you the lay of the land.”
I’m sure you could. In your bedroom.
“That’s okay,” I said, hastily, shoving any thoughts of Jake and a bed away. “I started work a couple days after moving in, so I still have a ton of unpacking to do.”
“I could help with that too. Do some of the heavy lifting for you. Help set up your bed…room.”
I wasn’t sure if I imagined the pause between bed and room or if it was really there. Jake shifted closer to me, helping himself to another cracker. Apparently, we were splitting the package, even though there were a half dozen more unopened bags on the picnic table.
The sad truth was I was tempted to take him up on the offer. George and I were still sleeping on mattresses on the floor because assembling the bed frames required tools I didn’t have.
I shrugged. “I’m good. Thanks anyway.”
I thought he had gotten the picture and taken the rejection in stride.
Then he said, “How about a drink one night? You can’t be all work and no play.”
I knew exactly how to shut down the flirting. I pointed to George. “Actually, I can. See the blond boy there in the red T-shirt. He’s mine.”
Jake didn’t seem bothered to discover I was a mother. “Cute kid. What’s his name?”
“George,” I said. Then I recalled Amy’s question. Clearly kids weren’t a deterrent when it came to his sexual conquests. “I should probably start clean—”
“Let me guess,” Jake interrupted. “You’ve been warned to stay away from me.”
I wasn’t sure how to reply to that because I had been told in no uncertain terms that Jake had some sort of snake charmer skills when it came to getting women into bed. So I lied. “No. I haven’t.”
He tilted his head, studying my face in disbelief. I was careful to school my features.
Then my curiosity got the better of me. “Why would someone warn me to stay away from you? Are you dangerous?”
I’d never met a guy who gave a shit about his reputation. I figured men like Jake wore them around like badges of honor.
Jake gave me a smile that revealed perfect white teeth and it occurred to me he was very, very dangerous.
“I’m not dangerous,” he lied. “But I am a sucker for redheads with big brown eyes. Everybody in town knows that.”
“Is that right?”
Dammit. My voice was coming out too breathy, too flirty. That wasn’t my intent at all. I was supposed to be resisting this…him.
Unfortunately, my body had my brain in a chokehold and I was running out of air. It had been a very long, very painful dry spell. I needed sex.
He smiled, reaching over to flip the end of my braid through his fingers. It was a playful, friendly touch, so my sudden desire to tear his T-shirt off and sink my teeth into one of his ripped abs seemed a bit over the top.
His eyes narrowed slightly and I worried maybe he could read minds. “You’re not in danger, Miss Connor, but I am. You should put me out of my misery.”
He loved pointing out my single state. I wish I could figure out a way to cut through the sexual tension between us. Neither of us was saying much of anything, yet I felt like there was this whole other conversation happening just below the surface. Especially when he reached for another cracker, his fingers lightly caressing the back of my hand as he did so. It was a feather-light touch, but it packed a punch.
My stomach fluttered every time he leaned close, my breathing shallow, rapid. My pussy clenched whenever he looked at me.
“Misery, huh? What would you suggest I do? We had a dog that was suffering once. My dad took him out back and shot him.”
Jake laughed. “I was thinking of something a little more humane.”
“I think that was very humane.”
“You’re a cold, cruel woman, Miss Connor. It’s turning me on. Have a drink with me. Or better yet, dinner.”
One glance below his belt proved I wasn’t the only one standing here in a total state of arousal.
He shifted his hips and adjusted his jeans, but not before I caught sight of the telltale bulge of his erection.
This was insane. There were too many kids running around.
Time to get a grip.
Problem was I hadn’t felt this hot and bothered since before George was born.
Getting pregnant on the same night you lose your virginity has a way of killing a sex drive. I merely fooled around during high school, limiting myself to second base and no further. Sophomore year of college that self-control gave way to Alan Lord, the sex-on-a-stick frat boy, who talked me into going to a party with him, then talked me out of my pants. Between his charming Southern drawl—sweet Jesus, what was it about a guy calling you darlin’—and the three vodka tonics, I’d succumbed.
Three weeks later, the stick I’d pissed on showed a plus sign, so I dropped out of college, moved back home and did college the hard way—online while working a part-time job and taking care of a baby.
Alan chose not to exercise his paternal rights, fucking asshole, and for six years, I hadn’t felt a single spark of horniness.
And now, it all came back to me in one typhoon of hunger and need and clawing desire.
If I ordered a dildo online right now, could it be delivered by tonight? I actually started to reach for my iPhone, then recalled where I was. And who I was with.
“Shi—ugar cubes,” I muttered.
Ever since George was born, I’d been trying to clean up my language. I was only about halfway successful.
Jake chuckled. “You okay, Miss Connor?”
I needed to cut this off at the knees. Now. “My name is Hope.”
“Hope. Very pretty name.”
“Use it instead, okay?”
“I don’t know. I sort of like the sound of Miss Connor. Puts me in a naughty frame of mind.”
Oh yeah—I was going to ignore that line. As soon as I fast-forwarded through at least six naughty things I wanted Jake to do to me, starting with me bent over my own teacher’s desk while he spanked me with a ruler.
I wondered if I could improvise on the dildo. Cucumber? I didn’t have anything at home for dinner, so a trip to the grocery store was definitely in order.
Jake ran the back of his fingers over my cheek. “Does the same thing for you, doesn’t it? You’re blushing again.”
“Fuc—dge.” This had to stop right here. “Listen, Jake. I appreciate the invitation for drinks, but I’m not interested in dating right now.”
“We can go as just friends.”
I nearly laughed in his face. I had a million feelings rumbling around inside me at the moment and not one of them was friendly.
I shook my head, digging deep for the strength to say what needed to be said. “I think I should stop you right here. I have two priorities at the moment and they include my son and my new job. I don’t have time for dating, and even if I did, you aren’t my type.”
“How do you know?”
He laughed at my discomfiture. “So you have been warned.”
I had just enough pride that I hated being called on my lie. “Let’s just say your reputation precedes you and while I’m sure you’re used to women who are fine with a few nights tangling the sheets with you, I have a son to think of. When I step back into the dating world, it’s going to be with someone interested in going the distance.”
“You know,” I explained, certain my next words would run him off for sure. “Someone who’ll be a good dad to George.”
Unfortunately, Jake Garrett was made of sterner stuff.
“And what about you? Don’t you want love and companionship and…” He leaned so close I could feel the heat of his breath on my face as he added, “A man buried deep between those pretty legs of yours?”
I started to ask him how he knew my legs were pretty. Right now, they were buried underneath a ton of flowing, colorful cotton.
Instead, I just shrugged. All of the things he mentioned fell considerably lower on my list of dating requirements. George’s happiness was my primary concern. Love and—I swallowed heavily—great sex didn’t matter when stacked against what was best for my son.
“I think you’re lying,” he murmured, standing way too close to me to be appropriate.
“You want that heart-stopping, soul-burning sex,” he said, scrutinizing my face, his words spoken so low and deep I could barely hear him. “You need someone to ease that throbbing in your pussy. You’re starving for it.”
“Jake,” I chastised, my voice almost a whisper.
“They can’t hear us.” He put a couple feet between us, but he clearly hadn’t given up the fight. “You realize you can have fun along the way, while you look for this pillar of fatherhood, don’t you?”
Before I could answer, I felt a tug on my skirt. “Can I have another juice box, Mommy?”
I smiled down at George, grateful for the distraction. Things between Jake and me were getting out of hand.
The last month had been an adjustment for both of us, first the cross-country move, the new house, and the fact that I was his teacher. “I don’t have enough for everyone to have a second, George.”
I knew in an instant he was going to pout. God help his first-grade teacher next year because he was seriously going to be screwed up after a year of Mom-teacher.
Mercifully, Jake knew exactly how to distract him. “You a baseball fan?” he asked, tapping on the bill of George’s Washington Nationals cap.
“Yeah!” George replied excitedly. His undying love of baseball was fairly recent, sparked by my father, who’d taken him to a Nationals game last spring. Since then, George had talked of precious little else, begging for a glove, bat, balls and wanting me to pitch with him outside twenty-four seven.
I hated baseball. Like despised it. Watching paint dry had more appeal.
“You ever considered playing on a team?” Jake asked.
“He’s a little young, don’t you think?” I replied.
Jake shook his head as George’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head at the thought.
“Local parks and rec runs little league. Tee-ball is part of it. Sign-ups for fall ball are going on now.”
“Tee-ball?” The idea of sitting on hard bleachers watching five-year-olds knock baseballs off a post for hours on end sounded like the definition of hell.
Unfortunately, George had already signed with a major-league team in his mind. “Can I, Mommy? Can I play?”
“You don’t have any equipment,” I said, trying to recall exactly how much money was left in my checking account. The move had taken what little money I’d managed to save and my first paycheck was still another week or two away.
“I have a glove,” George insisted.
Right now, he had an old mitt of my dad’s that was way too big for him. “It’s an adult glove, George. You can barely keep it on your hand.”
Jake was no more deterred than George. “Rec department has extra mitts they’ll loan out.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask Jake to stop being so freaking helpful, but it was too late. The damage was done.
George was dancing around us. “I’m going to play baseball.”
Jake laughed at his enthusiasm. “You ever play catch?”
George settled down. “Mommy throws the ball to me.”
“She any good?”
I narrowed my eyes at Jake, who was clearly having fun at my expense.
“She throws like a girl,” George muttered. “The ball doesn’t go very far.”
I wanted to argue about that, but I couldn’t. Glancing down, I could still make out the faint remnants of the bruise on the top of my foot, left there by one of my less-than-stellar throws.
“How about I teach you?” Jake offered and I instantly saw his game.
No. Fuuuuuck no.
“You will?” George started bouncing again. “Can he, Mommy? Please. Pretty please?”
“I could stop by Saturday afternoon.” Jake’s smug smile let me know he believed he’d won this round.
I nodded, simply because I didn’t trust myself not to let the few choice words I was thinking fly.
“Great.” Jake slipped his phone out of his pocket, tapped in a few things, then held it out to me. “Why don’t you put in your number and I’ll text later to set up a time and get your address?”
I begrudgingly took the phone because George was still there, watching us. Jake had put Miss Connor in as the contact information.
I was “this close” to giving the asshole the wrong number, but one look at George’s excited face had me typing in the real thing.
Jake’s fingers brushed mine when I handed the phone back and every single thing inside me clenched…with excitement and need.
“We, um.” My throat was suddenly tight. I cleared it. “We should get back on the bus.”
Jake reached out for a handshake. I accepted it because it was the polite thing to do, but his hand was too large and warm with callouses that proved he wasn’t afraid of hard work. And because I was pretty much out of control of my libido, I imagined what those rough fingers would feel like inside me.
I shivered. Jake noticed, and his eyes went dark with the same hunger I felt.
“I’ll see you on Saturday.”
I nodded, then tried to pull my hand back. Jake didn’t let go. Instead, he gave it one last squeeze.
I tugged harder and he relented.
As soon as I was free, I felt the overwhelming desire to give him my hand back.