— PROLOGUE —
Five years earlier
NOTHING said unnecessary risk exposure like a man nearing his thirties wading into a teenage house party.
“You need to lighten up, man.”
Jake Foster gave his brother Matt a scathing glare. If one of them needed to do anything, it was Matt, and the thing was grow up. “Let’s just get Sean and drag him home before the Colonel gets wind of him getting blitzed again.”
“Dad needs to lighten up, too.”
“Maybe I should call Dean and get him to shut this party down.” Their older brother was an OPP officer. He wasn’t quite the stick-in-the-mud that Jake had prematurely become, but the two of them were the more responsible pair of brothers by far. Matt and Sean, four and eight years younger respectively, were unapologetic party animals.
They sat in the cab of Jake’s truck, staring at each other for a minute in a futile game of chicken. Jake wasn’t going to call the cops and Matt wasn’t going to push further. Neither of them was happy about having to pick up their drunk-ass brother on a Saturday night.
“Come on, let’s get this over with.” Jake hopped out of the truck and strode up the long country drive of the oversized farmhouse, heading toward the sights and sounds of a party falling apart. Intoxicated, belligerent young people spilled out on the veranda and across the lawn. None of them looked like high school students—mostly college-aged kids. And it sounded like the party had definitely gone awry. Bitter noises filled the air around him about stolen money and not enough beer. He scanned the faces, many of them familiar to him, and a sick feeling filled his gut. Halfway up the drive, he turned around and shoved Matt hard in the chest. “We’re not just picking up Sean, are we? Is Dani in there?”
Matt winced, caught in his half-truth. “She’s the one that called, not Sean. They’re hanging out back where it’s quieter.”
Jake swore under his breath and took off at a run, swerving around two former football players shoving each other. Idiots.
The din faded as they hit the backyard. A smaller group of people sat in a circle, passing a bottle around. One guy had his guitar out. Jake’s heart pounded as he scanned for her face.
“Over here.” Her voice lifted into the air behind him and he spun around. They sat on the porch, Sean leaning heavily against her shoulder. She had a hoodie draped awkwardly over half her body, but underneath she was wearing a tiny tank top. He was sure that when she stood up there’d be a few inches of bare skin between her shirt and her snug-as-fuck blue jeans she always wore, and then he’d be screwed.
At least it was dark. There was a passing chance no one would notice that he was turned on by his best friend’s little sister.
“Dani, what the hell are you doing here?”
She made a face. “Spare me the lecture, Jake. I came with Sean. Would you rather he be here alone?”
“I’d rather you both be at home watching Saturday Night Live.”
“It’s the last weekend of the summer. We’re all heading back to college and university. Give us a break.”
Jake tightened his voice. It was better than growling. “I’ll give you a break when you start acting like—”
Matt got between them and held up his hands. “You guys can continue this in the truck.” He turned to Sean who gave him a lazy finger and fell backwards. “Come on, bro.”
Dani helped push Sean up, but once upright he ambled along with Matt under his own steam. Jake held back, knowing that if he followed too closely he’d end up yelling at Dani again.
Dani Minelli. Rafe’s little sister. The only girl between two families of boys. They were all protective of her—except Sean, her accomplice in crime, apparently—and the thought of her getting hurt because of a foolish decision to be reckless made Jake see red.
She stalked ahead, her long, slim denim-clad legs disappearing into the ink black night. If only the rest of her didn’t stand out like a beacon for his dick. That tight, white tank top stopped at the tight nip of her waist, and what felt like acres of creamy skin glowed at him above the hip-hugging jeans. Those hips. They were his undoing.
Dani was tall and lanky, but sometime after her seventeenth birthday she’d grown these hips that were meant for holding on to, and Jake had lost his mind. He didn’t understand how his brothers kept seeing her as a little sister. The truth was, Jake had never really seen her like that. But she’d been little Dani until all of a sudden she could look him in the eye and when she turned around, he wanted to fall to his knees.
Three years hadn’t changed that. Punishing workouts, cold showers, and dating women his own age hadn’t changed that. Going to communion hadn’t fucking changed that, and the priest hadn’t understood what Jake was so worked up over, and suggested he talk to Dani. Talk to her. And freak her out for life. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.
No, Jake planned to take his obsession with Dani Minelli’s ass to the grave.
Particularly after his meeting with Mike Fenich earlier that afternoon.
“Jake, my boy,” Mike said in his booming voice. “How’s your line of credit?”
Since Jake had no social life and an excellent job as one of Mike’s foremen with Fenich & Sons Construction, it was pretty good.
“I’m thinking it’s time to retire. Gloria wants to go to Florida this winter, and the new cottages we’ve built will keep me plenty busy in the summer.”
Jake’s pulse picked up. He’d hoped this conversation might happen one day, but Mike was still young and healthy. Jake mentally did some math. He’d probably be able to swing buying his boss out. And Foster Construction would be more than just a wish and a prayer. It was everything he’d worked for. Everything he’d wanted.
But now as he walked down the drive behind Dani, his hungry gaze devouring that which he could never have, his earlier joy turned bitter on his tongue. He could feel Mike Fenich clapping him on the shoulder. “We’ll make this happen before Christmas, Jake. I’m sad I don’t have any boys of my own to pass the torch to, but you’re not like the rest of the young bucks out there. You keep your nose clean and you work hard. Keep that up and this’ll happen, mark my words.”
He was twenty-eight to her twenty years. She had three older brothers who would beat the living daylights out of him if he touched her, and Mike Fenich would never let him take over his trusted customers if he started a scandal that would appall the entire population of Pine Harbour—all six hundred gentle souls.
One thing was crystal clear as she hopped onto the running board and leaned into the backseat of his truck. He needed to get over Dani Minelli. And if he managed that feat, he’d buy himself a lottery ticket.
They dropped off Matt and Sean first, because the Foster family home was closer to the outskirts of town. Jake muttered something to Matt about dumping Sean in the shower and then pulled away from the curb as soon as Matt slammed the door shut behind them. Dani shrank back into her seat. Jake wouldn’t even look at her, hadn’t continued to yell at her after the aborted lecture at Trudy Sorenson’s house.
Pine Harbour was small, and Dani’s parents’ house was only three blocks into town from the Foster place. Even if she’d wanted to talk to him, there wasn’t time.
And she didn’t want to talk. She wanted to climb into his pants and down his throat, grab his hands and shove them up her top. She wanted to do all sorts of sweaty, awesome things with Jake, most of which she only had academic knowledge of, but there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d be open to any of that.
Jake Foster was the most beautiful human being she’d ever laid eyes on. Tall, broad-shouldered and lean-waisted, with legs that went on forever and stretched out a faded pair of jeans or his camp-green Army uniform in all the right places. All the right places. Okay, so that wasn’t his leg that she imagined behind his fly.
God, she was so immature. She could just imagine how that conversation would go down.
“Jake, I really want to know what your penis looks like. In my imagination it’s the most beautiful erection in the world.”
“Ew, ick, Dani. By the way, how many erections have you seen? Because Rafe and I have to kill some guys now.”
The good news was there would be no murdering, because she hadn’t seen any male anatomy up close and in real life. And she was scared to click on most of the Internet links she’d found, so her knowledge was limited to health class text books, Wikipedia and Google Image searches. Which still gave her a lot of comparative data, and left her quite certain that Jake would win the prize for best erection ever.
The thought actually made her mouth water, and that made her blush. She knew people did that—had seen shadows moving at parties and heard more than enough when her brothers thought she wasn’t listening. But while she liked kissing and touching—she really like touching—she wasn’t in a hurry to take the next step. Sex with anyone else sounded messy and raw. Revealing and dangerous.
Sex with Jake would be magical.
Even as she let herself indulge in her favourite fantasy, Dani knew it was ridiculous. Jake was just like any other man. Sex would be sex, nothing more, and she needed to stop pretending otherwise.
And then after the sex, if she was so lucky that Jake would see her as anything other than an over-sized brat, a lifetime of embarrassment would follow. He’d have seen her, all of her, in the basest of ways. And they would grow old with that dirtiest of secrets between them. Yeah, that was a non-starter.
Her entire block was dark and Jake pulled to a silent stop a few houses back. “Your parents don’t need to see my headlights in their driveway at this time of night.”
It was only midnight and she was an adult without a curfew, but she wasn’t going to pick another fight. “Thank you.”
He needed to get out to let her out, unless she climbed into the front seat and went out the passenger side. He didn’t move. Neither did she. He stared straight ahead and started talking instead, his voice quiet in the even quieter night. “You’re a good friend to Sean.”
“He’s not in trouble. He’s just…the baby of the family.” She knew all about that. “And no offence, Jake, but I get the impression that you never really had a wild youth.”
He laughed, a gentle rumble. “That’s probably true.” She could see his profile clearly in the moonlight. His jaw was set, his lips straight, and he held that position for what felt like an eternity before he turned to look at her. His face was now almost completely in shadow, and she was suddenly aware that hers would be lit up in comparison. She swallowed hard. Try not to look like a lovesick fool, Dani.
“How about you? You’re not getting into trouble?”
She shook her head. “I’m pretty head-down, focusing on school.”
“Matt said that it looks good for you to do a field placement in Wiarton.” Jake’s brother was a new-hire paramedic based at the regional hospital thirty minutes south of Pine Harbour. If all went well, she’d be able to get hired on there as a casual paramedic as well. “I don’t need to tell you that shenanigans can come back to bite you in the ass later on.”
“Shenanigans?” She couldn’t hold back a laugh. “I think you’re confusing me with your brothers.”
“Not possible,” his voice rolled toward her from the shadows, sending shivers down her spine. He took a deep breath and turned away, opening his door. “Come on, Cinderella.”
She rolled her eyes at him as she climbed out but he just waved her off. She returned the wave, intending it to be the final goodnight, but he fell into step beside her. “Jake, I don’t need a walk home.” She pointed at the quiet street. “No boogymen, see?”
“Humour me,” he said gruffly.
“So how about you, not getting into trouble?” she parroted his earlier question back at him and he gave her a thoughtful look.
“Actually…” He launched into an unexpected share, telling her about an offer Mike Fenich had just made him. It sounded absolutely perfect, actually, and her heart ached at the thought of Jake owning his own business. Not because she didn’t want that for him—he’d be an upstanding community leader and an excellent employer, she had no doubt—but it just underlined how far apart their lives were. How insurmountable their age difference. Probably before she came home from college next year he’d be married to a future soccer mom.
“That’s wonderful,” she whispered, not trusting her voice to hold. They’d reached her house now, and she didn’t want him to stop talking. This was the longest private conversation she’d ever had with Jake. He wasn’t staring at her with his usual distrust. He wasn’t looking at her at all, but he was sharing and it felt wonderful.
“Yeah. It means a shifting of priorities, but it’s the right thing to do.”
She caught a sad note as he spoke and forgot her own melancholy for a minute. “Jake?” He blinked and glanced at her briefly before drifting away again, as if he’d forgotten who he was talking to for a minute. “You want to sit?”
He lowered himself to sit on the front steps and braced his feet wide on the flagstone path. He leaned his elbows on his knees and stared across the street. She was used to feeling invisible around him, but it was sort of rude that he never made eye contact. She took a seat next to him, letting herself be close enough that she could feel the brush of his t-shirt against her bare arm. He smelled like spice and man, almost mythic—more fantasy than reality.
“You’re going to be really good at it. Being the boss and all that. You’re so…responsible.” That sounded vaguely insulting. “I mean that in a good way.”
He huffed a small laugh. “I know.”
“Is it scary? Buying a company?”
“A bit. A good kind of scary. It’s motivating. Even if it’s not as glamorous as other jobs.”
She got it. Her parents had both started their own businesses. There was something magical about the unlimited potential of being your own boss. “Don’t sell yourself short. Responsibility is sexy.”
The hot summer night got hotter and the air stopped moving around them. Dani’s face turned red and she wanted the porch to collapse beneath them, or at a minimum for Jake to not have heard her say that. Why couldn’t she have used any other word? Good. Nice. Even attractive wouldn’t have made her feel so juvenile in comparison to the now painfully uncomfortable man next to her. “I didn’t…I mean…”
“Goodnight, Dani.” His voice was strained as he pushed up and away from the porch. Without thinking, she leapt up and grabbed his forearm, trying desperately not to think about how absolutely awesome it felt under her hand. Hot, silky skin covered in soft, golden hair. Corded muscles flexing as he stood there, still not looking at her. “You should go to bed.”
“I’m not a kid.” She swallowed hard and stood her ground. “I don’t get it. You drive me home, but you can’t even stand to look at me. I can’t pay you a compliment without you getting weird. All because you see me as Rafe’s twelve-year-old kid sister. Newsflash, buddy—I’m a woman.”
He turned so slowly that she half expected him to stop long before he did. But he didn’t freeze when his gaze connected with hers, or when his upper body had twisted back in her direction. He didn’t stop until he turned all the way around and they somehow went from her holding his arm to him holding both of hers. His large, strong hands slid up to firmly grasp her upper arms and he pulled her close.
“I know you’re a woman,” he said, his words strained. “That’s the problem.”
“You know…” Suddenly aware of her breathing, Dani tried to play it cool. “You don’t see me as a twelve-year-old?”
He gave her a baleful look that revealed just enough masculine hunger to keep her from feeling silly. “No.”
Dani had read enough romance novels to know what came next. Her heart pounded in her chest as she stared into Jake’s eyes. He was looking at her, really looking at her, and unless she was pathetically mistaken, he wanted to kiss her. Any second now, he’d close the gap between their bodies and she’d feel him hard against her belly. The thought made her weak at the knees and wet between her legs.
But he didn’t pull her closer. He didn’t move away, either, just held her there, staring. She said his name, quietly at first and then repeated it again a little louder, and he cut her off the second time, his voice strained. “I can’t. Your brothers…hell, my brothers would kick my ass.”
“It’s none of their business,” she whispered, pressing up on her tiptoes. Maybe she could arch her back and trick him into kissing her.
He frowned. “It’ll be everyone’s business. And that will be the end of my business before it even starts.”
“Because of one little kiss?”
His brows knitted together. “It wouldn’t be—” He let out a harsh exhale and released her arms only to slide his hands into her hair and pull her face toward his. But his kiss landed on her forehead instead of her lips, and Dani’s heart cracked. “Go back to college. Forget that your brother’s friend is a dirty old man who likes the way your hips look in blue jeans.”
He squeezed the nape of her neck gently before stepping back and lifting his hand in an absent wave as he walked backward down the front walk. She pressed her unkissed lips together and watched in disbelief as the object of her long-held affection drifted away.