I rub my stubbled jaw and take in the surroundings. Nothing like a party to remind you how alone you are.
New town, here for a couple of weeks, outsider looking in, surrounded by strangers, then home until the next job. Rinse and repeat.
It holds as true here, in the southern-most tip of Texas, as it does back home on the North Carolina coast.
Truth is, I don’t feel all that easy anywhere around other people. At least in NC, on a nice October night like this, when I’d rather be on my own, there’s a beach out my back door, and the roar of the ocean to keep me company. Here, there’s nothing but cicadas and jackrabbits as big as toddlers.
And long-legged, big-haired, fake-nailed debutantes, running around the backyard pool squealing, as guys who’ve drunk their weight in cerveza chase them into the water just for the hell of it.
Man, I thought that crap ended ten years ago, when I graduated from high school.
With a forefinger wrapped around the throat of a bottle, I run a thumb up and down my nose to hide a sneer. If this is any indication of how these Lone Star Contractors guys act down at the job site, it’s no wonder they’re about to miss their construction deadline.
And if this is the shit my crew and I are going to have to work with to get the job back on schedule, then the ten-day contract is going to be ten days too long.
But in the meantime, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy messing with one of the pool idiots.
A guy in baggy board shorts and no shirt has pursued one particular woman to no avail the entire two hours I’ve been watching her. At first, she was playful in her rejections. But she’d become less and less tolerant every time he interrupted her conversations as she migrated from guest to guest.
Can’t say I blame him for chasing her so hard. Even though her legs are as long as a Texas summer, her nails look like they’ve been dipped in watermelon, and her big, dark copper hair flows down her back, she’s not like the other women decorating the pool. Something about her—a softness in her smile maybe?—makes me think she’s not here to play with the hired help. If I hadn’t already met our host’s wife, I’d say this woman was the hostess, warm and welcoming to everyone.
Now, unless I’m reading the signs wrong, it looks like Big Guy’s going to try to throw her into the water with the other women. Not saying fitting his arms around her to pick her up is a bad idea, but she’s not even in a swim suit? How far does he think he’ll he get with her when she’s wet and mad as a little red hen?
Idiot. Flirt with her, sure. Maybe even horse around a bit, if she’ll let ya. But one thing I can’t stand is a man outright disrespecting a woman. “No” from a woman means no.
It’s about time somebody reminded him of that simple truth.
I polish off the last of my beer and push away from the tree trunk I’ve been leaning against. With a quick two-step, I’m able to separate the linebacker from his redheaded target just subtly enough that he stumbles over his own feet. In his solo dive, his ample right side smacks the water, hard. The satisfying sound makes me smirk, but I don’t look back on my way to the outdoor bar for a refill.
Don’t need to. Growing up the youngest of four prankster boys taught me lots of useful tricks. I perfected that sneaky move from sheer survival when I was about eight.
I set my empty on the bar and wait for the bartender to finish with another patron. Big Guy in the pool is taking some ribbing from his buddies, but there are enough bathing babes to distract him from the redhead, who’s moved away from the pool and has joined a small group by the fire pit.
On the patio, across from the bar and buffet area, a band is playing country tunes, and some of my guys have found dance partners. I need to ask if these girls work at the plant. My crew knows the rules about getting tangled up with people we work beside.
Doug Battles, CEO of Rio-Tex Electric, ambles over to me. Tall and tan, dressed in khakis and a blue polo, he reminds me of my father—successful, comfortable in his own skin after years of dealing with people and getting what he wants from them. “Did we feed you enough, Jack? Can’t beat Texas beef.”
The bartender raises his brows in question, and I waggle my beer bottle at him before answering my host. “You put on quite a spread, Mr. Battles.”
An easy smile flashes straight, white teeth. “Call me Doug.”
I nod acknowledgment. “Doug. Thanks. Good for our guys to mingle before they have to knuckle down tomorrow at the plant.”
“We’re glad you’re here. Looks like your guys are fitting in fine.” He chucks his chin toward the back yard. My right hand man, Frank, has a bathing beauty hanging off each arm and a smile stretched across his whiskered face. I catch his eye, and he winks at me. I snort and jerk my chin at him. Good thing Frank’s reliable. This job doesn’t get done without him in top form.
A beer bottle slides down the bar toward me. I grab it and turn around to survey the party. “Yeah. It’ll make things a lot easier in the long run. Do these women work at the plant?”
Doug rests one arm on the granite, hand dangling off the bar’s side. “Naw. They mostly came with the band. Some pretty faces and a little fun before you guys have to dive into the work. So much is riding on this project. Maybe even the future of energy in Texas.”
“It’s time to develop more than oil fields.” Squinting, I notice that linebacker’s out of the water, and the redhead is moving this way on a collision course with him.
Doug claps me on the shoulder. “Damn straight. Better yet, why not use the oil fields to produce electricity as well as oil and gas? Investors are excited about getting this geothermal project operational. They’ve got a lot of money tied up, and we have promises to keep. That’s why you’re here.”
I love this shit. Whether it’s rescuing women from over-zealous suitors or technology dreamers falling without the metaphorical parachute, count me in. And as much as I charge for my crew’s skills, it’s well worth the time crunch. The threat of $50,000 a day in liquidated damages if we miss the deadline ups the ante, but it’s expected in construction contracts of this size and importance.
“Don’t worry, Doug. We’ll bring it in on time.” I check each job out thoroughly before I agree to take it on. It’s all a carefully calculated risk.
“That’s how you won out over bigger, more established groups we could have hired. You have an excellent reputation, and your company is still small enough that you can’t afford to eat a few days of damages.”
He’s right. I’ve got to make sure we meet deadline. Even one day of losing fifty grand would severely strain my AmerItalia budget. Two days would mean disaster. Three days, and my business will be bankrupt. I’ll be pulling salaries and expenses from my own bank account.
And worse, it’ll mean I failed. Ended my career before it really gets off the ground. Worse, I won’t have taken proper care of my crew.
No, we will not miss this deadline.
A tussle shakes me out of dark musings. Sure enough, linebacker is trying for round two with the redhead. I set my bottle on the bar and pull myself up straight, ready to serve him another, more direct, intervention. Beside me, Doug’s already on it. “Jillian, darlin’, come over here. There’s somebody I want you to meet. Felix, let her go, now.”
She shakes Felix off and strides to us, swiping down her arms to whisk away chlorinated water. “What a pest.”
Her big grin belies serious annoyance. “Hi. I’m Jillian. Nice to meet you.” She extends a hand with its long, fine fingers, and something clenches in my gut.
I step into her as I take her hand in mine, noting that even barefooted, she’s only a few inches shorter than my six foot three. And looks to be as many years younger. “Jack.”
Doug waves at someone over at the firepit. “I’m being summoned. You two all right while I go see what Deana needs me for?”
Jillian tilts her head to one side, never taking her frank gaze off me. “Sure, Doug. I’ll take good care of him.”
“You better. He’s our secret weapon.” He pumps my hand, already easing away to join his wife. “See you tomorrow, Jack.”
There’s nothing coy about her stare. She takes her time checking me out, seemingly unaware that she’s doing it. No way she’s a band groupie. No, this is an Amazon in all her glory, curious about the stranger who’s wandered onto her territory. Other men might shrivel under that assessing gaze, worried about what part of dinner they’d left on their face. I just dish it right back at her and wait.
Finally she relaxes with a chuckle. “Sorry. Bad habit. Will you dance with me?”
Maybe I won’t be alone tonight after all. But until I figure out exactly who she is, I’m gonna suppress the lip that wants to curl into a smile back at her. It’s not that I’m against smiling, especially at pretty women. However, this one I want to smile at, which puts me on my guard. This one, I have a feeling, could burrow herself right into me. Twist me around with the force of her personality.
Or at least she’d try.
She doesn’t know how easy it is for me to take what’s offered and walk away afterward. It’s what I’m best at. My lifestyle doesn’t support the proverbial white picket fence, 2.5 kids, a wife, and a dog.
So tonight’s just for a few hours’ fun, then it’s on to the job tomorrow. “Sure, let’s dance. You gonna lead, or shall I?”
Way to go, Jillian.
Leave it to me to antagonize the only decent-looking guy here. The main reason I attended this soiree was to meet the guys Dad says are going to salvage our dreams of a greener Texas. But the reason I stayed this long and put up with Felix’s juvenile crap is this man, here. I’ve felt his striking honey-colored eyes on me all night. At first glance, he looks tough, all dark and moody, but then you catch those eyes pouring their richness over you, and…well, before I get too ahead of myself, let’s see what kind of dancer he is. A girl can tell a lot about a man by the way he holds her when he dances.
“Your choice.” I take him by the hand, intent on leading him to the dance area on the patio. But instead, he uses our twined hands to drag me up against him and wrap an arm around my waist. The air whooshes out of my lungs, and I almost giggle in surprise. Guess that answers the question about who wants to lead.
With a twitch of his lips and one arched brow, he dances us over to where the band is. Taking their cue from Jack’s possessive intimacy, they switch to a soft ballad.
Okay, the man has my attention. All the way to my toes, I’m tingling. He wants control, and I love when a man takes charge, as long as he’s not misogynistic about it. Nobody likes an asshole. This man isn’t acting like I was put on the Earth to service him, with nothing else to contribute to the world. The arm spanning the back of my waist is strong, not coercive. If I back up, he’ll let me go. But I’m nowhere near ready to be let go. I like the solid heat of him against me, the smell of soap and warm skin and alcohol wafting off him. His feet are sure , his guidance steady. It wouldn’t take much for me to relax into it and just enjoy…
In the midst of my dreaminess, he maneuvers me around to behind the band, where trees block us from view by the others. Once there, he lowers his dark head to the side of mine and inhales.
Omigod, he’s scenting me.
The primeval act sets my nerves on fire. Texas boys are fast, but this man packs a doozy of a wallop. “It’d be fine if you want to slow down there, pardner,” I drawl.
He pulls his head back and plants his golden gaze on me. Skin crinkles at the outer corners of his heavily-lashed lids, and I have the impression he’s amused. “Can’t afford to waste a minute.”
A reference to the job? Or has he set himself a deadline…for me? A little cyclone whirls up through my insides, and I embrace it. He’s here for what, two weeks? We could cover a passel of territory in that period. It’s been a while since I played hard with a guy, just for the fun of hard play. Judging by the way he’s holding me, he’d put me through my paces.
And make me beg for more.
How much damage could we do each other while he’s here?
Am I willing to find out?
That handsome face skims down my hair and buries itself in my neck. With his hand anchoring me to his body at the waist, his other hand gripping mine up close, I’m trapped. As he sways us to the ballad, I snuggle in even closer. God, he feels good. And tall enough to almost make me feel petite. Extra girly.
He grasps me tighter, and his moan is more a soft growl. “You smell good.”
I almost laugh out loud. I smell good? “That’s not too romantic, Jack. “
A hand slides down to rest right at the top of my backside, then presses me closer. “Your body just fits with mine. Better?”
Much better. I should probably care that people can see. But I don’t. All I can focus on right now is the feel of him handling my body, and how we feel trussed up together so tight, like a wrangler branding a wayward calf. Plenty of other guys have tried to put the moves on me right out of the gate, and their cockiness always felt sleazy. This man just feels focused. “Mmm…thank you. I like the way you dance.” A curl of his dark hair tickles my lips as I purr into his ear. “I owe you thanks for something else, too.”
His lips travel up my neck, nuzzling my cheek along the hairline. “What for?”
The rasp of scruff teases my skin and makes me want to stretch like a cat. “The way you handled Felix.”
He eases back a touch and this time his eyes twinkle. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
“Games? Okay. We can pretend you didn’t trip him into falling in the pool.”
He gives me a lazy shrug. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
The smile that’s been building on my lips widens. “Um-hmm. We can also pretend I didn’t see it. Probably best. You might have to work with the man tomorrow.”
He rotates me away for a quick twirl, then tucks me back in against him. I’m like a rag doll in his arms, and I like the feeling. Maybe too much. “Yeah. He’s the pipefitter supervisor. You didn’t meet him before when you checked out the site?”
The color of his eyes is now amber. Figuring out all the messages his eye colors signal could be somebody’s full time job. But his words interrupt my musings. “What is that guy to you?”
I flip a wayward lock of hair back over my shoulder. “Felix? He’s best friends with my brothers, so we basically grew up together.”
Searching my face, he seems intent on unlocking whatever secrets might be hidden there. “Nothing more? He was pretty persistent.”
“Yeah, on my side, that’s all.”
“You work at the plant, too? Or are you married to one of the guys here?”
“No to both.”
His head tilts. “What do you do?”
That’s a good question. One I never know how to answer. So, it’s my turn to lift a shoulder. “I’m still figuring that out. The college degree I just earned was in business.”
“So you’re here tonight for the band?”
“They’re good, aren’t they?”
He studies me, calm and solid as granite. One cool customer, Jack DePaul. Neither his face nor his body gives away any of his thoughts. And even though one song has ended and a faster one is playing, he hasn’t changed his tempo or his hold on me. In fact, he plants his face against my neck again. It’s beginning to feel like a permanent condition. One I could get used to, if I let myself.
And that would be stupid. Whatever happens between us, permanent isn’t part of the equation. Even if I wanted more, my brothers and father would never let me fall for someone who might take me away from Texas, like a construction worker from North Carolina.
Me, I kinda like a guy who’s good with his hands, Texan or not.
He stirs against my neck. “I’m ready to go. You staying, or are you leaving with me?” I feel the rumble of his words in my chest as much as hear them in my ear.
Startled, I blink. Talk about zero to sixty in three seconds flat! “You’re all of a sudden tired of dancing?”
He slides one leg in between mine and sways, causing all sorts of havoc in my nether regions. I can feel his grin against my cheek. “I was under the impression that maybe you’re angling for a different kind of dance.”
Damn, he’s not wrong. I’m humming in all the right places. We’ve got two weeks to take care of that condition. “Your car or mine?”
He opens his mouth to speak, and my phone rings. “Shit. I gotta get this. Hold on.”