The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!
—Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Every time I go out of my way to avoid someone, they appear. Like magic.
Like dark magic from hell. Or in this particular case, like the devil incarnate.
Our gazes clash and then my eyes skitter away like they’ve been scalded, but his image is burned on the back of my retinas.
He’s wearing a suit. Black jacket, stark white shirt, black bow tie. Which maybe wouldn’t be remarkable, except this isn’t a fancy restaurant or a wedding. It’s a township meeting in rural Texas.
The Blue Falls High School cafeteria was an unlikely hellscape, but the city hall was unavailable because someone had flushed their dentures down one of the public toilets and they had to close for water damage. This was the largest available public space, equipped with plenty of uncomfortable seats, glaring overhead lights, and squeaky linoleum.
Jude should look ridiculous amid the rest of the over-sixties currently occupying the room in their beige and pastel shirts and slacks—they don’t even seem to notice he’s there—but instead he looks like he always does.
Relaxed. Unconcerned. Delicious.
The outfit is a stark contrast to his scruffy beard and long hair. The brief glimpse of his intense, bright blue eyes has my stomach twisting with nerves.
My first instinct is to run, but I can’t. There’s no getting out of this. The town council meeting every month is one of my only bylines.
“Annabel.” I yank my gaze from the blue-eyed devil in the room. Rudy Quinn stands near the head table where the town council convenes, dressed in his perfectly pressed police uniform, the badge on his chest glinting under the fluorescent lights.
“Heya, Rudy.” Everyone knows Rudy. His daddy is the district attorney. Plus we went to Blue Falls High near about the same time. He’s at almost every event I have to cover for the paper. He’s a bit on the awkward side, and on the round side, and pleasant enough, but it’s hard to exit a conversation with him once it gets going. He’s like sweet tea in the South: abundant and always available and too much makes your teeth ache.
“Covering the meeting for the paper?” His accompanying smile is wide and friendly.
I nod. “As I do. Anything good on the docket tonight?”
“Oh, you know how it is. We’ve had increased calls to the station about unidentified vehicles around town. Chief wants me here because we know it’s gonna be a topic. He wanted me on hand to help reduce the paranoia and assure the public that there have been no increases in crime in conjunction with the sightings, no reports of any theft or the like, and we have things under control. We’ve increased units patrolling through town and are on the lookout for anything suspicious. He knows I’m the best person for the job, the voice of reason, so he’s been sending me out on overtime almost every night this week. I’m really the best at—”
“Right. Yes. Of course you are.” It’s so rude, but I have to nip it in the bud or I could be stuck up here all night. He opens his mouth but I speak before he can. “Good luck. I’d better find my spot. Catch you later.”
“Yeah, I’ll catch you later,” he calls after me. “Maybe we can get a drink or something after.”
I step lightly through the senior citizens crowded around the front.
All the regulars are here. Mr. Gepson with his toupee and spiral notebook, pencil worn down to the nub. Elaine Kilgarriff dressed in her pastel pink summer dress and hat even though it’s November. Mrs. Johnson with her ancient tape recorder—which is so old I don’t think it even works anymore and yet she brings it every time.
I make my way toward the back of the room, avoiding where Mr. Jude Parker was last spotted.
Which is a mistake because he’s moved. He’s now standing at the back, against the wall, right next to my regular spot.
It’s like he knew where I would be setting up. But how?
I almost turn around and find somewhere else to stand. But no. Righteous indignation fills me. This is my town. I’m not going to let him intimidate me. I don’t care what he does.
I continue to the back of the room, giving myself a silent pep talk as I make my approach.
He’s just a guy. No one important. Act natural.
“Annabel,” he acknowledges, his voice low.
As soon as the words leave my mouth, I want to snatch them back and swallow them down.
Jude is grinning and clearly enjoying every tortuous second.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, trying for a brisk professional tone that sounds more jittery than I would like.
I catch a whiff of his cologne—something manly and hot and a contrast to the cafeteria stench of old pizza and teenage angst. The citrusy smell ignites a flicker of a memory. Of being in his bed, curled up against him . . . but I ruthlessly quell the image.
His bright blue eyes burn into mine like he can read every lascivious daydream I’ve ever had about him along with ones I haven’t thought of yet.
“I’m surprised you have to ask,” he says.
Crap. What did I ask?
“As you know,” he continues, “I take my civic responsibilities very seriously.”
Oh, right. His moustache twitches and I know he’s smiling underneath it even as he talks about being serious. As ever, he’s taking amusement from everyone and everything.
It doesn’t escape my attention he didn’t actually answer my question.
“Right. Whatever.” I shrug my bag up higher on my shoulder and consider my options. I can’t stand right here next to him.
Space. I need space.
“Enjoy the show,” I murmur and walk on, continuing my path along the back wall a good fifteen feet away from where he’s standing. His eyes burn into my back and I’m glad I wore the dark blue skinny jeans that make my butt look awesome.
Not that I care what he thinks about my butt. Not. At. All.
I pull out my phone and small notepad and set my purse on the floor and pretend to not watch Jude out of the corner of my eye when he moves to a table right in my eyeline.
He doesn’t do something as simple as sit, either. He lounges, arranging his body like he’s relaxing on a chaise longue instead of the hard plastic bench attached to the scratched and battered orange table that’s been in this room since at least 1947. I’m pretty sure there’s a carving of my name on the underside of that very table, next to where I drew a little heart with Chad’s initials.
The town council members trickle in from a side door. The mayor, the city manager, and the secretary with her small typewriter all take their places at the table up at the front of the room.
The mayor calls the room to order, and it begins as it always does with a prayer to bless the meeting, followed by the pledge of allegiance.
Shifting from one foot to the other, I try my best to focus on Mayor Adams.
“As the Texas Open Meetings Act does not allow the council to respond to items not listed on the agenda, your comments will be duly noted by the council and forwarded to the appropriate department for prompt consideration.”
Which means they will listen and likely do nothing.
Almost immediately, Eldon Dunbar gets up to discuss the installation of a stop sign “over by where the aliens were spotted at Gary Johnson’s farm.” Riveting.
My eyes, the traitorous bastards, linger on the back of Jude’s head, trailing over the line of his shoulders in his dark suit. It fits impeccably, hugging his broad back like a perfectly wrapped present. A present should be opened. Presents can’t lie around, wrapped for all eternity. It’s like they’re asking for it.
I glance down at my phone. It’s not on. I forgot to turn on my recorder. Smashing a finger over the button, I burn a hole into the back of Jude’s head with my eyes.
It’s not my fault he’s got this thing, this sexy-vibe thing. It doesn’t matter that he’s hairier than a komondor and somewhat resembles a yeti. Even with all that hair covering ninety percent of his face, he’s still got this crazy, all-enveloping presence. It’s like pheromones or . . . I don’t know, invisible lust tentacles.
I’ve never seen him at any of the other meetings, and this definitely isn’t his type of deal. He’s all about parties and bets and making money off his “babies,” as he so affectionately refers to the college kids he uses to supplement his income.
As far as I’m aware, he’s lived in Blue Falls for about six months, but even in that short time, he’s become something of a legend. A master of games and wagers, a purveyor of parties and shenanigans, and also my brother’s former roommate.
“I would like to talk about the government listening to my phone calls every Sunday.” We’ve got a new commenter. Elaine Kilgarriff.
I suppress a smile.
The NSA isn’t really interested in the secret ingredient for your fried chicken, Elaine.
“They park down the street in their van. They’re trying to listen to my conversations and they’ve been walking around behind my house late at night. One of them snuck in through my doggy door and used my shower.”
Mayor Adams coughs.
“And then they made a sandwich. I know it wasn’t my Eugene that did it because they cleaned the utensils and wiped off the counter after, and he ain’t never done that.”
Mayor Adams tilts her head toward Rudy, who clears his throat from his position to the side of the committee.
“Ma’am, we’ve been alerted to the potential presence of suspicious vehicles and we’re working tirelessly day and night to ensure they don’t pose any kind of threat.”
Jude shifts in his seat, once again drawing my attention.
Is he sitting slightly straighter? Leaning forward a smidge?
Rudy continues, “We do have more people residing in Blue Falls than ever before due to the new mining ventures outside town. A lot of them have families visiting for the upcoming holidays and the parades, which Blue Falls is renowned for. I would like to personally assure you that no one will be listening to your calls or harassing anyone in this town on my watch. Or, you know, attempting to burgle your sandwich materials.”
Elaine nods and toddles back to her seat and the next Blue Falls resident gets up to talk about something inane.
I take notes for another thirty minutes while John Nottingham complains about his neighbor’s tree overgrowing his fence and Mr. Gardiner talks about the drainage problems on the city side of his property, but my gaze continually finds its way to the back of Jude’s head.
His stupid, attractive, hairy head.
Eventually, thankfully, Mayor Adams ends the meeting. I bend over for my purse, packing up my notes and tape recorder. When I glance around again, my eyes automatically locate Jude. Now he’s near the door.
The fact that I’m so aware of him makes my jaw clench.
He stops to empty something from his jacket pocket into the trash and then, after a quick glance around, slides out the door.
It’s an innocuous enough move, but something about it sends curiosity thrumming through me.
Just what did he throw away?
I stop by the exit and peer down into the receptacle. There’s nothing obvious in view, but it’s a narrow opening and the bag is black and dark.
God dammit, I’m even getting fixated on his trash? This is why I need to stay away from Jude Parker. He’s dangerous to my sanity.
Doesn’t change the fact that I’m ten seconds from becoming a full-fledged Dumpster diver.
“Do you want to go have a drink at Bodean’s?”
I jump damn near a mile.
“My treat?” The overly enthusiastic question comes from Rudy.
“Aw, I wish I could but I’m meeting Fitz for supper. Sorry.”
This isn’t the first time Rudy has asked me out. He asks everyone out. It’s what he does. I’ve never said yes and a twinge of guilt slips through me at his hangdog expression.
“It’s okay.” His shoulders droop. “Maybe next time.” He walks out the door.
It’s not that he’s a bad guy, it’s that I would rather not hear him talk about himself for two hours.
The bite in the air is a brief shock to my senses, as is the darkening night. The days are getting shorter as winter settles in and brushes its gentle fingers across this side of Texas.
I shrug on my sweater and focus on my next step and not on Jude Parker.
The excuse I gave Rudy wasn’t a lie. Fitz and Reese, my brother and his girlfriend, are home waiting on me. Well, they saved me leftover pizza. That totally counts.
I’m living with Fitz, but she’s there a lot. I don’t mind. I love Reese. She’s awkward and smart and sweet . . . but I think I might keel over from all the PDA going on around our apartment. It’s like a never-ending puke fest of love.
If I had known moving in with Fitz would turn into watching them spew sweetness on each other twenty-four seven, I would have lived in a box next to the H-E-B with ol’ Roy.
I would charge her rent if she weren’t already renting a room from . . . Jude.
And there he is again, my mind running back to him like a pulled tooth you keep tonguing even when you don’t want to. And since I do want to tongue him, it’s a terrible, terrible metaphor.
I turn the corner to the school and run into another wall.
One that wasn’t here before.
A tall, muscly, man wall.
Jude. I know it’s him because his hands on my shoulders transmit a signal through my body like I’m fiber optics and he’s sex moving at the speed of light. My entire being focuses on the heat of his fingers touching me.
I jump back and throw up a wall of indifference, something that will protect me from Jude and his magic lust tentacles.
His sleepy eyes smile at me, the cool blue belying the heat in his gaze.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I wanted to offer my services as an escort to see you safely home,” he drawls, emphasizing the word escort.
I smirk in an effort to appear unaffected, but I’m afraid the effect is more of a lumpy grimace. “I’m just fine on my own but I thank you for your concern.” I walk past him, setting a brisk pace.
His lengthy strides have no problem keeping up with my shorter gait. “I would like to express my apprehension, despite your obvious ability to care for yourself, as there are mercenaries about as per Ms. Kilgarriff’s testimony. Safety in numbers. I have thoughts only for your welfare, being a gentleman and all.”
“Well, shouldn’t you be walking her home then?”
“Maybe I should. I could check on her if you like, but I don’t think I have the address of her residence.”
I snort. “Right. A gentleman and a civic leader. I’m not buying it. Why were you really here?”
“If I recall correctly, I asked you that very same question.”
He did. The first night we met, at his house.
I was there at the behest of my editor, who wanted to do a story on illegal gambling on campus. Jude’s games.
“I told you why I was there. To check on Fitz.” My brother, who had gotten himself embroiled in one of Jude’s little betting schemes. Fitz had gotten kicked out of his friend’s house, and Jude had lured him into a competition to rent a room.
Jude tsks. “A lie that doesn’t improve itself upon repetition.”
“If you’re so certain you know why I was there, why do you bother asking?”
“Because I don’t know why you were there. If I knew why, I wouldn’t ask. I know you had reasons other than those you alluded to.”
“Maybe I’ll answer your question if you tell me what business you had at the township meeting. You didn’t speak on anything.”
He grins down at me. “Darlin’, were you watching me?”
“Don’t call me that.”
He called me that before. In his bedroom. The lights down low, his hands wrapped around my ribcage, holding me tight, his voice in my ear, his lips running over the sensitive lobe.
He smirks, as if he knows the affect he has on me and enjoys it a little too much.
I’m not going to get any clear answers from him so I continue walking. He keeps up and we move in silence down a side street that will take me to my apartment—the opposite direction of Jude’s house near the university.
We sidestep a youngish couple taking their dog out for a walk. They wave and exclaim, “Beautiful night, isn’t it?” as they pass, holding hands in domestic bliss.
“They seem nice,” Jude says once we’re out of earshot.
“We could have a dog together one day,” he continues.
I hold back a laugh. “I would not purchase any kind of canine with you. Ever.”
“You’re right. Felines are definitely better, and I’m not sure Mr. Bojangles would appreciate having to compete for my affections.”
“No competition here.”
“So I take it you haven’t reconsidered my offer of dinner?”
“Answer is still thanks but no thanks.”
“Just checking. I had thought all of the hostility and avoidance of my general person might indicate a rekindling of your prior interest.” Humor tinges his voice.
I stop walking and turn to face him. “I’m not going to change my mind. I’m not interested in a relationship. If you want to pursue a physical relationship . . .” I run my eyes down the suit. Dammit, he’s even hotter up close. It doesn’t help that I know what’s underneath. I take a step closer. “Those are terms I might be amenable to.”
A relationship with Jude would be a threat to my sanity. But a nice roll in the hay? That I could handle.
My bravado falters.
I hope he says no.
Because the truth . . . the truth is Jude probably wouldn’t want anything serious with me. Not if he knew the real me. I’m an unworthy imposter, undeserving of his regard, but I tuck the thought away like a secret diary slipped beneath the mattress. Or porn.
He searches my eyes, his mouth set in a line until one corner pops up. “I’ll keep waiting for you to come around to my way of thinking.”
“It’s gonna be a long wait.” I spin on my heel and march away.
I need to breathe in air he doesn’t penetrate, but he follows, keeping up the pace until I’ve reached the corner where the sidewalk turns into my apartment building.
“Y’all take care now, ya hear?” I say in the best, politest, stickiest-sweet voice I can muster, the one I learned to use on cranky teachers and customers, and turn to go, but he stops me with a word.
His voice is deep and rough and I turn and face him, like I can’t even control it. He’s standing there, hands in his pockets, eyes bright even in the dying light, and as inscrutable as ever.
He opens his mouth, shuts it. Opens it again.
It’s a move so unlike the self-assured and confident Jude I’ve come to know that I’m momentarily shocked.
“Be careful,” he finally says.
I blink. What is he warning me of? But then he turns and walks away.
I stand there, staring after him for a few long seconds before turning on my heel and huffing down the sidewalk.
Jude is a mystery I’ve long wanted to unravel. He’s hiding something. I know he is.
But more disturbing to me is how much I want to spend time with him. How much I actually enjoy the banter.
He’s dangerous to the safe little bubble I’ve built. One poke, and it could pop.