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By Shannon Leigh, Candace Havens
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Shannon Leigh
All rights reserved.
Lila Jean Gentry was about to initiate the most serious manhunt of her life. And her target, the man she thought about one hundred times a day, from the worn tips of his cowboy boots to the crown of his perfect head, didn't even know she was coming his way.
It was undercover love ...
Lila fidgeted in the driver's seat. Deep-cover romance? She tried out the description, but it didn't fall from her tongue easily. Secret seduction? She groaned at the absurdity and gripped the wheel tighter as she steered into town. Since stealth, and apparently flowery prose, was not in her playbook, she was forced to rely on other assets such as her new cheekini panties from Victoria's Secret. And her intimate knowledge of her target's desires.
Just thinking about it all made Lila shift in the leather seat again. considering the current adventure with such longing produced tingly sensations she hoped would soon be satisfied.
But foremost she had to endure the gauntlet that was Hannington, Texas. First stop: the Grab & Get.
Lila cruised her Lexus under the red tin canopy of the Grab & Get. Her ex-hometown of Hannington, Texas, famous for its grand old bawdy days as a stop along the Chisholm Trail, had matured in the one hundred and fifty years since saloon owner John C. Henry sold whiskey out of a barrel beneath the old pecan tree on the corner. Matured so much that nowadays, instead of booze quenching the mouths of thirsty citizens, the ladies' auxiliary offered homemade lemonade and sugar cookies at the same spot, both as a reminder of days gone by and a deterrent against hellish excess.
Presently, the people of Hannington were pretty sin-free, though the summer temperatures might lead outsiders to assume differently — they didn't call Texas "hell's back forty" for nothin'.
Pulling her cream-colored Lexus alongside a high-octane pump, Lila pushed it into park and gazed through the grasshopper guts on her windshield to the people rushing in and out of the convenience store. Simple, hardworking middle-class folk, with three life priorities: family, politics, and high school football. And not necessarily in that order. Though Lila could guess from the last year's posters papering the Grab & Get's window, the Crusaders' contest for district champ ranked close to number one in the hearts and minds of locals.
The image brought back bittersweet memories of sweltering Friday nights in September beneath bright lights, cheering a certain quarterback as he danced across the end zone for a touchdown.
Lila smiled tightly at her passenger, a worn leather journal, dog-eared and scarred with age, cocooned safely in an acid-free box — her impetus for returning to Hannington after a ten-year hiatus. "Back to the land of football, Frito pie, and country music," she sang to herself. Three things she hadn't experienced since leaving. Three things, if the truth be told, she'd actually missed. More than a little bit.
Giddy and nervous now that she'd arrived, Lila hummed as she jerked the keys from the ignition and opened the driver's door to a blast of smothering, midday July air. The heat raced down her throat as she stood, sucking the breath from her lungs. She took a moment to let the scorched tissue in her lungs recover and fumbled with the gas pump.
Setting the pump lever to automatic, she marched across the steaming pavement, her heels sticking in the hot blacktop with each step.
She wanted to buy a diet soda and get off the main drag before someone recognized her; prolonging the inevitable showdown with folks in town suited her just fine, at least until she made contact with him. Although a decade stood between her and her past in Hannington, the people in the hardscrabble Central Texas town had long memories — some of them could remember the Civil War, though they weren't alive back then — and folks around these parts sure as heck never forgot a scandal. Especially when the gossip involved crazy Sarah Gentry's kid and the satisfaction of saying, "Like mother, like daughter."
Bypassing the staggering arrangement of Miller Lite (in the shape of the Alamo?), which if toppled could kill several small children and a few adults, Lila skirted the illegal eight-liners and their barrage of spinning sevens to pluck a soda from the cooler.
Cradling the icy bottle in the crook of her arm, she got in line behind a pair of young cowboys in snug jeans, cinched belts, and scuffed boots. She ignored their appraising stares in bobbing heads and resisted the desire to stick her tongue out at them; she resisted it with every fiber of her being. She wasn't back in Hannington to cause a scene, or tuck tail and run like a disgraced cow dog. Either of which would earn a round of good gossip at the Dairy Queen. Hell no. She was here to fulfill a vow and change her life. After a few years of therapy, she wholeheartedly embraced her vulnerability (after too many years of denial) and intended to "dare greatly" as her therapist advised. To act upon all the bravery within herself to reclaim the love and adoration of her high school sweetheart. The flawed, courageous, sacrificing, kind, empathetic man she still loved, all these years later.
And she intended the vow to be for good this time. Forever.
The electronic display on the register flashed short affirmations in between lottery advertisements. One in particular caught Lila's attention: Don't allow the absence of guarantees to prevent you from loving with your entire heart.
She resolved to embrace that philosophy no matter what the future held. Embrace it like her life depended on it.
Finally, escaping out of the double doors, she focused on the familiar sight of her car and refused the impulse to look at people in the parking lot. Making eye contact was an invitation for conversation. A reason to pause and chitchat about the debilitating heat, the fund-raising drive of the Bell County Museum, or what brought her back to Hannington after ten years of I'll-be-back-when-hell-freezes-over.
"Lila Jean." The low, masculine drawl stopped her dead in her tracks like a gunshot in the quiet of night. Two more steps and she could touch the gold-plated door handle. Two more steps and she could escape in air-conditioning and pretend she hadn't heard the voice from her past. But that was something the woman she used to be would have done. Escape. Run. Hide. The woman she was today turned to confront the man on the opposite side of the gas pump.
Her heart squeezed painfully in her chest. Her breath locked and held in her throat. Her ears rang. Her vision blurred. Static buzzed in her brain.
She shook it all loose and focused on his sinfully beautiful green eyes. Always kind, always mischievous, and twinkling with thoughts of highly inappropriate behavior. His gaze pinned her between the pump and the window squeegee bucket.
"Wow. Gossip travels even faster than I remembered. Did they select you as my welcome party?"
Jake leaned against the bed of a beat-up red-and-white farm truck, dusty with grit and mud, his hands at rest in his pockets while gas chugged rhythmically through the fuel line.
"Lila, baby, you're already on Instagram. Consider yourself welcomed."
Lila felt slightly horrified, and somewhat honored, a reaction she would never admit to, even if pressed. "Who put me on Instagram?"
He laughed and Lila soaked the familiar sound in, resisting the urge to close her eyes and cherish the moment.
"Maybe Amy. She's the social media nut for Hannington." Jake jutted his chin toward the store and Lila followed his lead just in time to see a young redhead dropping into the passenger seat of a Ford Focus, phone in hand.
"I'm only getting gas. This here is a happy accident, but I can administer a proper welcome if you insist. And I can use tongue."
Lila rolled her eyes and took a deep breath, letting the first blush of sexual awareness warm her like the early morning sun. "Jeez. No. I'm good. This is excitement enough, thank you very much."
They smiled at each other and Lila thought the meeting wasn't as dramatic as she had imagined, about a million times in the last couple of months.
"So, are you here for a birth or a death?" Jake asked.
"I figure someone had to have either died or been born for you to come back to Hannington. Or are you just passing through?"
Lila thought about her response, one she'd practiced also a million times, and let her gaze wander over Jake. She took her time following the cut of hard muscle underneath his faded black T-shirt, down the not-so-subtle package behind his zipper, to his rock-hard denim-clad legs.
Traveling back up, she noted fine laugh lines framed his eyes, fanning upward to sweep his strong brows. Dusky stubble covered the perfection of his upper lip and strong chin.
He still took her breath away, even after all these years. Lila mentally filed away the confirmation that yes, she was still highly attracted to Jacob Winter. Time and two hundred miles of parched Texas landscape had not changed that.
"As a matter of fact" — her voice broke and she cleared her throat, buoying her confidence with the familiar chant: dare greatly — "I did come back to take care of some family business. Not exactly a death or a birth."
Jake's smile slipped and concern furrowed his brow. "Did Barbara give money to those sweepstakes people again?"
"Nothing. Never mind."
"It's nothing. You were saying, family business?"
He offered her a lazy smile and Lila fell into it, fully committed to the distraction. Memories of make-out sessions in the front seat of his 1970 Oldsmobile 442 sent shivers down her spine.
She dropped her soda and cursed him. "Stop that." The bottle hit the pavement with a dull thud, rolling to his feet.
Jake bent and picked it up. "Stop what, baby?" As his strong hand wrapped around the plastic neck, Lila remembered in a searing flash the feel of those hands pulling her in, circling the column of her neck, gliding lower.
"Trying to fluster me." She reached for the soft drink as he crossed the distance separating them, but Jake held it close, placing his second hand above the other, slowly rubbing the drops of condensation from the plastic with his thumb.
"Now you're flattering me. I don't know when I last flustered a woman."
"Please. I doubt ten years have changed your ability to win over a woman, even from a dead sleep. You always had game and from the looks of you, nothing has changed."
He offered the soda. "Better not open this for a while. It'll explode." His voice was low and suggestive. He'd forever been the king of the double entendre. Damn him.
It was crazy he'd been nothing more than a memory these last ten years. Because now, Jake was solid. Alive. And every fantasy in one pair of snug jeans. She resisted the urge to shiver and curl her toes all at the same time.
Her high school love was all grown up.
"You don't look dressed for the pig wrestling at two o'clock, so I'm gonna guess this family business has you just passing through. Maybe pullin' a one-nighter."
She laughed and the release felt good. Right. "We both know twenty-four hours is all you really need to see everything around here."
"You just need the right tour guide. A lot has changed." She dragged her eyes away and scanned the parking lot. People chatted with their neighbors, talking about the start of school next month and yelling at kids to grab ice from the outside cooler for their weekend lake outing. Life went on. Nobody at the mini-mart seemed to notice hers had stopped, road blocked courtesy of this one man.
Meeting his level gaze, Lila smiled despite the tangle of bittersweet emotions strangling her heart. The cost of open vulnerability. "Has it changed?"
Jake nodded at the candy in her hand, an impulsive buy inside the Grab & Get. It squished between her fingers as the chocolate warmed in the heat.
"Yep. Looks like your diet has, too. Glad to see you're not so rigid about food anymore. You were always too skinny."
Another comment meant to distract her, but it brought to mind a conversation from years ago. Jake's hands had spanned her waist as he'd lifted her to retrieve a Frisbee lodged in the tree of her backyard. "God, you're tiny. Don't you ever eat?"
She'd dispelled his notion of starvation when they'd gone to the Dairy Queen later the same day. Back then she'd eaten like every meal was her last. Especially when someone else footed the bill. With Granny working full time at the bank as a teller, and making do with minimum wage and two mouths to feed, things had been pretty tight in the Gentry household growing up. Every penny counted. And they typically weren't spent on fast food.
Lila patted her butt and thought about her racy panties. "No longer an issue. I assure you."
She felt her face flush as Jake appraised said tush. She took a calming breath. She was getting distracted. And sidetracked. No surprise there. He'd always led their conversations and she'd followed, basking in his intelligence and keen wit.
She'd follow him anywhere. Literally.
She changed the subject. "How've you been, Jake?"
"Not bad, all things considered with the economy." She searched his tanned, healthy face, noting the scar dissecting his left eyebrow. When had that happened? She looked closer, searching for clues to his life since she'd been gone.
While still inherently a sweet talker at heart, his gaze was harder, callused with experience. Gone were the exuberance and daydreams of the future, their midnight musings about having three kids, a dog named Max, and a place with a creek and a rambling old farmhouse. She'd wanted to wear a floral apron and bake fresh biscuits in a kitchen that smelled of coffee while the screen door banged behind three of Jake's children.
Of course, it had all been totally naive and unrealistic, considering her background. But for a while, she'd dreamed.
She said the only thing she could trust herself to say. "You look good. Really good."
Jake stared, his expression closing down. "You mean cancer free."
And there it was.
Used to, she'd check her watch to see how long it'd taken them to reach this ugly point in the conversation, but she was all about doing things differently now. Embracing the feelings of inadequacy to set them free. To diffuse the inner voice that told her repeatedly: you're not good enough.
So Lila switched gears. She wasn't going to let Jake build another wall around himself, so high she couldn't scale it with the highest ladder. No, ma'am. She'd learned how to get what she wanted back in Dallas, and Jake was about to find out she had all new strategies.
"It's been nice catching up, Jake. Tell your folks I said hello. If you want to get together tomorrow for pig wrestling or whatever, I'll be at Granny's." And then she turned her back on Jake Winter and walked to her waiting car.
Throwing her purchase into the passenger seat, Lila wondered what he would do next. Her body tingled in anticipation.
Suddenly, he was there, trapping her in the open vee of her car door, his chest pressing deliciously close. Her body hummed in response. She curled her fingers into fists to keep from reaching for him.
"How long are you staying?" He propped a tanned forearm on the roof and leaned in farther. A muscle in his jaw clenched.
"However long it takes," she admitted.
"For what?" He crowded her. The therapist she'd spent dozens of hours with had warned her defensiveness could be the result of her sudden appearance. Of her extended stay.
Which meant Jake felt vulnerable.
Which meant he still cared.
Stage one of the manhunt: complete. Jake still cared about her.
She smiled and resisted the urge to stroke his cheek and kiss his lips. "That's for me to know and you to find out, baby."
Jake backed up, sweetly confused and properly flustered. "Are we playing a game, Lila?"
The fact that he asked the question meant she had a fighting chance. This wasn't a football game he could predict and plan play-by-play.
He simply had to live it. Which was the source of all their problems.
Shrugging her shoulders, she winked and slid into the driver's seat.
Excerpted from Deconstructing Lila by Shannon Leigh, Candace Havens. Copyright © 2014 Shannon Leigh. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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