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Ginny Whelan felt a sudden yearning for her home in Crystal Springs as she drove down Norco's main street. Norco, California, was a little city with a big country flavor. There were horse trails instead of sidewalks on just about every residential street. Even the post office had a place for patrons to tie up their horses. In fact, the Norco welcome sign proclaimed that Norco was the horse capital of the world, and she believed it.
Most of the city's shops, stores, and car dealerships (of which there were many) were located on Hamner Avenue, which was the town's main drag. The nearest mall was a good fifteen minutes away, assuming the 91 Freeway wasn't backed up. And in the short time Ginny had been here, it was always backed up. She would have wagered that the city had more horses than cars, and more cows than people. Of course, there were also goats, donkeys, sheep, chickens, llamas, and even a camel or two. And every house had at least one large dog to keep the coyotes at bay! And she knew there were coyotes. She had found a dead cat on the front lawn the other morning. Not the whole cat, mind you. Just the head, and a couple of legs.
There were a few things about the town that she did like, like the rabbits she saw scampering in the park when she went walking in the morning, and the squirrels that were in residence in the greenery between the DMV and the post office. She had even seen squirrels in the K-Mart parking lot. She liked the birds, too. There were sparrows and crows and pigeons everywhere. And once, in the middle of Fifth Street, she had seen several vultures dining on a dead rabbit.
Ginny had been here a little over a week and she was already tired ofhouse-sitting for her sister, Debra. Deb, Deb's husband, Steve, and their boys, Doug and Derek, had all gone to Hawaii on vacation. Ginny shook her head, thinking that three weeks in a hotel with two kids under the age of five didn't sound like much of a vacation!
She wondered idly what Carter was doing. She had been dating Carter Hastings pretty steadily ever since her father had introduced them four months ago. She had expected to miss Carter while she was gone but he had rarely crossed her mind. She hadn't missed him near as much as she thought she would, or near as much as she thought she should, all things considered, and that bothered her. Maybe she was just kidding herself. Maybe he wasn't Mr. Right. Maybe she was just getting desperate because she was afraid she was never going to get married. She had five sisters besides Deb, and they were all married with kids. No matter how many times Ginny told herself there was nothing wrong with being twenty-five and single, the words "old maid" echoed in the back of her mind.
Ginny was thinking how good it would be to get back home and sleep in her own bed again when her sister's Volkswagen coughed, groaned and ground to a halt.
Muttering "oh, great," she tried to restart the car, but nothing happened. Glancing out the window, Ginny smiled. Lucky for her, the car had decided to play Camille not far from a VW repair shop.
Grabbing her purse, she plucked the key from the ignition, got out of the car, and slammed the door. Feeling totally frustrated, she hurried down the street toward Jake's VW Warehouse and Garage.
The sooner she got back to the big city, the happier she would be.
Jake Running Horse wiped his hands on a greasy rag. Had he lived back in the old days, he would have sought revenge. He would have killed the man who had wronged him, taken his scalp, and boasted of it around the campfire.
But he wasn't a warrior and he wasn't living in the old days. He owned a VW repair shop. It was the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth, and he was a civilized man, not a savage. And dammit, he needed to get over it.
But, for just a moment, Jake indulged his imagination and pictured himself riding a paint pony across the Great Plains in pursuit of the man who had pretended to be his friend and then gone behind his back and sabotaged his relationship with the woman he had planned to marry. Jake didn't know which of them he was more upset with, Mike Dutton for sneaking around behind his back, or Lori Beth for so quickly succumbing to Dutton's sweet talk. Well, good riddance to the both of them. They deserved each other.
Jake shook his head, annoyed that the memory still rankled. It had happened almost eight months ago. Since then, he had sworn off women for good.
Muttering an oath, Jake went back to work. Mrs. Dickinson would be there any minute to pick up her car and he wanted to have it ready when she arrived. She was a good customer, but she was also a gossip, a busy body, and a matchmaker all rolled into one, and if there was one thing Jake wasn't in the mood for, it was listening to her constant chatter; or, worse yet, having to listen to her go on and on about how a man his age should have married and settled down long ago. A man his age! Shoot, he was still on the sunny side of thirty. What was the rush?
He swore again as he scraped his knuckles on the fan shroud. Just another couple of minutes and he would be through here and ready to close up for the night.
The thought had barely crossed his mind when he heard the clatter of high heels on the cement floor of the garage.
"Excuse me," called a feminine voice. "Can you help me?"
Jake frowned. That voice, soft and with a slight Southern drawl, didn't belong to Mrs. Dickinson.
Straightening, he turned toward the entrance, his gaze sweeping over the woman standing there. It definitely wasn't Sadie Dickinson, who was about fifty years old and tipped the scales at right around two hundred pounds. No, the woman standing in the doorway was in her early twenties and probably didn't weigh much more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, and he was willing to bet that ten pounds of it was hair. Reddish brown hair streaked with gold highlights. Her eyes were a warm shade of gray beneath thick lashes. Her skin was smooth and clear. As far as he could tell, she wasn't wearing any makeup save for a touch of lipstick and a little eye shadow.
Jake cleared his throat. "What can I do for you?"
"My car broke down. I was wondering if you could take a look at it and tell me what's wrong. It's just down the street."
Pulling a clean rag from his back pocket, Jake wiped the grease off his hands. "Sure, just let me lock up."
Her car, a cherry 1962 VW bug, was about half-way down the block. "Nice," he said.
"Thanks. It belongs to my sister."
"Any chance she'd like to sell it?"
"I don't know, maybe. I thought it was out of gas," she explained as he lifted the deck lid, "even though I knew I had a full tank."
He grunted softly as he checked the fuel pump and the gas line. No problems with either one that he could see. "I'll have to take it back to the shop," he said, closing the deck lid.
Ginny bit down on her lower lip. "How long do you think it'll take to find out what's wrong?"
"I should know sometime tomorrow. Why, you in a hurry to be somewhere?"
"Not really." Once she fed the horses and the dog and the two pygmy goats, there really wasn't a lot to do.
"Come on back to the shop so I can fill out the paperwork. I'll call you as soon as I know what's wrong."
With a nod, Ginny the car and handed him the keys, then followed him back to the garage. She watched as he quickly jotted down her name and phone number, thinking that he was probably the sexiest man she had ever seen.
"Do you need a ride home?" he asked
"That would be great."
"Just let me get my keys."
He disappeared into the small office in the back of the garage, giving her a chance to look around. Not that there was much to see. It was a large building. Fluorescent lights hung from the high ceiling. The walls were gray, the concrete floor was stained with grease. Racks of metal shelves crowded with car parts--in no particular order that she could see--lined two of the walls. Pieces of a green Volkswagen took up one corner. A big red tool chest added a splash of color to the other wise drab décor. She thought a little paint on the walls and a few plants would do wonders for the place.
Jake emerged from his office a few moments later. "My truck's parked out back."
A truck, Ginny thought, of course. This was Norco.
She followed him through a narrow doorway that opened onto a large lot surrounded by a high wooden fence. The yard was littered with car doors, fenders, wheels, tires, a couple of engines, and the body of a VW, as well as a variety of other car parts, none of which she recognized.
His truck was a dark gray Silverado with the words Jake's VW Warehouse & Garage stenciled in white on the side.
He opened the passenger door for her, then went around to the driver's side and slid behind the wheel. "Where to?"
She gave him the directions to Deb's house, then fastened her seat belt as he fired up the engine and pulled out of the driveway. He drove down Hamner for a couple of blocks, then turned left on Hidden Valley Parkway.
There were two parts to Norco, the older section and the newer one. Deb and Steve lived in the newer area in a beautiful four bedroom, two-story house that had cost half a million dollars four years ago. In addition to the bedrooms, there was an office downstairs and a bonus room upstairs. Ginny still couldn't believe the price of houses in California. Deb's house was big and it was really nice but Ginny thought that, for a cool half a million dollars, it should have been a mansion and Tom Cruise should have been living next door!
Yesterday, on one of her walks, Ginny had picked up a real estate flyer. The price for the house, which was two blocks away from Deb's, had been over nine hundred thousand dollars. Ginny had stared at the price in disbelief. If regular houses were selling for almost a million dollars, she couldn't imagine what real mansions were selling for.
"Nice place," Jake remarked, pulling into the circular driveway.
"It belongs to my sister and her husband."
"So you're just visiting?"
Ginny nodded. "Actually, I'm house sitting. Deb's in Hawaii with her husband and kids."
"How long are you going to be in town?"
"Another two weeks."
Jake drummed his fingertips on the steering wheel. "I don't suppose you'd like to go out to dinner with me some night."
"I don't think so."
His gaze was dark and seductive as it met hers. "Come on, pretty lady," he coaxed. "Change your mind."
She thought briefly of Carter, then thought about eating dinner at home, alone, or going out, alone. She was tired of eating alone. What could one dinner date hurt?
Still, she hesitated. "I don't know..."
"How about tonight?"
"You don't waste any time, do you?"
He grinned roguishly. "Hey, if you're only going to be here for two weeks, I don't have any time to waste. What do you say?"
"But you will?"
She stared at her hands. She really shouldn't be going out with another man. Carter probably wouldn't like it. But Carter wasn't here and she was tired of eating alone in front of the TV. Taking a deep breath, she said, "All right," before she could talk herself out of it.
"I'll pick you up in what, half an hour?"
"Better make it an hour."
Exiting the truck, Jake opened her door for her, admiring the sway of her hips as she walked away. She unlocked the front door, then glanced over her shoulder. With a wave of her hand, she stepped inside.
Jake shook his head. Eight months ago, he had sworn off women, he thought ruefully. Less than an hour ago, he had renewed that vow.
But that was before Ginny Whelan walked into his life.
An hour didn't give her much time. Ginny took a quick shower, washed her hair, and then spent ten minutes trying to decide what to wear. Something casual, but not too casual. She settled on a green and white sundress and white sandals.
While getting dressed, she thought about Jake, with his long black hair and beautiful brown eyes that were so dark they were almost black. She felt a little shiver of excitement as she remembered the way his tee shirt had clung to his broad chest and wide shoulders, the way his jeans had hugged his long, long legs, the way the muscles in his back and arms had flexed as he bent over her car.
Her stomach fluttered with anticipation when she answered his knock a short time later. An hour ago he had been wearing a stained tee shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans. Now, he wore a pair of black Levi's, a long-sleeved gray shirt over a black tee, cowboy boots, and a black hat. In a word, he looked great.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
She nodded. Locking the door behind her, she followed him outside. Once again, he opened the door for her. She noticed he had washed his truck.
"So," he said, sliding into the cab, "where would you like to go for dinner?"
She shrugged. "Anywhere is fine with me. I really don't know the area all that well."
"How about Wahoo's?"
"Yeah, it's a small place but they serve some pretty good Mexican food."
"Sounds great. I love Mexican food."
He grinned. "I'll bet it's the first Mexican restaurant you've ever been to that's owned by Chinese guys from Brazil."
Ginny laughed. "That's quite a combo!"
It took only a few minutes to reach the restaurant. Ginny ordered two chicken enchiladas and rice. Jake ordered a banzi burrito.
After getting their soft drinks from the serve yourself bar, they found an empty table near the front window. Jake held her chair for her. A waitress dropped a handful of stickers and decals on the table. Ginny glanced around, noting that although the food was Mexican, the motif was surf, skate and snow oriented.
"So," Jake said, leaning back in his chair. "Tell me about yourself. Do you live around here?"
"No, I live in Georgia."
"Crystal Springs. It's a small town just outside of Atlanta."
"You don't have much of an accent for a Southern girl."
"Well, I've only lived there a few years. Come visit me after I've been home for a few days and I'll sound just like Scarlett O'Hara."
"So, what do you do in Crystal Springs?"
"I own a small interior design studio."
"Who's looking after the place while you're gone?"
"My assistant, Anita. She's been working with me since I started. I'm thinking of offering her a partnership."
Jake nodded. "Sounds like you're doing all right. I've never been to Georgia. What's it like?"
"It's beautiful, especially in the spring. What about you? Have you lived in California all your life?"
"No. I was born in a little town in Wyoming."
"How long have you been here?"
"About seven years."
"Why did you leave Wyoming?"
"Itchy feet, I guess. I dropped out of college after a couple of years and went to New York..."
"You're kidding!" Somehow, she couldn't picture him in New York City.
"No. Those were the days. I worked as a bouncer in a bar for about six weeks. I spent five months working at a health club. I tried my hand at selling real estate..."
He laughed at her astonished expression. "What's the matter? Can't you picture me in a suit and tie?"
Ginny blushed. "Of course, but why did you leave?"
"Well, I didn't care much for the real estate racket, although the money was good."
She shook her head, unable to believe he had given up a good paying job in New York City to fix cars in a city that she had never heard of before Deb and Steve moved there. "How did you wind up here?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I came down to visit an old high school friend who had moved here. I was driving around one day waiting for her to get off work and I saw a house for sale. It was a real fixer-upper, but the price was right and the next thing I knew, I was a homeowner with a mortgage. The town was a lot different back then, a lot of dairy farms in the area. Most of the dairies are gone now, replaced by acres and acres of tract houses." He shook his head. "I'd rather have the cows."
She laughed. "I take it you're not a people person?"
Jake grinned. "I wouldn't say that, exactly. But all those new houses mean more people and more people mean more cars on the freeways and that I can do without."
Their food came then. Ginny took a bite of her enchilada.
"So, what do you think?" Jake asked.
"You were right. It's really good." She gestured at his plate. "What's in that thing? It's huge."
"Beef, beans, rice, lettuce, cheese, veggies, salsa." He shrugged. "You know, the usual."
"I still can't believe you left New York City for Horse Town USA. I've always wanted to live in New York. It's such an exciting place."
"It was too exciting for me," Jake said, grinning. "If you wanted to live in New York, how'd you end up in Georgia?"
"My parents moved there shortly after I graduated from high school and I just naturally went along. So, how did you get into the car repair business?"
"I've always had a knack for fixing things. I like being my own boss, setting my own hours. Getting my hands dirty."
After dinner, Jake drove Ginny back to Deb's house.
Pulling into the driveway, he switched off the ignition, then leaned back in the seat, one hand dangling over the top of the steering wheel.
"Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee or some iced tea?" Ginny asked.
Jake got out of the truck and opened her door, then followed her into the house. He whistled softly as he glanced around. "This is some place!"
Ginny had to agree. The rooms were large and open and airy. There was a fireplace on one wall in the family room. The kitchen had oak cabinets and tile floors. The master bedroom was gorgeous, with dark blue carpeting and white walls. The bathroom had a large oval tub, a dressing area, and walk-in closets. There were three bedrooms upstairs, as well as a bath and a bonus room. Sliding glass doors led out into the backyard, which was huge. There was a large grassy section with a jungle gym for the kids. Beyond that, there was a large kidney-shaped pool. A chain link fence enclosed the pool. There was another narrow stretch of grass behind the pool, and beyond that there was another fenced off area that held a small barn, a large corral, the horses, Belle and Beau, the goats, Billy and Millie, and the German Shepherd, Spats.
Ginny showed Jake around the house, then fixed two glasses of iced tea. Going outside, they sat out on the patio.
"Do you live around here?" Ginny asked.
He laughed. "Are you kidding? I couldn't afford anything like this on what I make. I live on Western, over off Parkridge. It's an older part of the city, not near as fancy as this place."
"I guess you have horses and dogs, like everyone else?"
He lifted one shoulder and let it fall. "And goats and sheep and chickens."
"Well, I'm not surprised."
"What's the matter, don't you like animals?"
"Yes, but I'm partial to cats."
"Ordinarily that would put an end to our friendship," Jake said with mock remorse, "but since you're only going to be here for a couple of weeks, I don't see that it will be a problem." He glanced at his watch. "I'd better get going. I've got an early day tomorrow."
He followed her into the house and put his glass in the sink.
"Thanks for this evening," she said, walking him to the door. "I had a nice time."
"Maybe we could do it again tomorrow night?"
"I don't think so. I mean, don't take this the wrong way, you seem like a really nice guy but..."
"But you're only going to be here for two weeks."
"That's part of it."
"You're not married, are you?"
"No. At least not yet."
"No," she said, smiling. "Not yet."
"Well, then, there's no harm in going out to dinner, is there?" he asked, and wondered why he was pushing.
"I just don't think it's a good idea."
"Boyfriend wouldn't like it, huh?"
"Something like that."
"All right, have it your way."
She followed him to the door, stood on the porch, watching, as he climbed into the cab of the truck and pulled out of the driveway.
He was tall and good looking and she liked him way too much to see him again. With those eyes and that smile, he was just a heartache waiting to happen. Besides, she already had a boyfriend. Why complicate things?
With a sigh, she went back inside and closed the door, only then realizing she had forgotten to ask him about her car.