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Divorce was hell on a woman.
Mandy Rogers knew, because she'd experienced it first hand. As far as she was concerned, the entire process was like being fed through a wringer washer, then stripped naked and paraded down a city street for all the world to see.
Which was why she'd chosen to move back to her hometown of San Saba, Texas.
She hadn't been running away, she assured herself as she drove down the country road that led to the Calhouns' ranch. Having the support of family and friends while she adjusted to divorce and life as a single woman again was what had persuaded her to move back to her hometown.
But after a mere two weeks, she wondered if she'd made a mistake in coming home.
Her mother was already driving her crazy. Though Mandy was sure her mother meant well, she treated Mandy as if she was suffering from a terminal disease, rather than recovering from a divorce. And the friends she'd thought she'd reconnect with were gone, having left San Saba after graduation, much as she had, and never returned.
Except for one.
Even as the thought formed, she saw him. Jase Calhoun. Walking from the house toward the barn in the distance, his stride long, his gait slow and lazy. The cowboy hat he wore shielded his face, but she didn't need to see it to remember his features. Roman nose, square jaw, chiseled cheekbones, chocolate-browneyes, and the sexiest mouth in San Saba County.
She gave the horn a tap to catch his attention. He glanced over his shoulder at the sound, then turned fully, pushing a knuckle against the brim of his cowboy hat. A smile slowly spread across his face as he recognized her, and hestarted back the way he'd come.
She barely had time to climb from her car, before he was scooping her up into his arms and twirling her around. The greeting was classic Jase and delivered to all women, no matter what their age, but he had away of making a woman feel special, which is exactly how Mandy felt now and what she desperately needed.
He plopped her back down to her feet and took a step back to give her a long look up and down. "Damn, Red, how long's it been?"
The nickname was one he'd given her years ago and earned him a frown the same as it had then. "Ten years, and my name is Mandy."
Grinning, he scrubbed his knuckles over the top of her head. "Yeah, but Red suits you better." He slung an arm around her shoulders and turned her toward the house. "What are you doing in town? Home for a visit?"
"No. I moved back."
Sobering, he nodded, as he guided her down to sit on the porch steps. "Yeah. I heard you were getting a divorce."
That he knew about her divorce didn't surprise her. San Saba was a small enough town for everyone to know everyone else's business.
"Got, not getting," she corrected. "It was final a couple of weeks ago."
He slanted her a look as he dropped down beside her. "You doing okay?"
She lifted a shoulder. "Some days are better than others." Not wanting to talk about her divorce, she laid a hand on his arm. "I was sorry to hear about your mom, Jase."
Dropping his chin, he nodded. "Yeah. It was tough."
"I would have come home for the funeral "He gave her hand a reassuring pat. "No explanation needed. You had your own problems to deal with."
"Still, I'd have liked to have said goodbye to her. She was a special lady."
"She was that, all right, and then some." He slapped his hands against his thigh, obviously not wanting to talk about his loss any more than she wanted to talk about hers. "So? Tell me what you've been up to. Are you living with your mother?"
"She wanted me to, but after living on my own for so long Well, I thought it best, if I had my own place."
She nodded. "I'm renting Mrs. Brewster's garage apartment."
He reared back to look at her. "That dump? Ithought that place was condemned years ago."
"It's not that bad," she chided, then flapped a hand. "Anyway, it's only temporary. If I decide to stay, I'll find something else."
"Of course you're staying. Where else would you go?"
"Believe it or not, there's a whole world beyond San Saba, Texas."
"Yeah, but San Saba's home. Folks here to look after you."
"I'm twenty-seven, Jase," she reminded him. "I don't need looking after any longer."
"Twenty-seven?" He blew a low whistle. "Man. Where's the time go? Seems like yesterday you were a snot-nosed kid trailing along behind me and Bubba."
"Bubba's been married for ten years and has threesnot-nosed kids of his own."
He swelled his chest and preened. "Yeah, and the youngest he named after me."
She choked a laugh. "Hopefully he won't attempt to live up to the name."
He bumped his shoulders against hers. "Ah, now,I wasn't so bad."
She looked at him in disbelief. "Are you kidding me? Either your memory is impaired or you're suffering a strong case of denial. You and Bubba were holy terrors."
"We knew how to have a good time. Was it our fault folks around here lacked a sense of humor?"
"Definitely denial," she decided, then glanced at her watch and rose. "I'd better go."
He caught her hand. "You just got here. Stay and visit awhile."
Though tempted, she shook her head. "I just stopped by to offer my condolences. I need to get back to town."
"What's so all-fired important in town?"
"The superintendent's office. I need to pick up a teaching application before they close for the day."
He stood, but didn't release her hand. "Sounds like you're planning to stay, if you're applying for a job."
She lifted a shoulder. "I've applied other places. Where I land will depend on who offers me a position first."
He slung an arm around her shoulders and walked with her to her car. "You're not working now?"
"No. Seems a waste, when I'd have to quit in the fall when school starts."
He opened the car door for her, then hooked an arm over it, while she slid inside. "Red a teacher," he said, shaking his head. "Hard to believe."
"Mandy," she corrected, "and I've been teaching school for four years."
He closed the door, then stooped to brace his arms along the open window and teased her with a smile. "Almost makes me wish I was in school again. Bet I'd make better grades with you as my teacher."
She gave him a doubtful look. "Only if you applied yourself more than you did the first time around."
He reached inside and stroked a knuckle over her cheek. "Wouldn't have to. You've always had a softspot for me."
One thing was for sure, Mandy decided as she made the drive back to town. Jase Calhoun hadn'tchanged one iota in the last ten years. He'd aged some, as was to be expected, but the years had only enhanced his already rugged good looks. But time certainly hadn't changed his personality. His ego was still the size of Texas, and he was still the biggest flirt in San Saba county.
Did he think she had changed? she found herself wondering, and glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror. She definitely looked different than she had as a teenager. Her features were essentially the same, though more defined, her eyes still a leaf-green, her hair still red. She wore it a little shorter now and styled it more fashionably than the pony tail she'd swept it up into as a teenager, but it was still the same detested red she'd been born with.
But had she changed? she asked herself, then sputtered a laugh and turned her gaze to the road again. Oh, God, she hoped so. Thirteen wasn't a pleasant age for any woman to remember. Even less so when that woman had had a crush on her brother's best friend. She winced, remembering the hundreds of ways she'd made a fool of herself in an attempt to get Jase to notice her.
"Past history," she told herself and forced the embarrassing thoughts from her mind. "You got over your crush on Jase years ago."
But as she turned into an empty parking space in front of the superintendent's office, she remembered the feel of his knuckle on her cheek, the teasing glintin his brown eyes, and a delicious shiver skittered down her spine.
She was over him wasn't she?
* * *
The next afternoon Jase sat at what he'd always thought of as his mother's desk and clicked the mouse again. When nothing happened, he shot a frown at the silent printer and mentally ticked off thesteps he'd taken. He'd loaded the pre-printed checks into the machine, as he'd seen his mother do, opened the bank account on the screen, clicked the "PrintCheck" option, but for some stupid reason the printer wasn't engaging.
Frustrated, he whacked a hand against the side ofthe monitor, then sank back in the chair with a frustrated sigh. He hated computers. RAM. Gigabytes. Software. Hardware. The techno lingo alone was enough to give him a headache.
He was going to have to find somebody to take over the office duties, he told himself. He would've already hired someone for the job, except he knewthat would mean training that someone, and howcould he do that when he didn't understand hismother's system himself?
Heaving another sigh, he raked his fingersthrough his hair and folded his hands behind hishead. If only she'd have agreed to hiring an assistant,as he'd begged her to a thousand times over the lastcouple of years, he wouldn't be in
He shot up from the chair, the answer to hisproblem so obvious he couldn't believe he hadn'tthought of it before.
She had worked for his mother while she was inhigh school, and was bound to have a pretty goodidea how the office was run. She was a smart gal. Ateacher, for cripes sake! What she didn't know, shecould probably figure out. Hell, Red would be theperfect person to take over his mother's duties!
Relieved to know that his days of butting headswith the computer would soon be coming to an end,he grabbed his cowboy hat and headed for the door.
He didn't doubt for a minute that Red would agreeto take on the job. People rarely said no to Jase Calhoun.