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Home. No four-letter word had ever sounded better, Genna Hastings thought as she maneuvered herself, careful of her sprained ankle, and her crutches out of her car. She stood up and took a deep breath of hyacinth-scented Connecticut air. Whack! Something hit her smack in the back of the head with the force of a Titan missile. Rubbing her head with one hand, she turned and stared down at the football that rocked harmlessly on the driveway beside her loafer-clad feet.
It was an appropriate ending to a thoroughly miserable vacation.
"Look out, Miss Hastings!" came the belated shout of one of the two boys pounding up the street toward her.
"Jeez, Miss Hastings, I'm sorry," said Brad Murray, stooping to scoop up the ball.
"Yeah, sorry, Genna," Kyle Dennison chimed in. Kyle was the chubby ten-year-old son of Genna's best friend, and so he felt entitled to call her by her first name. To Brad, she would always be his ex-kindergarten teacher. He would call her Miss Hastings for the rest of his life.
Kyle shrugged. "We didn't see you."
"That's a comfort," Genna grumbled to herself, wincing as she felt the goose egg rising on the back of her skull.
"Mom said you weren't coming home till Monday, and it's only Friday. Why aren't you still on vacation? We've been using your driveway for long-passing patterns. Hey, how come you're on crutches?"
"All that in one breath," Genna said with a teasing smile as she looked down at Kyle. "Vacation was a bust. I sprained my ankle playing tennis."
"We're waiting for J.J.," Brad said.
"Who's J.J.? New kid on the block?"
"J. J. Hennessy," they said in unison, staring at her expectantly.
Genna stared back at them. Was she missing the punch line of a joke, or what? "Am I supposed to gasp here, or scream or something? Who's J. J. Hennessy?"
The boys made sounds of disgust and rolled their eyes. Kyle collapsed onto the driveway and writhed around, holding his head.
"He's only the most awesome quarterback in the universe!" Brad raved.
"He's so excellent!" Kyle exclaimed, lying spread-eagled, flat on his back.
"And he's moved in right here!"
Genna looked at the lawn and house adjacent to the property she rented and felt suddenly as if someone had punched her in the stomach. The yard she had so admired had been cut in diagonal stripes. A dozen pink plastic flamingos lurked in the shrubbery, their long, craning necks poking up through boxwood and around juniper. Sitting in a lawn chair on the front porch of the lovely Federal-style house was a busty blond mannequin dressed in shorts and a tight pink T-shirt, one arm raised as if waving.
Genna sucked in a horrified breath. "Oh, my Lord."
"Cool, huh?" Brad said, mistaking her shock for awe.
Kyle struggled to his feet, nodding enthusiastically and tugging his T-shirt down over his pudgy tummy. "The mannequin's named Candy. Outrageous!"
"Oh, my Lord," Genna muttered again. What sort of cretin would commit such atrocities? she wondered. That house and yard were the epitome, the essence of Tory Hills. Quietly lovely, old, and treasured. Occupying a large lot in the middle of the treelined block, the house was painted a sedate shade of gray, with white trim around the multipaned windows. The front entrance boasted a pillared portico and a graceful fanlight over the door. It was Genna's dream house. Now some tasteless moron had bought it.
The front door of the house swung open and Brad and Kyle went into a trance. They stared transfixed, as if they were awaiting a holy vision. Then J. J. Hennessy made his appearance.
Genna took one look at the man and despised him.
He swaggered across the lawn radiating arrogance like a furnace blasts heat. Over six feet of rippling muscle packaged in gray sweatpants that left nothing to the imagination but lewd fantasies, and wearing a torn black T-shirt that proclaimed him to be "God's Gift to Women," J. J. Hennessy appeared to be every inch the cocky, overbearing, aggressive male.
His black hair was sheared off on top in a spiky, grown-out crew cut but trailed down his thick neck in back. Square black sunglasses hid his eyes. His nose was short and straight. The idea of a smile played around the corners of his mouth.
Genna stared, aghast, as he sauntered across his striped lawn directly toward her. He stopped no more than two feet in front of her, hands on lean hips, a diamond stud glittering in his left earlobe. Then he looked down at her and smiled, and Genna actually felt her knees turn to cottage cheese. Unbelievable, she thought. He was everything she loathed in a man, yet she was trembling in the face of his charisma like some lovestruck teenager just because he had the most wicked Jack Nicholson grin since . . . well, since Jack Nicholson.
"Hey, J. J.!" the boys greeted him.
"Hey, guys, who's your gorgeous friend?" His voice was warm and rough, like corduroy. He could have read the Yellow Pages and sounded sexy.
I'm going to faint, she thought as that incredible voice washed over her. Don't be an ass, Genna. He's a no-neck, boneheaded athlete who pillaged your dream house and thinks he's God's gift to women. Besides, you never faint.
"It's just Genna," Kyle explained with no enthusiasm. "She lives here." He swung an arm in the direction of Genna's blue Cape Cod house.
"Well, well." J. J. Hennessy smiled once more. "Hel-lo, neighbor."
A pained smile forced up the corners of her mouth.
"Jared Hennessy." He captured one of her hands and managed to make a simple handshake seem lascivious. "Where were you when I was moving in? I could have used a hand with the decorating."
"So I see," she replied blandly, extricating her hand from his and absently brushing her tingling palm down the leg of her shorts. "I'm Genna Hastings. I've been on vacation."
"Did you have a nice time?"
"Have anything to do with those crutches?"
She gave him a smile that made her look as if she had a lip full of novocaine. "How very clever you are. Mr. Hennessy. I sprained my ankle playing tennis."
Jared dropped to his knees and started feeling the ankle she was keeping her weight off. For an instant Genna thought she was going into cardiac arrest. Lightning bolts sizzled through her veins. She couldn't breathe. Then she realized, with no small amount of astonishment, it was only her body reacting to J. J. Hennessy's touch as his one hand gently squeezed her ankle and the other wandered unnecessarily up and down her bare calf.
This is absurd, she told herself even as she began to get light-headed. He was the last man on earth she should be attracted to. She decided she would give him a scathing remark and jerk her foot away from him, but she found she could do nothing more than stare down at him with her mouth gaping open.
Jared grinned up at her. "Feels pretty good to me." His eyebrows bobbed up above his sunglasses insinuatingly. "Alternating hot and cold packs-that's the way to go."
"Thank you, Dr. Kildare," she said dryly, finally managing to step back.
"You're more than welcome to use my Jacuzzi," he offered, standing and backing Genna into the side of her car. He shoved his sunglasses atop his spiky-haired head.
Genna gulped. Now you're really in trouble, Hastings. His eyes were the most beautiful translucent blue she'd ever seen. Mesmerizing. Predatory. Like a wolf's, she thought. But there was a sparkle in them of . . . humor? It didn't quite fit with the bad impression she had formed of him.
Suddenly feeling off balance, she leaned back against her car. He stepped closer, resting one hand on the roof of the auto, inches from Genna's shoulder. She felt sweat break out between her breasts as a chill ran up her back. His gaze meandered down her body, seemingly burning off her yellow oxford-cloth shirt and khaki shorts as it went.
"How about it, Genna?" His voice had dropped to a velvety rumble. "I'd love to have you in my Jacuzzi." He drew his tongue across his lips and leaned closer, until he was no more than a thought away from pressing his body against hers.
Genna drew a shallow, shuddering breath.
"Come on, J.J.!" the boys' plaintive voices intruded. "Throw us a pass, will you? Pleeease!"
"Sure, guys." He turned, grinning, and accepted the football, his hands stroking it lovingly. "This'll be a long one, fellas. Brad, zig out left then cross back. Kyle, go straight."
With a quick motion of his arm, he fired the thing a good fifty yards down the block. The boys dashed after it like eager retrievers.
Jared turned back, his sexiest grin firmly in place, only to find his quarry had ditched him. The side screen door of Genna Hastings' little house banged shut, signaling her successful retreat. He smiled to himself. What a doll! She wasn't tall and svelte with a cover girl face like the models he'd dated in the past, but she was damn-darn adorable, from her twenties-style haircut right down to her preppy penny loafers. And to think he was going to be living right next door to that cute little curvy brunette. He chuckled to himself. "You lucky dog, Hennessy."
His life in Tory Hills wasn't going to be dull with Genna Hastings for a neighbor. Not only was she cute, she had it. The intangible factor, the odds makers called it. Jared just called it it. A fire, spark, an inner spirit. Genna had it, he could tell; he had a nose for that kind of thing.
Smiling, he closed his eyes and recalled her flashing smoke-blue eyes, tilted-up nose, and pained smile. Pained smile? He frowned. He'd have to work on that. All he needed was a little inside information, then he could come up with a game plan. She'd be smiling sincerely at him in no time. Confidence was seldom a scarce commodity for Jared Jay Hennessy.
He knocked his sunglasses into place and sauntered back into his yard, humming.
Genna sorted through her mail, still a little unsteady from her encounter with her new neighbor. Anger, she told herself. That was what was making her shake all over. Now that she was out of range of his sexy smile and bone-melting blue eyes, she could say that.
"Colossal jerk. He's a Philistine. A philandering Philistine who put flamingos in front of your dream house. Get that through your thick head, Genna Hastings!"
Memory of that gleam of humor in his eyes came back to her and threatened to soften her up, but she got a firm hold on those feelings and strangled them.
"God's gift to women," she muttered, tossing bills into one pile and personal stuff into another on the cherry dining room table she had rescued from a yard sale in the Berkshires.
"I'd love to have you in my Jacuzzi, Genna," she jeered, ignoring the fact that her leg still tingled from his touch. That sensation was obviously from the swelling. A couple of aspirins and an ice pack would take care of it.
Her heart did a little jitterbug as she recalled the hot look in his eyes just before the boys had called him off. She scowled. "Conceited creep."
A letter from her friend Mary Woods caught her eye as she tossed it onto the pile. It was postmarked Crested Butte, Montana. Montana? Mary had never been west of New York City. She tore the envelope open and extracted the note.
I met the man of my dreams at the corner of Park and Prospect. My car is a total loss, so is my heart. We've eloped! He's a rancher. Will send pics later.
Closed the catering service. Had to give all my business to Betsy-yuk! Sorry about the short notice. Hope you can find another summer job.
Gotta go. Matt's getting anxious to ride off into the sunset. I'll write again soon.
" 'Love, Mary'! I'll strangle her!"
Genna didn't have to look up to know it was Amy Dennison letting herself in the kitchen door. Amy's distinctive if grating voice always gave her away. She sounded like a Volkswagen horn with a Brooklyn accent.
"Mary!" Genna remained seated at the table, glaring at the letter. "Do you know what she's done? She's run off with John Wayne and left me unemployed with a brand new car to pay for!"
Amy helped herself to a Coke from the refrigerator and plunked her chunky frame down on a Windsor chair opposite her friend. "Yeah, I'm happy for her too."
"Oh," Genna scowled, tossing the note aside. "Of course I'm happy for her, but I'd love to beat her with my bankbook! I was counting on that money when I bought my car. What do I do now?"
"You'll find something else," Amy said matter-of-factly.
"Sure," Genna said, her spirits sinking. "You know as well as I do that all the summer jobs are taken by the end of March."
Amy was silent for a moment as she stared out the window, her eyes fixed on the striped lawn next door, the kernel of a harebrained scheme forming in her mind. "Oh . . . I'll bet something will turn up."
Genna was too busy feeling sorry for herself to notice the odd note of excitement in Amy's voice.
Here she was, just back from her disastrous vacation, with a sprained ankle and a budding migraine, Jared the Jerk had moved in next door, and her summer job had flown the coop. She loved her position at the Tory Hills Elementary School, but it didn't pay well enough for her to afford a brand new car. Damn! If only Mary could have eloped before the interest rates on car loans had lowered so temptingly!
It wasn't just the money either, though Genna was almost a fanatic about financial security. She had been looking forward to her usual summer stint in the catering business. If she had one fantasy occupation, it was to be a chef. She loved to cook and bake and took great joy in creating wonderful meals and desserts. The summer was Mary's busy season because she specialized in catering outdoor affairs. Working with Mary had given Genna a chance to make a little extra cash and live out her fantasy.
Amy heaved a sigh that mixed relief with frustration. She had feared Genna would catch the suspicious tone in her voice and make her spill the beans, but Genna was staring glumly at a stack of bills. That was good, she thought, except that in a way she had wanted to spill the beans. Her mouth was just aching to blurt out that J. J. Hennessy had intercepted her in Genna's driveway and asked all sorts of questions about her.
She swiveled her head back in Genna's direction, her mop of blond curls bouncing, her smile sunny.
"Have you met our new neighbor?"
"Jared the Jerk, God's gift to women?"
Uh-oh. Amy kept her smile frozen firmly in place. "He's a nice guy, Gen. I know he comes on a little like-"
"A jackhammer," Genna supplied.
"I'll admit he's a little . . . different-"
"He's an oddity." She said it as if she were saying "he's a toad."