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When You Kiss Me
By JANET DAILEY
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe pinto, a mixture of chestnut and white, reluctantly submitted to the pressure of the reins and turned away from the rich grasses of his pasture. His head bobbed rhythmically from side to side as he plodded down the rutted lane. Fifteen summers had passed before his soft brown eyes. He no longer pranced and tossed his brown and white mane, or tugged at the bit between his teeth. Through the years he had grown fat and lazy, saving his energy to swish away flies and tear at the long green grass so that he would have the strength to see another long South Dakota winter sweep by.
The horse didn't need to look at a calendar to see the month of September preparing to make way for October. All he had to do was look at the trees and their green leaves that were dotted with red and orange, or to raise his brown eyes to the blue skies and see the birds gathering to begin the migration south at the first sign of cold. The waving fields of wheat next to his pasture had ripened and grains of gold hung heavily on their slender stalks. The days were still warm but the nights held a chill. The pinto had already begun growing his shaggy coat to ward off the cold northwest winds.
A heel dug firmly into his side and he snorted his disapproval before amiably breaking into arocking canter. The rider on his back was light and the hands holding the reins were gentle. The pinto's dark ears pricked forward as a brightly plumed pheasant took wing ahead of them. But there was not the slightest break in his stride. A hand touched the side of his neck in praise, followed by a checking of reins. The aging pinto gladly settled back into a shuffling trot and finally to his plodding walk again.
The young woman astride his bare back sighed deeply, letting the circled reins drop in front of her while placing her hands on her hips. Her bare legs dangled from his fat sides as she balanced herself easily on his broad back. She squinted her own soft brown eyes at the sun's glare, feeling its warmth on the skin not covered by her white halter top and blue shorts. If she had looked for them, she would have seen all the signs of autumn that the horse did. But her gaze flitted over the landscape, looking but not seeing.
Anyone looking at her would have seen a figure that was not overly curvy or too skinny, but somewhere in the middle. It couldn't be said that she was tall in the saddle, since she was five feet four, an average height for an average female. Her hair was the same warm brown shade as her eyes, and was thick and cropped in a feathery boy-cut that allowed its fullness and natural wave to frame her oval face. Even her features were average, not possessing any startling beauty, only a pleasing wholesomeness.
When she'd been younger, Antoinette Smith, her mother, used to moan about her lack of glamour. Her father always used to gather her in his arms in one of his giant bear hugs and in his laughing voice teased her.
"You have a pair of very nice eyes to see with, a nose to breathe and smell with, pretty lips, and a gorgeous set of white teeth, thanks to the dedication of your dentist, considering how you always argued with your mom and me about brushing them." Then he would lift her downcast chin with his hand and study her face closely. His voice would become very serious. "And by my latest count, you have two thousand, four hundred and thirty-seven freckles, which you ought to thank the good Lord for, because He's the one who sprinkled gold dust all over your face."
She would be scowling by that time at the faint freckles that were there and not there, so light were they. Her father would then tickle the corner of her mouth to get her to smile.
"And He also gave you a matching set of dimples!" he ended triumphantly. Even though Jolie knew her dad was on her side no matter what, she always felt better after one of his pep talks. It was only when she grew up that she realized he'd been trying to make her content with the way she was, with the things she couldn't change. Yes, she had long ceased to curse the fact that she'd been endowed with both freckles and dimples, and learned to put up with the good-natured teasing that they always earned her.
Even though Jolie seldom got a second glance when she was walking down a street in town and couldn't have won a beauty pageant to save her life, there was a consolation prize: she was known as an excellent listener, had a ready smile, and could carry on a conversation without giggling. She'd been the kind of girl that got invited home to chat with moms while her girlfriends were invited to parties. After hearing tales of what went on at some of these, Jolie wasn't sure she would have liked it, but she never had the chance to find out for herself.
She was home now after a little more than three years into which she had crammed a four-year college education. Okay, she had her degree but now what? What came next? Inside Jolie felt a surge of restlessness that heightened her sense of dissatisfaction.
Home. Everything was different and yet essentially the same. Home. A three-hundred and sixty acre tract of land sixty miles from Yankton, South Dakota, where for the entire twenty-one years of her existence, Jolie's parents had farmed. It had been a good life and a hard life at times, the difference dictated by the weather and its effect on the crops. But it was her parents' life and not hers.
The pinto paused to munch on a tempting clump of grass until Jolie raised herself out of her indifference to lift his head away.
"If you eat any more, Scout, your sides will burst," she admonished him. Dutifully the horse plodded on. "Poor old Scout," Jolie sighed. "You've changed too, just like me. Whoever said you can't go home again was right."
Her parents had lived by themselves for the last three years and had grown accustomed to it. They no longer knew how to treat Jolie. She wasn't a child anymore but to them she wasn't grown up-not quite. Madelaine, her older sister by one year, was married and already had two children as well as a life completely separate from Jolie's. Change was the only constancy. And that included John Talbot.
Jolie saw his pickup parked on the turnout from the country road. Tall and sunburned, he stood on the edge of a wheat field, the muscles of his arms evident in the late morning sunlight. A stalk of wheat twitched between his teeth as he lifted a hand in greeting. Without any effort his long stride carried him to the edge of the field as Jolie drew level atop her pinto. His large hands encircled her waist and lifted her to the ground. There John lowered his head and with the ease of habit claimed her mouth in a kiss. Jolie responded just as naturally, liking the warmth and the closeness of his body next to hers.
"Hi." The gleam of quiet affection in his tawny gold eyes was comfortable and pleasing, as was his slow smile. "It's been a long time since you've come out to visit me in the fields."
Snuggling against his shoulder, Jodie nodded agreement as his strong arm held her there. She slipped her arm behind his back and around his waist. The pinto began contentedly grazing on the grasses near the lane, ignoring the couple walking slowly toward the lone cottonwood by the fence.
"Dad says your wheat is ready for harvest." Jolie chose the main topic of local conversation. It was a safe subject that steered clear of her restlessness. John plucked another stalk of wheat before sinking down on the ground beneath the cottonwood. He stripped the golden grains from its head, tossing two into his mouth.
"Still a little too much moisture," he decreed. "Another day of sun like this and it'll be ready." He pushed the straw hat back on his head and gazed out over the sea of wheat. "It's going to be a good harvest."
"Dad's shoulder is bothering him, which means rain before tomorrow night." The blade of grass in her hand split down the middle at the nervous pressure of her fingers and she tossed it away.
"You can tell him from me that he can hold it off for another couple of days." John smiled and drew Jolie into his arms.
She turned her head just as he was about to kiss her and his lips instead found her cheek. But he wasn't deterred, letting his mouth wander over her neck and the lobe of her ear, which was half-covered by her hair. For Jolie, there was nothing soothing in his caress and her lack of response made her feel uncomfortable. She wriggled free, plucking another blade of grass and studying it intently.
His measuring eyes were on her. Jolie could feel him studying her face and she tried to seem nonchalant.
"What's wrong, Jo?" he asked quietly. If he was annoyed or hurt, nothing in his voice revealed it.
"I don't know," she sighed. She glanced back at him hesitantly, letting him glimpse the melancholy expression in her eyes. It would have to do for a silent apology.
"You've been home a week now. No callbacks on any of your job applications?"
"I haven't applied anywhere."
His eyebrows raised briefly at her flat statement, but his expression remained impassive otherwise. Jolie drew in a deep breath as she averted her eyes from his face. He always seemed to know so much about what she was thinking and she couldn't even begin to guess what was going on in his mind.
"I've got my diploma," she said at last, "and I don't even know what I want to do with it."
"Home economics graduates always make good wives," he said lightly.
"Too bad I majored in history then," she shot back. She knew perfectly well that he knew that and that he'd been teasing her, but his remark had a slight-very slight-edge. As if he was testing her. But how could she possibly tell John that she didn't love him, or at least not the way she wanted to love the man she would marry? What was worse, she felt so guilty for not loving him.
John Talbot was a dream come true, but he was someone else's dream and not hers. Still .... he was good-looking, extremely so, and solid and dependable. Just looking at his face, so clean-cut and handsome, made Jolie wonder if she wasn't out of her mind for not snatching up a man who'd waited faithfully for the last five years for her to make up her mind. She didn't deny that John had a magnetism that attracted her, but nothing happened-no bells rang, her heart didn't beat any faster-when he held her in his arms. It wouldn't be fair to marry him when she knew this.
"Do you ever wonder why I didn't call you while you were at college?" his quiet baritone voice asked.
Jolie nodded, too full of her own feelings of guilt to reply vocally. "I was pretty sure you liked me, maybe even loved me a little, but I knew you weren't in love with me." John lifted her chin as it moved inadvertently down toward her chest. "You were eighteen and I was twenty-four. I decided it was only fair to you to wait until you'd graduated and grown up some. But I guess absence hasn't made the heart grow fonder, has it?"
"I feel awful about it, John," Jolie whispered, "but you're right. I'm not in love with you. I do care about you, more than anyone I've ever met."
"Yeah." For just a moment, his fingers dug into her shoulders, revealing the pain that his face didn't show. Then he released her and lay back against the tree trunk. "The way you feel wouldn't satisfy either one of us for long." His smile was slow and regretful with a trace of bitterness to it. "So what are you going to do now? Are you going to stay around here?"
"I don't think so." There was an almost imperceptible shake of her head as Jolie replied. "I thought if I came back here to the farm it would give me a chance to get my thoughts straight. After three years of nonstop classes, endless assignments and part-time work, I feel as if I'm still rushing around. I thought coming home would calm me down, but it's only made me more confused. I don't want to take just any job, but I can't keep living with my parents. I have the feeling they were more than happy to become empty nesters."
"It will all work out."
"I hope it does ... for both of us. John?" His gaze moved from the landscape to her again. "Is it too much to ask that we still be friends?"
He reached out a hand and ruffled her hair the way he'd done when she'd been a teenager. "Of course." He smiled, getting quickly to his feet. She rose to stand silently beside him. "Don't be so solemn, honey." He traced the curve of her cheek with his finger. "It's not as if I'd suddenly discovered you weren't in love with me. I think I would have been more shocked if you were, and a little bit afraid that you were lying."
Jolie stood on tiptoe and planted a soft kiss on his mouth, her eyes brimming with tears she didn't feel she had any right to shed. "Aunt Brigitte will have my scalp for letting you go."
"Don't tell me your romance-obsessed aunt is here," John laughed.
"Aunt Brigitte is permanently single. How can you possibly consider her romantic? Mom swears she would be surprised if Aunt Brigitte had ever been kissed."
"Don't you believe it. That's one woman who knows exactly what love is all about." That was a puzzling statement to Jolie and one that John was going to let her think about by herself, evidently. "Well, Jo, your uncle will be wondering where I am, so I'd better shove off."
She didn't realize at first that he was leaving until he was already several steps away from her. "John-I'm ... I'm sorry," she called after him.
Jolie didn't miss the slight stiffening of his shoulders before he turned and waved. Yet his stride quickly carried him toward his pickup. Jolie watched him drive off before she walked over to her plump horse still contentedly stuffing himself with grass.
The screen door slammed behind her as Jolie entered the two-story frame house. She didn't feel any better or worse than before she'd left that morning. Only one thing was definite: she would not be looking for a job anywhere near home. It wouldn't be fair to John, not that he was the type to jump off a cliff. Actually, he was the opposite, the kind of guy who met problems head on and never had second thoughts.
"Hello! Who's there?" The imperious question came from the sun porch.
"It's me, Aunt Brigitte," Jolie replied, sticking her head around the door with a wave of her hand. "Where's mom?"
"In town getting groceries." When Jolie would have gone on to her own room, her aunt motioned her into the room. "Come sit with me."
Brigitte's iron-gray hair was drawn into a severe bun at the back of her head. Jolie had always regarded her aunt, who was twelve years her mother's senior, as being stern and practical, but in the light of John's statement, Jolie wondered how accurate her assessment was. Brigitte's features had the uncompromising lines of maturity, but it suddenly seemed possible that she'd been pretty back in the day, especially when her aunt smiled as she was doing now.
"What have you been doing since you got back from college?" Her aunt's questions generally sounded like commands, but then she'd been a teacher for the last thirty years, Jolie mused.
It wasn't often that her aunt made the weekend trip to see her only sister and spend two uneventful days on the farm. This was one of those rare times.
"Relaxing from the grind of all the finals, mostly. And trying to figure out what I want to do next."
"That sounds as if it's a tremendous problem." Jolie saw her aunt's lips quiver and almost break into a smile. Brigitte Carson glanced up, noting the troubled expression on her niece's face. "Hmm. It is, isn't it?"
"Yes." Jolie sighed heavily and turned away from her aunt's searching gaze.
"Where have you been this morning?"
"Out with John."
"I bet he had an answer to your dilemma."
"Yes, he had a suggestion." Jolie's voice was soft and simultaneously firm. "But I'm not in love with him, Aunt Brigitte."
It was her aunt's turn to sigh and she did. "I'm sorry to hear that. Sorry for you as well as John. He'd make a perfect husband and father. Are you sure about what you feel?"
"What is love?" Jolie asked quietly, turning away from the window to her aunt. "I'm twenty-one years old and I don't have a clue."
"That, my dear, is an eternal question that will be asked as long as there are people on earth." Her aunt's eyebrows raised significantly. "At least, I do know you really aren't in love with John or you wouldn't ask."
Excerpted from When You Kiss Me by JANET DAILEY Copyright © 2009 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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