They say if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, but it’s not the sauce at The Pit BBQ that has Darla Kennet breaking a sweat. The sassy single mom has waited tables in Mobile for years to support herself and her daughter, Grace, and she’s never let anything get her rattled…until now. Somehow, handsome aerospace engineer Jake Dalton has gotten under her skin.
Although they went to school together, Jake doesn’t remember much about Darla. Back then the brainiac future rocket scientist always had his head in a book. But now that a chance meeting has him helping Grace apply to space camp, he’s been pulled into Darla’s orbit. And it isn’t long before Jake and Darla have a heated meeting of their own celestial bodies. The trouble is, Jake wants more. Convincingcautious, fiercely independent Darla to trust him with her heart just may be his most challenging mission yet…
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Love & Rockets
A Coastal Heat Novel
By Maggie Wells
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Maggie Wells
All rights reserved.
"Stop squinting. You look like you're constipated."
Jake Dalton grimaced as his mother's sharp elbow found the soft spot between his sixth and seventh ribs. He grunted and his brother Brian hugged his fiancée in a lame-ass attempt to hide his laughter. Luckily, Brooke wasn't anyone's shill or decoy. Eyes wide and innocent as a newborn baby's, she poked a finger into Brian's side, hitting him in the same vulnerable spot. Obviously, their mother was training the daughter she'd always wanted well.
Resisting the urge to smirk, Jake simply covered his bruised side with his hand and leaned down to speak directly into his mother's ear. "I wouldn't have to if you'd let me wear my glasses. It's a piece of tape."
Julia Dalton huffed an impatient breath but didn't bother sparing him a glance. "There are dozens of eligible young women here, Jacob." She scanned the Starlight Ballroom with a practiced eye, murmuring almost to herself as she took in every tiny detail. "I'll be damned if I let my handsome boy go walking around like some kind of Poindexter all night."
"Hate to break this to you, Ma, but your boy is a Poindexter," Brian said with a grin.
"Better than being a guppy," Jake muttered, turning his head so he could sneak in a squint.
The put-down packed about as much punch as it did when they were kids. Jake knew for a fact there was nothing his water-logged little brother would have liked more than to actually be a guppy. In the end, Brian had to settle for life on two legs as a semi-famous marine biologist and oceanographer. Better than a guppy, but still not quite shark material. But now he'd landed the incredible Brooke Hastings, so maybe Brian had finally figured out there were some perks to not being covered with scales.
"I gave birth to two doctors and neither of you can give me what I really need," his mother said, heaving a wistful sigh.
Brian and Jake groaned in unison, but unaccustomed to the old refrain, Brooke stepped right into the set-up. "What's that?" his future sister-in-law asked, her smile solicitous.
"Valium," all three Dalton men answered in unison.
While Jake shared a grin with his dad and brother, his mom shot them a death glare. A flash of gratitude warmed Jake from the inside out. Thanks to his mom's misplaced vanity, his glasses were tucked in his coat pocket, and he was the only one of her men who couldn't see her malevolent stare clearly.
But his mother missed nothing. Within seconds, his father caught a staggering blow from her elbow with his ribs. Jake mirrored his father's wince and immediately straightened up. Andrew might have settled for a simple master's degree rather than the doctorates his sons had earned in what he liked to term their 'pipe dream' fields, but the man was anything but a fool. When Jake was sixteen and embarking on his first relationship that looked like it would last longer than the seven minutes of heaven he'd experienced in Molly Watkins's coat closet, his dad had taken him aside and offered one bit of sage advice.
Don't waste your breath arguing with a woman you love, son. You're gonna give in to her anyway. No sense in working up a sweat.
His parents' marriage was closing in on forty years, and everything seemed to be clicking along. Jake saw no reason to doubt sound advice. No one knew better than an engineer that if something wasn't actually broke, trying to fix it would only screw things up beyond all repair.
Kind of like his glasses.
They were in perfect working order when he tossed them onto his bed. Even after he'd sat right on them, they were only a little mangled. But then he'd tried to straighten them, and damn if the whole ear piece didn't snap right off in his hand. He'd fixed them as best he could with what he'd had on hand. In truth, he thought he'd done a pretty good job. The frames were black and a little shiny, so he used electrical tape to anchor the temple to the rest of the frame. Of course, his mother spotted the chintzy repair job within seconds.
He'd swear the woman had herself retro-fitted with some kind of ocular scanner that alerted her to social infractions. So he'd worn his Iron Man pajamas under his school uniform a couple times. And maybe he had been a bit too vocal in his defense of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But he was smart. Adaptable. Unlike his younger brother, who insisted on learning every life lesson in the hardest possible way, Jake was fairly quick to admit his mother was right about some things when it came to interacting with fellow members of the human race. Okay, most things. Particularly with interacting with the females of the species. But a guy had to see, damn it. The room might be chockfull of bachelorettes, but how the hell was he supposed to know if he wanted to talk to one if he couldn't see her?
"We're going to get a drink," Brian announced.
His brother nodded toward the far corner of the room. Jake could only assume there was a bar set up somewhere in that general direction, but it was clear, even without his glasses, his little brother intended to ditch him there. Like the unhelpful pain in the ass he always was.
"Don't." Jake grunted.
Brian laughed and murmured, "Careful, there's a bogey incoming."
"Socialite. Radar lock engaged."
Jake set his jaw and started to reach into the breast pocket of his suit coat, but a gentle hand on his arm stopped him.
"Don't you dare," his mother said through a smile so bright the gleam in her eyes might be mistaken for a twinkle. "That's Cassidy Johanssen heading our way."
Brian emitted a gurgling gasp that sounded like his trusty scuba equipment had let him down. Jake blinked furiously as he glanced from side to side, hoping to figure out the angle of attack, and desperately wishing the government had gotten the old Strategic Defense Initiative off the ground.
"Ten o'clock," his father whispered.
When his mother slanted a sharp look in his direction, Jake's dad stared woefully at the nearly full tumbler of scotch and water in his hand, clearly wishing he had an excuse to go to the bar, too.
"Hang in," Brooke said quietly, giving his arm a squeeze. "I hear she's been seeing Jack Tucker pretty steady and he's leaving the bar. I think you're fairly safe."
Jake smiled at Brooke. Brian had grabbed up one of the good ones. Fortunately, his baby brother was smart enough to know he was marrying up and treated his brainy, beautiful fiancée like the miracle she was. "Thank God."
"Don't be too charming," she warned as Brian pulled her away. "You wouldn't want to turn her head."
"Shouldn't be a problem," his little brother assured her, shooting Jake a challenging smile.
But Jake wasn't exactly blind as a bat. True, he did have a significant amount of astigmatism that kept him from seeing things as sharply as he should, but the fact that Brian was all but begging for a beating was hard to ignore. And he'd be happy to fix Baby Bri a big, fat knuckle sandwich.
"Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton."
The high-pitched singsong of Cassidy Johanssen's voice always made Jake tense up inside. Not only did the girl have a tendency to hit registers only canines could hear, but there was a weird kind of sourness underlying the overly sweet tone. The mixed messages in tonal quality made him cautious. Like when he was a kid and he'd pour the entire contents of a tube of Pixy Stix onto his tongue. He knew the initial hit would curl his toes, but it never stopped him from downing them one after another. Mainlining sour sugar candy had once been a personal challenge. A training field for enduring the not-entirely-sweet aspects of life. He learned if he braced himself against the initial bite, the burn would ease and eventually he'd unclench.
Catching his tongue between his teeth, Jake rolled his head forward in a stretch that also passed as a nod of acknowledgment. He scanned the crowd in vain, hoping to spot the blob that would, please God, morph into former-St. Patrick's-football-star-turned-car-salesman Jack Tucker. Once upon a time, his brother's intended, Brooke, had been one half of the prep school's golden couple and Jack had been the other. But a lot changed when people left adolescence behind. Jack and Brooke hadn't made it through college as a couple, and now, Jake's nerdy little brother was poised to marry the Homecoming Queen, proving nice guys finished first sometimes.
Once again, his mother tried to puncture his lung. Shaking himself like a dog, Jake zeroed back in on the conversation in time to hear Cassidy Johanssen gushing over the decor, the food, and the fact that the fifteen-piece swing band his mother hired for the occasion was indeed playing "Swinging on a Star". Until that moment, he hadn't realized every piece they'd played had something to do with stars, the heavens, and magic in the moonlight. An appreciative smile curved his lips as he turned to gaze down at the diminutive dervish he called 'Mom.' The woman really was a miracle.
"The band is great," he said, interrupting Cassidy's stream-of-consciousness comparison of their gala to every other party on the Mobile social circuit. He leaned down and planted an affectionate kiss on his mother's cheek. The familiar scents of Calvin Klein's Eternity perfume and Jergens hand lotion assailed his senses. His father bought her the biggest bottle of perfume Mr. Klein produced each year at Christmastime. The lotion, she picked up at the Winn-Dixie in the economy-sized pump bottle and kept beside the kitchen sink. "You did an incredible job, Mama."
She patted his arm. "Thank you, baby."
"I love the centerpieces," Cassidy squealed. "Did you make those yourself, Mrs. D.?"
Jake straightened and tried not to smirk when his mother blinked in disbelief. The centerpieces in question consisted of Styrofoam balls in various sizes local schoolchildren had painted to resemble the planets in their solar system — if said planets were covered in glitter, foil stars, and, in a few cases, cotton batting he assumed was supposed to represent vaporous gasses.
"No. No, I'm afraid I can't take credit for those," his mother said, a wry smile tugging at her lips. Her dark eyes sparked with amusement, but still, she answered the inane question politely. "They were done by the kids over at Sally Ride Middle School."
Oblivious as always, Cassidy turned in a slow circle as if she needed to take everything in all over again. As if the two hours and thirteen minutes that had passed since the torturous evening had begun had flown by at the speed of light. "The whole event is incredible."
In that moment, he wished he'd never given up his contact lenses in favor of being able to see the wonders of the night sky clearly. At least then, he'd be able to map out a course for escape. He listened with half an ear as Cassidy and his mother exchanged inanities. Catching his father's eye, he raised his brows, silently asking if he thought his mom might be engaged in the conversation to the point where he could slip away. His dad answered with a barely detectable shake of his head and a single finger lifted from the rim of his glass. Unfortunately, he wasn't a mere guest at this mind-numbing shindig. He was one of the hosts. Or so his mama insisted.
But he wasn't really. He was only a board member. Since his family had started the Gulf Coast Young Scientists Foundation, his mother considered it a personal mission to make every fundraising event better than the last. And so far, she'd succeeded. Inspired by Dalton family passions, the foundation focused on marine, botanical, and aeronautical sciences. Tonight's event was geared to raise funds for the program closest to Jake's heart: project- and essay-based scholarships to attend the world famous Space Camp in Huntsville. This year, thanks to the funds raised by the It IS Rocket Science gala, the foundation would be able to send three kids to camp, rather than the one they'd sponsored the very first year. And, as proud as Jake was of the program, he'd give his left nut to be anywhere but that blurry ballroom.
Jack Tucker chose that moment to emerge from the ether, and Jake had never been so pathetically happy to see the cocky sonofabitch. Back in the day, Tucker was the prototypical Southern big man on campus. He'd made the varsity football squad in grade nine and secured the prettiest girl in school before he'd even had a driver's license. In short, Jack Tucker was everything every other teenage boy hated, and though he'd been a couple years ahead of Brian, Brooke, and Jack, Jake didn't mind backing up his little brother when it came to despising him.
Tucker was softer around the middle now, his hair thinner, and his teeth glowed too white in the ambient lighting. Jake shook the man's hand, feeling smug. He might have a couple years on Jack Tucker, but at least he still had a full head of hair and his stomach wasn't threatening the buttons on his dress shirt. Running five miles most nights and swinging a hammer on weekends proved to be a decent workout. The physical labor kept him fairly fit, which was good, considering he spent his days mostly trapped behind a desk.
He waited another sixty seconds to be sure Tucker would remain true to form and try to flirt with his mother. Jack turned on what he thought passed for charm, and Jake had to give the guy credit. He provided excellent cover. With a murmur and a few nods, Jake stepped back, slid a little to his left to evade his mother's peripheral sensors, gave his father a silent thumbs up and melted into the dimness.
He almost made it to the end of the ballroom furthest from the dance floor before toppling over an abandoned chair. Unleashing an impressive string of curses, he planted both hands solidly on the linen-draped table to keep himself from going entirely ass-over. At the center of the table, the construction paper and mylar rings wound around a surprisingly un-sparkled Saturn trembled and shook. A yelp of surprise and horror caught his attention.
Jake squinted into the artificial twilight. A slight young woman dressed in head-to-toe black jumped away from the table. She had a hand clamped over her mouth, but if he wasn't mistaken, her gaze was locked on the teetering centerpiece and not on her stumbling intruder. Muttering under his breath, he untangled his foot from the legs of the chair and stretched out to steady the sixth planet from the Sun.
Mortified by both his clumsiness and the crass language, Jake scrambled for a way to recover. Women, though he loved them, had a way of making him feel like an awkward adolescent again. In high school, he'd learned to hide his awkwardness behind mediocre athletic skills. By the end of his first year in Tuscaloosa, he'd cultivated a kind of hipster-intellectual thing girls found bafflingly appealing. But as he moved on to his post-graduate work, he'd found himself surrounded by fewer women and more men. Engineers and scientists. Men without his father's appreciation of the absurd and his mother's slyly sharp sense of humor. A bevy of colleagues so dry he looked like the class cut-up by comparison.
Knowing he'd blown any chance of appearing suave or even mildly cool in front of the woman on the other side of the round table, he snatched up Saturn and dropped onto a knee. He held the ringed planet out in front of him like an offering and peered at the black-clad figure hanging back in the shadows. "I know you said you wanted at least a full carat, but this one has almost twice the mass of the whole Earth."
His spur of the moment proposal was met with a surprisingly girlish giggle.
Though the sound made him cringe, he didn't let the disconcerting laugh stop him. "The core is probably iron and nickel, but I can promise you, you'll never want for ammonia."
Again, the woman giggled. She sounded young. Too young for him. Disappointment flared inside him but immediately subsided. Those flashes of want had been popping up more and more lately, and he didn't need his PhD in observational astronomy to determine its source. He was jealous of his brother. Sort of. Jealousy implied envy, which essentially meant he thought Brian didn't deserve what he'd found in Brooke, and that conclusion was light-years off the mark. He didn't begrudge his little brother one bit of his happiness. He wanted a relationship like theirs for himself. One day. With a girl who wasn't a giggler.
Excerpted from Love & Rockets by Maggie Wells. Copyright © 2016 Maggie Wells. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Darla and Jake went to the same school growing up, even ran in the same social circles. Jake was a couple years ahead of Darla in school, so their paths rarely crossed. While Jake went off to college, Darla was disowned and kicked out of her parent's house due to an unplanned pregnancy. Darla was given a job at The Pit BBQ as a teen and still works there today. Darla also works for a catering company for extra money. Jake, with family support, goes on to become an aerospace engineer. It is during a benefit, where Darla is working as a server, that their paths cross. Grace, Darla's daughter, is bored. She's not allowed to attend functions with her mom, but her interest in the summer camp has her sitting alone at a table. Jake stumbles into the table and almost wrecks Grace's project. As they talk and joke, Darla hears part of the conversation that sounds highly inappropriate. She basically accuses Jake of being a pervert. Grace is extremely embarrassed by her mother's actions, accusing her of possibly ruining her chances of a scholarship to the summer camp--which Darla can't afford.... When Darla sees Jake eating at The Pit BBQ, she apologizes and asks if Jake can mentor Grace. As they all spend time together, Jake realizes that Darla is "the one". Darla just isn't convinced. She feels as though he deserves more, someone who's educated with a good family. Jake just has to convince her otherwise.... I really enjoyed this novel. I loved the fact that Jake was hilariously awkward! He was a hot, alpha male served up with a side of geek. I thought it was cute that he and Grace "spoke the same geeky language". I also liked that Darla was shown that not everyone still talked about her and thought of her as trash for her unplanned pregnancy. It's funny how two of her former friends, turned out to be the ones who helped her win Jake back--along with Jake's mom. It's funny how life has a way of turning things around to FINALLY work in your favor! This was my first Maggie Wells novel and won't be my last! I read a gifted copy and all opinions stated are my own.
Love and Rockets is a sweet romance between a hard-working single mother and a sweet scientist. Darla and Jake knew each other in high school, but they never connected. Each goes their own way and Jake becomes a successful professor, while Darla becomes a single mom. Her daughter loves space and her dream is go to space camp. Darla does her best to help her daughter Grace win a scholarship, and soon she convinces Jake to mentor Grace. They begin to date, but will Jake and Darla be able to overcome their differences to find a happy ending? This is a sweet romance that featured realistic characters, a fun story, and happy ending. Grace stole my heart and was my favorite character! This the second book of Ms. Wells I have read and I am looking forward to the next book I was given a free copy for an honest review.
This was a cute read- its part of the Coastal Heat series but can be read a stand alone. This was a sweet & sexy read...... not a lot of surprises but that isn't a bad thing. Darla & Jake went to school together but weren't friends. They are reunited years later when Darla is working a party Jake is at. and are enjoying each others company ;) I think my only stumbling block was the Darla first called Jake a pedophile for "hitting" on her daughter. Sort of a weird transition to lovers. I voluntarily reviewed an Advance Reader Copy of this book.