BOOKLIST TOP 10 ROMANCE OF 2019
What could two troubled souls from different walks of life have in common? Maybe everything.
Andra Lawler lives isolated at her family’s horse ranch, imprisoned by the memories of an assault in college. When she needs help training her foals, she hires a Haitian-Creole cowboy from New Orleans with a laugh as big as the Montana sky.
LJ Delisle can’t stand the idea that Andra might be lonely—or eating frozen TV dinners. He bakes his way into her kitchen with a lemon velvet cake, and offers her cooking lessons that set them on the road to romance. But even their love can’t escape the shadow of what they've been through. Despite their growing friendship and his gentle rapport with the horses, LJ is still an outsider facing small-town suspicions.
Before they can work through their issues, LJ is called home by a family emergency. In the centuries-old, raggedly rebuilt streets of New Orleans, he must confront memories of Hurricane Katrina and familiar discrimination. And Andra must decide if she’s brave enough to leave the shelter of the ranch for an uncertain future with LJ.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||1 MB|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Michelle Hazen
A perfect barn was like a perfect woman: suspicious.
LJ Delisle didn’t have much experience with perfection, which was why he was giving a little side-eye to the stable’s immaculate floor. As he explored up the aisle, brass name plaques glinted at him from the stall doors. The horses themselves were glossy and muscular, but so manicured there was no sign that they’d ever broken a sweat.
He stopped to pet one’s velvety nose. “You been juicin’, hmm? Don’t lie to me now.” The gelding whickered, blowing speckles of snot all over his white job-interview shirt.
LJ chuckled. Well, the horses seemed normal enough, even if the stable was straight out of a magazine shoot. He left his new friend and stuck his head into the tack room. “Anybody here?”
No answer from the racks of saddles.
Probably he was just uncomfortable because this was so different than where he was from. There was nowhere as beautiful as New Orleans, and few places as screwed up. The crumbling brick sidewalks he loved were edged by jagged potholes and scattered with glass from windows broken by burglars and vandals. The red sizzle of boiling crawfish spiced the air, and humidity squatted heavy over the ever-threatening river. Mud backed up into the streets with every hard rain, a reminder of the sharp edge between civilization and chaos.
To LJ, flaws felt like home.
He continued down the barn aisle, reminding himself not to get his back up when this caliber of facility was exactly what he’d come to Montana to find. Along with a fresh start and a chance to train horses his way. Besides, getting out of the deep south was just about the only choice for a black man who wanted to break into the exclusive club of the horse showing circuit.
Now, he just needed to find the person who was supposed to be interviewing him, and convince them the spritz of horse snot on his shirt only increased his qualifications as a trainer.
He reached the exit on the far side of the barn, and his strides stuttered as he saw the horse outside in the arena.
“Glory hallelujah,” he muttered.
The Lawler Ranch quarter horses looked classy in their stalls, but in movement they were the difference between a dumpster full of sheet music and a song. The stallion outside was all muscle, his tail as dark as the long braid of the woman riding him. He was giving her hell, trying to buck, but instead of fighting him, she funneled all that energy into grace. The horse’s hooves floated over the ground, transitioning to a half pass as seamlessly as an Olympian.
LJ leaned a shoulder against the barn doorframe and watched. It was how people were meant to ride. Not battling for dominance or jerking at the reins. Flowing, all the potential of two beings focused on one goal.
He forgot all about brass nameplates and just soaked it in.
Eventually, the woman dismounted and walked her stallion toward the barn. LJ shook off his daydreaming and stepped back out of sight, trying to buy time. When people met him, their brows usually rose right along with their eyes as they looked up, then up some more. Six and a half feet was too much for most, so he liked to have a smile and quip at the ready to put them at ease. Except watching her ride had wiped his mind clean of jokes.
She had to be Andra Lawler, the name at the bottom of the emails that had invited him to drive to Lawler Ranch for “the extensive, in-person interview process.” Anybody who rode that well must be in charge of hiring the other trainers.
Even off the horse, she drew his eyes. Her walk was all grace and confidence, the stallion following along meekly at her heels. As she got closer, the pale skin and delicate features under the shadow of her hat became clearer. She hadn’t seen him yet, but even in relaxation the lines of her face teased at his imagination like a story only half told.
LJ approached the doorway, taking a breath to introduce himself and raising his hand to shake hers.
She crossed the line of shadow cast by the barn and walked straight into his outstretched hand, his fingertips bumping her ribs. Her chin jerked up and a scream ripped out of her, so unexpected and loud LJ startled, too. The stallion reared, his hoofs flashing as she flinched away from LJ and into the far greater danger behind her.
He grabbed her and yanked her out of the way. The scream cut off into eerie silence and her muscles tensed under his hands. Goosebumps broke out on the back of his neck, his instincts shrilling all the alarms at how fast this whole situation had gone wrong. Before he could try and diffuse whatever the hell this was, she jerked away from him and fell. Her sunglasses jumped off her nose with the impact of ass on concrete, but instead of reaching for them, her wide green eyes unfocused and she gasped for air. She didn’t even seem to register the stallion, who reared again. His hooves pawed the air inches from her unprotected head. Close. Way too damned close.
LJ jumped in front of her and caught the reins, swinging his body in between the frightened horse and the woman on the ground.
“Andra!” A male voice sounded from behind him.
LJ started to look, but then the stallion tried to bolt and the reins burned through his fingers. He blew out a breath and steadied himself, speaking low and sweet to the horse until it quieted, too. As soon as he could, LJ turned to check on the woman. She was still on the ground, hunched convulsively forward with an older man crouched at her side. Solid shoulders filled out his faded shirt even as a pot belly tested the last button above his belt buckle. “Talk to me, sweetheart,” he said.
“Your horse,” the man tried. “Andra, your horse!”
“It’s okay. I have it under—” LJ stopped as the man flapped a hand at him, not glancing away from Andra.
As soon as he mentioned her responsibilities, she blinked, taking a small breath. Then she shot to her feet, glancing around. She registered the horse first. Then LJ, her lashes widening in the belated reaction to his height he'd been expecting. He didn’t have a joke ready this time, either.
He swapped the reins to his left hand and put out his right, letting her see it before he came forward. “I’m LJ Delisle. And damned sorry I startled you that way.”
Her throat worked, her shoulders tense beneath the old tee shirt that said “Eat. Sleep. Ride.” She took his hand, her grip strong and certain despite the sweat still dampening her palm. “No, I'm sorry. I didn't expect anybody to be standing there.”
“That'd be your cue to explain what in the blazing hell you’re doing in my barn, son.” The challenge came from the older man’s mouth with all the softness of a pistol being cocked. Beside them, the stallion’s ears swiveled forward and he danced on the end of the reins.
LJ snapped up taller, bristling, then slapped on a smile to cover it. It was a fair question, however little he appreciated the other man’s wording. “I was about half an hour early for my interview. Nobody answered the door at the house, so I came on up to the barn.”
“Interview for what? We're not hiring.”
Or maybe they were hiring until he scared his future boss flat on her ass. He'd seen a lot of people get leery at the breadth of his shoulders, but her reaction was a long way past normal.
“Dad, were you listening to me last month at all?” Andra’s voice was tight. “If we had somebody to get the colts from weaned to saddle broke, Jason and I could train a lot more horses per year. We might even have a shot at matching demand for once.” Her father opened his mouth, and she glared at him.
“Uh, I'm happy to wait up at the house until my scheduled time.” LJ glanced between father and daughter, then offered the stallion’s reins to Andra.
“No, it’s okay.” She swept her sunglasses off the floor and waved them toward the stallion now standing patiently at his side. “That can count as your first interview question.”
A smile tickled his lips. “Hell, if all you needed was to see if I could hold a horse, you might as well start filling out my W-4’s.”
“That won't be necessary,” Mr. Lawler said. “We're not hiring.”
Andra scowled at her father, the pallor that followed her attack starting to give way under a flush of anger. “You agreed to let me place the ad.”
“I agreed if an appropriate candidate came along…” He cleared his throat.
LJ's jaw locked and this time, he put the reins in Andra's hands without asking permission. “I’ll wait at the house,” he said to her. “If you want to speak to me about a job, that’s where I’ll be.”
He headed for the exit, his insides all fists and fire. He was all too aware that he’d just turned his back on the owner: an owner who'd decided after his first glance that he wasn’t an “appropriate candidate” for employment. His new chance here was cinders, and there was no point even glancing at the beautiful horses he passed.
His friends had warned him how it would be out west, but fool he was, he figured anyplace had to have more opportunity for a black cowboy than southern Louisiana.
"You agreed I could pick someone I was comfortable with," Andra’s voice hissed behind him as he tried to shut out the sounds of the argument he was leaving behind.
"Comfortable? He wasn't here five minutes and you were having a panic attack!" Mr. Lawler protested. "I don't care about training more horses per year, Andra. What I care about—” Mr. Lawler’s voice was lost in the snap of the breeze as LJ’s long legs carried him further from the barn.
Even if she wanted to give him the job, he'd probably always be in the middle of an argument between her and her father. That wasn't going to earn him the freedom he wanted to try his own, gentler training methods.
LJ hesitated, thinking of Andra’s kind hands on that stallion's reins. But then his gaze fell on his old pickup, parked in front of the Lawlers’ log and river rock mansion. He’d left his second-hand suitcases stashed by last night’s campsite, but the rust-fringed dent in his driver’s side door told the whole story he was trying to hide. And it wasn't one of years of experience with the caliber of horses who were named in sentences instead of single syllables.
When he graduated college and chose the stables over an office, he knew it'd probably be ten years or more before he was training horses instead of shoveling up after them. Which is why when he’d gotten Andra’s email asking him to interview for a trainer position rather than a groom, he should have known it was too good to be true.
Her flat accent mangled his name so badly he almost didn't recognize it. She jogged up to his side.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I asked you all this way, and I do want to interview you. I'm sorry about my dad.” She glanced away, a wisp of black hair blowing against her cheek. She was younger than she sounded in her emails. Possibly younger than his own twenty-eight. But at least she hadn’t written him off the way her father had.
“I appreciate you wanting to give me a chance, especially after I startled you.” Startled didn't really cover it, but he didn't want to embarrass her. If it weren't for the scream, he’d think she had some kind of asthma attack, or maybe a seizure, because it was so violent. Except there was no denying he’d triggered it. He wouldn't blame her daddy for wanting to get rid of him after that, but the “appropriate candidate” comment still itched under his skin. “Still, I don't think there's any reason to stick around if the owner of the ranch isn't of a mind to get to know me past the obvious.”
“Oh, it's not because you’re um...African-American.” She glanced up at him.
He tried to smile, but it felt strained. “You can say black. My people lived on Saint Domingue before it was called Haiti, and we lived in Louisiana before that belonged to America. I’m black Creole from way on back, Ms. Lawler, and proud to claim it.”
She blew out a breath. “I’m sorry this has been such a mess. Can we just start over? I’m Andra Lawler.” She emphasized the ahn-sound at the start, and he realized he’d been saying it wrong inside his head. This time she held out her hand to shake his.
He hesitated. This job would mean everything to him. But this ranch might not be big enough for him to avoid her father.
Andra was still holding out her hand, waiting for him, and he couldn’t stand to leave her hanging. The horses he’d seen in that stable were worth putting up with a jerk of a boss, and Andra really seemed to want him to stay. He tried out a smile. “LJ Delisle, and so happy to meet you.” He let the syllables of his family name roll off his tongue so she could hear the De-lye-el, the “s” ignored by everyone except well-meaning cowgirls.
She shook his hand, strong as any cowboy. “I thought the initials were only for emails. You go by LJ?”
“The name my mama gave me is a mouthful and a half. Best to stick with plain old LJ.” He winked, screwing his Proper Interview Front all to hell. Though it would be completely worth it if he could tease her out of her own stiff formality. “Now how about this extensive interviewing process?”
As soon as she met his gaze, he got lost all over again in that half-told story behind her eyes.
She took a little breath, as if she was the one who needed to prepare herself, and started toward one of the barns. Not, he noted, the one they'd left her father in. As he followed, he caught the sound of Lady Gaga playing from a tractor shed nearby, drifting out along with the sound of curses in a very female voice.
In this new stable, the horses were younger than the last bunch, but the light in their eyes was the same: quick, bright, curious. Not the dull stare of a horse left in a pasture until its brain went sludgy with stillness. LJ's pulse quickened. Here were animals begging to be given something to do. This job might not be as fresh of a start as he’d hoped for, but the horses at least were everything he’d been dreaming about and then some.
“This is Taz. Her father was the AQHA Farnam Superhorse, and despite our best efforts, she’s terrified of lead ropes.” Andra threw open a stall door, and her fingers held none of the frozen hesitation of that moment when she’d collapsed backward onto the floor. “She’s your second interview question.”
Andra propped her arms on the stall door and tried to focus on the man working with her horse. She was not in the mood for the level of adulting required to interview a potential employee. Right now, all she wanted was to disappear into her own little cottage and forget who she was.
This morning should have been her chance to convince her dad—and herself—that she could handle a man being on the property. Humiliating herself and nearly getting trampled by her own mount had not been on the agenda.
LJ took the lead rope and hid it under a pile of hay. Taz eyed him from across the stall, her head ducked low and wary. He leaned against the wall, shoved his hands in his pockets, and started whistling. It took Andra a second to recognize the tune, and she frowned. Rage Against the Machine was an odd choice for soothing an animal.
LJ was an odd choice all around. She was determined to hire the best person for the job, man or woman, but she hadn’t expected him to be so…big. She’d been the tallest girl in her class at 5’10”, but he towered over her by more than half a foot. Not the lanky kind of tall either. Every inch of him was packed with muscle.
Not that it should matter. He didn’t seem like a creep, and that smile of his wasn’t the least bit threatening. It was mischievous and full of fun, brightening his whole body from his suspiciously clean cowboy hat to the tips of his scratched boots.
She hadn’t planned on going toe-to-toe with her overprotective father until after she hired someone. And it especially sucked that she’d had to do it in front of LJ. She should explain, but he probably wouldn’t be any happier to learn her dad’s objection was because he was the wrong gender instead of the wrong race.
Taz nosed through the hay until she found the lead rope, and then she backed away, ears laid back. LJ didn’t react, keeping up his whistling until the filly forgot the rope. Then he took his hands out of his pockets, hid the rope behind his back, and started playing a game with the horse that was somewhere between follow the leader and hide and seek. Andra smiled. It was similar to a game she played with her own mare, Gracie. When no one was watching, that was.
Even if he had witnessed one of her freeze-ups, she was glad she’d kept LJ around for the interview. He was the only candidate who answered her emailed questions by talking about horses instead of himself. And in those moments when she’d been helpless, locked up tight by a glitch in her own brain, he’d only moved to protect her.
LJ led the way through to the outdoor pen attached to the stall. He laughed as the filly trotted to follow, nosing around to see what he had hidden behind him.
Andra squared her shoulders. It didn’t matter what he thought of her, or even if he’d already seen her at her craziest. What mattered was if she could trust him with her babies.
For the next forty minutes, she watched his every movement. She’d found that you could tell a lot about a man by what he thought was wrong with your horses. As far as she could see, LJ couldn’t find a thing wrong with hers. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry, either. He spent the whole time playing games with Taz, sometimes with the lead rope he was supposed to be training her for, sometimes without. One thing was for sure though: neither she nor the horse could take their eyes off him.
She cleared her throat. “That’s good for today.”
“Good” was putting it lightly. Instead of forcing obedience, he teased the horse toward a curiosity that soon had it doing exactly what he’d wanted in the first place. She liked his style.
LJ patted the filly one more time and let himself out of the stall, smiling almost shyly. “Tell me you’ve got another twenty questions as smart as that one, and I’d just about work for free.”
Without the fence between them, anxiety tightened her belly, like it did every time a man got within arm’s reach of her. Her vision was drawn to the thick knuckles of his work-scarred hands. They were big enough that his fist could cave in most of her face with a single blow.
He frowned. “Are you all right, Ms. Lawler?”
She blinked. She was at home, and safe. Not only that, his talent with horses made it clear she couldn’t afford to let her phobias keep holding her back from hiring men.
She planted her feet, the decision already made. “You can call me Andra. How long will it take you to gather your things and move up here? We’ve got an apartment on-site furnished and ready to go.”
This was about her horses, not her. She wouldn’t have to see him that often, so it didn’t matter if she still wasn’t comfortable around men. She faked calm for the benefit of a dozen animals a day—every trainer did.
Doing it for a single human shouldn’t be any harder than that.
* * *
LJ walked across the stable yard, wondering exactly how much tonight’s dinner was going to suck. On a scale of one to aggressive foot fungus, he was guessing maybe an eight.
Jason Lawler walked with him, dead silent, which seemed to be the normal state of being for Andra’s brother. He’d met broken trombones with more to say. Of course, LJ had been known to talk the ears off everything from horses to grocery checkers, so he wouldn’t have taken Jason’s relative quiet too personally if he weren’t getting the freeze out from the rest of the family as well.
Daddy Lawler spent most of the last three days giving LJ heavy-browed sideways looks, always finding tasks to do nearby, as if he might shoplift a quarter horse. And Andra, the Lawler whose opinion he cared about most, was straight up avoiding him.
Since starting here, he’d glimpsed her only a few times: once in the far pasture, jumping ditches on a chestnut gelding. In the main arena, teaching a bay mare to do lead changes. Her back, heading out of the stables every time he headed in.
Her name, on the other hand, followed him everywhere he went. The staff told him Andra wanted to try crossing these bloodlines, Andra taught this horse to pick up its own fallen rein, Andra did the imprinting on this foal and this one and this one…and yet she was nowhere to be found when he wanted a rundown on the stock he was supposed to be working with.
The breeze kicked up dust around their boots and Jason sneezed.
“Bless you,” LJ said automatically.
Jason nodded and kept walking. LJ wondered if it was possible to lose brain cells from lack of conversation. He’d only been here three days, and he already missed his gregarious hometown neighborhood.
He dropped his eyes as they got closer to the ranch headquarters with its raw log pillars and river rock accents. Everything was so new here, the paint all fresh and smooth without humidity creeping in under every tiny chip. He rubbed the back of his neck, wishing he’d thought to paint Mama’s steps one more time before he left.
He took a breath and tried a new topic on Jason. “You know what would really help me with the colts? Balloons. Or horns, maybe, if you’ve got them.”
The other man dodged a sideways look at him, incredulous eyes nearly as brilliant a green as his sister’s. “You throwing a birthday party or breaking a colt?”
He shrugged one shoulder and grinned. “Hell, why not both? Think we can get cake and ice cream out of it?”
“Wait, how is ice cream going to help with the colts?” Jason just looked confused.
“Uh…never mind.” LJ braced himself for the dinner ahead, preparing to carry the conversation for an entire family of turnips. Thank God these people’s horses had more of a sense of humor than they did, or he’d have gone barking crazy already. At least he’d gotten a couple of smiles out of Andra that first day. Apparently not enough to make her forget their rocky initial meeting, though, or she wouldn’t be avoiding him. “So what’s the occasion for dinner?”
“No occasion. Meals are provided with your wages. Didn’t they tell you when you got hired?” Jason stopped on the porch of the main ranch house and scrubbed his boot through the cleaning brush bolted to the floorboards.
“Uh, might have missed that part.” Probably because he’d worked through dinner all three nights. Now that he was finally free to use his own training ideas without his uncle glaring over his shoulder, he couldn’t get enough time with the horses.
“Guess that explains why you haven’t been showing up. Stacia was starting to take it personally.”
“Stacia?” He followed suit on the boot scrubber.
“She’s the cook and mechanic.”
“Huh. Can’t say as that’s a combination you see every day.” He almost made a joke, but with Jason as his only audience, it didn’t entirely seem worth the effort.
Jason scratched the back of his neck, glancing off the side of the porch. He lowered his voice. “Stacia’s parents have never been great at holding a job. Back in high school, she was always running around here with Andra, soles of her shoes falling half off, jeans all stained up and ripped. Dad started paying her to cook for everybody, then when he found out she knew how to change oil, he paid her more to work on all the ranch trucks.”
Jason paused with his hand on the doorknob and smirked.
“You’re lucky you didn’t hire on a few years ago. We were all eating grilled cheese for a long time. She was faster learning the car stuff, mostly because she figured out there were YouTube videos of everything.” He opened the door. “But you didn’t hear that from me.”
“Understood.” LJ came inside, wondering why he hadn’t seen the women together, if she had been Andra’s best friend since childhood.
Jason led him through a high-ceilinged, rough-beamed foyer and into a dining room sparkling with windows. The space was dominated by a scarred oak slab of a table so battered that it immediately transformed the mansion-sized room into a home.
A woman slid a big pan of meatloaf into the center of the table, curly brown hair swinging around her round face. She turned around and LJ struggled not to stare at her shirt. It was a Harley Davidson tank that left her toned shoulders bare, the skull picture on the front outlined with a glitter of purple sequins.
“That tractor get the best of you yet, Stace? Heard you cursing again today.” Jason took off his hat with a smile and dropped it onto one of the hooks lining the wall. LJ hung his battered old cowboy hat on the next peg, glad to have ditched the too-tight job-interview Stetson back at his new apartment.
“No, but that roping horse sure got the best of you when you dropped your loop over your own fat head,” Stacia said. “You were hoping nobody saw, weren’t you?”
He coughed once into his fist. “Stacia, this is LJ. He’s starting our colts.”
“Don’t change the subject, and don’t you dare sit at my table without washing those hands you just coughed into, Jason Lawler.” Stacia turned her blue eyes on LJ and smiled. “We’re happy to have your help. I know your apartment has a kitchen, but you’re always welcome up here. If you can stand the company.”
She stuck her tongue out at Jason, who feigned like he was going to wipe his still-unwashed hand on her. She narrowed her eyes and didn’t move. LJ had to stifle a laugh as Jason’s bluff fell short.
Stacia nodded to the people filing into the room. “Let me introduce you around to everybody else who works here.”
LJ shook hands with people for a few minutes, though he’d met most of them here and there around the ranch in the last few days. Now they were all in the same room, though, it was hard not to notice this was the Hollywood fantasy version of a ranch staff: all women with a smattering of old men. He and Jason were the only males under fifty in the entire place.
LJ hesitated for an extra second trying to decide where he was supposed to sit, but the room was rowdy enough nobody noticed. Apparently not everybody was as quiet and uncomfortable with each other as they were with him.
Jason and Stacia elbowed each other back and forth, their horseplay escalating until they knocked one of their plates askew. Bill Lawler winged a dinner roll at his son from his place at the head of the table, nailing him squarely in the temple.
“Dear Lord, thank you for this food,” Bill said, “and for giving my old muscles enough aim that I can still hit my son with it. Amen.”
Jason reached for one of the platters and Stacia smacked his hand.
“What? Dad already said grace.”
“It is?” Jason pulled his hand back, glancing toward the door.
LJ kept his hands in his lap, his peripheral vision raking the rest of the table for clues as to what people in Montana did differently on Sunday, if it wasn’t praying.
“Andra usually shows up on Sundays. We’ll give her another five minutes,” Stacia said.
One of the older cowhands piped up, “Hey, you know what else is special about Sundays, Jason? That’s the porn-less day.”
“When you’re as awkward with the ladies as Jason is, no day can afford to be a porn-less day,” said Rachel, a forty-something woman in a Coors Lite cap that he’d met yesterday.
Stacia snickered. “Isn’t that God’s own truth…”
“Last I checked, Curt—” Jason began, but broke off when his sister came into the room. The laughter died away, too. LJ gave Andra a smile to say hi, but she had her eyes down and didn’t see.
“Hey, guys. You didn’t wait on me, did you?”
“Nah,” Rachel lied, and grabbed a dinner roll. Everybody started passing food, but the room stayed quiet as Andra took a seat.
LJ shifted, his chair creaking under his weight.
“Hey, Andra,” Stacia said. “The flatbed I was working on today—that old Dodge? When you rev it, it sounds almost like that band you used to blast my ears out with.”
Andra blinked, pausing in the middle of dishing up some green beans. “Um, Nightwish? Wait, or do you mean Black Sabbath?”
“Black Sabbath.” Stacia smiled. “Remember, you used to say you were going to walk down the aisle to one of their songs, even after I swore I wouldn’t be your maid of honor if you did. You said your wedding was going to have the biggest dress and the loudest music in the whole damn county.”
A slight smile touched Andra’s face, and her eyes flickered to Stacia as she passed the green beans down the table. “I can’t believe you remembered all that. It’s been so long.”
“Hard to forget. My ears have never recovered.”
Andra took a breath like she might say something else, then hesitated and fell silent. LJ fidgeted with his fork. For being friends since high school, Andra seemed pretty shy around the other girl. He dug up a chuckle just to break the tension of the moment. “I wouldn’t have minded seeing that. White wedding dress or black?”
Everyone stared at him, and Bill glared.
“Uh, I don’t know.” Andra poked at her green beans. “Hadn’t thought about it in years.”
Ouch. He’d stepped into something there that he hadn’t meant to. Maybe she had a broken engagement or something. “So, uh, did anybody see that last Cubs game?”
No one answered.
LJ concentrated on dishing up his plate, stealing glances at everyone as he tried to puzzle out the shift in the mood of the room. The dirty jokes had ended as soon as Andra showed up, and it wasn’t only him she was avoiding looking at—it was everyone.
He snuck another look at Andra, her dark head bent toward her food. He was the new guy, so of course he was going to be a little left out at first. But this was her home, and he was only here because she’d stood up for him. She shouldn’t be uncomfortable or isolated here.
He couldn’t stand the idea that she might feel alone.
Boots thumped from outside on Andra’s porch. She blew a hair out of her face and straightened from her downward dog stretch. After all the upheaval in her normal routine this week, afternoon yoga sounded perfect. Unfortunately, all it had done was remind her how sore she was from getting bucked off during this morning’s training session.
The footsteps were even heavier than her dad’s. They stomped like somebody was trying to make a lot of noise or kick something off their shoes. Must be Jason, then. Her cottage was a good half-mile walk over a hill from the ranch. Of the two people who ever made that trek, her brother was the most likely to kick his dirt off on her porch instead of in the yard. Andra rolled her eyes and stepped off her yoga mat, headed for the door even before the knock sounded. It was lower down than usual and muffled, as if Jason were knocking with his boot.
She opened the door and the frown froze on her face as LJ’s shoulders filled the doorframe.
He was holding…a cake?
“Um, hi,” she managed.
She reached behind her back to undo the knot that pulled her tee shirt tight against her chest, shaking the baggy hem so it would fall to cover some of her leggings. What was he doing here? Oh crap, she’d promised to talk to him about the horses.
“Look, I’m sorry. I know I said I’d come talk to you a couple days ago, but then Socks kicked one of the grooms, and Mary Kay lost a shoe, and I completely forgot.” She hadn’t forgotten, so much as she was…working up to it. Giving him a few days of seeing her around the ranch when she was in control of herself, before she got close enough she’d have to see his opinion of her in his eyes.
He shrugged, careful not to tip the tall cake off its platter. “I think we got off on the wrong foot the day we met, and our do-over didn’t really stick.”
Oh, God. Apparently, he wasn’t tiptoeing around anything today.
LJ grinned; a playful, twinkly-eyed one that made him look like he was just having more fun than everyone else. “Besides, nobody’s afraid of a guy with a cake.”
A smile tugged at the edges of her mouth. “I’ve never heard that.”
“No? It’s completely true. Not to mention, bringing a cake is the best excuse to eat some. I mean, it’s yours. You don’t have to share. Of course, if you don’t, you may want to pass a tissue or two my way, is all I’m saying.” He widened his eyes mournfully.
She glanced at the cake, the white icing whipped into gorgeous swirls. “Did Stacia make that? She used to be terrible at baking.” She gripped the edge of the door a little tighter. Maybe her friend had been practicing. It’s not like she knew what Stacia was up to these days.
“I’m a little offended. A man doesn’t bring a borrowed cake for an apology.” He lifted the platter and gave it a waggle. “We’ve got lemon velvet with French buttercream here. You oughta get it out of the heat soon, though. The sun melted the frosting some on the way over. It’s a hike to get up over here, you know it?”
Oops, he was feeling around for an invitation. Duh, and she was still standing in her door like some kind of freak. “Um, come in.” The least she could do was feed him some cake and try to act like a normal person. She stepped aside and wracked her brain for small talk that didn’t involve anything on four hooves. “You know, I can’t quite place your accent. You said you were from Louisiana, but I’ve met lots of people from there at rodeos, and they didn’t sound quite like you.”
“Well, you can tell I’m from the south because I interrupted your workout with dessert.” He tipped his head toward the yoga mat she’d left by the couch. She smiled, and his grin brightened a couple more watts. “Seriously, though, I think I’ve got a little bayou country from my days on my uncle’s horse ranch, cut with the rhythm of the Lower Ninth, maybe some southern drawl creeping in from the Mississippi border. And New Orleans has a sound all its own, always has.” Between one word and the next, his words straightened to all square corners instead of luscious curves. “Then again, if my mother is listening, I sound strictly like the Yankee university she helped pay for.”
“Your mom doesn’t like your accent?” Andra frowned. “Doesn’t she have one?”
“Mama thought I wouldn’t get a decent job unless I talked like a white banker from Wisconsin.” He shrugged.
Her eyes widened. “That’s not fair. Why should you have to fake an accent to get a job?”
“That’s the way the world works. People have ideas about what intelligence should sound like, and I don’t expect I’m going to change all of them on my own.” He winked. “I tutored English Composition for work study all through college, so I can play the game. I have to admit, though, sometimes it’s nice to sound like home.”
Andra laughed, a little self-consciously. “I don’t think I even realized I had an accent until you imitated it.”
“Oh, it’s an accent all right, sweetheart. And you’ve got it thick as anything.”
Heat crept into her skin at the endearment, though she didn’t get the feeling he was really flirting with her. She glanced away, the afterimage of him seared on her lids. His deep brown eyes were a couple of shades darker than his skin, and they always seemed to be laughing. He was handsome, with high cheekbones and sensual lips. The kind of man she would have looked twice at, once.
He was also the first non-Lawler man she’d had in her house since it was built.
Andra shook herself. Normal people did not make their guests spend the entire visit standing in the foyer. As she led him further inside, their shapes were reflected in the French doors separating the living area from her bedroom, their distressed white paint framing glistening glass panes. She’d rescued the doors from her mom’s room before they tore down the old house, and Dad hung them on a barn door rail for her so they slid aside, taking up less space.
“The kitchen’s right here.” She gestured, then dropped her hand quickly. Her whole house was basically two rooms plus a bath, and he wasn’t blind. She didn’t need to map out the refrigerator and sink for his comprehension.
He gave a low whistle. “My sweet God. My mama would kill for this kitchen. Do you mind if I take a picture for her?”
“Uh, sure. If you want to. Here, I’ll take that.” She lifted the cake from his hands. For its size, it was surprisingly light, as if it were whipped from sugared air with a touch of cream. She set it on the table while LJ took out his phone and snapped a picture of her open barn-wood shelves stacked with white dishes, and the riverstone pebbled wall behind the sink.
He grinned as he shook his head and tapped out a quick text to go with the pictures. “My little cake is just about embarrassed to be seen in a place this nice.”
He leaned back against her counter, crossing his feet at the ankles as he texted, and she bit the inside of her lip. Originally, she painted this room white so it would look bright and cheery, but it had always seemed blank instead. LJ’s smile belonged in her homey little kitchen in a way she never had.
Andra blinked and looked away. “I’ll get some silverware.” She rattled through one drawer, and the one below it, but neither held a cake knife or a pie server. Instead, she settled on a couple of forks and a butcher knife. By the time she was finished, LJ had already lifted plates off her shelves and set them on her round cafe table.
“This place looks pretty new.” He ripped two paper towels off the roll and tucked one under the edge of each plate for a napkin. “You lived here long?”
“A few years.” She sat down. Wait, was that too weird? She didn’t have anything else to keep her hands busy, but he was still bustling around her kitchen as if she were the visitor. “My family helped me build it after college.” She managed a smile. “After the dorms and a couple of years of apartments, I was ready for my own space instead of moving back into Dad’s house.”
LJ went back to the front door and took off his hat, hanging it on a hook next to her jacket before toeing off his boots.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that. These floors have seen plenty of boots.”
He shrugged, padding back to the kitchen in his socks. He hooked a foot around a chair leg and pulled it out, relaxing into the seat. She didn’t often see him without his hat, and her gaze kept flicking back to him. His hair was buzzed so close it was barely more than a shadow of black, leaving nothing to detract from the distracting line of his jaw. And his lips.
“You built this?” His brows bounced up and he glanced around the great room, scanning the lines a little more analytically this time. “I’m going to pretend like I’m not impressed right now.”
“Oh, we hired out some of the plumbing and all the electric. Curt helped a lot. He’s one of the grooms. You’ve probably met him. And an architect fixed up my basic plans.” She shrugged. “I still drove plenty of nails, though.” Not that it mattered. What did she care if he thought she was the kind of girl who sat back and waited for other people to build her house?
LJ picked up the knife to cut the cake, saying something she didn’t catch. The blade looked impossibly long and sharp in his huge hand. Her fingers clenched in her lap and she deliberately looked to the clean white of the cabinets below the sink.
Focus. There’s a whole room here, not just a knife.
LJ glanced over, then reversed his grip, handing the knife handle-first across the table to her. “Must have left my manners at home today, helping myself to your cake in your house.” He smiled. “Lemon velvet’s my favorite, is all. If I get grabby, feel free to slap my hands.”
Andra took the knife. The metal reflected her image back at her, including her “May The HORSE Be With You” tee shirt. The one with the hay-colored stain at the shoulder. Yeah, she was so prepared for guests.
Suddenly, the thought of another hour of pretending they weren’t both thinking about it seemed overwhelming.
“It was a panic attack.” She laid down the knife and met his gaze without flinching. “I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.”
He nodded. “Was it because I startled you, coming out of the shadows like that?”
Something about the fact that he wasn’t squirming in his seat made it easier to talk about. “I was assaulted in college, and ever since…I get those occasionally.”
His eyes unfocused for a bare instant and he swallowed.
She turned the cake platter, trying to decide how many pieces to divide it into, and also giving him a minute to process. Somebody would have mentioned it in front of him eventually, and now they could move past it. “I love what you’ve done with Taz, by the way. I saw her following you all over the ranch yesterday. Has she gotten any better about being near lariats?”
LJ didn’t seem to hear her. He picked up his fork and turned it in his hands. Then he tapped the end twice on the table and set it down. When his eyes came back up, they were dark, almost angry. Andra drew back from the table, her breath snagging at his reaction before she realized it probably wasn’t her he was upset at.
LJ gave her a smile, but it was a crutch’s awkward hobble on the smooth spread of his usual one. “I…wish that hadn’t happened to you.”
The words were so halting that it took her a second to process what he’d said. When she did, it was like every rib in her chest eased a little more open. Nobody had ever said that. Their eyes had said it, their pitying, twisted expressions, but those words seemed off-limits for reasons she could never have explained. “Yeah.” She half-laughed. “Me, too.”
“Thank you for trusting me enough to be honest.” His eyes didn’t fidget away from hers, and she nodded, a feeling expanding in the air between them. Something big, too big for strangers. Whatever it was, it didn’t throw LJ off his stride. He got up from the table. “You want milk with your cake? It’s better with milk.”
“Sure,” she said without thinking. She hadn’t talked about this stuff for so long, because no matter who it was, saying anything about her attack killed the conversation and the mood. But LJ seemed to be able to take in the enormity of it all and still look her in the face. Then again, her brother had told her he was just as easy with the horses. Nothing shook LJ up, and he was always willing to make up a new technique on the spot if his old one wasn’t working. Few trainers were humble enough to be that flexible.
He flicked open the fridge. “Grocery day, huh?”
He arched an eyebrow. “You have orange juice, half a pack of American cheese and…” He peeked in the fridge again. “A pickle. One pickle.”
“There’s plenty of food in the freezer.” She glanced away. She hadn’t promised him dinner, so what business was it of his what she kept on hand?
He opened her freezer, then quickly snapped it back shut, turning wide eyes on her. “Do you realize you have a microwavable Salisbury Steak in there?”
“No.” Who knew what was in there? Some kind of steak seemed a likely option, though.
“Stacia made rack of lamb last night.” He crossed his arms. “With plum sauce. From scratch. Pretty sure that means you ain’t got any excuse to be choking down microwave dinners.”
Andra frowned. “Eating at the main house is like having lunch in a junior high cafeteria. I can barely hear myself think.”
“What?” She half-smiled, even though she wasn’t sure what they were laughing at. It was just nice he was teasing her instead of getting all awkward and stiff, the way most people did when they found out about the attack.
“The cafeteria comparison is kind of fair considering there was a food fight last night. One that ended with a tater tot in your daddy’s hair and a scowl on his face that I think rated at least a six on the Richter Scale.”
“Tater tots with a rack of lamb and plum sauce?” She wrinkled her nose. “Really?”
“I thought it was weird, too. That’s not a Montana thing?”
She laughed. “Maybe more like a Stacia thing. She always traded for everybody’s tater tots back when we were in school.”
“That explains it. Turns out tots aren’t half bad in plum sauce, if you go for the crispy ones.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket. “I’m sorry, but I have to do this.”
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. Do you think food can be healing? If so, which is more nurturing: the enjoyment of consuming the food or the process of preparing it?
2. Why do you think Andra opened up more to LJ than to any other man, or even to her friends and family who she had known her whole life?
3. Throughout the book, LJ uses different mediums to express his feelings for Andra, including food, music, physical touch, and words. Which of these do you think is the most romantic way to communicate love, and why?
4. How many parallels can you think of between the rebuilding of a city after a hurricane and the experience of a woman healing from the trauma of an assault?
5. How do you think the long-term trauma of a rape is affected by the experience of reporting the crime, and the struggle to try to get the justice system to convict and sentence the perpetrator?
6. At one point, LJ is speaking about Andra’s father and says, “He has a weird feeling about me, like I might be trouble. That’s how it works. Nobody thinks they’re racist, Andra. They just think some people can’t be trusted, especially not with their daughters.” Do you think LJ is right about this? Why or why not? Do you think most racist behavior is conscious or unconscious?
7. What was your impression about the city of New Orleans before you read this book? Did that change after reading it? If so, how?
8. What do you think would have happened if Andra hadn’t followed LJ to New Orleans? Would he have come back? Would they have ended up together in the end?
9. Do you think the challenges of discrimination that LJ faced were different in Montana versus New Orleans? Which do you think would be worse or harder to deal with than the other?
10. How do you think the experience of being in an interracial relationship has changed in the last sixty years? What do you think the experience of interracial couples will be like twenty years from now?
11. If there were a movie version of Unbreak Me, who would you cast as LJ and Andra? What scene would you most hope made it into the film adaptation?