J. D. Clay's biological clock is busted. She'd long ago given up her dream of having children, and poured her heart and soul into her career as a horse trainer. Until a night of passion with her jet-setting boss, Jake Forrest, results in an unexpected but desperately desired consequence.
But when Jake offers J.D. financial support, a place in his bed and not much more, J.D. bolts home to Weaver, Wyoming. Jake might be drop-dead gorgeous, wealthy and brimming with Southern charm, but J.D. knows he's not daddy material. Or so she thinks…
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"You didn't go out with the rest of the boys?" Jake's voice was deep and in some fanciful part of J.D.'s mind, she imagined it felt like a soft blanket sliding down her bare skin.
"I didn't want to cramp their style." She sent him a smile over her shoulder, but the wryness of it was mostly for herself. As the only female in the entire stable crew at Forrest's Crossing, she'd never been one of "the boys." She was simply an assistant horse trainer on Jake's sizable payroll who— according to Miguel—usually had one too many opinions of her own.
Though this time, her opinion when it came to Latitude had proved right on the money.
From the first burst out of the starting gate to the way the thoroughbred sailed across the finish line of The San-ford, the horse had been pure poetry in motion. He'd raced as brilliantly as J.D. had known he could, so of all the crew from Forrest's Crossing, she was probably the least surprised.
And except for Latitude Crossing's owner, Jake—who'd collected the tidy first-place purse he didn't remotely need— she was probably the happiest.
Satisfaction curved her lips all over again, and it didn't even matter that Miguel had been the one to claim the glory of Latitude's unlikely win. He'd been so elated, he'd told the stable crew that drinks were on him, and they'd all tumbled out of the barn, looking ready to continue the celebration that had been going on since they'd touched down in Georgia from Saratoga.
Even though it was late, J.D. was still celebrating, too; but she preferred to do it in the company of the real winner.
She folded her arms over the top rail of the stall, looking at the gleaming bay contentedly munching his way through fresh feed as if he had done nothing remarkable at all. "Look at you acting all modest," she chided the colt. "You ought to be wearing a crown."
"The Triple Crown," Jake murmured behind her.
That shiver dashed down her spine again. She'd like to blame it on the prospect of Latitude joining those few elite horses in history that had attained the coveted achievement, but she'd never been one to lie to herself.
The shiver came from Jake. Not from the idea of Latitude finding the elusive Triple Crown glory in the coming year.
"His chance at that is nearly a year away," she said. The famous races that comprised the Triple Crown were run by three-year-old thoroughbreds only, beginning in May with the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes two weeks later and capped off with the Belmont Stakes in early June.
Which meant a thoroughbred had one chance in their lifetime to accomplish the feat. "And who knows what Miguel will want to do between now and then," she added practically. Miguel fired people at the drop of a hat. The fact that she'd survived his mercurial nature for five years was a record for Forrest's Crossing.
"If he's smart, he'll leave you alone with Latitude. Miguel's more interested in Platinum Cross, anyway." Platinum was sired by one of Forrest's Crossing's most successful horses. But even Metal Cross hadn't brought home the "crown." He'd won both the Preakness and the Belmont. But he hadn't won the Derby. Nor had any other horse for Jake.
They still made the trek every year to Churchill Downs. The only things that changed were the names of the thoroughbreds running for him, and the names of the glossy women on his arm who'd revolved through his world since his divorce shortly after J.D. came to Forrest's Crossing.
He folded his arms over the top rail next to her, holding an open bottle of Cristal in one hand and a slender champagne flute in the other.
He held them just as casually as if they were a dime-store mug and a long-neck beer. But the expensive champagne was much more in keeping with the off-white silk shirt he wore. And the crystal flute was probably of the irreplaceable, antique variety, inherited from his father and great-grandfather just as he'd inherited Forrest's Crossing.
It wasn't the quality of the champagne or the stemware that made her nerves jumpy, though. There was wealth in her upbringing, too. Just not on the scale of Jake's.
His family owned Forco, one of the largest textile firms in the country. For him, thoroughbreds were merely a personal passion that he could well afford to indulge. And where his family was into jets and setting, hers was more into jeans and settling down.
No, what made her nerves want to dance a jig had one, simple cause.
She slid her gaze away from his arms and those long, lean fingers, focusing again on the oblivious colt as she discreetly tried to put a little space between their arms. She needed every inch she could get just to breathe around the man.
"Miguel will take over again now that he's seen for himself what kind of heart Latitude has," she predicted, clinging to the thread with a desperation that she prayed didn't show. Miguel was the head trainer. J.D., an underling. He had every right to make whatever decisions he wanted.
"Does that bother you?" Jake shifted slightly and his arm grazed hers, right across that spare inch she'd managed to gain.
She sucked in a silent breath and made herself remain still. It was no easy task. "Crossing the finish line first isn't what I love about horses." Her voice was blithe.
Latitude lifted his head, his large, liquid eyes looking into hers. He blew out a noisy breath, as if he were laughing at her nonchalance.
She stared back into the colt's eyes. Mind your own business, Lat.
He snorted again and stretched his long neck over the rail, butting his nose against her shoulder.
She fell back a step, laughing softly despite herself.
Jake steadied her and he nudged Latitude's head away. "Behave."
"He just wants this." J.D. pulled a peppermint out of the pocket of her FC-emblazoned polo shirt. She unwrapped the mint and held it out.
Latitude eagerly nipped the candy off her palm.
"Can't blame him for that." The corner of Jake's mouth curled slightly and his gaze seemed to linger on her shirt.
More specifically, on the pocket above her breast.
Admittedly, it had been years since she'd even flirted with a man, but she wasn't so out of practice that she didn't recognize interest when it—all six-plus feet topped with thick brown hair and hooded eyes—was staring her in the face.
Her cheeks heated when her nipples pinpointed eagerly beneath the butter-yellow cotton.
She stepped back to the rail, careful to keep that space between her arm and Jake's. Squashing her breasts against the hard rail didn't do a thing, though, to squash the warmth zipping around in her veins.
If she'd had such an infernally predictable response to Donovan, maybe they wouldn't have broken up six years ago. But then again, she knew they would have. Donny hadn't liked coming in second to her beloved horses. And he'd especially not liked coming in second to another man—Troy.
She'd learned her lesson, though.
Stick to horses and nobody gets hurt.
She could feel her face getting hotter by the second and avoided Jake's gaze. Having the hots for the owner of the horses she loved was so not high on her list of how to succeed in what was commonly perceived as a man's world.
She'd always been fine before with her particular affliction where Jake was concerned. Because she was just a lowly soul on his stable crew. One he barely looked twice at, much less looked at the way he was looking now.
"Something wrong? You're looking very…flushed."
She wanted to bury herself in a pile of straw. "I'm still not used to the humidity here," she defended with a shrug that even she didn't buy.
"It's just a warm Southern night." His voice was like molasses. Vaguely amused. Darkly sweet.
She had another peppermint tucked in her breast pocket and wondered if it could melt because of the heat steaming through her. "With about a gazillion percent humidity."
He tipped the champagne bottle over the flute and shimmering, golden liquid bubbled forth. Then he held the glass toward her. "Maybe this will help you cool off."
She couldn't help laughing. "I think I've already had too much of that." The first bottle of bubbly had been opened at the track in New York. And it had been followed by several more on the flight in his personal jet that made the trips to New York and Florida and California easier on the horses.
"Yeah, but you didn't have Cristal," Jake drawled. "Live it up, J.D. It's just one night."
She knew she should decline. But she still closed her fingers around the smooth, delicate crystal, brushing against his warm fingers as she did so.
Her heart skittered around. She couldn't manage to look away from his face. "I'm not exactly a champagne kind of girl." And not at all his kind of girl.
"What kind of girl are you?"
The kind who was getting out of her depth fast, and should be old enough to know better. Her fingers tightened around the glass. "Strong coffee when it's cold and a cold beer when it's not."
A faint smile hovered around his lips. "Not that I'm knock-ing either one, but this is a special occasion. Latitude's won his first race. One of many, if all goes well." He tucked his finger beneath the base of the glass and urged it upward. "Live it up. You might like it."
There were a lot of things she was afraid she would like, more than was good for her.
Champagne was at the bottom of that list.
Jake Forrest was at the top.
All of which did not explain why she still lifted the glass to her lips and inhaled the crisp aroma as she slowly took a sip. And once she did, she couldn't help the humming sigh of appreciation that escaped.
The fine web of crow's-feet that arrowed out from his eyes crinkled even more appealingly. "I knew you'd like it."
How could she not? It was like swallowing moonbeams.
Then he lifted the flute out of her fingers and put his lips right where hers had been.
He might as well have touched her with a live wire. But judging by the flare of his pupils as his gaze stayed locked on hers, he was perfectly aware of that fact.
She swallowed, hard, and stepped away from the rail again. Some temptations were wiser left untouched. Jake might be divorced, but that didn't mean he was available.
So, she swept her hands down her jeans to hide the fact that they were shaking and kept her shoulders square. "It's getting late. I'd better—"
"Are you afraid of me, J.D.?"
Her jaw loosened a little. Fear would be easier to deal with. "Of course not."
"Then why are you ready to bolt?"
She opened her mouth to protest that, but how could she? She was ready to bolt.
And yet, when he lifted the crystal glass and grazed the cool rim ever so faintly against her lower lip, she seemed frozen in place.
His voice dropped another notch. "What are you nervous about?"
If her face got any hotter, her blood was going to steam right out of her ears. "Nothing." She snatched the glass from him and inelegantly chugged the remainder, then pushed the glass back at him. When he didn't take it, she reached past his broad shoulder and balanced it on the corner post of Latitude's stall. "Good night, Mr. Forrest. You should go play with your debutantes." She turned to go.
His hand on her shoulder stopped her dead in her tracks. "I'm not interested in any debutantes."
She sent up a breathless prayer for her fleeing common sense to get back where it belonged. But the light touch of his fingers on her shoulder didn't move away, nor did her common sense trot on back to the barn. "Mr. Forrest—"
"Most of the crew calls me Jake." His fingers finally moved, sliding down her shoulder, grazing over her bare elbow beneath the short-sleeved shirt, only coming to a stop when they reached her wrist. He pressed his thumb against her frantic pulse. "But not you, not even after all these years. Why is that?"
"I like to keep things professional." Unfortunately, her low, husky voice sounded anything but.
"You're the epitome of professionalism."
She couldn't help it. She looked up at him through her lashes. "Pardon me, but I don't feel that way just now."
His coffee-brown eyes would have looked sleepy if not for the heat blazing from them. "Your job is secure no matter what. Miguel is in charge of the stable crew."
"And you're in charge of Miguel."
"Miguel is in charge of Miguel," he corrected wryly. He upended the rest of the champagne into the flute and lifted the glass again. "But if you insist on going, take this with you, at least. You, more than anyone, has earned some very fine champagne today."
"Latitude did all the work."
"Latitude ran for you. Miguel wanted me to sell him until you started handling him."
Jake wasn't telling her anything she didn't already know. She took the glass. Felt her head swim as she sipped again at moonbeams.
And somehow she found the toes of her scuffed boots boldly brushing the toes of Jake's highly polished ones. She wasn't even sure if his arm came around her waist first, or if it was her hand pressing against the solid warmth of his chest.
But the crystal flute was suddenly caught between them, the glittering liquid spilling as their mouths found one another.
Champagne moonbeams were no comparison at all when it came to the taste of Jake Forrest.
It made her weak. Deliciously weak.
And there was no earthly way she could convince herself that one kiss would be enough.
Not when his splayed fingers were hard and hot against her spine through the thin knit of her shirt. Not when his other hand slid along her shoulder, cupped her cheek, fingers threading through her hair, urging her head back. Not when she felt the murmur of her name in his low, deep voice whispering along her neck before he pressed his lips against the pulse at the base of her throat.
Her mind reeled, trying to find reason. Or justification. Jake was a worldly man. He wouldn't expect anything later that she wasn't capable of giving.
Her fingers flexed against him, encountering champagne-damp silk and cool crystal. Then the glass fell, landing with a soft shatter when Jake lifted her off her feet until her mouth was level with his again. "Do you still want to run?"
She could feel his heart thudding hard against her. Her fingers clutched his broad shoulders. Their faces were so close, she could have counted every one of the dark, spiky eyelashes that surrounded his gleaming gaze. "Do you want me to run?"
He pressed her against the paneled wall next to Latitude's stall and ran his hands along her thighs, drawing them up, alongside his hips. "What do you think?"