Excerpt - Wanted: Fairy Godmother
“Need a refill, sugar?”
Jake Lassiter drummed his fingers on the sleek, shiny surface of the restaurant table. The rhythmic movements jangled his empty coffee cup in its saucer. Where was the only woman who answered his help wanted ad, anyway?
Someone snapping their fingers near his ear jerked him out of his wayward thoughts.
“About time you noticed me. Refill?” Flossie Thurmond, everyone’s favorite waitress, asked, bringing his full attention to her. She patted her bright blue and white striped hair, piled in a bun, and chomped on a wad of gum.
He grinned, shoving his empty coffee cup in her direction. “Sure. Why not?” Nodding his head at her newly dyed hair, he asked, “Routing for the home team?”
“We’re one game away from going to the state champs. Of course, I’d do anything for our school spirit. And you keep smiling at me like that, honey, and I’m liable to spill this all over you.” She winked saucily, flirting with him as she poured the rich, inky-black coffee from the glass pot. “Someone stood you up, Jake?”
“Looks like it, Floss.”
“The girl’s nothing but a fool, if you ask me.” She glanced over her shoulder, and said to the passing waitress, “Hey, honey, I’m gonna take five so I can speak to my buddy Jake here.”
Trudy, with her mousy-brown hair spilling from her ponytail, giggled, and then took the coffeepot from her.
Flossie slid onto the bench seat opposite Jake’s. “You still fretting about them pesky city slicker cousins of yours? You know Huey, Dewy, and Louie.” She cackled. “Or should I call them Moe, Curly, and Larry?” she asked, slapping the table as another burst of laughter escaped. “And I can call you Shep.”
Jake threw her a dark glare, and then raked a hand through his hair. His unexpected guardianship proved the source of many jokes in Rosebud County, Montana. A diehard confirmed bachelor, Jake had taken his share of ribbing over his present situation.
She wiped a tear from the corner of her left eye. “Oh, I’m so funny. I crack myself up.”
“That’s right, yourself.“
“Come on. Lighten up. It’s only been a couple of months. It can’t be all that bad.”
“Seven weeks, three days, and fourteen hours, to be exact.”
Flossie whistled softly between her teeth. “That bad, huh?”
“Worse.” Jake groaned silently at what had brought him to this point in his life. His uncle and aunt should never have flown their plane in that nasty thunderstorm.
His heart clenched for his cousins’ overwhelming despair, but his gypsy soul hungered for his beloved liberty. To take away his freedom to come and go as he pleased equaled a death knell to him.
“Ada still MIA?”
“For a couple more months, she said.” Of all the luck, his housekeeper had left to be with her son and his wife for the daughter-in-law’s problem pregnancy. She’d filled in now and then for him with his cousins.
It had gone downhill at the ranch fast after she left.
“I miss that ol’ gal.” Flossie sighed.
“Why, so you could gossip about me?”
“And whatever them boys get into.”
His chuckle came out raw and choked. There were too many times to count that he’d bail one or the other out of something. It was proving to be a job in itself.
Hence the need for help. But not just any help.
Looking out the large glass window of the fifties-style diner, noticing the noontime traffic on Main Street, he wondered again where that woman was who answered his ad. The lady had some nerve keeping him waiting.
What will I do if she never shows up? A spark of panic ignited in his chest. Over the phone, she sounded eager. And sexy. He recalled the slightly breathy voice tickling his ear.
A frightening thought formed. “Floss, you’re not playing a joke on me, are you?”
She snorted as she laughed. “That would have been a good one. I should have thought of it.”
No one else had beaten a path to his door to take on his awkward teenage wards. Maybe the woman heard the stories and ducked out on him.
If he had any sense at all, he’d grab his Stetson off the seat beside him and march right out of here. He had a bustling ranch to run, instead of wasting precious time.
As if on cue, his troublesome, persistent problem reared its ugly head once again, reminding him to stay put and pray this woman showed.
“Mind if I wet my whistle?” Before he could answer, she took a sip of his coffee. Grimacing, she shook her head. “Lordy, but that is nasty stuff.” Grabbing the container nearby, she poured in a heap of sugar, stirred it with his spoon and then tasted it again, taking a longer swallow. She shoved it back at him. “Sweeter is better.”
“Next time, I’ll do it just for you.” He winked at her.
Smiling, she patted her hair again. “You do have a way with the ladies. Hah, except this one, it seems.” She chuckled.
Gritting his teeth, Jake figured he’d been close to getting back to riding bulls, too. Since his father died he’d been tied to the ranch for so long that come spring each year, he’d be itching for the rodeo circuit, his chance to break away. Now, just when freedom was near, he’d been saddled with his cousins.
Closing his eyes briefly, Jake savored the memory of roaming the open plains in his beat-up old pickup truck. The gently rolling motions lulling him into a dream-like state, the breeze on his face, the heavy scent of wildflowers filling his senses, and the white billowy clouds overhead. Touching a little piece of heaven, he thought.
Now he lived on hope, feeding his wanderlust soul with flashes of tantalizing visions.
Edginess became a permanent companion since his imprisonment with his cousins began. Putting his life on hold was necessary, but didn’t serve him well. He ached for some action, some activity.
First, he’d hire someone to wave a magic wand over his cousins and mend their broken spirits, and then Jake would snatch his golden opportunity. Freedom!
Flossie jerked him back to reality when she began to speak again. He focused on her now.
“The last I heard, you had the shed roof patched where the mad scientist blew a hole in it. That was after Curly Cue let the bull out of the pen and nearly got both you and him killed. How ’bout the little one, he done anything lately?”
Jake cursed inwardly. “Don’t remind me. Riding bulls is a heck of a lot easier than keeping an eye on those three.” With his meager resources stretched to the limit, Jake knew defeat when he saw it. They needed more than he could ever offer them.
“You fixing to dump them on this fairy godmother you’re looking for so you can travel the rodeo circuit? You gotta hurry. Word is you lost three sponsors after that nasty throw from that bull last year. Any more of them pull out and you’ll be cutting it to the bone for expenses. You know, you ain’t got many good years left in that tired body of yours to win the championship, sugar.”
His nerves jumped as if her words tugged them. Leave it to Flossie to cut to the chase, he thought wryly. “This is it for me. My last year. I don’t have anything left in me after this.” He moved slightly, wincing at the constant, nagging pain in his back and shoulder. “This time next year, I’ll be training future bull riders. Got it all lined up.” It didn’t have the same appeal as riding did, but, at least he’d be back on the road.
“If you ask me, you ain’t gonna bring the oldest one up to speed in time for you to leave town. Spring round-up is just around the corner. Stan just ain’t the man for taking over the whole shebang.”
Denial burned through his blood. “Did I ask?” He blew out a puff of air. “Ah hell, Flossie, he’ll be eighteen in a couple of months. He can run the ranch and raise the two younger boys until they’re both of age in four years.”
She snorted, looking doubtful. “I guess next you’ll be telling me the local girls are gonna line up to marry him, too.”
A sliver of alarm inched down his spine. She’d come mighty close to his plan for the fairy godmother to work wonders on Stan enough to get him settled down.
She must have seen something in his expression; she broke into hearty chuckle. “And pigs fly,” she said once she’d gotten herself under control. “Jake, honey, face it, you’re the only one the ladies been parading in and out of that house to court.”
Dread settled in his gut like a rock. Jake admitted to himself Stan needed help, needed a life that encompassed more than computers, modems, and his nerdy ways. Marvin and Lance weren’t any better. Marvin, the mad scientist, as Flossie called him, experimented with everything, trying to invent some contraption or other. And Lance loved to cook. Hardly cowboy material, he discovered rather quickly.
And Flossie nailed it on the head when she claimed the steady stream of women prancing out to his ranch were only after him. They’d made it known marrying him would be the only reason they’d take on raising his cousins.
Jake loved all kinds of women: short ones, tall ones, slim ones, curvy ones. He loved everything about them: the way they looked, the way they smelled so nice, the way they felt all soft and warm, the way they tasted… He stopped short, reminding himself he’d been without a lady for too long and he didn’t want to make the ache any worse than it had become.
But one thing remained perfectly clear to him and all the women he’d been involved with: He never wanted anything more than companionship and a whole lot of loving. Marriage just wasn’t for him. He could never tie himself down for a lifetime. His freedom meant too much to him for that.
Flossie leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially, “Come on, you can tell ol’ Flossie, what else has been happening up there on the ranch? It’s got to be pretty exciting with three male teenagers in the house. And, of course, all them eligible, and not so eligible, ladies throwing themselves at you.”
His long, hard stare drilled holes into her. Her eager anticipation rolled across the table in waves. He didn’t dare tell her any more than he already had. She’d likely broadcast the disasters to all her regular customers. Something, he suspected, she’d done before with relish.
Slowly, as the dawning entered her eyes, her smile faded. A scowl replaced her once jovial expression. “Jake Lassiter, you’re no fun anymore. I’ve got a mind to apply for that job you’ve got posted in every newspaper in Montana just so I can have firsthand knowledge of what’s going on at the Lazy L.” She stood abruptly, her back ramrod straight. “Your daddy never minded telling me anything.”
“You’re outta luck, Flossie.” Jake smiled slyly. “He’s been gone a couple of years now. There isn’t any more pillow talk coming from the Lazy L for you, sugar.“
“Don’t I know it. I sure do miss Duke, in more ways than one.” She waltzed away in a huff, attending to the customers at the counter.
Jake’s restlessness returned in full force.
I should have weighed the cons of transplanting my New York City cousins to Montana more. But he’d never be able to live with himself if he’d let the social workers cart them away.
Every fiber in his being chafed at the notion. Every argument from the experts had fallen on deaf ears. Only a heartless monster would subject the boys to a life in foster homes, separated from one another. Jake hardly knew them, but he’d be damned if he cast them off like some dirty dishwater. He’d been a throw-away baby himself, abandoned on Duke’s doorstep. Unlovable. Worthless.
A nagging thought probed the edges of his mind: He might have saved his kin from the system, but didn’t he want to be well rid of the daily caretaking duties?
“Ah hell!” he muttered as the truth struck him square between the eyes, hitting a raw nerve.
Jake clasped his stubbled chin in his cupped hands as he leaned his elbows on the table. With his right thumb, he rubbed the sharp bristles covering his jaw as he mulled over his problem.
He wanted out. Traveling the circuit tugged at him more than running his adopted family’s ranch. He didn’t deserve it, nor want it, for that matter. Feeling an obligation to his adopted father, Jake reluctantly inherited the ranch and all the enormous responsibilities that went with it.
The brilliant idea to transform the guys from nerdy city slickers to hunky cowboys, giving them a new lease on life, and then handing over the ranch to them, seemed like the only answer. All he needed was the fairy godmother with a very potent wand.
He sighed heavily, trying to diffuse the burning sensation eating at his gut. Guilt, he supposed, or anxiety. The rest of his life depended on the outcome of today’s meeting. His cousins’ happiness rested in this woman’s hands.
Impressions of the surrounding diners, many of them people he’d known all his life, filtered in now. Jake sipped the now tepid, sweetened black coffee. Snippets of conversation floated to him. A hot debate on politics rose above the other voices jockeying to be heard.
His glance caught the curtain of blonde hair. Shoulder length, silky hair, his mind added. His heart skipped a beat, and then picked up speed. As she twisted back around on the seat at the counter, Jake sucked in a breath. Beauty, pure and natural, hit him.
The word Angel echoed in his head. He could see the light green of her eyes from here. Absently, he rejected the notion she wore contacts. His perusal took in the fringe of bangs framing her eyes and the delicate heart-shaped face with high cheekbones. Her pink lips drew his attention. She darted out her tongue and licked her full bottom lip, jolting his system into overdrive.
An impish grin appeared. A tiny dimple formed at the corner of her mouth. Desire, poker-hot and consuming, curled in his belly. He berated himself, knowing this reaction to a total stranger proved his earlier views on sorely missing a bed partner.
Studying her intently, he noted her speaking to Flossie. No telling what his friend would reveal to her…
“Excuse me, Miss Flossie.” Callie Jean Andrews read the nametag on the pink uniform. She leaned close to the smiling waitress, the counter digging painfully into her forearms.
“Need something, sugar?” Flossie pulled out an order pad and pencil, tapping the pointy end on the paper.
Allowing a ghost of a smile to whisper across her lips, Callie shook her head. Her hair whipped her face and she tucked it behind her ear. “Not food. Ah…did I hear right a moment ago? Did you call that guy over there Jake?”
Callie tilted her head slightly in his direction. Hot, stinging color crept into her cheeks. A fluttery sensation rippled through her. His stare, sharp, assessing, and direct, unnerved her.
She watched as the waitress’s ruby painted mouth broke into a wide, engaging grin. “Sure did. Ain’t he something? Ladies all over been making plays for Jake Lassiter for years now.”
Jake Lassiter! Shock raced through her veins. There was nothing that could have prepared her for that mind-boggling revelation. Could it really be him after all these years? she wondered.
She’d only gotten his first name on the phone, not even considering he could be the Jake she’d known so long ago. Looking quickly at him now, she couldn’t detect a trace of the young boy she remembered. Except his penetrating eyes…
“Hey, wait a minute. You aren’t the girl he’s been waiting all this time for, are you?”
Nodding slowly, Callie caught the spark of glee in the waitress’s sapphire blue eyes.
“Well, how do you like that? You both sitting, killing time, waiting on the other. Ain’t that rich?”
“Yeah, ain’t it?” Callie muttered under her breath. If she didn’t need a job and a place to live so badly, she’d race out of the diner and never look back.
Gathering all her courage, she rose. She smoothed her damp hands down her thighs. Even though he donned similar attire, she wished she’d worn anything but her comfortable pair of jeans and white shirt. Grabbing her denim jacket from the seat next to her, Callie tread with leaden footsteps to Jake’s table.
A mixture of dread and excitement quivered along her nerve endings. His dark brown eyes reminded her of deep, rich brandy as his gaze locked on hers. Male appreciation shone brightly in the amber-colored depths. With each step she drew nearer, her heartbeat increased in tempo, thundering in her ears. She planted a strained smile on her mouth.
Returning to her childhood home and to the boy she’d had a crush on eighteen years ago never prepared her for the full impact of the bittersweet emotions or the man close up.
She halted a few feet from him. The usual gaggle of girls who surrounded him as a good-looking youth were gone. And he seemed oblivious to the many admiring stares from the women diners. She, Callie Andrews, had his undivided attention. A tiny thrill danced down her spine, making her shiver.
Silently, she looked her fill. Sunlight bathed his collar-length dark hair, bringing out the mahogany highlights. His sharp features taken apart one by one weren’t particularly handsome. But, put all together, his face had an arresting quality that made her stomach do somersaults. His unshaven jaw only added to his appeal.
Clearing her throat, she held out her hand. She hated the way it trembled. “I think you’ve been waiting for me.”
Shock registered in his look. “You’re Callie Andrews?”
Did he remember me as a seven-year-old little girl in love with him? she wondered, half afraid he did, half afraid he didn’t. Would he turn her away from the job if he did?
A memory flashed in her mind, bright and sharp. More interested in the events of the rodeo, he’d shunned a lovesick, pesky blonde-haired girl, distancing himself from the annoying admirer.
Now, she sighed in relief when no hint of recognition formed.
Standing quickly, his features contorted. Pain clouded his eyes as he tried to focus on her. Callie grabbed his outstretched right hand while his left hand clutched the table, his knuckles turning white. Pin prickles of awareness raced from where his callused flesh touched her palm up her arm.
“Are you all right?” Her voice broke as his grip tightened unbearably. The pallor beneath his tan turned chalky, frightening her. Absently, she noted his frame. Over six feet, lean, and broad-shouldered, she assessed his dimensions, wondering how she could prop him up if he collapsed.
He composed himself, obviously battling the wave of pain. “I’m fine,” he choked out. Releasing her, he gestured to the bench seat opposite his. “Please, sit down.”
His gentlemanly manners surprised, yet pleased, her. She took the offered seat, hoping he’d soon take his. Settling in, she spotted the thin, pink half-moon scar marring his left temple.
He must have noted her stare; he said, “Bull kicked me.” He shrugged uncomfortably. A muscle in his jaw jumped as he sank down across from her. “Concussion. I still get these damn blinding headaches.”
Concern rushed through her. “Isn’t there anything–“
“Time, that’s all.” He cut her off, ending further probing.
Dragging up years of adapting to a new situation, Callie relied on her humor. “Surely there’s been some kind of mistake here. You can’t be one of the boys in need of help.”
Amusement transformed his expression. He dug in his shirt pocket, extracting what looked like pictures. Carefully, he spread out three school photographs. “Fairy Godmother, these are your charges.”
She chuckled, relieved that his sudden attack had passed. Looking closely, Callie gasped. “I’ve seen him before.” She pointed to the first one of a thin-faced boy with a mop of dark, curly hair. Dark rimmed glasses sat awkwardly on his small nose, revealing equally dark eyes.
“In some underground computer newspaper my former employer used to get. I remember reading Stan is a genius when it comes to computers.” Awe laced her words.
A grim smile played on Jake’s face. “Tell me about it. That’s the problem. My cousin lives, breathes, and eats that stuff.”
“Cousin?” Callie glanced from the photo, and then to Jake. The coloring matched, but little else.
“I’m adopted.” The two words, clipped and bitter, slammed into her.
She’d never known that about him. A sense of kinship linked him to Callie, connecting them in ways she found disturbing and exciting. Lost, adrift, and no place that felt like home, she thought. Very few people could relate to that feeling. But Jake did; she read it in his whole demeanor.
“I grew up in a Navy family, never staying in one place for too long. Then the divorce happened. The shuffling back and forth between the new families was even worse, if you can believe that.”
For a space of a few seconds, he studied her intently, clearly absorbing her past, weighing the person. The spell broke when he nodded to the other two photos. “Marvin is the redhead with freckles and Lance is a throwback to the hippie days.”
Callie briefly looked over the other two. Lance with his long, stringy blond hair and tie-dye T-shirt did appear to be in a time warp. Pushing the pictures to Jake, she leaned back in her seat.
A whirlwind of thoughts shifted and stirred in her head. She’d helped raise her half-brothers and sisters and was nanny to more kids than she dare try to count. But could she make over these guys to suit Jake? Where in the world did she start? And how could she keep Jake from discovering her secret crush on him?
A crush, she thought, that should have vanished once she saw him again and realized the absurdity of harboring childhood feelings for nearly twenty years. But, to her dismay, her curiosity about him piqued, instead of diminished. She longed to know everything about him, discover the changes time had wrought, uncover the man he’d become.
Uppermost in her troubled musings lay the fact that time ticked swiftly by. She’d be on the streets in less than a week.
Leaving her secure nanny position to a family of four in California to follow her heart back to the happiest place she’d ever lived seemed like a wonderful idea at the time.
Callie wanted to plant some roots, settle down in one place finally. She thought of it as her anchor that kept her solid and steady in one beloved spot.
Not getting even an inkling of a job for a month never factored into her impulsive decision. A gamble she seemed close to losing.
She certainly didn’t want to approach her mother or father with her tail between her legs. They, and their respective new families, had adamantly told her she was a first-class fool for chasing a ridiculous idea.
Whoever said you couldn’t go home again probably spoke the truth, Callie thought wistfully. None of her daydreams of returning to Montana, to where she truly belonged, worked out thus far.
“Well? Are they hopeless? By the look on your face that’s what it seems. On the phone earlier, you said you could work miracles. In fact, you said you had on several occasions as a nanny. I checked your references. They agreed.” A hint of panic laced his words.
Callie pinned a smile on her lips. “Nothing is hopeless.” A growl, loud and fierce, grumbled in her stomach. Embarrassment stung her cheeks as she pressed her hand to her middle. “Sorry about that. I skipped breakfast.”
He chuckled. “I did, too. Why don’t we order something and discuss our business relationship?”
“Ah…” Callie calculated her meager stash of cash, and then mentally shrugged. If she got the job, she wouldn’t have to worry. If not, she’d spend one less night in a cheap hotel and one more in her Volkswagen bus. The word homeless brought a frosty chill to her core and concern sweeping her heart.
“It’s on me,” Jake offered when she took too long to answer.
A swell of relief bubbled in her chest. His Cheshire cat wide grin both thrilled and unsettled her.
“This is on the up-and-up, isn’t it?” She hesitated to question her unusual good fortune. “I mean, this isn’t a way for you to get women, is it?”
The moment the words were out she wished she could stuff them back where they came from. Sexy Jake Lassiter wouldn’t need tricks to get a lady. He didn’t at twelve and he certainly didn’t now.
Surprise washed over his features. He leaned close, dangerously close. A waft of his musky male scent assailed her senses, heightening her awareness of this good-looking, rugged cowboy. “Who do you think I am, anyway?” His low, steady voice betrayed the annoyance flashing in his amber-colored eyes.
Pride rose to her defense. “You have to admit this is a rather strange situation. When I called this morning, you said almost the same thing. A woman moving in with four men should raise a few suspicions.” Desperation churned inside her. Hope loomed near. But caution won over. “I’ll need a reference from you.”
Right now Jake’s job offer seemed like the best avenue to achieve all her dreams, to fill the emptiness. She crossed her fingers under the table, hoping that he came up to snuff.
After all, eighteen years would change a man and daydreams tended to exaggerate a person, she figured, noting she barely knew Jake back then when she spent her first two years and several long, glorious summers on her grandfather’s ranch.
A ranch that sat adjacent to the Lassiters’.
A ranch that her mother sold the moment Gramps died the year Callie turned seven, uprooting Callie and shattering her happy, carefree existence for the first of many times.
A ranch that Callie longed to eventually purchase and make her home once again. The only real home I’ve ever known, she thought, her soul aching.
“Ah hell!” The short puff of hot air fanned her face. “Flossie, you got a minute?” Jake called to the hovering waitress as he sat back.
“For you? Anything, Jake.” The cheery lady sidled up to the table, looking curiously from one to the other. “Ready to order?”
“First, Miss Andrews here needs me to present her with a character reference.” A hardness edged his tone, telling Callie far more than actions did. Her mistrust irritated him.
Flossie let out a cackle that grated along Callie’s nerves. She winced and it brought a tight smile to Jake’s mouth.
“Well, sugar, I guess I can verify Jake is pretty harmless. At least he was when I used to babysit for him and all the rug rats around here years ago.” The way she smiled poked holes through her flippant nickname. The ol’ gal loved those kids. Callie wondered if the lady had ever babysat her.
“So, you know his family then.” Intrigued, Callie probed deeper. She vaguely recalled Jake’s father. Tall, barrel-chested and gruff, she pulled the memory to the forefront of her mind. No motherly figure emerged.
“Oh sure, his daddy was a doll, an absolute doll. He knew the importance of confiding in a friend.”
Callie caught the wink Flossie sent Jake and his momentary scowl. The interplay held hints of a strong, lasting friendship. Callie looked on with envy; she’d never stayed in one place long enough to make friends. A pang of loneliness struck a chord. Always on the outside looking in.
“Is that adequate for you?” Jake folded his arms across his chest with one eyebrow arched.
“Well, I do have a few questions. Wages–“
He held up a hand. “Stop!” A smile of admiration flickered. “First, we’ll order, then we’ll discuss it in more detail, Fairy Godmother.”
Flossie chuckled. “So you finally found somebody, Jake.” Turning fully to Callie, the waitress narrowed her gaze. Keen interest shone brightly. “You know, honey, you sure do look familiar to me. I’m terrible when it comes to names, though. We ever meet before?”
Callie swallowed hard, trying to stop the panic from showing. Two pairs of very intent, very curious eyes pinned her. How in the world could she keep her identity a secret in order to save her new job?
Well-fed and content, Callie followed Jake to his house nearly an hour later. Her powder blue Volkswagen bus barely kept up with his black, beat-up truck as she tracked the trail of dust on the old country road. The long stretch of fields, snowcapped mountains peeking through billowy clouds, and cattle grazing in the distance caused a sweet ache to shaft through her.
“Jake Lassiter,” she whispered his name as she pulled into the long dirt driveway right behind him, driving under the impressive wooden archway announcing the family ranch.
Thoughts of living with Jake, being in close contact, stirred up old yearnings better left buried. Fear of losing her only job prospect in a month sealed her mouth, but, unfortunately for Callie, she failed to stem her wild imagination concerning the sexy cowboy.
Her heart had finally returned to its normal resting place once she’d brushed off Flossie’s question. Callie had joked that everyone had a twin somewhere in the world. Apparently, it had satisfied the waitress and Jake.
The best thing for her, she realized now, was to act natural around him. If he ever got a clue of her attraction to him in the past, her intuition suspected he’d kick her out. And right now she couldn’t afford to spur the bronc. The lifelong dream of owning Gramps’ ranch seemed closer than ever now with just a few short miles of roadway separating her from the old homestead.
“Home,” she said under her breath, excitement and anxiety warring within her middle. “I can’t let this chance slip away. I just can’t!”
Desperation fueled and cemented her decision. She’d settle her housing and work problems, become friends with Jake, get to know him better, and then she’d tell him the truth. Until then, she’d walk a very fine line indeed.
And maybe this strange tug in her center would ease. Or, after living in such close proximity to each other, Jake might start to see her as more than just a fairy godmother. “One can only hope,” she murmured, wishing for a family as well as a home. A sharp ache pierced her chest; she longed to be needed and loved.
Getting out of her van, she stared in awe at the large, sprawling three-story ranch house with the long front porch she vaguely remembered. The harsh afternoon sun revealed peeling white paint. The once black shutters and trim had turned a dull, dark gray. The dense, overgrown shrubbery and the crowded flowerbeds needed tending. For all its disarray, it held a certain indefinable charm.
She scanned her surroundings, taking in the gently rolling plains, softly mooing cows, the heavy, expectant scent of the coming of spring, the big old weathered barn, the many outbuildings sprinkled nearby, and the horseback riders dotting the range.
Joy surged through her veins as sweet, lingering glimpses of the past connected with the present.
Callie fell in love with the ranch immediately. A sense of well-being, peace, and belonging surged in her heart.
Jake moved to her side, shoving his sand-colored Stetson to the back of his head. “Welcome to the Lazy L. It’s a little big and needs some work.” He shrugged uncomfortably.
He’d actually thought she’d take one look and hightail it out of there; she read it in his behavior. His vulnerability touched a deep, tender spot inside her. After meeting far too many jaded men connected with her well-to-do employers, this was a pleasant surprise, a novelty. “It’s great. I love it!” She spoke the truth.
He visibly relaxed at her enthusiasm. A smile played at the corner of his mouth. “Really? I guess I thought it would be a little off-putting to most people.”
“Not at all.” Exhilaration danced along her nerve endings. Her luck had changed for the better, starting with this cowboy at her side. Callie looped her arm through his. Warmth seeped into her, spreading its comfort, filling the emptiness. Tilting her head back to look at him, she stilled. Her heart skipped a beat as the sun highlighted the golden flecks in his amber eyes. In a breathy voice she didn’t even recognize as her own, she said, “Come on, I can’t wait to meet the guys.”
“There’s something you should know before you meet my cousins,” Jake said, dropping her battered black suitcase on the cornflower-blue carpeted floor in what would now be Callie’s room. In the past, when his father was alive, Flossie stayed in here. The decor reflected her hidden side, tasteful and traditional. Colorful quilts and craft projects decorated the walls, making it the most feminine room in the all-male household.
Callie emerged from the compact bathroom just as Jake removed his hat. He placed it gingerly on the polished bare bureau top at his side.
“This is wonderful.” Her childlike glee warmed his heart, easing his anxiety. Her impish grin and twinkling green eyes sent sparks of delight coursing along his veins.
“I’m glad you like it. If there’s anything you need, I’ll be happy to supply it for you.” Somehow he felt a pressing need to please her. He tossed it aside, figuring it had to do with the tenuous business deal; he needed her to work her magic on his cousins.
What a surprise she’d been. Young, witty, and with a streak of determination a mile long, he mused. He’d been alert to everything about her, every move she made. He could study her all day and still be interested in knowing more, seeing more, and never tire of her. Alarmed at this unfamiliar, unsettling aspect to meeting a woman, Jake stomped down on his keen awareness of Callie.
“I’ve got everything I need. Thanks.”
He watched her take in the blue and white bedroom. The white bedspread, dotted with sprigs of blue and purple flowers, matched the drapes perfectly. Flossie’s handiwork once again.
The gleaming walnut furnishings lent even more charm to the small, but functional, area. Suddenly, Jake realized how cold and stark the other rooms felt compared to this one. Why hadn’t he noticed how bleak his life, his home had become since losing Duke? And why had it taken meeting Callie Andrews to figure that out?
Dragging her attention back to him, Callie asked, “Did you say there was something else?”
Stuffing his hands in his back pockets, he shifted nervously. How could he sugarcoat this when he went to tell her? “Well…the guys don’t really know about you…yet.”
A deep frown knotted her brow. He longed to smooth her troubled expression away. But the urgent need for her services kept him rooted to the spot, rooted to his goal.
“Are you implying me, in specific, or the fairy godmother part, in general?”
He kicked himself mentally as new suspicions chased across her delicate features. “The whole thing.” He sighed heavily, waiting for her reaction.
“What?! I thought you asked them. I thought they agreed.” Outrage blasted him, pelting him as if she’d fired off a round of buckshot. She rested her fists on her hips and glared up at him.
His heart lurched, plunged to his knees, and then shot up to his throat. He might have jeopardized the whole deal, costing himself his freedom, denying his cousins a happy, well-adjusted life.
“Just how in the world did you think you could get away with this? What if they don’t want to change? Have you ever thought of that?”
Her rapid-fire questions made him shrink inwardly. Shame burned twin spots into his cheeks. Hell, he hadn’t thought of anyone but himself.
Remorse bathed him; he’d never even considered the guys’ feelings in all this. They deserved better than that, better than he could ever give them. Hadn’t he just proved that? He grimaced, holding up his hands to ward off any more grilling. “I’ll work on it.” Doubt and mistrust clouded her features. “I promise.”
“Jake Lassiter, you will inform your wards of everything or I’ll…I’ll leave right now.” Bending down, she snatched up the suitcase he’d just dropped.
Raw, gripping panic exploded inside him. Quickly, he clamped a hand on the handle of the black, boxy case, touching hers. A thrill spread from the point of contact up his arm. Shoving the reaction to her touch aside, Jake said, “You can’t walk out now. Come on, Callie.”
She tugged on the loose handle, pulling the suitcase to her side. “I don’t believe you’re going to tell them.”
Hurt, fresh as an open wound, ripped through his chest. He pulled on the case, bringing it back to him. “I’ll tell them. Everything! All in good time.”
“That’s not good enough.” Her strength as she hauled the suitcase toward her surprised him. “I won’t be a part of an ambush. You should have told me you were being sneaky and underhanded. I’ll go now.”
“You can’t leave me high and dry like this. You’re bluffing, right?” He held his breath, waiting for her to agree.
“You’re my only chance.” He yanked on the handle. She came with the suitcase, propelled into his chest. Her gasp, a short puff of air, stirred a cauldron of banked desire.
Jake immediately grabbed her to him with his right hand to steady her. Dropping the case she’d released, he wrapped both arms around her.
He swallowed, his breath ragged. “Callie,” he whispered, inhaling deeply. Wildflowers, he thought.
A sweet ache of remembrance sliced through him at the intoxicating fragrance. Images of riding on the open plains flashed in his mind. A free-spiritedness he’d felt then seized him. Now, pressing Callie Andrews against him, Jake lost all sense of time and place.
She fit snugly against him. Small and delicate, he mused. And all woman, he added as he became aware of her full, round breasts pressed firmly into his hard chest.
Leaning down, he rubbed his stubbled jaw on the silky texture of her honey-blonde hair. The rasping sound brought him back to reality. He’d gone too damn long without a woman. And now, when he held one close, he let his libido guide him instead of his common sense.
He set her away from him. He sucked in a sharp breath at the mixture of awe and amazement etched in her features. His heart rate sped up, thundering in his ears.
Her eyelids drooped, threatening to close. Slowly, Jake brought his head forward as if a magnet drew him to her pouty lips.
A loud, vibrating crash came from the other side of the house. He reared back from Callie.
Jake whipped around, and then dashed out of the room. In the back of his mind, he realized Callie followed close on his heels. What in the world had the boys gotten into now? he wondered, breaking through the haze of desire that shrouded his body.
He cursed his bad luck, and then instantly blessed the interruption. What the hell did he think he was doing? Callie Andrews would not lure him into her bed, no matter what. It would ruin everything.
Callie rushed after a fleeing Jake, her body still highly aware of what might have been.
A fleeting remembrance of the ranch house washed over her once again as she absently noted each room as she flew down the stairs, and then the hallway: the huge foyer, the formal dining room, the big impressive living room, small den, and lastly an office. All the rooms showed definite signs of the masculine occupants, and none of the feminine touches in her room.
Gasping for breath, she stopped as Jake came to an abrupt halt in the doorway of the office. Her heart hammered wildly. And not just from the sprint, she confessed. Being in the safe shelter of Jake’s arms put a warmth in her cheeks and the erratic beat in her chest.
So much for remaining strictly friends with him for the time being, she thought wryly. He didn’t play fair. Jake had a set of his own rules, she realized, thinking how he’d conned her into the job under false pretenses. How could he have gone behind his cousins’ backs without mentioning the transformation process she needed to perform in order for them to become full-fledged cowboys? Was he always this cunning?
Gathering her wits, Callie made a silent pledge to herself. She’d work her magic on Jake, convincing him to tell his family the truth even if that meant putting a wedge between them. Her childhood and the many lies she’d been told came back to haunt her. She’d never participate in deception where Jake’s cousins were concerned.
She could make out little of the room around Jake’s large frame. She noticed papers littering the floor as if a tornado had whipped through the large enclosure, leaving the disheveled appearance in its wake.
Jake shoved his hands in his hair, raking them through the length. “What the–“
“It was an accident, I swear,” a high-pitched male voice croaked.
Callie nudged Jake aside, feeling the heat of his body when she touched his rock-solid back. She curled her fingers into her palm, wishing to hold onto that alluring warmth. He moved slightly and she snuck into the room.
“Wow!” She raised her eyebrows at the mess. Every square inch of the rectangular room looked covered in paper, magazines, and books. Even the huge stone fireplace to the right of her served as a resting place for haphazard stacks of supplies. A file cabinet, upended on its side, lay smack dab in the middle of the floor.
She recognized Stan from the picture she’d glimpsed. Positioned behind a huge desk piled high with odds and ends, Stan stood slowly, brushing his mop of dark hair off his forehead. He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. He fidgeted. “It’s my fault, Jake. I thought since you didn’t want to put this all on computer, you needed help getting your office organized.”
“You call this organized?” Jake’s dangerously low voice sliced across the room.
Lance, the owner of the squeaky voice, said, “I tripped and couldn’t hold on to my end of the file cabinet.” His multicolored tie-dye T-shirt revealed a tear near the left shoulder and his bell bottom jeans bore traces of frayed threads at the knees.
“It didn’t look so bad until then, really.” Marvin dragged his long, red hair away from his round, dread-filled hazel eyes. His oversized black T-shirt and baggy jeans swallowed his small frame.
Callie thought his freckles stood out rather sharply against his chalky white complexion. Glancing at the other two, she realized they looked little better than their brother. An invisible hand squeezed her heart at their dilemma. A kinship formed; she’d been on the receiving end of countless chastisements at the antics she’d been involved in.
Thinking humor would help, she crossed her fingers behind her back and said, “Remind me never to ask you guys to help me move. And, I’m afraid your careers as office organizers are over with, kaput!”
Heavy, stunned silence blanketed the room. She chanced a peek at Jake. He frowned, blinked once, and then chuckled. The husky, spine-tingling sound filled the empty, hollow spaces in Callie.
Within seconds, she joined in and so did Jake’s cousins. Relief shot through her; she’d defused a tricky situation. Not really knowing any of them, she’d butted in. Thankfully, it seemed they’d taken it rather well. Yeah, she thought, she’d weave her magic on all of them.
A hint of satisfaction stayed with Callie as Jake skillfully guided everyone into the large living room. Curiosity brought her to an odd-looking chair made of cattle horns and hide. Gingerly, she sat, relieved when it turned out to be sturdy and the seat comfortable.
The dark paneled living room, the few heavy mahogany furnishings, and the various trophies of animal heads lining the walls left a lasting impression of an obvious absence. A woman hadn’t lived here in quite some time. Callie longed to change that, yearned to make it a cozy home. Nesting, her stepmother called it.
Jake remained standing as his three wards sat side by side on the brown leather sofa. Briefly, he glanced at Callie. His hooded gaze gave nothing away.
“Guys, I’d like you to meet Callie Andrews. She’ll be staying with us for a while.”
“Get serious, Jake.” Stan’s mop of curly hair bounced around his head as he looked from Jake to her, and then back again.
The redheaded boy, Marvin, shifted nervously as he eyed her speculatively. “Come on, Stan, we knew it wouldn’t be long before Jake brought one of his girlfriends to live with us. They’ve been hounding him for weeks now. There’s been a steady stream of them, bringing food, flirting, and trying to get him to put a ring on their finger or at least put them in his bed.”
A spear of jealousy stabbed her chest. Callie sat forward, disturbed at what she’d just found out and anxious to mend the false impression he had of her. For one thing, she didn’t want to be lumped in with the others. And for another, she knew Jake wouldn’t like the assumption. “I’m not his girlfriend.”
“Oh, yeah? You could have fooled us by the looks you give him, man.” Lance, clearly the youngest, flipped her the peace sign. “It’s cool. Don’t sweat it. All the women act like that around Jake.”
Dread sat like a boulder in her belly. She’d lose the job for certain if Jake even suspected the truth about her long-ago crush, never mind the worrisome feelings of today. By the look on his face, he regretted the slip in her room.
The stakes increased the moment she met Jake, and then arrived at the ranch. A safe haven, a chance to obtain her home, her mind whispered anxiously. She had been bluffing before when she threatened to leave if he didn’t tell them. Every minute she stayed added to her resolve to make this arrangement work, added to her dream.
Was wanting a place of her own, a community to be a part of, to have something that no one could snatch away from her ever again, too much to ask for?
The thought of all those women chasing Jake only made her more concerned for her position. What if he changed his mind about her and went with someone from town? But, she recalled, in her room, he seemed almost desperate to keep her.
Facing Jake, she saw something shift, and then quickly disappear in the depths of his eyes. A certain vulnerability, she suspected. Maybe she could have it her way after all. “Aren’t you going to say anything to correct this mistake?”
His intent, penetrating stare searched her face. Obviously, he sought to determine if Lance saw something he hadn’t. Heat, of another kind, crawled up her cheeks.
The time in his arms, she guessed, gave her away. She’d never regret her temporary lapse in sanity. But she’d be a damn fool to show she liked it and might like some more. Somehow, she sensed he wouldn’t appreciate her romantic attentions. Why would he when he had so many to choose from?
Unnerved by the lengthening silence, panic set in. She rose, and then marched over to him with her hands on her hips. “Or would you prefer me to give the explanations?”
“I’ll take care of it.” He pressed his hand to the left side of his head where the scar cut along his temple. Clenching his jaw, apparently to stomp back a wave of pain, he said tightly, “Callie needs a place to bunk for a while.” He glared at her, shooting daggers. The unspoken message seemed to say, Well, don’t you?
He’d picked up on her housing need; she hadn’t told him of her dire straits. Her life hung in the balance, but she refused to back down from her convictions about misleading the guys. “And?”
Part of her sympathized with his lingering headaches, but she pressed for complete, unvarnished honesty. She couldn’t live under the same roof with four guys when three held the misconception that she’d be there for Jake’s pleasure.
She knew his cousins had to be aware of the real nature of her residing at the Lazy L. They needed to hear the whole truth; their lives would be drastically altered by the outcome.
A familiar chord struck in Callie, connecting her with the young men, bringing the painful past back in waves.
Hadn’t she been on the receiving end of many unexpected upheavals in her early life only to discover later her parents wished to spare her needless worry on the upcoming changes? Their deception cost her more trauma than candor ever did. She’d never be a part of hurting anyone in that manner, especially not these three grieving orphans from what Jake had revealed over lunch.
Jake sighed heavily. “Callie isn’t my girlfriend–“
“Yet,” Stan cut off his cousin.
“Never,” Jake shot back so quickly that it seemed like a bullet rocketed through the air, hitting Callie directly in her tender heart.
Lance snorted loudly, clearly not buying the swift denial.
Rubbing his unshaven jaw, Jake said, “It’s true. I…I sort of hired her…for you guys.”
“A prostitute!” Marvin’s eyes bulged out and his freckled face went slack in astonishment.
Callie faced the trio. “Of course I’m not a hooker! For crying out loud, fellas, I’m your fairy godmother.”
Loud, echoing silence rang in the air, and then pandemonium erupted.