Three Reasons Why

Mari Carr

Prologue

Christmas

Are you all right?” Jill Harper asked when Wes began fidgeting in his chair. No doubt he was uncomfortable due to the injuries he’d sustained in his last DEA mission. Simply thinking of how badly Wes had been hurt sent a cold chill through her. She could have lost him. Then she pushed the thought away. Hell, he wasn’t hers to lose.

“Yeah,” Wes answered. “Just bored.”

They were celebrating the holidays with Jill’s sister Kate and Wes’s best friend Rick. Unfortunately, the revelry had been curtailed for a little while—two hours’ worth of a little while—when Kate and Rick escaped upstairs to open their last gifts in private. Jill was finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the sexual sounds emanating from the upstairs bedroom. She’d like to say she was annoyed, but actually she was uncomfortably hot.

Fuck. She was horny as hell.

Wes’s fingers thumped against his cast absentmindedly. “How about you and me go rustle up some breakfast? I’m starving.”

Jill jumped out of her chair, grateful for Wes’s suggestion. She’d cook. That might help beat down her building arousal, even though, God knew, she should be used to the sizzling physical reaction she suffered whenever she was with Wes.

“Sounds good.” She crossed the room and offered Wes a hand to help him up. With his broken leg and ribs, rising was still difficult. He grimaced as she approached. He was tired of being helpless. Wes was an active, strong man. Relying on her help—as well as Kate’s and Rick’s—was rubbing against the grain. Hopefully, the healing would happen fast and life could go back to normal.

They’d been together way more than usual lately and it was throwing Jill for a loop. She’d always recognized the slight tug of attraction when it came to Wes Robson, but lately it didn’t feel like a tug as much as a hurricane-force wind blowing at her back, shoving her none too gently toward the man.

Wes reached for her outstretched hand. However, rather than allowing her to pull him up, he used their clasped palms against her. Pulling hard, Wes yanked her down and across his lap, quick as a flash.

“Wes!” She was startled by his impulsive move.

“I want to give you your other gift,” he said gruffly.

He’d already been far too generous, giving her a beautiful broach that had belonged to his mother before she passed away. She’d been equal parts touched and alarmed by the thoughtful gesture. He’d said it was to thank her for taking care of him while he was in the hospital, but a tiny part of her thought it was something more. That something more left her uneasy.

Before she could respond, Wes pulled her closer and kissed her. His lips grazed hers for just a moment. There was nothing tentative or apologetic in the touch. Wes wanted to kiss her and while he wouldn’t ask or force, he was gonna get his wish. She liked that. She had a strong personality that tended to intimidate men. Sometimes she got tired of being the aggressor, the decision-maker.

Wes deepened the kiss and she let him lead the way. His lips were a mixture of strength and softness, a perfect reflection of the man. She’d learned so much about him in the hospital, watching him work through his physical therapy sessions with sheer determination and drive. Then he’d surprise her by stopping at the children’s ward on the way back to his room to perform magic tricks for the kids.

She reached up to run her hands through his thick brown hair. She didn’t want this moment to end. Not yet. It might not be the wisest decision of her life, but she liked the way Wes kissed. He held her like she was precious, important…special.

“Wes,” she said after several minutes of the best kissing of her life.

“Shhh. Not yet. Let’s disappear for a little while, Jill. We can think about what this means tomorrow. Today, it’s Christmas and I want to kiss you.”

She smiled and pressed her cheek against his. “It’s Christmas.”

Wes cupped her face, pulling her lips back to his. She let herself get lost in the sensations, the beauty of the moment. He was right. They could pay the piper tomorrow.

For today, it was ho ho ho.

Chapter 1

March

Wes stood outside the diner and watched his little pixie flit from customer to customer as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Damn woman had been leading him on a merry chase these last few months and he’d had enough. It was high time he called a halt to her cat-and-mouse game once and for all. Since his last DEA mission in December, he’d been laid up with a bunch of injuries that left it too hard for him to pursue his quarry effectively.

He grinned as he glanced down at his cast-free left leg. The ungainly thing had been removed two weeks ago and his physical therapy was going great. For the first time in months, he felt like a whole man—a one hundred percent red-blooded man—and Jill Harper wasn’t going to know what hit her. He spied the sign his best friend and former partner Rick had mentioned this morning at breakfast.

Part-Time Handyman Needed. Inquire Within.

He pulled the posting off the window, tucking it in his back pocket as he passed under the jangling bell hanging above the door and into the busy diner Jill owned and operated.

“Hey, Wes,” Cheryl called out from behind the counter. Cheryl Pantino, a fifty-seven-year-old divorcee, was Jill’s right hand at the diner. Between the two of them, they kept the fine folks of Madison well fed and happy at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“Hi, Cheryl. How’re you doin’ today?”

“Busy, but the lunch rush is just about over. Going to finish cleaning things in here, then head up to my apartment to catch my soaps on TV before the dinner crowd rolls in.”

Like Jill, Cheryl lived in one of the two apartments above the diner. They claimed living so close saved them the trouble of having to drive back and forth to work. Because of their long hours, they preferred to have as much time in the comfort of their homes as they could manage.

“Where’s the boss?” he asked casually.

Cheryl pointed behind her. “She just headed to the storage room. We got a shipment today from the food distributor and she’s doing inventory.”

He grinned and nodded, then strolled toward the back room. This day was getting better and better. With Jill trapped in a confined space, there was no way she would escape until he laid down the law once and for all.

After returning from his ill-fated mission, he had been stuck in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Jill, always a good friend, had shown up and planted herself on the couch beside his hospital bed, nagging him to listen to the nurses and take his meds. While he’d grumbled about her meddling, he secretly loved having her all to himself. She was a spirited, vivacious woman. She was fun to be with, constantly keeping him on his toes.

As he reached the doorway to the storage room, he spied her unloading cans of vegetables from boxes and placing them on the shelves. Her back was to him and he took a moment to appreciate the view. She was no more than five foot four, with long blonde hair. His fingers itched to touch the thick, silky mass. At the moment, she wore her lovely hair in what she referred to as one of her work ’dos. It was pulled up on the back of her head, twisted into a loose bun and held in place by what looked like a pair of chopsticks.

Despite the fact that she was constantly surrounded by mouthwatering food, she was slim. He could see the muscles in her calves, left bare by her miniskirt. She was an avid runner and it showed in her fit body.

He could have continued to stare in silence at her pert little rear end all day, but she must have sensed his presence, and she turned toward the door.

For a split second, he recognized genuine happiness in her gaze when she spied him, only to see it quickly replaced by the damn indifference he’d come to hate these past couple of months.

“Wes,” she said quietly. “You scared me. How long have you been standing there?”

“Just a few minutes.” He grinned. “Enjoying the view.”

In the past, his teasing would have provoked an equally witty rejoinder and the two of them would spar with words until one cried “uncle”. This time, she merely shook her head in annoyance and returned to her work. He swallowed his anger at her dismissal. If Jill Harper thought she could be rid of him that easily, then she didn’t know him at all.

He stepped into the storeroom and shut the door. She spun around in time to see him turning the lock.

“What are you doing?”

“Well, pixie, the way I see it, you and I have some unfinished business to attend to and I aim to see that you stay in place while we do it.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” A blush covered her cheeks. She knew exactly what he was referring to. He hadn’t been the only one celebrating under the mistletoe, and it was time Jill understood exactly what that kiss meant to him.

“Yes, you do.” He inched closer as she tried to back away from him. He couldn’t help but grin when she hit the shelf and realized she was truly trapped.

“I see you got your cast off.” Obviously she was attempting to dissuade him from his pursuit.

“Yep. Two legs now. All the better to chase you with, my dear.”

She rolled her eyes. “And your ribs? Your wrist?”

“All healed. Two hands.” He raised his palms. “All the better to catch you with.”

“Wes.” Her breathing was labored, but he wasn’t in the mood to be lenient. Ever since their first kiss on Christmas day, she had avoided him like the plague, and now he was going to finish what they’d started.

He continued forward until their bodies were only a few inches apart. He reached down and grasped her small waist, pulling her toward him until every part of them connected.

“You’ve been a very hard girl to capture.” His lips descended toward her cherry-red ones.

“I have?”

He was finished talking. Claiming her mouth, he laid waste to her lips and tongue, drinking in every bit of her sweet breath. He was thrilled when she returned his heated kiss with an even hotter one of her own. She gripped his hair so tightly, he sucked in a breath at the pain she produced while pulling him closer. Sex with her would be an adventure. She was passionate and not shy about expressing it.

“Easy, pixie,” he murmured. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”

She shoved him away.

“Damn you, Wes Robson. How dare you come in here and attack me like this. I have work to do.”

“Attack you?” He chuckled as she struggled to catch her breath. He reached up and ran his fingers through his hair. “Sweetheart, I’m surprised I’m not completely bald after that so-called attack of mine.”

He took a step back to study her flushed, annoyed face. It was the same look she got every time he’d tried to get close to her since the holidays. She would offer her friendship freely but the second he tried to press for more, she pulled away, hissing and clawing at him like a cornered cat. He simply couldn’t understand her continued refusal. “Why are you fighting this, Jill? Why can’t you admit you feel this thing between us as much as I do?”

“What thing?” She tried to pass him to get to the doorway. When he refused to budge, she crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “I’m not kidding, Wes. I have a shitload of work to do.”

“I just saw Cheryl and she assured me the lunch hour was over. I have no doubt she’s finished cleaning and has already locked up for the afternoon.” He glanced at his watch. “That means we have two hours until you reopen. Plenty of time for what I have in mind.”

“Two hours is plenty of time? Pity. I’d have thought you had more stamina.”

He laughed, relieved to see her fighting with him again. “I was plotting a quickie since you’re so busy. If you’d prefer something longer…” He wiggled his eyebrows and let her fill in the rest.

“God. Spare me. I’m busy,” she insisted. “And I have no idea what’s gotten into you, but we have nothing, no thing to discuss.” As she said the word thing, she made quotation marks in the air with her fingers.

“Is that right? That’s funny, because I think you know exactly what I’m referring to, pixie. It’s that thing that’s making you run from me.” He repeated her finger gesture.

“Stop calling me pixie. If you think you’re so smart, say what you have to say and get the hell out.”

He ran the back of his hand lightly down her cheek and tried not to grin at her slight shudder. “I’m talking about the thing that makes it impossible for us to keep our hands off each other. The thing that makes me think about you all hours of the day and night, desperate to strip those clothes off your body. The thing that makes me want to tie you to my bed and never let you loose.” As he spoke, he watched the effect his words were having.

She wasn’t as unaffected as she tried to pretend. The tight buds of her nipples poked through her T-shirt, and the breathing she had gotten under control after their kiss was suddenly labored again.

“Why can’t you just admit that you want me too, Jilly?” He flashed her a charming grin, the one most women couldn’t resist.

“Ha!” Her laugh was forced, and he was annoyed by the return of her inexplicable defensiveness. What the hell was going on with her? They were friends, and he knew without a doubt the woman wanted him just as much as he wanted her.

Her tone, when she spoke, was light and easy. Her words, however, were not. “Wes, your conceit is only surpassed by your arrogance. You think you can flash those dimples at any woman and she’ll fall down drooling at your feet. Well, I have news for you. I’m immune to your charms. I’m not the slightest bit interested in anything you might have to offer, so if you will kindly step aside…”

“No.” He crossed his arms. “Not this time. You and I are going to settle this once and for all. I would like to know why in the hell you run from me like I’m Satan incarnate every time I come around. I want to get closer to you, Jill, and I don’t mean in this goddamn friendship trap you’re hell-bent on maintaining. Damn it, woman, give me one good reason why you think we can’t make a relationship work.” He sucked in a breath, cursing his anger. He hadn’t meant to lay it all on the line quite like this, but she had a habit of pushing all his buttons.

She gave him a grin. “Oh no, Wes, I won’t give you just one reason. I’ll give you three. Three reasons why this thing…” She paused as if unsure what to call their undeniable attraction. “Three reasons why you and I could never be more than friends.”

Obviously, she’d given some serious thought to her denial of his suit and was now ready to lay all her cards on the table. Unwilling to let her get the upper hand, he took a couple steps back as a peace offering to encourage her. Then he raised his eyebrows and gestured for her to proceed.

“Number one, we are like oil and water. We fight all the time.”

He waited for her to elaborate, but she simply looked at him as if her words were all the explanation needed. “That’s number one?” His voice was laced with disbelief. “That’s it?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Isn’t that enough? Wes, you have to admit we get on each other’s nerves more than the average couple.”

“Jill, we don’t fight. I don’t think you and I have ever had one serious argument the entire time we’ve known each other. We bicker, we pick on each other, we spar, but all of that is in good fun. It’s just the nature of our friendship. You’ve never done anything that’s really angered me and I have a sense that, in truth, our arguments—should we pursue a relationship—would be few and far between.”

“Oh.” Her eyebrows creased as she considered his remarks.

“Besides, pixie, think how much fun we’d have making up after one of our little disagreements.” Leaning forward, he captured her hand in his and brought it to his lips. She watched, her face flushed, as he placed a soft kiss on her knuckles before turning her hand over and running his tongue suggestively across her palm.

She pulled her hand back. “Stop distracting me.”

He struggled to look chagrined. “Sorry to interrupt. You were about to give me two more reasons, I believe, as to why you and I shouldn’t become lovers.”

“That’s right and that actually leads me to my next argument.” Her face became more composed and he braced himself. “I’m not in the slightest bit attracted to you.”

He laughed—loudly. Her words were such a blatant lie he didn’t even pretend to fall for them. “Is that right?” He reached down and gripped her hips tightly. Pulling her closer, he let her feel the erection that was fighting to escape its denim cage.

Jill’s eyes drifted shut and for just a moment, she pushed against him. Then her gaze lifted to his face. “All that proves is you’re attracted to me. We already knew that.” She gave him a cocky grin that made him smile.

He lifted his hand and tweaked her tight nipple. She gasped at his unexpected attack. “You go to hell for lying, Jill,” he teased. “Should I dip my fingers into your panties to see just how big your lie is? How wet are you?”

Jill was nothing if not resilient. “I was fantasizing about Gerard Butler when you walked in. Needless to say, I’m soaked. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to bend over for the first guy who walks by with a hard-on.”

“So that kiss at Christmas meant nothing?” He refused to accept her second reason. He knew she was interested, knew she was as hot for him as he was for her. It simply made no sense for her to deny it.

“It meant we were under the mistletoe and you were laid up in a wheelchair over the holidays. Consider it a gift.”

“You expect me to believe it was a sympathy kiss?”

“Well, it probably started out that way. I’m not going to lie to you, Wes. You’re a pretty decent kisser. Let’s just say it was a gift that kept giving…for a few minutes.”

“Thirty,” he amended. They’d made out like a couple of teenagers in the backseat of a car for half an hour before Rick and Kate returned to the living room.

“Wow. What’d you do? Put a stopwatch on us?”

“I’m observant. And I observed while we were kissing that you’re totally hot for me.”

“It was just a kiss.”

He shook his head. “No. It wasn’t. Do you want me to say it, Jill? I lust after you. And I’m not talking about some meek, mild lust, but a hot, heart-pounding, rock-hard-cock kind of lusting. I’m pretty sure if we explored that lust a bit we’d set the town on fire. And the attraction is definitely mutual.”

She rolled her eyes and he struggled not to laugh. No other woman on earth kept his feet so firmly on the ground. “Fine, Wes. You’re probably right. We’d burn down the house, but we’re never going to let it go that far. It wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Because it wouldn’t lead to anything.”

“I’m pretty fucking sure it would lead to a ton of orgasms for each of us.”

“Yeah.” She paused, and Wes suspected they were finally going to get down to the heart of the matter. Her first two reasons—weak excuses at best—had been a ruse. “Actually, that leads me to my final reason.”

He crossed his arms and struggled not to gloat. If her last reason was as lame as the first two, he had nothing to worry about.

“I know what you’re looking for, Wes, and I can’t go there. I don’t want a relationship. At all.”

That caught him unaware. “I’m sorry?” he said, unsure he’d heard her correctly.

“I’m thirty-three years old and perfectly content with my life. I’ve just now gotten to a place where I’m genuinely happy. Upsetting that status quo isn’t something I’m interested in attempting.”

“You don’t intend to date? Ever?” He thought back to what he knew about Jill. He and Rick had moved to Madison nearly five years ago and Jill had been the first friend they’d made. As he considered her words, he realized that while she went out occasionally with different guys and indulged in infrequent hook-ups with Seth Johnson, she’d never dated anyone seriously.

She narrowed her eyes, glaring. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“I tell people I don’t want a boyfriend and suddenly they’re eyeballing me like I’m a lesbian. Why is it so hard to believe that a woman might not want to tie herself to a man?”

“I don’t think it’s that hard to believe. I just don’t understand why you’re so opposed to a relationship.”

“I’m not against dating in general,” she corrected. “The problem is dating can lead to marriage and I’m definitely not putting my neck in that noose.”

“I’m not asking to marry you, Jill. I’m just asking for a date.”

She held her hands out. “Sorry. Not interested in dating you. I like my life the way it is. What can I say? I’m old and set in my ways.”

Wes narrowed his eyes. “Thirty-three is hardly old.”

“It’s old enough for me to have gotten to a nice place in my life. I’m not looking for complications. If you were interested in dating casually, I’d be your girl, but I know you, Wes. You’re a romantic at heart. You’re looking for Miss Right, and I’m not her.”

“I think you are.” Wes appreciated her candor, even though he found it hard to accept. He knew Jill. He’d never met a woman who was more comfortable in her own skin. He also knew she was being completely sincere and honest, but there was a difference between contentment and genuine happiness. He intended to show it to her.

She reached up on tiptoe to place a quick, friendly kiss on his cheek. “I know all about that dominant streak you try to hide. You like to think you’re an evolved man, and in some ways you are. But I’ve seen glimpses of your true spirit as well—the man compelled to protect, to shelter. You’re used to calling the shots because you’ve spent a great deal of your adult life doing just that. I call my own shots. Surely you can understand that.”

“I don’t want to change you, Jill, and I don’t want to take over your life. I just want to be included in your days. I want to be a part of your pleasures.”

She looked at him and he thought he saw a spark of longing before she shut it down again. She’d definitely lied about not wanting him. Unfortunately, she was stubborn as shit when she set her mind to something. He’d have to work overtime to convince her to let him into her life.

“So you’d be happy with no-strings-attached dating?” she asked.

“No.” He wasn’t going to lie about his intentions.

She turned around, shifting items on the shelf. “I knew it. I also knew you wouldn’t accept that I mean what I say about what I want. It’s why I’ve been avoiding this conversation. You just don’t listen. Typical man.” Her ranting turned to mumbling and he chuckled at her last line.

“You’re fooling yourself if you think you have all you need in life.”

She turned to face him, pressing her body against his. His chest constricted at her close proximity and it was all he could do not to pull her skirt up and show her exactly what she needed.

“I need easy. I need free. And occasionally, I need sex. You’re welcome to help me with the third any time you want, so long as you understand nothing more will come of it.” She ran her hand along his side, not stopping until she’d touched him from shoulder to upper thigh.

Narrowing his eyes, he studied her face. She was trying to call his bluff. Trying to distract him from his intentions with sex. Two could play that game.

He reached up, cupping the side of her face, pulling her close. “So now I know.”

She frowned. “Know what?”

“What’s been keeping you away from me these past few months. Fear.”

She shook her head. “I am not, nor will I ever be, afraid of you.”

Yep, she was stubborn. However, her last reason for refusing him—spoken with such assurance—left him at a loss for a rebuttal. She was hiding something. He’d have to bide his time until he figured out why she was afraid of getting too close to someone. Time to fall back and punt.

He studied her flushed face and moved closer. He brushed his lips against hers softly, quickly. “Fine, Jill. You aren’t afraid of me, and you’ve given me three reasons why you don’t want to be with me. Now it’s my turn.”

“Your turn for what?”

“To give you the three reasons why I’m not giving up on us. Reason one, you’re perfect for me. You—exactly as you are right now. Not later, after all these so-called changes you expect me to bring to your content lifestyle.”

She refused to back away, even though he still held her close. He’d always admired her courage, her spunkiness. She never backed down from a fight, which was why the distance she’d been maintaining between them had driven him crazy.

“Second, our bodies were made for each other.”

She huffed out an annoyed breath. “There’s more to life than sex, Wes.”

“I know that, which leads to my final reason. I want to date you.”

“Date me?”

“Yep. Goin’ steady. Boyfriend, girlfriend, an extra toothbrush for you in my bathroom, your side of the bed, my side of the bed. Dating.”

She appeared dumbfounded by his words, her mind playing over his completely sincere declaration.

“I think those drugs they gave you in the hospital for pain must have affected your brain. Or at the very least, your hearing. I’m. Not. Dating. You.” He grinned at the fervor behind her refusal. God, she was gorgeous. “Not now. Not ever.”

He considered the heated passion behind her words and wondered if she was soured on the idea of commitment. No one in her life had ever made it very far with that concept. Her parents had divorced when she was young. Her sister’s first marriage had gone to hell in a handbasket after six years. Rick was pushing hard to set a wedding date, but Kate was in no hurry—despite her obvious love for the man. It was inevitable that Jill would have reservations.

It was also inevitable that he would fight like hell to overcome them. His mind was made up in regards to his future…and Jill Harper’s.

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way, pixie.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He grasped her hips and pulled her against his erection once more. She held his gaze. “You can accept my invitation for a date now or you’ll have to suffer my concentrated seduction until you say yes.”

She grinned and for the first time since he’d entered the room, he saw the real Jill emerge. “Oh wow. It’s gonna be tough watching you fall on your ass, Wes, but I’m willing to give it a go.”

He laughed and released her. “Here.” He pulled the help wanted sign out of his pocket and handed it to her.

She took it, looking down at the folded paper. “What’s this?”

“You’re looking at your new handyman.”

She shook her head vehemently. “Oh no, I’m not. I—”

“Pixie, I think you underestimate me.”

“What do you mean?”

“If this is a battle we’re waging, you’re going to face me on the field every day.”

She swallowed heavily, but he could see her considering his comments. Jill never backed down from a dare. She was every bit as competitive as he was. She wouldn’t run away any longer.

“I need a handyman, not a lover.”

“You know I’m perfectly qualified to work here as your handyman and while I’m at it, I’m gonna show you how very wrong you are about everything you just said. I’m going to prove to you exactly how perfect we are for each other and I’m definitely going to change your mind about all three of those damn reasons why.”

Chapter 2

Jill slammed her fist against the stuck drawer, cursing under her breath as Cheryl walked into the kitchen with a tray full of dirty dishes.

“Damn, girl. Is it your time of the month or did you just wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? I’ve never seen you so pissed off.”

“It’s this stupid fucking drawer. It won’t open.”

Cheryl stopped and placed her tray on the counter. “You gotta hit it directly on the left corner,” she said, banging the drawer. It popped open, and Jill fought the urge to smack the smug grin off her friend’s face.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Cheryl chastised. “You’re the one who taught me how to open it. Now why don’t you tell me what’s really bothering you.”

“The men’s room toilet is clogged, and I can’t find one lousy plumber in this godforsaken town to come fix it.”

“Um, Jill,” Lottie said through the order window, “now the women’s toilet is clogged too.”

Jill turned and scowled at the young waitress, who hastily backed away to continue refilling the salt and pepper shakers.

Cheryl placed a comforting hand on Jill’s shoulder. “Now, honey, before you get upset, you might want to reconsider Wes’s offer to help.”

“No,” she replied sharply.

“Why not? Ever since Seth stopped working around here, we’ve been letting some things slide. It’s time to start getting these repairs done or the place is gonna fall down on our heads.”

“It’s not that bad,” Jill said, though she knew Cheryl’s words were true. Every day, something else in the old building stopped functioning. If they didn’t start taking control of the situation, they’d end up having to shut down for major renovations.

Cheryl raised her eyebrows. “What’s your problem with Wes?”

“Who says I have a problem with him?”

“He’s the answer to a prayer, and you know it,” Cheryl replied. “We need help, Jill Harper, and Wes has offered it. I just don’t get it. You’ve got yourself a six-foot Adonis practically begging to help and you’re saying no.”

“Adonis,” Jill scoffed.

“With that dark brown hair and deep green eyes. Mmm. I’m old enough to be that boy’s mother and he still melts my butter. What is it about him that bothers you so much?”

Jill crossed her arms and tapped her toe. “For your information, Wes Robson does not bother me.”

“I certainly hope not,” came Wes’s deep voice from behind her. He’d come in the back entrance. “I mean, in my defense, I just got here. Unless, of course,” he added, walking up so close behind her, Jill could feel his warm breath in her hair, “it’s the ‘hot and bothered’ kind of bothering. Then I don’t mind so much. Hell, I could even take care of that for you. I am a very handy man. Is your butter melting, Jill?”

“You knew he was behind me,” Jill accused her friend, but Cheryl merely gave her a mischievous grin.

“Why are you here?” Jill muttered to Wes, refusing to turn around to look at the damn man who was melting a hell of a lot more than butter in her body.

“I’ll just let you two sort this out.” Cheryl waved and headed for the door. “Breakfast shift is over. I’m locking the front door and going up to my apartment. If you don’t find somebody to fix those toilets pronto, we might as well dump the lunch special in the garbage and leave the doors locked, because there’s no way we can open. Lottie,” she called out as she left, “wanna come upstairs and watch The View with me?”

Jill listened as her two waitresses tromped up the stairs, then she turned to watch Wes put a toolbox on the counter.

“Toilet problems?” he asked.

“Dammit, Wes, I mean it. What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to work,” he replied.

“That’s funny. I don’t recall hiring you.”

She constantly struggled to recapture the wits he wiped away simply by being in the same room. She prided herself on being an independent, intelligent woman, but two minutes in his presence always reduced her to a quivering mass of goo. Damn if she didn’t want him, and she was usually not the type of girl to deny herself her pleasures. However, in Wes’s case, giving in would be the very worst thing she could do, and for reasons she hadn’t shared with him yesterday.

Undeterred, Wes opened up his toolbox and started digging through his tools. “Cheryl mentioned a drawer that’s sticking and a clogged drain here in the kitchen, but it sounds like I’d better tackle the restrooms first.”

“Stop ignoring me as if I’m not speaking. I’m not hiring you.”

“Why not?”

His question caught her off-guard. She knew Wes was a jack-of-all-trades and that he was perfectly capable of doing most of the small jobs she needed taken care of. Since he’d resigned from the DEA, he was looking for work. Rick had been his partner on the force, and he’d managed to forge his new career by opening up a small bike shop.

“I don’t have a lot of extra money to hire someone on.” It was a lie, but she grasped it with both hands.

“You advertised for the position.”

She blew out an exasperated breath. “Yeah, well, I mean it would only be part time.”

“I didn’t plan on setting up office hours or draining your accounts, pixie.”

Jill picked up the phonebook and glanced at the list of plumbers. She’d exhausted her options and she knew it. Madison had two full-time plumbers and at this moment, one of them was at a convention in Vegas and the other had pneumonia. It would cost a fortune to pay one to come out from Harrisburg for an emergency call. With the distance between Madison and its larger neighboring city, the plumber still wouldn’t make it here in time for her to open for lunch.

“Fine. You can fix the toilets.”

Wes laughed. “What an honor.”

“But that’s it. You’re not going to be my handyman.”

Wes shook his head and walked closer. She fought the urge to take a step back, refusing to let him intimidate her as he had yesterday. She’d had time to batten down her hatches and prepare herself for the onslaught.

“I’ll fix your toilets, but only on two conditions.”

“What conditions?”

“One, you hire me in this position for good, and two, you agree to my wages.”

She was silent as she tried to find a way out of her predicament. Surely there was some way she could get the repairs done without selling her soul to the devil. She racked her brain but came up with nothing.

Her love for the diner won out. She needed help and, God help her, Wes Robson appeared to be the only man in town available to fulfill her needs. As soon as the word needs crossed her mind, a flush heated her cheeks. She had some definite needs she could envision Wes fulfilling. Of course, Wes noticed her blush immediately and grinned.

Before he could say anything, she asked, “How much do you want?”

“Are you hiring me?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “I’m hiring you. How much do you charge an hour?”

“I don’t come cheap,” he teased her.

She closed her eyes and prayed for patience. “How much, Wes?”

“For every hour of work I do around the diner, you agree to spend one hour alone with me.”

Her eyes snapped open. This was bad. Very, very bad. “I’d rather pay you money.”

“No. I don’t want money from you.”

She placed her hands on her hips. “If you think I’m going to trade sexual favors for—”

“I didn’t say sex. I said an hour alone with me.”

“Doing what?”

“Dating, of course. Going out for drinks, dancing. Hell, we could rent a movie and watch it in your apartment for all I care. And if you feel so inclined as to have sex with me, that would be cool too.” His eyes were dancing, and she knew he was enjoying that—in this instance—he definitely had the upper hand.

“Dating,” she repeated, her body going a bit numb at the idea. She was fighting a losing battle. She closed her eyes, silently hoping that blocking out his gorgeous face would help her resist.

For weeks, she’d dreamed of Wes’s kisses under the mistletoe. His lips should be registered as a lethal weapon. More than a few nights, she’d crawled from her bed into the shower, forcing herself to stand beneath the freezing water in an attempt to cool the burning desires he’d set aflame inside her. “I’m sorry. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t I tell you just yesterday that I didn’t want to date you?”

Wes shrugged. “You gave me some lame reasons.”

“I don’t consider them lame.”

“I want some time to show you we’re good together.”

She closed her eyes, overwhelmed with frustration. Talking to Wes was like talking to a brick wall. She’d admit—only to herself—that her first couple of reasons for wanting to avoid Wes had been mere diversions, weak attempts at building a stronger case for the truth. She couldn’t date him. She really couldn’t. However, pride would never allow her to speak the real reason.

She looked at him once more. “Wes, we could date until the cows came home. Would we have fun? Yeah, more than likely we would. Would the sex be hot? Hell yeah. Would that change the fact that you and I are planning two very different futures? No. I don’t see any way this could end in anything other than heartbreak.”

“Why are you so opposed to a committed relationship?”

“I told you yesterday.”

He shook his head. “No. I don’t think you did. There’s gotta be more to it than liking your solitude. It doesn’t add up, Jill. You’re one of the most social, most fun people in Madison.”

“High praise,” she joked. “Madison has a population of two hundred people and ninety percent of them are over seventy.”

Wes laughed. “Very funny. Last count I heard, we had at least three hundred folks in town. Come on, Jill. What gives? What’s got you so down on relationships? Is it because of your parents’ divorce?”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, puh-leaze. What do want me to say? I have daddy issues? My dad ran out on my mom and left her alone to raise two daughters. I don’t think that wrecked my psyche. Truth is, my mother was better off without the guy. And yes, Zack the Rat dumped my sister and ran off with that slut to Vegas. Again, she was better off without him.”

“So you don’t trust men?”

She shook her head. “I’m not shallow or thick, Wes. I would never assume all guys are like Zack and my dad. Rick is a stand-up kind of guy and I know he’ll make my sister happy until the day she dies. But Kate’s different from me. She craves companionship. She’s loving, giving and totally into committed relationships. I like to fly—fancy and free.”

“Speaking of flying free, I know you and Seth were seeing each other for a while, but Kate said that you aren’t anymore,” Wes said. “Is that true?”

“That was an odd segue. What does my relationship with Seth have to do with the price of tea in China?”

“Just answer the question.”

She considered lying, telling him she was still involved with the other man. Truth was, she and Seth had never been in a real relationship. They went out occasionally and they slaked each other’s needs. Seth knew she wasn’t looking for more than sex. He didn’t pressure her for more than she was willing to give in the emotions department.

“Seth and I aren’t involved. Even when we were, he knew I wasn’t looking for a relationship and he accepted that.”

He ignored her pointed reference to the idea that he sucked in the listening department. “So you aren’t still sleeping with each other?”

Her temper spiked. “And why the hell would that be any of your business?

“Because I don’t share.”

She sucked in a breath, trying to still the racing of her heart. He was relentless. The worst part was, she knew that if any man on the planet had a chance of capturing her body and soul, it was Wes. Regardless of that, she couldn’t give him what he wanted.

“Don’t mean to shatter your overweening confidence or anything, but I’m not a one-man woman. I won’t be tied down.”

The damn man grinned, and she realized the gauntlet she’d just thrown down.

“Oh, I’m going to tie you down, Jill, don’t you worry about that. And then I’m going to fuck you until you forget there are other men on the planet.”

She fought to appear unconcerned, though her legs went weak at the thought. “Whatever. Listen, those toilets aren’t going to fix themselves, you know, and the clock on these wages of yours doesn’t start until you do.”

She needed to get the hell out of this kitchen. The temperature had been rising steadily since Wes had shown up, and it was all she could do not to fan herself. She turned and walked toward her office. She needed to get away from him. Find a way out of the mess she’d landed herself in. She’d been smart to avoid him for so long.

She tried to shut the door, but a hand pushed against it. She turned and slowly backed toward her desk as he followed her in. The look in his eyes told her any attempt at escape would be futile. He continued to follow her step for step until the hard surface of the desk hit the back of her legs.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting an advance on my pay.” Wes leaned toward her and didn’t stop until his lips were a mere breath from hers.

Jill wanted to shove him back, tell him to get the hell away from her, but she’d dreamed of his lips since Christmas. Yesterday’s kisses had only whetted her appetite for more. Just one more taste, she thought. One taste.

“Just one taste,” he murmured against her mouth, and she realized she’d uttered her thoughts aloud. Slowly, seductively, he dragged his lips against hers, teasing her by withholding the true kiss she desired.

Her libido was in overdrive and crushing out all other emotions with its desire to pull Wes toward her and eat him alive. His bulging pecs were well defined through his tight T-shirt and, though she refused to glance down, his denim-clad erection pressed against her stomach.

“Kiss me or get out,” she demanded when he continued his torturous teasing, his warm breath and soft lips barely brushing hers. She resisted the urge to move forward and capture his lips. Struggled against the desire to take what she wanted.

“You’re going to fall in love with me,” he said.

She tried to deny the truth of his words. “Nope. Not interested.”

Wes turned his face slightly and his grin tickled her skin. His next words brushed against her cheek. “You want me, Jill Harper.”

“Shut up.” Her words and her body were at war as she reached up to grip his hair tightly in her fists. “Shut up and kiss me.”

His hot breath caressed her overheated skin as she pulled his lips to hers. She’d wanted his kisses for so long, and now that his lips were on hers once again, she wondered why she’d resisted. He allowed her to control the kiss for several minutes, but soon his alpha instincts reappeared and—as she’d experienced at the holiday—he took possession of her body. His tongue didn’t merely explore her mouth, it laid a relentless siege, capturing everything it touched and burning a path wider than Sherman’s March to the Sea.

When she feared she’d suffocate, she broke away with a cry, but he refused to be pushed away. He grasped her head firmly in his hands and pressed his forehead against hers. “Why are you fighting this? You must see how good we are together.”

She wanted to shove him away, call him an arrogant, cocky man and laugh in his face, but her body was screaming for more. Her hands tangled in his shirt, stretching the soft cotton, and it took all her remaining strength not to rip it from his body.

“It’s sex. Lust. That’s all.” She was annoyed at the breathless quality of her voice. God, please let that be all. Surely she could scratch the itch and send him packing.

Wes pulled farther away, and she wanted to cry out at the loss of his body next to hers. He grinned and she struggled to respond, to chastise him for the cocky look, but words failed her.

“I’ll take the lust…for now. I’ve waited years for you. I’m not waiting any longer. You and me and a bed, pixie. It’s going to happen sooner than later, so you may as well get yourself ready for it.”

Jill grasped his shirt, pulled him back against her and nipped his lower lip hard. He hissed, but she grinned seductively. Two could play the alpha game. Maybe it was time she gave Wes a taste of his own medicine. “You make that sound like a threat.”

She wrapped her legs around his waist, grinding his hard cock more fully against her aching pussy. “Maybe you’re the one who needs a warning. I’m very, very good at lust.”

He gripped her hips with strong hands, pushing against her until she groaned. “We really are going to burn the town down.” He took her lips in a passionate kiss that left her head whirling, but before she could resume control, he broke away, taking several steps back. Her gaze landed on his erection, and she could only imagine the strength it must take for him to walk away in such a condition.

“Let’s make sure we’ve got this straight, Jill, because I’m not going to stand for any backtracking. I’m working here as your handyman. You match every hour I work, alone with me—in bed or out of it. Agreed?”

She nodded.

“One more thing.” She tried listen, but the fog from his kisses clouded her mind. “From this moment on, there aren’t any other men in your life. You want to limit this to something casual, to lust, to sex for now, you’ve got it, but I’m the only man who’ll be warming your bed. Do you understand?”

She wanted to fight his demand, refuse him, tell him to take his condition and stick it up his ass. Instead, she let her body answer before her mind could formulate the words and nodded again.

“Good,” he said with a pleased grin. “Start the timer, pixie. I’m officially on the clock.”

* * * *

Wes managed to get one bathroom functioning in time for the lunch shift, but he was going to have to convince Jill to let him do some major renovations. The pipes were as old as the damn building and he was certain his quick repair was nothing more than slapping a Band-Aid on a cut that required stitches. Of course, it didn’t help that someone had flushed some old rags. Probably some teenager’s idea of a prank, though it was a damn stupid one.

He’d taken a break for lunch, and Jill had given him permission to use her apartment to wash up before eating. He had a fit when he found out she left her home unlocked while downstairs working. She had no sense when it came to security, and while Madison wasn’t a hotbed of crime, it was simple enough to lock a door. He’d have to have a talk with her about it.

As he came down the stairs, he heard the muffled conversations of the patrons at the diner. Jill had built up one hell of a business. She had a large group of loyal regulars who found it hard to resist her mouthwatering specials.

The scent of the beef stew she was serving drifted toward him, and his stomach growled. During his midmorning break, he’d flirted with her in the kitchen while she put together five homemade apple pies. He’d have to watch himself while working here because he was certain he could gain twenty pounds in a week with Jill cooking for him. Perhaps he should use a couple hours’ pay running with her. He grinned as he considered all the ways he’d like to be with her alone, surprised to realize a lot of his plans for their time together didn’t involve sex at all. He genuinely liked being with her. She was fun and funny and as sweet as the pies she baked.

As he stepped into the diner, his gaze immediately landed on her, and his grin faded when he realized she was talking to Seth. Kate had assured him Jill wasn’t still seeing the man, and Jill had confirmed that this morning. As he walked across the diner, he fought the urge to punch the bastard in the face when the other man reached out and took Jill’s hand. Jealousy was a new emotion for him but he found where Jill was concerned, he had it in spades.

“Hey, pixie. I’m ready for whatever scraps you’re willing to feed to the hired help.” He wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. She stiffened at his touch. It was a petty move, but he wanted Seth and every other man in this place to understand the stake he was claiming. The stupidity of the action wasn’t a strong enough factor to stop him. No doubt she’d try to emasculate him for the macho power play.

“What are you doing?” She glanced over her shoulder at him and flames were shooting from her eyes. His brain refused to kick as he continued digging his own grave.

“Mooching for an appetizer.” He placed a soft kiss at the nape of her neck, just below her ear.

“Wes.” While her tone dripped pure venom, her body responded to his nuzzle. Her breathing accelerated and her tight nipples began to bud. The woman was one giant contradiction. She wanted him, but she refused him. She was pissed off, but her body was heating up to his affection.

“Delicious.” He tightened his arms around her waist, sucking in his own pained breath when her bottom brushed against his cock. An accident? She turned to look at him through seductively narrowed eyes, and he realized she purposely made the contact. He loved the way she got even.

“Jill?” Seth asked. Wes lightened his grip. They were putting on quite a show for the lunchtime crowd. “I didn’t realize you and Robson were an item.”

“We’re n—”

“What can I say, Seth? The woman can’t keep her hands off me.”

“You always were a dreamer, Wes.” Jill leaned away from him, bending over the counter and closer to Seth. Wes fought to beat back the green-eyed monster clawing for release. She ignored him, turning all her attention toward the other man.

“So what have you been up to, Seth? Long time, no see.”

Wes scowled when Seth’s gaze dropped to the cleavage Jill was flashing in his direction. Wes crossed his arms angrily when Seth glanced up and gave him a cocky smile.

“I’ve been around. Busy at work. Sure have missed your cooking, Jilly.” Seth rested his forearms on the counter, the action moving him even closer to Wes’s girl.

Wes cleared his throat but Jill ignored him.

“I heard you were seeing someone.”

Her words only cooled Wes’s overheated nerves until Seth’s response. “We split up. Didn’t work out.”

“Oh.” Jill stood up, her face one of concerned friendship. “I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”

Seth leaned back, his shoulders slumped. “I don’t know. Nothing was ever easy with her. She was wicked jealous. You know I can’t stand that shit.”

“Me either.” She flashed Wes a smirk over her shoulder. Jill topped up Seth’s water glass. “I can still set you up if you’re interested. I have a couple friends I think you’d like.”

Seth shook his head. “Naw. I hate blind dates. Prefer to meet women in a more natural environment.”

“Natural environment? I’m afraid to ask.”

Seth nodded. “You know, like a bar or the race track or a strip club.”

Jill laughed. “God, Seth. You never change. Of course, if you’re going to find your Miss Right, it’s definitely going to have to be in one of those places.”

It was becoming clear from their joking conversation that Jill and Seth were nothing more than friends. Wes suddenly felt like a fool. He reached up and lightly brushed her cheek with his fingers.

She turned and looked at him.

Wes gave her a rueful grin. “Sorry.”

“You want something to eat?” she asked.

He nodded and walked around the counter as Seth stood to leave.

“Thanks for lunch, Jill. It was good to see you again.”

“You too, Seth,” she replied.

“Wes.” Seth stuck out his hand.

Wes accepted the proffered handshake and the truce it implied. “Take it easy, man.” He watched Seth leave, saw the brief, pained glance he flashed toward Jill as she headed for the kitchen. While Jill’s feelings didn’t extend past friendship, Wes wasn’t sure the same could be said for Seth.

Jill returned with a huge bowl of beef stew and a large slice of homemade bread and butter. All thoughts of Seth flew from his mind the second she put the food in front of him.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes appreciatively. “Damn, that smells good.”

She poured him a glass of lemonade. “You earned that. Thanks for everything you’ve done today. We wouldn’t have been able to open if you hadn’t gotten the bathroom functioning.”

“Yeah, well. You might want to put up a sign that mentions flushing only toilet paper.”

Jill looked annoyed. “Wish I could get my hands on the asshole who thought it would be fun to flush a bunch of rags.”

Wes took a sip of his lemonade. “You and me both. Can’t say that was the most pleasant job I’ve ever done. Smell was terrible.”

She leaned over the counter and blessed him with the same view she’d given Seth. Unlike Seth, Wes didn’t find it as easy to look away. The tops of her creamy white breasts peeked through the buttons of her blouse and suddenly his mouth wasn’t watering for beef stew anymore.

“Do you need anything else?” Her voice was low, seductive.

Wes’s gaze rose to her face. He had an entire list of things he needed from her, but now wasn’t the time or the place. He shook his head and she smiled as she walked away.

As he ate, he conversed with a few of the diners, his gaze never traveling far from Jill as she moved around the room, comfortable in her domain. She gossiped with a few elderly ladies as she topped up their coffee cups. She wiped tables and showed a couple to a corner booth. She sliced pie, mopped up spilled tea, and managed to do it all with a friendly smile and a kind word to everyone in the place.

Once he finished his meal, he rose, ready to tackle the problems in the kitchen. When Jill walked by, he reached out and grabbed her. His impetuous movement surprised her, and her eyes widened when he wrapped his arms securely around her waist and pulled her close. When she opened her mouth to lambaste him, he swooped down and kissed her, long and hard.

He’d intended a quick brush of the lips. He couldn’t resist her for one more moment. Watching her, being so close to her all day, was wreaking havoc on his libido. At this point, he wasn’t above begging.

Jill fought him for only a moment before her body went soft against his, and her tongue swiped across his lips.

So she wasn’t immune to a little public display of affection herself. He groaned softly, and the sound brought them both to their senses as they broke away.

They stared at each other, and he wondered what in the hell had possessed him to come on so strongly. The patrons in the diner erupted into applause, several of the men hooting, the elderly ladies giggling.

He grinned, offering her an apology. “Sorry, pixie. Lost my head.”

She returned his smile with one of her own. “Little late for that now, isn’t it? I’ll never live this down.”

He shrugged. “Hey, I live in this town too.”

“You’re impossible.”

“I’m wearing you down, aren’t I?”

She shook her head slowly, averting her eyes, and he glimpsed true sadness in her gaze. He started to question her but she wiggled out of his grip, shook off his hold. Within seconds, the indomitable Jill reappeared. “No. You aren’t. You can’t.”

She walked away, leaving him in the wake of her last words.

You can’t.