Rebecca Reed would never forget the sound of Jacob Donovan walking back into her life. The sharp hiss of startled gasps that suddenly swept across the town library’s main reading room was enough to grab anyone’s attention. She frowned and straightened from where she was shelving books in the children’s section, looked to see what had happened, and felt her heart stop.
Omigod, she thought. He’s here. He’s really here. In Warner.
Her heart jerked to a start again, and she was sure every soul in the building could hear its wild, erratic beat in the shocked silence that had settled over the room.
Jake stood at the front desk, his left profile turned toward her and the rest of the main reading room. He looked tall, dark and rangy in faded denims and a black T-shirt that matched his windswept hair. The clerk behind the desk finished checking out a patron with two small children. A short, stout, no-nonsense woman who had never married, Eunice Lee Larmer had been with the library for as long as most of the town could remember. She looked up at Jake and froze, her eyes rounding with recognition. Her face two shades paler, she stepped back carefully.
The sight of Eunice’s fear sparked a surge of protective anger in Rebecca, taking her by surprise. Damn. She’d thought she was prepared for this.
Obviously not. Telling herself she was rescuing the situation—not Jake—Rebecca started forward just as Jake turned her way. His expression stopped Rebecca in her tracks. He looked completely out of place. Completely unapproachable. A lone wolf barely tolerating the trappings of civilization.
An eternity passed as she bore the weight of his sharp scrutiny from across the now suffocatingly silent room. Rebecca would have sworn she actually felt his cold, dark gaze move from the top of her French twist to the tips of her navy pumps.
Sounding as if it were right next door instead of three blocks away, the daily noon wail of the firehouse siren pierced the unnatural silence. The familiar sound seemed to nudge everyone back to life. Rebecca swallowed hard and braced herself to meet Jake again, to speak with him for the first time in eight years.
The first time since the night he’d given her Katie.
Amid a rising tide of rustles and scandalized whispers, Jake seemed to recall why he’d come to the library. As he slowly wended his way across the crowded reading room to where Rebecca stood, neither of them smiling, a paralyzing thought struck her.
What if he still doesn’t want anything to do with us?
She beat back her own wave of fear, and focused on Jake. He was leaner now, harder and tougher-looking than she remembered. True, he’d always looked tough, but his toughness as a teenager had been a façade. One she’d seen through from the start. But this was different. This was no small town bad boy trying to make the best of his messed-up life alone. This was a grown man who’d spend most of his adult life in hell.
With a sinking sense of dread Rebecca realized she’d made a mistake. She was staring into the face of a stranger.
His voice was rougher, deeper than she remembered. Deep enough to send a shot of awareness down her spine. “Jake.”
“Been a long time.”
Rebecca knew exactly how long it had been. Counting Jake’s four-year stint in the army, with the exception of those few unforgettable hours they’d shared in Pittsburgh eight years ago, they’d been apart for almost twelve years.
Before that, they’d been the town outcasts together.
“You’re looking good,” he said quietly.
“Thank you. You look...fit.”
He arched a dark brow. “Considering I spent the last eight years locked up, you mean?”
Rebecca flushed. A nearby cough reminded her everyone within earshot would shamelessly repeat anything she or Jake said, first chance they got. A town like Warner had precious few secrets, and Jake obviously didn’t intend to play down his recent parole from prison.
She squared her shoulders and offered Jake her most professional smile. “Would you like a cup of coffee? My office is right behind the desk.”
“Your office?” He looked blank, then over his shoulder at the checkout desk, the open door that led to the tiny office behind it. The eavesdroppers’ expressions ranged from indignant to shocked. Frowning, Jake turned back to Rebecca. “You’re head librarian?”
She understood his confusion. She wasn’t even supposed to be in Warner, much less working at the library. The last time he’d seen her, she’d had much bigger plans. “For three years now.”
Jake stared at her a moment longer, then ran a slow, speculative gaze over her short-skirted navy summer suit and heels. Just as slowly, he smiled. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Rebecca’s knees nearly buckled. His smile was vintage Jake. Reckless, unrepentant, and sexier than black satin sheets. Her heartbeat soared, her palms broke into a sweat. With what she considered an amazing amount of grace, given the state of her nerves, she managed to smile back neutrally and avoid tripping over anything as she led Jake past their astonished audience, and into her office.
Once inside, she made a beeline for the coffee pot, then forced herself to take a deep breath before she handed Jake a steaming mug of coffee. “Black still okay?” Her hand only trembled a little.
His slow half-smile hovered between some private amusement and pleasant surprise. “You remembered.”
Rebecca looked into his gunmetal gray eyes and wondered how he thought she could forget. Then wondered if she was losing her mind. Jacob Donovan was no longer part of her life. By choice. His choice, and hers. She had to remember that.
“I was...floored to find out you were back in town,” Jake said, his voice surprisingly deep and uneven. “Things, ah, seemed to be going pretty well for you in Pittsburgh.”
Rebecca blinked at his oblique reference to the engagement that had never happened, the life she’d walked away from—because of him. She ignored the questions in his eyes and retrieved her own cup of coffee, now cold, from her desk. “I came back a few years after I graduated from Pitt. There was an opening at the library, and before I knew it.” She waved a hand in the direction of the big, airy room that lay beyond her open office door, to indicate the rest was history. Rebecca didn’t care to discuss the reasons she’d returned to Warner. Not yet. First, she needed to take this new Jake’s measure. She eyed him as she took a sip of coffee.
“I want to thank you for everything you did at the house,” he said.
“It was nothing.”
“Rebecca, the place never looked half that clean, even when my mother was alive. You must have spent weeks on it.”
She shrugged, uncomfortable with his gratitude. Her motives hadn’t been entirely altruistic. “I thought you might be tired when you got home.”
“How did you know I was coming?”
“I ran into your parole officer.” Jake stared. Rebecca couldn’t tell if he was more shocked or angry. “I was...checking on the house when he stopped by about a month ago. He said you were being paroled and had listed the house as your home address. Apparently, he was just checking things out.”
Jake swore softly, running a hand through his hair. He looked up at Rebecca. “I’m sorry you had to have anything to do with him.”
“He didn’t seem so bad.” Rebecca was more worried about what information the man might have relayed to Jake. Information Rebecca wasn’t ready to share. But Katie had run back to their apartment on the other side of the hedge that separated her back yard from Jake’s to get something for Rebecca just before the parole officer had stopped by—and stunned Rebecca with his news. Rebecca had pretended to ignore the pink and white bicycle her seven-year-old daughter had left lying in Jake’s front yard, and the parole officer had politely followed her lead. “Pretty decent, actually.”
Jake’s eyes hardened to flint. “Yeah, well, that’s because he doesn’t have the power to snatch your butt off the street and bury you so deep you won’t know if it’s day or night.” Abruptly he looked away, and in the small confines of her office looked...trapped. “Listen, I’ve got to go.”
Rebecca wasn’t surprised by Jake’s sudden need to escape. He’d never been one for revealing much of himself. She was surprised he’d let her see as much as he had.
“Sure,” she said, and suddenly recalled the last time she’d seen him. He’d just gotten out of the army, had bought himself a Harley and was filled with dreams of enjoying his newly acquired freedom. Freedom from the military, freedom from responsibility, and—simply by association—freedom from her. “I’m sure you have some settling in to do,” she said, ignoring the familiar stab of pain at the knowledge that he didn’t love her, and never had.
“Not really, since I don’t plan to stick around any longer than I have to.”
An unexpected wave of bitterness welled in her, startling her with its intensity. Damn it. She thought she’d dealt with all of that. Determinedly, she squashed it. “I see,” she said impassively, while her mind grappled with the reality of what he’d just said. Jake intended to leave Warner again, as soon as he could.
But as a parent, she couldn’t in good conscience tell him he was a father until she had some kind of idea as to how he’d take the news. If she sensed his reaction would in any way be harmful to Katie…
“Well, thank you for stopping by,” she offered politely, slipping back into her professional mode. “It was good seeing you again. Take care,” she added, nearly choking on the words. “In case I don’t see you before you leave.”
There. That sounded reasonable enough. Logical enough. And truly idiotic, to be honest about it. She hadn’t taken all that time and effort to clean the man’s house just so he could say thank you and be on his merry way.
But what could she do? Confront him here and now? Walk off the job and follow him out the door? Demand to know why he’d left her without a word eight years ago in the street if she had to? The town would really enjoy that.
She forced herself to turn away, reach for her reading glasses and slip them on. The rough draft of the budget proposal she’d been working on for the past two weeks was waiting.
She looked back to find Jake watching her closely. The distancing feel of her glasses helped her maintain her professional smile. “Yes? Was there something else you wanted?”
His eyes darkened for a moment in what Rebecca would have sworn was masculine frustration before he shook his head. “No. Not really. I was just wondering how you got to be so...so...”
She lifted her chin, positive she knew what was coming. Cold. Bitchy. “Got to be so what?”
“Beautiful.” Jake shook his head. “Never mind. Listen, Becca, would you like to have dinner tonight?”
She stared at him in stunned surprise. Jake was calling her beautiful and inviting her to...
He swore at her disbelieving response. “Forget I asked. Bad idea. I just wanted to thank you for cleaning the place up and having the power turned on. Last thing I expected when I got here was a light on in the window. Kinda spooked me, if you want to know the truth.”
“Oh.” She’d wondered if leaving the living room light on for him was over the top, but in the end had done it anyway.
“Thanks for leaving the casserole and pie, and…all that other stuff, too. I really appreciate it.”
By “all that other stuff” he probably meant the linens and soap she’d left in the bathroom, the staples in the kitchen, the note that had told him the casserole and pie were in the freezer. Had she really done all of that? It seemed unreal, now that he was actually standing here, thanking her for it. “Oh.”
“Like I said, bad idea.”
“No! I mean, no…not at all. Dinner would be great,” she added more sedately, her mind finally moving past “Oh” and racing to catch up. There wasn’t a place in town they could go that wouldn’t cause a stir, but she didn’t have time to worry about that. Jake wasn’t staying in Warner. This might be her only chance to get the answers from him she and Katie deserved.
She met his eyes, pure determination straightening her spine. “Just name the time and place.”
Jake actually blinked in surprise. “Okay…” he said slowly, almost warily. Like he knew something was up, but not quite what. “How about my house, six o’clock? Bacon cheeseburgers on the grill sound like a plan?”
He sounded the tiniest bit uncertain, like he wasn’t quite sure how to handle her any more. Good. The thought pleased her. Maybe it was time Jacob Donovan learned to expect more from her than blind adoration.
She smiled, and apparently jolted him all over again. “Perfect.”