Author: Lorelei James

Will. Her nickname. Most men in her employ called her Will, but it sounded different coming from Blake. Almost like a term of endearment.

Wishful thinking.

“But it’s fine if you don’t want to tell me.”

The man was so polite. She turned and rested her behind on the lip of the prep sink. “No, I’ll tell you. It’s sort of funny in a ‘the joke’s on me’ way. The Miss Firecracker Pageant is always held during the county fair prior to the Fourth of July celebrations.

“Last year, there was a shortage on contestants. So this bitchy girl Destiny, who’s been a pain in my rear my whole life, filled out the paperwork in my name and submitted it as a joke. The pageant director, a good friend of mother’s, called me two weeks before the pageant, beside herself that I planned to participate as a ‘surprise’ for my mother. She reminded me to pay my entry fee.”

“Jesus. That’s cold.”

“Yeah. I figured out what’d happened. I was embarrassed, planning to get even with Destiny—after I withdrew from the stupid competition—when my mother showed up at my house. With a beaded evening gown and a boatload of makeup. And hair gunk.” Willow focused on a bottle of tequila on the shelf beside Blake rather than his curious eyes. “It’s obvious I’m not—nor have I ever been—beauty queen material. I’m like…beyond a tomboy. I skipped my high school prom for a monster truck rally in Omaha. I graduated from Vo-Tech for cripesake. I wear steel-toed boots, not stilettos.

“Growing up I tagged after my dad on jobsites rather than hanging with Mom and learning to cook, sew, shop or do girly things. Clothes, hair, makeup—that whole fussy routine eludes me. In the morning I wash my face, brush my teeth and throw my hair in a ponytail. That’s my entire beauty regimen.”

“I’m guessing you clean up pretty good, Will.”

She shrugged off his compliment, even when it secretly pleased her. “Seeing my mom bursting with excitement about helping me do all the pageant stuff…I couldn’t back out. And because people laughed me off, I was even more determined to win.”

“And you did.”

“Yes, I did. The best part was Destiny’s absolute shock. Totally worth parading across the stage in a swimsuit and ankle-breaking heels.”

“What about your dad?”

“He was happy about the ‘no dating’ rule.”

“There’s a no dating rule?” Blake asked.

“Yep. This is an old-fashioned type of county contest that doesn’t feed into any of the larger pageants like Miss Nebraska. It’s more…wholesome, so the coordinators expect the winner to be a role model for the young girls in the area. And truthfully, the dating thing wasn’t an issue for me, since I haven’t dated in forever.” Willow frowned. “My dad warned me to expect the guys to razz me about the sash clashing with my toolbelt.”

“Toolbelt?” Blake’s look was quizzical. “What do you do for a living that requires you to wear a toolbelt?”

“I’m a carpenter.”

He grinned. Widely. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from his gorgeous dimples. “What?”

“We have something in common. I’ve been working off and on as a carpenter for the last few years.”

“As a hobby? Between bartending gigs?”

Immediately Blake stiffened up. “A hobby. Yeah. Something like that.”

Open mouth insert foot. And the foot appeared to be stuck in her big mouth because no apology poured out.

He tossed his towel on the bartop. “I’ll be in the back if you need me.” And he was gone.

She hadn’t meant for her question to sound bitchy and condescending. Blake hadn’t been judgmental toward her at all, when he had every right to be after her bad behavior, so she felt ten times worse.

Buck up, little camper, and apologize.

Five minutes after massacring the remaining fruit, she’d bolstered her nerve to approach him.

Willow tracked Blake to a storage room by the empty box he heaved out the doorway. She poked her head around the corner when she deemed it safe. “Blake?”


“I need—”

“Do we have customers?”

“No. But I wanted—”

“If you’re done with prep you can start hauling ice.”

“Okay. But I wanted to apologize for what I said.”

“Nothin’ to apologize for.” He ripped a cardboard box in half. With his bare hands.

Undeterred by his curt tone, Willow sidestepped the piles and stood next to him. “It came out all wrong. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me too. Forget it.”

“I can’t.”


“But I hate that you think I’m a jerk.” She paused. “If it’ll even things up, I’ll let you say something mean to me.”

His look held disbelief.

“No, I’m serious. How about…do they make toolbelts in your itty-bitty size? Or do you shop in the toy department?”

Blake laughed softly.

“Or, I know. Do you need a stepladder to see the drink orders on the bar?”

“Willow. Come on. Stop.”

She sidled closer. “I’m trying to be a bigger person—ha ha—and apologize to you. Can’t you just accept it?”

“Fine. I accept your apology.”

“If I tell you I’m sincerely interested in your background as a carpenter, will you ignore my earlier snotty response?”

He sighed. “Look. I’m between jobs right now and obviously I’m a little touchy about it. So I’d appreciate it if you’d drop it, okay?”


“Can I get back to work now?”

She didn’t budge.


Willow was too busy drooling over his bulging biceps to answer. Without thinking, she reached up and ran her hand from his left shoulder to the bend in his elbow. Yep. Hard as steel. Man. He could probably lift a car.

“What on earth are you doing?”

“I don’t know.” She ducked under his arm. When she gazed into his golden eyes, lust punched her in the gut. “Arms like yours oughta be featured in a fitness magazine.” Willow touched his right biceps and squeezed. “Ooh, flex for me.”

He did.

“Ooh. Do it again.” His muscles rippled beneath her palm.

“Now this side. No, do both sides at the same time.”

“If I let you feel me up, what are you gonna offer me in return, sunshine?”

Her gaze flicked to him. His face was there. Right there. “What do you want?”

“I’ll settle for this.” Blake dipped his head and kissed her.

It wasn’t a sweet, gentlemanly smooch. It was a no-holds-barred-I-want-you-right-freakin’-now explosion of desire. He shifted his mouth for a better angle, all hot, thrusting tongue contrasting with the smooth glide of his wet lips on hers.

She fell into him with complete abandon.

The way Blake kissed… Man, it felt as if his hands were teasing every inch of her, even when his mouth was the only place their bodies touched.

Blake eased back on the intoxicating kiss, proving his lazy exploration was as potent as his passion.

Willow’s head spun. She squeezed his biceps, intending to use his stupendous arms like her personal chin-up bar, when a voice outside the room shouted, “Hello? Is anyone here?”

Blake didn’t rip his mouth away and stagger back guiltily. He merely lifted his lips a fraction and whispered, “Just like I figured.”

“What?” she whispered back.

“One little taste of you ain’t gonna be enough for me.”


“Uh-huh. But it’ll keep until there’s a lock on the door and no chance we’ll be interrupted.”

Holy moly.

“We’ll finish this later.” He pushed back and yelled, “Have a seat. I’ll be right there.”

Footsteps faded. The bell clanked signaling they had more customers.

“You ready for this?”

She stared at his mouth and unconsciously licked her lips. “Umm. No.”

“I’m talking about your shift in the bar.”

“Oh.” She looked at him. “I’m not ready for that either.”

Those deep dimples appeared. “Good to know.” Blake grabbed a package of bar napkins and ambled out of the storeroom.

It was going to be one very long night. Willow put her hand to her stomach to quell her nerves and realized her hangover was almost completely gone.

Chapter Three

During a brief lull, Mandy leaned next to Willow at the waitress station. “You’re not doing too bad for your first time working in a bar.”

“Uh. Thanks.” Her feet hurt. She’d spent the last three hours running around, trying not to appear as frazzled as she felt. “Are you usually the only cocktail waitress?”

“No. That snot-nosed slacker Ginny called in sick the second Dave left town. She’s not sick unless it’s from too much sun up at the lake.”

“Won’t she get fired?”

“No. Dave won’t can her lazy ass since she’s his third cousin twice-removed or some damn thing. I’m glad you’re here helping out, although I’m sure you’d rather be doing something else.”

“This isn’t bad, actually. It beats roofing in the hundred-degree heat.” Willow admitted it was a nice change to work with a woman. Mandy was a riot, quick-witted, sarcastic, not the typical cynical cocktail waitress she’d expected.

“That’s right. You run Gregory Construction.”

“I run part of it.”

“Bet hammering on a roof had nothing on the hammering inside your noggin this morning.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” Willow paused. “So you probably saw the whole thing, huh?”