An Apple Trail Novella 6
Jessie McBride barely survived the unexpected death of her loving parents. Forced to fend for herself with few people to depend on while raising her younger cousin, Jessie learned to be self-sufficient. She kept a few friends close and pushed the rest of the world away, along with that helpless, dependent girl she was once. Been there, done that, never again.
It works until Henry Green enters her life, with sentimental tales of his grandpa and family. Jessie is drawn in as Henry strives to take care of the man who raised him. But while Henry is putting things in place for his grandpa to retire, his well-intended controlling ways are smothering Jessie.
Can Henry’s invitation back to life and love tempt Jessie to drop the emotional wall, or will Henry give up on chasing the girl she once was?
Jessie stood on the front porch, two feet back from the loose board that had threatened to splinter last time she’d stepped on it. It was her invisible barrier and current protector. Or maybe in this case, that crumbling board was his protector.
Heart throbbing in her throat, anger coursing through her veins, she had to remain behind the step or else she might claw his eyes out.
Damn garden. She’d always imagined herself looking like a million bucks the next time she saw Quinn Flannigan. She’d have her makeup on and best looking pair of jeans to make him sorry for the way he’d treated her. Not that she was a stunning model by any means, but at least shaved legs and clean clothes making her feel beautiful would have been nice for this moment.
As Quinn drew closer, happy-go-lucky smile on his slender lips she’d like to make fat, little bounce in his step like he ruled the world, she rather wished she wasn’t staring at him at all. She’d just as soon as rot in hell than speak with this…this asshole.
She put her hand up, halting him on the path to her home. She would scrub every single one of those stone steps he stood on with bleach and for good measure, sanitize the air. It would be worth sparing her few cleaning supplies to remove all traces of his presence. “Get the hell off my property.”
“Jessie,” he cooed and the purr from the back of his throat did nothing to her.
Well, nothing pleasurable. It had her itching to step over that rotting board, that was for damn sure. But doing so would mean she would have to touch him. She nearly shuddered at the thought of that alone, but refused to give in. She wouldn’t let him see anything about her. “Get. Off. My. Property.”
The screen door at her back creaked. Wind from it swinging wide and then slamming closed with a hair-raising crack slapped against her back. Air collected in her lungs and held there while she hoped and prayed the door would not fall off the hinges from the rough treatment. Thankfully it held.
Her cousin, Tiffany, was at her side, rifle set against her shoulder, bullet being clicked into place and the supposed charming smile—though Jessie rather thought it smarmy—finally faltered on Quinn’s face.
Tiffany eyed down the new gun her husband had bought her a month ago. The gun her cousin had just learned to handle and shoot straight. Jessie would well imagine she had the sights targeted directly on Quinn’s balls, though from Jessie’s angle, she could see the safety was still on. Cruel to some, but perfectly fine with Jessie.
Tiffany rolled her head, cracking a single joint in her neck and reset her sights. “What do you know, Mike was right. This thing is useful after all.”
“Mike…Gable?” Quinn asked, his color paling to a satisfying shade of sickly white.
Everyone in these parts knew Mike was the local law. And everyone, including Quinn who hadn’t lived here in years, also knew Tiffany’s whims and decisions ran about as hot and cold as the weather in South Arkansas. You never really knew what you were gonna get, and if you weren’t happy with it, it’d change in an instant anyway.
Confidence curled like warm, soothing liquid through Jessie’s tight muscles. She knew one day she’d likely run into Quinn again. This moment just turned, well, awesome at the sight of him squirming his legs like he was trying not to shit his pants. “Yes. They’ve been married for six months.”
“Seven.” Tiffany corrected, one of those dreamy love boat smiles curved her lips and made Jessie’s heart squeeze in painful delight.
“Right. Seven.” Jessie’s middle was cramping, stomach contents rolling and churning her all-over-the-place emotions. Heartache. Pride. Fear. Confidence. It all twisted her lunch around in her belly, but as Quinn continued to back away, it was worth putting up with. Quinn had never been afraid of her and he knew damn good and well if she told Tiffany to put a bullet between his legs, Tiffany would do it without hesitation. “You’re trespassing. Leave.”
He didn’t leave. “I have a proposition for you.”
The cracking in her chest somehow shattered even further. She would not crumble before him. Would not. “Not a snowy chance in hell.”
The other man who had emerged from Quinn’s car had so far been leaning against the side of the vehicle all this time. As Quinn backed away, that man stepped forward. Jessie raised her chin higher, wanting this man gone too.
“Quinn.” His voice was strong, powerful and it offered no argument. “Get in the car.”
Quinn obeyed and a sliver of relief eased through Jessie. Though not much as the man moved closer. He looked nothing like Quinn. His dark hair was neatly cut short. Silver rimmed glasses sat on his nose. His build was slender and the way he carried himself was all very subtle, but she was no fool. His steps may be careful and slow, but one couldn’t be too different from the company you keep. Birds of a feather…and all that. “And you can leave too.”
“Ms. McBride. Please. Just a moment of your time is all I ask for.”
She shook her head. “No.”
His eyes behind his glasses softened and looked heavy. Lips parted and his proud shoulders drooped. He looked momentarily broken, as though a piece of him just chipped off and hit the ground. She shouldn’t care. She didn’t want to care. “I have an offer for you. Something I think we can both benefit from.”
She gestured toward the car with a tilt of her head. “What is he to you?”
He slipped his hands in his straight front, khaki pant pockets. “A man I don’t much care for first, an employee second, and third, my cousin.”
Jessie’s eyes narrowed, fearful he’d only listed Quinn in that order to earn her trust and confidence. It wouldn’t be the first time a smooth set of lines had been tossed at her. It would not however, sway her. Carefully spoken words hadn’t budged her in years, they weren’t going to start now.
The nose of Tiffany’s rifle that had begun to lower shot back up to a steady aim as the man stepped closer still.
Jessie wanted to rub the chill off her arms, but she wouldn’t. She knew it wasn’t from the brisk winter air, but instead from this man closing in on her space, invading her property and home. She wanted him gone. Now. “You keep poor company and even poorer employees. I asked you to leave.”
He stopped his walking, and a long breath slid out of him in a simple, quiet exhale of exhaustion. “Well, thing is, he belongs to my grandfather’s sister. And there’s not much I wouldn’t do for my grandpa.” His palms flashed up, shoulders shrugged and Jessie got the idea fairly clearly.
Also he mentioned the one thing to smack her in the gut and fizzle off a piece of her firm resolve. He mentioned family. His grandpa. And in those two things, he and Jessie agreed. There wasn’t too much she wouldn’t do for her dad, even with her daddy in the ground for nearly a decade now. “Get that piece of trash off my property and then we can talk.” Jessie spun on her heel and marched inside her home.
She leaned against the wall as the door swung closed. Breath was gone from her chest, vomit threatened, but she didn’t even want to let that out. Not even puke for Quinn—then again, that would surely clear the lump in her throat. The past churned and rolled. The memories of those months of empty blackness coated through her and left a chill in its wake. She ran, zig-zagging through the maze of the house, slapped her hands on the back door, and sent it flying off the hinges with a crack for the second time this year.
Just as she hit the railing, her stomach clenched and she heaved into the bushes as the whine of an engine rumbled down her drive.
“Jessie?” Tiffany called from somewhere in the house, her voice drawing closer as she continued calling Jessie’s name.
Jessie coughed the last of it out, wishing the blackness was as easy to be rid of. Even though the memories were receding, they were always there, lurking in the back of her mind, ready to take her again. “Out here.”
Tiffany rushed out, ponytail swinging as she glanced at the door in the yard, the mess and shook her head. “Bastard.”
“Agreed.” Jessie nodded.
Tiffany’s hands were on her hips and she stared in the house, toward the front. “If he had been alone, I think I would have shot him. Not like anybody would have missed him if he died.”
“True, not anyone here anyway, but he’s gone now.”
“And the other is coming back. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Jessie allowed Tiffany to guide her inside and déjà vu crumbled down around her. Back to a time when Jessie should have been taking care of an underage Tiffany just a year after putting both their parents in the ground. Instead she’d been in too much of a shock, then fog, to do anything but be led around for months.
She straightened and pulled her hand from Tiffany’s, refusing to become that helpless, lost person again. She’d crawled her way out of it and she would not allow the look of that damn Quinn Flenning send her back. She was Jessie McBride and whoever this man was would know it when he got back. “I need a shower and something pretty to wear.”
A smile fixed on Tiffany’s face. “I’ll find you something at home.”
Tiffany started out the back, heading next door but Jessie stopped her. “Get your hot rollers too.” Her palms rubbed against her thighs. “And your razor and—”
Tiffany laughed. “You just come with me. That’ll be ten times faster. Rebecca is home and between the three of us, we’ll have you dressed and back before he can even make it into town.”