When the one you've always wanted . . .
At sixteen, Annabelle Morgan hoped her crush on Jake Wilder was just a passing phase. Now she's twenty-nine and nothing has changed—except Jake. The once-carefree Marine has come home with a giant chip on his shoulder. He insists a single mom like Annie deserves more than he can offer. Yet no matter how gruff his gorgeous exterior may be, Jake's toe-curling kisses convince her that this attraction is definitely mutual.
Becomes the one who wants you back . . .
Butting heads with feisty Annie was always a thrill. Add other body parts to the mix, and Jake is in serious trouble. He can't be a forever-and-family guy—and Annie's not a friends-with-benefits kind of woman. But love has a way of changing the best-laid plans, and surrender has never been so tempting . . .
The outcome is truly sweet.
Truly Sweet, Chapter 1
Two months, three surgeries, and a stint in a military rehab hospital later, Jake kicked up gravel and dust in his black Chevy truck with the radio blasting Montgomery Gentry’s “Hell Yeah.” He flew down the proverbial long and winding road past the ranches that dotted the landscape with wide-open meadows and grazing longhorn cattle. Past the landmarks of Sweet, Texas, and the memories of his youth, where he and his brothers had raised more than a little hell while having the time of their lives.
In no hurry to be anywhere in particular, he turned the truck onto Main Street and cruised past the old water tower, where any high-school kid worth their weight in rebellion went to drink beer. At the stop sign while he waited for a young mother and her three small children to scurry across the street, he looked over to Sweet Surprise, the thriving cupcake and ice-cream shop his former sister-in-law Fiona owned. He thought about stopping in to sample his favorite flavor, but this morning his stomach rumbled for more than a sugary treat. Today, his taste buds hankered for the gut-bomb meal he’d craved all those months he’d eaten sand sandwiches in Afghanistan. Not to mention the bland fare called hospital food while they’d had his leg hijacked in some kind of futuristic contraption.
Maybe a burger dripping with cheese wasn’t going to change the world or make him forget that the Marines had kicked him to the curb with what they’d politely termed an honorable discharge, but it would satisfy his hunger and momentarily get him away from the lovable hovercraft he called Mom.
His reentry into civilian life had taken place two days ago. During those forty-eight hours, he’d been overwhelmed by the surge of love and attention from family and friends. Not that he didn’t appreciate it. But from the moment he’d walked through the front door of Wilder Ranch, the calls and visitors had been nonstop. The casseroles and desserts had piled up on the kitchen table until it looked like either someone had died, or they were preparing for one of the famous Wilder Family BBQ Blowouts.
All the while, his mother had barely taken her eyes off him. Though his healing and progress had been good, he still walked with a cane, which apparently communicated a distress signal to the woman who’d given him life. Mama Bear kept such a close eye on him, he figured any minute she’d put bumper guards on all the hard-surfaced furniture like she had when he’d been a kid.
Just this morning, he’d needed a moment of solitude and had gone into the barn to brush down
Rocky, his favorite quarter horse. In two blinks, his mother rushed out to check on him. Jake had felt his throat tighten and a streak of panic grip his chest. While he appreciated the love and thoughtfulness, he was having a hard time adjusting to all the fuss.
He wasn’t broken, he just needed a break.
A moment to forget the bad and remember the good. To find his way back into the rhythm of life—one that had nothing to do with military routines, high-powered weapons, and the enemies of mankind. To find the joy and laughter that had once been the foundation of his life.
Minutes later, he rolled the truck to a stop in the gravel lot beside Bud’s Nothing Finer Diner. The exterior was little more than a yellow concrete box with a neon sign. But the interior overflowed with character and a patriotic red, white, and blue décor that shouted “Don’t Mess with Texas” from every corner. No question he’d be walking into a bird’s nest of gossip. Bud’s was the place the townsfolk gathered to mourn, celebrate, discuss local politics or who was sleeping with whom.
From his open window, the aroma of grilled burgers and fresh apple pie made his mouth water. When he opened the truck door, he realized that getting down from the damn thing might not be as easy as getting up. He hadn’t thought of that earlier when he’d climbed inside. His thigh muscles were healing in a way that made moving in one direction easy. The opposite direction, however, was like letting Freddy Krueger use him as a scratching post.
Thankful no one was in the parking lot to see him struggle, he maneuvered down to the ground, curled his fingers over the head of the cane, and controlled his uneven gait as he headed inside.
Bud’s might be Sweet’s breeding ground for chitchat, but he hadn’t come looking for gossip, sympathy, or acknowledgment.
He’d just come for a burger and a milk shake.
Before he could reach for the door handle, the door swung outward. Holding it open from the other side was Chester Banks, Sweet’s very own playboy octogenarian. The man had more nose than face these days, and his smile often displayed a set of false teeth that didn’t always stay put, but he gave Jake a respectful nod as Jake maneuvered into the diner with as little detection as possible.
“No need to thank me,” Chester said. “Been in about the same place as you. Got my scrawny ass shot up stormin’ that damn beach in World War II. Sure puts a hitch in yer giddyup, but it coulda been worse, I guess.”
“True that.” Jake had no idea the old guy had ever served in the military, let alone one of the toughest wars ever battled. Of course, as a soldier himself, he knew there were two kinds of veterans; those who loved to tell war stories, and those who wanted to bury the memories deep. As easy as it was to poke fun at Chester’s flirtatious ways, at least the old codger was still around to make it happen.
“Thanks just the same,” he said, as Chester gave him another nod and left the diner.
While Jake made his way to a booth, he got a two-finger salute from Bill McBride, a Vietnam vet, and a chin lift from Ray Calhoun, both of whom were sitting at a table, playing a game of checkers. At the big round table in the back, the Digging Divas Garden Club looked up in surprise. Instead of their usual exuberance, most just smiled as though they realized he might need some space. The tear sliding down Arlene Potter’s crinkly cheek could have been from allergies. Or it could have been because, even at her advanced age, Arlene loved a man in uniform. Not that he was wearing one. But that really didn’t matter to Arlene. She had a vivid imagination.
Jake tried to relax. He hadn’t known exactly what he’d be walking into here, but the silent acknowledgments worked just fine for him.
With his favorite booth vacant, he eased over to the middle of the red vinyl seat and stretched his leg. As he looked out the window at the passersby on their way through their daily routines, he took a breath to ease the ache slicing down his thigh. Moments later, a menu sailed onto the table in front of him, and a cup of ice water landed without a splash.
His head instantly came up.
Blue eyes focused, Annie Morgan stood there, weight balanced on one hip while she tapped the eraser of her pencil against the order pad.
In the past couple of years, the Wilder family had expanded with three of his brothers having said the I do’s. Thanks to his brother, Jackson, and her sister, Abby, he and Annie were now related by marriage. Before that, they’d been adversaries for as long as Jake could remember. Always outspoken and not a stranger to butting in where she didn’t belong, they’d gone head-to- head on many outlandish subjects. If he said the sky was blue, she’d argue it was turquoise. If he said a steak would take seven minutes to grill, she’d say five. If he said the Rangers would win by a home run, she’d bet they’d lose with a strikeout. It seemed like the girl just liked to argue. More often than not, he’d rise to the bait. Just as he always did with his brothers. One of these days, he’d learn to just sit back and smile.
Today probably wasn’t that day.
“Forget something?” Her eyes narrowed just slightly, and the silky blond ponytail hanging down her back swung to the side as she tilted her head in a way that suggested she was primed for a challenge.
“Not that I’m aware.”
“Uh-huh.” She tucked the stub of a standard yellow pencil behind her ear. “Guess you’ve been away too long to remember that most folks walk in here wearing a smile. Looks like you left yours at home.”
“Guess I’m just not much in the mood.”
“Seriously?” Her eyes narrowed a bit more, yet somehow a shower of silver sparks still managed to flash. “Why?”
He hated to use the word Duh, but it seemed so apropos.
“So . . .” Her shoulders lifted and dropped.
“What? You’re going to let that walking cane snuff out the eternally grinning smart-ass that lives inside you?”
Her comment hit its mark with stinging success.
Jake clenched his teeth and lowered his gaze to the laminated menu he’d been able to recite by heart since he’d been twelve. “Annabelle, how about you go away and give me a minute to look over the menu?”
“Because that would be a total waste of time, Jacob.”
His gaze jerked up again just as she shifted her weight to a position she probably intended as a show of obstinacy. Yet all it really managed to do was push her full breasts against that snug white Bud’s Diner T-shirt. Instinctively, his gaze dropped lower to the little black skirt hugging nicely rounded hips and the pair of tanned, shapely legs that ended with the sparkly blue sneakers on her feet. Liking what he saw, his gaze took that same slow ride back up her body.
When the hell had little Annie Morgan grown up and gotten so curvy?
“You can stare at that menu all day long,” she said through lips that were pink, plump, and glossy. Lips that looked like they needed to be kissed.
The unexpected and unwanted thought was like a splash of ice water in his face. Annie had been a pain in his backside for as long as he could remember. The last thing he should be doing was thinking about her damned mouth. Or her curvy body. To his dismay and against his commands, awareness tightened his body below the belt.
“In the end,” Annie continued, “you’re going to choose a double Diablo burger with extra peppers, a side of sweet-potato fries—extra crispy, and a chocolate-banana shake.”
Challenged, he leaned forward and met her glare. “How do you know what I want?”
“Because.” She planted her palm down on the table and leaned in till they were nearly nose to nose. “While you and your football buddies parked your cocky behinds in the booth by the door so all your minions could see you and come in to fawn all over you, some of us were slinging hash and cleaning up your mess after you left.” He leaned back. “I don’t remember your working here.”
“Why would you?” She shifted her weight
again, and he’d have to be dead not to notice that somewhere between his last visit home and now, Annie had become quite a knockout. “In those days, you could barely see beyond Jessica Holt’s big brown eyes and bodacious ta-tas. I, Annie of the flat-as-a- surfboard chest and metal mouth, deterred your hormonal-teenage-boy scrutiny.”
She certainly wasn’t flat-chested anymore.
He could argue about the hormonal part, but why bother. In high school, he’d been interested in three things; having fun, getting laid, and getting laid.
Some things were important enough to be counted twice.
“You make me sound like such a jackass.”
One corner of her luscious pink lips kicked upward. “You were.”
Yeah. He probably had been. And he wasn’t really sure he appreciated the reminder.
“So why are you working here now?” he asked, deftly changing the subject. “Didn’t you get enough slinging hash the first time around?”
“A girl’s got to earn a living somehow. Slinging hash is all I’ve ever really done. My hand-dipped chocolates haven’t exactly taken off like wildfire. And since Sweet’s street corners are already occupied with whiskey barrels and petunias, there isn’t any room for me to hang around waiting for customers.”
“Always the smart-ass,” he said.
“Takes one to know one.”
Before he could protest, she lifted her hand off the table and stepped back with a serious look.
“When you’re a single mom with a baby, you have to earn a living somewhere that will understand your child is your first priority. And that if they’re sick, you might not be able to make it to work that day. Bud’s a dad and a grandfather, so he understands. He also knows I’d never take his generosity for granted.”
Shit. How could he have gotten so tangled up in his own troubles that he’d forgotten Annie was a single mom now after having been abandoned by her baby’s slimeball father?
“How’s Max doing?”
“Growing like the cutest weed in the garden of life.” Pride burst across her pretty face. “He’s walking now. Gets into everything. Izzy’s trying to teach him to talk in sentences. But his favorite word is still Mamamamamama.”
He chuckled, and the sensation that pushed through his chest felt as warm as sunshine. Then just as quick, regret that he’d missed so much kicked in. “It seems like I was gone for an eternity. I can’t believe Max is walking. Reno and Charli have a baby. Jackson and Abby have one on the way. And Izzy’s already started kindergarten.”
“Your brother can’t believe it either. I think it’s hard for Jackson not seeing Izzy all the time because of the shared custody with Fiona. Even though Fiona’s an amazing mom and they have such a wonderful relationship. Mostly he complains that Izzy’s growing up so fast makes him feel old.”
Jake got that. He felt ancient, and he’d just barely turned thirty-one. “So I guess you’ll be at this get-together my mom is planning?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“I don’t suppose you could talk her out of it.”
Eyes wide, she exhaled a little puff of exasperation. “Are you kidding me?”
“Pardon me for being blunt, but why would you want to take that away from her?” She sighed, then glanced away when a customer called her name. With a nod in their direction, she brought her eyes back around to him, sharp and focused. “I know I can’t imagine what you went through over there. And I know when you guys come back you don’t always like to talk about it. But I was here with your mom when she got the call about what happened. I saw the absolute devastation and the fear on her face when she realized that not only had she lost her firstborn son and the husband she loved with all her heart, but that she’d also come very close to losing her baby boy. She’s so damned happy you made it home, there’s no way I’d try to talk her out of celebrating the fact that you’re alive.”
Rendered speechless for maybe the first time in his life, Jake lifted the glass of water to his mouth and sipped.
“You should be happy too, Jake.”
With a thud, he set his glass down on the table. For a long, awkward, silent moment, he watched the condensation slide down the side of the glass pitted by many trips through the dishwasher. When he composed himself, he looked up and pushed the menu in her direction.
He wasn’t happy. And the constant ache in his chest made him realize he might never be happy again.
“So . . .” Annie tossed him a know-it-all glare. “Double Diablo burger with extra peppers, a side of sweet-potato fries—extra crispy, and a chocolate-banana shake?”
“Sure.” Dammit. He hated to let her win.
One purple-polished fingernail dragged the menu across the table. Jake held his breath and willed her to leave. But, of course, this was Annie, and God knew the girl did things in her own damned way and in her own damned time.
“Well, even if you aren’t happy . . .” She snatched up the menu. “I’m really glad you made it back.”
Seeking a much-needed break, Annie tossed Jake’s menu on the stack of others near the cash register, gave Bud a finger-across-the-throat indication that she was momentarily frazzled, and headed toward the back door. The screen door slammed with a shotgun bang behind her as she leaned against the old yellow building and sucked in a calming lungful of warm air.
The relief of seeing Jake alive and back on home turf filled her heart with so much joy, it was hard to breathe. The moment he’d walked through the door, she’d wanted to reach out and touch him to make sure he was real and not just another one of her highly imaginative dreams. But touching Jake had never been a part of her reality. And that’s just one of the many things that sucked about worshipping from afar.
If she’d been a smoker, now would be the time she’d light one up to calm her nerves. Instead, she reached into the pocket of her apron, took out a watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher, unwrapped it, and popped it into her mouth. The sugary tartness rolled over her tongue, and she closed her eyes to ward off the memories that nipped at her heels.
Closing her eyes only made those memories more powerful.
Why men had a habit of either rewriting history or dismissing it altogether, Annie didn’t know. But it seemed Jake had fallen down the rabbit hole and forgotten how, once upon a time, they’d spent hours together having heart-to- heart discussions about everything from why girls spent so many hours in front of the mirror trying to perfect what God had given them to why guys had such a crazy need to be so rough-and-tumble. They’d discussed how difficult it had often been for him to keep up with his brothers when sometimes all he really wanted to do was go out and dig a garden or move some rocks to form a nice landscape. They’d talked about how she felt every time her parents left her and her sister alone to go party for days on end.
Back in the day, they’d been each other’s confidants. Then Jake had gone away to college and subsequently joined the Marines. And he’d forgotten about her. She couldn’t help feeling a little lost after he’d walked out of her life. Sure, she’d had her sister to talk to. But Jake had been closer to her own age—only two years older—and he’d become the objective voice she’d needed when her demons tried to drag her down. Her personal testosterone-packed voice of reason.
She’d trusted him.
When he was no longer there, she found, once again, she’d been left behind. Forgotten as though she didn’t matter. Her response had been to make a string of really bad decisions.
Now it appeared Jake had forgotten—or dismissed—all those times they’d sat on a stack of hay bales in the barn, or ridden out over Wilder Ranch on horseback while they deliberated deep and sometimes dark matters of the heart. Now, it seemed like all he could remember about her was . . . well, nothing really. And that hurt. No matter how hard she tried not to let it.
Still, he was alive.
Beside her, the screen door creaked open, and a very pregnant Paige Marshall stepped out and joined her in the shade. For a moment, her friend and coworker said nothing, just rubbed her hands over her ever-increasing belly.
“Jake’s hurting,” Paige said with a little sigh. “I know because he’s got that same haunted look in his eye that Aiden had when he came back from the war.”
“Did he ever tell you what happened over there?”
“A little. Not all.” Paige held out her hand. “Got another Jolly Rancher you can spare? This baby craves sweets, and I left my cinnamon bears at home.”
Annie plopped an apple-flavored candy into Paige’s hand and watched as her friend unwrapped it and stuck it in her mouth.
“Aiden thinks he’s protecting me by not telling me,” Paige explained. “But all he’s really doing is trying to keep the pain from rising to the surface. Sometimes that makes things worse. But I guess until they’re ready to tell the story, they’ll continue to try to find a way to cope.”
“Or realize they can’t?” Annie asked.
“Yeah. But Jake has his brothers. They’ve all been in his shoes. They’ve all suffered in some way, shape, or form. They all lost their big brother. They know the pain. So, hopefully they’ll, be able to get him to talk.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
Paige turned her shoulder to the wall and looked into Annie’s face. “Then you’ll be there to catch him when he falls.”
“Me?” A cynical laugh pushed through Annie’s lips as her heart stumbled. “I’d never be the one Jake would turn to if he needed someone. Not as a friend or anything else.” At least not anymore.
“But you want to be?”
She blew out a sigh. “Guess there’s no denying I’ve always had a crazy thing for him.”
“Crazy as in he’s so gorgeous you want to jump his bones? Or crazy as in you could see yourself spending the rest of your life with him?”
“Both. But he never really noticed me.” In that way. Annie shook her head. “Still doesn’t.”
“Have you ever told him how you feel?”
“That’s a lot of time to be thinking about a man and never letting him know.”
“Yep. A lonnnnng time.” Annie sighed and rested the back of her head against the side of the building. “But for some reason, whenever I get around him, my emotions tangle up my words, and we end up arguing. So I never opened that door. At first I didn’t because I didn’t want him to laugh at me. Then . . .” She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t ever want to hear him verify that he’d never feel the same about me.”
“I totally get that. I told Aiden how I felt right after he came back, and he basically threw my words in my face.”
“And yet, now you’re married and have a baby on the way.”
“Which wouldn’t have happened if I’d let the stubborn and clueless man have his own way.”
“I think about that. Jake almost died, and I never told him how I feel. Not that he’d care.”
“Don’t try to second-guess a Wilder, Annie. You won’t win. And I’m willing to give Jake a lot more credit. He’s a smart man.”
“Then why waste any more time? Why tempt fate?” Paige rubbed her hand over her belly again. “And just in case you were wondering, there’s a remedy for that arguing thing you two frequently do.”
“What’s that? Duct-tape my mouth?”
After Paige quit laughing, she cupped her hands over Annie’s shoulders. “No need for that. You just play it straight. Give him the business side of that mouth.”
“You just kiss the poor guy, Annie. If the words don’t come out right, you let him know how you feel in a different way.”
“That’s what worked for Aiden?”
“That and a little moonlight.”
“What if Jake’s really not interested?”
“Then you get him to change his mind.” Paige grinned. “You want proof that technique works?
Look no further than your own sister. Abby was in love with Jackson forever. For years, he refused to move her out of the friend zone. And even though for a while they went their own ways, she finally found a way to sneak past that stubborn, locked-down heart of his.” The hard candy clacked against Paige’s teeth.
“And look at Charli,” she continued. “Reno put up every barrier he could invent and then some to keep her away. But she still managed to get him to see reason. Although I suppose mentioning to him that she’d forgotten to put on panties while they were at the Wilder Barbecue Blowout might have helped a little.”
They both giggled at that.
“And if you want to talk about accomplishing the impossible, look at Allison. She had the challenge of turning Sweet’s most infamous playboy into a happily married man.”
“I think it was the other way around with Allison and Jesse. Seems to me he was the one who had to do all the sweet-talking.”
“An even better example of the endless possibilities.” Paige gave Annie’s shoulder a sympathetic pat. “Jake is a Wilder brother, Annie. He’s not going to make it easy. But if you really do have strong feelings for him, I guarantee he’ll be worth the trouble.”
There had been a time in Annie’s life when she’d have jumped through hoops, stuffed her bra with tissue, or learned the Victoria’s Secret angels slinky walk to get Jake’s attention. The fear of rejection and humiliation had always stopped her from going after what she’d wanted. Back in the day, he hadn’t even put her in the friend zone, at least not when they’d been out in public. In private, he treated her completely different than he did in front of his family and friends. Those private moments they shared were few and far between. But they were precious. And she was pretty sure they meant a whole lot more to her than they ever did him.
Once he’d enlisted in the Marines, she knew he’d never come back and see her any different. He’d be too worldly. To him, she’d always be Annie Morgan, royal pain in the backside. She’d never be, Annie, the love of his life. So she’d moved on and away—almost two thousand miles—to try to find a life that would fill her soul with all the love and emotion she craved. Unfortunately, all she’d found was a low-paying job, loneliness, and heartache.
So much for grand ideas.
In Seattle, she thought she’d found love—her very own Prince Charming. Doug had been a hot musician with plenty of edge to keep him interesting. His music had been reflective and romantic. He’d had dark curly hair and seductive eyes like Jim Morrison from The Doors.
It had taken her almost two long years after Doug had moved into her apartment to realize he’d been too focused on his career to pay her much mind. On the other hand, for him she’d been a passionate supporter of his music. A financial support so he could focus on his career. And doormat for him to wipe his feet on when he learned she was pregnant with his child.
Beneath Doug’s stimulating rock-and-roll exterior, he hadn’t been charming at all. What she’d really found beneath all that hair and songwriting genius was a toad who proved there was no room in his life for her or their child.
As Paige opened the screen door for them to go back inside the diner, Annie admitted she’d made plenty of mistakes in her life. Having her little boy wasn’t one of them. But never letting Jake Wilder know how much she really cared might have been her most monumental.
Times had changed.
She was older, wiser, and she’d learned to never back down from what meant the most.
Jake meant something to her.
He always had.
He was far from perfect although he was perfect to look at. But she knew that deep down, beneath the shell of that gorgeous exterior; he was a man with heart, honor, and loyalty. He’d been raised to respect family and community. And she knew that just like his brothers, when he fell in love, he’d be a forever kind of guy.
The question now was . . . could he ever fall in love with her?
Maybe Paige was right. Maybe it was time to step up and find out. Wondering wouldn’t ever give her an answer.
Determined, she smoothed her hands over her hair and down her skirt. At the window, she grabbed up Jake’s order and headed toward his booth. As professionally as possible, she set his Diablo burger, fries, and milk shake in front of him. He looked up at her, eyes dark, blue, and intense.
“If there’s anything else you want, anything at all, just let me know,” she said. Then she gave him a “Brace yourself, cowboy” smile and walked away.
When she glanced back, he was still looking.
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