She dressed in a long T-shirt Jasmine had given her then pulled on her baggy jeans.
She felt swallowed up, but then until her return to Barley, she’d always dressed unassumingly with the intention of drawing the least amount of attention as possible.
Squaring her shoulders, she headed down the stairs to say goodbye to Jasmine and Seth. Zane was supposed to drive her into town so she could pick up her stuff from the house and get her car from Tucker’s.
Leaving shouldn’t bother her so much. It wasn’t as if she had any attachment to this town. God, why should she? No one had ever gone out of their way to make her or Lucas feel welcome. Her brother had been right. She should have never come back. There was nothing here for her.
As she hit the bottom of the stairs, Seth met her, a grim expression on his face. There was a hint of concern, and she frowned as she looked up at him.
“J.T.’s here,” he said.
Her chest tightened, and no matter how badly she wanted to be calm and cool about it, she couldn’t disguise the jump of excitement. Apparently she harbored serious masochistic tendencies.
“He said he won’t leave until he sees you,” Seth continued.
Her shoulders sagged.
Seth put a gentle hand on her arm. “You don’t have to see him, Nikki. Zane and I can make him leave. He won’t like it, but it can be done.” She shook her head. “No. I don’t want to be the cause of problems between you.
You’ve been friends for too long.”
“I can always sic Jasmine on him,” he said with a grin.
She laughed, and it was the first time she’d smiled since before Zane had brought her out to the ranch.
“No, I’ll see him. I want to say goodbye.”
Seth nodded. “You know if you ever need anything, all you have to do is pick up the phone, okay?”
“Thanks,” she said in a soft voice. “I really appreciate all you, Jasmine and Zane have done. And I’m sorry for thinking you were such a bastard in the beginning.” Seth chuckled.
Drawing a fortifying breath, Nikki moved past Seth and toward the living room. J.T.
was there, pacing, his movements agitated. Zane was there too, and he looked at Nikki in question when he saw her. She nodded that she was okay, and Zane reluctantly left the room.
J.T. looked up and saw her, and she could swear relief flashed in his eyes.
“Nikki, thank God.”
He crossed the room and would have taken her in his arms, but she stepped back, putting her hands out to ward him off. It was hard enough to face him. No way she wanted him touching her.
“We need to talk, honey.”
He shook his head. “Not here. Let me take you home. Zane said he was running you to the house anyway. I can do that. We can talk in private, and if afterward you still don’t want anything to do with me then I’ll leave.” She stared suspiciously at him. “Promise?”
He held up two fingers. “Swear.”
She let out a little sigh. “All right. You can take me home. Let me just say goodbye to the others.”
“I’ll wait out in the truck,” he said.
After saying goodbye to Zane, Jasmine, Carmen and Seth, Nikki slid into J.T.’s truck and braced herself for the inevitable lecture. To her surprise, they drove back to town in silence. He didn’t even look her way. He kept his hand curled tight around the steering wheel, tension radiating from him in waves.
It reminded her of the way he’d driven her to his house that night her mother had flown the coop. He’d been so incredibly gentle with her but so angry at her mother. Rage had simmered from his big body, and he’d driven home much like he was doing now.
Face etched in stone, hands drawn so tight his knuckles were white.
Even with the tension so thick she could barely breathe, a smile softened her mouth.
That was the night she’d fallen in love with J.T.
Oh, it had started as nothing more than a girlish form of hero worship, but over time her feelings had grown. This time…this time she’d vowed to do something about the current of attraction that flowed between them.
And it had been a complete and utter disaster.
She sighed glumly and wondered how long it would take for J.T. to say his piece so she could nod and say whatever just so she could leave to lick her wounds in solitude.
They pulled into her drive, and he cut the engine. Not looking her way, he got out and came around to her side. She stepped from the truck, but he didn’t touch her as they walked to her front door.
Why was she dreading this so much? Maybe because saying goodbye to the only man she’d ever loved was tearing her heart right out of her chest?
Love sucked. No two ways about it. Maybe her mother had it right. Never give yourself to one man. Much too messy and painful. Play the field. Have it all. Protect yourself at all costs.
She walked into her living room and sank down on the couch. Whatever J.T. had to say, she hoped he’d make it quick. She was already steeling herself for the apology. The regret he’d show over what happened between them. And then the whole You’re young, you have your whole life ahead of you, you’ll find someone else speech.
Gee, she could hardly wait.
“Nikki, look at me,” he said softly.
He knelt in front of her and touched her cheek. That loving gesture was her undoing.
Despite her vow not to cry in front of him, not to let him know how much he’d hurt her, tears slipped down her cheeks.
He cupped her face in his big hands and kissed the tears away from both sides of her face. She flinched and yanked away from him. Was he just trying to kill her? Twist the knife a little deeper?
“What do you want, J.T.?”
“We need to talk about us,” he said. “I need to know why you waited, why you chose me. I need to know how you feel about me.”
She reared back and glared at him. Either he had to be the dumbest man on earth, or he was being unnecessarily cruel. Right now she was thinking it was the former.
“Oh no,” she said with a shake of her head. “I’ve laid it out, put myself on the line too much already. No way I’m giving you that kind of ammo. You have to be the stupidest man I’ve ever met if you have to ask such a dumb question anyway.” He laughed. The bastard actually laughed. Here she sat dying on the inside, and all he could do was laugh? She shoved angrily at him, but he refused to budge.
“Okay, I can take a hint. You’ve made all the moves, and yes, I’m a complete dumbass, Nikki. You knocked me for a loop. I honest to God didn’t know if I was coming or going when you were around.”
“That’s easy. You were going. Running,” she muttered.
His expression sobered. “Yeah, I know, honey. I’m sorry. More than you’ll ever know. But I need to know if you care about me or if this was just a game. I need to know if it was more than just sex and a good time.” She knew she couldn’t control the hurt that flashed in her eyes, and he saw it, because just as quickly, she saw regret in his as once again he managed to stick his foot right down his throat.
“I know it must have looked like I was some silly little nympho on the hunt for a cock. But you have to know that sex has never been a game for me. You know what my mother was,” she said softly. “I was a virgin, J.T. A twenty-two-year-old virgin. Like those are common these days?”
He cupped her cheek. “But why me, Nikki?”
Well hell, it didn’t really matter at this point. She’d lost any and all pride over this fool. In for a penny, in for a pound. Besides, she wouldn’t ever have to see him again.
“Because I love you,” she said defiantly. “I’ve loved you forever, J.T., and there was never anyone else for me. I wanted you to be the first…the only.” He opened his mouth to speak as his eyes widened in shock, but she cut him off.
“I know what you’re going to say. I’m too young. I don’t know what I want. I’m naïve and foolish. You can say all you want, but it doesn’t change the facts. I’m not naïve or stupid. I grew up a long damn time ago, J.T. But I’ll tell you this. I’m through waiting around on you to wise up and pry the corncob out of your ass. I’ll go be miserable someplace else.”
She was silenced by his lips sweeping over hers, demanding, hard but loving. So loving and tender. His hands shook as they framed her face.
”I had to be certain,” he said in a shaky voice. It was dark and husky, catching and stumbling over the words as he spoke. “I thought I was a fling, a diversion, someone to bide your time with until you moved on.”
“Yeah, well who says you aren’t,” she grumbled.
He laughed again, and then something dark and primitive shadowed his face. “I love you, Nikki. God knows I fought it tooth and nail, but damn if I don’t love you with every piece of my soul. I’m afraid to even go back and figure out how long I’ve loved you. I’m not sure I’d like the answer.”
She glanced skeptically at him. Her heart pounded a little harder, but she was too afraid to hope.
“Don’t look at me like that, honey. I’m so sorry I hurt you. I swear if you’ll give me a chance, I’ll never hurt you again. Okay, maybe I will, but I won’t mean to, and I’ll spend every day of my life making sure you know how much I love you.” Her eyes widened in wonder. “W-what are you saying, J.T.?”
“That you’re mine,” he said fiercely. “I want you with me always. I want you to marry me. Have my babies…eventually. Well, preferably before I turn forty, because Jesus, how else would I be able to keep up with them?”
“Marry you? You really want me to marry you? You love me?” He leaned in and kissed her again, his lips moving over hers, his tongue sweeping in, tasting her as she tasted him.
When he pulled away, she saw the truth in his eyes, and it nearly flattened her.
“Marry me, Nikki. Lucas can’t very well kill me if I’m his brother-in-law, right?” A broad smile attacked her face, pushing her lips upward, so high she could feel it in her cheeks.
“You really love me,” she said in wonder.
“I really do,” he said with a smile.
He got up from the floor and slid onto the couch next to her. He pulled her onto his lap and held her against his chest, stroking his hand up and down her arm and then her body.
“I’m glad I was your first. I just regret how it happened. On my desk. Jesus Christ, Nikki. You deserve better than that.”
The self-condemnation in his voice made the ache in her chest swell even further.
“You could make it up to me,” she murmured. “I have a perfectly good bed.” His grip tightened around her. She could feel the tension boiling in his veins. She smiled. He wanted her all right.
Then she felt herself swept into his arms as he charged toward her bedroom.
Nikki felt at a distinct disadvantage this time. As J.T. laid her tenderly on the bed, his eyes glowed with…love. God, love!
She felt more in control when she was doing her vamp act. Sexy and wanton like nothing in the world mattered to her. But this mattered. It mattered so much.
It irritated her that she felt so damn vulnerable all of a sudden. Just like the shy virgin she’d been a few days ago.
“What are you thinking?” J.T. asked gently as his fingers brushed across her face.
For a moment she considered slipping back into her she-sex act. But J.T. would see through her like a piece of plastic wrap.
“I’m nervous,” she managed to say without choking on the words.
His gaze softened. And then he kissed her. Warm, sweet, his lips moving delicately across hers, like the touch of a feather.
His heat bled into her skin, infusing her with confidence she badly needed.
He reared back on the bed long enough to tug his shirt off. It went sailing across the room, and then he shimmied out of his pants.
When her avid gaze fastened on his cock, she couldn’t help but lick her lips. He groaned aloud.
“You have to stop that, honey. I’m only a man. A Neanderthal, even. You can’t look at me like that and expect me to act civilized.” She grinned. “Screw civilized.”
“I want to take this nice and slow,” he said as he eased down over her body. He began working at the buttons on her oversized shirt. “I want to love you like you deserve to be loved. I want it to be good for you, sweetheart.” She raised her head up and kissed him. “It hasn’t been bad with you, J.T. It’s been wonderful. You’re the only one with the hang-ups over how I lost my virginity.”
He grimaced as he pulled her shirt apart. “Don’t remind me that I took you on my desk.”
She pried her arms out of her shirt, and then he went to work on her bra. He shoved it up over her br**sts and then lowered his mouth to one straining nipple.
A shiver worked down her spine as his wet tongue circled the puckered nub. He sucked lazily at it. Warmth bloomed in her pelvis. Her pu**y burned, and her cl*ttightened with need.
He lifted himself off her so he could peel her jeans down her legs. His fingers hooked into the lacy band of her underwear, and soon it was gone as well.
He settled back between her legs, his c**k brushing against her quivering flesh. She spread herself wider and squirmed impatiently.
But he wouldn’t be hurried.
His chest pressed against hers, but he was careful to keep his full weight from her even as she wanted him, all of him. His hands stroked through her hair, and he frowned as he undid her ponytail.
“You got rid of the pink.”
“Yeah. It was silly.”
He shook his head. “I liked it. It was you. Vibrant. Bright.”