She was half turned toward the camera, the sun behind her left shoulder and giving her dark hair an angelic cast as it tangled around her head in a breeze he could almost feel. With the ocean at her back and the half smile on her face, she looked…happy. She’d been hotter than hell as a blonde. With her natural dark hair, she was downright stunning.
He spent one useless minute wondering if a boyfriend had taken the picture before Jake made himself set it aside. He should reject her request. She obviously didn’t know that he owned Diamond Dates or she wouldn’t have tried to use it to book a date. If she realized, she’d be humiliated, even if he was the only person who knew it happened.
While he considered his options, he scanned the info the search had brought up. A few unpaid parking tickets, an address that was right on the beach, and a job she’d worked at for five years. An insurance company. He pulled up a new tab and Googled the name, and then huffed out a laugh. He hadn’t realized that a person could insure their individual body parts. “Only in LA.”
What the fuck was he going to do about this?
Even as the thought crossed his mind, a plan formed. Jake shook his head, a rueful grin taking root. Apparently, he wasn’t as above petty revenge as he’d thought. He wouldn’t reject Jessica’s bid. He wouldn’t be sending one of his guys to meet her, either. Even after all this time, Jake couldn’t stand the thought of seeing her with someone else, even knowing it’d be fake.
No, he’d be the one waiting for Jessica when she got off that plane.
Well, then they’d see how things fell out.
Jessica had never been so happy to be seated at the back of the plane. Sitting there while the big metal death trap emptied out gave her plenty of time to shore up her courage. At least in theory. In reality she clutched her carry-on like a life raft and spent a good ten minutes debating whether she should call Cora or Brooklyn to talk her through this.
But she already knew what they’d say. Suck it up, princess.
It was only three days. No one at this reunion was going to try to kill her, and anything short of that wasn’t going to do permanent damage. Not to mention the fact she probably deserved both anger and harsh words.
You have a mighty high opinion of yourself, Jessica Jackson. Who’s to say anyone in Catfish Creek even remembers your name?
Filing off the plane at last was a relief and a torment, all at once. Before she could talk herself out of it—again—she fished her cell phone out of her purse and called her brother. The phone rang and rang, until she was sure that it would click over to voicemail, but he finally answered with a grumpy, “Don’t you dare tell me that you’re cancelling. Mom will send me to hunt your ass down, and I don’t have time for that shit.”
“Drew.” Her voice broke, so she took a deep breath and tried again. “Drew, I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Jess, I seriously don’t have time for your dramatics. You just landed. Suck it up and get your ass to Catfish Creek, and bring that date of yours with you. It’s not like you have to face down Jake and the horde of people you’ve crossed by yourself.” He must have realized how dick-like he sounded because his voice softened. “Mom is looking forward to seeing you. She has your room made up.”
Just like that, her already-questionable plan took a flying leap. “I’m not staying at home.”
Drew, the traitor, laughed. “Yeah, good luck with that. Y’all better hurry if you don’t want to miss dinner.”
Knowing her parents—and brother—when he said dinner, he meant interrogation. Jessica sighed, her shoulders drooping. “You’re lucky you’re the only brother I have.”
“Drive safe, you hear? See y’all soon.”
She hung up, not sure if she felt better or worse. Lying to her family didn’t make her happy, but they sure as hell wouldn’t lie for her if they knew she was bringing a fake date to the reunion. Drew would never let her live it down, and their father was a terrible gossip. He’d go down to the country club with his Friday night drinking buddies and by Saturday morning everyone in Catfish Creek would know.
No, it had to be this way.
She made a quick stop to the bathroom to clean herself up and fix her hair as best as she could. The messy bun had looked artful when she left, but now there was no saving it from being completely out of control. As least she’d gone for comfort and style with her maxi dress. The neckline plunged just low enough to show off a little cleavage, and the fabric was silky enough that it hadn’t wrinkled in travel.
Good as she was going to get.
Taking a fortifying breath that did nothing to fortify, she scrolled through her texts to find the number that had shown up last night. The words were short and to the point.
I’ll pick you up at the airport.
Nothing there to tell what kind of man she’d ended up with, and she’d been too cowardly to text back anything other than a generic agreement. Now there was nothing left to stall with. Jessica hitched her purse higher up on her shoulder and headed through security. The big red line tiled into the floor was a point of no return in so many ways. Why did I think this was a good idea?
Her mama didn’t raise a coward, though, so she lifted her chin and marched forward. No matter who this guy was, she’d faced down worse. She’d been worse. It couldn’t be more horrifying than the Miss Texas Teen USA pageant of 2005 where that little brat Misty Brennan cut holes into her dress and she didn’t realize it until she was out on stage and had her pink polka dot bra showing to the audience and God. Jessica had powered through that and walked out with second place, and she’d power through this, too.
She joined the people from multiple flights crowded around the baggage claim, her body practically vibrating from nerves. The scent of too many people in too little space assaulted her, but she was more focused on the faces she didn’t recognize from the plane. Too many, all filtered in with the travelers—there was no way she’d be able to pick him out of the crowd. Her date had her picture, so he’d have to be the one to approach. What if he doesn’t? What if this is just karma giving me one last kick in the teeth?
Oh, for God’s sake, stop being so dramatic.
A thrill shot down her spine, quickly eaten up by a dread so strong, she wished the ground would open and swallow her whole. She shot a look at the nearest exit, but if she took off now, she’d have to admit that she fled instead of turning and facing her Number One Nightmare.
Praying she was wrong, she turned slowly to face him. Nope. That was definitely Jake Davis, ex-quarterback, ex-boyfriend, just all around ex when it came to Jessica. And he was definitely way better in real life than he’d been in the pictures she’d seen while she was creeping on him. Her heart picked up and her body sparked to life in a way it hadn’t in far too long.
Something like ten years.
She was staring. She couldn’t stop. Jessica licked her lips, her breath stalling in her lungs when his green eyes met hers. His eyes had always been one of her favorite features—a true green that brightened depending on what he was wearing, framed with thick, dark lashes that had always made her jealous when she was a teenager. Going by those eyes, Jakes would be judged downright pretty.
At least until you saw the rest of his face. His hair had darkened over the years, closer to brown than blond, and his lantern jaw was covered with… “What the hell is that on your face?”
He blinked, the only outward sign that she’d surprised him. “Nice to see you too, Jessie.” He touched his scruff. “A lot’s changed since you left.”
Her gaze jumped to his right shoulder. There was no outward sign of the injury that had started the end of it all, but then, he was wearing a light-weight black T-shirt, so it wasn’t like it would show. Focus, Jessica. “What are you doing here? Are you picking up someo
ne for the reunion?” There you go. Nice and casual.
“You might say that.” He kept looking at her like he could see the inside of her head. Another new trick.
She glanced around, trying to be subtle. The baggage claim had started to clear out, and there weren’t any conveniently gorgeous men standing around alone. Where was her date? Now would be the perfect time for him to sweep in and do the job she’d hired him for. “I’m here with someone.”
She frowned. “What are you talking about?” On second thought, escaping Jake before she met her date was probably a better choice. She didn’t want to have to deal with meeting this new guy and trying to pretend they’d been dating forever. And how was she going to explain how she’d magically lost him between getting off the plane and the baggage claim.
Cora’s so-called perfect plan was teetering toward disaster.
“Your order from Diamond Dates.” He gave her a slow, knowing grin that she felt all the way to her toes, and offered his hand. “Jessica Jackson, I’m your date for the reunion.”