Jake thoroughly enjoyed the way Jessie’s lips parted in shock and confusion, her brown eyes going wide. She was still pretty as a picture, and a purely masculine part of him was pleased to note the way she’d filled out over the years. The Jessica he’d known was skinny to the point of being unhealthy. She didn’t seem to have that same love-hate relationship with food anymore.
What else didn’t he know about the new Jessica?
He was more than proof that a person could change fundamentally over the course of a decade. The cocksure little shit he’d been in high school hadn’t been a bad kid, but he’d been living in the clouds, sure that nothing bad could touch him. He wasn’t more of an asshole than any other teenager, but he’d done some stupid shit because he was sure he was immortal.
And then the car accident changed everything. A split-second decision to look at his phone instead of the road. A wheel that hit the edge of the road the wrong way. So many little things that could have stopped it from being catastrophic, but they’d all tipped the wrong way.
He’d thought it’d ruined his life—taking his scholarship to college, his girlfriend, and his dreams of playing in the NFL all in one fell swoop.
Now he saw it for the blessing it was. He’d needed a reality check and, while his had been more traumatizing than most, it had put him on a new and better path. Still make more than enough money and without the repeated concussions and injuries fucking my shit up.
He gave her a charming grin, but she was having none of it.
Jessica shook her head hard enough to dislodge the bun thing she had going with her hair. “You have got to be joking with me. What the hell kind of psychopath hooks me up with my ex-boyfriend? And what is going on with you that you’re a freaking escort?”
“I wouldn’t start throwing stones, Jessie.” He decided right then and there that he wasn’t about to tell her that he was the owner and person responsible for pairing up his guys with the jobs. The opportunity to have her squirming for the next couple days was too good to ignore. “You’re the one who booked this date. No refunds, by the way.”
“I ought to tell your daddy what you’re up to.”
“Dad’s dead. Heart attack two years ago.” It still ached to say it aloud. His dad had been a fundamental part of his life from birth, and losing the steadying force was a blow it would take a whole lot longer than two years to bounce back from. It was his dad who had encouraged him with football, putting in the extra hours of practice when they realized Jake had a natural talent.
And it was his dad who’d kicked his ass out of his self-pitying spiral after he’d checked out of the hospital. If it wasn’t for that, he might have gone the way of addiction to those damn pain pills because they were the only thing that numbed his pain—at least for a little while.
He owed everything to his old man, and Jake missed the shit out of him.
“Oh.” Her face fell, the anger sliding out of the line of her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Jake. I didn’t know. He was a good guy.”
His dad had loved the shit out of Jessica, and it had broken his heart nearly as much as it’d broken Jake’s when she blew out of town. No use in telling her that, though. It would hurt her, and while he might want to mess with her a bit, he didn’t want to cause her pain. “He had a good life.” Too short, but Jake would have felt the same way if he lived to be ninety-nine.
“Jake…” She seemed to reconsider what she was about to say. “This was a mistake. I’m sorry about the confusion, and I’m sure your boss will still pay you, but I can’t do this.” She motioned between them.
“Plenty of time to decide. Do you have a bag?” He pointed to the baggage claim.
“What? Oh, no. I just have my carry-on.” She rattled the little suitcase by her feet.
That, more than anything else, set him back on his heels and drove the truth home. I don’t know Jessica Jackson anymore.
He should call the whole thing off. Hell, he shouldn’t have called it on to begin with.
It was too late for all of that, though.
Jake held up his keys. “At least let me give you a ride. You staying with your parents?”
“It looks like I don’t have a choice in the matter—either matter.” Her shoulders drooped half an inch.
He didn’t give her a chance to reconsider. He grabbed the handle of her carry-on and started for the exit. Her heels clicked against the tile as she followed him, the sound easy to pick out even with the rest of the background noise. It took a few minutes to get to his truck, and he didn’t say anything for the duration, letting her stew over the mess she was in—the mess he was responsible for.
Her parents obviously thought she was bringing a date and would have prepared for it, which meant sleeping arrangements. To have her show up with Jake in tow…
Fuck, he hadn’t thought about that.
Jennifer and Benjamin Jackson had always hated him. No, they’d despised him. Even when he was the star quarterback and pulled decent enough grades that the combo got him a full ride scholarship, they hadn’t thought he was good enough for their precious baby girl. He came from the wrong side of town and the wrong income bracket. If they thought he and Jessie were dating again, they’d lose their shit.
Too damn bad.
He’d decided on this course of action, and he’d do what it took to get Jessie to go along with it. Was it a dick move? Most definitely. But he wanted to get a little more time with her, for reasons he wasn’t ready to examine too closely.
Jake tucked her carry-on into the backseat of his truck and opened the passenger door for her. Jessie looked at him like he’d grown a second head, and then she laughed. “I forgot. Jeez, how could I forget? It’s like a different world in Texas.”
“It’s LA that’s the different world. Men there have forgotten how to be men.”
She lifted one perfect eyebrow. “And how you would know that, Jake Davis? You interested in men now?”
“If I was, it wouldn’t be any of your damn business, would it?” He regretted how harsh he sounded the second the words were out of his mouth, but by then it was too late.
Her face fell, the spark that had flickered to life extinguished. “You’re right. I’m sorry. That was out of line.”
Jake studied her as she climbed into the seat. For a second there, she sounded almost…broken. As if the fire that had always burned almost too brightly in her was gone. What the fuck did LA do to you, Jessie? He shut the door and walked around to the driver’s side, still puzzling over the change.
She barely let him get the engine started before she spoke. “I thought you’d still be in Catfish Creek.”
“I’m not.” He followed her gaze to the suitcase he’d packed. “I’m here in Dallas now.” He was staying in town for a week or two after the
reunion nonsense was finished to help his mom around her place. With his dad gone, the easy little fixes were often left untouched until they became big problems. He’d told her time and time again that he was more than happy to hire Catfish Creek’s resident handyman Richard to come check out anything that wasn’t working right, but she’d shot him down flat. Didn’t want anyone poking around her place and her business.
Jake snorted. His mama was as stubborn as the day was long.
Unfortunately for Jessie, that was a trait he’d inherited.
“You go into this reunion without someone to distract them, and the class of ’07 is going to eat you alive.”
Instead of snapping back at him, she pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I know.”
“Fuck, Jessie, I was joking.” He nudged her shoulder, needing to get a reaction out of her—some kind of reaction. “Lighten up. Half of them moved away like we did, and the other half are totally different than what you remember. They aren’t going to put up a cross in a field and crucify you on it because you were kind of a bitch in high school.”
“Kind of a bitch.” She shook her head. “That’s putting it mildly, don’t you think?”
Well, yeah, but he wasn’t about to admit it. Jessie had been cruel to a lot of people, even if he was the only one who knew why. It didn’t make it right, but even the most mild-tempered animal would lash out when injured and cornered—and no one would have the balls to call Jessie mild tempered. “What’s really holding you back?”
“I don’t get you.” She fiddled with her hair, pulling some pins out and doing something that had it looking like a professional job instead of a rat’s nest. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever you think you’re doing, you’re off the hook. I’ll survive. I’ve survived worse before and I probably will again. It’s no big deal.”