It felt like a big deal.
Jake backed off, watching her out of the corner of his eye as he left the airport and drove down the highway toward Catfish Creek. As the minutes ticked by, his initial plan to mess with Jessie took a hard right turn. It was one thing to screw with a spitfire who was as likely to take off his head as kiss him.
It was entirely enough to kick someone while they were down, and whatever else was true about Jessie these days, she was down.
You don’t owe her anything. You don’t have to save her.
She didn’t even bother to try to save you when you needed her most.
And yet… None of that shit mattered.
Jake was a firm believer that clinging to the past was a good way to let life pass you by. Still being pissed that Jessie dumped him ten years later was pathetic. He’d let that old hurt drive him into their current situation, but that didn’t mean he had to keep going with his original plan.
Instead, he would help her—whether she wanted his help or not.
Jessica couldn’t believe she’d gotten herself into this mess. Oh wait—yes, she could, because Cora and Brooklyn had helped her get in over her head. They were good like that, and she couldn’t even be mad, because she’d ultimately agreed to this of her own free will. Because she made poor life decisions.
She shot a look at Jake, tracing the side of his face with her gaze. Now that she’d had a little time to get used to the sight of the scruff, she could admit that it suited him. It gave him a rough look that had nothing to do with the hipster beards she saw everywhere she looked in LA.
No, Jake looked like he’d be at home chopping wood out in the forest somewhere while the snow fell softly down around him. Not that she’d ever seen snow in real life, but the image still fit.
She pressed her lips together and jerked her gaze forward. What was wrong with her? She liked fantasies as well as the next woman—and had a stack of romance novels to prove it—but fantasizing about Jake was strictly forbidden territory. For a number of reasons.
And he was supposed to be her date. She’d never doubted that karma or the universe required balance, but this was taking things too far. Even if he didn’t tell a single soul about it, he would know that she was pathetic and cowardly enough that she wouldn’t attend the reunion alone, and when she couldn’t dredge up a date for herself, she’d hired one.
Maybe hitting rock bottom five years ago was just a precursor to what she was going to go through this weekend.
Stop it. What’s going to happen will happen regardless of if you mentally flog yourself for the next three days. All you can do is keep your chin up and keep moving forward.
For the first time in years, she actually missed the little brat she’d been in high school. That girl hadn’t bothered to worry about reality not lining up with the picture in her head. If life didn’t feel like cooperating, she forced things to go her way.
Then again, she also hadn’t cared if people got in her way or were hurt in the process.
Jessica leaned her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes. At least she’d be home soon. Maybe she could talk her brother into driving her…anywhere. If she was lucky, maybe she could convince him to let her stay with him instead of their parents.
Lost cause for sure.
She opened her eyes, her heart sinking at the familiar sight of the house where she’d grown up. The white paint looked brand new and the shutters were white and green, but everything was mostly the same. The same wraparound porch that her mama had picked out of a magazine. The same big Southern style that managed to communicate both country home and money at the same time. The same carefully cultivated flower beds with bright yellow and white flowers—all to create the picture of perfection.
It was something her mama valued above all else. Perfection.
Nothing had changed. “It’s like stepping into a time warp.”
She finally twisted to look at Jake. His half-smile had her heart picking up despite herself. She swallowed hard. “What?”
“I figure you owe me one.”
Talk about the understatement of the century. She probably owed him more like a couple hundred. She’d never counted all the times she’d done him wrong, mostly because she was afraid of the answer.
Admitting that didn’t mean she liked where this was going. “Mm-hmm.”
“I’m calling it in. Right now.” His grin widened, his green eyes twinkling. “I’m going to be your fake boyfriend for the duration of your time here, just like you planned.”
What? She shot straight. “I didn’t plan on you.”
“And yet I’m the one you got.” Jake moved faster than he had any right to and looped an arm around her waist, pulling her across the bench seat until she was almost in his lap. “Look infatuated, love.”
She narrowed her eyes even as her skin heated. One man shouldn’t smell so freaking good—like he’d burst straight out of an Old Spice commercial. And the possessive way his hand spanned her hip put her in mind of times when he’d held her like that while they were doing other things. Her body was different now. She eyed his shoulders—his body was different—but it didn’t take much to slam her ten years into the past.
The feeling was a lie. They didn’t have anything left of the intimacy they’d shared the entire time they were dating. Jake was the longest relationship she ever had, and so she was reacting on a chemical level to him. End of story.
She tried to pull back, to put some much-needed distance between them, but he held her fast. “Jessie, look at me.”
She couldn’t look at him, because if she looked at him, she’d forget all the bad stuff between them and only remember how good it had felt to be in his arms. Then she’d do something unforgiveable, like try to kiss him, and he’d politely remind her that this was just pretend and… She couldn’t. Panic welled, giving her voice a hysterical edge. “If you don’t let me go right now, I’m going to punch you in those perfect teeth.”
He released her instantly, though he laughed. “Drew taught you a mean right hook.”
“Yes, he did. And Brooklyn taught me the rest.” She scooted a few inches back. “What the hell are you doing, Jake? You want revenge? Fine. Have it. I won’t pretend like I don’t deserve it. But this is just…cruel.” It hurt to remember how good things had been—more than she could have anticipated. It was so easy to focus on the way things ended, but there were six years of history between them as boyfriend and girlfriend—and another six of friendship. A decade of separation couldn’t erase that.
Jake touched her chin with a single finger, drawing her back to the present. “Maybe I just miss you.”
He chuckled. “Maybe. Don’t you worry your pretty head on the ‘why.’ See this through with me, or maybe someone will get a little too drunk down at The Grange and let it spill that Jessica Jackson had to hire a date for the reunion because she was too chickenshit to come back to Catfish Creek without a shield.”
“You wouldn’t.” She narrowed her eyes and slapped his hand away. He totally would. “God, you are such a bastard.”
“Not according to my mama.”
Guilt rose instantly, thick enough to choke her. She bit down on another apology. She’d liked Roy Davis a whole lot. He had always been kind to her, even when she could see how sad he was after she’d made her plans to leave town.
She stared at the front door of her parents’ house. I’m not ready to face them. So, she stalled. “How is your mama?”
“She’s fine. Stubborn, still gossiping up a storm with the church ladies whenever she gets a chance, and she still wins first place in the bake sale every year.” He went quiet for a beat. “She misses him. We all do. But life goes on.”
That was one truth no one
It struck her that maybe Jake had his own reasons for wanting to play along with her madness. She could end it right then and there and face whatever damage he was willing to deal out. It wasn’t like she hadn’t been the center of gossip before. She used to live for it. Now, the whole thing just made her tired. But if he had his own reasons for needing her as his date, then he was right—she owed him one. This was a relatively light sentence when all was said and done.
This is going to be the longest three days in history.
Jessica opened the door. “Fine.”
“Fine. You win. You can play my fake boyfriend.” She hopped out of the truck. “But not around my parents, okay?”