Preoccupied with his friend Rina’s problems and a lack of sleep the previous night, Jessie Monroe didn’t notice the car off to the side of the road until he had driven past it. A glance in his rearview mirror showed him the curvy butt and long legs of a female bent over and rummaging in the trunk of the car. With a quick three-point turn he pulled his truck up behind the disabled vehicle.
He grinned when he heard a voice yelling from the back of the car. “Dammit! How in the hell am I supposed to change a tire with no jack?” The trunk slammed shut and he could now see the front of the woman as she looked toward the sky and screamed, “Why me?”
Jessie ambled toward the blonde. “Hey there. Need some help?” He had to remind himself to breathe when he noticed her eyes, molten chocolate burning with emotion. Looking her up and down, he wondered where such a beauty came from.
“My eyes are up here, soldier,” she said with a smirk when his gaze stopped at her chest. “I am more than just my boobs.”
Jessie looked up. “Uh, sorry. Can I help you with that flat tire?” he asked, trying to keep his thoughts on the tire and off her curves and cleavage which seemed to have vapor locked his brain. Then it sunk in that she had called him soldier. “How did you know I was military?”
“You just have that look about you. What branch?” she asked, her gaze locked with his as she waited for him to answer.
“I was a Marine, so I’d appreciate if you didn’t call me soldier.”
“Oh, I didn’t know there was a difference. Thank you for your service. Now, my jack seems to be missing. Do you have one I can use?”
“I’ve got one in my truck. Why don’t you find some shade, and I’ll get that tire changed for you,” he said, looking her up and down again. He gave himself a mental head slap to quit ogling her or she was going to think he was a total perv.
She stepped around to the side of the car, and he had to remind himself to quit staring. Her cutoff shorts showed off the length of her legs, and he had to quickly turn and head to his truck for the jack before she saw the obvious effect she was having on him. He acted as if he were digging around in his truck to try and get rid of the wood he was sporting. His jeans weren’t loose enough to hide it.
After getting his libido under control, he grabbed the jack and the lug wrench and walked back to her car. He could feel her watching as he bent over to place the jack under the axle, his knee sending him a reminder of the injury he’d sustained a couple of days previously. Ignoring the pain he flexed his muscles as he loosened the lug nuts. Might as well give her a show.
“So, what brings you to Indiana?” he asked, turning to look at her when she didn’t answer right away.
She blushed at being caught staring at him as he worked. “Woodview is my hometown.”
He grinned as he heaved the spare tire out, giving his muscles a little extra flex now that he knew she was watching. “Are you back to stay?” he asked, moving the tire into position and tightening the lug nuts, hoping she would say yes.
He pulled a rag out of his pocket and wiped off his hands, giving her time to elaborate. When she didn’t continue he looked up and noticed the resignation in her eyes before she could hide it. He wondered what had driven her back to Woodview where she obviously didn’t want to be.
“You’re all set,” he said before he turned and walked back toward his truck, hoping she would stop him. He looked back when he heard her car door close. She pulled away without even a glance back at him. He settled into his truck, wondering why she didn’t seem to be happy to be home.
With a shake of his head he turned the truck around and continued his journey into town, his thoughts on the hurt and fear in her eyes, wanting to make it go away. His hands itched to feel her curves as he imagined her hair would smell like wildflowers and sunshine.
After a stop at the hardware store for paint, rollers, and brushes he stood with his hand on the door handle and stared at the sign for the jewelry store, something telling him he needed to go inside. “No, can’t be. That was just a story, wasn’t it?”
They’d just returned to the house after their birthday dinner at their favorite restaurant. He’d wondered what it would be like to have a birthday all to himself, being twins everything was celebrated together with his brother AJ. Not that he didn’t love his brother, they were two pieces of one whole.
Their father sat on the porch steps, motioning for them to join him. “You’re fourteen now and it’s time we talked about what it means to be a Monroe.” Pulling his wallet out of his pocket he opened it and removed a picture. “This is a picture of your mother and I when we first met. The first time I saw her I knew she was the one for me. The Monroe men fall fast, they fall hard, and they fall forever. You’ll know when you’ve met your forever girl.
His forever girl. How could it be her? He didn’t even know her name.
Ten minutes later he walked out of the store with a ring box in his pocket. It wasn’t the biggest ring in the store but to him it had sparkled the brightest, drawing his attention. “Holy shit, she’s the one.”
Dori pulled into Rina’s driveway, lost in thought about her encounter with the sexy marine. She was attracted to him, but it was too soon. It had only been a couple of days since she left her boyfriend Ty. She shuddered at the memory of his hands on her the last time they fought and rubbed the bruise on the inside of her wrist. Luckily, a friend of his had stopped by, and she had been able to slip away. Looking up, she spied the graffiti on the barn. “What the hell?” she said, slamming the car door. “Rina?” she yelled, hoping her friend was okay.
Rina walked out of the barn with Petey close on her heels. The dog ran to Dori, jumping up until she crouched down and gave him some scratches.
“Hi, Petey! How you doing?” she asked, looking up when she heard Rina approaching. She stood and gave Rina a hug, frowning at how thin she seemed. “Hey, girl. Surprise!”
“What are you doing here?” Rina asked. “Did Ty come with you?”
“No. I left him. I didn’t know where else to go, so I hopped in the car and headed here.”
Dori looked up when she heard the screech of the screen door, ready to run if Ty had made it here before her. She looked at AJ quizzically, “How did you get here before me? You were headed the other direction.” She looked at him closer and blushed. “Wait. You’re not him.”
“Him who?” AJ asked with a grin.
“Someone who looks an awful lot like you stopped and changed my flat tire for me.”
“That was my brother, Jessie. I’m impressed you can tell us apart. Most people can’t.”
She wondered why other people couldn’t tell them apart. To her, they didn’t look alike much at all.
Rina spoke up. “This is my friend Dori. Dori, this is AJ. His brother, Jessie, lives over in the Winter’s place.” Jealousy blossomed in her chest at the way AJ seemed to be looking at Dori. “Jessie and AJ have been helping me out with the shelter.” She turned her attention to AJ. “Dori and I went to high school together. She ran off with her boyfriend after graduation.”
Dori took advantage of the lull in the conversation. “I’ve been on the road for hours and really need to use the restroom. I’ll be right back,” she said as she ran into the house.
She was washing her hands when she heard the yelling.
“AJ? Where the hell are you?”
A piece of sandpaper in his hand, AJ stomped out of the other room, pulling down his dust mask. “What? I’m trying to get the drywall done in here,” he growled.
She closed the door and leaned back against it, her heart rate increasing as she gasped for breath. “It’s okay, they won’t hurt me,” she repeated over and over as she slid down until she was sitting on the floor her arms wrapped around her knees. She squeezed her eyes shut and willed her heartrate to return to normal as she counted the seconds as she tried to breathe normally.
Stifling a yawn, Jessie pulled the truck up to the barn, frowning at the graffiti painted on the wall. Why would someone want to do that to Rina? They needed to figure out who was trying to drive her off her grandfather’s farm. He would be defending her even if she wasn’t his best friend in Woodview.
Wondering where everyone had gotten to he walked around the house to find Rina sitting on the porch steps. She wiped at her cheeks before she looked up at him, he knew his twin had done something to make her cry.
“Where’s AJ?” he asked. “You’ve been crying. What did he do? Do you want me to go beat him up for you?” It upset him to see her cry, especially over his thick-headed brother.
She smiled at his cavalier words. “It’s nothing like that. I just gave AJ the perfect opportunity to kiss me, and he walked away again. I don’t understand your brother at all.”
She stomped over to the truck and grabbed a couple of paint cans and swung them out of the back of the vehicle. “Let’s get started with the paint. I really don’t want to look at the graffiti any longer.”
“Go ahead and get started. I need to talk to AJ for a minute.” He walked up the porch steps. “Sounds like I need to pound some sense into him,” he muttered to himself as he reached for the screen door. “AJ? Where the hell are you?”
A piece of sandpaper in his hand, AJ stomped out of the other room, pulling down his dust mask. “What? I’m trying to get the drywall done in here,” he growled.
“What’s got your panties in a twist?” Jessie asked. “I want to talk to you about Rina.” He sat on the sheet-covered sofa and threw his keys on the end table. “I thought I told you that Rina and I are not together. She told me she’s been trying to let you know she’s interested, but you keep ignoring her.” Why was his brother so oblivious to Rina?
“Yes, you did tell me. But did you tell her?” he inquired.
“Why do you keep asking me that? I told you I think of her as a little sister.”
AJ paced the length of the room before turning back.
“Would you just tell me why you’re making such a big deal about it?”
“I’ll tell you why,” AJ said through gritted teeth. “Because she loves you. There, I said it. You happy now?” he snarled. “I’m sure she’s only acting interested in me to make you jealous or something.”
AJ walked over to the window and stared out at Rina spreading primer over the graffiti on the barn. “She said she loves you. That first day, she looked up at me and said ‘Love you, Jessie’.”
“She’s said that to me, too, but she added that she loves me like a brother.” Jessie still didn't understand why this was bothering AJ so much. The only time they had an issue with a girl was the whole Sasha situation. “You know I don’t love her as anything other than a friend. Why is this bugging you?”
AJ looked over at Jessie. “Do you realize how many girls propositioned me in high school? There were a lot, and they all wanted you and settled for me, the ‘not as cool’ brother. They all eventually admitted they were only with me to get closer to you or that they were pretending I was you.” AJ grabbed Jessie’s keys off the end table and strode out the door without a word. He jumped in Jessie’s truck and took off.
The yelling stopped and then she heard a door slam. Pulling herself up off the floor she opened the door and peeked out into the hallway.
“Hey, beauty. What are you doing here?”
Startled by his voice, she put her arms up over her head to protect her face. “Geez, you scared me.” She rushed out of the room.
Dismayed by her reaction, he followed her into the kitchen and watched as she pulled a bottle of water out of the fridge. She looked at him and waved the water bottle in her hand. Grabbing one for him at his nod, she handed it to him before walking out to the front porch.
“Why did you react like you were expecting me to hit you,” he asked, wanting to punch someone for making her afraid. He remembered her saying she was moving back, but she only had one suitcase in the car with her. “Who are you running from?”
“My ex-boyfriend,” she said with a frown. “I don’t know why I came here. This is the first place he’ll look for me.” She wrapped her arms around herself as if to hold herself together. “Coming here was a stupid idea.” She sobbed.
He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder to show he understood what it was like to run from your demons, whether they're memories or people. Turning to face him, she wrapped her arms around him and let her tears flow.
“Well, hell,” he murmured, holding her closely. “It’s okay, beauty. I won’t let anything happen to you.” He didn’t even know her name, but he would lay down his life for her without hesitating. The thought of someone putting their hands on her made him clench his hands into fists in preparation for beating someone bloody. It was his duty to protect those weaker than himself but this was beyond his duty, this was his heart telling him to protect her at all costs. She was his forever and as such was precious to him.
Her sobs tapered off, and her breathing evened out. She lifted her head and looked at him, brushing at the wet spots on his shirt from her tears. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m sorry about your shirt.” A smile pulled at her tear-stained lips. “I do have a name, you know.”
“You do?” He smirked. “I haven’t heard it yet.”
“You must think I’m a complete ditz.” She brushed the tears off her face. “My name is Dori Graham.”
He gently wiped away a tear she missed from under her eye. “I don’t think that, Dori. You just had more important things on your mind,” he replied before kissing her on the forehead. With a grimace, he limped down the steps, his knee sending waves of pain up his leg.
“Why are you limping?”
"That’s a story for another time. Let’s just say it’s the reason I’m not a marine anymore and leave it at that for now.” He didn't like talking about his time in Afghanistan where he watched good men die from horrible wounds. “Rina is probably wondering where you are by now.” He held his hand out to help her navigate the stairs and gave her a hug before walking off toward the barn where the paint was waiting for him.
With a thumbs up to Rina Jessie poured paint and set up the ladder to start at the top of the barn. He whistled as he rolled paint onto the barn, obliterating the graffiti. There was something satisfying about covering something so ugly with clean, white paint.
Dori sauntered over and grabbed a roller and took up a position next to Rina and started painting.
“Hey, you missed a spot.”
He looked down at Rina and smirked. “Nope, you need to get your eyes checked. This paint job is perfect.” With a flick of his wrist he splattered paint on the top of her head.
“Wha… Jessie, I’ll get you for that.”
“Big talk coming from you little girl.” He laughed as she flipped him the bird.
The slam of the door of his truck pulled his attention from his banter with Rina. He watched his brother stalking toward her with a look of determination. Finally, maybe now those two would quit dancing around each other and admit there was an attraction.
AJ took the roller out of Rina’s hand and dropped it into the paint tray. Grabbing her hand, he pulled her around to the back of the barn.
With a frown Dori dropped her roller and turned as if to follow them around the corner.
“Don’t worry, he’s not going to hurt her. He’s just going to straighten out a little misunderstanding between the two of them. Just give them some privacy.”
“Okay. But if he hurts her…”
He grinned when Rina stumbled back around to the front of the building and picked up the roller she’d been using and stood there staring at it.
“Rina? You trying to paint the wall telepathically?” Jessie asked with a grin. “Looks like my brother does know what to do with a woman,” he said to Dori with a laugh. He continued to paint, whistling happily. When he spied AJ looking just as shell-shocked as Rina, he laughed again, glad he wasn’t the one walking around like a zombie. “Better you than me, Bro,” he muttered to himself as he rolled more paint onto the wall in front of him, ignoring the feelings that Dori had awakened in him and the jeweler’s box hidden in his truck.