Loving Cara CHAPTER One
— EARLY SUMMER —
“Cara, do you have a minute?” My boss, Kyle Reardon, pokes his head in my open classroom door and offers me a warm smile.
“Sure, what’s up?”
He saunters in and takes a long look around my empty classroom. The breeze from the open windows ruffles his hair, and he runs his hand through it as he leans against my desk. “Looks like you’re ready to get out of here for a few months.” He gazes down at me warmly. “Remember last week when you mentioned that you’d be up for a tutoring job this summer?” I roll back in my chair and look up at him. He’s handsome, with short copper hair and blue eyes, a nice build.
He’s also married with four children.
“I do,” I confirm.
“Well, I have one for you.”
“You know the King family, right? They run that big ranch just outside of town.”
“Of course, I grew up here, Kyle,” I reply dryly. In a town the size of Cunningham Falls, Montana, we pretty much all know each other, especially those of us who grew up here, just as our parents did, and their parents before them.
“Zack’s boy, Seth, needs a tutor this summer.”
“Zack’s back in town?” I ask, my eyebrows raised in surprise.
“I don’t think so.” Kyle shakes his head and shrugs. “I can’t tell you their business, small town or not. Seth is staying with Jeff and Nancy, and Josh is helping too.”
“Oh,” I mutter, surprised. “So for whom would I be working, exactly?”
“So proper,” Kyle teases me, and grins. “You’ll be working for Josh. You can go straight to his place on Monday morning. They’d like you to come Monday through Friday, about nine until noon.”
“Geez, he must need a lot of tutoring.”
The laughter leaves Kyle’s eyes and he sighs. “He’s a really smart kid, but he’s stubborn and has a bit of an attitude. I’m warning you, he’s not an easy kid to work with. He’s only been here for three months. He refuses to do the work or hand it in.”
“Does he start trouble?” I steeple my fingers in front of me, thinking.
“No, he just keeps to himself. Doesn’t say much to anyone.”
I’ll have to work with Josh King, which won’t be difficult. He was always nice to me in high school, smiles at me in passing when I see him around town. He and his brother are nice guys.
Rumor has it he’s a womanizer, but nice nonetheless.
And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had a crush on him for as long as I can remember.
But I can be professional and teach Josh’s nephew. I didn’t really want to paint my entire house this summer, anyway.
“Okay, I’ll give it a go.”
“Great, thanks, Cara.” Kyle stands and turns to leave my classroom. “Have a good summer!”
“You too!” I call after him as he goes whistling down the dark, deserted hallway.
Cool, I have a summer job.
* * *
I love my town. Like, wholeheartedly, never want to move away, love it. I don’t understand how Jillian, my best friend since kindergarten, can stand living so far away in California. Our town is small, only about six thousand full-time residents, but the population doubles in the peak of summer and the heart of winter with tourists here for skiing, hiking, swimming, and all the other fun outdoor activities that the brochures brag about.
We sit in a valley surrounded by tall mountains, and when it’s sunny, the sky is so big and blue it almost hurts the eyes.
I pull into the long gravel driveway off the highway just outside town and follow it past the large, white main house to the back of the property where Josh’s house sits. It’s not as big as the main house, but it’s still large, bigger than my house in town, and is surrounded by tall evergreen trees and long lines of white wooden fences.
I do not envy the poor sap who has to paint the fences every few years.
The butterflies I’ve kept at bay come back with a vengeance, fluttering in my belly as I come to a stop in front of his house. Josh and his brother are twins, and until Zack broke his nose in football their senior year, it was almost impossible to tell them apart. They’re both big guys, tall and broad shouldered. Zack always had a more intense look in his face, while Josh is more laid-back, quick to smile or tease—especially me, it seemed. In high school I was invisible to most people, having been a little too round, a lot too plain, but Josh noticed me.
He used to pull on my horrible curls as he’d walk past me at school, and of course because he was two years ahead of me, and a football star, I was crazy about him. My hair naturally falls in tight ringlets, but I’ve since straightened it, thank God.
I haven’t seen much of Josh over the years. Each of us went away to college, and since we’ve both returned, I may catch a glimpse of him at the grocery store or in a restaurant, but never long enough to talk to him. I wonder if the rumors of his womanizing are true.
They were in high school.
I just hope he hasn’t turned into one of those cowboys who wear tight Wrangler jeans and straw cowboy hats.
My lips twitch at the thought as I pull myself out of my compact Toyota. The front door swings open, and there he is, all six foot three of him. Only with great effort does my jaw not drop.
Jesus, we breed hot men in Montana.
Josh’s hair is dark, dark brown and he has chocolate-colored eyes to match. His olive skin has acquired a deep tan, and when he smiles, he has a dimple in his left cheek that can melt panties at twenty paces.
Dark stubble is on his chin this morning, and he flashes that cocky smile as he steps onto the porch. His jeans—Levi’s, not Wranglers—ride low on his hips, and a plain white T-shirt hugs his muscular chest and arms. I can’t help but wonder what he smells like.
Following directly behind Josh is a tall, blond woman I don’t recognize, laughing at something he must have said just before he sauntered through the door. They stop on the covered front porch long enough for him to smile sweetly down at her. He pulls his large hand down her arm and murmurs, “Have a good day, and good luck.”
“Thanks, Josh,” she responds, and bounces down the steps of the front porch, nods at me, and hops into her Jeep.
“Carolina Donovan,” Josh murmurs, and stuffs his hands in his pockets.
“You know I hate it when you call me Carolina.” I roll my eyes. “My parents should have been brought up on child-abuse charges for that name.”
Josh laughs and shakes his head. “It’s a beautiful name.” He frowns and rocks back on his heels. “You look great, Cara.”
“Uh, you’ve seen me around town over the years, Josh,” I remind him with a half smile. “I hope I didn’t interrupt anything?” I grimace inside, regretting the question immediately. Mom always said, never ask a question you don’t want the answer to.
He shrugs one shoulder and offers me that cocky grin. God, he’s such a charmer. “Nah, we were finished.”
I frown at him. What does that mean?
“So, where is Seth?” I ask, changing the subject.
Josh frowns in turn and looks toward the big house. “He should be on his way in a few minutes. I have to warn you, Cara, working with Seth may not be a day at the beach. He’s a good kid, but he’s having a rough time of it.” Josh rubs his hand over his face and sighs.
“Why is he here and not with his mom?”
“Because the bitch dropped him off here so she can be footloose and fancy-free. She’s filed for divorce. Good riddance. I wish she’d brought him to us years ago.”
“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. I never liked Kensie King. She was a bitch in high school, but she was pretty and popular, and I’m quite sure Zack never planned on knocking her up.
But none of that is Seth’s fault.
“What areas does he need help in?” I ask, and pull my tote bag out of the passenger seat. When I turn around, Josh’s eyes are on my ass and he’s chewing on his lower lip. I frown and stand up straight, self-conscious of my round behind.
“I’m sorry, what?” He shakes his head and narrows his eyes on my face.
“What areas does Seth need the most help in?”
“All of them. He failed every class this spring.”
“Every class?” I ask incredulously.
“Yeah. He’s a smart kid, I don’t know what his problem is.”
“I don’t need a tutor!” a young male voice calls out. I turn to see Seth riding a BMX bike from the big house down the driveway.
“Seth, don’t start.” Josh’s eyes narrow and he folds his arms over his chest. “Ms. Donovan is here to help. You will be nice.”
Seth rolls his eyes and hops off the bike, laying it on its side, and mirrors his uncle’s stance, arms crossed over his chest.
God, he looks just like his dad and his uncle. He could be their younger brother. He’s going to inherit their height and has the same dark hair, but his eyes are hazel.
He’s going to be a knockout someday.
And right now he’s scowling at me.
“Hi, Seth. I’m Cara.”
“What is it, Cara or Ms. Donovan?” he asks defiantly.
“Seth!” Josh begins, but I interrupt him. Seth isn’t the first difficult child I’ve come across.
“Since it’s summer, and I’m in your home, it’s Cara. But if you see me at school, it’s Ms. Donovan. Sound fair?”
Seth shrugs his slim shoulders and twists his lips as if he wants to say something smart but doesn’t dare in his uncle’s company.
“Where do you want us?” I ask Josh, who is still glaring at Seth. They’re clearly frustrated with each other.
“You can sit at the kitchen table. The house is empty during the day since I’m out working, so you shouldn’t be interrupted.” Josh motions for us to go in ahead of him, and as I walk past, he reaches out to pull my hair. “What happened to your curls?”
“I voted them off the island,” I reply dryly, then almost trip as he laughs, sending shivers down my spine.
He leans in and whispers, “I liked them.”
I shrug and follow Seth to the kitchen. “I didn’t.”
Josh’s home is spacious; the floor plan is open from the living area right inside the front door through to the eat-in kitchen with its maple cabinets the color of honey and smooth, light granite countertops. The windows are wide and I can see all over the property from inside the main room.
I immediately feel at home here, despite the obvious bachelor-pad feel to it. Large, brown leather couches face a floor-to-ceiling river-rock fireplace with a flat-screen TV mounted above it. Fishing, hunting, and men’s-health magazines are scattered on the coffee table, along with an empty coffee mug. Not a throw pillow or knickknack to be found anywhere.
Seth pulls a chair away from the table and plops down in it, resting his head on his folded arms.
“Seth, sit up.” Josh is exasperated and Seth just sinks deeper into his slouch.
“I think we’re good to go.” I grin at Josh but he scowls.
“Are you sure?”
“Yep, we’re good. You get to work and leave us be so we can too.”
I turn my back on him, dismissing him, and begin pulling worksheets, pens, and a book out of my bag.
“I’ll be working nearby today, so just call my cell if you need me.”
“Fine.” I wave him off, not looking over at him. I sense him still standing behind me. Finally I turn and raise an eyebrow. “You’re still here.”
He’s watching me carefully, leaning against the countertop, his rough hands tucked in his pockets. My eyes are drawn to his biceps, straining against the sleeves of his tee. “You got really pushy.”
“I’m a teacher. It’s either be pushy or die a long, slow death. Now go. We have work to do today.”
“You’ll have lunch with us before you go.” Josh pushes himself away from the counter and saunters to the front door, grabs an old, faded-green baseball cap, and settles it backward on his head. “I’m pushy too.”
He grins and that dimple winks at me before he leaves the house, shutting the door behind him.
Good God, I will not be able to focus if he doesn’t leave us be while I’m here.
“You ready to get to work?” I ask Seth, thumbing through my writing worksheets until I find the one I want.
“This is a waste of time,” he grumbles.
“Why do you say that?”
He shrugs again and buries his face in his arms.
“Well, I don’t consider it a waste of time. What’s your favorite subject?”
“I personally like math, but I always sucked at it.”
Seth shifts his head slightly and one eye peeks at me.
“Are you good at math?” I ask him.
“Not for me.” I sigh.
“But you’re a teacher.” Seth finally sits up and frowns at me.
“That doesn’t mean I’m good at everything. Teachers aren’t superhuman or anything.”
“I can do math.”
“Okay, let’s start there.”
Seth eyes me for a minute and then shrugs. It seems shrugging is his favorite form of communication.
“Are you really going to stay and have lunch?”
“Does that make you uncomfortable?” I pass him the math worksheet.
“No, I don’t care.” He picks up a pencil and starts marking the sheet, digging right in, and I grin.
“Does the food suck?”
“No, Gram packs us a lunch every day.”
“Well then, I’ll stay.”
His lips twitch, but he doesn’t smile—yet somehow I think I just won a big battle.
* * *
“So, looks like fried chicken and potato salad, homemade rolls, and fruit.” Josh pulls the last of the food out of the ice chest and passes Seth a Coke.
“Your mom goes all out.”
“She’s been making lunch for ranch hands for almost forty years. It’s habit.”
We’re sitting on Josh’s back patio. It’s partially covered, with a hanging swing on one side and a picnic table on the other and looks out over a large meadow where cattle are grazing.
“Do you get a lot of deer back here?” I ask.
He nods and swallows. “Usually in the evening and very early mornings. A moose walked through last week.”
“That was cool,” Seth murmurs, and Josh looks up in surprise.
Does Seth never talk to him?
“Yeah, it was,” Josh agrees softly.
“Do you fish?” Seth asks me as he takes a big bite out of a chicken breast, sending golden pieces of fried batter down the front of his shirt. His dark hair is a bit too long and falls over one eye. I grin at him. He’s adorable.
“No. I hate fishing.”
“How can you hate to fish?!” Seth exclaims, as if I’d just admitted to hating ice cream.
“It’s dirty.” I wrinkle my nose and Josh bursts out laughing.
“Everything here is dirty, sweetheart.” Josh shakes his head and nudges me lightly with his elbow.
He’s such a flirt!
“But you live in Montana!” Seth exclaims, examining me as if I were a science project, his chicken momentarily forgotten.
“I live in town, Seth. Always have. My dad loves to fish. I just never really got into it.” I shrug and take a bite of delicious homemade potato salad.
“But you like horses, right?” He shovels a heaping forkful of potato salad into his mouth.
“I’ve never ridden one.” I chuckle and shake my head as I watch him eat. “Are they starving you here, Seth? The way you’re eating, you’d think you haven’t seen food in days.”
Seth just blinks at me. He slowly smiles, but I cut him off before he can voice the idea I can see forming in that sharp brain of his.
“I’m not getting on a horse.”
“Why not?” Josh asks with a broad smile.
“Well . . .” I look back and forth between the two guys and then sigh when I can’t come up with a good reason not to. “I’m not dressed for riding.”
Josh’s gaze falls to my red sundress before his brown eyes find mine again. “Wear jeans tomorrow.”
“I’m not here to learn how to ride a horse, I’m here to teach Seth.”
“No reason that you can’t do both,” Josh replies with a grin, and winks at me, his dimple creasing his cheek, waking those butterflies in my stomach.
“Am I keeping you from work?” I change the subject and pop a piece of watermelon in my mouth, doing my best not to squirm in my chair.
“I have to go paint the fence,” Seth mutters, and swigs down the last of his Coke, making me laugh.
“What?” he asks.
“When I drove up to the house and saw the white fence, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t envy the person who has to paint this every couple of years.’?”
“It was either paint the fence or shovel the horse shit,” Seth replies matter-of-factly.
“Mouth!” Josh scowls, pinning Seth with a look, and Seth rolls his eyes.
“I think I’d take the fence too,” I agree, but Seth just shrugs his thin shoulders and frowns. “You look so much like your dad.” I shake my head and reach for another piece of watermelon before I realize that both Seth and Josh have gone still.
“I do not,” Seth whispers.
“Well, you look just like your uncle Josh, and Josh and Zack are twins, so . . .” I tilt my head to one side and watch Seth’s face tighten.
“I’m nothing like my dad,” he insists.
“Okay, I’m sorry.”
Seth pins me with a scowl, then grabs his trash and lets himself into the house to dump it, stalks through the house, and slams the front door behind him.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper again.
“It’s okay. He’s pissed at my brother. Won’t talk about it, just won’t have anything at all to do with him.” Josh purses his lips and sighs, still watching the path Seth took through the house. My eyes are glued to his lips and I’m mortified to realize that I want him to kiss me.
And not just a sweet thank-you-for-teaching-my-nephew kiss, but a long, slow kiss that lasts forever and makes me forget how to breathe. I want to sink my fingers into his thick, dark hair and feel his large, callused hands glide down my back as he pulls me against him.
I want him to touch me.
Josh begins to pack up the remains of our lunch and I take a deep breath and join him.
“When he smiled at you earlier? That’s the first time I’ve seen him smile since he’s been here.”
“Josh, I’m so sorry. He’s a great kid, and he’s really smart. I think we’ll have him back on track with his grades without a problem.”
“Thank you.” Josh replaces the lid on the fruit and throws it in the cooler. “You know, Kyle didn’t tell me who he was sending out here. I was surprised when I saw it was you.”
“I don’t know, but I’m glad you’re here. I wasn’t kidding before—you look fantastic.”
I blush and concentrate on rewrapping the chicken and placing it in the cooler.
“I’m not a hermit, Josh. Like I said before, you’ve seen me around.”
“In passing. Not like this. I like it.”
I stand up and cross my arms over my chest, then frown when he stands too and is more than a foot taller than me.
I’ve always been so damn short.
“Are you flirting with me?” I ask.
“Maybe.” He pushes the lid down on the ice chest, then moves around the table to stand right next to me, and I have to tilt my head way back to see his eyes. “You always were a little thing.”
“Little?! Oh my God.” I giggle and throw a hand over my mouth. “I’m just short. Hell, in high school I was f—”
“If you say fat, I will take you over my knee, Carolina. You were not fat then, you’re not fat now, and next to me, you are tiny.” He sets his mouth in a disapproving line and pulls on a lock of my hair. “Your pretty blond hair is soft.”
“Don’t f-flirt with me,” I stutter halfheartedly. Instead of moving away, I sway toward him, my heart racing.
“Why not?” He grins and continues to gently pull my hair between his thumb and forefinger, watching the strands as they fall out of his grasp.
“Because I’m your employee for the summer, and I like my job. It’s not like there are dozens of middle schools here in town that I can work at if I get fired.” I step away, pulling myself together, doing my best to remind myself of the blonde I saw leaving his house this morning and how I do not want to be another notch in Josh King’s bedpost. I open his sliding screen door and gather my tote bag and purse and turn to find him standing right behind me again. “I have to go.”
He sighs, props his hands on his hips, and looks as if he wants to say more, so I turn on my heel and walk briskly to the door.
“I’ll walk you out,” he mutters, and walks quickly to keep up with me. He holds his front door open for me, and I feel his hand on my lower back as he guides me to my little blue car.
He opens the door for me and settles my bags into the passenger seat.
“You’re very chivalrous,” I inform him dryly.
As I move to sit in the driver’s seat, he runs his hand down my bare arm, very much as he did with Blondie this morning, and smiles.
“Thanks for doing this, Cara. Don’t forget to wear jeans tomorrow.” With that he winks and shuts my door, stepping back to watch me drive away.
Looks like I’ll be wearing shorts tomorrow.