“I should have known.”
Mckenzie rested her back against the rough bark of the tree as she leaned her head back on the trunk as well. A breeze blew the branches of the tree slowly back and forth. New growth had sprouted on the old tree this week as the warmness of spring had started to infuse the earth. It had been a warm one, almost too hot for the season. She scanned the blue sky. Not a cloud marred the beauty of the day.
“Bryan was dating around. I would have been okay with it. I mean we were only hanging out. But, he didn’t bother to tell me.” She blew out a breath, hugging herself tightly. “Jerk.”
It had been the perfect end to a perfectly awful week to go out to a movie with friends and see the object of your affections making out two rows ahead of you. Not that she’d been overly affected by him. He’d been a way to pass the time. But it still stung that she’d been the last to know he’d had three other women as the objects of his affection.
The tree rustled, almost as if it reacted to her words.
Hidden under the silver maple’s low lying branches, Mckenzie hunkered down, sitting on the ground. “Men should be put on an island somewhere. With each other. There, they can lie, cheat, and beat their chests like Tarzan.”
A branch swayed down in the wind as if it nodded in agreement with her.
She’d planted the tree so long ago. For some reason, being under its cover had always made her feel better. From humid summer nights spent camping out under it to her first kiss from Bobby Jenkins, who’d pined for her long after she’d lost a taste for him. She’d spent times laughing in its branches and crying about losing her dog and her grandmother. This was where she headed when she needed comfort. Always.
She laughed out loud, spurred on by her tree’s support. “They could put in a track for racing cars. And lots of mud to roll in with no washing machines. And tons of beer. That’d make ’em happy and keep them there. Castration Island…”
She continued on her roll, exposing all the follies and fallacies of men. Her anger at being duped, even from a man she didn’t see as a forever thing, burned her to her core.
Of course, most of the things that bothered her about the end of her relationship with Bryan weren’t the important ones. The passion she’d felt about all the men to date could be described as a low dial tone. Nothing and no one had rung her bell.
Maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a girlfriend. To any man. Bryan’s deception was the last straw in a plethora of failed relationships, driving home that maybe she wasn’t cut out to be with anyone. That the rest of her life might be spent with herself and a dozen cats. That was what had brought her to her “Let It Be Tree.” Not the loss of Bryan, but the concern as to what might never be.
She was so into her diatribe that it took two throat clearings before the noise registered. “Mom? I’m just here…” To visit her tree? That sounded hokey, even if she always came to the tree when she was upset or needed some time to think. The thought of being with her tree always drew her, no matter what her mood.
“Your parents aren’t here, Mac. But I’d be interested in hearing more about this Castration Island.”
She froze as the wicked voice penetrated her consciousness. The wicked familiar voice. “Jake? What the hell are you doing here?” Jake had been her neighbor for all of her childhood.
Once they’d graduated college, he’d moved away to another city. Or so he had according to the last time her Mom had filled her in about the goings on of the neighbors, who were her parents’ best friends. Warmth ringed her cheeks. He’d heard her rant on men, which she’d only made to her tree. Oh, well, screw it
. He shouldn’t have been eavesdropping.
Jake strolled into her line of vision, ducking a branch to stand in front of her. Same Jake as she remembered, with his dark hair always in need of a cut and his speculative brown eyes. Only, he seemed much bigger now. She assessed him. Quite a bit larger than she remembered. Where had those bulging biceps come from? Surely not his career as a…whatever he was. He must work out.
When had she seen him last? It had been several years at least. They’d never been close, usually fought in the way boys and girls do who live so close and were forced to spend time together because of proximity and parental friendship.
Her gaze fell upon his muscular physique. Jake wasn’t a boy anymore, nor was she a girl. For some reason, a shiver raced along her spine at that. She shook it off. This was Jake, for God’s sake.
He smirked. “Nice to see you, too, Mac.” No one besides her parents called her Mac anymore. “Your parents and mine went to dinner. To the city. In case you were wondering where they are.”
They were always spending time together, so that made sense. She hadn’t been thinking of seeing her parents when she’d driven out here. Only considered spending time in the familiar. “What are you doing back in town? You came all that way to doggie sit for the night?” Where was the shaggy brown horse that his family called a dog?
“I’ve been back for a week. I’m staying here until I find a place to live. Better question. What are you doing here? And still talking to that dumb tree, I see.”
Transported in time like she was twelve again, she glared at him. “It’s not a dumb tree. And I can come home whenever I want.” She almost added “nyah” but stopped herself. Jake had always brought out an argument in her. She stood up to find herself looking up at him. Had he always been this tall? Or had she never noticed before?
“I haven’t seen you out here.”
“You’ve only been home a week.” She folded her arms in front of her chest. “Why are you back anyway?”
“I’m moving home.”
“Didn’t like the bright lights and big city?” He’d never seemed the city boy type, and the look of him now was not some froufrou boy. He looked too large to be anywhere but in open spaces.
“As a matter of fact, no, I didn’t. Done with the interrogation? You always were a nosey little thing.” He took a step closer to her. “Should I let you get back to conversing with the leaves?”
Her face warmed again. The tree rustled behind her. Must be a squirrel in the branches
. “Dammit, I wasn’t…Jake, go blow an egg.”
He busted out laughing. His eyes twinkled in the sunlight. “Your insults haven’t gotten any better. I remember the time you told me to go drink the lake instead of jumping in.”
“I was six. And your looks haven’t improved either.” Untrue. She’d always called him a toothpick when they’d gotten into arguments in the past. Now, he couldn’t be called that. Not unless toothpicks had muscles rippling in places she didn’t know had them. He captivated her gaze. She blinked. This was Jake
. She wasn’t supposed to be thinking of him that way. Uggh
. What was wrong with her? Bryan’s betrayal must have hit her harder than she thought.
“Touché.” He grinned at her. In that grin, she saw the boy she’d sparred with. He’d never lose that boyishness. He probably wouldn’t even when he was an old man sitting in his rocking chair. And dammit, he’d probably still be baiting her to fight in the rocking chair next to him. “Not going to call me toothpick?”
“Don’t wanna.” And she didn’t want to tell him why. It would puff up his arrogant self way more than it needed to be. Jake had always needed to be taken down a few pegs, not be made more egotistical. How many girls had chased him home from school? Never her, though. Instead, she’d tossed rocks and acorns, along with verbal shots, whenever they’d walked home at the same time. He’d done the same to her.
“Your looks have.”
“What?” What was he talking about? Her mouth drew up. What insult would he toss her way now?
“Improved.” He moved closer to her, his body almost touching hers. Warmth radiated out from him, catching her like a magnet with its hold. Her traitorous body wanted to lean in closer to him. “You always were pretty. Now you’re drop-dead gorgeous.”
“Uh…umm…ehhh ” She wasn’t sure how to respond. She should be slightly insulted he’d said her looks had improved, but she kept getting hung up on “You always were pretty” and “Now, you’re drop-dead gorgeous” when she attempted a retort. Where had that come from? She tried to work up some old-fashioned go get’em grit to toss back in his face like she usually did, but couldn’t get out a word. This was so unlike her. Her heart pounded and a sudden warmth infused her stomach. It grew even warmer when Jake smiled.
His hand rose to clutch her chin and pull her mouth in for a kiss. His lips met hers in the sweetest of joinings. Her lips parted under his as he gently deepened the kiss. His tongue licked across her top lip, seeking access to her mouth to run and play with hers. He mastered her mouth, keeping it under his control, and pulled away after too short a time.
She didn’t want the kiss to end. Her heart pounded. Her breathing came erratically. It was all she could do to stop from hyperventilating. Where had all this come from?