All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2015 Jacqueline Winters

Sweetly Scandalous

By Jacqueline Winters

Chapter 1

 

Five years later…

 

Allie peeled her sweaty cheek from the pages of her latest romance novel, Forbidden Pleasures. Norman’s leash sat piled beside her blanket in the grass. Eyes failing to open, her lusty dreams and comfortable blanket lulled her back to sleep. Last she remembered, she’d left Rance and Bianca in a stable with arms and legs in a tangle.

A whisk of air shot over her head, forcing her eyes to flutter open. Reality sank in; she’d fallen asleep during her dog’s naptime.

Norman!

Lifting from the quilted blanket, her hair slipped across her forehead, and she pushed it back. She caught sight of her black German Shepherd pawing at his Frisbee near the edge of the grass, where the dirt track began. A yawn escaping, Allie wondered how her dog had thrown his own toy.

Norman nosed the Frisbee off the grass enough to grip it with his teeth. He shot away from her, toward a stranger standing next to the goalpost on Willow Creek’s only football field.

Allie’s first instinct was panic. She pushed off the grass, prepared to leap in pursuit of Norman. By breed, her dog was protective, not always friendly with people he didn’t know. Before she got any farther than her knees, Norman dropped his red Frisbee at the man’s feet. A man she’d never seen.

A gorgeous man.

The Frisbee shot through the air, away from her this time. She rubbed her eyes. Allie glanced down at her book resting on her blanket, then back to the man’s nice rear. Had he jumped from the book’s pages?

As the stranger turned back toward her, Allie glimpsed a sleeveless shirt hugging defined muscles. Slipping off his sunglasses, his green eyes met hers. When he sent a sexy smile her way, Allie feared a melted puddle might be all Norman would find of his owner. Rance?

Am I dreaming? She hoped she was. She had to be.

Everything around her looked too real to be a dream, though. The green football field at the very edge of town stood outlined by a dirt track. A wall of trees to the west, the brick school building to the east.

“I hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” Why would I mind? Isn’t this the part where you ravish the damsel on the blanket? “I’m surprised he didn’t maul you.”

Norman dropped the Frisbee at the man’s feet again. Her dog tossed her a quick glance, reserving most of his focus for his new friend. Strange. He wasn’t one to warm to strangers quickly, and Norman never would without Allie introducing them first.

“I wasn’t too worried. Dogs love me.”

Allie sat up. I’m sure they do. Along with cats, zebras, and tiger sharks. Stretching out her legs, Allie tried sorting out if she was or wasn’t dreaming. And if she were about to be taken advantage of on this sunny Sunday morning, or not. “Well I’m glad he didn’t bite off a limb. The town’s a little short on doctors at the moment.”

His smile caused Allie’s stomach to fill with drunken butterflies. She had to remind herself that she didn’t know him. In a town as small as Willow Creek, that was enough reason to be suspicious.

She watched him dip to grab at the toy and launch the Frisbee again, muscles flexing with each motion. Allie suddenly felt thirsty. “I haven’t seen you around here before.” Reaching for her bottle of water, she took a swig.

“Just moved here.”

“How did you sneak in like that?” A hand snaked through dark brown hair, mesmerizing her for a second. She was imagining how that hand might roam over other places. On her body. Get a grip, Allie! She took another drink of water. She hadn’t heard rumors about anyone’s arrival lately. Someone moving to Willow Creek, population 783—now 784—should’ve spread through town faster than a prairie fire.

“Got in last night, actually.” He seemed to be waiting for the wind to aid his throw before he hurled the Frisbee again. Once Norman shot off after it, the stranger took a few steps closer to Allie’s blanket. “I’m Nick. Nick Bryant.”

“Hi, Nick.” Glancing at the novel face down on her blanket, Allie’s heart began pounding. She considered telling Nick her name was Bianca, like her book’s heroine. But in a town this small, it’d take no time at all for him to discover the lie. “I’m Allie.”

Norman trotted toward them, red Frisbee flapping in his jaw.

“Welcome to town,” said Allie in haste. His attention less on the dog’s toy, Nick eyed her romance novel. She jumped up and began stuffing her sweatshirt and water bottle into her tote bag, burying the book.

“Thanks.”

She expected Nick to give her dog  a simple pat on the head, but he knelt down and ran both hands over Norman’s ears. The book slipped from her hands. A grasshopper shot away from under it as it tumbled at her feet. “Norman, I need the Frisbee.”

“Here.” Nick reached out, Frisbee in hand. “I hope you don’t mind me playing with your dog. It’s just that you were sleeping, and he brought me the Frisbee. He’s pretty insistent.”

“Not at all,” said Allie. How did that bugger get off his leash? Kneeling down, she folded her blanket and shoved it into her tote. “Saves me the trouble.”

“Must’ve been a boring book to put you to sleep.”

Allie felt her cheeks redden, thankful her back was turned. She wasn’t about to admit her secret to a stranger. Even if he was so alluring it made her shaky. Not everyone knew that she read romance novels by the truckload. Only her best friend Kim had any clue that her bedroom closet was stuffed from floor to ceiling with them. “It’s actually a very good book.”

Nick laughed, his smile distracting her. Sexy. Why can’t he be Rance? So I could tackle him to the ground… Spotting the leash a few feet away on the grass, Allie hopped up to grab it.

“So good it put you in a coma? I think he jumped over you at least three times.”

“Really?” Allie hadn’t gotten much sleep last night. Her blog followers expected a book review today. And Norman hadn’t allowed her to sleep in. “I was up late.” She’d die before she’d admit she’d stayed up half the night following Rance and Bianca in a crazy whirlwind of sexual tension.

Discovering the book upside down on the grass, a mixture of relief and panic flowed through Allie. If he didn’t know the topic, he obviously hadn’t seen the cover. The one that featured a woman with a ripped bodice and a shirtless, chiseled man.

Now Allie felt the urge to run. She didn’t know this man. And no one was around to help, should things turn awkward. At eight-thirty on a Sunday morning, most of the town was several blocks away, packed into one of two churches.

And Norman had proved a useless guard dog.

Standing, Allie added, “We’ll get out of your hair. I’m sure you came out here to run?”

He nodded. “That’s the plan.”

She’d love to stay and watch this man run laps. And fantasize a little. But she needed to leave before he pried more about the book she still held onto.

“It was nice—” Norman rolled over in the grass in front of Nick, all fours shooting straight up in the air. So much for a quick getaway.

The lifting sun formed beads of sweat along her neck, warning Allie that another hot Nebraska day was coming. “Some guard dog,” she muttered. “We should really let you get in that run before the heat—”

“I’ve run in worse,” said Nick, wrestling with her dog. “Norman’s a great dog, by the way.”

Allie shot him a look. She hadn’t mentioned her dog’s name.

“It’s on his tag,” He read her mind.

Well, duh Allie!

Another question caught her off guard. “What’s your book about?”

“It’s a mystery,” she improvised, watching the steel bleachers in case they decided to move. “Really fascinating.”

The look Nick wore warned her that he’d be asking more, but she cut him off.

“Norman needs to get home. He’s a wimp without air conditioning after nine.” Allie held out the leash, still confused with the easy way Norman played with Nick. Like they were old buddies.

He scanned the empty track field. “I should get that run in.”

Allie clipped on Norman’s leash. She felt like running, sprinting home the few blocks. If she stayed another thirty seconds, she’d be acting like Bianca. And those acts weren’t appropriate to do with a stranger in public. “Have a nice run.”

“I’ll see you around?”

Allie let out a laugh. “In a town of less than 800 people, you’d have trouble avoiding me.” As dumb as the words felt leaving her mouth, Nick laughed.

His smile weakened her resolve to run home. Despite every instinct telling her to head as fast and as far away as she could. This Nick Bryant, a man who’d seemingly hopped right out of a romance novel, was surely trouble.

“See you later, then.” He took off in a jog around the dirt oval.

It’d been a long time since Allie felt such instant attraction to a man. And never for a stranger. Such attraction, she’d learned the hard way, was a one-way ticket to heartbreak. Had she not been reading a steamy scene before drifting into an unplanned nap, she’d surely have her heart rate under control.

“We need to work on your guard dog skills,” She chided Norman.

Two blocks later, she chanced a look back toward the track field. A blur of white disappeared behind the cover of the brick school building. “Too bad it wasn’t a dream.”

She passed the square house on the corner, the empty porch swing swaying with the morning breeze. Her neighbor, Ed Mullins, was either at church or downtown at the local café drinking coffee with the other elderly townsmen. In fact, they were probably talking about Nick right now. If anything happened in town, that group was the first to know.

Allie smiled, already plotting to bring over a beer to butter up Ed later. A sure way to hear the latest gossip about this Mr. Bryant.

Next door to Ed, Allie admired her cute little home with its blue-gray siding, crisp white shutters, and covered front porch. One of the several homes in Willow Creek that her mom owned, it felt like a cottage. It’d been the first home her mom had renovated after the accident that claimed Allie’s dad.

Digging her keys out of her tote, she automatically glanced over her shoulder before unlocking the front door. Most residents of Willow Creek didn’t bother locking their doors at all, especially just a for quick Sunday morning jaunt. But Allie felt safer for doing it, reassured that no unwanted visitors could be waiting in her living room.

Tote slipping from her shoulder, she threw the door open. She jumped, eliciting a squeal that frightened Norman. “Amanda!” The leash fell from her hand. Norman seized the opportunity to leap over the end table between the couch and recliner toward Allie’s younger sister.

Amanda hopped up off the couch, prepped for Norman’s overbearing greeting. “Hello to you too.”

“How did you get in?”

“I know where you keep the spare key, duh. You know that.”

“That’s for emergencies only.” Despite the six-year gap, Amanda stood an inch taller than Allie. A pair of skintight khaki capris accentuated her long legs.

Allie forced deep, calming breaths into her lungs. The spare key. Hidden in a secret compartment under a purposely loose porch board; she’d told Amanda about it. How Ed had built that contraption two years ago when he caught her picking out new hiding spots every couple of weeks.

“Chill.” Amanda fell into the middle of the couch. “I put it back, jeez. It’s not like anyone saw me.”

Allie doubted that Amanda had been as incognito as she claimed, but she dropped it. Travis was still in jail, not lurking in the shadows watching Amanda for the location of spare keys. She changed the subject. “You going to church or something?” But the clock on the wall told Allie church services were halfway done.

Amanda shook her head.

“You’re kind of dressed up.” Her sister wore a fashionable silky tank and a dressier pair of sandals. “And awake before noon.”

“I’m here to talk to you about something.”

Kicking off her shoes at the door, Allie plopped in the recliner. She hadn’t missed how her sister avoided her probing.

Falling back onto the couch, Amanda slid a can across the coffee table. “I got you a Dr. Pepper.”

“From my fridge.”

“And I carried it all the way to your living room for you. You’re welcome.” Amanda shoved her hands beneath her thighs. “I have a wonderful idea, Al.”

Cracking open the can, Allie raised an eyebrow. Those infamous words had preceded several disasters throughout their childhood. Many had gotten them both grounded. “Never a good sign.”
“C’mon, Al. Just hear me out.”

“Fine.”

“Let’s go to California this summer.”

Allie shook her head. “Vacations cost money, Mandy-bear.”

“Really? I totally thought they were free. And don’t call me that!” Her sister grabbed a pillow off the couch, preparing to launch it. Instead she set it her lap, dropping her elbows as anchors. “I’m serious, Al. How fun would that be? Me and my only sister walking along sandy beaches, visiting Hollywood Boulevard, stalking celebrities…”

The impractical idea was about to end. “And just how are you planning to pay for your half?” Amanda didn’t have a job, nor would her aspiration to sleep away half the summer allow for one. “You don’t think I’m paying your tab?”

“I’m working on it.” Amanda patted Norman’s head. “So will you think about it?”

“What’s really in California, Amanda?”

“You mean besides sunshine, hot shirtless guys, beaches, and celebrities?” Amanda hopped up off the couch. “What else do you want?”

How about my spare key left alone? “A good reason to spend that much money. Do you have any idea how expensive it is out there?”

But Amanda wasn’t having it, she darted for the front door. “Gotta run, Al. I’m heading to Norfolk.”

Allie bit back the urge to ask what was in Norfolk on a Sunday morning. She needed to finish those last fifty pages of her book so she could crank out a blog for her readers. Amanda didn’t know she even had a blog. “Don’t spend all your money.”

“This isn’t over, Allie. We’re taking a vacation whether you like it or not.”

Emptying her can of pop, Allie pushed out of her recliner. There are worse things to be threatened with.

Once Amanda left, Norman charged into the kitchen, claws clicking along the vinyl tiles. He lapped up water as she disconnected her laptop cord from its usual plug beside the buffet table.

A worn envelope kept beneath the laptop caught Allie’s eye every time she lifted her computer, no matter how much she tried to ignore it. Which was the purpose of its placement. He’d been locked up almost two years when the letter with Travis’ unmistakable scrawl had wormed its way into Allie’s mailbox from the Lincoln Correctional Facility.

But it drove the point home, creating a daily mantra: leave Willow Creek before Travis Meyers is out on parole.

In that moment of self-preservation, California didn’t seem like such an awful idea.

Carrying her romance novel and laptop out onto the shaded deck in her backyard, she tossed her book onto the patio table. A mere vacation would have to wait. Allie didn’t spend money on things like that. Since the day the letter arrived, she’d only spent money on the necessary things. She saved every other penny for her permanent departure from Willow Creek.

Eager to let reality slip away, Allie set her computer on an adjacent patio chair. She dropped into her cushioned porch swing, flipping to the steamy scene in the stable; the spot with her sweaty cheek mark on the page. Norman shot out his doggie door seconds later.

She’d have these last fifty pages read within the hour. Then came the fun part. Writing the blog. Sharing her love of romance novels with an online community of appreciative readers. Ones who didn’t belittle or chastise her for reading such books.

Allie had no delusions about romance novels and reality. Their lines didn’t cross. But she enjoyed slipping into fantasy worlds that promised dreamy, sexy heroes, and stubborn, strong heroines. And a few hundred easy pages of nail-biting sexual tension. Always a happy ending.

So unlike reality.