Book 5: Six Pack Ranch Series
Playing connect the dots was his newest obsession.
Joel Coleman took another drink, the tepid coffee left in the bottom of his cup barely registering. He was too fascinated with the smooth, exposed line of Victoria Hansol’s neck as she stood one table over taking down an order. With her shining brown hair pulled into a ponytail, his contemplation lingered on the freckle he wanted to nibble. Leading up to the one on her jawline. Right before he tasted the one hovering to the side of her luscious-looking mouth.
He could play this game all day if his estimate of how far her freckles extended was accurate.
Joel dragged his gaze off the woman he’d been ogling, and focused across the table. His brother’s grin was familiar enough. Joel saw pretty much the same face every time he glanced in a mirror. Dark hair, square jaw. As identical twins, he and Jesse had their share of mistaken-for-each-otherstories.
Jesse peeked over his shoulder, turning back with a laugh.
“Vicki Hansol? You’re not serious.” Jesse leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I mean, yeah, she’s hot. But—”
“Whoa, hold it.” Joel shook his head in denial. “Just because she’s built doesn’t mean I want to get involved with her. I’m admiring the view, that’s all.”
“View is rather tasty.” Jesse’s brow rose, and he hummed for a moment. “How come we’ve never gone out with her?”
Damn it. Joel’s stomach clenched. “We? Jesse, will you fucking stop that? There is no ‘we’ when it comes to dating, okay? There are girls you date, and girls I date.”
“Fine. No need to bite my head off.” Jesse flopped back in his seat, hands raised in mock surrender.
Joel fixed his twin with a firm glare until Jesse laughed and returned to his plate. This was not a matter Joel was willing to bend on. Not anymore. They’d gotten a reputation over the years, him and Jesse. Not as wild as the Hansol family, but that was probably because the oldest of their immediate Coleman kin were squeaky clean and respectable. As the youngest of the Six Pack clan—literally the youngest by all of thirty minutes after Jesse’s arrival—Joel was ready to move on.
He stared at Vicki’s legs as she stood at the far end of the café, topping up a customer’s coffee. He’d seen the woman around town for years. Gone to school with her, in fact, although he and Jesse had been a couple grades above her. He knew about the Hansol girls, or what the community gossiped about them. The rotating door on her oldest sister’s bedroom had been discussed during many a late-night drunken boast-session among the less-than-courteous males who’d taken Sarah up on her willingness to share.
The short skirt that was part of the waitress uniform swirled around Vicki’s limbs as she moved, and Joel fought to find something else to concentrate on. Because there was no way, no matter how attracted he was, no way was he going to get involved with one of the town’s bad girls.
This was the year he made some changes. He was done with college, back on the ranch, and ready to move forward. Didn’t mean he wasn’t going to have any fun, but he planned to watch his step a little more.
Which put Vicki Hansol on the drool over at a distance, but avoid list.
Suddenly, there she was, a polite smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes pasted on her lips. “Either of you boys want dessert?”
Jesse shook his head. “Not for me, thanks.”
He pulled out his cellphone to answer it, talking quietly toward the window.
Joel gazed up at Vicki, working hard to focus on her face and not the amazing rack pushing the front of her uniform. “You bake today? Because, frankly, no one else here can beat your pies.”
Her smile came alive, brightening her entire face and making her brown eyes sparkle. “Made a dozen this morning. You want cherry or lemon meringue?”
Something inside twisted. Her obvious pleasure at the simple bit of praise struck him as odd. As if she didn’t receive many compliments. “A piece of each, please.”
Vicki nodded, reaching for the empty plates in front of them before retreating without a word, her skirt swaying over the rounds of her ass as she vanished into the back of the café.
Jesse hung up and pushed his phone into a pocket. “When you’re done lunch, Dad says to meet him at the seed store. He’s going to order for next year. Wants your opinion on some new strains.”
“No problem. Are you finishing the south fields this afternoon?”
Jesse wrinkled his nose. “Probably take all day tomorrow as well to get done. Blake took a break to hit some prenatal thing with Jaxi. Can’t fault our big bro for taking time off to do his family duty, but there’s more to finish than possible in one run.”
Joel nodded. “He should have said something earlier. I can give you and Blake a hand in the morning if the third tractor is running.”
“That would be great. Hey—did I tell you? We got an invite to a party in Red Deer this weekend. You want to head out Friday night or Saturday?”
Neither. But not for any reason Joel wanted to explain. “Whose place?”
“Some friends of friends of Travis. Boats, barbecues and bikinis.”
“Bikinis?” Joel laughed out loud. “It’s the first week of October. Are they crazy?”
Jesse shrugged. “Forecast is for clear skies. If Indian summer hangs on for another couple days, it’ll be fun. I already said we’d be there, so if you pick up the beer I’ll swing the food.”
Typical. “Of course, I get the booze, and you’ll sweet-talk someone into making grub for you. Jaxi? Ma?”
Jesse looked offended at the suggestion. “I am capable of pulling together a couple dishes for a potluck.”
“You’re going to bring cheese buns and pepperoni sticks, and call them cowboy pizzas.” Joel thought back over all the weird things his brother had done to avoid cooking. “Or maybe hit the bulk aisle and nab premade chicken wings and frozen ranch fries.”
Jesse grinned. “In the cooler in the back of my truck already. Why switch out a winning combination?”
“You’re such an ass.”
His twin rose to his feet and checked his watch. “I’ll see you in a bit, right?”
“I’ll be there after I finish up with Dad.” Joel tried his own subtle prodding. “Of course if you completed the repairs to the corral fence before I got back, I wouldn’t be upset.”
“Ha. I think I might get distracted before hitting that part of the work list.” Jesse winked and waved, heading out the door with nods to the locals.
Joel leaned against the rough fabric of the seat cover, easing his legs under the table as his twin drove off. While he liked his growing independence, there was something a touch weird about it. He and Jesse had been into every sort of trouble over the years, but always together. At school, in the fields. Where one was, the other was never far behind. Getting themselves into situations, or talking themselves out of it.
Joel swirled the liquid in his cup, trying to ignore the internal grumble reminding him it was usually Jesse who got them into mischief, leaving it his responsibility to get them out.
Even something simple like the party this weekend. Last place on earth he wanted to be. Friends of friends…
Screw it. Nope.
He wasn’t interested, and he’d make that clear when he saw Jesse later. Maybe it had been a long summer or something, but he was tired of the nearly forced good times they’d been having weekend after weekend. Joel didn’t want another wild party. He wasn’t ready to sit at home and do nothing, but a little time with local friends and family would be a nice change of pace.
Even the smallest of scenery changes was enough for a while. Like stopping at the café for a bite to eat. Bachelor-pad cooking got old real fast, although he was better than Jesse. The café was a soothing place to fill his belly and take a quiet break from rattling his bones on the ranch equipment. He glanced around contentedly, the familiar setting part of his life over the years. Plates of fries at noon during school, the occasional date he’d brought there.
The place wasn’t packed, and the diners were spaced far enough apart that low-spoken words weren’t usually overheard. Not like the ruckus three tables over was making, with loud laughter ringing out from the four men in suits. Business lunch or something.
Vicki stepped from the kitchen area, nudging open the swinging door with her hip, and Joel dragged his gaze up to her face as rapidly as possible to avoid being caught staring at her more-than-ample chest. Because, yeah, getting fixated on her tits would just prove once and for all he was stepping up his A-game.
She lowered a plate in front of him. “Cherry and lemon, as requested. I added a scoop of ice cream.”
His mouth watered, but it had little to do with the pies, more to do with her leaning past him to lower the serving. Her scent filled his head and barreled down to his nuts. “You’re too good to me.”
Her brow rose the longer he stared into her face, but he couldn’t seem to look away. A couple of long curls had escaped from her ponytail, the dark brown strands framing her delicate features. Blonde highlights shone in her hair as the fall sun reflected in through the windows.
“Do I have something on my face?”
“No, of course not.” He looked down at the table.
She ripped off his bill and slid it under the edge of his plate. “Will I see you tomorrow, then? I’ll be making peach pies.”
Laughter roared out, and Joel glanced down the room. Considering they were businessmen, he’d expect different behavior, but it seemed some rednecks wore ties.
Vicki frowned—then she was gone. Back behind the protective barrier of the countertop, fidgeting with a dishcloth and topping up pitchers.
Her sudden departure was odd enough to catch Joel’s attention. They weren’t friends that he’d expect her to make tons of small talk, and yeah, there was something a touch awkward between them as he tried to hide his attraction, but up and leaving was borderline rude. Her chin was lowered, eyes fixed on her task, as if attempting to block out everything else.
The first bite of pie turned sour on his tongue as he struggled for what to do next. Not to mention, he was pissed at himself for being drawn to the one girl in town he should avoid.
Joel stared out the window and fought his frustrations.
“Bad case of blue balls, that’s for sure.”
Joel whipped his head around to see who needed their face rearranged, but the comment wasn’t directed at him. The guys in suits had increased in volume. Joel recognized one of them as Eric Tell from the bank. The man had been in the same grade as Travis, so a few years higher than himself.
“You should have stopped in to see Sarah Hansol,” Eric advised his seatmate. “She opens her legs so often there’s a landing strip between them to make the approach easier. Whole family’s the same. Easy sluts, the lot of them.”
Idiots. Joel ignored them. Even considered abandoning his pies. It was one thing to know about Sarah’s reputation, and another to shout rude comments in a public—
Fuck it. The rest of Eric’s words fully registered.
He glanced to the right as Vicki’s petite form flashed past. She skidded to a halt directly in front of the loudmouth’s table. Joel rose and stepped forward, but not in time to stop her from dumping the contents of an entire pitcher of cola over Eric’s head.
While the man was still blinking in surprise, she threw her first punch.
The roaring in her ears drowned out the shouts of anger, dimming everything to a low buzz as she got in a satisfying second hit to the asshole’s jaw before she was captured from behind and dragged off.
Vicki squirmed, fighting for release, but the arms around her could have been made of iron for how much give they allowed.
“What the hell was that for?” Eric was on his feet, towering over her, his companions at the table all rising as well as chairs screeched over the floor. He grabbed his napkin and dabbed at the rivulets of liquid running down his face, blood flowing from his nose where she’d got in a blow before being pulled away.
“Calm down, everyone.” Joel’s voice carried over her shoulder, and she debated digging her elbow into his ribs for stepping in when she hadn’t asked him to interfere.
“Should we call the police?” One of the jerks accompanying Eric had his cell phone out. Vicki glared daggers at Eric, daring him to make one wrong move.
“No police.” Eric waved his friends off. “Sit, it’s okay. It was an accident. The waitress tripped.”
Goddamn bastard. Vicki opened her mouth to lambast him, but all the air in her lungs emptied as Joel snuck a hand around her waist and squeezed in warning.
“Everything fine, then?” Joel asked.
“So sorry.” The café manager stepped in, passing over an extra towel before wiping up the mess on the table. Sherry spoke soothingly. “Accidents happen. The meal is on the house. Let me replace anything you gentlemen need.”
Eric settled back in his chair, still eyeing Vicki as if she might burst from Joel’s clasp and resume swinging. She wiggled in an attempt to get free, because that was exactly what she wanted to do, but Joel only tucked her against his body.
A distant part of her brain noted this was about the closest she’d ever been to a guy, with Joel’s thigh shoved between her legs to give him something to brace her against. His bulky biceps pressed the side of her breast. All of that registered in a flash before being ignored for the more important craving to knock Eric’s head off. Yet, even the dim awareness of Joel was another reason to hate Eric’s guts. She wasn’t able to appreciate the intimacy of her contained position, as twisted as that enjoyment might be.
Vicki focused on the asshole who’d started this mess.
He’d stopped the bleeding and had the audacity to smirk. A benevolent type of smile, forgiving and oh-so-condescending. “Don’t fuss, Sherry. Your waitress had a bit of a balance problem. Everything is forgotten. In fact…”
He took out a dollar coin and flipped it at Vicki. Almost as if he were giving her a tip. Only at the last second he pulled his toss and allowed the coin to fall at her feet.
It was a good thing Joel still had her in a tight grip because at that moment she really might have killed Eric without thinking. Her heart raced, adrenaline and fury whipping through her icy cold like a winter’s storm.
He’d as good as called her a hooker.
The others at the table found new places to look. At the floor, out the window, anywhere but at Eric and Vicki.
Air brushed her cheek as Joel whispered, “He’s a fuckwad. Prove you’re better than him and let it go.”
The iron grip on her arms eased, as if he expected her to listen and not leap across the space between her and Eric to throttle him with her bare fingers. Vicki took a deep breath and released it slowly. For a moment she allowed herself to lean against the firm bulk of Joel’s torso as a reward for behaving.
Then the rush of anger turned, now directed inward, and she fled to the back of the café. She worked to calm her breathing as she stood in the middle of the staff room and stared into space.
She wasn’t supposed to let him get to her. Every time it happened and she lost her temper, she thought she’d learned her lesson. He’d say and do anything to get her goat. This time she’d even spotted him ahead of time and hauled herself aside, vowing to not take whatever bait he offered. Yet once again, she’d simply walked into his trap and allowed him to be the one in charge of her behavior, instead of herself.
It was going to cost her. It always cost her, and not him, and that’s why a change had to happen. She knew it, but damn if controlling her temper was getting any easier.
The door opened. Sherry entered and sat, waiting in silence.
Vicki turned toward her supervisor. “I’m sorry. I should have pretended I didn’t hear him.”
Sherry shook her head. “Honey, you had a good reason. Only, you always have a good reason for losing your temper. I can’t afford to have you taking it out on the customers.”
Oh shit. “I’ll keep it under control. It’s just…”
Sad regret filled her supervisor’s expression. “I can’t keep someone on staff I can’t trust. And I can’t keep covering your butt, no matter how justified you feel you are in hating Eric’s guts. He lives in Rocky. He comes into the café a couple times a week. You seeing him around town is inevitable, so you’ve got to give up this vendetta.”
Far easier said than done. “I’m trying.”
Sherry paused. “I know you are. But you’ll have to try while working somewhere other than at the café.”
Vicki waited for yet another flash of anger to hit, but this time there was nothing but resignation. “I understand. It’s not a great idea to be anywhere near knives until I get this under control, right?”
Sherry chuckled. “Probably not. But when you’re not taking potshots at the customers, you’re a good worker. I’ll give you a letter of reference, if you want one.”
“Thanks.” She was going to need every bit of help she could get. “You want me to finish my shift?”
Sherry rose to her feet. “It’s slow enough Carrie and I can deal with the customers until Tina comes in.”
Sherry patted her on the shoulder and headed into the main lobby. Vicki grabbed her backpack and cleaned the few things out of her locker. Not much there. In a few minutes only empty space mocked her.
Behind her the door clicked shut with a hollow echo. Another door shutting on her future. Another possibility turned from positive to negative.
Vicki paused as she examined the alley. Graffiti marred the brickwork in a few places, but mostly there were orderly dumpsters and a few cars parked outside shop rear-exits. The alley wasn’t a dirty mess, but it wasn’t a place of beauty either, and Vicki’s breath caught in her throat.
This was her. Trapped between two things. She wasn’t a foul mess, but she wasn’t doing what she needed to get the hell out of the hole she’d fallen in.
Fallen, or been shoved?
No, she wouldn’t play the blame game. No matter how she’d been treated while growing up, no matter what her family’s reputation, she was an adult and responsible for her own actions.
Right now? There was no one to blame for being unemployed but herself. She’d love to say it was Eric’s fault, but he wasn’t the one who’d moved his fat head into her fists.
She shouldered her backpack and headed down the alley, thankful he hadn’t pressed assault charges. He could have, and it would have been nothing more than another round of he said, she said… The town bad girl acting out against the star valedictorian.
Another round with another loss for her.
The end of the alley was mere steps away, the sunshine on the sidewalk her goal, when someone stepped around the corner and she jerked to a stop.
Images of vindictive mob-crews sent by Eric vanished as Joel Coleman blocked her path. She paused, making sure she was in position to run if needed. Not that Joel had ever done anything to threaten her, but being cautious was only smart.
“What?” If the word came out sharp and defensive, so be it.
Joel examined her carefully. “You okay?”
“Just peachy,” she lied, the sarcasm in her voice tinny and bright.
“Don’t fuck around,” he growled.
The words rumbled over her, dark and rough, and for once she allowed herself to look him over. To take in the broad width of his shoulders stretching his T-shirt. Massive biceps pushing the sleeves. Narrow waist and well-worn jeans, with a lighter patch right there where her gaze shouldn’t dwell. He shifted his weight, and the impulse to stare a little longer was hard to fight when his thighs and his…
Vicki dragged her gaze up to the relative safety of his face. Only it wasn’t safe, not by a long shot. Bright blue eyes twinkled at her, a lazy love-em-and-leave-em smirk on his firm lips. His hair long enough she wished she could step in closer and thread her fingers through it to see if it was as soft as it looked.
Yeah, if it wasn’t the stupidest idea ever, she would love to get a taste of Joel Coleman. Always had wanted one, never would take herself up on the craving.
She took a deep breath and stared over his shoulder. “Sorry. I’m still riled up.”
“I figured.” Joel stepped to the side, his body swaying back into her line of vision, and the concern on his face nearly killed her. “I really did want to make sure you were okay.”
“I’m fine.” Vicki paused. The words stuck in her throat, but he had helped. “And…thanks. I mean, earlier, at the restaurant.”
“No problem.” He glanced at his watch. “You finish your shift already?”
No use in lying. He’d find out soon enough she’d been canned. “I’m going to look for a different job. One more suited to my personality. Sorry, no peach pies tomorrow.”
He nodded. “Sorry to see you go.”
Vicki needed to get home. Needed to hide, and not have to think for a few minutes. “See you around.”
She shouldered past him, ignoring his hand that brushed her arm as she walked by. She was at the edge of the alley, stepping into the sunlight, when he spoke again.
“I heard Orson’s Hardware is hiring stockers.”
Vicki paused. Glanced over her shoulder. “Thanks. That might be a better place for me. I’ll look into it.”
“Vicki, if…” His words trickled to a stop, and the strangeness in that alone was enough to pin her feet to the ground.
She turned to face him, waiting for him to finish. “What?”
Joel was looking at her. Really looking, as if seeing beyond the tough-girl façade she wore like armor. She tugged her backpack a little closer, hiding behind it.
“If you ever need, well, someone to talk to. Or a hand. Let me know, okay?”
She should have responded. Should have blurted out a noncommittal thanks, but his offer knocked all logic from her brain and left her with nothing but emotional turmoil.
They stood for a moment, nothing said, just a growing sense of disaster looming as Vicki fought the urge to give in. Because giving in would be a bad idea—she was sure of it.
It seemed like an earnest offer. Maybe. Or maybe more of the same of what she’d been handed over the years. People who appeared to be one way, while only wanting to take advantage of the trusting and the naïve.
A bad girl desperate to change her spots couldn’t allow the lure of attraction to lead her astray. She lifted her chin and turned without a backward glance, walking away from temptation in the form of one Joel Coleman.
Because the last thing this rebel needed was to get involved with another rebel.