Zack Morgan winced as he took that first sip of hot coffee. It was less about the heat of the beverage and more about the cut on his lip. Still the coffee tasted good and the rest of it was his fault, most of it anyway. He had never learned to mind his own business and it had gotten him in trouble more than a few times. His tour in Afghanistan had ended a few weeks ago and he was at loose ends. He had some money socked away so it wasn't imperative that he find a job immediately. Besides, he didn't know what he wanted to do. After experiencing war first hand, college didn't seem like the way to go. He didn't think he could sit still in all those classes so he decided to do some traveling. Working by the sweat of his brow was what he was used to and figured he could always snag a job along the way should the need present itself.
That's how he ended up in a town too small to even have a Walmart. He couldn't even recall it's name – only that it was the same kind of town as the last one, the one he'd left to come here. All he was trying to do was have a beer before deciding whether to stay here for a couple of days, earn some cash or move on to the next town. Taking his last sip of beer, he had decided to stay. Sleeping in a bed instead of his truck was suddenly all too appealing. But the fates would not allow him to leave in peace. Instead a loud, half drunk voice, filled with anger, caused him to freeze in place.
"Dammit Char, sit your ass down right now. You leave when I say you leave."
He couldn't quite hear what was said in response to this abusive order but he couldn't help but recognize the sound of a slap, couldn't help but recognize the gasp of pain and the unmistakable sound of a scuffle. He turned slowly to see a pretty, petite blonde struggling to release herself from the grip of her burly adversary. She dug her heels in as he began to drag her toward the back of room.
Everyone pretended not to see what was going on which Zack had found to be typical of most small town bars. Just as he began to stand, he saw that the blonde had twisted around so her back was against the man and slammed her elbow into his gut. It wasn't much of a blow but enough for her to wrench her arm free and run out of the door. Enraged, he stumbled after her, cursing every step of the way.
With a reluctant sigh Zack slid off his seat to follow. He didn't want to do this, didn't want to get involved but he couldn't stand aside when someone was being hurt. As he exited the bar, an all too familiar scene was playing out in front of him. He hoped to forestall any further violence toward the young woman.
"Hey pal – the lady clearly doesn't want to go with you. Why don't you let her go and you can go back in and have another beer. I'll even buy you one." The last thing he wanted to do was get friendly with this bully but was hoping to end this peacefully.
Sadly the response did not surprise him. "I ain't your pal, asshole. Mind your own business. This ain't got nothin' to do with you so take a hike."
Trying once again to forestall more violence, Zack lightly placed his hand on the man's shoulder. "Come on"... he began but before he could utter another word, he knew it was no use. He saw the sucker punch coming at the last minute – too late to prevent the fist from connecting first with corner of his eye and then his mouth.
He stumbled back slightly, trying to get his balance, now warily watching, waiting for his opponent's next move. What happened next, he didn't really expect.
"Ray, leave him alone. You're right, this isn't his business. Let's go back inside, OK?" She tugged on his arm ineffectively and he brushed her aside as if she were of no consequence. When she tried to grasp his arm a second time, he shoved her to the ground, grinning at her gasp of pain as her tailbone met the unforgiving blacktop.
"All right hero – you want to make something of this? Come on – you started this but you can be damn sure I'll finish it." His words were slurred, his eyes barely able to focus but yet he advanced toward Zack, with raised fists.
Eyes narrowed, ever watchful, Zack was almost regretting what he had to do. This jerk was drunk and no match for him but he wasn't going to walk away to leave him alone, to let him do more harm. He easily sidestepped the first blow coming at him, his own fist connecting solidly with a soft belly. Unfortunately he observed the blow being shaken off and while he wobbled in his approach, approach he did. Zack once again easily avoided the fists coming at him. He knew there was no reasoning with this man, no way to end this without one of them ending up out cold. He jabbed his fist upward slamming into Ray's nose, feeling cartilage crunch just before blood began running down his face. Zack watched warily as he fell to his knees before crumpling to the ground. He made sure Ray was breathing before he turned to the blonde who was still on the ground, her eyes wide, her hands over her mouth – whether in shock or disbelief or horror, he had no way of knowing.
Just as he asked her if she was alright, the "whoop" of a police siren's single note along with the flashing of the light bar interrupted the scene. The blonde was struggling to stand so he naturally reached his hand down to help her up. They both saw the tall, muscular officer exit the car to begin walking toward them.
"Charlene Tucker, is that you?"
"Yes sheriff, it's me."
"Is that Ray Baxter on the ground? Did he do that to your face?"
The events finally catching up to her, she could only nod as she tried to stifle the sob caught in her throat.
"I take it this gentleman intervened. Being an officer of the law, I can't officially thank you but off the record, thanks for cleaning his clock. When he gets to drinking, his good side goes away. Hell, he doesn't have a good side."
Zack winced as he tried to smile at the sheriff's words. "Ahh, I tried to talking him down but he was too far gone. I don't like bullies and it didn't look like this young lady was going to have a good night."
The sheriff pinned her with a stern glance. "No I'm sure she wasn't. So what's it going to be Charlene? Are you gonna to press charges? Or are you gonna let him get away with it? Again!"
She squared her shoulder and met his gaze. "I'm pressing charges."
Zack heard a voice next to him. "Are you OK? Can I get you anything else?"
Realizing the waitress had been standing next to him for a few seconds, he mentally shook himself and looked up at her with a rueful grin. "Sorry – was lost in my thoughts. Unless you know of any jobs around here, I guess I'm good to go."
"Well, there's not much around here as you can imagine but I hear the McCall farm is looking for help. You could try there."
Zack didn't know much about farming but beggars can't be choosers, so he asked his next question. "Can you tell me how to get there?"
"I can do better than that. See that redhead walking out the door? That's Janey McCall – she owns the spread now since her husband got killed in an accident."
Needing no further encouragement, he tossed some bills on the table, muttered a "thanks" and hurried out the door. He saw fiery red curls bouncing down the sidewalk, already half way down the block. Hurrying his steps, he called out. "Ma'am...Ms McCall!"
Just as he reached her, she turned to face him. He stopped in his tracks and in that moment, he didn't think he could have uttered a word if his life depended on it. To call her beautiful would be an understatement. He had never seen eyes that color before...he thought aqua most closely described the shade but as she looked up at him the hue began changing, mesmerizing him. He couldn't seem to stop looking at her lips – soft, full lips, begging to be kissed. Her skin was creamy and it was all he could do not to reach out to stroke the line of her jaw.
Janey McCall was used to men paying attention to her and by now, could easily discourage any potential interest. She had a farm to run and was determined to run it successfully. That left no time for dating or romance or messy entanglements with the opposite sex. But when she turned to face the voice calling her name, she felt her heart slam against her chest and her breath catch.
He was tall. That was the first thing she noticed. Taller than her by a good six inches, lean but with muscles in all the right places. She was amazed that her first thought was how he'd look without a shirt. She looked into eyes that were the color of the sky, bright and just a little guarded. She wondered about that briefly before taking in the rest of him. His dark blonde hair was a bit shaggy but seemed to suit him as did the short beard. "Janey girl..." she thought to herself..."I think you're in trouble here."
Finally finding her voice she managed to speak. "Yes, I'm Janey McCall. Can I help you?"
Zack felt like an awkward teenager in front of this woman. After swallowing several times, he managed to choke out some words. "Ahh...I heard you need some help at your place. I could use the work."
He, honest to God, felt himself blush at her seemingly cool appraisal. He almost flinched as he felt her fingertips brush against his shirt, reaching for the dog tags that had escaped from beneath his shirt while he was rushing to meet her.
"Special forces and lieutenant colonel to boot. Well thank you for your service. What do you know about this kind of work?" When she saw his gaze drop at her words, she continued hastily. "I guess it doesn't really matter as long as you don't mind hard work out in the hot sun. If you know your way around an engine, that would be great. My mechanic got himself arrested last night. While it doesn't surprise me, I'm short a man. Permanently, in fact, since I won't be welcoming him back."
Zack did a double take. He couldn't stop himself from asking. "Your mechanic...his name wouldn't happen to be Ray, would it?"
Janey's eyes widened in comprehension. "Yes, as a matter of fact, that is his name. And you would know that because he's the reason you have a black eye and a split lip. Am I right?" At his reluctant nod she continued. "Well thank you for stepping in. I'm glad Charlene finally had the sense to press charges against that poor excuse for a man. That wasn't the first time he's raised his hand to her but she wouldn't listen to anyone."
She sighed and held out her hand. "I don't believe we've been properly introduced. I'm Janey McCall."
"Zack Morgan, Ma'am. Pleased to meet you." When he reached out to grasp her hand, time seemed to stand still for both of them. Her skin was warm, a bit calloused but still softly welcoming. As he had moved closer, her scent enveloped him, a touch of freshly cut hay, sunshine and something else he thought must have been just her.
Janey felt a shock run through her body as soon as their hands touched. Her hand was enveloped almost completely. She couldn't believe how right it felt to be clasping his hand, how much she wanted to move closer to breathe in his maleness, his confidence, his gentle strength.
Zack knew for a fact that he shouldn't be here. He knew he should turn around right then and head as fast as he could for the next small town. A town where he wouldn't find a woman like Janey McCall. Then she smiled at him, slowly taking back her hand, her fingers running across his palm like a caress. It was all he could do not to reach for her hand to keep that connection intact. He knew without a doubt that he wouldn't be going anywhere and would do anything she asked of him. If only for another smile, a smile that hinted at depths he would love to explore, fool that he was. He tried to force his mind to the fact that she was now his employer and he better not screw this up.
"One thing you better get straight right now." She looked at him with narrowed eyes but continued to smile. "You called me ma'am twice now. You do that one more time, I'll sic my dogs on you."
She was startled by the grin that he couldn't hide. "God, the man is sexy"... she thought to herself... "Lord help me."
She laughed out loud at his query. "You have dogs?"
As she beckoned him to follow her, all she said was... "Wait and see."