He worked through the room from guest to guest, exchanging greetings and news. He finally got to Hannah just as Ethan and Jamie headed back to the kitchen for another beer.
He smiled at her. “Hey, Hannah. Sorry I had to take off in such a rush this morning.”
“It wasn’t your fault. Work never ends on a ranch, right? I talked to your dad after you left, though.”
Uh oh. “What did he say?”
Hannah shrugged, but her cheeks grew pink. Jake’s heart sunk. His father was capable of all kinds of breaches of etiquette. At least she was still speaking to him.
“I get the feeling he’d rather not keep Gladys around much longer.”
“Don’t mind him.” Jake was worried, though. If Holt kicked him out, he’d probably demand they remove Gladys from the ranch. It figured the old man would urge him to get married, then screw up his chances with the one woman he wanted to spend his life with.
“Holt’s more bark than bite,” he said, then clenched his jaw at the lie. Holt barked like a pit bull and attacked like one, too, if he felt provoked.
“I don’t know. I’m taking what he said pretty seriously.”
“I’ll work on him,” he promised her. “Meanwhile, there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you. Would you…”
“Hey, everybody. Pick a table and sit down. We’re about ready to get started,” Ethan called.
Morgan, passing by, smiled at them and gestured toward the card tables. “Come on, guys. You heard the man.”
“We’ll be right there.” Hannah turned back to him. “What were you saying, Jake?”
But with Morgan watching he couldn’t ask her out. “Nothing. We’ll talk later.”
Jake had been seconds from asking her on a date. She was sure of it. So why wouldn’t everyone back off and give him the chance?
Not that she’d say yes.
Or maybe she would but she wouldn’t get serious with him.
Unless you called a fourteen night stand serious.
Which she had no doubt it would be.
Hannah moved quickly to a table to cover her confusion and sat next to Morgan. The rest of the players took their places at the tables with much jostling and joking. When Jake slipped into the chair on the other side of her, she figured she hadn’t been hallucinating about his attentions. Interesting.
Interesting in a fling way, she reminded herself. That’s all she could afford right now—no heartfelt romances, not even with Jake. Especially with Jake, who could wrap her around his little finger without even trying. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye as he joked with Ethan. He was muscular, confident, his legs taking up way too much space under the table. His thigh brushed against hers from time to time, igniting the longing she’d felt ever since their time in the break room. She would not fall in love with Jake. But couldn’t she have a little fun with him before school started at the end of January?
Ethan dealt the first hand of Hold’em and she forced her concentration onto her cards. She was a lousy player and lost money every week at these tables, but the stakes weren’t that high and by tradition the winner donated half the proceeds to the kitty for the next weeks’ drinks and munchies. Since she’d spend more by far at the local bar if she went out for a night of drinking and dancing, she figured it was a small price to pay for the good food and company.
Jake surveyed his opponents around the table. He must have already looked at his cards, figured his odds and moved on to size up the competition. She’d seen him take the pot many times. Hannah sighed. She’d even gone online to learn more about winning this game, but the truth was the odds and calculations didn’t interest her. She came for the chatter and friendship.
Still, she’d better do her best or she’d find herself out of the game, off the table and over with the other losers playing pool.
All the way across the room from Jake.
As he placed his bet, Hannah finally admitted the truth to herself; she’d give anything to get a whole lot closer to him. Two weeks in bed with Jake?
She was there.
Jake placed his cards on the table and waited for the groans of the other players to subside before he raked in the pot. Again.
He was on fire tonight, and not just because he was lucky with cards. When he’d spoken to Hannah earlier, he’d seen the interest flare in her wide, blue eyes. He felt confident that given enough time he could win her, just like he was winning this game. Too bad he didn’t have much time.
He let his thigh brush hers under the table and was rewarded when she gave a little jump. When he looked her way a blush was creeping up her cheeks. Poor Hannah. Didn’t she know she’d never win a poker game with that tell-tale face? What was she thinking about? Getting closer to him? Touching more than his thigh under the table? He’d sure like to touch a lot more of her. Hannah filled out her casual jeans and sweater in all the right places, curvy as a movie star with a mouth made for kissing. As he knew too well. He’d thought a lot about kissing Hannah again since the Mortimers’ wedding. Time to get this show on the road. As soon as he managed to ask her out.
Ethan was just dealing out the cards for the next round of play when the house phone rang and Autumn excused herself from the other table to answer it.
Jake studied the new hand he’d been dealt. He could work with this, he mused. The real question was whether he could work with the cards life had dealt him. An interested woman. An ultimatum from his father. Could he take the two and create a winning hand out of them? A lifetime with the woman who’d tormented his dreams for weeks now?
The timing was short but you only got so many chances in life to hitch your yoke to another person who not only attracted you physically but also stimulated your mind. He felt confident he wouldn’t regret marrying Hannah, if he could get her.
Could he get her? That was the real question.
“I see,” Autumn said into the phone. “Um… yes, of course. Yes, we have openings for that time period.” She had moved to the small desk and computer off her kitchen space where she took bookings for the guest ranch and kept her accounts. She pulled up the booking software.
“Looks like someone’s coming to stay,” Jake said to Ethan.
“Good thing. It’s been pretty thin this past month. Can’t blame people for not wanting to visit a ranch in November, but we need the income from the guests or we’ll have to tighten our belts.”
“Yes. Yes, I think we can accommodate you. What time will you arrive?” As Autumn went on speaking into the phone, asking questions and answering them, they continued to play, but Jake could tell Ethan’s mind was on Autumn’s conversation. He could believe that bookings were important to him. They’d been able to have Thursday night get-togethers here every week for the past month. That meant no paying guests, which meant business wasn’t as good as it needed to be. Everyone knew Ethan’s mother had spent much of the ranch’s earnings on travel and, as it turned out, funding programs to help women in Afghanistan. When Ethan inherited the ranch it was deeply in debt. Over the last six months he’d banded together with Autumn, Jamie, Claire, Rob, and Morgan to pay down the mortgage and solidify its earnings. With all the businesses they were starting together, they should soon have plenty of cash. Jake envied them their togetherness and the variety of their income sources. He and his brothers and parents worked the Double-Bar-K together, but it was strictly a cattle ranch, and if Holt had his way, that’s what it would stay.