Stern(8)

By: Brenda Jackson


Still, the memory of Stern singing in the shower, whistling through the lodge while he cooked breakfast or humming late at night while they sat together on the deck playing checkers was embedded in her brain.

She was so lost in remembering that she didn’t slow her pace when she rounded the corner until her body hit the solid wall of a man’s chest.

*

“Whoa. Going to a fire, Jo?” Stern asked, reaching out to steady her.

She seemed to blush, and he couldn’t help wondering what she had been thinking about. He had a feeling her thoughts hadn’t been on work.

“Stern, what are you doing here?” she asked, sounding somewhat breathless.

He lifted a brow. “Any reason I shouldn’t be here?” he asked, releasing her and then turning to fall in step beside her.

“No, but it’s Monday and we just got back yesterday.”

“I know but I met Riley and Canyon for lunch at McKays, and thought I’d check to see how things are going since I was in the neighborhood.”

“Oh.”

Was that disappointment he heard in her voice? Did she wish it had been that other guy—the one whose name she refused to give him—to show up unexpectedly and not him? That thought didn’t sit well with him. “You don’t sound too happy to see me.”

She glanced over at him. “Don’t be silly. I’m always happy to see you.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment. Was he being silly? Was the whole issue silly—the very issue that had nagged at him and kept him up last night to the point where he had snapped at his brothers this morning? Had he gotten chewed out by his oldest brother for nothing?

Pushing those questions to the back of his mind, he asked her, “What are your plans for later?”

“Um, nothing. I haven’t unpacked yet and will probably do that and laundry. Why?”

“No reason.”

They entered one of the bays where Beeker and another one of her employees had a car up on the lift changing out the struts. Stern greeted the men as he and JoJo passed through.

“How many cars do you have to work on today?” he asked as he continued following her to the bay she normally used. He watched as she glanced down at her clipboard. “So far there are only five scheduled. But you know how that might end up on a Monday.”

Yes, he knew. Back in high school, when her father was alive, he and JoJo had been hired out to do odds and ends in the shop. He had enjoyed learning from her father and Beeker and all the other guys. And Wanda had been a hoot. JoJo’s father’s death had hit him as much as it had hit her. Joseph Jones had been a man Stern had looked up to, a man he had respected, a man who’d spent a lot of time with him.

Stern had spent as many days and nights with JoJo and her father as he had at home. He’d gone on hunting trips with them. Mr. Jones had taught him the proper way to handle a gun and Beeker had taught him and JoJo how to shoot.

“You want to take in a movie tomorrow night?”

She glanced up at him and he wondered why, in all the years he’d known her, he had just realized how mesmerizing her eyes were.

“A movie?”

“Yes.” They’d gone to movies together a number of times, too many to count, and never had they considered them dates or anything more than two friends hanging out. Why did he suddenly feel that this invitation was different?

“What’s playing?” she asked, eyeing him suspiciously. “The past couple of times we went to a movie we saw ones that none of your girlfriends wanted to see. So you took me. Must be one of those blood and guts flicks.”

He couldn’t help but chuckle because she knew him so well. “There is this new action movie that came out this weekend. Riley claims it’s good.”

“And the reason you can’t find a date for tomorrow?”

“Not trying to find one. We still need to talk.”

“About what?” she asked, checking her watch.

“About that request you asked of me at the lodge.”

She stopped walking and hung the clipboard at its designated place on the wall. “If I remember correctly, you didn’t want to talk about it.”

She was right. The more he thought about the makeover, the more he thought it wasn’t a good idea. If a man only cared about outside appearances, then he might not get to know the JoJo that Stern knew from the inside out. She had a heart of gold, and she was cheating herself if she pursued a man who would only zero in on her looks.