Jennie Marshall has some hard choices to make.
Does she leave the small town life she resents or stay in the old house she’d been raised in and care for her grieving mother? Staying means no college and giving up all her dreams. It also means keeping the farm going, taking on a job she’d never wanted, and facing the reality of Trisha and Michael getting married and starting a family. Leaving would mean Momma losing the home John Marshall had built for them before he died.
So, of course, she does what a good, responsible daughter should do—gives up her own dreams, determined to carry out her father’s. When the stress of her life becomes almost intolerable, relief in the form of Grayson Jennings arrives. He’s sweet, handsome, and totally in love with her. But Jennie, being as stubborn a Marshall as her father, refuses to see what’s right there in front of her until it’s too late.
It takes yet another tragedy to prove that everything she never knew she wanted was right there Down the Dirt Road.
So as not to be caught eavesdropping, Jennie hurried away and out of the house to greet her uncle and her cousin. Instead she ran full force into a solid mass of muscle on the back porch. The impact nearly knocked her to the ground but a pair of strong, tanned arms grabbed her shoulders and steadied her.
“Well, hello there, miss. You must be Jennie. Your uncle…”
Jennie looked up into the darkest, warmest brown eyes she had ever seen. Dark like molten milk chocolate and deep like the river that ran along the edge of town. The eyes sparkled with humor. Lines along either side of each eye crinkled slightly with the wide, slightly crooked smile that greeted her.
“Who are you?” She didn’t mean to sound so short, so demanding but those eyes unnerved her more than she wanted to admit.
“Name’s Grayson Jennings. Your uncle sent me up here to let you know he and Tommy are out back in the pasture surveying the crime scene.” He removed the cowboy hat he wore, holding against his abdomen.
“There’s no crime scene. Just my dead
Grayson chuckled at her indignation. “Well, I think I know that miss. I was just… well I was just being funny.”
Jennie threw her hands on her hips in aggravation. “Well, it’s not funny. Not funny at all. That animal was like a part of our family.” Her cheeks flamed with anger and maybe just the slightest hint of embarrassment. Grayson Jennings had the most beautiful eyelashes she had ever seen on a boy— or a girl for that matter—and the way he kept smiling at her with that slow, sexy smile made her insides melt.
“I’m very sorry, miss. I wasn’t meaning to offend. I go to school nights at the community college, working on my criminal justice degree. I want to be a cop but I ain’t old enough to carry a gun legally yet. Another six months till I get into the academy. My sense of humor tends to be—off—and always shows itself at the most inappropriate times. Please forgive me.”
Jennie tried very hard to retain her indignation but it was hard to when he kept smiling at her the way that he was.
“Well, I suppose you couldn’t know any better. You are a man after all.” She brushed past him leaving her words dangling in the air where she had previously stood, almost as a
dare to see what he would say in response.
“I guess there’s no excuse for my sex but still, I hope you’ll forgive me. I really wasn’t meaning to offend.” He followed her across the open space between the house and the barn. “I get nervous ‘round pretty girls—say stupid stuff.”
He thought she was pretty? He had to be joking. With her hair all wild—and that knot on her head had to be real attractive. He was one smooth talker that one. Momma always warned her about the smooth talkers. Michael was a smooth talker and look at where that got her.
“Yeah… well…” She couldn’t come up with anything smart to say so she just picked up the pace and left the handsome Grayson Jennings in her wake, holding his hat in his hands and grinning after her.
She never heard the footsteps behind her as she filled the horse’s grain buckets from the bin inside the barn so she cursed at the sound of his deep voice.
“Here, let me take those.” Grayson and his sexy smile looked down at her. He was so tall, he made her feel like a child.
“I can handle it just fine, thank you.”
“I have no doubt that you can, Jennie. I just
wanted to give you a hand.”
There was something about the way he said her name, the letters sliding off his tongue like silk that caused gooseflesh to break out all over her arms.
“Fine,” she snapped. “The horses are in the stalls at the end. I’ll go feed the chickens and the rabbits.”
Turning on her heel she stomped away to the chicken feed barrel, drew out the scoop and walked out of the barn to spread the feed in the chicken coop. He was still standing there, crooked smile and all when she returned to the barn.
“Are you always so angry when someone offers to help you?”
“Do you always follow women around? Some might call you a stalker.”
“If I were stalking you, you wouldn’t know it. I’m studyin’ criminal behavior, remember?” He smiled brightly as he took the chicken feed scoop from her and dropped it into the barrel, still smiling. He was infuriating.
“How do you know my Uncle Tommy?”
The change of subject was obvious but she didn’t know what else to say.
“I work on his dairy farm during the day so I can pay for my classes at night.”
“I don’t remember seeing you around here
“I’m guessing you were too busy mooning over that boyfriend of yours to rightly notice anyone else.”
Her head whipped around at the mention of her lost love and she all but snarled at Grayson.
“You know Michael?”
“I think I would remember you if I had seen you around here before. This town’s way too small to hide in.”
“I don’t hide but I don’t go runnin’ through the streets lookin’ for attention either. I’m a quiet sorta guy, you know?”
“You don’t seem so quiet right now.”
“You make it easy to talk.”
The silence that fell over them was electrically charged. Jennie searched for something witty to say but she was so emotionally drained from the day, her usual gift for gab was long gone. It was time to end it and get rid of the handsome and intriguing Grayson Jennings before she did something she’d totally regret. Like throw herself into his arms and kiss him.
“Well, thank you for your help with feeding the animals. I’ve got to get inside and make something for dinner for Momma while she is
actually awake and out of her room. I’ll be seein’ you.”
She was already halfway to the house as she waved a hurried goodbye but she heard Grayson’s quiet words as clear as day.
“You can count on it.”
It was Labor Day weekend. The streets would be full of townsfolk tomorrow for the
annual parade and festival. Momma always entered her strawberry pies in the pie tasting contest but not this year. The only one who had done any work in the kitchen lately was her and there was absolutely no pie baking talent in Jennie’s genes.
Maybe Momma would want to go to town for dinner. The fried chicken and pulled pork sandwiches bound to be served would make a nice change from all the casseroles they were still working on from Daddy’s funeral. She could almost taste the barbeque and cole slaw in anticipation.
She made up her mind on her way back to bed. Even if Momma refused, she would go for a bit. A change of pace might be just what she needed to get Bessie and Grayson out of her mind. A good nights’ sleep and some pork barbeque could fix anything.
What she didn’t count on was running into the handsome aspiring cop at the first booth she stopped at.
His deep voice nearly made her drop the fried dough she had just purchased.
“Hello, Jennie. Nice to see you again.” His lopsided grin held boyish charm that she was finding very hard to resist and that aggravated her.
“Hello, Mr. Jennings.” She really hoped he
couldn’t hear the sound of her heart pounding against her chest wall.
He laughed. “Please, call my Grayson. Mr. Jennings makes me sound so—old. Are you here with anyone? Your momma maybe?”
She tossed her tangled curls over her shoulder and began to walk away from the food cart. “Nope. Momma wasn’t quite feeling up to going out today. I had few errands to run so I thought I might grab some lunch.”
“Starting with desert?” He reached up and rubbed a smudge of powdered sugar from her cheek. Her skin tingled where he made contact, throwing her insides into a tornado of turmoil. Heat rose up her neck and spread over her cheeks as she looked down at the greasy hunk of sugar covered dough in her hand. Little white dots of sugar covered her tank top that was as red as her skin had become.
“I always eat my desert first. What if I get full?”
“I suppose that would be the best plan. I think I will join you. Wait here.” Grayson stepped over to the pie tent and grabbed a piece of apple pie, dropping a dollar on the table and hurried back to her. “There, now we can have desert together. Maybe afterwards you will let me have dinner with you? You know, once we get the important stuff over with.”
Jennie couldn’t help but smile at the hopeful look in Grayson’s eyes. She was supposed to be annoyed but he was so charming it became difficult to maintain that façade. “Okay.”
“Okay? Just like that? I thought I might have to apply my strong powers of persuasion to convince you.” There went that crooked smile again.
“I’m hungry. I’m gonna eat either way, no harm in you sitting at the same table right?” She tried to sound flippant, uninterested but she failed miserably. She sounded interested and maybe even a little desperate. Grayson didn’t seem to mind though.
“No, I don’t rightly think there is any harm in sharing a table.” His ever-present smile grew bigger, doing things to her heart that were getting tougher to ignore.
Grayson Jennings was not handsome the way Michael had been. He was less boy next store and more cover of a romance novel. His body was hard and muscled, in the way one could only achieve from honest physical labor. Close cropped dark hair, typical of any farmer in the area fit well under the hat he seemed to take on and off constantly.
They made their way through the crowds, eating desert and chatting about the weather in search of an empty picnic table or a shady spot under a tree. Jennie felt the eyes of the town watching them but she tried hard to ignore it. Grayson was easy company, he made her feel good and she relished that feeling after so many days of feeling so rotten.
She should have known there was no way the day could keep going so well. As soon as they settled in on a grassy knoll, Jennie looked up and caught site of the two people she had sincerely hoped she would never, ever see again.
About twenty feet in front her, holding hands and gazing at each other with disgusting lovesick expressions stood Trisha and Michael.
“Seriously?” She mumbled jumping to her feet and dumping what was left of her fried dough on the grass. “I have to go.”
“What’s wrong, Jennie?” Grayson rose from the ground reaching for her hand as she turned to leave.
“Nothing.” She replied hurriedly. “I just have to go is all. I don’t like leavin’ Momma home by herself for too long.”
Grayson followed her eyes toward the couple standing across the street from them. “Oh.”
Carolyn LaRoche grew up in snow country but fled the cold and ice several years ago. She now lives near the beach with her husband, their two boys, two finicky cats and one old dog. When she is not at the baseball field cheering on big hits and home runs, she is busy teaching science to unwilling teenagers.