Ginny Whelan is less than enthusiastic about house-sitting for her sister, Debra, in Southern California. Norco, known as the "Horse Capital of the World," is a far cry from what Ginny is used to. But when Debra's VW breaks down and Ginny meets handsome Jake Running Horse, the local mechanic, things decidedly improve.
Ginny Whelan felt a sudden yearning for her home in Crystal Springs as she drove down Norco's main street. Norco, California, was a little city with a big country flavor. There were horse trails instead of sidewalks on just about every residential street. The post office and several stores had hitch racks where patrons could tie up their horses. The parks, too, provided places to corral livestock. In fact, the Norco welcome sign proclaimed that Norco was "the horse capital of the world", and she believed it.
Most of the city's shops, stores, and car dealerships (of which there were many) were located on Hamner Avenue, which was the town's main drag. The nearest mall was a good fifteen minutes away, assuming the 91 Freeway wasn't backed up. And in the short time Ginny had been in town, it was always backed up and getting worse every day. She would have wagered that the city had more horses than cars, and more cows than people. Of course, there were also goats, donkeys, sheep, pigs, chickens, llamas, and even a camel or two. And every house had at least one large dog to keep the coyotes at bay! And she knew there were coyotes. She had found a dead cat on the front lawn the other morning. Not the whole cat, mind you. Just the head, and a couple of legs.
There were a few things about the town that she did like, like the rabbits she saw scampering in the park when she went walking in the morning, and the squirrels that were in residence in the greenery between the DMV and the post office. She had even seen squirrels in the K-Mart parking lot. She liked the birds, too. There were sparrows and crows and pigeons everywhere. She had even seen ducks flying overhead from time to time. And once, in the middle of Fifth Street, she had seen several vultures dining on a dead rabbit.
Ginny had been in town a little over a week and she was already tired of house-sitting for her sister, Debra. Deb, Deb's husband, Steve, and their boys, Doug and Derek, had all gone to Hawaii on vacation. Ginny shook her head, thinking that three weeks in a hotel with two kids under the age of five didn't sound like much of a vacation!
She wondered idly what Carter was doing. She had been dating Carter Hastings pretty steadily ever since her father had introduced them four months ago. She had expected to miss Carter while she was gone but he had rarely crossed her mind. She hadn't missed him nearly as much as she'd thought she would, or near as much as she thought she should, all things considered, and that bothered her. Maybe she was just kidding herself. Maybe he wasn't Mr. Right. Maybe she was just getting desperate because she was afraid she was never going to get married. She had five sisters besides Deb, and they were all married with kids. No matter how many times Ginny told herself there was nothing wrong with being twenty-five and single, the words "old maid" echoed in the back of her mind.
Ginny was thinking how good it would be to get back home and sleep in her own bed again when her sister's Volkswagen coughed, groaned and ground to a halt.
Muttering "Oh, great", Ginny tried to restart the car, but nothing happened. Glancing out the window, she let out a sigh of relief. Lucky for her, the car had decided to play Camille not far from a VW repair shop.
Grabbing her purse, she plucked the key from the ignition, got out of the car, locked the door, and then grinned.
Locking the door was a little like locking the barn after the horse was stolen. The VW wasn't going anywhere.
Slinging the strap of her handbag over her shoulder, she hurried down the street toward Jake's VW Warehouse and Garage.
The sooner she got back to the big city, the happier she would be.
Jake Running Horse wiped his hands on a greasy rag, his thoughts chaotic. Had he lived back in the old days, he would have sought revenge. He would have killed the man who had wronged him, taken his scalp, and boasted of it around the campfire.
But he wasn't a warrior and he wasn't living in the old days. He owned a VW repair shop. It was the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth, and he was a civilized man, not a savage. And dammit, he needed to get over it.
But, for just a moment, Jake indulged his imagination and pictured himself riding a paint pony across the Great Plains in pursuit of the man who had pretended to be his best friend and then gone behind his back and sabotaged his relationship with the woman he had planned to marry. Jake didn't know which of them he was more upset with, Mike Dutton for sneaking around behind his back, or Lori Beth for so quickly succumbing to Dutton's sweet talk. Well, good riddance to the both of them. They deserved each other.
Jake shook his head, annoyed that the memory still rankled. It had happened almost six months ago. Since then, he had sworn off women for good.
Muttering an oath, Jake went back to work. Mrs. Dickinson would be there any minute to pick up her car and he wanted to have it ready when she arrived. She was a good customer, but she was also the town gossip, a busy body, and a matchmaker all rolled into one, and if there was one thing Jake wasn't in the mood for, it was listening to her constant chatter; or, worse yet, having to listen to her go on and on about how a man his age should have married and settled down long ago. A man his age! Shoot, he was still on the sunny side of thirty. What was the rush?
He swore again as he scraped his knuckles on the fan shroud. Just another couple of minutes and he would be through here and ready to close up for the night.
The thought had barely crossed his mind when he heard the clatter of high heels on the cement floor of the garage.
"Excuse me," called a feminine voice. "Can you help me?"
Jake frowned. That voice, soft and with a slight Southern drawl, sure as hell didn't belong to Mrs. Dickinson.
Straightening, he turned toward the entrance, his gaze sweeping over the woman standing there. It definitely wasn't Sadie Dickinson, who was about fifty years old and tipped the scales at right around two hundred pounds. No, the woman fidgeting in the doorway was probably in her mid-twenties and probably didn't weigh much more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, and he was willing to bet that ten pounds of that was hair. Thick reddish-brown hair streaked with gold highlights. Her eyes were a warm shade of gray beneath long lashes. Her skin was smooth and clear. As far as he could tell, she wasn't wearing any makeup save for a touch of lipstick and a little eye shadow.
Jake cleared his throat. "What can I do for you?"
"My car broke down. I was wondering if you could take a look at it and tell me what's wrong? It's just down the street."
Pulling a clean rag from his back pocket, Jake wiped the last of the grease off his hands. "Sure, just let me lock up."
Trailing her down the street, he admired the sway of her hips.
Her car, a cherry 1962 VW bug, was about half-way down the block. "Nice," he said.
"Thanks. It belongs to my sister."
"Any chance she'd like to sell it?"
"I don't know, maybe. I thought it was out of gas," she explained as he lifted the deck lid, "but that can't be it. I just filled it up yesterday."
He grunted softly as he checked the fuel pump and the gas line. No problems with either one that he could see. "I'll have to tow it back to the shop," he said, closing the deck lid.
Ginny bit down on her lower lip. "How long do you think it'll take to find out what's wrong?"
"I should know sometime tomorrow afternoon. Why, you in a hurry to be somewhere?"
"Not really." Once she fed the horses and the dog and the two pygmy goats, there really wasn't a lot to do.
"Come on back to the shop so I can fill out the paperwork. I'll call you as soon as I know what's wrong."
With a nod, Ginny handed him the key, then followed him back to the garage. She watched as he quickly jotted down her name and phone number, thinking that he was probably the sexiest man she had ever seen.
"Do you need a ride home?" he asked
She hesitated a moment, then said, "That would be great."
"Just let me get my keys."
He disappeared into the small office in the back of the garage, giving her a chance to look around. Not that there was much to see. It was a large building. Fluorescent lights hung from the high ceiling. The walls were gray, the concrete floor was stained with grease and oil. Racks of metal shelves lined two walls. They overflowed with boxes and car parts that were in no particular order as far as she could see. Pieces of a green Volkswagen took up one corner. A big red tool chest added a splash of color to the other wise drab décor. She thought a little paint on the walls and a few plants would do wonders for the place.
Jake emerged from his office a few moments later. "My truck's parked out back."
A truck, Ginny thought. Of course. This was Norco.
She followed him through a narrow doorway that opened onto a large lot surrounded by a high wooden fence. The yard was littered with car doors, fenders, wheels, tires, a couple of engines, and the body of a VW, as well as a variety of other car parts, none of which she recognized.
His truck was a dark gray Silverado with the words Jake's VW Warehouse & Garage stenciled in white on the side.
He opened the passenger door for her, then went around to the driver's side and slid behind the wheel. "Where to?"
She gave him the directions to Deb's house, then fastened her seat belt as he fired up the engine and pulled out of the driveway. He drove down Hamner for a couple of blocks, then turned left on Hidden Valley Parkway.
There were two parts to Norco, the older section and the newer one. Deb and Steve lived in the newer area in a beautiful four bedroom, two-story house that had cost half a million dollars four years ago. In addition to the bedrooms, there was an office downstairs and a bonus room upstairs. Ginny still couldn't believe the price of houses in California. Deb's house was big and it was really nice but Ginny thought that, for a cool half a million dollars, it should have been a mansion and Tom Cruise should have been living next door!
Yesterday, on one of her walks, Ginny had picked up a real estate flyer. The price for the house, which was two blocks away from Deb's, had been over nine hundred thousand dollars. Ginny had stared at the price in disbelief. If regular houses were selling for almost a million dollars, she couldn't imagine what real mansions were selling for.
"Nice place," Jake remarked, pulling into the circular driveway.
"It belongs to my sister and her husband."
"So you're just visiting?"
Ginny nodded. "Actually, I'm house sitting. Deb's in Hawaii with her husband and kids."
"How long are you going to be in town?"
"Another two weeks."
Jake drummed his fingertips on the steering wheel. "I don't suppose you'd like to go out to dinner with me some night."
"I don't think so."
His gaze was dark and seductive as it met hers. "Come on, pretty lady," he coaxed. "Change your mind."
She thought briefly of Carter, then thought about eating dinner at home, alone, or going out, alone. She was tired of eating alone. What could one dinner date hurt?
Still, she hesitated. "I don't know…"
"How about tonight?"
"You don't waste any time, do you?"
He grinned roguishly. "Hey, if you're only going to be here for two weeks, I don't have any time to waste. What do you say?"
"But you will?"
She stared at her hands. She really shouldn't be going out with another man. Carter probably wouldn't like it. But Carter wasn't here. She was sick and tired of her own company. And there was nothing on the tube but reruns. Taking a deep breath, she said, "All right," before she could talk herself out of it.
"I'll pick you up in what, half an hour?"
"Better make it an hour."
Exiting the truck, Jake opened her door for her, once again admiring the sway of her hips as she walked away. She unlocked the front door, then glanced over her shoulder. With a wave of her hand, she stepped inside.
Jake shook his head. Six months ago, he had sworn off women, he thought ruefully. Less than an hour ago, he had renewed that vow.
But that was before Ginny Whelan walked into his life.