A FAMILY AFTER ALL
Ivy Millbrook isn't interested in happily-ever-after. The only thing she wants from Seth Walker is no-strings-attached fun. Too bad Seth is holding out for the white picket fence. As a single father of two, he is the epitome of commitment and the complete opposite of Ivy. They're at a standstill.
The situation intensifies when Seth insists on helping Ivy save her dairy farm. With the kids in tow, working together isn't easy. But is the prospect of losing each other forever enough to push them toward a compromise?
Seth Walker cursed a streak bluer than the truck’s oil-heavy exhaust as he slid out from under the chassis and blinked in the morning sun. Dammit. This was not going to be an easy repair. He’d have to call the garage. Arrange a tow. And figure out how the hell he was going to manage to pay for either when his bank account balance hovered somewhere between pathetic and desperate.
He plucked his shades from his shirt pocket, jammed them back into place and reached for his phone. He’d find a way. If he didn’t have a truck, he couldn’t make his deliveries. And if he couldn’t make his deliveries, he couldn’t see Ivy.
The clutch in his chest had him shaking his head. Maybe that would be a good thing, considering what he planned to tell her.
Then again, maybe she wouldn’t care.
After dialing the garage, he lifted the phone to his ear and turned away from the road. Traffic was sparse, but the occasional passing car still made it difficult to hear. He wandered to the edge of a vineyard that stretched all the way to Lake Erie, a hazy strip of blue in the distance bordered by the lighter blue of the sky and the vibrant green of the grapevines. Off to the left, a yellow monster of a harvester straddled a row of vines. As it lumbered through the crop, it shook the purple grapes onto a conveyer belt that led to a massive storage bin in the back. Seth had been up close and personal with a harvester more than once while making his deliveries, and he didn’t know how the drivers did it. They had to climb a ladder just to get to the cab. He liked his steering wheels closer to the ground.
He made arrangements for a tow while breathing in the sweet scent of Concord juice, pressed End and dialed again. One call down, two to go.
His thumb hovered over the send button. He exhaled. Screw pride. All he had to do to save himself the cost of a rental was call in a favor. And suck up the ribbing next time he got together with the guys.
Joe Gallahan answered the phone, saying, “Your ass better not be backing out of poker night, `cause I’m feeling lucky.”
“You’re feeling lucky `cause you’re getting lucky.”
“Hey, that’s my wife you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, well, she’s lucky, too.”
Joe snorted. “I can feel myself being hit up for a favor.”
“You always were a sensitive kind of guy.”
“Kiss my ass. Now, what do you need?”
Less than a minute later, Joe had agreed to lend out his truck for the two to three days it would take the mechanic to fix Seth’s ride.
“Hang tight,” Joe said. “I’m on my way.”
Two down, one to go.
Bradley answered on the first ring. “`Sup.”
“Try again,” Seth growled.
A protracted sigh, then, “Tweedy’s Feed and Seed, how may I help you?”
“Dude. Why do I have to answer your calls like that? You’re the owner. You should know the name of your own business by now.”
“Cute.” Seth turned back to his truck. If only he could afford to abandon the damned thing. “I’m stuck at the side of Route 5, waiting for a tow. The brake line’s leaking. Joe’s going to lend us his pickup so we can handle deliveries until Pete can breathe life back into Bertha here.”
“That sucks. About Bertha, I mean, not about Joe.”
“Point is, I’ll be late getting back to the store. You okay watching the kids till I get there?”
“Not a prob. Or you could let me make the deliveries.”
“I got it.”
“You sure? Because I don’t mind. Anyway, isn’t it my turn to deliver to the dairy farm?”
In your dreams, kid. “You don’t get a turn at the dairy farm.”
“I used to. And, dude, I know Ivy misses me. Just the other day, she told me how much she misses me. I saw her at the post office and she came up to me and said, ‘Oh, Bradley—’” the kid started talking in a high-pitched voice, though God only knew why he added the Southern accent “‘—I’ve missed you so much, Bradley, you big, strong, handsome hunk of man, you—’” Abruptly, Bradley switched back to his normal voice. “Sorry, Mrs. Macfarland, I didn’t see you standing there. Weed killer? Try aisle three.” He got back on the phone. “Awk-ward.”
Seth didn’t know whether to laugh or groan, so he did both. “Stop tormenting my customers. And don’t forget to dust.”
“Give my love to Ivy,” Bradley said, and disconnected.
Not long after, Joe pulled up. Seth climbed into the passenger seat and stuck out his hand. “I appreciate this.”
“No sweat. I can always use Allison’s car if I need to run errands.”
“How’s she doing?”
As he pulled back out onto the highway, Joe gave his head a shake that failed to dislodge his goofy grin. “She’s great,” he said. “Just great.”
“Glad to hear it. I know the motel’s doing well. Whenever I drive by, the parking lot’s full.”
“That website she put together is really bringing in the business.”
“The renovations must have helped, too. I still hear horror stories about the turquoise ceilings.”
“Bet you hear more about the python behind the wall.”
Seth didn’t have to fake his shudder. “I’d rather talk about the ceilings.”
“I know what you’d rather talk about. Or should I say who. Ivy still thinking about opening a riding school?”
Seth frowned. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Allison. Ivy asked her advice on creating an ‘online presence.’” Joe glanced over at Seth and winced. “Damn, man, I’m sorry. I figured you knew. You’re at the farm all the time.”
“I’m at the farm when I have a delivery to make.”
“That’s all there is to it?”
“She’s determined to keep things casual.” Which was a never-ending source of frustration for him. They’d met a year ago, when he and his kids had moved to town and he’d taken over the feed store. The tall blonde fascinated him. She was industrious, smart, sexy and playful—a constant tease to the deliberate side of his personality. Unfortunately, she was also determined to keep their relationship shallow. He’d been just as determined to coax her toward the deep end.
But some things weren’t meant to be. Like his marriage, which had ended two years earlier. Maybe it was just as well Ivy wasn’t into forever, because his kids were still struggling to deal.
Joe’s next words reinforced that notion. “Between your kids, your store and that cranky-ass truck of yours, it sounds like you have your hands full anyway.”
Seth grunted. “So does she.” A riding school. When would she find time to run a school? The woman worked too damned hard as it was.
What really bothered him was that she hadn’t mentioned it. Yeah, they kept it laid-back, but over the past several months they’d talked about everything from the nutritional value of the cottonseed in her cows’ feed to the healing properties of oral sex. His groin perked up at the phrase. Down, boy.
They never talked much about his kids, though. And that was the thing.
His kids came first.
Joe turned into the crumbling asphalt lot of his motel, Sleep at Joe’s. Seth smirked, even as wistfulness whispered through him. Joe and Allison had gotten back together in the spring after a year apart. He doubted there was a lot of sleeping going on.
He met up with Joe on the sidewalk in front of the truck and offered his hand again. “Thanks. I’ll take good care of her.”
“You’re welcome. And yeah, you will.”
“Anything I can do in return, you let me know.” Seth waved at Allison, a curvy blonde who was working at the other end of the motel, spreading mulch around the base of a young tree. She returned his wave and blew Joe a kiss before turning back to her yard work.
Seth gave his head a mournful shake. “I get a kiss and you get a wave? What’d you do, leave the toilet seat up again?”
“Smart-ass. The kiss was for me.” Joe pushed him off the sidewalk and trailed him to the driver’s side. “You heading out to Ivy’s now?”
Seth gestured toward the empty truck bed and opened his door. “I need to get back to the store and load up first.”
Joe slammed the door shut after Seth had buckled himself in. “Hey, I thought of something you can do for me,” he said through the open window.
“Spring for some decent beer for poker night.”
Seth raised an eyebrow. “What do you care?”
“That cheap-ass crap you buy gives everyone else gas. I may have quit drinking, but I still have to breathe.”
Ivy Millbrook should have been working. Instead she was staring at the backside of the man she’d lusted after since the day he’d moved to Castle Creek.
A year was a long time to go hungry, but Seth was tougher than a cheap cut of meat. Since her livestock needed feed and Seth was the only game in town, Ivy had no choice but to respect his preference to sit tight as friends.
Plus, he was a genuinely nice guy. Damn him.
When he turned and caught her staring, the flare of heat in his brown eyes stirred up a jittery warmth in her belly. But then he looked away, and a squeeze of panic put a hitch in her breathing. He had something on his mind. Something she probably wouldn’t want to hear. She squinted up at him as he shifted on the truck bed, surrounded by flecks of dust floating in the afternoon sun, straw rustling beneath his boots. What the heck had happened to the laid-back, naughty camaraderie they usually shared?
He lifted his ball cap away from his hair and swiped an arm across his forehead, resettled his hat and finally returned her stare, his own gaze reflecting half amusement, half frustration and half speculation.
She frowned. Wait. That was too many halves. But with all those gorgeous man muscles mere inches from her nose, no one could blame her for not being able to do the math.
“Ivy,” he said.
“Seth,” she drawled, proud of the lack of urgency in her tone.
He propped a boot on the nearest hay bale. Despite the green-apple crispness of the October day, he was sweating. And no wonder, considering he’d already unloaded most of her order—and hers was not the first delivery of the day. His long-sleeved cotton shirt clung to impressive pecs, and the deepened rhythm of his breathing had her wishing that she, and not hard labor, had made him pant. An explicit mental image of just how she might achieve that shoved her own lung action toward the red zone. A swell of lust left her fidgeting. She shifted her thighs against the ache and Seth made a growling sound of impatience.
“Are you going to just stand there eyeing my ass, or are you going to help?”
The warning behind his words kept her from pointing out that he’d turned around. It was no longer his ass claiming her attention.
“Help,” she said.
Not realizing she was answering his question, he crouched on the truck bed and held out a gloved hand, jaw firm, eyes distant. Seemed Seth Walker was in no mood to play today.
“You can push the rest of these bales onto the tailgate while I finish unloading.”
Ivy sighed. “Fine.” She stepped onto the bumper and let him haul her up beside him. She pressed her palm against his chest to steady herself and had only an instant to appreciate his solid, sweaty warmth before he jumped to the ground. He hefted a bale as if it weighed no more than his battered ball cap and swung toward the barn.
“Where is Wade, anyway?”
“Home with his wife,” she called after him, her gaze lingering on a very fine rear view. She exhaled, pictured his handsome face and sucked in her bottom lip. What had put that furrow between his brows?
No matter what was troubling him, she’d only make it worse by letting him do all the work. She pulled her gloves from the back pocket of her jeans. As she stuffed her hands into the scarred leather, a gust of autumn air skated past the pickup, carrying the comforting scents of meadow grass and manure, lifting her bangs off her forehead. Pride surged. She scanned the fields of her Pennsylvania farm, waves of vibrant green lolling under a thin, hazy streak of Lake Erie blue.
Seth emerged from the barn, one eyebrow lifted. With a squeak Ivy lunged forward and started shoving.
He leaned an arm on the nearest bale and she noticed his faded navy Henley was ripped at the elbow. “Becky still recovering from her accident?”
She stopped pushing, flipped her braid back over her shoulder and nodded. “He’s working fewer hours until he’s confident he can leave her on her own.” It was proving to be rough handling Wade’s chores on top of hers, but at this particular moment she was grateful for her farm manager’s absence. It was nice having Seth all to herself.
Even if they had strayed from their routine. Usually they took their time, engaging in nonstop innuendos and dirty jokes. It was why he always saved her stop for last. They’d end the visit with his asking her out and her asking him to bed. Both knew nothing would come of it. Seth didn’t do casual, so Ivy didn’t do Seth. Because she was all about casual.
But as much as their sexual standoff frustrated her—and drove her to ride her own fingers almost every night—she looked forward to their time together. He respected her. Challenged her. Cheered her.
At least he had until today. He was probably just tired. The man worked harder than she did. And he was a single father of two.
“I’m sorry she’s not doing well.” Seth gripped the twine binding the nearest bale and tugged it toward him. “I’d heard the accident wasn’t serious. Just the one car involved, right?”
“She broke her collarbone.”
Ivy must not have managed to keep the cynicism out of her voice, because Seth cocked his head. “And?”
“And…it’s a collarbone. Collarbones heal.” She wondered at the relief that skated across Seth’s face. Sweet of him to worry about a woman he didn’t even know. “But I think Becky’s gotten used to having Wade around the house. And I think he likes feeling needed.”
“So a husband misses his wife. What’s wrong with that?”
“I need him, too,” she said, and cringed at the petulance in her tone.
Seth dipped his head and looked up through his lashes. Good God, the man had gorgeous eyes. “You’re not thinking about breaking your own collarbone, are you?”
She rolled her eyes, watched as he hoisted the bale and blurted, “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Miss your wife?”
He stopped, adjusted his grip and headed for the barn. “Ex-wife,” she heard him mutter.
Guess that meant she wouldn’t get an answer. She was still trying to decide whether to press the issue when Seth reappeared. Quickly, she leaned over again and braced her hands on another bale, feeling like a football player performing preseason drills. She slid the bundle over to Seth but didn’t straighten, liking that his face, with its stubbled jaw and concerned expression, was so close to her own.
“Hey, what’s with the sign?” he asked.
She knew what he meant. The big fancy Millbrook Dairy Farm sign at the end of the driveway had become the pet project of some smart-ass with artistic skills. He—or she—liked to monkey with the middle word. Currently the sign read Millbrook Funny Farm. The moniker probably had Ivy’s father rolling over in his grave, but it was fairly accurate.
“I’ve decided to stop wasting energy trying to fix it,” she said. “At least it’s always G-rated. Though I have to admit, I didn’t much like the Fat Farm edition.”
Seth grunted, took off one glove and freed a hunk of hay. “You got someone seeing to Wade’s work while he’s gone?”
In her dreams. “Yes.”
His gaze narrowed. “So you don’t need help picking up the slack?”
“You offering to stop by more often? Give me a hand when I need it? Or—” she propped her chin in her palm, arched her back and gently swayed her hips, enjoying the stretch of the muscles at the backs of her thighs “—maybe there’s another body part you’d be willing to contribute to the cause.”
Seth slapped a palm down on the hay bale. “Need to get this inside,” he said.
His voice carried an edge. She peered at him, watched his gaze flick from her face to the front of the truck, saw the color streak his cheekbones, and glanced behind her. Oh. Oh. It wasn’t the front of the truck that had snagged his attention but her reflection in the sliding window. With her chest nearly touching the hay bale and her ass in the air, her position seemed somewhat…suggestive.
It was affecting him.
And now it was affecting her.
She straightened slowly and treated herself to an unhurried inspection of some serious muscles. “You’re looking flushed,” she managed. “Too much sun, I expect. How about a beer?”
“Love one.” He swallowed and with a tilt of his chin indicated his pickup. “But this thing won’t drive itself.”
“You know that’s not going to happen.”
Yeah. She did. She shrugged. “Why’re you driving Joe’s truck?”
“My brakes are shot.”
“On your pickup?” A curt nod. “You couldn’t use your box truck?”
“Didn’t have that many deliveries to make. Anyway, the box truck uses too much gas for everyday use.”
She frowned. “Business okay?”
Her stomach dropped, but his next words made it clear his “No” had nothing to do with her question.
He removed his ball cap again. The brown hair plastered to his skull looked black. “We’re not going to just step over this and keep on walking. Not again. We’ve been circling each other for a year. But we both know it’s not going to happen. We want different things. And neither one of us will get it unless we back away from each other.”
“How do you know I’m not getting it?” she asked archly.
Her face heated under his steady gaze. “Point is,” he continued, “while we’re doing whatever this is we’re doing, I haven’t felt free to see anyone else.”
“But you want to.”
He moved to the side and held out a gloved hand, offering to help her jump down. When her boots hit the ground, she almost dropped to her knees, which were suddenly and inconveniently loose. He stared down at her.
“I’m looking at the woman I want to date. You’ve made it clear that won’t happen.”
“You want more than I can give.”
“How about what I can give? You don’t think you deserve love, but you do.”
When she didn’t—couldn’t—respond, he tapped a knuckle under her chin. “This thing about not wanting kids…it doesn’t make sense. They arrive by the bus-full and you enjoy the tours as much as they do. If you’d just give it a chance—”
She jerked away from him, the warmth sparked by his “you deserve love” comment vanishing faster than an apple under her stallion’s nose. “You don’t know that.” Her hang-up when it came to kids might not be rational, but she had her reasons—reasons she didn’t plan on sharing with anyone, let alone Seth.
“You don’t know me,” she continued.
“You won’t let me.”
“But there are so many incredible things I will let you do.”
He blew out an exasperated breath. “Come on. This is about more than sex. You like me. You look forward to my visits. We have fun together. My kids don’t bite.” He flashed a grin that threatened her knees all over again. Damn that dimple. “All right, they do, but not often, and never when there’s a chance they’ll talk someone into playing Uno. Look, you have a lot in common. All three of you love horses, hate Brussels sprouts and live to cause me grief. Why not give this a shot?”
“Because I’m looking for sex, not a happy-ever-after.”
“Got it.” He put his hat back on and reached again for the hay bale, his motions smooth but his stubble-roughened jaw as hard as the steel toes of his work boots. “Olivia over at the DMV has been asking me out for a while now. Guess I’ll take her up on it. Maybe it would be better for both of us if I split your deliveries with Bradley.”
“Did you warn him about me? Tell him not to turn his back on the cougar at the dairy farm?” She was being unfair. She wasn’t winning any points, either—there was no mistaking the disgust in Seth’s expression.
Time to pretend the past fifteen seconds of conversation had never taken place, because otherwise she’d dissolve into tears right in front of him. Besides, she knew how busy the feed store kept Seth and his part-timer… Chances were their delivery schedule would stay the same.
She also did her best to ignore the sudden scorch of indignation she had no right to feel. Olivia Duncan was a petite, bubbly brunette with big breasts and a notorious affection for children, if not for their teeth. She kept a bottomless bowl of candy at her window for the kids whose parents had dragged them along on their errands. No way could Ivy compete with that, even if she wanted to.
“Wise choice,” she finally managed.
“Bradley? Or Olivia?”
“Olivia. I didn’t think Bradley was your type.”
Seth gave her a look she couldn’t interpret. “You know her?”
“Not personally. But I’m sure, after you wine and dine her once or twice, the next time you go in to renew your license she’ll wave you right up to the front of the line.”
He never cracked a smile. “It’ll be nice to have a woman put me first for a change.”