“It’s not snowing or raining.”
“It’s still slippery.”
“I’m careful.” I shrug and grin to myself. I love getting him riled up, and I can’t explain why. It’s just fun.
“Let me do this for you.”
“My house, my lights, my problem.”
“Come on, Jilly, get down.”
I shake my head no, and suddenly, strong hands circle my hips and I’m pulled off the ladder like a five-year-old.
“What the hell!” I cry out as he sets me effortlessly on the ground.
“I won’t have you on that fucking ladder in the middle of winter, Jillian.” He scowls down at me and I get a clear look at his face.
He looks tired, and maybe a little sad.
“I was doing fine,” I insist.
“Hand me the lights,” he replies and moves the ladder. As he climbs it, I have a prime view of his spectacular denim-covered ass.
“What are you here for?” I call up to him as I feed him the lights.
“We’ll talk about it after we finish this. Do you just want these on the gutters, or do you want some up on the other eaves too?”
“I was just going to do the gutters, but I have more lights. I don’t want to walk on the roof.”
“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all day,” he grumbles, making me grin again. “I’ll put them up there for you, if you bought enough. Just grab my staple gun out of my truck.”
“I have a staple gun in the Christmas box.” I rummage around and hand it up to him.
He nods and goes about the task, not saying much. I can’t help but admit that he does the job at least three times faster than I could have, and before I know it, he’s climbed up onto the roof.
My heart is in my throat and I watch with wide eyes as he carefully steps around the eaves, stapling lights as he goes. My hands are clenched tightly under my chin and I’m whispering prayers that he doesn’t fall.
“You can go inside, Jilly,” Zack calls down as he staples lights around a window. “I have this covered.”
“Hell no, I’m not going inside!”
“It’s cold out here.”
I’m not even aware of it. It occurs to me that I can’t feel my nose or my feet anymore, and I don’t care. My eyes are pinned to the tall, handsome man on my roof.
“I’m fine,” I reply.
“Have I mentioned that you’re stubborn?”
“Once or twice.”
He laughs and shakes his head and secures the last staple.
“Okay, plug them in.”
I run to the porch and plug in the lights, then run back into the front yard to see them.
“Oh, they’re so pretty!”
“Thank God they all work,” he says as he tosses the black shoe down to the ground and then moves carefully down to the ladder. “It would be a bitch to have to take them back down.”
“I checked them,” I assure him, and when his foot finally lands safely on the snow and he turns to me, I hit him on the arm. “You shouldn’t have done that! You took ten years off my life!”
I throw my arms around his torso and squeeze him tightly, then back away.
“No, you shouldn’t have been on that ladder. If I catch you on one again, I’ll spank your ass until it glows.”
My jaw drops as I gaze up into his frustrated face. For once in my life, I’m speechless. I scowl as I pull myself together and clench my fists. “You wouldn’t dare . . .”
“Put yourself in danger again and see if I don’t,” he replies calmly and crosses his arms over his chest.
“Did you come here to bully me?”
He sighs and pulls his beanie off his head, pushing his fingers through the messy brown strands. I want to sink my fingers in that thick, dark hair.
“No. I came because you won’t answer your fucking phone so I can apologize for the other night.”
“I don’t want your apology,” I reply and throw the extra lights and staple gun back into the tote and turn away, but he catches my arm and turns me back to him, takes the tote, and sets it down.
“I’m going to give it anyway.” His jaw is firm. “I had no right to kiss you like that in the parking lot for everyone to see.”
I jerk back, mortified. “You’re apologizing for kissing me?”
He shakes his head and starts to speak, but I interrupt.
“So let me get this straight. You’re not apologizing for yelling at me, or for walking out on me that morning without a note or a word, or even for turning me on and then leaving me. You’re apologizing for fucking kissing me.”
I’m so mortified, I don’t know what to do with myself. Before I can turn and run away from him, he catches my arm again and turns me to face him, his hands holding my shoulders firmly.
“What do you want from me?” he growls.
“I want you to be honest,” I reply. “I want you to look me in the eye and just tell me you don’t want me. Stop playing with me. We had sex months ago, and I was afraid it was going to make us all uncomfortable, and for a little while it did. But then it got better, and now we’re back to awkward. Zack, our families are entwined, and we’re going to see a lot of each other. I don’t want to always be on edge around you.”
“Jilly,” he whispers, his eyes pinned to my lips. “I’m trying to apologize for hurting you. For not talking to you.”
“You could just stay away from me,” I say and try to back out of his hold, but his fingers tighten. “We’ll be civil at get-togethers and just ignore each other the rest of the time.”
“That’s not possible.” He steps closer and tips my chin up with his cold glove-covered finger. “That’s just it, Jill. I can’t stay away. I’ve tried for months. I know I’m fucking this up because when I’m around you, I turn into a tongue-tied idiot. I wanted to apologize for hurting your feelings and ask you to come out to the ranch tonight for dinner.”
He’s panting like saying that was the hardest thing he’s ever pushed past his lips. He looks uncertain and vulnerable and suddenly, something in me . . . shifts.
“You want to do dinner with Josh and Cara?” I ask uncertainly.
“No.” He shakes his head and chuckles humorlessly. “I’m asking you out on a fucking date.”
“And eloquently at that,” I reply dryly. He swears under his breath and backs away, and I gasp at the loss of his heat on my cold shoulders.