Back to Love
by AC Arthur
Part of the Stories that Stand Alone
If the feelings come back, is it possible they never left?
When Jorie Kemp set out to put her design company on the national level by entering a contest to be on a flipping houses reality show, she had no idea she’d end up working with her ex-high school sweetheart, Dominic Hughes. Let alone falling for his precious son.
Baby mama drama, coupled with catastrophes on the project, makes the rekindled passion between Jorie and Dom seem like the worst idea ever. Yet, for these old flames, something just keeps reigniting the fire and pulling them back to love.
Back to Love
Part of the Stories that Stand Alone
Back to Love
Jorie closed the door behind her and took the first step into the house that was going to put her and JK Designs on the map in the design industry. Within seconds of her booted feet hitting the floor, the sound of cracking wood echoed throughout the empty space. In the same miniscule amount of time, a strong arm went around her waist and she was jerked to the side hard enough to have her teeth clattering.
“I got you,” a deep voice whispered just inches from her ear as the owner of the voice stepped back, carrying her with him.
Her feet were no longer touching the floor, and the smart retort that would’ve normally fallen from her lips by now was stalled by the strength of the grip this person had on her.
“Here ya go,” he said, releasing her to let her feet hit the floor or what she presumed was a more stable portion of the dilapidated wood. “I just ran out to my truck to get some signs to put up around the hazardous places. Almost didn’t make it back in time.”
Jorie had been about to turn around, to ask who the hell he thought he was and why he was in the house she’d purchased to facilitate her appearance on the Fantasy Flip reality show, but something held her still. Not something, his voice. It was familiar. That southern twang that snuck into some of his words, the raspy tone that almost sounded like he was sick but was really his signature timbre.
No. It couldn’t be.
Her heart thumped and she felt like she was moving in slow motion as she turned to face him. The second her gaze settled on his rich, whiskey-brown complexion and connected with tree-bark brown eyes meant to make a woman strip without question, she sucked in a breath.
“Jorie?” He’d always said her name as if it were one delightful whisper—especially when they’d been in bed.
She trembled at that quick memory and struggled to find her voice. “Dom,” she said and then rushed to clear her throat, because that crackling teenage tone she’d just used had to go. “What’re you doing here?”
His head tilted in that way that always made him look a little confused, annoyed and too damn fine. “Checking out the place. What’re you doing here?”
“Working.” One clipped word was all that was required. “Why’re you checking out my house?”
“Your house?” His brow furrowed—three neat lines that often appeared along his forehead when he doubted something or was trying to figure out something. The reason didn’t matter; the expression did nothing to taint the bad-boy good looks he’d been blessed with. “Wait, don’t tell me you’re JK Designs.”
“Kent,” she said through clenched teeth. “That’s my last name now and, yes, JK Designs is my company. This is the house I’m working on for the Fantasy Flip show.” She folded her arms over her chest, leaving out the part where this house and the exposure from the reality show was what she needed to save her fledgling company. “Your turn?”
One corner of his mouth—the left side, which she should’ve recalled because he was left-handed and most of his actions tended to favor that side—lifted into a quick grin before he shook his head in disbelief. Taking a step back, he lifted a hand to rub down his thick beard. The neatly groomed growth along his jaw was new and, combined with the three or four strands of gray amid the black, added a distinguished look to an already dangerously handsome man. It hit her then, with as much of a punch as the instant memories, that she hadn’t seen Dom for almost twenty years. “I’m working on this house too,” he told her.
“No,” she gasped and reached into her back pocket to grab her phone. Pulling it out, she hastily scrolled until she found the email from Renegade Construction. The message was from someone named Jazmine, the administrative assistant most likely, but at the time, Jorie hadn’t cared who it was from, as long as the message said they were available and would take the job. Lifting her head to see him staring knowingly at her, she closed her eyes and said a quick prayer.
Ask, and you shall receive. Jorie remembered that from all those Sundays her mother had dragged her and her older sister Dani to church.
“I own Renegade Construction,” he said, and her eyes popped open. “I just came back to town a few weeks ago and opened a branch here.”
“No,” she repeated, shaking her head. “Macon, my paint guy, told me he knew of a reputable company. How’re you reputable if you just got back in town?”
“My company’s nationwide.” Either he knew she wouldn’t instantly believe him, or he wanted to brag, which would be more in line with the Dom she knew—because he reached into his back pocket next, stepping forward to offer her the card he’d retrieved from his wallet. “In the past few years, we’ve been known for the skyscrapers we’ve worked on in all the major cities, but I’ve always had a particular interest in residential properties. Since this was in the old neighborhood, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.”
She held the card, staring down at his name in embossed black letters: Dominic C. Hughes. The “C” stood for Calvin. That was his father’s name, and Dom hated it. “Okay. I’ll have to find someone else,” she said, handing the card back to him. When he only raised a brow but didn’t move to accept the card, she sighed and stuffed it into the back pocket of her jeans. “Look, it’s just not gonna work. I can’t do this, and after all we’ve been through, I don’t know why you’d even consider doing this, either.”
“Whoa, wait a sec. I didn’t know you were JK when I accepted this job. Your last name used to be Tomlin.”
“And you used to be my friend, but obviously things change.”
He was the one to sigh this time. “Fine. We have history that obviously still has some negativity brewing. But this is business, and I don’t know how you go about handling yours, but I take mine very seriously. Which is why we’ve been able to expand so widely in such a short span of time. Now, you said you needed somebody who could get started right away and work on a tight six-week schedule. Well—” he continued with a shrug, “—that’s me.”
“I really don’t think I can do this with you, Dom.” She looked away to the wallpaper peeling off the walls and another hole in the floor in the next room. “I don’t want to do this with you.”
He stepped closer to her. She turned to look at him again as he spoke. “You don’t have the time or the crew to do it without me.”
She still hated him.
The way Jorie stalked away from him, albeit stepping gingerly over the rotted wood-planked floors, spoke volumes. The heated look in her amber eyes and the set line of her pink-tinted lips said everything she was forcing herself not to say. All the words and accusations he suspected she’d been holding since the week after graduation, when she’d read his note saying he was leaving Newton, seemed to hover in the air around them now.
He really couldn’t blame her. Walking behind her, he recalled those last few weeks of school when she’d been hinting at their future and he’d already known there was no such thing. A year ahead of Jorie in high school, Dom had stayed in town a year longer than he’d wanted, just to be with her. But in those last twelve months when he was a nineteen-year-old orphan, he’d realized the things Jorie wanted were none of the things he could give her.
“I want these two walls knocked out.” She spoke, but didn’t turn back to look at him. “It’ll bring the kitchen all the way out to here. And we’ll open up that wall over there for windows to bring in more light.”
She’d stopped a few feet in front of him, stretching an arm out in front of her as she visualized the desired layout. Getting his head into the game and out of the past, he pulled his phone out of his back pocket and began to type in notes. “I think this one might be supporting,” he said and touched a hand to one of the walls she’d been referring to.
It separated an awkwardly angled dining room from the smaller kitchen, but it was also part of the oddly curved archway that brought together another half wall on the other side of the room. He suspected they were there for a reason and tilted his head so he could look up at the ceiling to further investigate.
“This is most likely the main support for this floor. See how it stretches the length of the house?” He didn’t turn to see if she looked at him; he knew she did. The warmth sliding down the back of his neck like a trickling of water confirmed it. That sensation had come back with a vengeance the second they’d locked gazes. It had been years since he’d felt that way, so long ago he’d never thought that type of awareness of another person would exist for him again. “I can take it down, but we’re most likely going to need a beam for support. We could go with steel and build out around it, or you could spend a little more for something decorative to be exposed.”
“That may work with my design if we find the right material for the beam, but let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.”
He’d been typing in his phone but stopped at her words. His grandmother used to say that to him all the time. Stop worrying about problems before they become your problem, Dom. Cross that bridge when you get to it. Shaking his head, he held on to the sound of his grandmother’s voice echoing in his ear. When he was six, Dom’s mother had passed away due to complications from lupus. After her daughter’s death, Martha Cooley had taken him in and had eventually become everything to Dom. He was seventeen when his grandmother died from a heart attack. The feeling of being lost and alone had almost overtaken him, even though Jorie had been sitting in the hospital waiting room right beside him on that dreary winter’s day so long ago.
“We’re gonna need new windows throughout. I saw the ones upstairs briefly on my previous walk-through before the sale. And the basement, all the bathrooms, total gut jobs. Then we have landscaping.” She talked as she moved, and he followed behind her, taking notes. It was apparent she knew what she was doing. Her vision for the place was clear and she knew which materials would work best with not only her plan but with the area the house was in. She wasn’t trying to take a colonial house and give it a Mediterranean flair, but instead was going with a fresh update to a traditional single-family home in a community-focused neighborhood of the town. And she looked good while doing it.
There was no way he was ever going to miss how Jorie looked. He’d spent years admiring everything about her physically and mentally. At five feet three inches tall, she could’ve been considered short, but the top of her head had come just under his chin, requiring him to tilt her chin up and lean down just a bit to kiss her. The way she’d rise on the tips of her toes, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck when they’d kissed, had always made him feel comforted, needed, wanted.
If he remembered correctly, Jorie’s sister Dani loved to do hair. She’d graduated the year before Dom and by the time he’d packed up and left town, she’d been taking classes at the local hair school. Staring at the wavy, reddish-tinted waves of Jorie’s hair, he grinned at the memory of the days when she used to sit on their porch while Dani braided her hair. Days later when Jorie would take her hair out, it would look wavy all over just like it did today, sans the color, because Ms. Regina was strict and didn’t allow Jorie to date, dye her hair or wear makeup until she was sixteen.
“Are you listening?”
Her curt tone snapped him out of his thoughts, or at least partially. Staring at her now facing him with one hand on her hip, her head tilted slightly, eyes wide as she waited for him to respond, he couldn’t help but continue to stare at her. She had a russet-brown complexion with gorgeous amber-hued eyes, lips that weren’t too big—like he considered his own—or too small, but just right for licking and kissing. His body tensed at the thought and he coughed. It was a fake cough, of course, and when he lifted his arm to cough into his elbow and look away from her, that was all for show as well. Anything to keep her from noticing that he was still mesmerized by her.
“This is important,” she continued. “If you’re not gonna be able to keep up, you need to let me know now and I’ll find someone else. I don’t have time to waste.”
“I’m not wasting your time,” he said, bringing his gaze back to her once more. “And I heard everything you said.” Not entirely true, but he wasn’t about to start admitting things to Jorie this soon. “We’ll have to sit down and talk about your budget and timelines before we can get started. How ‘bout we go get some dinner?”
Retreat was clear in the way her shoulders squared and she quirked her lips. “How ‘bout you start paying attention and take notes instead of texting or whatever you were doing on your phone?”
She walked around him then, going back toward the front of the house after scolding him like he was some elementary school student. Jorie always had been a bossy one. He followed her again, this time stopping beside her where she stood at the living room windows.
“You can open this up,” he said. “Make them stretch from the door to the wall. Then, once that center wall comes down, we take your sliding doors in the dining room and make them wall-to-wall, bringing the outside in from both angles. The sliders in the dining room will open out to the deck and the newly landscaped yard, which buyers will love seeing the moment they step into the living room.”
There was no immediate response as he suspected she considered his words. It wouldn’t be easy for her to admit he was right—her tenacious and stubborn personality would fight against it. He held back a grin because those were the traits they shared, and damn if that hadn’t made for more than one spirited argument between them over the years, yet there was one argument they’d never had. Jorie hadn’t argued when he left because he hadn’t given her the opportunity.
“That’s a good idea.” Her tone was stilted and she stood rigidly beside him.
Silence fell between them again, and Dom resisted the urge to reach out and touch her. He’d never been able to be near her without touching her—brushing his fingers over the smooth skin of her face, twirling her hair, a graze of his hand at the small of her back, holding her hand in his as they walked. Dammit, how was he going to work with her without getting too close to her? He didn’t have a choice; he needed this job, probably more than he needed to hold Jorie right now.
“This isn’t going to get personal,” she said and then walked to the door and stopped. She didn’t look back at him but spoke again, quietly this time. “You do your job, and I’ll do mine. All I want is to win this challenge and gain more exposure for my company. That’s it.”
“We want the same thing,” he told her, trying like hell not to recall that time she’d once believed that. “I’m not here to disrupt your life, Jorie. It’s been a long time—we can still be friends.”
“No,” she said, cutting off anything else he might’ve thought he was going to say. “We can work together, and then you can do like it was so easy for you to do before and stay the hell away from me.”
end of excerpt
Back to Love
by AC Arthur
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