Ready for the unexpected twists and turns of the third billionaire romance in Jean Oram’s highly rated Summer Sisters series?
Read a sneak peek of Love and Trust, Melanie and Tristen and how they must learn to trust themselves in order to snag a second chance at love.
Melanie slammed the door to the Super Duty Ford pickup and swore under her breath as the machine sent gravel flying across the Steel Barrel’s parking lot. She waved away the dust, the sun’s heat prickling her bare arms. Not only was she was stuck outside a biker bar in the middle of nowhere, but she was wearing a 1950s-style halter dress that placed her cleavage on display, and she’d left her purse on the passenger seat of her date’s truck.
She turned to the retreating truck, giving her now former date, Stedman, the finger.
This was the last time she would allow her sister Maya to badger her into getting out of her comfy oversized T-shirts and into the dating world. Not that she’d put up much of a fight, seeing as the two eldest Summer sisters had fallen in love last month, and everyone had agreed that it was now Melanie’s turn to do the same.
She trudged across the gravel lot in her kitten mules. Were they kittens and mules? How did that work?
Oh, who cared? She was never wearing the shoes again, seeing as the experiment of reinventing herself had failed miserably. Stedman had made assumptions based on her appearance. Namely, that she wouldn’t argue with him—even though he knew she was a lawyer. Fat chance on that one, buddy. That, and have sex with him behind the abandoned roadside motel next door. As soon as she got home she was tossing off this getup and climbing straight into her old wardrobe of jeans and big, comfy T-shirts.
Her sisters could call it hiding, but it didn’t attract jerks who left her outside biker bars with no way home.
If she wanted passion she could find it in a sex shop, along with a package of AA batteries.
The Steel Barrel, like many places along Ontario’s backwoods highways, was a fading, falling down establishment, although this one was rumored to be a gathering spot for the local chapter of the Hells Angels. A closed gas station stood on the far side of the bar, growing weeds, with scrap metal piled high behind it.
No phone booth. No purse or cell phone, because Stedman had spun off so fast Melanie hadn’t fully realized what was happening.
She was a lawyer. Supposed to be intelligent and savvy. But apparently she wasn’t that street smart when it came to men. If she’d had more than five dates in the past…oh goodness, she didn’t want to try and count how many years it might be…she probably would have seen this coming.
It was the last time she’d try online dating.
Why was she spending time chasing men, anyway? She should be at the office, trying to catch up on the mounds of paperwork avalanching off her desk. Besides, if destiny actually existed and did have her, the third Summer sister, in its sights to take the next fall, then destiny could get off its butt and come find her.
Preferably, with a man in tow.
Melanie glanced at the bar one last time, then scooted by an ancient, sun-bleached Ford with a flat tire. Only two hogs in the parking lot. That should make it less scary inside, right? She carefully crept up the rotting wood steps and braced herself to peek into the suspiciously quiet tavern. Shouldn’t there be music blaring and people being tossed through the grimy windows? She checked the sun, which was still fairly high in the sky. Maybe it was too early?
Hoping for air-conditioning, she daintily pushed through the saloon-style door. Nope, not a chance. The only coolish breeze to touch her skin was from the door swinging back to slap her on the rear.
To the right was a pool table with green felt worn down to its backing. Small tables crowded the rest of the room. Melanie tried to walk naturally, even though all eyes had turned to her, watching her every move. One bartender, two scary bikers, and a guy in a ball cap who appeared to be none of the above.
Keeping her eyes straight ahead, she took a seat equidistant between the bikers and Ball Cap. Her bare elbows stuck to the bar’s surface and she peeled them off, giving the man to her right a weak smile. He not only seemed to be the best bet out of this place—although he was likely the guy with the flat tire—he also looked vaguely familiar. He was about a decade older than she was and definitely cute. Judging from the way the sleeves of his button-up shirt were rolled to reveal his strong forearms, she’d bet her last dollar, which was riding in Stedman’s truck, that he’d been a businessman at one point.
The bartender stepped closer, the chains hooked on his stained jeans clanging ominously. He stroked his long beard in a leisurely fashion as he took her in, his demeanor meant to be intimidating. And totally working. He knew she didn’t belong here—she didn’t belong anywhere. Not even in her tight-knit family of four sisters.
The bartender was across from her now, fist nestled in his open palm. Fearing that she was about to get kicked out for not buying anything, Melanie spun on her stool to face the quiet man beside her. “Excuse me, do you have a phone?”
He nudged up the brim of his cap, then, as if realizing he was wearing it indoors, took it off and placed it over his right knee, perhaps so it wouldn’t get sticky on the bar. His gentle gaze took her in. All the way from her silly shoes to the mess of curls hanging limply over her shoulders. “Yeah,” he said slowly.
“Could I borrow it to make a call, please?”
The man patted his jeans pockets. “How do I know you aren’t going to run off with it?”
“How fast can a woman run in heels?” she replied, as sweetly as her panic would allow. The bartender was pushing his fisted knuckles into his other palm now, biceps flexing. Really big biceps. Biceps that probably could lift her up and chuck her out the door from where he stood.
The quiet man gave her a crooked smile that caused her heart to stagger as he handed over his phone. “I’m sure I could outrun you.”
“Thanks.” Melanie tapped in Hailey’s number with shaking hands. No answer. She tried her other two sisters, as well as their family friend, Simone, leaving messages with all of them. Sighing, Melanie handed the phone back, her eyes darting to the bartender, who had moved back to chat with the bikers, even though he kept one eye on her.
“Car break down?” the man asked, pocketing the device.
“Something like that.”
He took a slow sip of his drink and watched her.
“Okay, fine. My date dumped me here when I wouldn’t have sex with him behind the motel next door. I didn’t get a chance to grab my purse and phone out of his truck.”
The man’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly and he quietly set down his drink, blinking once. “Well. That wasn’t very gentlemanly.”
“Last time I try online dating. ‘Down-to-earth, back-to-the-basics’ apparently means ‘entitled prick who demands sex on the first date.’”
The corner of the man’s lips twitched and his fingers grew tight around his pint of beer. He cast a glance around the room, sitting taller as though on the lookout for trouble. “I apologize on behalf of mankind,” he said finally, resting his gaze back on her.
“No need. That was officially my last date. I’m turning in my dance card. Tomorrow I will be going to the SPCA to pick up my ten cats. They come free when you take the vow of spinsterhood. For each year you keep the vow you get an extra cat. It’s a pretty good deal when you think about it.”
The man let out a surprised bark of laughter.
She turned to him, putting on a prim act. “What? I will make a fine cat lady.”
His lips twitched again and his eyes glimmered with humor.
Melanie relaxed, propping an elbow on the sticky bar. “You look familiar.”
He focused on his beer, the quiet, closed look returning. She tapped the bar with a fingernail as she ran through the list of possibilities of where she might have seen his cute chin and slightly shaggy haircut. “It was a photo! Did Hailey—she’s my sister—photograph you? No, newspaper. That’s it. I’ve seen you in the paper. Bracebridge Examiner.”
The man adjusted his position, angling his shoulders away from her. “I’d offer you a ride, but I’m waiting for a tow truck.”
He gave a short nod.
“You’re sure that’s the only thing wrong with that old beast? It looks like something Henry Ford may have personally christened.”
Her companion gave her a half smile of acknowledgment, his shoulders slowly relaxing.
“I like it,” she said. “The truck.”
He shifted back her way. Progress. She’d win a ride from him yet. She was good with people, and as like everything else in her life at the moment, she just needed a little more time.
“I like things that have a bit of character as well as a story,” she said, edging closer. Not into his space, but enough to let him know she was comfortable around him. “Older stuff that’s not all perfect and glossed up. You can tell it’s had a life. Adventure. Character. Embraced, not hidden.” She leaned her head toward his, as though confiding a secret, pleased when he echoed her posture. “And that truck has character in spades.” Melanie straightened and slapped the bar with her right hand. “Tristen Bell! That’s who you are.”
“Bingo. You won the toaster.” Tristen hunched over his beer, something she couldn’t identify masking his earlier interest. He was cute, if slightly distant. He had a certain something that intrigued her, and a way of looking at her that made her feel seen. It was silly, but if he kept playing his cards right and he wasn’t careful, she just might develop a little bit of a crush on him.
“You retired or something,” she continued. “Although you look pretty young for that.” He couldn’t be an hour over forty. Although the well-washed shirt, casually rumpled hair and strong cords of muscles lining his forearms could make the former real estate mogul appear younger than he was. But still, nowhere near retirement age. Even his truck had to have a few decades on him.
Yep. Definitely crush-worthy.
According to Maya’s fiancé, Connor, his friend Tristen Bell had made billions with his land development company and was one of Muskoka’s most eligible bachelors, even though he had practically turned anti-social after his divorce. No arm candy. No long string of babes trailing in his wake.
Melanie held in a sigh. Yep. She could feel a crush coming on like a big ol’ head cold—despite her vow to stay away from men and the world of dating.
“Not truly retired. I still sell a bit of real estate,” Tristen said, his shoulders hunched defensively.
“My sisters and I are wondering how to stop a major development.”
Tristen stood before she could say more. “I think I’d better wait outside for the tow truck.”
The bartender, who had been chatting with the bikers, shot a glance Melanie’s way, head tipped back in scrutiny. Was he checking to see if she was okay, or was he making sure she wasn’t stealing his ratty cardboard coasters? She spun off her stool and followed Tristen outside.
Earlier, it had been difficult to imagine him sitting at home, alone, with those sexy forearms and broad shoulders. But the way he played hot and cold could definitely explain why he was single. Then again, that kind of behaviour in men wasn’t exactly atypical. Guys drooled over her sister Maya, but Melanie? Not so much. They usually got that distant, slightly constipated look and pulled back if she tried turning on the charm.
Nothing new, so why take it personally?
The sun struck her with its heat as she stumbled onto the wooden porch.
A hand steadied her with reassuring strength.
Swoon. Earlier, she’d had to resist the urge to touch the bare skin that stretched over the muscles flexing below Tristen’s rolled-up cuffs. She’d always been a sucker for strong arms. Something about a man being able to lift her without grunting and straining had always been a turn-on. And now him steadying her? Goodness, she was crushing. Big time. And totally struggling to keep from stroking his arms.
He gave her a small nod of acknowledgment.
She pointed to the old truck. “Shall we fix it?” Anything to get out of here and avoid walking home along the highway in her heels.
“The lug nuts are rusted up. Can’t turn them.”
Melanie stared at the old truck’s wheels, then at Tristen’s strong, yummy build. “I have an idea.”
He glanced at her dress and winced. “I’m not sure I like ideas.”
What was that supposed to mean?
“You’ll like this one. Trust me.” She climbed up the bar’s steps again, Guns and Roses now blasting. The bartender was absent and Melanie glanced around before making her way back to her vacated seat, where she leaned over the bar and swept up a handful of lemon wedges. She could be debarred for stealing. Did this count as theft? She certainly hadn’t paid for them. Turning to go with her pilfered fruit, she paused for a half second. The biker with the massive beard was staring at her as though he knew her. She gave him a weak smile and hurried back outside.
“You’re going to turn lemons into lemonade?” Tristen asked.
“Something like that. First, here’s the deal.”
He crossed his arms and leaned against the truck’s back fender. “I’m not interested in marriage.”
She choked on her laughter.
“What?” His brow furrowed in displeasure.
“Do I look like I’m trolling for a husband?” She fluffed out her skirt. “Okay, yeah, maybe a bit, but I don’t usually dress like this. I’m more of a T-shirt and jeans kind of girl.”
“That’s too bad. The look suits you. You have nice legs.”
Melanie struggled to accept the compliment, but found she couldn’t, given the lump in her throat. She was a Sasquatch. Always had been, since the puberty fairy had sprinkled her with that evil, magical dust. Tristen didn’t seem to be walking with the aid of a white cane, so why the false compliments?
“I already turned down one offer of sex this afternoon, I’ll turn down another.” She widened her stance.
“Forcibly if need be.”
A hint of color tinged Tristen’s cheeks. “That was a compliment. Ever get any of those, or does your quick offense usually cut them off?”
She narrowed her eyes.
“You are beautiful, you know. And just for the record, women are supposed to lap up compliments.”
“I’m not a kitten at the milk bowl.” Melanie turned away. “All I want is a ride after I fix your truck.”
She stole another quick glance at him. He was still in that sexy pose, arms crossed, one ankle hooked over the other, and watching her as though trying to figure her out.
Desperate to put them on friendly terms again, she took the hand that wasn’t cupping the lemons and ran it over the truck’s curved hood. It was a classic 1960s Ford, with an almost vertical windshield. Not something she’d expect a man with supposed billions in his bank account to be driving. “How did you end up with a vehicle like this?”
“I needed a truck during renovations and my neighbor had one for sale.”
“I thought you had someone else do those for you?” That’s what the article had said.
His shoulders tightened as he straightened up again, and his voice became formal, businesslike. “I’m at a disadvantage.” He met her eyes, slow and sure as he shook her hand. “I have the honor of meeting…?”
“Melanie Summer.” She straightened her spine, tugging her hand from his grip. The way he’d held it, focusing all his attention on her after complimenting her, was doing strange things to her mind and body. If she didn’t know better, she’d think she’d sped straight from a developing crush to full on, unabridged lust.
She obviously needed to get out more.
“No relation to Daphne Summer, by chance?”
Melanie held in her smile. Damn. He was a real estate developer. Of course he knew her youngest sister.
He’d probably met her head-on, seeing as she was responsible for almost every protest against local land developments over the past few years. And there had been plenty.
Melanie tipped up her chin. “She’s my kid sister.”
“I have one of her paintings in my living room.”
Melanie forced her gaping jaw shut. “Her paintings?” Lately, Daphne had started selling her artwork at local farmers markets to help foot her portion of the family’s overdue tax bill on their century-old cottage. First Maya’s fiancé had ended up with one of Daphne’s paintings, and now Tristen, too? This was getting weird. Although the two men were friends. Maybe it was a guy thing to shop for artwork together.
“What?” Tristen gave her a puzzled smile, his eyebrows wrinkling in an endearing way that made Melanie want to run a finger over them to see if they’d smooth out. “It caught my eye. A man can buy things without it becoming a big deal, you know.”
Wow. Defensive. The ex-wife had obviously helped provide him with a little touch-and-go baggage before they split up.
He apologized under his breath.
“Well, how about that?” Melanie teased. “You have taste.”
“Mentioning your beauty earlier doesn’t prove that?” A hint of mischief flickered in his gaze and she crossed her arms over her chest, then remembered the lemons still in her left hand. All right, no more flirty games. She needed to get them out of here.
“Okay. The deal is, if I fix your tire you’ll give me a ride to Port Carling. Will you do that?”
“How terribly convenient.” Tristen resumed his casual stance, sizing her up in a way that she figured she wasn’t supposed to notice. “I’m heading that way myself.”
“Don’t you live there?” she asked, tired of the games.
“Stalking me, Ms. Summer?”
“Newspapers.” She bit back a dig about keeping track of the billionaire jerks who might be in her neighborhood.
“Don’t believe everything they tell you.”
“So then you’re not divorced and hiding out in a cottage that you made into a year-rounder?” So much for keeping her digs to herself.
Tristen’s face lost its playful expression. “Are you going to fix my truck or do I need to send you back into that bar, where the bikers can continue to undress you with their eyes? Because as much as you get under my skin, Melanie Summer, I’d like to think I’m gentleman enough to help a woman in distress. However, you are making that rather difficult.”
Melanie sucked on one of the lemon wedges. “You don’t believe I can do this.”
Tristen waved a hand at the flat tire. “Be my guest, lemon girl.”
“Watch and learn.” She held the lemons over the lug nuts and squeezed, letting the juice run between them and the rim, hoping the acidic liquid would break the rust’s bond. Moments later she licked her fingers and placed the lemon rinds in Tristen’s hand. With a smile, she turned and walked over to the pile of scrap metal in the weedy yard next door, hoping she’d find what she needed and wouldn’t end up looking like a fool.
She could feel Tristen watching as she poked through the scrap until she came across what she was looking for. She hefted the two-and-a-half-foot-long pipe and walked back to the truck.
“You’re not going to whack me with that, are you?” he asked, pretending to cower. “I swear I’ll never compliment you again.”
She rolled her eyes. “Hand me the wrench, please.”
After whacking the lug nuts with the pipe to loosen anything she could, she fitted the X-shaped wrench over the first nut, then slipped the pipe over the wrench’s handle to give her more leverage. Praying the lemon juice had loosened the rust, she carefully applied her weight to the wrench and pipe extension, shifting her feet to add more pressure. Son of a gun. That really was stuck fast.
“Troubles?” Tristen asked, his lips curving into a perfect grin, exposing a fine line of white teeth.
Without a word, Melanie smiled back and turned to sit on the pipe, holding tight while she bounced up and down, hoping to budge the nut. There was one thing a gal learned growing up in a household of women, and that was how to get creative in solving problems when there wasn’t a lot of cash around. Not that she was stellar at it, but still. She could hold her own. Usually.
Sweat gathered on her brow when the bikers came out onto the sloped porch to have a cigarette while leaning over the railing to enjoy the show she was putting on. Another unsuccessful bounce. Tristen glanced toward the road as if hoping for the tow truck.
Melanie bounced harder, giving the pipe and wrench a sudden jolt. The rust cracked and the nut turned, dumping her in a heap on the gravel.
Tristen was at her side in a flash, cupping her elbow as he helped her up. “You okay?”
“Fine.” She brushed off her skirt and smiled brightly. “One down. Four more to go.”
The bikers chuckled, taking leisurely drags on their cigarettes. Melanie refrained from mentioning that they needed to maintain a nine meter radius from the building’s entrance to be compliant with the Smoke Free Ontario Act, and set about fitting the wrench over the next nut. Tristen handed her the pipe, which had slid off during her spill, but he refused to let go. She pressed her body close to his to show she wasn’t intimidated. “What?”
“I’ll finish the job, thanks.”
She repeated her earlier actions—without being dumped on the ground—and the bikers cheered with each freed nut. Melanie curtsied for her audience when the new tire was finally in place, and thanked her lucky stars that her idea had worked. She was hot and dusty, but pleased.
“A round of whiskey for the pretty lady,” one biker hollered.
“I think you’re one of them now,” Tristen whispered. Melanie watched as he put the wrench and jack away.
“You want to go in,” he noted in surprise.
She shrugged. She kind of did, and not just because she was thirsty.
“I can wait to drive you home, if you want.” His voice was gentle, caring. Almost big-brotherly. But it wasn’t fully platonic; there was a certain possessiveness in the way he held himself. Closer than a brother would stand. He watched her for a moment, maintaining eye contact long enough that she thought he might actually be interested. And not just in her safety.
* * *
End of Sneak Peek!
* * *
Keep reading Love and Trust by Jean Oram and find out if Melanie and Tristen can learn to trust each other in order to get what they need in life and love.
Also available in paperback!
Copyright Jean Oram 2015. Not to be copied or distributed in any form without explicit permission from the author–Jean Oram. Thanks.
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