Illicit, page 1
A Forbidden Romance
About the Author
Also by June Gray
Copyright © 2016 by June Gray
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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I never meant for it to happen, to fall in love with a man who wasn’t mine.
I was just reading on my bed one Sunday morning, completely lost in a different world, when my mom came into my room and said, “I want you to meet someone, Joss.”
I looked up from my book so fast, I almost got whiplash. “Who?”
“And who is this mysterious Jake Mitchell?” I set the open book on my chest, my interest fully piqued. My mom was a serial dater, so busy with work travel that she didn’t have time for anything more than dinner or drinks. And she certainly never had time to bring them home.
She bit her lower lip, a move that made her look younger than her forty-one years. “Just someone I’ve been seeing.”
“You’ve been seeing someone? And you want me to meet him?”
“Don’t sound so surprised.”
“Well, I am,” I said, scrambling off the bed and following her down the hall. “This is the first guy you’ve brought home since that Joe Incident.”
Nine months after the divorce with my dad was finalized, my mom had gone on a date with a man named Joe. The date had gone well so Mom invited him over to our house in Pembroke Pines, Florida, for a nightcap. I had had the unfortunate luck to walk in on them making out in the kitchen and, apparently still secretly hoping my parents would get back together, had freaked the hell out. As a result, Mom no longer brought men home and only ever mentioned them in passing, never even giving them a name.
I didn’t know what I was expecting when I turned that corner; maybe someone with a Jersey accent who looked suspiciously like Bob Hoskins in Mario Brothers. Or maybe a debonair, silver-haired fox in a suit. But this Jake Mitchell took me completely by surprise. He was really a looker, with his short brown hair, square jaw, and the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. Nor was he wearing red overalls or a pin-striped suit. No, he was just casually put together in his dark jeans and blue button-up shirt. And he was tall, fit, and… quite a bit younger than my mom.
“Hi. You must be Jocelyn,” he said, getting up from the couch and offering his hand.
I shook it, trying to hide my surprise at the roughness of his palm. “Nice to meet you.”
He flashed me a smile that lit up his face and crinkled the corners of his eyes. “You are the spitting image of your mom.”
“Thank you. I hear that a lot.” Ever since I could remember I’d been told that I looked just like my mother. Tall and lithe, with natural honey-blonde hair and bright green eyes, Amanda Blake was the kind of effortless beauty that garnered jealousy from women and attention from men. When out together, people always assumed we were sisters rather than a woman and her twenty-year old daughter.
I glanced at Mom but her gaze was fixed firmly on her new man. I couldn’t really blame her; this guy was seriously handsome in an easygoing kind of way.
My eyes gravitated back in his direction. “Where did you two meet?”
“Blind date,” he said in his deep, slightly coarse voice, his warm gaze directed at my mother. “Our mutual friend set us up, we hit it off, and now here we are.”
“And you’ve been together how long?”
“Almost three months.”
My eyebrows shot up.
Mom noticed the look on my face and burst out laughing. “Well, don’t look so shocked. I am capable of a relationship.” She walked over to Jake and slipped her arm around his waist. “I just had to find the right man first.”
I grinned as I contemplated the pairing. Her pale skin and blonde hair was a nice contrast to his tan skin and dark features. They looked so good together I felt almost envious. Someday, I told myself, I’ll find a guy like that.
“Well, I need to get going.” Jake tucked some hair behind Mom’s ear then pressed a soft kiss on her lips. “I’ll be back tonight.”
She beamed up at him—I swear I’ve never seen her look this happy—then she uttered the words that sealed the deal, proving once and for all she was dead serious about this Jake guy: “I’m cooking steak and vegetables.”
“But you don’t cook!” I blurted out.
My mom laughed. “I will for the right man.”
He chuckled, pressing a kiss to her temple before heading to the door. “Nice to meet you, Jocelyn.”
After he left, I stared at Mom in bewilderment. To her credit, she managed to keep a straight face for a whole three seconds before the joy exploded all over her face.
“He’s a keeper, I take it?” I asked, her smile infecting me as well.
“I think so.”
“But how old is he? Like, twenty seven?”
She bit her lips together. “Thirty.”
“You cradle-robber!” I teased, pinching her side. “He’s only ten years older than me.”
She giggled—yes, my mom actually giggled—and ruffled my hair. “Honey, sometimes age is only a number, not a state of mind.” She wrapped an arm around my shoulder and leaned her head on mine. “Besides, Jake makes me feel young again.”
“Are you happy?” I asked, but one look at her gave me the answer. Her entire face glowed, her eyes bright and cheeks flushed.
She let out a sigh and squeezed me. “I am, Joss.”
I hugged her. Goodness knew, after an ugly divorce and struggling as a single parent for seven years, she deserved a little bit of happiness. “I’m happy for you, Mom.”
* * *
Jake came back for dinner that night bearing a bouquet of roses for my mother and a smaller bouquet of daisies for me.
“You didn’t have to get me anything,” I said, lifting the flowers up to my nose anyway. I mean, daisies weren’t really all that fragrant, but it seemed like the thing to do. “Thanks. Now, can you educate the guys at my school on how to treat a woman?”
“I don’t think they’d listen to an old geezer like me,” he said with a good-natured chuckle.
I flashed him a mischievous smile over the flowers. “
He chuckled, and it was then I noticed the corners of his eyes crinkle when he’s happy.
We went out to the back patio to start setting up for dinner. Mom and I rarely dined outside as we found South Florida weather to be too humid for comfort, but I guess tonight was a special exception, frizzy hair be damned.
“So what’s your major?” he asked, following me with the plate of raw steaks.
I bent down to turn on the gas and start the grill. “Undeclared.”
Mom joined us a few moments later with the vegetables. “If it was possible to major in reading, Joss would have a PhD by now.”
“What kind of books do you like to read?” Jake asked. “Twilight? Hunger Games?”
I shrugged. “Those were entertaining, but I go through phases. Lately I’ve been reading biographies.”
One dark eyebrow rose. “Oh?”
“Right now I’m reading about Margaret Thatcher.”
“Really.” He held out his hand, asking for the spatula. “May I?”
I handed it over and stepped aside. “Uh, sure.” I watched as he set the steaks on the grill, his entire demeanor one of self-assurance. It wasn’t his finest moment, to be sure.
“I think grilling is in every man’s DNA, don’t you agree?” he asked, glancing at me.
I almost snorted. “I read an article recently about caveman instincts that still linger today,” I said in a forced nonchalant manner. “How even the most progressive men still display latent alpha male tendencies, especially around females who are more than capable of taking care of themselves.”
He stilled, studying me for the longest time. I waited for him to back down, to apologize for taking over, but he surprised me by lifting an eyebrow. “I guess we’re not as evolved as we think. Our instincts still dictate our actions.” He held up the spatula, amusement in his eyes. “Now, how do you like your steak?”
Regular dinner at the Blake house usually consisted of me eating ramen noodles or mac and cheese in my room while mom worked. But we had a longstanding date every Sunday, when we’d go to a restaurant and spend hours catching up over dinner. I always looked forward to that time together, talking about our week, chatting away like girlfriends, and ordering way more dessert than we could ever eat. It wasn’t a traditional kind of family setup, but it was our way and we made it work.
So to have all three of us sitting together that Sunday, using the wrought iron dining set that we’d only used a handful of times, was unusual and slightly awkward.
“Jocelyn, we have something to tell you,” Mom said during the meal.
My ears perked up. She rarely ever called me by my real name. Unless… “Is everything okay?”
Jake reached for my mom’s hand across the table and nodded for her to continue.
My heart started to thump hard in my chest. “Are you getting married?”
“No,” he said with a nervous laugh. “Nothing that monumental.”
“I’ve asked Jake to move in with us,” Mom said.
An incredulous laugh escaped from my mouth. “And that’s not monumental?”
“Joss,” Mom began. “I know it’s a bit of a surprise, but—”
“A bit! I just met him today,” I said, trying to keep my voice a few octaves below hysterics. “You just met him three months ago.”
The news worked like acid; the longer it seeped in, the more it burned. Here they were, holding hands at the table, addressing me like parents explaining something complicated to a child.
I turned to my mom with hurt in my eyes. Used to be it was the two of us against the world. Now I was the outsider, and my opinion was no longer needed when it came to life-changing decisions.
“Joss, say something,” Mom said.
I took a long sip of water, swallowing down the angry words that were threatening to spew out. I stood up, the iron chair scraping loudly against the brick patio. “I need to do my homework,” I said and left.
I heard them come in the house a half hour later, talking in hushed, muted tones. And not too long after, someone knocked on my door.
“Can I come in?” asked a deep voice that was definitely not my mother’s.
I wiped at my cheeks with the sheet and sat up. “Fine.”
The door cracked open and Jake’s concerned face peered in. He entered cautiously, casting a long look around. “Nice room.”
“I haven’t had a chance to clean it up,” I said, wishing I’d at least taken the time to put my dirty clothes in the hamper instead of throwing them in the corner of the room.
He walked over to the books piled in front of the overfilled, sagging bookshelf. I’d long ago run out of room for my books and had taken to stacking them on the floor. I was at seven teetering towers and counting.
He pulled out a book from the bookshelf and held it out. “Everyone says their favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird, but I don’t know.”
“What? You didn’t like it?” I asked, momentarily setting aside my resentment to talk books.
“I did. It’s a good story, just not my favorite,” he said with a shrug. “In fact, I can’t really choose one favorite.”
“You like to read as well?”
He slid the book back in place and stuck his hands in his pockets. “I believe voracious is the word,” he replied. “So what’s your favorite?”
“If we base favorite on how many times I’ve read it, I’d say Jane Eyre.”
“Ah, the classic young girl falling for the older man.”
I smiled, thinking that maybe Jake had some redeeming qualities after all. At the very least, he knew a little about the classics. “So are you going to do it, then? Are you moving in with us?”
He sat on the end of my bed, oceans of blanket between us. “That depends.”
We locked eyes across the bed, his gaze so direct that I found myself first to look away. “Do you want to move in?”
“Do you love my mom?”
He didn’t even blink. “Yes. I know three months doesn’t seem all that long, but this feels right.”
I picked at a loose thread on my blanket, at a loss for what to say.
“Jocelyn, I just want you to know, I have no plans of acting like the Big Man of the house,” he said. “I’m just here to share a life with the woman I really care about. And maybe with her daughter, if she’ll let me.”
I studied his face, looking for telltale signs of insincerity. “All right, you can move in,” I said when I saw none. “But don’t think you can leave hair all over the bathroom sink or anything.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “No problem.”
“You can’t hang a singing fish or anything with antlers on the wall either.”
His lips twitched. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“And you have to keep your books sequestered.”
He laughed, deep and rich. “Of course. Can’t have our books fraternizing.”
“It would be chaos.”
Once again, our eyes locked across the room, but this time there were no expectations or disappointments between us, only the first sprouts of a growing friendship.
Jake started moving in the next week. I was home alone when he showed up at the front door with a huge brown box and his very own set of keys.
“Sorry. I didn’t know you’d be here,” he said as soon as he saw me doing homework on the couch. He walked over and placed the box down by the living room wall.
I set aside my laptop. “I have the day off from work and don’t have to be in class till two.”
“Oh. Where do you work?”
“At the bookstore at Pembroke Gardens.”
“Huh,” he said, regarding me with curious eyes. “That sounds kind of perfect for you.”
I jumped up from the couch, only belatedly realizing that I must look like a h
“Wait,” he said. “Would you mind giving me a hand first? I have a few more things to unload.”
“Um, sure.” Barefoot, I followed him out to the driveway where his pickup truck occupied my mom’s space. “I don’t recommend parking there,” I said with my hands on my hips.
He jumped onto the truck bed. “What? Here?”
“Yeah. That’s Mom’s space, and she’s very territorial.”
He turned to me with a dimpled grin and handed over a box. “Duly noted.”
I set the box down on the ground and was immediately handed another one. Only then did I notice the several power tools—machines was a more accurate word—that sat near the front of the truck bed. “We’re unloading those?”
“Do you mind? They’re not very heavy.”
“Somehow I don’t believe that.”
“Okay, they’re a little heavy.” He surveyed the contents of truck then turned to me. “Tell you what. You come up here and just slide them over to the edge and I’ll lower them.” He jumped off the truck, landing neatly on his running shoes.
I put my hands on the tailgate, getting ready to clamber up when I felt large hands go around my waist and lift me with ease. I swallowed hard and tried to ignore the sudden awkward tension. “Um, thanks. So… which one first?”
“Let’s start with the table saw.”
I made my way over to what was essentially a small table with a serrated half-circle sticking up in the center. “This?” When he nodded, I started to slide it over, finding it lighter than I expected. “Looks like one of those deli meat slicers.”
“When you’re not careful, it becomes a literal meat slicer.”
I winced at the gruesome visual. “Have you ever cut your meat?” Our eyes flicked to each other and we burst into laughter.
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