Blake, p.9

Blake, page 9

 

Blake
 


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  It went against her nature, pushing back when she’d been shoved into a tight spot, but with Blake she had no choice. The man could be a human steamroller at times, and she refused to be flattened by him. She got out a warm jacket and pulled it on, then went outside to Blake.

  By the time she walked around to the side of the house, both man and dog were breathless. She had no idea who won, for they were now sitting side by side on the cool autumn ground, Blake with his arm slung affectionately around the dog, and Frank with his tongue lolling out one side of his mouth.

  Frank noticed her first. He left his master and greeted Jillian by nuzzling her hand.

  Blake rose to his feet. “Traitor,” he said to the dog.

  Jillian patted her new friend and told Blake, “I don’t know whether he likes me more for my biscuits or my kisses.”

  Blake grinned. It was clear what his preference would be.

  Jillian’s thoughts darted back to that last kiss they’d shared. Powerful. Mind drugging. Lusty. All the things a kiss should be, between two people in love.

  But they weren’t in love. They weren’t even right for each other. It just happened that she was illogically attracted to him.

  A more logical choice for Jillian would be a three-piece-suit type, a doctor perhaps, a local politician, or maybe even a military officer. Thanks to her unfortunate experience with Quint, she no longer included lawyers on her list of compatible types.

  He was watching, waiting for her to say something. His heavy-lidded look undermined her and made her feel more like loving than fighting.

  She’d have to stop thinking like this. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them. Jillian gritted her teeth. As far as Jillian was concerned, her dealings with Blake Cassidy must be business only. With a business-only attitude, there was less risk of damaging her career. Or her heart.

  “I came out here to tell you—” Jillian purposely lowered her voice to make her statement sound more authoritative. “—that I can’t allow guest chefs on the ‘Cooking with Jillian’ show.”

  Blake stared at her for a moment, as if stunned that she hadn’t changed her mind in the past couple of days. “I’m real sorry you feel that way, but we’ve already spread the word that we’re looking for people.”

  “No, you spread the word. Blake, guests just don’t fit well into our format.” Frank nudged her hand, hinting for a scratch behind the ears. Jillian obliged him, then spoke again. “I’m the chef on this show. You’re the entertainment. We agreed on that. There isn’t room for anyone else.”

  “All right, I’ll be blunt,” Blake said, stepping closer. “Most people don’t cook the kind of food you’ve been preparing. Not unless they’re having company, that is. Most of our viewers are interested in pepping up their own everyday meals.”

  “Food shouldn’t have to be ordinary just because it’s for family. Why save the good stuff for company?”

  Exasperated, Blake grabbed her by the shoulder. He couldn’t help it, but his voice rose along with his frustration.

  “Why can’t you understand that having guests will be good for the show? Do you honestly believe people want to cook a bunch of stuff they can’t even pronounce?”

  A low rumble erupted beside Jillian. Blake looked down to see Frank, ears laid flat and teeth bared. He released her shoulder, and she rubbed where he had gripped.

  “I wasn’t going to hurt her, Benedict Arnold,” he mumbled to the dog. At that, Frank hung his head and looked contrite.

  Blake couldn’t blame the animal for trying to protect her. Hadn’t he done the same when he thought she was in danger of being hurt by a bomb? He looked at the dog gazing adoringly at Jillian. So, you see through her, too? Even Frank sensed she needed a friend, and maybe protection from time to time.

  She was vulnerable. Never mind that she could be as crisp as cucumbers at times, Blake knew she was more fragile than she wanted anyone to know.

  He might not be able to protect her. Heck, he doubted she’d even want protection from anyone. The least he could do was be a friend to her.

  Her arms lay folded across her chest. It was a defensive posture, and she didn’t like feeling defensive around Blake. Consciously relaxing her stance, Jillian relented but would not give in completely.

  “I’m trying to see things your way,” she said, “but I’d like you to consider my position, too. I’m willing to use your friends’ recipes occasionally, but having a third person on the show could ruin our successful formula. I don’t want to risk that.”

  “I won’t force the issue,” Blake said, “but I believe you’ll come around to my way of thinking before long.”

  All Jillian could do was gape. What had just happened? She’d been prepared to deliver the next point of debate, yet he’d given in. Just like that.

  He must be up to something.

  Blake smiled, making the slight cleft in his chin more noticeable. The simple gesture made her uneasy.

  “You’d better close your mouth if you don’t want to catch flies,” he said.

  Belatedly, Jillian snapped her jaw shut and turned to walk to the house.

  Mrs. Cassidy came onto the front porch. “Blake! Telephone.”

  “Who is it?” he asked as they approached his mother.

  “Some woman from Richmond. I didn’t catch her name.”

  She stood in the hall, taking off her coat while Blake talked on the phone.

  “Next Saturday? Sounds like fun, but I had something else in mind for that night.”

  It must be his girlfriend, she thought. She couldn’t imagine a man like Blake not having lots of girlfriends. Quint, being the charmer that he was, had also had his share of girlfriends, even during their marriage.

  Though she had only known him a short time, Jillian was convinced that Blake would be a good husband to some lucky woman. Whether he had one girlfriend now or a hundred, she was certain he would do right by the woman he ultimately committed himself to.

  But that was none of her concern.

  Jillian hung her coat on the wall peg and went upstairs to her room. Blake’s room. What irony that she should be sleeping in Blake’s bed while he carried on a long-distance romance with another woman.

  Not that she cared. She shouldn’t care, actually, but for some odd reason she felt like a piece of her had just shriveled up inside.

  So what if Blake had a date? That had nothing to do with her. Jillian had other goals, and because of them, her priorities did not include men—least of all, handsome mountain men.

  Well, she refused to cloister herself in this room for the rest of the afternoon. With a fresh focus on her priorities, she decided to go back to the diner and prepare tomorrow’s recipes. Doing so would serve the dual purpose of moving toward her goal of making her reputation as a fine chef and keeping an adequate distance between her and Blake.

  She opened the bedroom door and collided with Blake’s hard torso. His hands reached out and clasped her upper arms, steadying her as she reflexively jumped back.

  “Whoa, what’s the hurry?”

  His hands stayed on her arms. Jillian was so aware of his touch, she imagined she could feel each individual ridge of his fingerprints through her sleeve. Taking a calming breath, she tugged the bottom of her blouse to straighten it. “Don’t you ever knock?”

  It was a ridiculous question, for she had been the one to open the door and crash into him. Taking the offense position always worked well when she was feeling defensive.

  The vertical lines between Blake’s eyebrows disappeared as he took in the absurdity of her question. One corner of his mouth hitched slightly upward.

  “Pardon me,” he said. “If I had known you would come barging out into the hall like that, I would have worn my baseball catcher’s vest.”

  His comment drew her eyes to his chest, where soft brown hairs peeked from the vee of his shirt. And that reminded Jillian of the last time she’d opened the door on him, when those chest hairs had glistened with water droplets from
his shower.

  Her cheeks burned at the memory. He seemed to be enjoying the moment so much she automatically responded with her tried and true tactic.

  “Did you come up here for a reason?”

  Smiling even more broadly, he asked, “You going downstairs?” When she nodded, he tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and walked down with her.

  “Shannon wanted us to go to her Halloween party next Saturday,” he said.

  “Us?”

  “Yeah, she and her husband are inviting all of her clients to this party. They thought it would be a kick to have Boondock Blake and Jillian.”

  Unexpectedly, Jillian breathed a little sigh of relief. Then, when she realized that she was relieved because Blake hadn’t been talking to a girlfriend, she gave herself a mental shake. Get a grip, she told herself. You have no concern with Blake’s love life. Concentrate on the matter at hand.

  “What do we wear to this party?” she asked.

  “I told her we couldn’t go.” They reached the bottom step, and Blake turned to face her. “I was hoping you’d go with me to the Halloween square dance over in Truxton.”

  His expression was so earnest, Jillian almost said yes immediately. But then she remembered how quickly he’d given in to her earlier when she’d insisted they have no guest cooks on the show. You’ll come around to my way of thinking, he’d said. Was this invitation part of his plan to win her over to his views? More likely, he was getting her out among the public so they could put the pressure on her.

  “If we’re going to continue taping two or three shows a day, as you suggested,” she said, “then I don’t see how we’ll have the time.”

  “We’ll make time.”

  The way he said it, his voice soft and husky, implied that his statement held more than one meaning. Again, the image of Blake emerging from the shower invaded her mind.

  He stood a few inches taller than Jillian, which put her eyes just above his chin level. His lips were wide and firm, yet pliable, leading her to wonder what it would be like to “make time” with Blake Cassidy.

  “Say you’ll go with me,” he insisted.

  “I don’t know how to square dance.”

  “I’ll teach you.”

  “Do I need a costume?”

  “You can wear my sister’s. She’s about your size.” Blake rubbed his chin. “Are you always this spontaneous?”

  His teasing struck a raw spot inside. Jillian had always been methodical, thanks in large part to her father’s military influence. But the main reason she tried so hard to plan every aspect of her life was so she wouldn’t be caught off guard. If she knew what to expect, she could have a mental script ready for the occasion.

  Jillian opened her mouth to say something witty in response, but nothing came to mind.

  “I’ll take that as a yes.”

  She nodded in affirmation, hoping this wouldn’t be a mistake. “Um, I’m going to walk up to the diner and start preparing for tomorrow’s taping.”

  “I’ll drive you,” he offered.

  “Thanks, but I need the exercise.”

  “Then take my bicycle. It’s too far to walk.”

  A few minutes later, Blake watched her ride away from him, her shapely derriere moving from side to side as she stood to pedal faster up the incline.

  It gave him a feeling of satisfaction whenever he came home to Fullerton and stopped long enough to survey the beauty of the surroundings. In his possessiveness, he claimed the rolling countryside as his own, as well as the hard-packed dirt road, the rusted blue bike, and even the leggy brunette.

  He didn’t own her any more than he owned the river flowing through Fullerton Valley, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to claim her. Blake considered the different ways in which he could claim Miss Jillian Reed. He already had her as his employee and cohost.

  Yet, more than once, he’d wanted to possess her body. He’d start with those prim lips that seemed perpetually pressed into a thin horizontal line and kiss them until they softened. Then he’d work his way down the length of her, all the way to her toes, kissing and exploring as he went.

  But he wanted more than just her body, or her presence beside him at work. He wanted to claim her heart.

  It seemed only fair since she’d already stolen his.

  Lloyd Cassidy smiled at Jillian from behind the grill, and she returned the greeting as she walked past him toward the office. Although it was not yet four o’clock, he was already preparing for the Sunday dinner regulars.

  Jillian pushed the office door open. Inside, Belinda jumped and hurriedly closed the closet door.

  “Jillian! What are you doing here? I mean, you startled me.”

  “Oh, I’m sorry,” Jillian soothed the teenager. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just get my recipes and go to a booth to prepare for tomorrow’s tapings.”

  “Uh, I was just finishing up in here. Why don’t you sit at the desk?” Belinda suggested. “I’ll close the door behind me.”

  Jillian sat and pulled the battered shoe boxes toward her. Surprised at how light they felt, she opened each one, only to discover all three were empty.

  Quickly she searched through the clutter on the desk, then pulled drawers open to see if they’d been stashed in there. A flash of panic swept over her. What could have happened to all those recipe cards?

  Belinda had picked up her broom and dust rag and was on her way out when Jillian stopped her.

  “Have you seen my recipe cards?”

  “Aren’t they in those shoe boxes?”

  “No, and I can’t imagine where they might be.” Jillian’s voice rose in desperation.

  “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. They’ll probably turn up in a few days.”

  “I can’t wait a few days. I have to find them now.”

  Belinda mumbled something and shut the door behind her.

  A lot of help she was. Jillian went back out to the diner to question Mr. Cassidy, but he hadn’t seen them, either.

  “I could understand if the boxes had been misplaced,” said Jillian, “but it’s as if someone must have emptied them on purpose.”

  “Now, honey, I don’t think anybody took your recipes. They must be around here someplace.”

  Until he’d mentioned it, Jillian hadn’t considered the possibility that someone might have stolen them.

  Who would want to steal recipe cards? If she were famous, she might suspect they had been stolen for souvenirs.

  Perhaps the thief hoped to publish them in a cookbook as she had already planned to do. No, that seemed a little far-fetched.

  Jillian wondered who would be motivated to take her cards. Was it because, without her own recipes, Jillian would be forced to turn to others for help?

  Had one of the locals wanted so desperately to be on the show that she or he would stoop to such measures? Jillian didn’t think so. The people she’d met in Fullerton struck her as honest and forthright. And although she knew Blake shared those qualities, she couldn’t help recalling his words: You'll come around to my way of thinking.

  She doubted this was his way of making her “come around,” but she had to know for sure.

  “I’m sure they didn’t just up and walk away,” said Mr. Cassidy. “We’ll help you find them.”

  “Thanks, but I think I know where they might be.”

  Outside, Blake pulled up and parked beside the bike rack. He was glad Mike had suggested they come up for a game of Foosball. It gave him a good excuse to hang around until Jillian finished whatever she was doing to prepare for tomorrow’s taping. Then he could offer her a ride home or maybe take her for a drive.

  He followed Mike inside. Jillian stood with her back to them as she pulled her jacket on.

  “Finished already?” Blake asked. “Wait for me to find Mike a Foosball opponent, and I’ll give you a ride home.”

  She turned around and stared a hole through him. Those pale blue eyes were questioning as she approached him.

 
To Mike, he said, “There’s Ken Tolbert. He’s always open for a fast game of Foosball.”

  “Sure thing.” Mike excused himself to the game room.

  “Blake, I can’t seem to find my recipe cards. You didn’t put them anywhere, did you?”

  Blake heard Belinda mutter, “Uh-oh.”

  “Someone has removed them from the boxes they were in.”

  He clenched his jaw. “And you think I took them?”

  “I thought it could have been your way of trying to persuade me to invite guest cooks on the show.”

  “If I want to persuade a woman to do something,” he told her through gritted teeth, “I don’t have to resort to underhanded tricks.”

  10

  During taping the next day, both Blake and Jillian were cool and reserved. Jillian hadn’t meant to offend Blake by asking if he knew anything of their whereabouts. But the more she had tried to explain herself, the worse the situation had become.

  And now she was faced with the prospect of cohosting the show in an atmosphere charged with angry tension.

  Memphis, however, made up for their lack of playfulness.

  “Thanks for agreeing to do the show with us at the last minute,” Blake told his friend.

  “No problem. It’s a good thing I went hunting this weekend and got something to cook for y’all.”

  “Oh, heavens.” Jillian rubbed her chin.

  “You’ll like roast possum,” Memphis assured her. “Especially the way I cook it.”

  She caught Blake watching her and willed herself not to grimace. Jillian tied on an apron. “Let’s hurry up and get this over with.”

  The camera started rolling, and Memphis soon launched into the story of how he had bagged the opossum.

  Jillian felt as though she was losing all control of the show. This was a cooking show, not “The Wild Kingdom”! To get Memphis off the subject of what kind of shot he used, she asked him, “Aren’t you going to wear a hair net?”

  He touched the straggly ends of his shoulder-length hair. “I suppose I could, if you really want me to.” Then Memphis turned and hollered to someone off camera. “Hey, you got a rubber band?” He left them while he attended to his hair.

 
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