Title: Jesse’s Girl
Heat Rating: Sweetly Sensual
Genre: Nostalgia Romance
In 1965, Tim O’Malley returns to his home town of Skitter Lake, Ohio, to clear his name and get the girl: Dorothy Whitaker, the love of his life since eighth grade. Blamed for a destructive fire he didn’t set, only Tim and Dorothy know the truth; that Jesse Prescott, Tim’s best friend and Dorothy’s boyfriend, did the deed that changed an entire town. But Jesse died in that tragedy and seven years later, Skitter Lake still honors him as a hero, rather than Tim, the boy from the seedy side of town whose father was a drunk . . . and whose quick actions saved six people from perishing in that horrendous fire.
In trying to set the record straight and finally claim Dorothy as his own, Tim—and Dorothy, too—will discover that in some small towns the legend often outweighs the truth . . . and their family and friends will forever see Dorothy as “Jesse’s girl.”
Dorothy Whitaker. Good Lord, almighty.
Tim had almost crashed his car when he saw her, sitting in the sun with her ice-cream cone. Of all the people in Skitter Lake he figured he’d see, she was at the top of his ‘hope to run into’ list. He’d had to pull over right on the side of the road and look his fill, before summoning enough courage to step out of his car and approach her.
She hadn’t changed a bit. Still the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, and that included all the California girls he’d met after he moved from Skitter Lake.
In grade school, they’d been inseparable. They’d played together during recess, spun on the merry-go-round, paired off on the seesaw. Dorothy was the first girl he’d held hands with, the first girl he’d ever taken to a Saturday matinee, back in seventh grade. They’d stuffed themselves on popcorn and thrilled to the adventures of Peter Pan. He’d walked her home, shyly brushed her mouth with the briefest touch of his lips. And trembled, needing more. He dreamed that night, how someday they’d be old enough and when they were, he’d kiss her the way a boy kisses his girlfriend.
But by eighth grade, Jesse had noticed Dorothy, and after that, Tim didn’t stand a chance.
Well, that was then, and Jesse no longer stood between them.
“You let your cone get away from you.” Was that his voice, hoarse and deep? He cleared his throat, offering the damp towel. Slowly, her hand reached out, and her fingers touched his. The spark between them seemed immediate and powerful, at least to him.
“Thanks.” She wadded the towel and wiped at the stain on her dress. Her downcast face couldn’t hide the flush that rode high on her cheeks. Dorothy had always been a blusher, her creamy skin revealing every emotion. A coil of loose, silky hair slipped over her shoulder as she worked at the smear of chocolate. If anything, the color had deepened over the years. ‘Strawberry blonde,’ he’d heard it called in California, but back in school she’d simply had the loveliest hair he’d ever seen.
Silence stretched between them as he waited for her to raise her head and she seemed hell-bent on fussing with her damp skirt. Finally, nothing remained for her to clean, and she had to look up. She laid the towel on the picnic table behind her, started to speak, hesitated, then her lips curved into a sweet smile. “It’s good to see you, Tim. When did you get to town?”
“About two hours ago. I’ve just been driving around.” He couldn’t take his eyes off her. He had to shove his hands in the pockets of his pants to keep from touching her. “I wasn’t sure I’d see you. Guess I thought you’d have left by now, moved somewhere else.”
She shrugged. “No, I decided to stay. After my dad died, Mom’s health problems got worse. And I work at the bank now. It’s pretty good money.”
Yeah, and it doesn’t hurt that Bob Prescott owns the bank and still thinks of you as his honorary daughter-in-law. The thought tasted bitter to Tim, even after seven years and moving a dozen states away.
As if she could read his mind, Dorothy’s face flamed brighter and she looked away, out over the lake. He didn’t know what the hell to say to her, which infuriated him. Once, a lifetime ago, words flowed between them so easily. Even after Jesse had claimed her, Tim still had these incredible conversations with Dorothy about music, movies, books, dreams. He could tell her about how boxed-in he felt, living on the rougher edge of the blue-collar side of town with a father who thought the world owed him a living, and a mother who silently endured her unhappy marriage.
In turn, she confided the difficulties of life as the daughter of Preacher Whitaker, professional Bible-thumper. Tim knew she’d loved her father fiercely. He also knew her childhood had been knotted up in Christian duty, an often heavy burden for a kid.
Now, Dorothy released a quiet sigh and picked up the soiled bar towel. “Well, I should be going, I suppose—”
“Stay.” He laid his palm on her shoulder, fought a losing battle with the need to caress her baby-soft skin, and ran careful fingers along her slender forearm. When she didn’t move away, he took at as a good sign, and murmured, “It’s been seven long years, Dorothy. We were friends once.” He watched the emotion flicker over her face. “I missed you, a lot.”
She released a broken little sigh. “I missed you, too. But I wasn’t the one who moved away, Tim. I wasn’t the one who left.”
“I didn’t have a choice, you know that.” He bit back the familiar frustration, a feeling he’d thought had finally left him after years away from this town. “I paid the price for leaving. Everyone still blames me. Don’t they?” He caught her fingers, which trembled in his grip. “I paid, and it wasn’t my fault.”
Tears formed in her pretty hazel eyes, and even his instant remorse at hurting her yet again couldn’t keep him silent a second longer. “It wasn’t my fault,” he repeated. “You know it. Hell, Bob Prescott knows it, too.”
“What’re you talking about? What are you saying?” Now her hand pressed against his, holding him steady when he would have turned from her. “What’s Mr. Prescott got to do with anything?”
“Ask him, Dorothy.” Tim gently disengaged her hand and gave it a quick squeeze before he let her go. “I’m in town for a while.” He paused, his gaze roaming over her with a yearning he didn’t attempt to hide. “I’m staying at the boardinghouse. I’d really like to see you.”
He could feel her eyes on him as he headed to his car.