No wonder her mother had taken him under her protective wing. If only to provide Blake with some sense of connection to the woman who had given him life.
He walked toward her. “Not everyone gets a Purple Heart or written commendations for doing the right thing.”
Jessie held her fist to her mouth, swallowed the words threatening to jump out of her throat. Not when she didn’t believe she deserved any of the medals the U.S. of A. had bestowed upon her at a ceremony in Asheville’s premier VA rehab center.
“You don’t get a front row seat in the Life Sucks department. If you’re the Marine you claim to be, you’ll get over your crap attitude.” Blake’s oh-so-green eyes, glinting with flecks of emerald, cut her to the core. “And you’ll start practicing the art of playing nice in the proverbial sandbox.”
In that moment, something shifted inside Jessie, making her see the real hero standing in front of her, toe-to-toe, refusing to back down in spite of all the anger balls she’d lofted in his general direction. And knowing that Blake Johnston was more than a cardboard movie icon screamed a loud warning bell in her head.
Blake Johnston, the man with integrity and honor, spelled danger in ways that both intrigued and frightened Jessie.
Jessie’s lungs screamed for air, but she refused to slow down after convincing Blake to compromise his ten miles to run the five-mile trail with her. He’d agreed after she’d said yes to using her sister Hannah’s massage lotion on her leg.
“You still think your sister’s stuff is for sissies?” Blake called over his shoulder.
Hannah had given Blake a basket of samples when she’d run into him the night before. Sometimes having her entire family live and work on the property could be a real pain in the tuchus.
She smelled a hint of the lavender in the ointment’s lingering scent, which also evoked a sexy memory flash of Blake’s gentle, yet firm, touch on her skin. A memory that made her insides tumble with glee.
The initial shock of cold when they’d first started the run had been replaced by the blood pumping through her veins, warming her from the inside out. A warmth that had more to do with the man running next to her than exercise. “Heck, if the lotion’s good enough for you, I figure it’s got to have something going for it.” She drew in a deep breath of icy air and stared at his extremely awesome derriere.
He shot her a look over his shoulder. “That cream could be marketed in wellness spas all over the world. Massage therapists would love it.”
Oh, she would love a massage of a different kind with Blake Johnston. All kinds of sexy fantasies popped into her brain as she ran through the evergreens lining the trail. Wind rustled and snow drifted from their branches, landing on her nose, eyelashes, and cheeks. She shook them off and wished she could do the same for her decadent thoughts. Because Blake was wrong for her and ten million miles out of her league. But he hadn’t flinched when he’d smoothed his hands across her leg’s scar tissue.
Stand down. Stop staring. Switch subjects. “So besides midnight chats with my mom, aka the master manipulator, why do you want to work out with me?” she asked.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a parent to son chat. I’ll take a surrogate like your mother every day of the week.”
“I see,” she said. Of course Blake had been drawn to her mother’s cozy, down to earth, and ready acceptance. Jessie wondered how long it had been since he’d experienced it—or if he ever had known the simplicity of a parent’s undivided attention given how eagerly he’d taken to her family.
Blake slowed his pace, letting her catch up to him. “You deserve to get into the fire academy. Even though you’re pricklier than a porcupine facing down a semi truck barreling down I-40.”
She heard the respect in his voice as well as the hint of humor underscoring his words. He accepted her as she was today, and had no expectation of her returning to whom she’d been before she’d joined the Marine Corps.
A crazy exhilaration swirled through her, making her dizzy. Jessie waited a beat until she regained her internal equilibrium. “I’ll cut you some slack,” she said. And she’d stop snarling at her family. Maybe then she’d find a way to truly forgive herself.
“Don’t get too soft on me. I’d miss the sparring.”
For some inexplicable reason, she wanted to believe him. “Good to know,” she huffed before rushing ahead of him. “Beat you to the lodge.”
He raced after her. Early rays of sun reflected on the ground as they rounded the final curve and entered the lodge’s expansive, snow-covered lawn.