When Luke McCade returns to Divine after a long absence, Nicki Johansson realizes that she may have lost the bad clothes and haircut, but it's hard to shake an old crush. Especially when she's never forgotten the first kiss he gave her. Nicki doesn't want to fall for the former high school football star, but how can she not when he's devoted to his ailing grandfather, is successful, thoughtful and still annoyingly sexy! Once they'd seemed to move in different leagues. But now . Well, a newly confident Nicki vows to use her sweet kisses to show Luke there's no place like home!
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"Here goes nothing," Nicki Johansson muttered.
She pulled a rectangular package from her car and stared at the house before her. He was inside that house. He was the last person she wanted to see. If she hadn't owed so much to his grandfather, she wouldn't have come within a mile of him ever again.
Still, Luke McCade was gorgeous.
But impossible — a reminder of awkward childhood days when a plain teenaged whiz kid in secondhand clothing had dreamed of having the captain of the football team fall in love with her.
Hah, Nicki snorted to herself. They'd been thrown together back then because Luke was in the hospital and needed a tutor. She'd convinced herself that his bored flirting might actually mean something, even though she hadn't even liked him...at least, not that much. But she did like and admire his grandfather. She'd do almost anything for Professor McCade. She'd even face Luke and all the memories he represented.
She marched up the walkway with the thought that Luke might have put her in a tailspin when they were younger, but not anymore. Despite her resolve, her pulse hammered in her throat as the door swung open and his broad shoulders filled the space.
"Yes?" he said without a spark of recognition in his brown eyes.
Nicki shifted her feet, torn between an unsettling attraction to Luke's athletic grace and fallen-angel looks, and an obligation to his grandfather. Darn him. If there were any justice in the world he would have developed a paunch and a receding hairline.
"Whatever it is, we're not buying anything." He began to close the door and Nicki stuck out her hand.
"No, wait, I'm not a salesman. That is, a saleswoman, or should it be a...a s-salesperson?" she stuttered as his brow gathered into a frown. Swell, she sounded like an idiot. "I'm here about the yard sale a few months ago."
"Oh." Luke sighed. "Look, we appreciate people bringing things back that Grandfather shouldn't have sold, but I'm sure it's all right if you keep whatever it is. He's confused and not himself, but the valuable stuff is still here."
"No, it isn't."
His eyebrows shot high. "Excuse me?" Nicki cleared her throat. If anything, he was more gorgeous than ever; small crinkles at the corners of his eyes and a few strands of silver in his black hair made him look solid and dependable.
A flutter of alarm skirted her mind.
She couldn't afford to think anything positive about him. Luke McCade had always made her want things she didn't have. Somebody to love and want her, as much as she loved and wanted him. To belong. Luke served as a reminder that it might never happen. She was alone in the world, while he belonged to a large, loving family. Now he'd come back from Chicago to help his grandfather, showing that he wasn't as selfish as she'd always thought.
"May I come in?"
Nicki stiffened when Luke hesitated, then took a calming breath. She had a bad habit of overreacting when her confidence was shaken; friends said her pride could make her as bristly as a pincushion. It was a holdover from always being the odd kid out when she was a child.
"I'm not a thief or con artist or anything, if that's what you're worried about," she said finally, trying to sound reasonable.
"I didn't think you were. It's just..." Luke shrugged and stepped back, opening the door wider.
Nicki had never seen the interior of the McCade house, and she looked about curiously. Inside, the foyer was big and airy with rooms opening off it, and through one of the archways Nicki saw her old professor dozing in a chair. He was a lovely man who'd devoted himself to art and teach-ing...quite the opposite of his eldest grandson, who had gained a reputation as a hard-nosed businessman interested solely in profit margins. She knew this because the local newspaper often ran articles about him, and his name was regularly in the Chicago paper she read.
"This way," Luke said, motioning in the opposite direction.
"How is Mr. McCade doing?" she asked as she was led to the kitchen.
"Fine," he said, giving her a careful look. "Do you know my grandfather?"
She put the package on the table. "We're acquainted." It was the truth, but only part of it. She'd been a shy student in the back of Professor McCade's classes, trying to avoid notice. But the lessons he'd taught about the beauty of art and the human spirit would stay with her forever. "I...um, took all of his courses at the college before he retired. Plus, it's a small town," she added.
"Yes, it is," Luke said slowly.
She didn't want to get him thinking. If he remembered her, he'd remember his nickname for her...Little Miss Four-Point-O. She'd just hated that name, which had naturally pleased Mr. Perfect Captain of the high school football team to no end. Of course, that probably was the point of calling her names in the first place.
"Anyway, I'm here about the picture frame I bought." She ripped the brown paper from the face of the package and held it up for him to look at.
"It's nice, I suppose," he murmured, barely giving the frame and painting a glance.
Nicki rolled her eyes. Luke was certainly obtuse about the fine points. Maybe it had something to do with him being a land developer. No doubt when someone was tearing down buildings and putting up strip malls, subtlety didn't have much value. On the other hand, maybe it was because he was an ex-jock. Her ex-husband had been a sports guy like Luke, and he'd possessed the sensitivity of a steamroller.
Along with a few other undesirable qualities.
Sighing, she looked Luke square in the eye. "It isn't about the frame. I mean, that's why I bought it, but that's not..." Her voice trailed off as she tried to collect her thoughts. "The thing is, when I examined the painting I discovered it was quite valuable. Take a look at the signature."
Leaning forward, he pulled a bit of paper away from the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. "A. Metlock. So?"
"So, Arthur Metlock was one of the finest American impressionists of his day."
Luke swallowed a stab of impatience. His uninvited guest had big blue eyes in a heart-shaped face, and a scatterbrained manner that was oddly appealing. If she'd shown up at his office in Chicago selling raffle tickets he would have bought a dozen. But right now he was getting ready to go back to Chicago and didn't have time to think about anything except his grandfather's worsening health. The doctor had diagnosed senility and prescribed medication to slow the progress of the condition, but nothing was helping.
"Miss Johansson. So it's worth a few dollars more than you paid for it. We don't mind. Granddad probably won't be staying in the house, which means we'll be getting rid of most everything, anyway, before we sell the place."
"I can't keep this." She sounded genuinely shocked. Lord. Luke had forgotten how stubborn people from Divine, Illinois, could be. He was accustomed to a cutthroat business world where getting a steal of a deal was the ultimate achievement. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the woman's honesty — too few women were honest about anything — but he didn't have the time or energy to deal with something new.
"Truly, you don't have to worry about it," he said, knowing irritation had crept into his tone.
"Of course I'm worried." Her obstinate expression seemed familiar for some reason. "It's worth at least twenty thousand dollars."
Luke blinked. She had to be mistaken. His grandfather had been a shrewd man in his day, writing popular art history books, collecting art and teaching at the local private college.
No matter how mentally shaky he might be now, he wouldn't have sold a valuable painting at a yard sale.
But then... Luke rubbed his temples. Granddad had gone downhill after Grams's death three years ago. It was one of the worst parts of their loss. Grams had gone quickly, her smile still bright and true despite the swift course of her illness. But Granddad seemed to lose a piece of himself with each day that passed, without even trying to get better. In fact, he seemed determined not to get better. Love had done that, taken the spirit out of him.
Luke didn't have any use for love. It had betrayed him more than once, and his grandfather's pain was just another reason not to trust an emotion that was elusive at best, destructive at worst.
"How do you know it's worth that much?" he asked. "Are you some sort of art genius or something?"
Out of the blue, the woman turned pink. The color was kind of pretty next to her tousled gold curls and blue eyes, and Luke watched with interest. It had been a long while since he'd seen a woman blush — probably not since he was a kid and he'd embarrassed the hell out of Little Miss Four-Point-O, the smartest kid in school....
His eyes widened.
Johansson? Why hadn't he noticed before? "As I live and breathe," he drawled. "If it isn't Nicole Johansson."
"And if it isn't Stud McCade," Nicki tossed back, as defiant as ever.
Luke winced at the nickname he'd once strutted over. In the old days he'd been smugly confident that he was irresistible to women and about his future as a pro football player — until his senior year, when basketball with his buddies had turned into twelve weeks of traction. That was when he'd gotten up close and personal with Little Miss Four-Point-O. She'd been hired to tutor him.
The memory was bleak enough without recalling what it meant to be Divine's football hero, injured just as the team was on its way to the state finals for the first time. Maybe things would have been different if he'd gotten hurt during a football game, but the entire town had hated him for blowing things when it mattered most. All except Nicki, who hadn't cared about football one way or the other. She'd hated him for other reasons...most of the time.
"You've changed," he said.
It didn't sound like a compliment, and Luke couldn't blame her. He hadn't behaved well back then, resenting being tutored by a kid nearly three years younger than him. He tormented her because of it...when he wasn't trying to tease her into a kiss. She'd been cute in a studious sort of way, and he'd been bored. And angry, at Divine and the rest of the world. Very angry. He'd had a chip on his shoulder the size of Canada.
Because it was easier thinking about something else, he looked at the painting. "We'll get this appraised. If it's that valuable you should receive a reward. By the way, how much did you pay my grandfather for it? I need to refund your money." He reached and pulled out his wallet.
"There's no need."
"I'm serious. I can't take something for nothing."
"What you really mean is that you can't let yourself be beholden to someone here in Divine. Right?" Nicki asked tartly.
"Still analyzing me, are you?"
"Jocks aren't hard to analyze, they only have one thing on their mind."
"Maybe, but I sure didn't get that one thing from you, did I? "Cause good girls don't put out," he said mockingly.
"You only wanted me because I was the only girl around," she snapped. "If there'd been a cheerleader in the room I would have been invisible. And just how far do you think we could have gone with you in traction?"
"Hey, I was willing to be creative."
"Stop squabbling, children," said an amused voice, and Luke glared at his sister, who was standing in the kitchen doorway. There were times she could imitate their mother annoyingly well.
"What do you want, Sherrie?"
She made a face. "I just got off the phone from California. My partner at the veterinary clinic broke her leg last night, so there's no one to cover the practice."
Luke uttered a curse and closed his eyes to close out Sherrie's worried expression and Nicki's reddened cheeks. Over the past year the family had spent an increasing amount of time in Divine, trying to help his grandfather stay in his own home. He'd been back in Divine himself for the last three weeks, and Sherrie had just arrived to take a turn.
"Don't worry, I'll find someone to cover the clinic," Sherrie said quickly.
"No. You've spent more time here than anyone, and it isn't fair to ask you to do more than the rest of us. I'll arrange to stay longer. You can fly back today."
Embarrassment warmed Nicki's cheeks as she gazed between the siblings. They were dealing with a serious problem, and she'd let an old resentment get the better of her. Resentment based on insecurity.
Involuntarily, she glanced down. She'd put on a loose cotton dress, suitable to the unseasonable late May heat. It wasn't stylish, but at least it wasn't as bad as her clothes used to be. Perhaps she ought to do something about the way she dressed. Yet as soon as the thought formed, she pushed it away. It felt too much like hoping to catch Luke's attention, though they weren't likely to meet again. Besides, she wasn't the kind of woman that a man like Luke wanted. His kind of woman was beautiful and sophisticated and sexually confident, while she was anything but those things.