“That’s old news,” I say with a wave of my hand.
“He’s hot, Jenna.” Mia leans across the table, chiming in with her opinion.
“Who’s hot?” Blake whirls around.
“Some guy Aunt Penny kissed.”
“Mia,” I hiss. But it’s too late. All three pairs of my brothers’ eyes burn into me. I tilt my chin in defiance, even though I want to shrink away from their scrutiny.
“I heard about that.” Zane folds his arms as he leans against the railing.
“Who?” Aaron drops his arm from behind Jenna and straightens his back.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” My gaze drifts around the deck, and it’s all I can do not to laugh. All three Reilly men have their jaws set firm, and their chests puffed out as if they’re ready to defend their sister’s honor. Neanderthals. I appreciate their concern, and I love them to bits. But I’m a forty-year-old woman who can kiss who I like. The thing is, if they’re this defensive over a random kiss, I’d hate to see their reaction if they ever find out about Tripp. Fingers crossed they won’t. Or at least I’ll be in a different location when they do.
“It was no one. Now, is my food ready?” I hold up my plate, ready for the burger Blake has assembled, and swallow the guilt that I just dismissed Linc as a nobody. For what it’s worth, he’s a decent guy, and yeah, maybe I am a little interested. He’s a bit of an enigma, and all I’ve really learned about him in our time together is that he works in construction and has moved here to help his gran out. An only child, his mom died when he was young and his dad moved around for work, which meant Linc spent a lot of vacation time here with his gran. From what I can tell, there’s no girlfriend. No secret family. Just him, his good looks and his disarming smile that makes me feel like I’m sixteen again.
Thankfully, my brothers drop their interrogation and switch their conversation to discussing the ranch.
“You’ll have to tell me all about it later,” Jenna whispers with a wink.
I shrug, taking a bite of my burger. Despite Jenna’s fame, she is one of the most down-to-earth people I know, and it will be good to have another female friend to confide in. I have no doubt she’s met Tripp at some point in her career. But at least I know she won’t give me a hard time like my brothers.
With a full belly, I bid everyone goodbye and drive into town, stopping by the hardware store to grab a few things for my house. A roll of tape. A new door handle for the hall cupboard. A washer for the kitchen faucet. A wrench. And a new hose for the garden. All for minor jobs I’ve been putting off for ages. The thing with growing up on a ranch is that I learned to fix things from an early age. My parents instilled a hard work ethic, and my father was determined that I learned the same things as my brothers. I was just as happy mucking out the barn and riding horses as I was getting my nails done. Which is why it doesn’t phase me in the slightest to get my hands dirty doing simple repair jobs. Why waste time and money on someone else when I can do the job myself?
“You’re missing a shovel.”
I whirl around at the sound of the familiar deep voice, and with no prompting, my stomach launches into a routine of Olympic-worthy somersaults at the sight of the man standing in the middle of the aisle. Holy moly, this guy can make flannel look good. Wearing work boots, jeans and an unbuttoned flannel shirt over a white t-shirt, he is the epitome of construction worker, or perhaps lumberjack, given the thick stubble shadowing his jaw.
“Linc!” I smile, then frown as his words register. “Shovel?”
He nods toward my basket. “If you’re going to commit a murder, you’ll need something to dig a hole for the body.”
“Oh. I…” I blink several times. My mouth opens and closes as my mind draws a blank.
“Okay, so that was a really lame attempt at a joke.” He chuckles, running a hand across the back of his neck. That simple movement causes the Sahara desert to take up residence in my mouth. Oh, boy.
“Er, haha.” The nervous titter erupting from my mouth sounds like I’m a twenty-something bimbo ready to swoon at his feet. All I need is a hair flick to complete the picture. “Sorry, I was just lost in my thoughts and you took me by surprise. But yes, it certainly looks like I’m plotting something.”
“For an ex-boyfriend?”
That makes me laugh. Now that he mentions it…
“I value my freedom too much,” I say, stopping by a display of sunflowers that will look nice on the table in my breakfast nook. I grab a couple and tuck the stems into a plastic bag.
My response elicits a deep rumble of laughter from Linc, a sound I could easily listen to all day. “So, you’re more the poison-in-the-nightcap type, or perhaps feed him something he’s anaphylactic to. Or maybe an overdose of insulin between the toes.”
I glance up at him. His hazel eyes dance with mirth. One corner of his mouth tips into a smirk, revealing a dimple that I could fall into. “Should I be worried about you? You seem to know an awful lot about committing and concealing a homicide. Should I send out an SOS so my fellow shoppers can come and rescue me?”
“Hey, you’re the one with all the suspicious gear.” He grins, nodding at my basket. “Besides, I’m completely harmless.”
“That’s what they all say.” I roll my eyes, but am powerless to resist the smile forming on my lips as an unfamiliar ribbon of awareness unfurls in my chest. This flirty banter, if it can be called that, is giving me all the feels, and I’m tempted to throw caution to the wind and see where it carries me. But then I quickly shove that notion aside.
I’ve been burned before—scarred for life—and should know that someone who looks like Linc McArthur would not be completely harmless.
Penny Reilly is a pleasant surprise. An easy-going, good-natured bundle of fun wrapped up in a strait-laced yet gorgeous exterior. She’s confident without being conceited, and there’s an element of caution, as though she’s holding herself back, not willing to let her true self shine through. Despite that, each time I see her, a little more of my self-preservation crumbles away, and for the first time in eons, I’m understanding how it might feel to be at ease with a woman.