Soul-melding sex turns up the temperature in this tale of empowerment via unselfish love. Injured in body and mind by her students, Lyla Gray tries for a new life as governess on the DuPree orange and alpaca ranch in Citrus County, Florida.
Lyla recovers her professional confidence quickly, but her drive for a normal life—including romance—is something else. What is she supposed to do when, despite a libido on overdrive, her trauma rules out contact with...the scary part of men? It’s not easy with sex –exuding young males all around, including sweet, delicious looking Mark DuPree and his hungry, sad green eyes. Mark seems to be spoiling for a fight with her all the time, and he’s lost in grief and work demands and looking for someone to help him regain some kind of life.
Vandalism, mysterious deaths, community feuds, and tending to the tattered emotions of those worse off than she is gobble up Lyla’s obsession with herself.But will Mark help her save herself from the past and learn that there’s nothing scary about loving after all?
Piles of books surrounded Lyla and Libby when Mark poked his nose into the attic room. He looked rather mulish to her.
“There you are. I’ve been looking for you. Come down to my study, please.”
Lyla’s back stiffened. He demanded her presence, did he? What was it about that man that made her feel so annoyed? Why couldn’t he act like his easy-going brother? They could have so much fun working side by side in this house.
She started off to Mark’s lair, as far from her room as possible, thank God. She wanted to keep that grimace at arm’s length.
She forced a few deep breaths and halted on the stairs to consult with her inner self. What did Mark say that set her off? Did he mean it the way she took it? She felt sweaty and cranky. Don’t be stupid, Lyla. Don’t start out on the wrong foot. She stopped in front of Mark’s open door.
She opened her palms to him. “You summoned me. Here I am.”
His oversized, tidy desk dominated the center of his uncluttered office. Books and organized stacks of papers filled shelves on three walls. She drew in the odor of leather and wood, aromas that spoke of testosterone and set her anxiety vibrating like a violin string. Just enough to keep her on edge.
He motioned her to the cowhide chair across from his desk. He sat down in its twin, with his back to a double window that looked out over the back lawn and the Big River. Good. Just keep the desk between them. Already the hairs on the nape of her neck stood at attention, and he hadn’t said a word.
Lyla sat up straight. The chair was comfortable but made for a man’s long thighs, so she kept sliding forward in the well-rubbed cowhide. If only her mouth weren’t so dry. She forced down a couple of swallows and turned her face to sniff the leather, as if that could immunize her against masculine power. She couldn’t get comfortable with him over there ogling her, judging her.
Mark stood up and extended his long-fingered hand, the nails short and clean. Her hand in his felt like a chocolate in an overly warm room, but she lacked the will to remove it. At the same time, his sober eyes on hers made her anxiety twang. He tipped the plantation blinds to minimize the glare on her eyes. Hmmm, all right, she could give him points for that.
She rubbed her wrists against each other, leery of him as a male, maybe a man who missed having a woman. Already he put her teeth on edge and pulled her closer at the same time.
At first they engaged in general conversation about his two children. She burned to pry more out of him.
“What are your goals?” she probed. “What do you want me to do for them?”
“They need to learn, especially English and math—and anything you think is important. I want to send them to college.”
“Ah, that helps. Do you have a copy of the local curriculum?”
He waved the question away. “I thought that was up to the teacher.”
“What about textbooks?”
“Order what you want—Dick and Jane or something.”
Inside she growled. “Well, I expect you’ll want your stamp on their education. Do you value creativity, or rote learning? Are you a liberal thinker or conservative? Not that they won’t experience my influence as well.”
“All that. Whatever works.” He passed a hand over his face.
Annoyance bubbled over in her stomach. “My goodness, haven’t you thought about the shape of your children’s education at all?”
He stood up and stared out the window at the wide part of the river. Had she irritated him? Good. Stick a match under him.
“Damn it, just teach them,” he said, running his hands through his hair. “Can’t you do that?”
His distraught gesture pulled on her reins. Don’t jump to conclusions, said an inner warning. You did that when you trusted your students. You don’t know what’s going on with this man. The blood throbbed in her veins from sparring with him or trying to. This was like a good jolt of caffeine, honing the sharp, suspecting edges in her mind.
She paused while she restrained herself a little further. “Mark, I’m not trying to wear you down. I don’t want a dispassionate discussion. Surely you have hopes…objectives.”
Mark jerked in his chair. “Don’t you have any idea how to take care of this without me telling you everything?” His eyes were flinty.
She met his gaze, her chin high. “Of course, I do. I know how to do it all, but I can help your children so much better with you involved. Your resistance is holding me back.”
His eyes blazed, and he clenched his fists. She shouldn’t have worked herself up, but, damn it, she enjoyed it, and she liked seeing his eyes darken with feeling. Heat rolled off him to her and made her shiver. Inside her, where he couldn’t see, longing unrolled itself, a carpet, long untrodden. She tried to stuff it back inside.
He looked from side to side, as if searching for something. “Can’t you see I’m at a loss how to proceed with the children? I’m at a loss how to deal with you, too, if you want to know, though I shouldn’t admit weakness.”
“Maybe you don’t need to deal with me, as you say. But we do have to talk. I need to know where you stand.”
He turned to the window. He waited, his words below the surface, like a long forgotten wreckage, and when he faced her, his jaw was all hard angles again.
They started to talk, both at once.
He cleared his throat. “Look, I run this place. Office work, phone calls, orders, sales, manning the winery—that’s my day and part of my night, with my dad’s work knocking me into next week. I need to be steel-minded, and I make all the decisions—all of them, but I’m out of my depth here. He
opened his hands in an expansive gesture. “I really need you to take charge of this.”
Approval cuddled up in Lyla’s heart. Wasn’t it nice that, after all, Mark could concede his shortcomings without it bringing him down? That made him a man like her father, the pastor who was quick to say he didn’t know it all. A real man.
“Mark, why don’t you let me tell you some of my ideas? Then, if you agree, I’ll start that way. Let’s just talk, okay? I merely need to know if we’re on the same page about the children.”
He flopped back down in his chair. “Yes, all right.”
She summarized her observations so far. Elizabeth could start at grade level in math. Reading was a mixed story. Lyla talked about passive word recognition and phonics skills. “Teaching those is my job.” She explained the importance of writing alongside reading.
His face cleared. “You mean Libby can tell a story but not put it in writing?”
“Exactly. That’s not too unusual but frustrating for her, given the large number of words she wants to use. I have an idea she’s pretty bright, and she’ll learn quickly. She’ll have a lot to write about.”
Mark grinned. “That makes me proud.” His hands were in his hair, his elbows on his desk. “So, reading and writing are perfect partners.”
She smiled. “Yes, the light will go on. She will start choosing to read more often than doing something else.”
He laughed. “You mean soaking up television and punching her brother.”
“Yes, she already loves stories. She told me about Jane Eyre today. You were there.”
He grinned. “I hate to bear bad tidings, but she didn’t read the book. We watched it on television together not too long ago.”
“And she loved the story, right?”
Mark gave a tentative smile. “Yes, and she was in heaven when she learned a governess was coming here.”
“Well, I want to give her the skills to express herself. Her delights, her fears—everything in life.”
Mark agreed that Libby would like that. “That’s how you get on top of life before it crushes you, I imagine.”
“Yes. I can’t say I’ve mastered that a hundred percent myself—getting on top.” She remembered the blood all over the closet on the day words had failed her. Raw fear alone had helped her to survive, and it was still with her now sometimes.
Mark bounded to the opposite side of the desk. “You don’t look too well all of a sudden. Wait a minute.”
He returned in a moment with a glass of water. “Here, clear your mind.”
The water felt cool, Mark’s response warming.
“I’m sorry. I can see I put you too much on the spot.”
She shook her head. “You didn’t.” Her voice was a dry croak. How could she explain that fear unsettled her?
Mark leaned against the edge of the desk, watching her nurse her water.
This put her face on the level of his crotch. She eyed the wide leather belt holding his jeans low on his hips. She could smell the cowhide on him, along with gentle soap. The honest scents kept her anxiety at bay. Lyla claimed a deep breath and lifted her eyes to Mark’s face in time to see an earnest smile replace his knit eyebrows.
“Maybe it would be more fun to talk about my son. I’m sure you’re wondering about Raisin’s name?”
“It grew on him over the years. Most of his mishaps had something to do with his raisin obsession. Early on, he stuffed several of them far up his nose to save them for later. The same with his ears. Another time, his raisin stash sent Ralph to the vet hospital with kidney trouble.”
“Yes, I can see Raisin’s difference from his sister. He meant it when he said he didn’t want to go to school, but he’s a sucker for stories too. I intend to draw him in with that. And raisins.”
Mark’s attentive eyes indicated he followed her ideas for his offspring.
Finally her talk turned to him, the father. “Libby and Raisin need you to read to them. A lot. And talk to them about the stories and the life lessons in them.”
“That’s what I pay you for, isn’t it?” His abrupt tone rankled “You read to them. I’ll work and make money so I can pay you to read.”
She straightened her spine and lifted her chin. “Your children need both of us if this is going to happen for them. I’m telling you.”
Mark steepled his fingers and peered at her as clouds gathered on his face.
She had to win this round. “Reading can’t be something you do only in school, Mark. Reading has to be something the children care about deeply, because it connects them with their dearest love.”
He took the bait. “What’s that?”
She looked into his earnest eyes. “You.”
He paced in front of the window.
Finally she changed the subject. “What about the teenager you described in your letter?” She already knew the answer, but she wanted to hear it from him. It was hard to repress her smirk.
He chuckled then. The thunderclouds cleared off his face, and he gave her a sheepish glance. “That was Robert. I don’t know why I wrote that. He’s a college graduate now, with a degree in agriculture and business, to the benefit of the ranch. I suppose it’s too late to tame him now, anyway.”
“Maybe he doesn’t need taming. Maybe he needs freedom.”
“Look, it was a joke, writing that, and partly I was irked with him at the time, because I wanted him to stop goofing around and take responsibility. I’m, er, ashamed of myself now. Of course Robert works. He just has fun while he works.” Mark paused, scratching his head. “And you’re right. Robert feels shackled to a job he doesn’t love. I’m sorry about that, because he deserves better.”
A man who can apologize, purred the warm, fuzzy spot in her heart.
Mark sighed. “I’m sorry too, for the offensive things I said when we met. It seems a long time ago now, and I can’t believe I was not more cordial.”
“That was today.”
“Well, I was angry. I was irritated. I was frustrated. And I was unbelievably tired. I know those things do not make an excuse for my bad behavior. Please forgive me for that. I need a second chance. With you, with my kids…and with life.” His eyes looked contrite.
That squeezed Lyla’s heart. “We both need that, I think.”
“The truth is I’m the one who needs to be tamed. Ever since my wife died and my father started getting more eccentric and depressed, I felt like the only adult in the family, with this strange cast of characters around me.” He made a wide circle with his arm.
“What happened to your wife?”
He lowered his eyes and hunched his shoulders forward.
The pain in his eyes made her heart turn over. “I’m sorry.” she said. “I have a way of saying the wrong things.
“No, we might as well get to know each other, so, yes, my past is a place you should be able to visit. My wife Ruthie died three years ago. She had a heart attack shortly after giving birth. The baby died too. Raisin was two, and Libby was five.
“My father was undependable, my brother just a kid, or so I thought. Mattie kept our bodies and souls together in every practical way after Ruthie died, just as she did before, when my wife was sick, and even earlier, when my mother passed away. I ran the ranch…I don’t know how. Emotionally, I was shattered and exhausted. Maybe the others were too.”
Mark paused but finally continued in baby steps. “So…you see…I…I don’t really know what we
need. I don’t know…what I want, except in the broadest way. I want my kids kept away from danger and bullying. I want them nurtured the way their mother can’t do anymore.”
His groping fingers made his hair stand up like a child’s. Lyla wanted to laugh at this sign of his agitation, but she knew this was serious. Important.
He cleared his throat. “So, maybe that addresses your question. I want less aggravation. I want some kind of life back. I want laughter in my house. Maybe you can help me with that. If you think that’s not your job, I understand.”
She nodded assent.
“How about you, Lyla? What do you want? What do you need?” He reached for her hand.
How could she tell him the truth? Hers wasn’t an easy story to tell, especially to a man.
He turned her hands over and examined the scars on the inner surface of her wrists. “What’s this?”
She turned her eyes to him. “What do you know about me? Did you notice I haven’t worked for over a year?”
“Yes, I did notice that.”
“Didn’t you think it was strange? Didn’t you want to ask me about it?”
He gave a rueful laugh. “Nothing you may have to hide is stranger than what you’ll find right here on the funny farm.” Those remarkable green eyes riveted her to the point. “What I needed to know when you answered my ad was that you were willing to come here and take on my kids…and the rest of us.”
He waited a few beats. “I can see somebody hurt you. The rest of your story I’d very much like to hear when you are ready, a little at a time, or all at once. Lyla, no one will hurt you here.”
He cleared his throat. “I run a rat race around here every day, but in the long run I have time to listen. He smiled and took her hand again, as he rested his elbows on the desk. He looked over their hands into her eyes. “Let’s talk again, okay?”
This moment didn’t last as long as she wanted. Mark stood up and led her to the door. “You know where you can find me.” He closed the door behind her, and she heard his boots squeak on the rug as he returned to his desk.
Her breath hitched. A sensitive man who tells you his story on the first day, said her inner self. Why was she standing here outside the door, just when he got her interested?
She didn’t get him. First he lit a fire in her, but then he called it quits. It felt exhilarating to argue with him, though she felt strong empathy too. He gave her a peek inside him, when they’d only just met. Maybe she wanted to do the same for him.
Inside her quarters, she leaned against the door. “It turns out you want the same things I do, Leather Man. So you say.” She closed her eyes and ran her hands up and down her arms. She growled as she revisited his words. “I want some kind of life back too. I am shattered and exhausted too, so if you can help me, that’s what I want you to do.” She tasted tears in her throat. “And I want to help you too.”
In her memory, his eyes flashed. She groaned and opened her eyes wide, her pulse awakened. “And I want to fight with you too.”
My website is www.judithkammeraad.com
People can get to know me on my two Facebook pages: judith kammeraad or author judith kammeraad.
Judith Kammeraad grew up a good girl under the triple onus of preacher-teacher-author’s kid with a fecund imagination as a survival tool. Making up stories proved almost involuntary, and books were her best friends. Dad reinforced words as the best fun ever.
She married her high school sweetheart, who brought out her naughty side at last. The Kammeraads settled down in Michigan and raised two daughters as creative as their mom, encouraging them to embrace their inner quirkiness. Judith devoted herself to a teaching career and created her stories and poems on the side.
These days the Kammeraads and their talented sheltie live in Florida near their six grandchildren, who inspire stories about the mental workings of children. In a secret life she writes sweaty novels that break hearts and warm the spirit. And keep her laughing and crying all day.