Not Good Enough
A long-awaited for announcement...
BORN IN TEXAS #14: Not Good Enough Hero
Jana idly twirled the gold promise ring around her finger, watching the morning sun glint off the diamond solitaire. Saint had given it to her on Christmas Eve.
Nine months ago.
Nine terribly loooooong months ago.
It was the best nine months of her life and the worst nine months, because she’d almost lost him. Twice!
Not that they’d even come close to breaking up. Nope. Nothing in Saint Riley’s life was that simple. He’d landed in the crosshairs of the same criminal land developers who’d nearly succeeded in taking her ranch from her. Technically, he’d deliberately stepped into those crosshairs, in an attempt to provide a buffer between her and the thugs trying to steal her land.
He'd probably saved her life. Again. It was at least the third time. He’d made such a habit of saving her that she was starting to lose count.
My very own hero.
She shivered at the memory, tugging the unbuttoned flaps of her favorite fuzzy orange cardigan more tightly around her. He’d totally lived up to every ounce of the hero she’d always known he could be — well, except the part about riding with her into the sunset to claim their happily-ever-after together.
Is he ever going to pop the question?
She was starting to wonder if she was going to remain single forever.
A sharp breeze whistled through the front yard, swirling across the porch where she was lounged against a column. Though it was growing colder, she refused to go inside. Saint was supposed to arrive any minute.
It kind of hurt her feelings that he’d refused to let her attend his final parole meeting this morning. She got the fact that he had a past he wasn’t proud of, but they were a couple now. She was all-in on their relationship — the good, the bad, and everything in between. Surely, he knew that!
She sighed as she squinted into the morning sunlight pouring over her long, winding driveway. There was still no sign of him, which meant more waiting and worrying on her part.
If things went the way he hoped, he’d be returning to her as a free man. If not…
She glanced anxiously at her watch, wondering why he hadn’t at least texted her. The meeting had ended a good hour ago. Did his delay in touching base with her mean that he’d gotten bad news? Had they decided to extend his parole?
A rumble of a truck motor made her catch her breath. Was it him?
Please, God, let it be him!
The rumble grew louder, making her frown. She knew the sound of his Ford F-150 pickup, and that wasn’t it. Her whole body tensed as a strange gun-metal gray vehicle rounded the final corner of her driveway, circled in front of her, and skidded to a halt in the gravel.
She’d never seen anything like it before. It was roughly the shape of an SUV, but bigger. Its windows were narrower than those of an SUV. So was the windshield. Everything about it screamed Terminator, like from the action thriller movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger in it.
Her first instinct was to run inside and lock the front door. However, her feet felt like they were frozen solid to the wooden planks beneath her ankle boots.
She stared with bated breath as the driver’s door swung open. Only when Saint’s blonde head appeared over the top of the door did she let the air seep back out from her parted lips.
He pushed the door open wider, grinning at her like it was no big deal to show up in her driveway in a vehicle like that.
“Are you gonna come check it out or what?” He gestured at the tough-looking set of wheels, looking so gorgeous in a long-sleeved navy t-shirt and rugged jeans that she suddenly found it harder to breathe.
She nodded wordlessly, still trying to find her voice as she straightened and moved slowly down the porch steps.
His grin disappeared as she made her way across the gravel driveway to step around the open driver’s door. “What’s wrong, babe?”
She stepped closer, sliding her arms around his middle and hugging him tightly. “Saint,” she whispered. It was the only thing she could think of saying. She still had no idea why he was driving something that looked like it belonged on a movie set, but his demeanor suggested that his parole meeting had gone well.
His arms came around her. “Hey! Talk to me.” He pressed his face to the side of her neck, breathing her in.
“I was worried when I didn’t hear from you.” Her voice was muffled against his shirt.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call.” He rubbed gentle circles across her back. “Guess I was trying to surprise you.”
Some of the tension in her body eased. “It sounds like everything went well?”
“Yeah. It did.” He cuddled her closer. “I’m a free man, but not for long, I hope.”
She grew still in his arms. “What do you mean?” She tipped her face up to his, puzzled by the contradiction in his words.
“Marry me, Jana.” His voice was rough with emotion as he reached up to cup her face between his callused hands. “Be mine. All mine.”
She stared at him for a moment longer, feeling tongue-tied all over again. After waiting nine months to hear him say those exact words, he’d still managed to surprise her.
His expression grew hooded as he watched her expression change. “Foster and Lyon from K&G Security were waiting outside after my parole meeting. The moment they heard my good news, they offered me a job. Salary, full benefits, and the keys to this if I accepted the position.” He angled his head at the monstrous vehicle parked next to them.
Though his news thrilled her to pieces, it didn’t affect her answer to his question. Her answer would’ve been the same if he’d asked her to marry him one hour ago, one day ago, or nine months ago.
“Yes, I will marry you,” she said softly. Happy tears blurred her vision, but not so much that she missed how his face lit with joy at her answer.
Then his mouth came down on hers. It wasn’t like any of his other kisses in the past. It was devastatingly tender and heart-stoppingly thorough. It was as much of a claiming as a celebration, like two souls melding into one.
“Thank you.” He spoke against her lips. “For sticking by me the way you have. And for agreeing to do it permanently.”
She smiled. “There’s no other place I’d rather be than by your side, Saint Riley.” She’d told him that before, and she planned to keep telling him that until he believed her.
He touched his lips to hers again. “It must be true since you just agreed to marry me.” There was wonder in his voice as he dropped his hands to her shoulders and slid them slowly down her arms.
She leaned back a little as his arms came around her again. “So, what is this thing?” She flicked a curious glance at the gun-metal vehicle to their left.
“It’s a Rezvani Tank, a tactical off-road, armored vehicle. Compliments of my new employers.” There was no mistaking the pride and awe in his voice over the fact that he’d landed such a good job.
“Like a work vehicle?”
“Yes, and for driving anywhere else I want.” A grin stretched across his face. “Because of my penchant for getting involved in tough situations, they wanted to ensure I show up each day for work in one piece.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “It’s not like you go looking for trouble.”
He shrugged. “In my newest line of work, it might come looking for me now and then.” Sobering, he glanced around them. “For that reason, I wouldn’t mind tightening up security around here if you’re willing to let me.”
She imitated his nonchalant shrug. Or tried to. She wasn’t sure if she pulled it off perfectly. “You’re about to become my mister, so have at it.”
The hard lines of his jaw softened. “I can’t wait to be married to you. It feels like I’ve been waiting forever.”
She made a face at him. “I know the feeling.”
He snickered as he dove in for another kiss. “Didn’t want you shackling yourself to a jailbird.”
“I would’ve said yes, even then,” she whispered when he lifted his head.
“I know.” His voice grew rough again. “But it wouldn’t have been fair to ask that of you.”
She punched him playfully in the gut. “Just for the record, I’m not waiting another nine months to tie the knot.”
He lifted her fist and kissed it. “Wasn’t planning on asking you to wait. Actually…” He waggled his eyebrows wickedly at her. “I was going to ask you to take the quickest route to the closest altar with me.”
She chuckled knowingly. “I take it you’ve already asked Jeremy Morgan to marry us?” He served as a deputy by day and a minister on evenings and weekends at the chapel a few miles down the road. After all they'd been through together in recent months, they both considered him to be one of their dearest friends.
“Yep, and we can head back into town this morning to apply for our marriage license, if you’d like.”
She caught her breath. “I’d like.” A wave of giddiness shook her. After waiting so long for this, everything was happening pretty quickly all of a sudden.
“Good. But first…” He abruptly swung her around and stepped her backwards toward the Tank. “I want to do this.” He gently pressed her shoulders back against the vehicle and pinned her hands lightly against the windows.
At first, she thought he was going to kiss her, but all he did was gaze at her with a ridiculously besotted expression stamped across his face.
“See how you look against my new ride.” He stepped closer and slowly lowered his head over hers. “I’m the happiest guy in the world.”
She tipped her face up to his to make his kiss happen all the quicker. “I love you so much.”
“I love you, too.” He still didn’t kiss her, though. Instead, he rested his forehead against hers. “I can’t believe you’re finally mine.”
“I’ve been yours for a long time, Saint.”
“You know what I mean.” He sounded a little choked.
“I do.” She knew, because she was feeling the same way — like her heart was soaring through the white clouds puffing lazily on the breeze over their heads.
* * *
Only when they were bouncing across the wide-open field toward the canyons did she think to ask about how his sponsor had taken his big news.
“What did Matt say about you going to work for K&G?” Once upon a time, he'd been adamant about offering Saint a job himself.
Saint reached for her hand. “Turns out, he was in on the deal from start to finish.”
“How so?” She felt her insides melt like a s’more over a bonfire as he lifted her hand to his mouth again.
“He finagled a clause into my employment contract that has me working exclusively for Anderson Ranch.”
“I thought that was Grecia’s job.” Her eyes grew wide. Since Grecia was now married to a cousin of the ranch owners, it seemed to Jana that the lovely Marine would get first dibs on positions. Not to mention she had seniority over Saint, since she’d been at the firm longer.
“So did I, but it sounds like she’s about to get pulled back to the home office for desk duty for a while.” He took his time kissing her knuckles. “I don’t think it’s public knowledge yet, but she’s been a little pale around the gills lately, if you know what I mean.”
Jana stared at him. “You mean she’s pregnant?”
He squeezed her land and lowered it to his knee. “If she says something to you about it, act surprised.”
She drew back, pretending to be offended. “Oh, honey! You do realize you’re sitting next to the queen of fiction?”
His greenish-gray gaze twinkled at her. “Yeah, but your eyes tend to mirror everything you’re feeling.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “You don’t know all my secrets, Saint Riley.” Not yet. After they were married, he’d probably finish figuring out the few he didn’t already know.
He snorted. “You’re an open book, babe.”
At her gasp of mock outrage, he added, “To me, anyway.”
“Just for that,” she taunted, “I’m going to bore you with the plot that's been tangling my brain on my latest book.” She’d been trying to untangle it for two days straight.
“Bring it on, babe.” He didn’t sound the least bit bored as he feathered his brakes and brought the Tank to a halt at the rim of the canyon in the back pasture.
A deep pass stretched below them like a long, winding ribbon between two enormous walls of red, brown, and golden stone. Sunlight spilled over the edges of both sides, making bits and pieces of fool’s gold send up glinting sparks.
“My heroine makes cakes for a side hustle — birthday cakes, wedding cakes, cupcakes for end-of-season sports parties, you name it. Her day job is that of an accountant, but she’s hoping to grow her clientele to the point where she can justify opening her own bakery soon.”
Saint fiddled with the controls and reclined his seat a few inches. He shot her a lazy grin. “If she’s willing to accept last-minute orders, we can support the cause by having her bake our wedding cake.”
“Focus, Sherlock!” She scowled at him. “This is a purely fictitious case.”
“Bummer! Guess we’ll have to place our cake order with someone else.”
“No, we won’t.” Jana rolled her eyes. “Bree Romero will insist on making it since you’re part of the family. Trust me.” She made air quotes around the words the family, because that’s what Bree considered all the staff they employed at Anderson Ranch. Family. It was a wonderful feeling to know she would soon be joining it by marriage.
“You’re probably right.” He looked pleased. “She’s pretty amazing like that.”
“The only problem with my fictitious baker is,” she spun a finger in the air to circle back to her plot tangle, “she sank her entire life savings into a fixer upper on Main Street, and that’s putting it lightly. It’s a completely dilapidated building that the townsfolk claim would’ve been condemned a long time ago if any inspector had been willing to go near it. Which they won’t because everyone says it’s haunted.”
Saint narrowed his gaze at her. “The plot thickens.”
Her lips twisted ruefully. “It's also where it gets tangled. My baker doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she’s been plagued with trouble ever since she moved in.”
His eyebrows rose. “To a condemned building?”
“It was never officially condemned,” she reminded, “but yes. She’s basically camping inside, living on a shoestring while she saves up for all-new commercial grade kitchen equipment.”
“Sounds like someone else I know.” Saint winked knowingly at her. The first thing she’d renovated after moving into the Claymore farmhouse was the kitchen. It now boasted stainless steel appliances, to include Thor double ovens, a six-range stovetop, and a sub-zero fridge.
“Write what you know, huh?” she returned sweetly before continuing her story. “Back to my poor heroine. Every time she completes a wedding cake, something unusual happens. She wakes up the next morning to find a single, thin slice cut from the top tier, right next to the cake topper. It’s placed on a white dinner napkin beside the cake and smeared with red icing. Not in a pretty way, either. The intruder seems to be trying to make it look like blood, a detail I was hoping to tie to a crime that was previously committed in the house, but…” She blew out a frustrated breath. “That’s where I keep getting tangled up. I’ve rewritten the next scene four or five times, and nothing I’ve tried so far seems to fit.” She waved a hand. “Not murder, accidental death, or crime of passion. I think the story needs a lighter touch, but how?”
Saint was silent for a moment. “Maybe you’re overthinking it.”
“I’m definitely overthinking it.” It sort of came with the territory of crime writer. “That’s why I’m asking for your help, Sherlock.”
“When all else fails, keep it simple, babe.”
“How simple,” she pressed, anxious for him to elaborate.
“I’m assuming the house has been vacant for a while.”
“What if it’s not as vacant as everyone assumes?”
She blinked at him for a moment. “And my plot is suddenly untangled.” She leaned his way, intending to show her appreciation with a kiss. “My hero saves the day again.”
He hovered his mouth over hers but stopped just shy of kissing her. “I still don’t know about the hero part, but I’m all yours, babe. Always.”
“Kiss me, Saint,” she whispered, inwardly vowing to continue her efforts to prove to him that he was, indeed, hero material. She was just now coming to the realization, though, that his inability to see himself that way was part of his charm. He was brave and fearless when it came to protecting those he cared about, but humble to a fault when it came to taking credit for it afterward.
He was, quite simply, better than a storybook hero — with just the right mix of imperfections to make him perfect for her. She thanked God for him every morning when she woke up and every night before she went to bed.
She couldn’t wait to begin their happily-ever-after together.
Oh, who am I trying to kid?
As his mouth brushed hers, it dawned on her that they’d already begun.