in Love for Christmas
Their next kiss will be one he initiates!
A VERY COUNTRY CHRISTMAS WISH #2
Jorge Ortega hated driving a borrowed truck. He especially hated the fact that it belonged to the one guy whose sister he wanted to date. He was trying to impress her, not come across as some hopeless charity case.
He gritted his teeth as he revved the motor of her brother’s white Dodge Ram, determined not to put any more nicks and dings in it than it already had. Before he could take his boot off the brake pedal, a slender figure jogged in his direction.
His shoulders tensed at the sight of Liv Navarro’s dark braids flying in the mountain breeze. He’d risen at daybreak, hoping to roll away from Christmas Tree Farm uninterrupted. It looked like he wasn’t going to get his wish.
Most folks he would’ve pretended not to see and kept driving, but Liv wasn’t most folks. She was his boss’s sister, which meant he had time for her. There were other reasons he had time for her — why he would always have time for her.
As a precaution, he mashed down the truck’s emergency brake. Then he rolled down his window and waited for the willowy farm girl to reach his side. She was holding onto her hat to keep it from flying off in the merciless mountain wind.
Her lips twisted in a pout as she halted beside the truck. “Were you seriously going to drive away without saying anything to me?”
Though his heart pounded a little harder from her nearness, he merely shrugged. “I’m heading out on a job, Liv. Didn’t see any need to wake you for that.” He was secretly glad she’d chased him down, though. The first glow of sunrise was lighting the skies, illuminating her heart-shaped features. He would never get tired of looking at her.
He adored everything about her, right down to her sassy temperament. She never hesitated to say what was on her mind. He especially loved the way she didn’t bother hiding the way she felt about him. He even loved the grass stains and patches of dirt she almost always wore on her jeans. She was a woman who wasn’t afraid of hard work.
She stared back, drinking him in like she couldn’t get her fill of the sight of him, either. He wasn’t sure why. Every shirt he owned was threadbare and faded. Every pair of jeans was worn clean through the knees.
Expelling a gusty breath, she splayed her hands against the side of the truck, leaning closer to him — close enough for him to catch a whiff of her strawberry shampoo.
“It’s more than that, and you know it. Much, much more.” She lifted her chin in challenge.
“Nope. It’s just a job.” He’d built dozens of other brick signs down in Mexico, probably over a hundred. Glancing away, he took a long drag of air to fill his lungs, allowing himself the luxury of reveling in her fresh strawberry scent. It was a concoction she’d made herself from the berries she grew in her greenhouses. She hoped to bottle and sell the stuff at the farmer’s market he and her brother were in the middle of building.
In all our spare time. Which probably meant they wouldn’t get back to it until after sundown this evening.
“Oh, come on, Jorge,” Liv exploded, leaning closer still — so close that all he’d have to do is turn his head in her direction and their lips would touch. “What you’re doing today could literally change everything for us.” She lowered her voice. “For you and me.”
“I know.” He continued to grip the steering wheel, staring straight ahead. She certainly wasn’t making it easy for him to drive away from her.
“Oh, I get it.” Her voice softened. “You’re nervous.”
“I’m not nervous.” A muscle ticked in his jaw. Nerves were for little grannies knitting in rockers on front porches. He was worried, though. How could he not be? So much weighed on the first construction job they’d landed for the fledgling Christmas Tree Farm Construction Co. If he did a good job building the new brick sign the owners of Ashburn Ranch wanted, they might put in a good word for him with their rich friends, which could amount to more orders for more signs.
“You can do this, Jorge. I believe in you.”
“Why?” He ducked his head over the steering wheel. For the life of him, he couldn’t think of one thing he’d done to earn Liv Navarro’s regard. He’d spent the entire two years he’d been in the States, stepping from one patch of trouble to the next, pretty much staying one bad decision away from getting arrested. It was a wonder he’d made it this far without being deported. The brand spanking new green card in his pocket was nothing short of a miracle.
So was the way Liv felt about him.
“Because you’re the hardest working guy I know.” She reached for his hand. “And you have a good heart.”
He stared at her slender fingers resting against his scarred hands on the steering wheel. Yeah, he worked hard. It was his one good quality. He wasn’t sure it made up for the rest of his bad attributes. It certainly didn’t make him good enough for her.
Without glancing over at her, he flipped his hand around to lace their fingers together.
“Say something,” she pleaded.
“I don’t deserve you.” He shook his head at their joined hands. The knowledge had been burning in his heart for days. The harder he fell for her, the more he felt the extent of his unworthiness.
“Since when?” she demanded.
“Since the first day we met.” It was the truth. He hadn’t seen it that way back then, but he did now.
“Whatever.” She squeezed his fingers. “Not sure what’s gotten into you,” she continued in the same huffy voice, “but you’ve been acting weird ever since Emilio and Tess’s wedding.”
“Maybe.” If he had been, it was because that was when her brother had finally given him permission to start dating her. Up to that point, Jorge had flirted with Liv out of defiance as much as anything else. He’d never planned on it growing into an attraction that he’d be this powerless to fight.
It filled him with no small amount of shame to recall how many times he’d purposely made her brother mad. A guy who’d been nothing but good to him. A guy he owed everything to — his green card, his current job, and the chance to finally make something of himself this side of the border. A guy he respected. A guy he suddenly and desperately wanted to respect him in return.
“There’s no maybe about it.” Liv’s voice grew exasperated. “Call me crazy, but I thought we had something between us. I may be the one who’s initiated most of our kisses, but you’ve kissed me back. Every single time, Jorge.”
“You’ve initiated all of our kisses.” Laughing dryly, he finally swiveled his head her way again. Her dark gaze latched on to his, squeezing something deep inside heart. Yeah, he had it pretty bad for her.
“Only because of your stupid pride,” she bit out. “You care about me. Don’t you dare deny it!”
“I won’t.” He adored the fierceness in her — the way she never backed down when she was defending those she cared about. It humbled him all the way to the ground that she cared that way about him. “Doesn’t mean I’m gonna let you saddle yourself to a dirt-poor cowboy.” There. He’d finally said it aloud. It was the first time they’d discussed the possibility of a real relationship between them. Up until now, their relationship had consisted solely of flirting and unplanned kisses.
She yanked her hand away from him. “That didn’t seem to matter to you before Tom deeded off his farm to my brother.”
“Well, it does now.”
“It shouldn’t.” She slapped her hands down on her hips and stared defiantly at him. “Our change in financial circumstances doesn’t change who we are.”
Sure, it did. Before Tom Peterson had given his farm to her brother as a wedding gift, Emilio had been their ranch foreman. Now, he owned every blade of grass Jorge stepped on. It made a heck of a difference. He couldn’t believe Liv was too stubborn to see it, so he settled for pointing out the obvious.
“You’re my boss’s sister.”
“I’ve always been your boss’s sister.”
“You know what I mean,” he muttered, wishing she wasn’t making this so hard. He was trying to show her the respect he owed her whole family.
“And now you’re his business partner,” she pointed out evenly.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He'd never thought about it that way, but he reckoned she was right since he'd agreed to help run the new construction leg of their business.
He flicked a troubled look at her. “That’s a lot of pressure, Liv.” Pressure he’d never had on him before. Pressure he was worried he wouldn’t be able to live up to. Correction. He was downright terrified he wasn’t going to live up to her and her brother’s expectations.
Her mouth tightened. “If anyone can do this, you can.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He searched her features, needing to know what she saw in him.
“You’re tougher than most people, Jorge. Like a bulldog with a bloody bone in his mouth, you never quit.” Her lips twisted. “And that’s exactly the kind of guy my brother needs at his side right now. He’s depending on you to make a go of this construction business. We all are.”
He chuckled helplessly at her description of him, along with her blind faith that he would live up to it. He had no idea what he’d done to inspire such feelings. Unlike her family, he hadn’t come into the country legally. He’d scraped and scrapped his way in, risking his life every step of the way. He still wasn’t sure how he’d ended up at Christmas Tree Farm.
“Don’t you dare laugh at me, Jorge Ortega!” Emotion thickened Liv’s voice.
He blinked at her in surprise. Unless he was mistaken, she sounded genuinely hurt. “I wouldn’t dare,” he assured in a teasing voice, hoping to lighten the heaviness settling between them. “I was only laughing at myself.”
She ignored his words. “If you don’t feel the same way about me as I do about you, just say it and get it over with,” she continued bitterly, glancing away from him. “If someone else has caught your—”
“No,” he interrupted harshly. “That’s never gonna happen. You know better than that.”
“I need this new job to work out, Liv, and this new company.” He reached out to gently turn her chin in his direction. Whether she saw it that way or not, he needed it worse than she and her brother did. “I need to earn your brother’s respect, buy my own truck, and be able to stand on my own two feet. That’s the kind of guy you deserve, so that’s the kind of guy I’m gonna try to become.” He wanted to kiss her so badly that it hurt to hold back. However, a lot of other stuff needed to happen first. He could only hope and pray that Liv would be willing to wait for him.
“You’ll get there, Jorge.” The scowl on her face relaxed a little. “I know you will.” She reached up to lower his hand from her face. She didn’t let it go, though. Instead, she rested it on the door jamb between them. “Just don’t change too much along the way, you hear? I happen to like you just the way you are.” Her head swayed closer to his. She was going to kiss him again. He could read it in her eyes.
“Wait.” He squeezed her fingers to stop her.
She looked confused.
“The next time we kiss, I’m going to be the one to initiate it.” No more stolen kisses in the shadowy corners of barns and greenhouses. She deserved better than that. He wanted to be her man. All hers. Forever and always.
“When?” she demanded. Her pout was back.
He grinned, longing to kiss the pout away. “Soon.” I hope.
“Not soon enough,” she sighed, turning away. “Don’t keep me waiting too long, else I might find someone else to—”
“No, you won’t.” She gave a squeak of surprise as he used their joined hands to yank her back in his direction. “You’re mine, Liv. Just give me a few days to prove myself worthy of you.”
Her expression grew sly. “So we are in a relationship, huh?”
“Yeah.” He pressed her hand to his heart so she could feel how hard it was beating for her.
A breathless giggle slid out of her.
“Now who’s laughing?” he inquired huskily.
“I can’t help it. You make me happy.”
As their gazes locked again, he felt his worries slip away. Having someone who believed in him changed everything. Liv made him want to be a better man. Though he hadn’t yet told her about the old Bible he’d found in the attic over his cabin, the stuff he was reading in it was already starting to change him. He could feel it.
“Go knock ‘em dead out there today, Jorge.” She reluctantly slid her hand from beneath his.
“That’s the plan.” He let his eyes tell her the things he wasn’t yet ready to say out loud. Then he released the emergency brake and allowed the truck to roll forward.
Toward the opportunity of a lifetime. Toward the future he intended to build for her and with her.
“Lord willing.” He whispered the words like a prayer as he drove away.