Firefighter Brody Wagner spent most of his life cleaning up the chaos his little brother, Leo caused in people’s lives. The biggest one was his horrible treatment of curvy brown skinned beauty, Ja’Nael Haughton. Unlike his brother, he loved when a woman had curves on her figure.
Years ago, Ja’Nael left town because of her issues with his brother, but now she was back home for good. This was his chance to show her that he was his own man and nothing like his sibling when it came to his feelings. Ja’Nael Haughton finally decided to swallow her pride and come back home to Colorado after years of being away. She had been expecting to run into people from her past, but not blond and blue-eyes Brody Wagner. He was one of the sexiest men in town, but also the brother of the man she had hated since high school.
Could she really forget the past and see if what Brody is offering might be exactly what she had been searching for?
Ja’Nael Haughton glanced at the Welcome to Market, Colorado sign and tightened her grip around the steering wheel, trying to keep memories from consuming her. She had never wanted to step foot in this place again, but this was the only option for her.
During her senior year of high school, she’d worked a horrible job, dragging herself out of bed every morning and marking the days off her calendar, counting each second until this place would be in her rearview mirror. After graduating with honors, she spent the remainder of the month with her Aunt Beverly. The following month she packed up her belongings and moved away as fast as she could and headed to college, so she could get her teaching degree.
For the longest time, she hated living in such a small town. The entire community seemed to know everyone else’s business. But now, it was the perfect safe haven for her to return after the horrible incident at her previous job. Ja’Nael was actually thrilled to be back home and away from her old teaching position. The pain of everyone turning on her was still so deep she didn’t want to think about it, or them, anymore.
Why should she? What good would it do?
It was in the past, and that was where it would stay. They’d believed the lies the students told. So she’d packed up and moved back here without telling any of the so-called friends at that prep academy goodbye.
Ja’Nael sighed under her breath as she noticed the tank was almost on empty. She would definitely have to fill it up before heading to the house she was renting. She couldn’t get over the unbelievable deal she got. In New York she’d paid three times as much for the tiny loft she lived in.
Mr. Powers…no, Jacob, he’d asked her to call him, charged her less rent because of his love for her Aunt Beverly. This had been a true blessing, since his generosity gave her a chance to save up money from her new teaching job. This smaller school was paying her a fraction of what she earned at the private school back in New York. She prayed teaching three- and four-year-old preschoolers would be a lot easier than dealing with testy high students, but she wouldn’t know until she started. At least now she would be tallest one in class instead of being the shorter one most of the time. A slight advantage, she hoped.
Ja’Nael took the next exit and drove about another ten minutes before Shorty’s gas station came into view. Memories of her youth came rushing back to her.
She could still see the popular kids from her high school pulling into this place on Friday nights, laughing and kidding around with each other as they got ready have a great time without any other thoughts on their minds.
She’d been at Shorty’s for an entirely different reason. She worked the long hours there five days a week because she had to save up money for college. She had gotten a partial scholarship to her first choice, but she still needed money for books, clothes and other non-essential items since she wasn’t lucky enough to be born with a silver spoon in her mouth like the popular kids. She wasn’t even jealous of them, but they never knew how blessed they had been.
She doubted any of her former classmates worried about money. Their parents spoiled them and bought them anything and everything they wanted, no matter the price. Ja’Nael, however, had worked extremely hard and saved every single penny since her aunt had all the love in the world to give her, but not much else.
Ja’Nael pulled up to the pumps and blew out a deep breath before getting out of the car. She had to let the past stay buried. None of those people were giving her a thought now, and she shouldn’t give them the satisfaction of still giving them space in her head either.
Getting out of the car, she went over to the pump, grabbed the hose, and started filling up her car. She needed enough gas to last her for at least week, allowing herself the ability to get back and forth to work without any problems. With the gas prices being so expensive she didn’t have money to waste on driving around for nothing.
In addition, since the preschool was located in town and her house was almost in the woods, running out of gas wasn’t something she wanted to do.
After she was finished, Ja’Nael replaced the hose and turned on her heel to go inside to pay for it. The second she stepped through the front door, the smell of Mr. Shorty’s special blend made her pause in her tracks. She was stunned by how nothing had changed in all of the years she’d been away.
Moving slowly toward the front counter, Ja’Nael’s mouth fell open when she spotted Mr. Shorty standing behind there, wearing his favorite plaid shirt. He should have retired it at least three or four years ago. If she guessed correctly, he should be in his late seventies. Why was he still working in this place and not living the high life in Florida, relaxing on the beach in the sun?
She smiled. “Mr. Shorty. Do you remember me?”
Kind gray eyes stared at her for a few moments before his face lit up with recognition. “Ja’Nael Haughton, how could I forget my best employee, not to mention my favorite?” he answered in his raspy, weathered voice.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you since you came from New York for your Aunt Beverly’s funeral. I still miss her a lot.”
Ja’Nael always thought Mr. Shorty and her aunt had a secret romance going on despite the fact that she was black and he was white. Of course, they constantly told her they were only friends, but she never believed any of that nonsense when she was younger. They went to Bingo together every weekend and played cards every Tuesday night. However, she respected their wishes and never argued with either one of them about it. If they wanted to have a little fun, who was she to drill them about their personal lives?
“I still miss her every day. She was a very special lady. I wish she was still here as well,” she said, holding back tears. Her Aunt Beverly was like a second mother to her. She took her into her home and raised her without a second thought after Ja’Nael’s mom died. She’d only been five years old, but her aunt hadn’t hesitated to take her in. “She believed in blood taking care of blood.”
“Yes, she did, and that is what made her so wonderful in my eyes. So are you come back here for a visit?” Mr. Shorty asked as he took the money she handed him.
She shook her head. “No, I’m back here to stay. I got a teaching job at Newton Preschool in town, and I’m renting a place from your nephew, Jacob.”
Mr. Shorty placed the money inside the cash register and closed the drawer. “Oh, he mentioned that he’d rented out that house he fixed up to some young woman. I didn’t have any idea it would be to you,” he said with a smile. “Now, if he gives you any trouble, you let me know and I’ll have a talk with him.”
Ja’Nael laughed. Mr. Shorty was just as feisty as she remembered. He never let the high school bully, Timothy Wagner, or any of his buddies, push him around back then, and if she guessed right that hadn’t changed. He was still a fighter, which was the reason he was probably still working at his age.
“I would love to stay and catch up with you some more, but I need to make a trip to the store and get some food before I get settled in for the night. I’m hoping the movers got all of my things put away. I paid them enough to do a good job.”
Reaching across the counter, Mr. Shorty grabbed her hand. “Ja’Nael, I’m so glad you finally came back. I know growing up here wasn’t the best experience for you. Timothy Wagner and his rich friends weren’t nice to you, and I hated how you never fought back. I know if you had giving him a good cussing out things would have changed.”
He’d never let Timothy push her around if he was within earshot of the put-downs.
“I always saw a beautiful young woman behind your weight and shyness. Now you’re standing here in front of me a gorgeous, intelligent woman, the person I always knew you would be, despite the way Timothy and his group of friends taunted you all the time. It’s no surprise that his life turned out the way it has. It serves him right that everything fell apart right after he got to college. Hell, I think he should have gotten more, but he didn’t.”
“Mr. Shorty, I did read about a small article in the newspaper about Timothy getting his scholarship taken away for taking sports enhancing drugs a few months after he got to college, but I wasn’t aware of what happened after that. To be honest, I didn’t care. He was their star player and should have known better. I had too many good things going on in my life then to let him take up anymore space in my head.”
Ja’Nael squeezed the older man’s hand fondly. She loved how he’d always had kind words for her when her classmates came in and bullied her for no damn good reason.
Coming back home was definitely a huge step for her since there wasn’t anything or anyone here besides fond memories of her wonderful aunt. Nothing else here in Market held any sort of special nostalgia for her. However, she wasn’t going to shy away from a golden opportunity when it came to her career.
So what if guys like Timothy Wagner, her biggest bully from high school, might still be living in the same town as her? If he didn’t know how to control his smartass mouth any better by now, she wouldn’t have a problem telling him where to shove his insults.
She had worked hard for the past ten years to get over this part in her life. No one was ever going to make her feel that insecure again. She wasn’t ever going to allow anyone to make her lay awake at night, wondering why she wasn’t a part of the in crowd.
“I haven’t thought about any of them in years,” Ja’Nael said honestly. “I moved away to get my dream job and luckily I landed it. After a while, I wasn’t happy with it anymore, so I decided I needed a change.”
“Well, it’s good to see you,” he said, giving her hand a surprisingly strong squeeze before letting go of it. “Don’t be a stranger. I could always use another partner for Bingo. It’s never really fun going alone or with Jacob. He has no patience at all when it comes to games.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t. I might even let you talk me into going to a Bingo game or two with you,” she said with a smile before heading toward the front door.
Just as she was about to open it, a tall, blond, extremely attractive man did it for her from the outside. “Here you go,” he said, smiling at her.
“Thank you,” she replied, going past him, getting a quick whiff of his cologne.
“You’re more than welcome,” he answered in a rich voice that sent a chill of awareness through her body.
Ja’Nael pushed down the driving need to look back at him. Instead, she got into her car, but just before she drove off, she glanced in the direction of the door, and there he stood, all six foot plus of him, staring at her. A shiver raced down her spine, and she decided the best course of action was to get out of there.