Discover romance across America with Janet Dailey’s classic series featuring a love story set in each of the fifty states.
Barbara has been hurt by love before—but now, after only a month together, she’s found the man she wants to marry. Todd is good to her, and excited to be taking her to see his family’s ranch in Florida. As happy as they are, Barbara is still haunted by the memory of another man . . . and Todd feels the need to warn her about his tomcat of a brother, J.R.
When they get to the ranch, they discover just how right Todd was to be concerned. Because J.R. is none other than Jock—the man Barbara can’t seem to forget. Rapt with desire for both men, Barbara doesn’t know how she could possibly choose between them. And with neither brother backing down, Florida is about to get hotter than it’s ever been.
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The Americana Series: Florida
By Janet Dailey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Janet Dailey
All rights reserved.
THE TRAFFIC HAD THINNED since Miami was left behind, enabling Todd Gaynor to relax behind the wheel. Barbara slid closer to him and he obligingly curved an arm around her shoulders to nestle her against his side. His hand affectionately rumpled the short curls of her black silk hair.
Taking his eyes from the highway long enough to glance at the head resting on his shoulder, he queried, "Tired?"
"Mmm." It was a soft, negative sound. Through half-closed lashes Barbara saw the late-afternoon sunlight glinting off the waters of Lake Okeechobee.
"Nervous?" Todd pressed a light kiss against her hair.
"A little," she admitted. It was difficult to be too nervous. Todd was her rock. With him she felt safe and protected, not dangling on the edge of a precipice about to take a nasty fall. His strength gave her the courage to face anything—even something as potentially daunting as meeting his family.
Just for a moment, the husky inflection of his voice made her heart flutter in reaction to the memory of another man's voice. Snuggling closer to Todd, Barbara forced the sensation to go away.
"Yes," she answered, perhaps too fervently in her attempt to deny the unwanted memory.
"I'm in love, too."
"Are you?" Enveloped in the warmth of his arm, it was easy for Barbara to match his light, bantering tone.
"Yes. With a beautiful woman ... with hair like black satin and hauntingly lovely blue eyes."
"I hope she makes you very happy." Her hand sought the arm around her shoulders to lace its fingers with his. It was a gesture oddly reminiscent of another time, and another man's hand entwined possessively with hers. A shudder trembled through her.
"Are you cold?" Todd was instantly attentive. "Shall I turn the air conditioner down?"
"No, I'm fine," she insisted, and tilted her head back against his arm to gaze at his face. "Sometimes it seems that I've known you all my life instead of one short month. Todd—" there was a catch in her voice, a poignant throb "—I wish I had met you first."
He slid her a look before letting his attention return to the highway. "Do you want to talk about him?" It was a gentle question that didn't probe but rather invited.
A pregnant silence followed his question. Barbara was barely aware of it as her gaze ran over the strong, handsome profile of his face that at times reminded her of Jock. So did a half a hundred other men whose facial bone structure was similar. But the likeness ended there. Todd's hair and eyes were brown, not gilded with gold. At thirty-one, he lacked the character lines that had etched Jock's eyes and mouth. Nor did he possess that potent brand of sexuality that had taken Barbara's breath away the first time she saw Jock on the beach. She had only to close her eyes to remember the hard feel of his body against hers and the undermining caress of his sure hands.
"What's there to talk about?" A bitter hurt that Barbara had thought was behind her crept into her voice. "He dropped me like a rock."
It was no good to claim that only her pride had suffered from the blow. Nor could she claim that he had taken advantage of her. She had gone into the affair with her eyes wide open, never dreaming it would last less than a week. For her, it had meant everything.
His huskily seductive voice echoed in her head, saying the words she'd heard six months before. "I'm not any good at small talk, honey. I want to make love to you." The forthright statement had not offended her. Jock Malloy had only been saying what had been on her mind whenever he was within touching distance.
"Did I tell you that he once asked me to go with him when he left?" It was a short, mocking question, filled with self-derision. She had thought many times about that offer, and also her reaction to it. She flashed Todd a brittle smile. "I nearly agreed. I was so tempted ... But I kept thinking about my job, and my apartment. Can you imagine the mess I would have been in if I had gone with him and he'd got tired of me and dumped me between here and Texas or wherever his ranch was—if he had one?"
Details hadn't mattered at the time. She had known Jock was vacationing in Miami, and the beach house where he was staying belonged to a friend. Stupidly, she had never considered it to be a holiday affair that would come to an abrupt end when he left. She was so positive it would continue that she had never bothered to ask questions about him. Talking had been the least of their interests. Jock's form of communication had been so much more satisfactory. Afterward Barbara was glad she didn't know any details about him other than his name and the vaguely mentioned fact that he had a cattle ranch.
"But you didn't go with him," Todd pointed out, his arm tightening around her.
"No." A sudden, vaguely desperate sigh broke from her. "Why am I telling you all this?"
"Confession is supposed to be good for the soul." He grinned down at her.
"I ... can't." She moved compulsively out of his arms to the passenger side of the luxury sedan. Other than the bare bones of her story, Barbara had never fleshed out the affair to Todd. Even now he wasn't asking her to, only offering a willing ear to listen. Her refusal to confide in him didn't produce a reaction. Tapping out a cigarette from her pack, Barbara lighted it and blew out an impatient stream of smoke. "Why haven't you ever asked about him, Todd? His name? How we met? What happened?" Her sideways glance was wary, apprehension shimmering in the blue depths of her eyes.
"Because I know that someday you'll trust me enough to tell me the whole story," he answered without hesitation.
"I do trust you." Barbara glanced at the diamond solitaire glittering on her left hand. The engagement ring was indicative of her trust. She had promised to place her heart in his keeping. It had been shattered when she met Todd, but he had made her heart whole again. He had given her so much that she wasn't certain how much she could return. "Doesn't it bother you that there was someone else before you came?"
"No. A woman doesn't reach the age of twenty-five without her heart getting bruised and battered along the way. I accepted that when I met you." He reached across the seat to hold her hand.
Barbara studied the gentle strength of his fingers warmly clasping hers. Their touch didn't make her skin tingle, but she didn't trust that sensation anymore. His comment prompted a fleeting curiosity to voice itself.
"What about your heart? Has it ever been bruised and battered, Todd?" She found it hard to believe. His face was so smooth and calm, bearing no scars of tormented longing and heartbroken grief.
"A half a dozen times, at least." It came out like a joke.
"Be serious," Barbara insisted.
"I am. It's difficult to judge past emotional involvements since I have met you. From this perspective, they all seem like infatuations. Does that answer your question?" He briefly arched an eyebrow in her direction, his brown eyes warm with amused indulgence.
"Yes, I suppose it does." She hadn't yet gained that perspective for herself to be sure.
"Besides, if you had met me first, maybe you wouldn't have noticed me," Todd suggested with a teasing wink.
"That isn't true," Barbara protested quickly. "You are a very handsome man, Todd Gaynor. Any woman would notice you." Unless Jock Malloy was around, a hateful little voice qualified her statement.
As if reading her mind, Todd followed his thought one step further. "Or maybe I would have lost you to him." Barbara was thankful he didn't give her a chance to respond to that remark, because she didn't know what she could say to that distinct possibility. "The 'maybes' don't have anything to do with the present or the way it happened. There isn't any mason to say 'what if?'"
"Yes, there is," she said in a sober voice. "What if I had never met you? You have been so good to me and for me, and with me—" she emphasized the propositions "—that sometimes I wonder what I did to deserve someone like you who is so understanding and patient."
"When I first met you, you reminded me of a stray kitten I once found that someone had dumped on the highway," Todd mused. "You were so scared and frightened ... not that you let it show." He darted her an amused glance. "No, you arched your back and hissed at me, pretending you weren't scared or frightened just as that little black kitten did. How many times did you turn me down before I finally persuaded you to come out with me?"
"At least twelve." Barbara remembered his gentle persistence in coaxing her out of the reclusive shell she had hidden in. "Although I don't know why you bothered," she sighed.
Letting go of her hand, Todd reached up and flipped down the sun visor on her side. The mirror on the back side of the visor reflected her image, midnight black hair framing an oval face, brilliant blue eyes outlined by long, sooty lashes, a stunning combination of features that were enhanced by a golden Florida tan.
"That woman in the mirror should answer your questions," he said. "When I first met her, there were dark circles under her eyes and a lovely mouth that had forgotten how to smile or laugh. Look what love has done."
A passing thought crossed her mind that love had made the dark circles and smileless mouth in the first place. Barbara didn't mention it, but she couldn't keep the pain of remembering that shattering anguish of lost love from flickering across her expression.
"I promised I wouldn't rush you into marriage, Barbara, and I won't. We'll have a long engagement, an old-fashioned courtship period where I can shower you with presents and flowers and love poems." A bantering note in his voice seemed to tease his own romanticism and make her smile with him. "It will all culminate in a big church wedding, which will make my mother happy, and a Caribbean honeymoon, which will make me happy. You'll like my mother," he added unexpectedly.
"I hope she'll like me," was the automatic response.
"She will," Todd assured her. "I wish we'd had more time together for ourselves. I wouldn't have suggested spending our vacations with my family if either one of us could arrange to take them later this year. But these two weeks are the only slack time the hotel has before the Easter crunch hits, then summer tourists. My manager takes his vacation in the fall and—"
"The airline wouldn't let me rearrange my schedule unless I gave up my vacation for this year," Barbara inserted. She worked the reservation counter at the airport, after flying the first two years as a stewardess with the same company. "It is sheer coincidence that we have the same vacation time now."
"I know," he smiled. "And I want you to get to know my family. I want you to think of them as yours."
"You haven't told me very much about your family. There is your mother who is a widow, and your brother," she began, and Todd picked up the conversation from that point.
"There are just my mother and brother, but we have always been very close. Maybe because there are just the three of us. My mother, Lillian, is a great lady. Gentle, warm and loving."
"You must take after her," Barbara concluded.
"I don't know. My dad was a pretty great guy, too. Mom said he was the softest touch in town. When any charity in Miami needed to raise money, they stopped at his hotel first. He couldn't say no to anyone in trouble. If he had, he'd probably have been a multimillionaire when he died. Not that he left us broke!" Todd laughed at the thought.
Only in the last few weeks had Barbara begun to realize that she was engaged to a relatively wealthy man. The hotel Todd owned and operated was one of the plushest resorts on the oceanfront strip. The income from it could have enabled him to enjoy the role of playboy, but Todd had chosen to work.
"What about Sandoval?" she asked, referring to the citrus farm that was their destination. "Is that where you grew up?"
"No. We did spend time there. J.R. liked it but I'm not much of a country boy. I prefer city life, like my dad," Todd admitted.
Looking at him, Barbara was glad. She preferred his casual refinement to the leathered look of an outdoorsman. It would have been an unwanted reminder of a man browned to a teak color from hours in the sun. Like her's, Todd's suntan came from lazing by a pool or on an ocean beach.
"J.R. is your brother?" she asked for confirmation.
"My older brother, yes. It's a good thing Sandoval belongs to him. That life fits him like a glove. I should warn you about J.R.," Todd added after a second's consideration.
"Warn me?" Her blue eyes sent him a quizzical glance as a little shiver of fear danced down her spine.
Todd met her look with a silently laughing smile. "He's going to make a pass at you."
"But why? I mean ... I'm your fiancée. Surely he wouldn't—" She tried to stammer out an astonished protest, but Todd laughed out loud.
"In the first place, J.R. has a roving eye that invariably locates a beautiful woman in a crowd," he began his explanation. "Plus he has always held a fatal fascination for the opposite sex. Which was something he discovered early on. Knowing J.R., any advances he might make toward you would have a twofold purpose. One would be to test you—to see if the woman engaged to his brother is really sincere."
"And the second?" Barbara prompted when Todd paused.
"The second reason?" He lifted his shoulders in an expressive shrug. "The second reason would probably be for the sheer hell of it."
"What am I supposed to do when he makes this pass?" She couldn't keep the edge of challenge out of her voice.
"I can't tell you what to do." There was an underlying chuckle in his voice. "All I can do is warn you in advance that it's coming. I trust you to know how to handle him, Barbara."
Slightly reassured by his confidence in her, she commented on a cynical note, "I take it your brother isn't married?"
"J.R. is the original swamp fox, too wily and experienced to be caught in the marriage trap. His problem is he's always had the pick of the bunch. Anything that was out of his reach, he regarded as sour grapes. Actually, I think as far as the female sex is concerned J.R. could take them or leave them. Mostly he takes them, then leaves them." Todd grinned at his description.
But Barbara was mulling over his first statement. "Todd, do you regard marriage as a trap?"
The smile was wiped from his well-defined mouth. "No. I was being facetious, repeating attitudes that are usually attributed to my brother. They aren't really fair to him. I think he would like to have a wife and children, if he could ever find the right girl. He needs someone like you, Barbara, that he can protect and cherish." His arm curved around her shoulders again to draw her to his side. "J.R. has just had too many eager applicants for the position. He tends to view them all with a jaundiced eye."
"You really care a lot about your brother, don't you?" Barbara realized with a vague sense of shock. From Todd's description, the two seemed to be such opposites.
"I have hero-worshipped him for too many years. He may have feet of clay, but J.R. is still someone to look up to," Todd insisted. "You'll know what I mean when you meet him."
She relaxed in his arms. There was no reason to disbelieve what he said. If his brother was half as nice as Todd was, Barbara knew she would like him.
"What have you told your family about me?" she asked curiously.
"Nothing?" She sat up straighter and turned to look at him.
A lazy smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Knowing my mother, if I told her I was bringing my future bride home with me, she'd have everyone at the place come to the house for a champagne party. I don't think you are prepared for that kind of a welcome. It's too soon for us yet. So I just told her I was bringing a friend with me. That way you can have a few quiet days to get acquainted before she throws the inevitable engagement party." He slowed the car and turned off the highway onto a narrow lane where he stopped in front of a gate. "We are now on Sandoval land."
Barbara glanced at the plain wooden gate painted white. A small sign on the top rail stated: Sandoval Ranch-Private Property-No Trespassing.
"That isn't very welcoming," she remarked of the sign.
"The main entrance is a few miles up the road yet," Todd explained. "This is a shortcut to the house, as well as a scenic drive through the orchards. Wait here while I open the gate." He switched off the air conditioner and rolled down the car windows before climbing out of the car to open the gate.
Excerpted from Southern Nights by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1980 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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