Busted (Promise Harbor Wedding)
Author:Sydney Somers

chapter Two


“You arrested the Jackson Knight?”

Hayley rolled her eyes at the exaggerated disbelief in her partner’s voice, not bothering to ask him to lower his voice. By now most of Promise Harbor had heard about last night, and all the Knight fans she worked with at the station had already given her hell.

“He was detained for a couple hours without being charged.” No harm done. Which had been her line of defense when her captain called demanding an explanation for cuffing the hometown hero, since the mayor was already on his case.

She’d been tempted to tell the captain to take a number as the mayor had been on her case since she was at least fifteen years old.

Her partner, Phil, leaned back in his chair. “Captain didn’t make you smooth things over with Knight this morning?”

“He realized I would’ve had a much bigger problem if I hadn’t taken Jackson out of the equation.”

Phil grinned. “I didn’t know you two were on a first-name basis. Maybe you should ask him to be your date to the wedding.”

She was almost grateful for the change in subject, then remembered she had to dress up for the wedding. “I’m taking Gramps. He’s been looking forward to it for a while.”

“Too bad. Going with Knight would probably help your reputation after last night.”

“Dating him in high school would have been more damaging to my reputation than arresting him was.” And she’d led the pack when it came to bad reps in high school.

Her partner’s feet hit the floor. “You wanted to date Knight in high school?”

Reaching for the phone, she scowled at him. “That’s not what I said.”

“So you had a crush on him.” Phil whistled like she’d just fed him the harbor’s juiciest gossip in months.

She didn’t have a chance to deny it—and by “deny it” she meant throw her team’s hockey trophy at his head—before the nurse answered. Glaring at her partner became less of a priority as she listened to the nurse explain that her gramps had had a rough night and would likely sleep most of the day.

Apparently she was going to the wedding solo.

Phil overheard enough of the conversation to guess at the outcome. Unlike half the town, he spared her the sympathetic look. “Don’t tell me, he was awake all night because he heard his granddaughter arrested his star hockey player?”

“Ass.” She smiled anyway.

He stood up. “You only came in this morning to catch up on a couple things, and now you’re done. Get going before I change my mind about covering your shift today.”

“If you and your wife have plans…”

“You’re not trying to get out of going to the wedding because of last night, are you?”

Not exactly. “No. I just haven’t heard from Gavin.”

“So he still doesn’t know his girl is marrying someone else?”

“Allie hasn’t been his girl for a long time.” And Gavin hadn’t let Hayley forget that important detail for an equally long time.

Phil shrugged as though that fact didn’t mean a whole lot, then winced. “Today is not your best day, Hayls.” He stared at something behind her.

She turned around, immediately spotting Eric strolling toward them. She barely suppressed a groan.

“You want me to hang around and pretend like I give a fuck about organizing my desk or something?”

Hayley surveyed the mess on Phil’s desk that had Category Three Hurricane written all over it. “I think it’s probably a lost cause.” Especially since he had a habit of stacking his stuff on her desk the rare times he decided he liked a tidier work space.

Eric had just about reached them.

“You sure? Running down a perp and tackling him on the boardwalk isn’t the same as dealing with this jerkoff’s kind of bullshit.”

Spending as much time together as they did, she had confided in Phil on more than one occasion about her relationship with Eric and the problems they had. Phil probably knew more than even her brother and had been thrilled when they finally broke up, undoubtedly relieved he didn’t have to listen to her ramble about the whole situation any longer. If he’d had his way, he would have kicked Eric’s ass long ago.

“I’ll be fine.” She wasn’t exactly surprised to see Eric after last night, but she couldn’t imagine what was left to say. There hadn’t been anything to say since their breakup, and she didn’t see a reason for that to change.

Grabbing her keys, she stood just as her partner left and Eric reached her desk.

“Hi.”

She spared him no more than her polite, on-the-job half smile.

“We didn’t have much time to talk last night.”

“What was it you wanted to say?” With a wedding that could break her best friend’s heart, having to face Jackson after last night knowing he was undoubtedly pissed, and getting bad news about her gramps, she wasn’t exactly in the mood to indulge her ex the way she foolishly had for most of their relationship.

“Can we talk somewhere else? Maybe grab a coffee?”

“I have a lot to do today, Eric.”

“Oh yeah. The wedding. Maybe we could talk there. You don’t have a date, right?”

The sincere tone might have swayed her to extend their conversation for another minute or two—against her better judgment—until he got to the part where he assumed she was going alone.

Maybe he didn’t mean to imply she couldn’t possibly have someone to go with—as if that mattered—but she was operating on little sleep and didn’t feel like giving him the benefit of the doubt. She’d made that mistake too many times in the past not to learn from it.

“I do have a date, actually.” Or she had until a few minutes ago.

His disbelieving look grated on her last nerve. She tried hard to let it roll off her shoulders. Really, really hard.

“Let me take you, Hayley. Please? It’ll give us a chance to catch up.”

“You’re not trying to steal my date, are you, Thorton?”

Hayley couldn’t have been more stunned had the entire NHL All-Star team skated through the police station. She stared at Jackson, her brain scrambling to piece together what he’d just said about Eric stealing his date.

Eric, who was clearly struggling to make sense of it too, tried for that charming smile he could call up at a moment’s notice, but it fell wildly short. “Not at all. Hayley and I were just reminiscing about old times.”

Jackson glanced at Hayley like he didn’t believe a word and wanted her confirmation.

Eric didn’t give her a chance to respond. “I hadn’t heard you two were seeing each other.”

“It’s a pretty recent development.” Jackson shrugged as though admitting even that much was more than Eric was entitled to know.

Instantly suspicious, Hayley kept quiet. Awkward silences tended to make people ramble, and she was fine with the two of them oversharing until she could figure out what angle the both of them were working here.

“Most guys would move on after last night,” Eric pointed out.

“Hayley was just doing her job.” Jackson actually sounded like he meant it, and when he met Hayley’s eyes, those clear baby blues reflected only sincerity.

Jackson Knight was a far better actor than she would have given him credit for. She knew popular hockey players like Jackson routinely had microphones shoved in their faces after a game and were expected to say all the right things regardless of a win or a loss. She hadn’t remembered Jackson being quite that good though.

“Yeah, well, let’s hope everyone else forgives her as quickly as you have.”

Eyes narrowed, Jackson moved a little closer to Hayley. The sharp, clean scent of his skin filled her senses. “She doesn’t need anyone’s forgiveness. She didn’t do anything wrong.”

With a humoring smile firmly in place, Eric stepped back. “I guess I’ll see you two at the wedding.”

Jackson waited until Eric was out of earshot. “He’s going to Josh and Allie’s wedding?”

She shrugged. “He’s a Thorton.” Eric’s family owned numerous businesses in Promise Harbor, including the fish plant and the newspaper. And like much of the country, the Thortons hadn’t escaped hard economic times.

“You ready to go?” Jackson’s voice carried far enough for at least half the small police station to hear him.

Preferring not to give her fellow officers anything else to talk about, she led the way outside and down the sidewalk to where her truck was parked.

Jackson shoved his hands in his pockets and studied the street.

Crossing her arms, Hayley gave him a once-over. “What was that about?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.” He paused, watching two kids on bikes ride past. “I can’t believe you actually dated that asshole.”

“That makes two of us.”

“I forgot Matt had mentioned it until I saw you two talking. Given how red the tips of your ears were turning, it’s a wonder you didn’t arrest him instead of me last night.”

She started to raise her hands, then let them drop back to her sides. “They do not turn red.”

“Sure they do. Not nearly as noticeable now with the blonde hair though.” He leaned back against her truck, looking way too comfortable.

“No offence, but I don’t think I can trust your judgment about my ears or anything else from high school after you confused me with Helen-basement-blowjob-Anderson.”

Jackson laughed. “I thought that was just locker room talk.”

“So her supposed skills weren’t the reason you borrowed my parents’ truck and took her up to Sunset Bluff?”

“Those supposed skills were exactly why I took her. I just didn’t realize the whole school knew that about her.”

“It’s kind of a small town,” she confided.

“Yeah, it is.” The playfulness faded, replaced by something else. Regret?

When his attention dropped to the pavement, she decided to change the subject. “Thanks for stepping in with Eric, but—”

“You could have handled it yourself,” he finished for her.

A smile tugged at her lips. “Maybe.” Jackson had certainly saved her from having to endure Eric’s presence. If she’d told her ex how she really felt, then she’d be just giving her captain more grief, seeing as Eric’s father was one of the town’s most influential patriarchs.

God, why did it feel like Eric was still screwing her over?

Jackson returned her grin, and the slow curve of his lips was far more potent when unleashed in person. Ignoring the warming sensation in her stomach that made her think long and hard about taking a step closer to him, she rounded her truck to the driver’s side. Jackson followed.

“Guess that makes us even then.” She’d taken the blame for the truck incident years ago, and now he’d made up for it by diffusing an uncomfortable situation with Eric. She opened her door.

“Sure, if we don’t count the fact that you arrested me last night.”

Hayley blew out a breath. “Sorry that it was necessary.”

“I’m sorry you got caught in the middle.” His gaze fell to her cheek, and for a second he looked like he might reach out and touch the faded purple bruise from last night. He stuck his hands back in his pockets. “At least it got me out of there without anyone trying to talk their way into my bed.”

She nearly rolled her eyes. “Is that what started the fight with your burly pal last night? You pass on his offer?” It took a lot to keep her face straight.

“Jesus.” Jackson shuddered. “Do me a favor and don’t ask him that if you cross paths. Guy has one hell of a right hook.”

She tossed her bag on the seat. “Looking out for me again?”

“Maybe I want to stay on your good side. Can’t say I was a fan of Cal’s singing while you had me in holding.”

She started to slide into her truck, stopped. “How is it that you can remember Cal from high school but not me?”

“Cal is still the same ‘American Pie’-singing drunk he was in high school. You’re…” He trailed off, his expression almost confused before he offered a slow smile. “Something different.”

Hayley laughed. “You should really try to sound like you know whether or not that’s a good thing before saying it out loud.” She slid into her vehicle, immediately putting her window down to release the June heat trapped inside. “And get some more ice on your face before the wedding.”

“I was serious about the date thing.” Jackson leaned against the window, resting his hands on the edge of the doorframe above her.

“Pardon me?”

“You owe me, right?”

“I never said—”

Jackson pulled some papers out of his back pocket and handed them to her.

She unfolded the sheets, cringing when she saw a picture of her leading him away in handcuffs. The image and accompanying headline were from a prominent sports website. She didn’t want to, but made herself flip to the next page and then the next. More unflattering pictures of his fight and handcuffed exit, and more gossip-fueled headlines.

She remembered far worse headlines from a few post-Stanley Cup playoff parties that got out of hand, and then there were the rumors of alcohol being a factor with his car accident that had been splashed over magazines and the Internet. He was hardly unfamiliar with bad press, but this was the first time she’d played a role.

Although she knew she’d handled the situation the best way she could to prevent an all-out brawl, she couldn’t blame him for being pissed at her. Which made it even harder to understand why he wanted to go to the wedding with her.

“You know I’m the one who arrested you, right? People would have a field day posting pictures online of us together at a wedding.”

“That’s exactly what I’m counting on.”

Hayley blinked. “Huh?”

“I spoke to my agent this morning. He’s the one who emailed me those.” He nodded to the pages still in her hand. “There’s a team interested in offering me an assistant coaching position, and my agent is concerned this might scare them off.”

“So if you’re seen with the cop who arrested you, he can pass it off as just us playing around or…” She trailed off, not completely sure if she had the gist of it and kind of wishing she didn’t.

“Or some kind of lovers’ quarrel,” Jackson put in.

“Right.” The warming in her stomach kicked in to full gear, and the serious look on his face wasn’t helping. Jackson’s smile was sexy and loaded with enough natural confidence to turn heads without him putting a lot of effort behind it, but the banked intensity in his eyes as he watched her, waiting, was a different beast entirely.

God, she was in so much trouble here, and she was smart enough to know it.

“Do you even want to coach?” She all but blurted the question, but it succeeded in making Jackson look away, giving her a second to lock down the nervous flutter of energy rolling up her spine.

“You know, you’re the first person to ask me that. Everyone just assumes that’s what I’ll do.” He shrugged, and for a moment he looked utterly and completely lost. It passed entirely too fast and he was right back to fixing those impossibly blue eyes squarely on her.

She might have squirmed in her seat if she hadn’t wrapped both hands around the steering wheel. As far as reminders went that she was no longer some teenage girl who once had a crush on the school all-star, it fell pitifully short, but it was enough.

“Getting back to the wedding,” Jackson said, “we both have people we want to avoid later today. Going together just makes sense. We can bail each other out of any uncomfortable situations.”

“We could do that without being each other’s date.” The word nearly caught in her throat.

He shook his head. “Makes it more authentic if we go together, and it will keep the wolves at bay.”

“Wolves? Is that what you’re calling the puck bunnies who want you to autograph their breasts?”

He waved to someone across the street, leaving her to wonder if she was imagining the flush of color high on his cheeks. “Saw that, huh? Maybe you should have come over and saved me from her.”

“Since when does a player like you need saving? Besides, I was working.”

“I seem to remember the working part rather clearly.” He could have scowled at her, but smiled instead, a smile that had probably melted the panties off more women than Hayley could count. “I’ll pick you up at two.” With that he walked away.

Hayley poked her head out the window. “I didn’t say yes.”

“You didn’t say no either.” He slipped on his sunglasses and crossed the street to where he’d parked his car.

Hayley shoved her keys in the ignition and sat staring out the window long after Jackson pulled away. Exactly what had she just agreed to?





“Hand me the wrench.” Jackson stared up at Matt from his crammed position half jammed in the cupboard under the sink at Stone’s.

Matt dug through the tools, not bothering to hide his skepticism. “You sure you know what you’re doing?”

Jackson took the reluctantly offered wrench and tightened the last bolt. “Turn the water on.”

“I’m not paying your dry cleaning bill if this doesn’t work.” Matt stepped up to the sink, but didn’t touch the tap as the swinging door flew open.

“Matt, you’re not going to believe the stupid thing I…” Hayley’s voice trailed off. “You’re…busy.”

And not alone, Jackson mentally filled in for her, grinning.

Easing out of position, he sat up. “Don’t let me interrupt. Just pretend I’m not here.”

A weak smile touched Hayley’s lips. “It’s not that important.”

Enjoying her discomfort a little too much, he climbed to his feet, testing the taps himself. “You were saying,” he prompted. “Doing something stupid?”

She ignored his not-so-subtle nudge. “Not just handy with a hockey stick, huh? Hope you’re better at this than with jukeboxes. Maybe you should put him on the payroll, Matt.”

The tension that seemed to leave her body when she fixed all her attention on her brother made Jackson’s grin widen. When had Hayley gotten so damn cute? He had been sure he’d imagined her discomfort when they talked earlier, but maybe not. Maybe Hayley wasn’t as cool and distant as he’d always assumed her to be.

Matt glanced at him, curiosity staring out from the same gray eyes as Hayley. He tossed the wrench in the toolbox before turning back to his sister. “Don’t you need to start getting ready for the wedding? Gramps doesn’t like to wait.”

“He had a rough night.”

Jackson straightened. “Rough night?”

Matt let out a breath, the tightening around his jaw warning Jackson that whatever was coming would not be good news. “He’s in palliative care.”

The subtle ache that had no name and was never far from the surface since his accident clamped down hard on his chest. He waited a moment, then two. “Is it cancer?”

Hayley nodded. “Doctors gave him a few weeks at best and that was two months ago.”

Fuck.

The ache in his chest rose to his throat and stayed there. He swallowed hard, forcing it down. “You never mentioned it.”

Matt shrugged. “You were pretty caught up in other stuff.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say Matt should have tried harder, knowing what the old man meant to him. But he heard what Matt wasn’t saying, that Jackson had been too self-absorbed to return any calls he hadn’t wanted to.

“He’d love to see you.”

Jackson managed a nod, but the pressure that had a chokehold on his lungs kept him from saying anything. He picked up the towel, mopping at the water on floor.

Someone out front yelled for Matt.

“Back in a second. Then I can show you what my piece of shit dishwasher is up to.”

Setting the towel aside, Jackson stopped him. “Can it wait until tomorrow? I should probably see if Josh needs help with anything before I get ready for the wedding.”

“No problem. Thanks for the help with the sink, man.” The door swung open and Matt disappeared.

Jackson switched his attention to Hayley. She didn’t seem fazed by Matt’s departure, but he guessed there was a lot running beneath the surface with her.

He used to think she didn’t care about much. When they were younger, she’d favored sticking to herself and breaking the rules. So much so she’d almost always been grounded the times Jackson went over to see Matt, making it even much more surprising that the troublemaker he remembered had become a cop.

Hayley Stone was a much bigger mystery than he’d realized, and he found himself increasingly drawn to figuring her out.

“So where should I pick you up?”

Hayley carried the toolbox over to the shelves lining one wall at the back of the small kitchen. “It would be easier if I just met you there.”

Easier? Less obvious, maybe. Troublemaker or cop, he got the impression she still liked to fly under the radar, and showing up with him would put her front and center. He couldn’t wait to see how she handled that. He should probably feel a little guilty about looking forward to it, but damn if this wasn’t the most fun he’d had in a while.

The pictures from his agent weren’t a surprise, and neither was the concern about how this might affect a possible job offer Jackson had long ago given up waiting for. But bad publicity could often sell more tickets for a struggling hockey club, so he wasn’t worried too much about it. Still, he took his agent’s advice on using his connection to Hayley and smoothing out the latest dent in his reputation.

A screwdriver slid out of the toolbox, and Jackson beat her at picking it up. “It’s no problem at all for me to pick you up. Where do you live?”

“You weren’t too hung up on that detail earlier.”

He shrugged. “Just figured I’d ask Matt.” He would have eventually remembered he needed that information.

“Ask me what?” The man in question popped back in carrying a tray of dirty glasses.

“Directions to Hayley’s place.”

“Why would you need those?” When neither of them rushed to answer, Matt frowned. “What am I missing?”

“Nothing,” Hayley clarified. “Jackson and I are just doing each other a favor.”

Matt’s eyes narrowed and he tossed aside the towel draped over his shoulder. “We’re not talking sexual favors, right?” The accusation cut sharper than the knife used to slice drink garnishes that rested just inches from Matt’s hand.

“No,” they managed to answer in unison.

“Nothing like that,” Jackson felt compelled to add when his friend still hadn’t relaxed.

Hayley shoved the tools on the shelf. “Eric is back in town. Jackson offered to be my date so Eric won’t have any reason to bother me.”

Jackson wasn’t sure, but he would have sworn Matt’s fingers inched a little closer to the blade.

“Eric’s a dickhead. And what are you getting out of this arrangement?”

Somewhat reassured that his friend was more annoyed about the ex, Jackson answered honestly. “Keeps women from thinking I’m available.”

Barely appeased, Matt loaded the dirty glasses in the dishwasher. “You two could have asked me for help.”

Hayley closed the dishwasher for him. “You can’t flirt with women and keep them away from Jackson at the same time.”

“Jackson’s never had any problem handling himself with women.”

He cringed. Did Matt have to make it sound like he was a complete man-whore? Maybe he hadn’t been a saint when it came to dating women, but he hadn’t been out to score with every single woman he met either.

“You’ve got customers at the bar.” Hayley waved at the window in the door. “I’ll see you at the wedding, Matt.” She shoved her brother ahead of her, then said over her shoulder, “It’s 212 Ridley Road.”

Despite his earlier tone, Matt nodded on Jackson’s way out. By the time he reached his Challenger, he saw Hayley pull out of the parking lot. He dug out his cell phone as he slid behind the wheel and punched in Josh’s number. When his friend didn’t answer, he left a message to see if Josh needed anything, then hung up and headed for his parents’ place.

Buying them an RV had turned out to be one of the best gifts he’d ever given them. Retirement gave his dad the freedom to travel the way his mom had been looking forward to for years. They probably would have set their sights on returning to the harbor if they hadn’t seen him just a few weeks ago. Last he spoke with them, they were exploring eastern Canada.

On the way home, Jackson found himself slowing down as he passed the county hospital, but couldn’t bring himself to pull in to the lot.

Mitch Stone had cancer. Son of a bitch.

Why hadn’t he called Matt back all those times? He’d sort of assumed they’d catch up when he came home for the wedding. Just one more reason he’d been a complete ass. He probably deserved more of Matt’s attitude, but fuck if his life wasn’t already in the shitter to begin with.

Seventeen months since his career-ending car accident and he still didn’t know what the hell to do with himself. Coaching was a viable option, but it wasn’t playing the game he loved.

Shoving that thought squarely out of his head, he pulled into his parents’ driveway.

He lounged around watching a movie for a while, then thought about checking his email and catching the latest headlines on ESPN before getting ready. He quickly nixed both ideas when he found over a hundred messages in his inbox. Some were from friends, but most were just people digging for information surrounding his arrest last night.

He could have walked away. Probably should have. He’d known where it was all headed the second the guy walked over and started running his mouth about what an asshole Jackson was. “Can’t-shoot-for-shit dickhead” had been his personal favorite, though he’d heard far more original crap than that. His giant-sized pal hadn’t appreciated Jackson pointing that out.

Walking away after that first punch was easier said than done, and then Hayley ended up between them. How she’d moved that fast still made his head spin. What made his head spin even faster, though, was thinking she looked pretty as hell the whole time she was taking him into custody.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, Jackson decided to get his shower and shaving over with. And maybe more ice on his face. The swelling had gone down, but Allie wasn’t going to be excited about his appearance in the wedding pictures.

Maybe if he’d put himself right to bed last night after taking Josh home, he wouldn’t have ended up back at Stone’s. Instead he could have been at Josh’s in time to catch him and talk about the cold feet his friend had confessed to.

Hell, maybe it was better if they didn’t talk about whether or not Josh’s cold feet were anything to worry about. Or the way he’d gotten that weird look on his face the second he’d laid eyes on Devon.

Remembering how the two of them looked at each other in general was probably the one reason he should have talked to Josh. But what did he know about getting married and the whole cold feet thing? He’d barely been “engaged” before it had ended almost as fast as his days of playing professional hockey.

Suddenly annoyed with himself for revisiting shit best left in the past, he got himself cleaned up and dressed. With one final adjustment of his persistently crooked tie, he grabbed his wallet and keys and left for Hayley’s.

According to the dashboard clock he was almost half an hour early by the time he pulled up in front of her apartment building. She was probably still getting ready. Might even give him that cute annoyed look when she found him on her doorstep so soon.

Smiling at the thought of getting under her skin, he climbed out of his car. Bright, hot sunshine beamed down on him, sinking straight through the jacket to warm his skin. Stripping the jacket off, he left it in the car and shut the door.

He was halfway up the sidewalk when a red and yellow ball dropped in front of him. He stared at the toy, then tipped his head back and almost fell over laughing.

“Please make my day and tell me you’re not wearing any underwear.”

Crouched on a gnarled branch about four feet above him, Hayley tugged impatiently at a ridiculously short scrap of material stretched across her thighs and barely covering her behind.

“Well, had I known that going commando would excite you so much, I would have taken my panties off before scaling the tree.” Her sarcasm was thick enough to skate on.

“Is this how you usually avoid your dates?”

“You’re not a real date.” She searched the foliage overheard for something Jackson couldn’t see. “Shake that ball, would you? Before the wedding would be preferable,” she tacked on when he picked up the ball for closer inspection.

With a flick of his wrist a bell chimed inside the red and yellow shell. From above came an answering meow.

“You’re up there looking for a cat?”

“I hope that’s a rhetorical question—either that or they smashed you into the boards one too many times.” Hayley maneuvered around the trunk, her bare feet moving up another branch. “Shit.”

He circled the tree, trying to keep her in view. “Is there someone I should call? Animal rescue maybe?”

“They’ll just make Copernicus even more stressed out. They already don’t like him after all the stitches—”

A branch snapped and Hayley yelped.

“Are you okay?” Leaves and twigs fluttered to the ground, and he squinted to see more than a flash of her bare calves and the navy fabric of her dress. “Hayley?”

Another pitiful meow came from just outside Jackson’s line of sight.

“How good are you at climbing trees?”

Jackson cringed. “Horrible. Broke my arm after I fell out of one when I was twelve.”

“Never mind. I think…I’ve almost got it…” Another frustrated curse was followed by, “Either embrace your inner twelve-year-old or you’ll have to head to the wedding without me.”

Damn, she was serious.

Jackson looked up and down the street, searching for another option—any other option—and not finding anything.

Okay then.

He toed off his shoes, then after another hard look at the tree, stripped off his socks too. At least he’d left his jacket in the car. Loosening his tie, he slipped it over his head and set it on the pile with the rest of his stuff. Once his top buttons were undone, he eyed the tree skeptically.

Must be out of his mind. Hayley clearly was for climbing the tree for a cat to begin with, never mind that she couldn’t be any less dressed for the occasion.

He had to jump to reach the closest branch, leaving him to wonder how Hayley had done it when she was a few inches shorter than he was. His foot slipped off the bark the first time he tried getting higher in the tree, and his chin scraped the branch.

“Maybe you should call Matt instead.”

“I’ve got it,” he growled, finally managing to maneuver a little higher.

He moved another branch aside and got his first clear look at Hayley through the leaves. Her dress was hiked almost to her hips and she crouched on a limb close to the trunk, long tendrils of hair draping the branches behind her like a golden spider web. The curves of her breasts spilled from what probably wasn’t supposed to be such a low-cut neckline.

He wasn’t about to complain though. It was the best view he’d had in ages.

A few inches to the right of her bare foot sat the ugliest—and that might be too generous—kitten he’d ever laid eyes on.

Splotches of mud-brown and burnt orange peppered his scrawny body, some long and fluffy and other patches buzzed down like he’d been shaved for surgery. A stubby black tail whipped back and forth, and two green eyes, one swollen like he’d been in his own bar fight, glared at Jackson.

“Has he had his rabies shot?” He ducked under branches to reach Hayley.

“He’s harmless.”

The warning hiss from the kitten said otherwise. “How did that little thing get up here?”

“The thing’s name is Copernicus and a dog probably chased him. He has a bad habit of goading them.” She tried to move and winced.

“A cat named after a Renaissance astronomer?” He glanced down at the kitten again and shook his head.

Both brows shot up. “You know who Copernicus was?”

“Discovery Channel,” he explained, ignoring the dig. “What exactly seems to be the problem?” Although most of her problem probably had to do with climbing the tree in the first place.

She gestured to her head. “I’m tangled.”

Getting close enough to untangle her hair required crouching opposite her, leaving nothing between his back and the wide open space beyond the tree branch, except a few handfuls of twigs that wouldn’t hold up a squirrel—or a near-rabid kitten—let alone him.

“Too bad that I forgot my scissors in the car.”

Hayley gave him a dirty look.

He grinned. “Would have been easier.” His knee bumped hers, throwing him off balance, and she immediately clamped a hand on his wrist to steady him.

A whole different kind of warmth hit his veins.

The breeze kicked up and the smell of her shampoo—apples and some kind of flower—intensified the warming deep in his gut.

He concentrated on freeing her hair, apologizing when a tricky spot made her wince.

“Why did you ever want to dye this black? I think women would kill for hair the color of sunshine.”

Hayley’s eyes were unreadable when they shifted to meet his.

Sunshine? Jesus. Why didn’t he just grow a vagina if he was going to be so damn girly?

She lifted a shoulder, her hand moving to tug at the drooping neckline. Apparently he wasn’t fast enough to pretend his attention hadn’t strayed in that direction.

“Enjoy the view while it lasts, Knight.”

He laughed, then shifted his weight back to his heels. “I think I got it all.”

She moved a fraction of an inch, her hand grasping her dress. “Still stuck.”

He leaned closer, looking down over her shoulder. He spotted the problem. “It snagged your bra.” It also scratched her, and a few drops of blood dotted her back, which as it turned out revealed almost as much skin as her chest.

Balancing as best he could, he reached around her, wondering if he imagined the shiver than ran through her.

“Running down thieves and scaling trees in a dress to rescue kittens. You like to set the bar high for yourself, don’t you?”

“I was even thinking of helping a few seniors cross the street to round out my day.”

He almost had it… “That’s not the Hayley I remember.”

She tipped her head back, and he could read the skepticism that he remembered anything about her at all.

“The Hayley I remember was too busy dodging the cops to help out anyone.”

She scoffed. “I wasn’t that bad.”

“Didn’t you steal a truck and almost wreck it?” He was too busy trying to untangle her to recall the details.

“It was my friend’s dad’s truck—”

“From his construction company, right?”

Hayley ignored him. “—and it was just a few scratches.”

A vague memory of the newspaper images of the smashed truck popped into his head. “And Gretzky was just an average hockey player.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but he finally worked her free of the branch. Unfortunately he also unhooked her bra in the process. He managed to capture the lacy black ends before they disappeared under her dress.

“Little complication.”

Trying to look over her shoulder, she said, “The other team stealing the puck is a little complication. A strapless bra coming undone is a serious dress malfunction.”

An image of Hayley in nothing but the strapless bra shot through his mind faster than a breakaway play.

“Jackson?”

He cleared his throat, forcing his hands to move again. “I’ve got a bit more experience taking these off than putting them back on.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

He refastened her bra. “I’m not nearly as shallow as you think.”

“Says the man who was disappointed I was wearing panties.”

“Good point.” He smiled. “Guess it wouldn’t hurt to mention that if you ever want some firsthand expertise with taking this off—”

“I’ll call Eric.”

“That douche?” he snapped, not catching sight of Hayley’s grin until the last second.

“Here.” Hayley scooped up the kitten and shoved him at Jackson.

The furball hissed and dug his back claws into Jackson’s side—son of a bitch—but didn’t try to squirm free.

“Hold on to him while I climb down.” She edged out onto another limb to get around Jackson.

The fugly kitten stared up at him, opening and closing his mouth in a silent hiss that more closely resembled a guppy.

Hayley’s hand shot out as she lost her balance, and thankfully she got a good grip on Jackson.

Too bad Jackson didn’t have on good grip on anything except the kitten when Hayley pulled him out of the tree.