Hometown Star - By Joleen James Page 0,2

idea why he’d tormented, teased her, bullied her. Eventually, Ron had grown up and ignored her, but Cade had continued to insult her with his slow roving stares and smirks. Star stepped outside and pulled the door shut on the mobile home.

She straightened, the familiar control returning. Cade O’Brien didn’t intimidate her anymore. She wasn’t anyone’s charity case now. She was an educated, powerful, career woman, a woman who could take care of herself.

She wasn’t afraid of Cade O’Brien.

Not anymore.

* * *

Cade O’Brien raised the ax over his head then let it fly. Razor sharp, the blade sliced through the log with minimal effort, the double–thunk of the two halves hitting the ground satisfying.

He paused, using his discarded T–shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, arms, and torso. He tossed the damp shirt onto a nearby log just as his eight–year–old son Finn burst through the trees. When Finn saw him, he skidded to a stop, then slowed his pace, practically dragging his feet through the grass. His chin came up, as if he dared Cade to question him.

“What’s going on?” Cade set the ax down and waited for Finn to come to him.

“Nothin’,” Finn said, his eyes fixed on his dirty tennis shoes, tied tennis shoes.

“Nothing?” Cade asked, instantly suspicious. Finn never tied his shoes. “You came tearing out of those trees like you did the time you set the woods on fire. What’re you up to?”

Finn shrugged, his eyes still south.

“You haven’t been over to Patsy’s place again, have you?”

Finn didn’t reply, his refusal to answer telling Cade everything he needed to know.

“Look at me, son.”

Finn lifted his chin. Cade took in the cut lip, the dirty knees, the tied shoes.

“What happened, Finn?”

“I fell.”

The kid’s face was too clean. His nose had a shine to it. Cade’s eyes narrowed. “Who cleaned you up?”

Finn’s chin jutted out. “Me.”

Cade didn’t buy a word of the story but decided to let Finn off the hook. He was tired of fighting with the kid, tired of trying to keep him away from Patsy’s, tired of trying to figure out what the heck the fascination was with that dump of a mobile home. “Why don’t you go inside and see if your Aunt Trudy needs help with anything.”

Finn took off past him like a rocket.

Cade turned away, his gut telling him he should go after his son and press him for more info, yet he didn’t; he couldn’t. The kid had a way of looking at him that made him feel like a failure. And maybe he was. Never in his wildest dreams had he thought he’d ever be a single parent. Single. Alone. So alone.

Cade picked up the ax, his hands tightening on the handle. He let the blade fly, again and again, until his arms strained in their sockets. Sweat raced down his face. His breath heaved in his chest. He paused, enjoying the pure physical release of chopping the wood, a release he needed. He needed more; needed...he didn’t know what he needed. Cade buried the ax in a stump.

Maybe he needed a break. The scent of fresh baked bread called him to the house. Cade swung around, intending to snag a slice. He took a step then froze.

A woman stood at the edge of the tree line. A beautiful woman. Recognition flared, like a white–hot flame in his gut. Starlene White. He’d know her anywhere. The thick, blonde hair. Those cool green eyes. That killer body.

Star had finally come home.

She started toward him, her shoulders back, her head high. Cade didn’t move, couldn’t seem to remember how. She wore a crisp white blouse, black pants, and high heels. He took his time taking his fill of her, just like he always had. Her skin was still creamy and smooth, her lips full and so pink he ached to kiss them.

Only he wouldn’t. He’d never kiss Starlene.

Battle lines had been drawn between them years ago and he didn’t blame her for hating his guts.

* * *

Cade O’Brien.

The jerk.

Star’s stomach did a crazy flip flop. Why didn’t he like her? She could see the same insolence in his eyes, see it in the stiff, unwelcoming way he held his body, a great body that was wasted on a guy with zero personality.

She stopped in front of him. His eyes did a slow rove clear to her toes before settling on her face.

“Star,” he said. “You got the letter.”

Seconds passed, the familiar tension rising between them thick and ugly. “That’s right.”