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Chapter One

Cooper was straddling his Harley, heading down some backcountry road he would never have even thought existed in the state of Ohio. But here he was, dodging what looked like a huge pile of shit right in the middle of the road. As he drove past it, he got a good whiff; sure enough, it was a pile of shit. Thank God, he had seen it and had the sense to go around it. That would have been a mess to clean off himself, let alone his bike.

He had noticed the yellow caution signs with the picture of a horse and buggy on them a couple miles back, but he figured those were just for show. Maybe for the tourists who might find themselves out here in the middle of Bumfuck, or wherever the heck he was, looking to buy some Amish cheese. He slowed down to take a rather sharp curve and came upon the culprit that must have left that huge pile of poo behind. It was in the process of pulling a slow-moving, black wagon.

Cooper slowed down even more and was trying to decide if he could pass the thing or not. Nothing was coming the other way, so he pulled alongside the wagon, doing his best to stay as far away from the horse as he could. He knew enough about horses that he didn’t want to scare the shit out of it; that is if the beast had anything left in it. He passed at a slower pace to keep his bike engine from being any louder than it already was. It was a Harley, after all; they were supposed to make noise.

Once he was alongside the wagon, he couldn’t help but look inside to see who was driving it. He was rather surprised to see a woman with the reins held tight in her hands and two young girls perched beside her on the seat, all looking at him with wide, blue eyes. They wore white bonnets on their heads and had their hair pulled up and tucked under. Their dresses were simple and it looked like they were all wearing aprons. He smiled, gave a little nod of his head and a small salute because he knew he probably looked pretty intimidating and maybe even a little menacing.

The two younger girls smiled back and one even managed a wave before the woman said something to them; all of their eyes shifted straight ahead as if he didn’t even exist. He recognized fear when he saw it; he was good at reading people. He continued at his slow pace until he was well past the horse and could pick up speed without scaring it.

He couldn’t blame them, really. He had to look pretty scruffy with two-week growth on his face; a pair of well-worn, dirty jeans with holes in the knees; a tee shirt with a huge hole under the arm, and a badass American flag tat wrapped around his bulging bicep. He had not even taken into consideration that his mirrored aviators and windblown hair added to the illusion that he was one mean dude who was not to be trifled with, in spite of his friendly smile.

As Cooper rode down the road with the wind wreaking havoc on his black, curly hair, he thought back on his life less than a year ago when he was the one who would have been afraid to encounter women and children traveling alone. He had done eight years in the military and had been part of a group that helped settle areas adjusting to new governments. Some of the areas had still been a bit unstable, and there was always the chance that one of those women or even the kids could have been hiding a suicide bomb on them. He could still hear his commanding officer say, “You can’t trust anyone out here, son.” He was home now, back in the good ol’ USA. Although, he didn’t exactly have a home at the moment. He was in between them, which was nothing new to Cooper, either.

Cooper had been born in Texas, and his parents had been killed in a car accident when he was eight years old. He had grown up being bumped from foster home to foster home. Cooper had been a good kid, learned things quickly and never gave anyone any trouble, but something always seemed to happen, and he’d get taken out of one home and put into another just as he was starting to feel like he belonged.

The Army had offered him some stability and had provided him with lifelong friends. He had served for eight years and was proud of it. He had grown up fast being shifted from one home to the next, and serving in the Army had taught him so many things to make him his own man. His natural ability to be able to read people had saved him and his team’s lives on more than one occasion. He was well aware of the men and woman who didn’t make it out alive, and he was thankful that he had.

Cooper rumbled past a small sign that declared him welcomed to Fester, Ohio. His thoughts moved back to the reason for his trip. He had met Tommy Wade in the service, and they had become close friends. Tommy could be a hotheaded SOB, but he had the biggest heart of anyone Cooper had ever met. He was well liked by everyone and entertained them all with his farfetched stories of everyday life growing up in Fester. He would always end his stories with, “Yep, it’s a nice place to visit, but trust me, you wouldn’t want to live there.” They all knew he was full of crap because that was exactly where he headed the second he was discharged from the service.

Tommy managed an apartment complex in Fester with his sister Jane and, from what he understood, needed Cooper to come to Fester to help Jane take care of the place while he chased after an old high school sweetheart who was either pregnant or had already had Tommy’s kid. Cooper drew his brows together trying to remember the crazy, frazzled conversation he’d had over the phone with Tommy a couple of weeks ago. Bottom line was Cooper had a friend in trouble who could use his help. That was all Cooper needed to know. The friends he had made in the service were the closest thing he had to family, so if one of them needed him, he was going to do his best to help them out. The crease in his brow deepened as he thought about the last thing Tommy had said before he ended the call. “There are some kids here that could really use your help, Coop.”

Then nothing but dead air. He could have called Tommy back, but it was apparent Tommy had enough going on in his life right now; the best thing Cooper could do was head to Ohio and see what he could do to help him out.

After the Army, he'd found himself back in Texas working odd jobs here and there, but he didn’t really have anyone or anything to keep him there; Texas was all he knew of home. He had saved most of his money while he was in the service, so he was sitting on a pretty nice little nest egg right now and could afford to be choosy about what he did. He didn’t have any burning desire to own much of anything, because it was easier to pack and move on when the time came. And from experience, he knew the time always came to move on, whether he wanted to or not.

Cooper’s mind lurched back into the present as he passed the Greasy Spoon Tavern. It wasn’t much of a building to look at, but it boasted good food and company on its sign. If the cars in the parking lot were any indication, the place appeared to be doing good business. He paid closer attention to his surroundings because he was pretty sure his destination would be coming up soon.

 The Festershire Apartments sign popped up just past a thick clump of trees on the other side of the Greasy Spoon’s parking lot. He eased his bike down a street lined with tall oak trees and green, grassy lawns that could do with a cut; he figured that would probably be one of his first jobs. Ranch-style, red brick buildings were set back a little off the street.

Cooper had figured the place would be your average, cookie-cutter apartment complex and was surprised to see how nice it really was. He noticed picnic tables here and there with a few benches sprinkled throughout the place. Teenage boys were running back and forth on a basketball court with some girls sitting on a picnic table nearby, all looking at their phones or watching the boys.

They all looked his way briefly, then kept doing what they were doing. He got the impression they knew who he was and had been expecting him. There were plenty of people out and about, walking dogs or sitting on decks enjoying the cool evening air. He chuckled to himself as a group of women jumped to their feet, waved and smiled warmly at him from one of the decks as he rode by. If any of Tommy’s stories were to be believed, he figured that might be a group of women he would want to stay away from. He smiled and nodded his head in their direction; he didn’t want to be rude, after all.

Cooper followed the signs to the leasing office, like Tommy had told him to. He turned in front of a building housing the office, drove around back and parked his bike in spot number two, next to a 1950 red Ford pickup.

He looked at the truck and smiled when he thought back to how mad Tommy was at his sister when she had emailed him that she had bought it. He had managed to get her on Skype, and he could still see Tommy sitting there yelling at her. “That bucket of bolts is going to break down on you! You should have gotten a car that’s more reliable! It’s bad enough I have to worry about you being alone back there with Tulia taking care of things. Now, I have to worry about that thing carting your ass all over Fester!”

Cooper had heard her laugh and say, “Don’t worry about me, Tommy; Red and I will be just fine.” It had taken Tommy a solid week before he simmered down and stopped bellyaching about the women back home giving him an ulcer.

“Enough to drive a man crazy, every single one of them!” Tommy had bellowed every time he had contact with someone from home.

Cooper chuckled to himself thinking about it; surely to goodness the man was overreacting.

Cooper shut off his bike’s engine and took his time swinging his leg up and over the gas tank. He stood up slowly, stiff as hell from his last eight-hour stint. It felt good to know he was home, or at least where he was going to be staying for the next couple of months or so. He tried to shake the thrumming sensation from his legs that he always felt from the constant vibrations of his bike engine when he rode for so long. The feeling would go away eventually; it always did.

He reached for the duffle he had tied on the back of his bike and let the bungee cords spring back. He picked up the duffle and headed up the walk, all the while looking for the red flowerpot; that was where the key to Tommy’s apartment was supposed to be hiding. And there it was, sandwiched between a blue one and a green. He bent down, slid the pot aside and pulled out a well-worn key.

***

Jane was drop-dead tired. She had spent the entire day cleaning one of the three bedroom apartments that would have new people moving in the next morning. She had just gotten out of the shower and toweled herself off.  It was so hot that she'd decided to just leave the towel hanging in the bathroom to dry and was standing naked in front of her closet, trying to decide what to wear to her part-time job as a bartender at the Greasy Spoon. Her ears perked up at a distant, low rumble. It had been two weeks since Tommy had left, and she had been listening for the sound of a Harley ever since.

She paused and listened more intently. The low rumble continued around to the back of the building and then cut out. The hair on the back of her neck rose, and she felt a tingly sensation zip up her spine. Could it be? She wondered. Has he finally arrived? Her heart began to beat faster. She ran to the patio door and peeked out around the vertical blinds.

She watched intently as a large man stretched his long legs. He bent forward a little to stretch his back, and Jane could not help but notice how nice his backside looked in his jeans. His hair was black and curly and looked pretty wild. His tee shirt clung to his body like it was hugging him, and she couldn’t help but notice he had a tattoo that circled a large bicep. Jane watched as he grabbed his duffle, turned around and started heading up the walk.

Tommy had shown her pictures of Cooper from their time spent together in the Army. She had thought he was gorgeous and sexy in the pictures. Well, the pictures hadn’t done him justice, in her opinion. The man walking up the path leading right to her door was the sexiest man she had ever laid eyes on. He was tall with well-toned muscles rippling on his arms, but he wasn’t bulging out of his shirt like Popeye. He was trim, but not thin. He could probably bounce some quarters off his hard, flat stomach without any problem. She found herself speculating on whether his stomach was as brown as his arms and whether or not his chest was covered with the same dark, curly hair springing out every which way from his head. He walked a bit stiffly, but that was to be expected since he had ridden his bike all the way here from Texas. She continued to watch his approach, hoping he would take his sunglasses off so she could see his eyes.

In the pictures she had seen of him previously, he had the clearest blue eyes she had ever seen on anyone, ever. They almost looked to be a very pale gray; they were such a light color of blue. Although he was smiling in most of the pictures she had seen, the smile never seemed to make it to his eyes. Her heart lurched; Tommy had told Jane about Cooper’s past. She knew he had tragically become an orphan at a very young age and had been bounced around from one foster home to the next. That was why Tommy had thought he would be the perfect person to help out while he was gone. He was a Jack-of-all-trades, and he understood what it was like to lose his parents. She felt like she knew this man inside and out, and she hadn’t even met him yet.

She watched Cooper bend down and pull the key from under the pot. She listened as the key slid easily into the keyhole then turned around and watched in horror as the door to the apartment began to open. It was at that very moment she realized she was still naked.

Cover! I have to run for cover! She jumped behind the vertical blinds, hoping they would conceal most of her nakedness. She peeked out around them to see Cooper standing in the door looking in her direction with his hand still on the doorknob.

“Oh! I am so sorry! I must have the wrong apartment!” Cooper said, backing out and looking at the number on the door.

“No! You’ve got the right apartment, all right.”

Cooper stepped back in and looked in her direction again. He dropped his duffle and reached up to take off his shades.

Jane thought she was going to melt. His eyes were amazing and right now, they were looking her up and down. Well, at least looking the blinds up and down as she held them to herself. God, please don’t let anything be sticking out.

“So, I’m sort of confused right now,” he said in a slow, Texas-boy drawl. “I was looking for Tommy’s place. I’m supposed to be staying there and doing some work around here.”

“Yep, this is where Tommy lives. I’m his sister Jane. We share an apartment.”

“Ohhh, I see.”

Jane peeked around the blinds and watched his lips as they turned into the most beautiful smile she had ever seen on a man before; she was hypnotized. I bet those lips would feel so soft and warm brushing against mine. She forced herself to look at his eyes again. He was clearly amused by the situation.

They stared at each other, both smiling, neither knowing what to say.

Jane shifted from one foot to the other and felt the cold glass of the patio door against her naked backside. She quickly realized that Cooper may not be able to see the front of her, but anyone in the parking lot would get a good view of her naked body framed in her patio door. She finally managed to find her words. “Would you mind turning around and closing your eyes for just a minute so I can go to my bedroom and get dressed real quick, please?”

 “Uh, sure, of course.” But it took Cooper a couple seconds before he was able to make his body listen and turn his back. Turning his back on anyone wasn’t in his nature, especially after his training in the service. And as for closing his eyes too, well, there was just no way.

He turned his back to her but looked up when he caught a flash of movement on the wall in front of him. In the mirror, Cooper could see everything, and what man could ever turn away from seeing a naked woman? Jane moved fast, but not fast enough that Cooper didn’t get a good look at just about everything. She’s built like a brick shithouse. Her body was toned and in shape, but not just your average, run-of-the-mill girl shape a woman got from working out every day. No, this woman had definition in her biceps, firm thighs and calves, a flat belly with a belly-button ring and, best of all, a set of breasts that would bring any red-blooded male to his knees. He watched her tight, white ass wiggle its way down the hallway and turn the corner. It was apparent she did not sunbathe in the nude. Such a pity, too.

He decided the coast was clear when he heard a door slam. He let out a sigh of relief and moved his duffle out of the way before shutting the door behind him. That had been a rather interesting welcome. He had been surprised to hear the blinds rattling when he walked in the door and shocked when he had realized there was a woman trying to hide behind them. He realized she was naked when he saw a red nipple graze by the vertical blind before it was hidden from view again. Apparently, she had just gotten out of the shower because her hair was still wet.

Once she had cleared the verticals and he caught her reflection in the mirror, he recognized her from pictures he had seen of Jane that Tommy had shown him; she’d had clothes on in the pictures, though. Tommy had said everyone called her PJ, which was short for Plain Jane. She had grown up in Fester and had never left because she said she had everything she needed right there.

After seeing her in the buff, he could not figure out why anyone would call her Plain Jane; she was anything but plain. Her brown eyes had specks of gold in them that seemed to make them sparkle as she peered from behind the blinds at him, shocked at his presence. Her long, brown hair was straight and looked really soft in spite of being wet. The brown was obviously her natural color based on the swatch he had seen between her legs, reflected in the mirror. Cooper smiled to himself thinking about her breasts again. Her areolas were a dark brown and were perched on top of two very perky mounds. Her red nipples jutted out in the center as if they were standing at attention. Sure wouldn’t mind getting a taste of those. What? Wait! Where had that thought come from? He forced himself to stop thinking of her beautiful body. It had been so long since he’d had sex. He took a deep breath, let it out and began to look around the apartment. Did Tommy tell me he lived with his sister? He really couldn’t remember. I guess it doesn’t really matter much, anyway; I can sleep anywhere.

The apartment was neat as a pin and looked inviting, friendly and comfortable. He walked over to the big couch and lowered himself down. Now that he was finally here, he realized how exhausted he was. I’ll just sit here and rest my eyes a couple minutes until Jane comes out of the bedroom.

***

Jane berated herself the entire time she was getting dressed. “What the hell were you thinking, walking around the apartment naked?” she hissed at herself. “What a great first impression you made, you idiot!”

She jerked her panties and bra on, pulled on a pair of jeans and threw on a cami. She grabbed an old, faded, purple tee shirt and slipped it on. She pulled her pointy cowgirl boots out of the closet, sat down on the bed and slipped on a pair of socks before pulling on her boots.

She began accessorizing: cute pair of dangly earrings, her watch, and a switchblade in a special pocket inside her boot, a pony tie around her wrist for later when she would pull her hair back into a ponytail after it had dried, and a spritz of her favorite perfume. She stepped back to look at herself in the full-sized mirror. Ah, who am I trying to kid? I’m Plain Jane. That gorgeous, sexy hunk of man is never going to even notice me. But having Cooper here made her want to look her best. She pulled some tinted lip gloss from her drawer and slicked it across her lips. “You don’t have a chance with him, girl,” she muttered under her breath.

She stepped out of her room and walked down the hall, seeing Cooper’s duffle on the floor by the door. She stepped into the living room to find him fast asleep on the couch. “Poor guy.” She wanted so badly to go over to him and push those wavy, black curls back off his face. He truly was drop-dead gorgeous, in a bad boy sort of way. The scruffy beard on his face made it apparent he had not shaved in a while. She could see parts of his nicely shaped eyebrows hiding behind his long hair. His face had marvelous bone structure and reminded her of some really good-looking actors.

Jane stepped closer to get a better look; she listened to his soft snoring and it made her smile. She turned around and went back down the hallway, pulling a flat sheet and a pillow out of the linen closet. She put a clean pillowcase on it and walked back up the hallway to where Cooper was sleeping. She lifted his head slightly, gently pushed the pillow under his head in an attempt to make him more comfortable and covered him with the sheet. It was hot outside, but she had the A/C going and she didn’t want him to catch a chill. Just then, he opened his heavy, sleepy eyes, looked at her and said, “Mom?” He blinked hard and looked at her again, confused.

The man must be exhausted if he thinks I’m his dead mom, for Pete’s sake! She wasn’t sure what compelled her to do it, but she found herself bending forward and giving him a peck on the forehead. “Go back to sleep, Cooper,” she whispered in his ear.

“Okay,” came his soft reply, and he rolled over on his side and tucked the pillow under his head. She stared down at his sleeping face for a couple minutes before she figured she better get her butt to work.

She went into the kitchen and pulled a notebook from a drawer. She wrote Cooper a quick note, ripped it out of the notebook and put it on the coffee table where he would see it when he woke up. She threw her purse over her shoulder and turned around to look at Cooper sleeping one more time before she left. It warmed her heart and made her feel good, for some reason. She was happy he had finally arrived; she needed the help. She was hoping they could become good friends. Jane smiled as she walked out the door and listened to make sure she heard the click that told her that the door was locked. Her mind drifted back to Cooper and his dark hair and eyelashes as she walked up to the main road and turned in the direction of the Greasy Spoon. Suddenly, she didn’t feel as tired as she had before; things were looking up.

 


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