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Hope Smolders

Jaci Burton

  Titles by Jaci Burton

  Wild Rider Series Riding Wild

  Riding Temptation Riding on Instinct Riding the Night Wild, Wicked, & Wanton Bound, Branded, & Brazen Play-by-Play Novels The Perfect Play Changing the Game Taking a Shot

  Playing to Win

  Thrown by a Curve One Sweet Ride

  Melting the Ice Hope Novels

  Hope Flames



  (with Jasmine Haynes, Joey W. Hill, and Denise Rossetti) Exclusive

  (with Eden Bradley and Lisa Renee Jones) Laced with Desire (with Jasmine Haynes, Joey W. Hill, and Denise Rossetti) Nauti and Wild

  (with Lora Leigh) Nautier and Wilder (with Lora Leigh) Specials

  The Ties That Bind No Strings Attached Wild Nights

  Hope Smolders

  Hope Smolders

  Jaci Burton


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) LLC

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

  USA Canada UK Ireland Australia New Zealand India South Africa China

  A Penguin Random House Company


  A Jove Book / published by arrangement with the author "Hope Smolders" previously appeared in the anthology Hot Summer Nights, published by Berkley Sensation.

  Copyright (c) 2013 by Jaci Burton.

  Excerpt from Hope Ignites copyright (c) 2014 by Jaci Burton, Inc.

  Excerpt from Straddling the Line copyright (c) 2014 by Jaci Burton, Inc.

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Jove Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

  JOVE(r) is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

  The "J" design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

  For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  ISBN: 978-0-69815693-7


  Jove Special edition / March 2014

  Cover photograph by Claudio Marinesco.

  Cover design by Rita Frangie.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



  Titles by Jaci Burton

  Title Page














  Letter to the Reader

  Teaser Chapter from Hope Ignites

  Teaser Chapter from Straddling the Line

  About the Author


  Despite the five or six little kids trailing behind her, Will Griffin noticed the woman. How could he not? Great legs drew his eye every time, and hers were outstanding.

  This woman had dark hair pulled back in some kind of messy ponytail, a rainbow-colored straw hat, and the ugliest swimsuit cover-up thing he'd ever seen.

  Not the typical kind of body you saw walking past the glass in the workout room at Hope's community gym.

  Maybe that's why she'd caught his eye. The kids all squealing with delight as they made their way to the pool might have been the ones who'd drawn his attention at first, but their leader, with her sexy legs peeking out the bottom of that ugly-as-hell cover-up, kept his attention after that.

  Plus, he was sure he knew her. Her straw hat was pulled just low enough, and she kept turning her head away from the glass so he couldn't see her face.

  Was she doing it deliberately?

  He hadn't yet started his workout, so he detoured from the gym area where he'd been headed and made a beeline toward the pool.

  He hit the men's locker room and grabbed a towel.

  "You gonna do some laps, Will?"

  He stopped and turned to look at his friend, Hope police officer Luke McCormack.

  "Hey, Luke. Get off late today?"

  "Yeah. We had a fender bender up at the high school after the basketball game. With injuries. Took a while to clean that one up."

  Will grimaced. "Is everyone all right?"

  "Yeah. Injuries were minor, but that one left me tense so I figured I'd get a workout in. Are you going for a swim?"

  Following a woman with kids probably wasn't the best of ideas. "Actually, I thought I saw someone I know."

  Luke grinned. "Now that you're off nights, you're probably going to see a lot of people you know."

  "You're right. Are you heading into the weight room?"


  His gaze lingered at the door to the pool. "I'll meet you on the treadmills."

  "Okay. Later."

  After Luke left, Will pushed open the door to the pool area and was instantly hit by the pungent smell of chlorine. The squeals of kids echoed throughout as children splashed and played at the shallow end while adults did laps.

  He searched for the woman in the straw hat, but didn't see her. Ah well, probably best he not act like a stalker anyway. He closed the door and headed to the weight room.


  Jane Kline realized she hadn't carefully thought out this idea. When she'd originally agreed to take on a part-time job doing day-care duties at the community center gym, she figured she'd hide out in the day-care room while the rest of the hard bodies got their groove on in the workout areas. She could play with the kids and make some desperately needed extra money.

  What she hadn't counted on was the manager asking her to take a few of the kids for a swim, which meant she'd have to walk down the hall toward the indoor pool, and that meant crossing right in front of the glass wall that separated her from said hard bodies huffing and puffing on bikes and treadmills while she toted herself, five six-year-olds, and about ten pounds of excess weight that she kept meaning to take off. But between getting divorced, teaching during the day, and dealing with her own two kids at night, there just didn't seem to be enough time for diet and exercise.

  One would think the post-traumatic divorce stress over the past two years would have caused the weight to drop off, but all it had done was make her crave cookies, donuts, and chocolate. Oh, and pizza. She really liked pizza. So did her kids, and since they were currently without a father, how could she deny them pizza?

  But there was no avoiding that glass wall of shame, so she got the kids she was responsible for--including Tabitha, her five-year-old--ready for the pool. She changed in the back room of the day care, then threw her not quite white anymore and kind of holey cover-up on over her swimsuit and tossed the straw sun hat on over her hair, which was a wreck and slightly lopsided. But hey, it worked. She pulled the brim down low. Hopefully none of the residents of her small Oklahoma town would even notice her.

  No such luck. They didn't even make it twenty feet.

  "Jane. I didn't know you were working here."

  "Hi, Jane. So great to see you. Are you here to work out?"

  "Oh, Jane. Are you head
ing to the pool for a swim?" the last one asked with a quick glance in the general direction of her thighs, which no doubt carried much of her pizza weight.

  She acknowledged them all with a quick smile and told them she was working and, oh gosh, she had to monitor the kids. Then she stepped up her pace, refusing to even glance to her left where the whirring sound of cardio burn shamed her.

  "Mommy, you look funny in that hat."

  "Thanks, Tabby," she said with a tight smile as they walked along, calling attention to themselves as the kids chattered noisily.

  Maybe when she had some free time she'd make use of one of the fringe benefits of working at the center--namely the free gym membership.

  Sure. Free time. What was that? She'd long ago lost any comprehension of the word "free." But whatever it took to keep the roof over her kids' heads was worth it, so she carried on conversation with the kids and led them to the pool, took off the sun hat, and jerked off her cover-up, refusing to acknowledge her cellulite as she climbed in the water, six screaming five-year-olds cannonballing in all around her.

  Good thing she didn't have much of a hairstyle going anyway, since she was immediately drenched. She swept her hair out of her face.

  "Okay, kids," she said, counting her charges so she could keep track of them. "Remember, we have to stay in the shallow end."

  The kids swam and played and burned off the excess energy that had driven everyone crazy in the tiny room they used for the gym day-care center. After about thirty minutes, Jane rounded them up, dried them off, and led them toward the day-care room, her cover-up clinging to her wet suit as she was once again forced to walk past the glass wall. Only this time she couldn't help but take a quick glance.

  Ugh. The place was packed with sweaty, firm bodies, a lot whom she recognized.

  Unfortunately, while she was glancing in the direction of the glass wall, she wasn't paying attention to where she was going, which sent her crashing into the chest of one of the gym patrons.

  "Oof. I'm so sorry."

  She heard a deep male laugh, and strong arms shot out to steady her, giving her a brief glimpse of very strong, very toned biceps.

  "Are you okay?"

  She kept one eye peeled around him to see the kids all scurry back into the day-care room. "I'm fine. Sorry again." She was about to dash away when he said her name.


  She lifted her gaze and was blasted by melt-your-panties whiskey brown eyes, dark hair closely cropped, a strong jaw, and a smile she knew all too well, though she hadn't seen Will Griffin in a while. He worked nights on highway patrol, and she worked days, which meant they didn't run into each other often. And that suited her just fine, since he'd been best friends with her ex-husband, and seeing him reminded her of things she really didn't want to be reminded of.

  Like good-looking men. And getting dumped.

  "Oh. Will. Wow, it's been a while. Wish I could hang out and talk, but I have kids I need to watch over, so I can't. Great seeing you again."

  She started to walk away, but he grasped her wrist. "Wait. What are you doing here?"

  "Oh, uh, I'm working at the day-care center here."

  His brows shot up. "A new job? You're still teaching, aren't you?"

  "Yup. Still do that, too. Gotta run. See you later."

  Or, never. Hopefully. She looked like a wet basset hound, while Will had always been hot. And built. And as sexy as any man she'd ever known.

  Of course she'd once thought Vic was hot and sexy, and look where that had gotten her. Divorced, with two children, a mortgage, and flat broke.

  Never again would she let a hot body and bedroom eyes seduce her. She was a lot smarter now.

  Though her rapidly beating pulse and all her feminine parts hadn't gotten the message. They were screaming at her that she hadn't been with a man since she'd been abandoned by her husband two years ago. She hadn't even gone out on a date.

  Too bad. There were things high on her priority list, like making sure to keep a roof over her children's heads, and keeping everyone fed.

  Not dating. Or having sex. Those weren't essentials. And right now, all she could afford to think about were essentials, so her thrumming body could just go to hell.


  Will Griffin stood in the hallway, too surprised to even move as Jane hustled away after a trail of small kids, her daughter, Tabitha, one of them.

  No wonder he'd recognized the great legs earlier.

  He blew out a breath, guilt knotted up in his stomach. He should go by Jane's house more often, should have made it by regularly when he'd known for sure Vic wasn't coming back. But it had been awkward then. Still was. What was he supposed to say? Sorry? Not that it was his fault his former best friend turned out to be such an asshole. But he could have offered to mow her lawn or help her out in some way. Instead, he'd stayed away, figuring the last person she needed to see was someone she so closely tied to her deadbeat ex-husband.

  And now, two years later, he still wasn't any better at making conversation with her or seeing her. The distance between them was as wide as the Grand Canyon. They all used to be close--him and Vic and Jane. That changed somewhat when he and his girlfriend Chelsea had broken up, but Jane insisted nothing would change just because Jane and Chelsea were best friends. He'd appreciated their friendship, but he hadn't turned out to be such a good friend after all, had he?

  No sense gawking after shadows of the past when there was nothing he could do about it now. Jane obviously wanted nothing to do with him.

  He'd come out to get a sports drink after his treadmill workout, so he wandered over to the vending machine, grabbed one, then used his key card to get back into the workout room, deciding he needed to lift some weights and ease some of the tension this day and seeing Jane had dropped on him.

  He caught sight of Luke on the weight bench and wandered over there. He warmed up with some lighter weights, then laid down on the bench for the heavy stuff.

  Luke came over. "Want me to spot you?"

  "Sure. Thanks."

  He went three sets, then racked the bar with Luke's help. When he added another twenty-five pounds to each side, Luke cocked a brow.

  "Sure you're up for that?"

  "Trust me, I need the challenge."

  "Okay, buddy. I'll hang on to the bar for you in case it comes crashing down on your chest."

  "You're so funny. I think I can handle it."

  Will slid onto the bench, determination setting his lips in a grim line. As he lifted the bar out of the rack, his arms shaking from the added weight, he realized he deserved this punishment for not being there for Jane, for not recognizing how Vic had been self-destructing in front of him.

  Maybe he just hadn't wanted to see it.

  "Eleven, twelve," Luke said, racking the bar. "Though I think I had to do the last one mostly by myself."

  Out of breath, his arms wobbling like overcooked spaghetti, Will grabbed his towel and swiped it over his face. "Yeah, you probably did."

  "Why the punishment? You hand out too many tickets on the highway today and feel guilty?"

  Will choked out a laugh. "I never feel guilty about that."

  "Did you sleep with some girl then dump her?"

  "Uh, no."

  Luke came around and faced him. "Then what is it?"

  "Nothing, man. Just a rough day and I needed a push."

  "Well, if there's something you want to get off your chest, you know I'm always here for you. Even if you are highway patrol and I'm local law enforcement. I mean, I can forgive you even that."

  Will snorted. "Gee, thanks."

  Luke gave him a wink. "Hey, nobody's perfect, man."

  Yeah, Will was definitely not perfect. Far from it. In fact, in some areas he was a downright failure.

  But maybe he could fix that.


  "I hate broccoli."

  Jane inhaled a deep breath and let it out, then turned and faced her eight-year-old son, Ryan, with a smile on
her face. Always approach everything with a smile, right?

  "Broccoli's good for you."

  They were eating dinner at Bert's, one of her favorite diners in town. It had been a rough day, and she just didn't have it in her to cook a meal and spend the evening inside with the kids. She needed to be around the presence of other adults.

  Ryan stared at his plate, grimaced, and pushed it away. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."

  "I love broccoli, Mommy," Tabitha said. Always the pleaser, she took a big bite and chewed and tried her best not to make a face. She even smiled through it.

  Yeah, Tabitha hated broccoli, too, but she'd do anything to make Jane happy. Even eat broccoli.

  "There's a two-week camp coming up next summer," Ryan said. "Chris says it has archery and canoes and swimming in the lake and hiking. I was wondering if I could go."

  Jane frowned. Chris's parents owned one of the car dealerships in town. They had money. Jane did not. This camp wasn't going to be free. She sensed disappointment ahead for her little boy. "Do you have a brochure?"

  "Yeah." Hope glimmered in her sweet boy's brown eyes, and he fished it out from his backpack, no doubt with a sales pitch already planned. Her kid was nothing if not prepared when there was something he wanted. He was a lot like his father in that respect.

  He handed it over. "They have lots of activities, Mom, and the counselors are all trained in CPR and first aid. Most of them went to the camp when they were my age. Isn't that cool?"

  Jane couldn't help but zero right in on the cost. She swallowed, hard. No way could she afford it. She was stretched thin enough on her budget as it was, and trying to locate Vic to pay his back child support was harder than trying to find a dress that didn't make her butt look big.

  Might as well rip the Band-Aid off rather than give Ryan false hope. She looked up at him and gave him a smile that she prayed showed him how much she loved him. "It looks awesome, sweetie. But it's a little too much money, and you know how things are."

  His hopeful smile died. He looked crushed, and her heart ached at his disappointment as he gazed down at his plate and pushed the broccoli around with his fork. "Yeah. It's okay. I understand, Mom."

  That was the problem. He did understand, and he still loved his father, still hoped his dad would show up at his ball games. Or just show up.

  Part of her wished he would, too, that he'd get clean and come back--at least for his kids. What she had with Vic was over, but his children needed a father, the kind of father he used to be, not the one he'd become when he'd spent every day so drunk and high that he could barely remember his own name.